Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, was quite interesting, as Demosthenes and other orators before him, born with a speech impediment which he worked until only the prevented. You would never guess it from the voice strong and reassuring Churchill, a voice that would buoy up Britain during some of its darkest hours.
During the Battle of France, the Allied troops became cut off from south of the German penetration and dangerously jammed the beachhead at Dunkirk. May 26, a large evacuation of these troops, dubbed “Operation Dynamo”, began. The evacuation was an incredible effort of the RAF, the Luftwaffe held remote while thousands of ships, destroyers military small fishing boats were used to transport 338,000 British and French troops to safety, much more than previously thought possible. On June 4, Churchill spoke to the House of Commons, giving a report which celebrated the “miraculous deliverance” in Dunkirk, while seeking to temper an overly optimistic view of what was generally a “colossal disaster military. “…
June 4, 1940
House of Commons
From the moment that the French defenses at Sedan and on the Meuse were broken at the end of the second week of May, only a rapid retreat to Amiens and the south could have saved the British and French Armies who had entered Belgium the call of the King of the Belgians, but this strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French High Command hoped they would be able to bridge the gap, and the armies of the north were under their command. Moreover, such a retreat would have meant almost certain destruction of the fine Belgian Army of over 20 divisions and the abandonment of the whole of Belgium. Therefore, when the strength and scope of the German penetration were realized and when a new French Generalissimo, General Weygand, assumed command in place of General Gamelin, an effort was made by French and British armies in Belgium to continue holding the right hand of the Belgians and to give their own right hand to a newly created French Army which had advanced in the Somme in great strength to grasp it.
However, the German eruption swept like a scythe sharp around the right and rear of the northern armies. Eight or nine armored divisions, each about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut all communications between us and the main French armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and the support of his way to the coast of Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized attack came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again, he walked relatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always ready to be led to the trampling in other countries freedoms and comforts which they have never known in their own.
I said shielded false stroke almost reached Dunkirk-almost but not quite. Boulogne and Calais were the scenes of fierce fighting. The guards defended Boulogne for a while and were then withdrawn by orders from that country. The Rifle Brigade, the 60th Rifles, shotguns and of Queen Victoria, with a battalion of British tanks and 1,000 French, in all about four thousand men, defended Calais to the last. The British Brigadier was given an hour to go. He declined the offer, and four days of intense street fighting passed before silence reigned over Calais, which marked the end of a memorable resistance. Only 30 unwounded survivors were brought out of the Navy, and we do not know the fate of their comrades. Their sacrifice, however, was not in vain. At least two armored divisions, which would otherwise have been turned against the British Expeditionary Force, had to be sent to overcome them. They added another page to the glory of light divisions, and the time gained enabled the Graveline water lines to be flooded and to be held by French troops.
Thus the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French Armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, desperate. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their only line of retreat was to a single port and its surrounding beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.
When, a week ago today, I asked the House to fix this afternoon during a statement, I feared that this would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. I thought, and some good judges agreed with me-that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-shipped. But it seems that all of the French First Army and the entire north of the British Expeditionary Force of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken in the open field or else would have to capitulate for want of provisions and ammunition. Such was the news hard and heavy for which I appealed to the House and the nation to prepare a week ago. The whole root and core and brain of the British army, on which and around which we build, and are to be built, large British armies in the last years of the war, seemed about to perish on the field or being driven in an ignominious and starving captivity.
It is the prospect a week ago. But another blow which might well have proved final was yet to fall on us. King of the Belgians had called upon us to come to his rescue. Was it not this rule and his government have retreated from the Allies, who rescued their country from extinction in the last war, and if they had not sought refuge in what was revealed neutrality fatal, the French and British armies at the outset might have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Poland. Yet at the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his courage, Army effective, almost half a million men, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat of the sea Suddenly, without prior consultation with the notice at little as possible, without the advice of his ministers and his own act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German command, gave up his army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.
