Winston Churchill (1940)

Edited by David Cannadine; Penguin Books, 1989; rebound in quarter red Morocco, with navy blue label, embossed with gold, and stone cloth boards.


I am a child of the House of Commons.  I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy….There are less than seventy million malignant Huns some of whom are curable and others killable…


The four statesmen whom I admire are Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman.  Two of them – Lincoln and Churchill – had two things in common when they came to power.  Their nation was in mortal peril and the other members of their government did not trust their leader to be able to save them.  Each of Lincoln and Churchill had to win over and secure the faith of his government and then his nation.  Each did so, and each then went on to lead his nation to safety and victory.  For each, it was a colossal personal victory, brought about by a force of character that we have hardly seen again.  But for each, the issue facing his country could have gone the other way, with God only knows what consequences.  Had Lincoln not held the U S together, would England have been able to hold off Germany twice or even once?  Had England made peace with Hitler in 1940, would I be writing this in German?  Would my Jewish friends be here?


This is how Churchill recorded his feelings on taking office as Prime Minister.  ‘But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 am I was conscious of a profound sense of relief.  At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.  I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’  We can imagine other big hitters talking big like this, but big hitters we would not trust – as it happened, the world then needed a man of precisely that fibre.


If I had to nominate one clutch point for that war, it would have been a meeting of the War Cabinet at the time of Dunkirk.  Churchill was yet to win the confidence of his cabinet, and Halifax wanted to deal with Hitler.  Churchill convened a full cabinet meeting.  He told them the alternatives.  He concluded: ‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at the last the long story of this island is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.’  Churchill would later say he was surprised at the warmth of the reaction from hard-bitten politicians – many jumped ‘from the table and came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back.’


Another version has: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’  The plain truth was that the nation was crying out for leadership and found it.  Churchill laid down that they would never lie down.  The doubts were gone.  The way was clear – if hard.  For the first time, Hitler was confronted by a leader superior to him, one who could hold his nation together for long enough to get the U S into the war.  This, as it seems to me, is the great moment of truth in that war, and if you are ever asked what real leadership is, there it was.


Before looking at some of the speeches, let me remind you of what Roy Jenkins said in his great biography: ‘With their high-flown eloquence, which in less dramatic times would have sounded over-blown, they could be regarded as a form of self-indulgence.  They not only matched the mood of the moment, but have for six decades etched in the memory of many who were young at the time and are old now.  They were an inspiration for the nation, and a catharsis for Churchill himself.  They raised his spirits and thus generated even more energy than was consumed in their composition.’


The best way to take these speeches is to listen to them – and watch, where film is available.  Most are matter-of-fact, and given with apparently child-like candour.  Where we have film of Churchill talking to an audience about giving the Germans back some of their own medicine, we may better see the sterility of suggestions that he was too war-like.  He was merely giving supreme voice to the grief and outrage of his people.


Here, then, is the famous peroration of the speech to the House of Commons on the evacuation of Dunkirk.

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 oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and 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.


Here is the lead-in to the equally famous ‘finest hour’ ending.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over.  I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.  Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.  Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.  The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.  Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.  If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.  But if we fail, 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.


To read these words now is to see how far our public life has fallen.  These words are plain and short, and to the point, but infinitely moving.  There is not a bath-plug or spin doctor in sight and the speaker was the author.  It is all now quite beyond our world.


My own favourite is not in this book.  Before the war, and early in it, Churchill had gone out on a limb for France in a way that de Gaulle and the French would not reciprocate.  The English had to destroy the French fleet.  Churchill referred to his at the beginning of a speech given on Bastille Day 1940.

And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do.  Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened.  We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.  Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen – we await undismayed the impending assault.  Perhaps it will come next week.


This is how Churchill ended this speech.

This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes.  There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded.  This is a War of the Unknown Warrior; but let all strive without failing in health or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.


At the end of his biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins said that he had thought that Gladstone had been Britain’s greatest PM, but that he now thought that title should go to Churchill, ‘with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life.’  Jenkins frequently referred to the ability of Churchill to cry at the drop of a hat.  Long after he had left us, Churchill can still make us cry now – but at rather more than the drop of a hat.

2 thoughts on “MY TOP SHELF -21

  1. One of my older sisters had an LP record of Micheal Mac Liammoir (spelling from the web but it needs various accents and dots above some letters) reading Churchill speeches. I heard it so often I know some of them by heart. It is well worth acquiring if possible to still find on vinyl or converted to CD perhaps.


    Angela Nordlinger

    0408 347 602

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