From 27 May to 4 June 1940, some 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk, by a fleet ranging from small civilian pleasure boats to Navy destroyers. Churchill spoke to the British nation on 4 June. His honesty about Dunkirk being a massive defeat for the Allies won his listeners' trust, but he also used his rhetoric to inspire the British people to come to terms with their predicament and fight on. Because these words are so famous, it's often overlooked what made them so effective. By telling the British people how heroic they were going to be, he gave them no choice but to play out their parts in the script he had written, or be shamed.
Sir Winston’s oratorical skills were world famous, and he started developing them at an early age. When he was just 23, he wrote an unpublished paper called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” in which he offered five “principal elements” to win over audiences. With all due respect to Sir Winston’s estimable writing skills, I’ve taken the liberty of extending his 1897 verbiage (bolded) into modern times:
The German invasion of the Low Countries, on May 10, 1940, came like a hammer blow on top of the Norwegian fiasco. Chamberlain resigned. He wanted Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, to succeed him, but Halifax wisely declined. It was obvious that Churchill alone could unite and lead the nation, since the Labour Party, for all its old distrust of Churchill’s anti-Socialism, recognized the depth of his commitment to the defeat of Hitler. A coalition government was formed that included all elements save the far left and right. It was headed by a war cabinet of five, which included at first both Chamberlain and Halifax—a wise but also magnanimous recognition of the numerical strength of Chamberlainite conservatism—and two Labour leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. The appointment of Ernest Bevin, a tough trade-union leader, as minister of labour guaranteed cooperation on this vital front. Offers were made to Lloyd George, but he declined them. Churchill himself took, in addition to the leadership of the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defence. The pattern thus set was maintained throughout the war despite many changes of personnel. The cabinet became an agency of swift decision, and the government that it controlled remained representative of all groups and parties. The Prime Minister concentrated on the actual conduct of the war. He delegated freely but also probed and interfered continuously, regarding nothing as too large or too small for his attention. The main function of the chiefs of the armed services became that of containing his great dynamism, as a governor regulates a powerful machine; but, though he prodded and pressed them continuously, he never went against their collective judgment. In all this, Parliament played a vital part. If World War II was strikingly free from the domestic political intrigues of World War I, it was in part because Churchill, while he always dominated Parliament, never neglected it or took it for granted. For him, Parliament was an instrument of public persuasion on which he played like a master and from which he drew strength and comfort.
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.
Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my fellow countrymen and the world, but no one paid attention. Up to the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which had overtaken her, and we might have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There was never a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous, and honored today; but no one would listen, and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.
"From Truman's point of view, the speech was important because the geopolitical situation had changed so much with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the new threat from the Soviet Union," Muller says. "It was somewhat easier to have Churchill, the great English-speaking ally of the United States from the war, to come and warn about the danger from the Soviet Union and from communism than for Truman to do it himself... It wasn't completely original. There had been various observers of foreign affairs who had suggested that this change was about to happen but from the public's point of view, it was really a startling change."
These lapses in memory had another interesting permutation: people started believing they had heard not Churchill, but an impersonator, deliver his words. The actor Norman Shelley claimed in 1972 that he had recorded the “fight on the beaches” speech as Churchill for the radio. Shelley voiced several children’s characters for the BBC in the 1930s and 1940s and did impersonate Churchill in at least one recording dated 1942. But it’s unclear if this record was ever put to any use.
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
Churchill was, above all, a great writer. Words were his great strength. The peroration of this speech has justly become one of the most iconic passages of all Churchill’s speeches, clearly demonstrating his mastery of the English language: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say “This was their finest hour”.
This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.
When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:
In the early 1930s, Churchill no longer had a government position. He seemed out of touch by opposing such positions as giving greater independence to India. He continued to write books and newspaper articles from his house in Kent, but many thought his political career was over. He only came back to notice through his opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi dictatorship in Germany and calls for British rearmament.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth[e] last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia. All of these famous cities and the populations lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere . . . .
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
Lord Randolph Churchill was a charismatic politician who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His title was a courtesy title only, and therefore was not inherited by his eldest son, Winston Churchill. In 1885, he had formulated the policy of progressive Conservatism which was known as “Tory Democracy”. He declared that the Conservatives ought to adopt, rather than oppose, popular reforms, and to challenge the claims of the Liberals to pose as champions of the masses.
Randolph Frederick Edward Spencer-Churchill was the son of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Preston from 1940-1945. Randolph’s wife from 1939-1946 was Pamela Harriman who later became United States Ambassador to France and they were the parents of Winston Churchill III. Winston was a British Conservative Party politician.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In casting up this dread balance-sheet, contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair. During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced,...nothing but disaster and disappointment, and yet at the end their morale was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question, "How are we going to win?" and no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us.
Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister on 10 May, 1940, eight months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. He had done so as the head of a multiparty coalition government, which had replaced the previous government (led by Neville Chamberlain) as a result of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war, demonstrated by the Norway debate on the Allied evacuation of Southern Norway.
This speech may be regarded as the most important Churchill delivered as Leader of the Opposition. It contains certain phrases - “the special relationship,” “the sinews of peace “ - which at once entered into general use, and which have survived. But it is the passage on “the iron curtain” which attracted immediate international attention, and had incalculable impact upon public opinion in the United States and in Western Europe. This speech ultimately defined the parameters of the Cold War.
In this ‘Appeal to America’, cast as a speech to the British people but “addressed very largely to American ears” (to summon supplies needed for victory), Churchill demonstrates his skill in varying cadence, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his “stage craft” and a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. The speech also shows off his ability to use simple, direct language to get a very clear message across: "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job".
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)
Sir, I considered it in the public interest to suggest that the House should be summoned to meet today. Mr. Speaker agreed, and took the necessary steps, in accordance with the powers conferred upon him by the Resolution of the House. At the end of the proceedings today, the Adjournment of the House will be proposed until Tuesday, the 21st of May, with, of course, provision for earlier meeting, if need be. The business to be considered during that week will be notified to Members at the earliest opportunity. I now invite the House, by the Resolution which stands in my name, to record its approval of the steps taken and to declare its confidence in the new Government.
While shaving one morning in 1953, Churchill remarked to John Colville, “Today is the 24th of January. It’s the day my father died. It’s the day I shall die, too.” He repeated this prediction to his son-in-law Christopher Soames shortly after his ninetieth birthday, in 1964. A few weeks later, on January 10, 1965, Churchill lapsed into a coma. Earlier that evening, during the nightly ritual of brandy and cigars, he had said to Soames, “It has been a grand journey, well worth making.” He paused and added, “once.”
Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the Armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French Armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French Armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighboring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
In November 1915 Churchill resigned from the government and returned to soldiering, seeing active service in France as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Although he entered the service with zest, army life did not give full scope for his talents. In June 1916, when his battalion was merged, he did not seek another command but instead returned to Parliament as a private member. He was not involved in the intrigues that led to the formation of a coalition government under Lloyd George, and it was not until 1917 that the Conservatives would consider his inclusion in the government. In March 1917 the publication of the Dardanelles commission report demonstrated that he was at least no more to blame for the fiasco than his colleagues.
Thus, when in 1931 the National Government was formed, Churchill, though a supporter, had no hand in its establishment or place in its councils. He had arrived at a point where, for all his abilities, he was distrusted by every party. He was thought to lack judgment and stability and was regarded as a guerrilla fighter impatient of discipline. He was considered a clever man who associated too much with clever men—Birkenhead, Beaverbrook, Lloyd George—and who despised the necessary humdrum associations and compromises of practical politics.
As a political courtesy, Churchill called the White House and inquired if the president wanted to look over a draft of his Fulton speech. The White House replied that Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson would instead call at the British embassy. Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador, had already told Churchill that Acheson not only had a sound diplomatic head but also had a keen ear for the elegant phrase.
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. House of Commons (having met in the House of Lords), 28 October 1943
The final speech was wide-ranging. Churchill gave a detailed recap of the Battle of Dunkirk, praising every member of the Allied forces. But he did not dwell on the lives saved. He warned that the rescue “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Invasion, he insisted, could be imminent. But he was ready to fight.
78 rpm: Gramophone (C3223-5) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, Vol. Two, No. 356] BBC, Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund of U.S.A., Hear It Now I; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 4, Decca 8, London XL.9, Hear It Now I, World Record Club EZ.1026, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, ProArte
This speech is one of the most important speeches of Churchill’s life though it is often over looked. Churchill had been speaking on trade unions in the House for a better part of an hour, when he suddenly lost his train of thought. He stalled for time, but could not finish his speech. Churchill thanked the House for listening to him and sat down and put his head in his hands. He had been in the habit of totally memorising his speeches. But from this point forward, Churchill decided to forge a system of speech writing that employed copious notes and several revisions. It was this system which helped create the powerful and awe inspiring oratory which Churchill had envisioned as a 23 year old in 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ and for which Churchill has become famous. So in many ways, it was from this small failure that day in the House of Commons that Churchill’s amazing oratory was born.