In the rush to disarmament, “conditions were swiftly created by the victorious Allies which, in the name of peace, cleared the way for the renewal of war . . . . The crimes of the vanquished find their background and their explanation, though not, of course, their pardon, in the follies of the victors. Without these follies crime would have found neither temptation nor opportunity.”
During the 1930s Churchill expressed growing concern over the resurgence of German nationalism. After Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, the former sea lord urged strengthening the Royal Navy, but few Britons heeded him. However, as the German Führer went from success to success, it became apparent that Nazi ambition could not be contained. Churchill had only contempt for appeasers like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy, but with declaration of war in September 1939 Churchill the warhorse felt justified in returning to harness. When he resumed his position as First Sea Lord after twenty-four years, the Admiralty signaled the fleet, ‘‘Winston is back.’’
In fact there was a compelling reason for him to make this statement, which was that the American government wanted him to. The USA of course was still neutral at this stage – Churchill’s initial draft included a reference, which he later deleted by hand, to its ‘strange detachment’ in the face of the Nazi menace. However, President Roosevelt made clear via secret channels that he wanted a commitment from Britain that even if she were defeated she would not surrender her fleet but would send it to South Africa, Australia, Canada and other parts of the Empire. If this were done, American intervention could be expected to follow quickly, he promised. So Churchill was giving him the message that he wanted to hear – a message that is now largely forgotten.
Even so, Churchill’s appointment as minister of munitions in July 1917 was made in the face of a storm of Tory protest. Excluded from the cabinet, Churchill’s role was almost entirely administrative, but his dynamic energies thrown behind the development and production of the tank (which he had initiated at the Admiralty) greatly speeded up the use of the weapon that broke through the deadlock on the Western Front. Paradoxically, it was not until the war was over that Churchill returned to a service department. In January 1919 he became secretary of war. As such he presided with surprising zeal over the cutting of military expenditure. The major preoccupation of his tenure in the War Office was, however, the Allied intervention in Russia. Churchill, passionately anti-Bolshevik, secured from a divided and loosely organized cabinet an intensification and prolongation of the British involvement beyond the wishes of any major group in Parliament or the nation—and in the face of the bitter hostility of labour. And in 1920, after the last British forces had been withdrawn, Churchill was instrumental in having arms sent to the Poles when they invaded the Ukraine.
This was such a major speech because it helped convince the US government to focus on the European theatre of war thus helping Britain, rather than focusing on the pacific theatre. Churchill highlighted the common culture and language and his own American lineage by saying: “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.”
I do not see how any of these factors can operate to our detriment on balance before the winter comes; and the winter will impose a strain upon the Nazi regime, with almost all Europe writhing and starving under its cruel heel, which, for all their ruthlessness, will run them very hard. We must not forget that from the moment when we declared war on the 3rd September it was always possible for Germany to turn all her Air Force upon this country, together with any other devices of invasion she might conceive, and that France could have done little or nothing to prevent her doing so. We have, therefore, lived under this danger, in principle and in a slightly modified form, during all these months. In the meanwhile, however, we have enormously improved our methods of defense, and we have learned what we had no right to assume at the beginning, namely, that the individual aircraft and the individual British pilot have a sure and definite superiority. Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.
Expecting that the German offensive would develop along much the same lines as it did in 1914, the lines of communication of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not run through the "short crossing" Channel ports – Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, etc. – but rather through Dieppe and Le Havre. On 13 May, the Wehrmacht's attack through the Ardennes had reached the Meuse River at Sedan and then crossed it, breaking through the defences of the French Army. By 20 May, Wehrmacht armoured divisions had reached the coast of the English Channel, splitting the BEF and the French First Army from the main French forces.
The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.
The Roar of the Lion tells the intriguing and complex story of how Churchill’s speeches were really received by the public at home and around the world. Using government and unofficial survey evidence and the diaries or ordinary people, Professor Richard Toye shows how reactions to Churchill’s speeches at the time both stimulated and excited but also caused disappointment and considerable criticism. The complexity of this reaction has been consistently obscured from the historical record by the overwhelming power of a treasured national myth.
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France. We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone. “There are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.