Winston Churchill: ‘we shall never surrender’

By Chris McCarthy

We shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, ride out the storm of war, outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940

The prospects for Britain in the early summer of 1940 looked very grim. The German war machine had swept through large tracts of Western Europe, France looked certain to fall under Nazi occupation, America remained resolved not to commit its troops to the conflict, Britain was far from fully mobilised and the threat of invasion loomed large.

Winston Churchill assumed the office of Prime Minister in early May under these gravest of circumstances, at the age of sixty-five. He was not the choice of the King, the Whitehall establishment or the majority party in the House of Commons, but he would come to be considered the country’s greatest Briton and a revered wartime leader.

His bombastic rhetoric and grand oratory, for which he was famed, was not always warmly received. Before the Second World War* his perorations were commonly considered inappropriate and incongruous and his manners – he would often leave the House almost immediately after giving a speech – did not endear him to colleagues. Nevertheless, his grave warnings during the late 1930s about the danger of German rearmament proved prophetic and coupled with his immutable optimism he was soon considered the right man for the time.

In his first address to Parliament as Prime Minister, Churchill gave a short statement rallying the country in the face of Nazi aggression, pledging to wage war “with all our might and with all the strength God has given us” in the pursuit of victory at all costs, “however long and hard the road may be.” Three weeks later the length and difficulty of that journey became worryingly apparent following the evacuation of nearly 400,000 British and Allied troops from Dunkirk.

Despite the immediate boost to British morale following the better-than-expected evacuation and the strategic significance of having several hundred thousand British troops back rather than surrendered to German control, this was a “colossal military defeat,” as Churchill conceded, making the likelihood of a German invasion greater, not less.

Churchill’s address to the Commons on 4 June following the evacuation needed to strike a balance between somber evaluation of the realities of the conflict and a stirring call to British resolve. By drawing attention to the losses averted rather than those suffered, Churchill softened the impact of the military debacle of Dunkirk. But this was not a moment for unrestrained triumphalist language:

We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance…Can you conceive of a greater objective for the power of Germany in the air than to make all evacuations from these beaches impossible…They tried hard and were beaten back.

The internal message within Government mirrored the public display of defiance tempered by reality. In a minute sent to ministers and senior officials, Churchill instructed: “In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles, not minimising the gravity of events, but showing confidence and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy.”

There were few resolves steelier than Churchill’s: following a detailed military and strategic analysis of Dunkirk, and after raising the growing likelihood of a German invasion, the speech climaxed with an unfettered display of British defiance, unequalled and unforgettable as a display of inspiring oratory in the twentieth century:

We shall not flag nor 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.

Within a few weeks France would fall under Nazi occupation, the Battle of Britain would begin soon after and it would be several more years before the war decisively turned in the Allies favour. Throughout the conflict, but particularly during those sober summer months of 1940, Churchill’s oratory promoted a mood of defiance and “euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory” as his biographer, Roy Jenkins, described it. The British people were charged with carrying a great burden during that bleak summer. This speech is an exemplar of the indefatigable character of their leader, who sustained and motivated them in equal measure.

____

* Churchill was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Oldham in 1900 served Parliament for the next 64 years – for two political parties and five different constituencies – with only a short break in 1922-24 and a very brief interval in 1906.

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