Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was declared to be the Greatest Briton in 2002 during a nationwide poll by the BBC. A journalist, historian, and military man, he twice served as Britain’s Prime Minister. It was for his first tenure during World War II, however, that he is most revered.
A man of action, he was also a man of words. Churchill’s speeches warned of the German threat when no one wanted to hear it. During World War II, he kept Britain from surrendering, even when scarcity and the Blitz forced many to consider it. Finally, he was the first to declare the Soviet Union a threat when the West still thought of them as valuable allies.
In a letter he wrote to his wife, Churchill claimed that:
“Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?”
Such sentiments typify the man who saw military action in India, Sudan, and South Africa. It also made him the perfect man to lead Britain during World War II. An excellent orator, his most famous speeches would have to be the following.
“Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat”
This speech was given on 13 May 1940 in the House of Commons, his first as Prime Minister. Britain was already at war with Germany, but in the aftermath of Chamberlain’s appeasement policies, there were still those who felt that the country could come to an agreement with Hitler. Churchill would have none of it.
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many long months of toil and struggle.
You ask what is our policy. I will say, it is to wage war with all our might, with all the strength that God can give us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.
You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.
After the British, French, and Belgian troops were defeated at Dunkirk, France was ripe for Germany’s taking. Churchill called it a colossal disaster, especially since the British had to leave behind all of their military equipment. On 4 June 1940, he told the House of Commons that:
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!
“Their Finest Hour”
After France collapsed, Churchill again addressed the House of Commons on 18 June 1940. At that time, many believed that Britain would fall, as well. Whether it was optimism or bravado, Churchill’s speech made it clear where he stood on the issue of capitulation:
… the Battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle 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, then the whole world… including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, 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.’
The basis of this speech took place on 16 August 1940 as Churchill was leaving the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge. The Prime Minister addressed those words to Major General Hastings Ismay, and included it in his full speech on 20 August 1940. In it, he also announced plans to allow US bases on British soil.
“The gratitude of every home in our Island… goes out to the British airmen who… are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
“Never Give In”
On 29 October 1941, addressed the pupils at Harrow School, the boy’s boarding school he once attended. Many years later, a number of those present claimed that it made them the successful people they became. Some believe he only gave those three words, then sat down, but records show the speech was actually longer.
This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
In peace, however, he was not as inspiring, typified by his fall in 1936 for supporting the Edward VIII’s marriage to a divorcee. Britain seemed to feel the same — during the parliamentary elections after WWII, he lost.
In keeping with the sentiment expressed in the last speech, however, he did persist. As a result, he again became the country’s Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955, proving he practiced what he preached.