I asked the House a week ago to suspend its judgment because the facts were not clear, but I do not think there is any reason now why we should not make our own opinions on this episode lamentable. The surrender of the Belgian Army compelled the British at the shortest time to cover the flank to the sea more than 30 miles in length. Otherwise, everything would have been cut, and all would have shared the fate to which King Leopold had condemned the finest Army his country had never formed. So by doing this and exposing this flank, as anyone who followed the operations on the map will see, contact was lost between the British and two of the three bodies forming the First French Army, who were still far from the coast that we were, and it seemed impossible that a large number of Allied troops could reach the coast.
The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and ferocity, and their main power, the power of their air force many more, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated on Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing the narrow outlet of both East and West, the enemy began to fire guns on the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes over a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and on the dunes sand on which the troops had their eyes away. Their submarines, one of which was sunk, and their motor launches took their toll of the vast traffic began. For four or five days an intense struggle reigned. All their armored divisions or what was left of them-even with large masses of infantry and artillery, rushed in vain on the most-shrinking, ever-contracting appendix within which the British and French armies were beaten.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, with voluntary help of countless merchant, straining every nerve to embark the British and Allied troops, 220 warships and 650 other light boats were hired. They had to operate on the difficult side, often in adverse weather conditions, under a hail of bombs and almost incessant increasing concentration of artillery fire. Were not the seas, as I said, themselves free from mines and torpedoes. It was under conditions like these that our men carried on with little or no rest, for days and nights, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters, bringing with them always men whom they had saved. The figures they brought back are the measure of their dedication and courage. Hospital ships, which brought out thousands of British and French wounded, being clearly marked were a special target for Nazi bombs, but men and women on their board has never wavered in their duty.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been involved in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of his fighting force main metropolitan, and hit the German bombers and combatants in large numbers to protect them. This struggle was long and fierce. Suddenly, the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment, but only for now-vanished. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, perseverance, perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by the fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was launched back by the troops retreating British and French. It has been so abused that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one, and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, from the jaws of death and shame, to their homeland and the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was acquired by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work, they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underestimate his accomplishments. I heard a lot about that, which is why I get out of my way of saying that. I’ll tell you about it.
It was a great showdown between British and German air forces. Can you conceive of a greater objective for the Germans in the air to facilitate the evacuation of these beaches impossible, and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there be an objective of greater military importance and significance to the whole purpose of the war that it? They worked hard, and they were repulsed, they were frustrated in their task. We had the Army now, and they paid four times for all the losses they inflicted. Formations of very large German aircraft, and we know they are very courageous race turned repeatedly to the attack of a quarter of their number, the Royal Air Force, and scattered in different directions. Twelve aircraft were driven by two. An airplane was driven into the water and reject the simple payment of a British airplane, which had more ammunition. All our types-the Hurricane, the Spitfire and the new Defiant and all our pilots have been vindicated as superior to what they have at present on the face.
When we consider how great would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a firm foundation upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may stand. I pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for now, thrown back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. Can it not also the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and dedication of a few thousand airmen? There was never, I suppose, worldwide, in the history of the war, such an opportunity for young people. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall into the prosaic past, not only distant, but these young men, going forth every morning to keep their homeland and everything we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal power and ginning, which can be said that
Each morning brought forth a noble risk
And every chance brought forth a noble knight,
deserve our thanks, as do all the brave men who, in many ways and on so many occasions, are ready and willing to continue to give life and all for their homeland.
I return to the army. In the long series of fierce battles, very active on this front, now on that, fighting against on three fronts at once, battles fought by two or three divisions against an equal or slightly superior to the enemy, and fought hard on some of the old patterns that many of us knew so well in these battles our losses in men have exceeded 30,000 killed, wounded and missing. I take the opportunity to express the sympathy of the House to all who have suffered bereavement or who are still worried. The Chairman of the Board of Trade [Sir Andrew Duncan] is not here today. His son was killed, and many in the House have felt the pangs of misery in the strongest form. But I will say this about the missing: We had a large number of wounded come home safely in this country, but I would say about the missing that there may be very many reported missing who will come to the house one day in one or another way. In the confusion of this fight, it is inevitable that many have been left in positions where honor did not need further resistance from them.
