June 18, 2010 -- The necessary audacity of the newly-installed Prime Minister Winston Churchill under the circumstances was palpable. He had to make a rallying speech to Parliament, and again to the British nation over the radio in the face of what promised to be an imminent and withering military attack on Great Britain, perhaps one leading to a full scale invasion, if the air war about to be launched against the island nation were to succeed.
Indeed, Churchill really made that speech to the entire Western World, pointedly mentioning therein the consequences to the United States and the New World of a British defeat by the Nazi war machine.
It was just at the beginning of summer . . . on June 18th in 1940, just 70 years ago today. The Battle of Britain was about to commence.
His speech had to be one both projecting and inspiring confidence in the face of recent defeat, a defeat saved from abject humiliation only by the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force and her fleet at Dunkirk. Just 12 days before on June 4th, Churchill had spoken, extolling the virtues of the almost unbelievably successful operation, calling it a "miracle of deliverance." Posterity now also knows it as the Dunkirk spirit.
The evacuation at Dunkirk was nothing short of prodigious, including the legendary contribution of "the little ships."
But Churchill had also told the Parliament on June 4th that:
"we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."So, with his speech on June 18th, he was now specifically telling the British people that Great Britain was about to undergo a full-fledged attack from the air by the Nazi war machine. In particular, it would come via the formidable Luftwaffe under the command of Hermann Göring.
A mere five years earlier, on orders from Adolph Hitler, the Luftwaffe had been established in direct violation of the outright ban on German military aviation, as was provided for in the Treaty of Versailles. Prior British and French government reactions to the blatant treaty violations had been both tentative and weak.
Hermann Göring, a World War I ace pilot, had been appointed Minister and Oberbefehlshaber (Supreme Commander) by Adolph Hitler. By 1938, he was promoted by Chancellor Hitler to the rank of first Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) of the Luftwaffe, thereby making him the highest ranking military officer in Germany. In just a few years, therefore, Göring had overseen the production of a huge fleet of what were highly advanced military aircraft. By one year before the Churchill speech, the Luftwaffe was widely recognized everywhere as one of the most powerful air forces anywhere.
Less than a year prior to Churchill's speech, the WW II British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had begun its "operations" in Europe, to little or no effect.
The BEF had been
started in 1938 in readiness for a perceived threat of war after Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and the claims on the Sudetenland which led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. After the French and British had promised to defend Poland the German invasion began and war was declared on 3 September 1939. (sp corrected)But no real military actions were taken by the BEF until after the German blitzkrieg and invasion of France was launched on 10 May 1940. Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister on May 10th, and Churchill became the Prime Minister, having been the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Because of the surprise and initial success of the German blitzkrieg, the French Supreme Commander, Maurice Gamelin, was quickly dismissed and replaced by General Weygand. But a few blunders, including tactical failures on the part of Weygand, suddenly left the British and the remaining free forces with their backs to the English Channel. The prospect of losing both the bulk of those forces, and all of their equipment was very real.
Yet, in spite of the miraculous outcome of the evacuation from Dunkirk, the prospects for the British nation remained quite grim. The Germans were about to attack Great Britain with everything they had from the air.
While looking to counter any tendency for despondency, and pointedly illustrating the grave consequence of inaction, Churchill was hoping to undergird that demonstrated resolve of the nation to literally remain intact.
With that background, he delivered his speech to Parliament on June 18th. Here was the end of the speech, as recorded by the BBC. Here is the link to the BBC School Radio recording.
Transcribed, here also is the peroration of that speech:
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. 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 freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. 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 duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour.
Scott at Powerline posted some interesting information on that speech earlier today, noting (via one of their regular readers) that The Telegraph has just reported on recently revealed government papers, demonstrating that Prime Minister Churchill "agonized" right up until the last moment over the precise wording of the speech.
Somehow, that just does not seem too hard to imagine!