By Sir Robert Rhodes James
The fact is that he did it, and no one else did it for him.
On June 4th, 1940 in the House of Commons, at the darkest moment in British history, Winston Churchill made one of the greatest speeches in the annals of oratory. It galvanised a hitherto skeptical Commons, and its superb use of language and spirit of defiance affected not only his fellow-countrymen but echoed around the world, not least in the United States. Wars are not won by speeches, but they are by leadership, and that speech gave the authentic voice of a confident leader who wanted to lead.
It was his fourth speech as Prime Minister. His accession to the position had been controversial, and in fact was by default. He was viewed with hostility in both the principal political parties.
It opened prosaically enough with a factual account of the French collapse, the evacuation at Dunkirk, and preparations for home defence. But he then said his government was determined to “ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”This single sentence hushed the Commons. He went on:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, 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, and even if, which I do not for a 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 carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Churchill had made, and was to make, much greater speeches; but none of them had the impact of this brief peroration. His immediate audience was stunned, and then erupted into a prolonged ovation.
From this great event a remarkable mythology has developed and prospered. Its origins came from David Irving in his Churchill’s War, Volume I, published in 1987, p. 313:
“That evening the BBC broadcast his speech after the News. The whole nation thrilled, not knowing that Churchill had refused to repeat it before the microphone. A BBC actor — ‘Larry the Lamb’ of the Children’s Hour — had agreed to mimic the prime minister before the microphone, and nobody was any the wiser.”
The actor who claimed to have read the speech was Norman Shelley. Irving’s sole authority was Shelley himself, although, as it will be seen, under curious circumstances. It was a very dramatic allegation, particularly from that source, and intrinsically deeply suspect, but somehow it became an established fact, accepted unthinkingly by later biographers and historians, including John Charmley, Clive Ponting and, astonishingly, even Philip Ziegler, who is in an entirely different league. In 1991 Irving went even further, claiming that “several times in 1940 millions of radio listeners were tricked into believing that they were hearing Churchill’s voice;” Ponting repeated Irving’s apparently authoritative statement that this happened on several occasions.
The sheer improbability of this story in itself should have alerted serious historians, but it was my late All Souls colleague D.J. Wenden who spotted the first clues to this falsehood. For one thing, there was no Churchill broadcast on June 4th; the newsreader read extracts on the evening radio news.
Then there was the interesting point that Irving claimed he had interviewed Shelley in December 1981; but Shelley had died on 22 August 1980! Also, although a minor point, Shelley had not been “Larry the Lamb” in “Toytown,” but “Dennis the Daschund,” as those of my generation could have told Irving.
Problems then arise from the records, Harold Nicolson lamenting that it was necessary to bully Churchill into broadcasting, and, referring to a June 18th broadcast, “he just sulked and read his House of Commons speech over again.” Nicolson was Information Minister at the time. Churchill never liked broadcasting, but there is no evidence whatever that he was replaced by anyone, and speech researchers have confirmed this.
But Shelley consistently claimed that he had mimicked Churchill’s voice for radio. The unlikelihood of the BBC’s employing an actor to replace its outstanding team of newsreaders was grotesquely improbable in itself. As Vita Sackville-West wrote to Nicolson of the June 4th speech on the radio, “Even repeated by the announcer it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine.”
I was immensely fortunate in getting to know C.H. Rolph, by correspondence only, alas, in the last year of his life. His wife had been a script-writer in the BBC’s Features and Drama Department, and, through her, Rolph had come to know Shelley well; indeed, Shelley was Rolph’s best man at the latter’s wedding in 1947.
Shelley, whom Rolph regarded, but with some affection, as something of a mountebank, fancied his Churchill impersonation, although Rolph thought it compared poorly with the real thing. But a commercial company wanted a recording of the “fight on the beaches” speech, and asked Shelley to do it. Churchill was consulted: “He wasn’t much interested,” Rolph recalled, “but said he would raise no objection.”
The problem was compounded by the fact that the BBC bought the Shelley spoof. Rolph was astounded to hear it when Robin Day chose it for one of his Desert Island Discs. “I heard that,” Rolph wrote, “and I know it was Norman Shelley’s voice. His Churchill impersonation was never quite as good as he thought it was, and I recognised (for the umpteenth time) the spots where he failed.”
“This is the true version about the Shelley-Churchill thing,” Rolph wrote. “Not very important, I suppose, but it could well go down as yet another bogus little version unexposed.”
The story surfaced again in 2000 in a column by unrepentant Communist Alexander Cockburn, and The Observer reported that Shelley’s son had uncovered an actual 78 rpm BBC recording. The recording bore a homemade label dated 7 September 1942, but this did not stop The Observer:
“Proof that some of Winston Churchill’s most famous radio speeches of the war were delivered by a stand-in has emerged with the discovery of a 78 rpm record….”
Allen Packwood of the Archives Centre replied that “there is simply nothing in our collections to prove it [but if Shelley recorded the speech on 7 September 1942, as the record label says, why did he do it? Churchill originally delivered the speech over two years earlier, and did not broadcast it (portions were read by a BBC announcer). Churchill did record the speech himself — at Chartwell after the war — and it was ultimately released by Decca Records…. the time lag makes it clear that Shelley did not record the speech to be broadcast when German invasion was imminent….It is a huge leap to say that, just because there is evidence he recorded this Churchill speech in 1942, that he delivered BBC broadcasts in the summer of 1940.”
Even this turned out to be the reddest of red herrings, as Mr. Packwood later related: “It now emerges that the [Shelley] recording is not the “fight on the beaches” speech, but is concerned with events in North Africa in 1942. I have tried, using Rhodes James’s Complete Speeches, to match the text to an actual speech by Churchill, but have been unable to do so.”
Did Norman Shelley ever record the “fight on the beaches” speech? In Finest Hour 112, Stephen Bungay notes that “Churchill was asked by the British Council later in the war to make a recording for the U.S., and having rather a lot on his plate, he suggested they use an actor instead. Shelley did the recording, Churchill heard it, was much amused and gave his approval. Its subsequent fate is unknown, but there is no evidence of its having been used in Britain.” Or anywhere else, as far as we can determine.
C. H. Rolph was wrong in thinking that the story was “not very important,” because it has become part of the ugly tapestry of denigration of Churchill, of which Irving was the first practitioner, his lead followed by others who also claim to be reputable historians. Some of this so-called “revisionism” is subtle, much of it less so, like the malicious and ludicrous exaggeration of his drinking, which ignores all the testimony to the contrary by those who worked closely with him. Witnesses to the truth include a secretary who was with him for 30 years; and Desmond Morton, whose association with Churchill went back to the First World War, during the inter-war years, and throughout the Second.
Churchill was indeed fallible, and part of his fascination for historians and biographers lies in this very fact. It was true that he hated broadcasting, and, except on rare occasions, was not very good at it. A great actor needs an audience; sitting alone in a studio in front of a microphone did not inspire him. But the fact is that he did it, and no one else did it for him.
This article is adapted from Finest Hour 92, including later information in Finest Hour 109.