Against the loss of more than 30,000 men, we can define a much heavier loss certainly inflicted upon the enemy. But our losses in material are enormous. We may have lost a third of men we lost in the first days of the battle of March 21, 1918, but we have lost nearly as many guns – nearly a mile and all our transport, all armored vehicles who were with the army in the north. This loss will impose an additional delay to expanding our military force. This expansion was not proceeding to the extent we had hoped. Best of all, we had to give had gone to the British Expeditionary Force, and although they have not the number of tanks and some items of equipment which were desirable, they were very well equipped and finely army. They had the first fruits of all that our industry had to give, and who is missing. And now this new delay. How long it will be, how long it will last, depends on the efforts we make in this island. An effort similar to what was never seen in our records is now underway. Work continues throughout day and night, Sundays and weekdays. Capital and labor have cast aside their interests, rights and customs and put them in the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has leapt forward. There is no reason why we should not be in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has befallen us, without delaying the development of our overall program.
Nevertheless, our gratitude to the escape of our army and many men, whose loved ones have gone through agonizing one week, should not blind us to the fact that what happened in France and Belgium is a disaster colossal military. The French army was weakened, the Belgian army was lost, much of these fortified lines upon which so much faith had been rested is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the possession of the enemy, all the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that ensue, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France. We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan to invade the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon was at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone. “There are bitter weeds in England.” There is certainly more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.
The whole issue of homeland defense against invasion is, of course, strongly affected by the fact that we have for now on this island military forces incomparably more powerful than we ever had at any time in this war, or the last. But this will not continue. We’re simply not a defensive war. We have a duty to our ally. We have to rebuild and set up the British Expeditionary Force once again, under its gallant commander, Lord Gort. All this is in the process, but in the meantime, we must put our defenses in this island such a high state of organization that the smallest possible numbers will be required to provide effective security and that the greatest possible potential of ‘offensive effort can be achieved. On this we are now engaged. It will be very convenient, if not the desire of the House, to enter on this subject at a secret session. Not that the government would necessarily be able to reveal in very great detail military secrets, but we hope that our discussions free, without the constraint imposed by the fact that they will play the next day by the enemy, and the government would benefit by views freely expressed in all regions of the House by Members with their knowledge of so many different parts of the country. I understand that some request must be made on this subject, which will be readily acceded to by His Majesty’s Government.
We felt it necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities, but also against British subjects who may become a hazard or a nuisance should the war be transported in the UK . I know there are a large number of people affected by the orders we made that are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am really sorry for them, but we can not, at present under duress and current draw all the distinctions we want to do. If drops were attempted and fierce fighting attendant on following them, these poor would be far preferable to the road, for themselves and for ours. There are, however, another class, for which I feel no sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to lay down their activities in the fifth column with a strong hand, and we will use those powers subject to supervision and correction of the House, without any hesitation that we are satisfied, and more than satisfied that this type of cancer in our midst has been effectively halted.
Turning once again and this time, more generally, the question of the invasion, I would observe that there never was a time in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against the invasion, and still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always a chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many stories are told. We are confident that new methods are adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, that our enemies screens, we can certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of maneuver brutal and treacherous. I think no idea is so preposterous that it should not be considered and viewed with a search, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those who belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
I, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are made, we prove once again able to defend our island home, out of the storm of war, and survive the threat of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary, alone. Anyway, that’s what we’ll try to do. It is the will of the Government of His Majesty, while the man of them. It is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and their need, will defend to the death their native soil, facilitating each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength . Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall under the influence of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We will go 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, and even though I do not for one 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 continue the struggle, until, in time of God, the New World, with all his strength and power, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the former