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Untold story of Churchill’s World War II speeches

Popular belief is that Churchill’s wartime speeches were received enthusiastically by almost the whole British population and that they were the decisive influence on the nation’s willingness to fight on against the Nazis.

A new book by a University of Exeter historian re-examines this accepted national story and presents a new take on the politics of 1940’s.

It shows that Churchill’s speeches generated considerably more controversy and criticism than historians previously thought.

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.

Professor Toye said:“Churchill's first speeches as Prime Minster in the dark days of 1940 were by no means universally acclaimed – many people thought that he was drunk during his famous ‘finest hour’ broadcast – and there is little evidence that they made a decisive difference to the British people’s will to fight on.”

The diaries collected by the Mass Observation group asked ordinary people to write and report not just their own opinions and views but of those around them. This would have been the historic equivalent of a modern day tweet.  The Ministry of Information also produced regular “Home Intelligence” reports, which helped assess, for example,how the population was feeling following the Blitz helped the government manage their response to the public. These reports paid particular attention to the reception of ministerial speeches, including Churchill's.

One of the most vivid accounts was written by a journalist who had joined the army and wrote down in shorthand the comments of his friend George—a 24-year-old French polisher from South London—as he listened to Churchill's speech on the fall of Singapore in February 1942. George said:"F- -ing bullshit! Get on with it! What a f- -ing cover-up. Any normal person could see it’s just pulling the wool over their eyes!“

Professor Toye commented:“There was a complexity to people’s reactions to Churchill’s speeches at the time, as the evidence shows that they may have liked one bit of a speech and not another section, or liked some speeches but not others. People sometimes changed their minds following discussions with friends or after reading newspaper commentaries; there was not a blanket acceptance and positive reaction. A more measured response to his speeches is in evidence. This is possibly why the speeches didn’t always have the effect now credited to them.”

The book also points out that when he came to power as Prime Minister, Churchill’s job was not to simply persuade people to fight on but to alert them to how bad the military situation was, as the public had an unwarranted optimism. Churchill wanted to clarify the situation in Europe and the threat, and not only to offer a rallying war cry.

There have been suggestions that Churchill was bull headed, but this is unsatisfactory according to the research which shows that he did take and respond to advice.  Although, Churchill wrote his own speeches, he would often take advice from government department which sometimes led him to tone down or adjust his speeches.

The famous June 1940 speech “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landings grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” was influenced by William Philip Simms, the pro-British foreign editor of the influential Scripps-Howard chain of American newspapers.  There was concern that the USA would not enter the war, so Simms provided suggestions that were passed on to Churchill, to advise on the language needed to maximise Americans’ sympathies in the war, so that they would support and get behind the British.  In order to scotch the growing belief that the Allies could not take much more punishment, he argued that Churchill should say something on the following lines:

We intend to fight this thing through to a finish and to victory however long it may take …. Come what may, Britain will not flinch …. We, over here know full well that difficult times are ahead …. We have taken the measure of our foe [. . .] Knowing all that, we are in it and, in it to stay. The proposition is simple: It is whether the kind of world we know in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Britain and the Americas is to survive, or whether most of the progress made by human kind since the Dark Ages is to be wiped out. For her part Britain intends to fight until Germany’s power for evil has been broken. Give in—NEVER!

Simms knew that Churchill would use his own phraseology. But in terms of structure the similarities between this passage and Churchill’s peroration (with its repetition of ‘We shall’) are striking. Churchill was much more eloquent but the basic idea was the same.

The ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech was delivered in the House of Commons; it was never broadcast though it was reported on the BBC by an announcer and quoted in the press. However, people claim to remember having heard this famous speech from June 1940, even though they hadn’t. It was recorded for posterity along with others of his wartime speeches nine years later.

‘The Roar of the Lion’ considers Churchill’s oratory not merely as a series of ‘great speeches’, but as calculated political interventions which had diplomatic repercussions far beyond the effect on the morale of listeners in Britain.

 Professor Toye talks about various aspects Churchill's World War II speeches:

  1. On the myth surrounding 'we shall fight them on the beaches'
  2. On what can be learnt from Churchill's speeches
  3. On the subject of Churchill's speeches as a source of inspiration
  4. On the myth of Churchill's 'bull-headed' speech-writing


Date: 19 August 2013

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