1940: The Finest Hour

To the Italian People

Neville Chamberlain

November 12, 1940.

House of Commons

Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members, and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown. Read More >

To the French People (In French)

To the French People (In English)

House of Commons Secret Session

The Few

August 20, 1940

House of Commons

On August 15, the crisis of the battle of Britain was reached. All the resources of Fighter Command in the South were used. The most difficult and dangerous period of the Battle of Britain was between August 24 and September 6, when the German attack was directed against the R.A.F airfields in the South of England with considerable success. In this speech Churchill coined the phrase “The Few” to describe the R.A.F fighter-pilots. The phrase stuck. The final sentence of this speech, including the use of the word “benignant,” is a good example of Churchill’s choice of unexpected and assertive adjectives to make a phrase memorable.

churchill-rafAlmost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field. It is also useful to compare the first year of this second war against German aggression with its forerunner a quarter of a century ago. Although this war is in fact only a continuation of the last, very great differences in its character are apparent. In the last war millions of men fought by hurling enormous masses of steel at one another. “Men and shells” was the cry, and prodigious slaughter was the consequence.

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The First Year of the War (“The Few”)

War of the Unknown Warriors

July 14, 1940.

BBC Broadcast, London

During June and early July, the German Air Force was regrouped to open the vital first stage of “Operation Sea Lion” (the invasion of Britain) by destroying the Royal Air Force. The Battle of Britain began on July 10.

During the last fortnight the British Navy, in addition to blockading what is left of the German Fleet and chasing the Italian Fleet, has had imposed upon it the sad duty of putting effectually out of action for the duration of the war the capital ships of the French Navy. These, under the Armistice terms, signed in the railway coach at Compiegne, would have been placed within the power of Nazi Germany. The transference of these ships to Hitler would have endangered the security of both Great Britain and the United States. We therefore had no choice but to act as we did, and to act forthwith. Our painful task is now complete. Although the unfinished battleship, the Jean Bart, still rests in a Moroccan harbor and there are a number of French warships at Toulon and in various French ports all over the world, these are not in a condition or of a character to derange our preponderance of naval power. As long, therefore, as they make no attempt to return to ports controlled by Germany or Italy, we shall not molest them in any way. That melancholy phase in our relations with France has, so far as we are concerned, come to an end.

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War Of The Unknown Warriors (Audio)

Their Finest Hour

June 18, 1940

House of Commons

churchill bbcImage © BBC.COMI spoke the other day of the colossal military disaster which occurred when the French High Command failed to withdraw the northern Armies from Belgium at the moment when they knew that the French front was decisively broken at Sedan and on the Meuse. This delay entailed the loss of fifteen or sixteen French divisions and threw out of action for the critical period the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. Our Army and 120,000 French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment. This loss inevitably took some weeks to repair, and in the first two of those weeks the battle in France has been lost. When we consider the heroic resistance made by the French Army against heavy odds in this battle, the enormous losses inflicted upon the enemy and the evident exhaustion of the enemy, it may well be the thought that these 25 divisions of the best-trained and best-equipped troops might have turned the scale. However, General Weygand had to fight without them. Only three British divisions or their equivalent were able to stand in the line with their French comrades. They have suffered severely, but they have fought well. We sent every man we could to France as fast as we could re-equip and transport their formations. Read More >

Their Finest Hour (Audio)

We Shall Fight on the Beaches

June 4, 1940

House of Commons

The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.


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 at the appeal of the Belgian King; but this strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French High Command hoped they would be able to close the gap, and the Armies of the north were under their orders. Moreover, a retirement of this kind would have involved almost certainly the destruction of the fine Belgian Army of over 20 divisions and the abandonment of the whole of Belgium. Therefore, when the force 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 the French and British Armies in Belgium to keep on holding the right hand of the Belgians and to give their own right hand to a newly created French Army which was to have advanced across the Somme in great strength to grasp it.

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We Shall Fight on the Beaches (Audio)

On Capitulation of Belgium (Audio)

Be Ye Men of Valour

May 19, 1940. BBC.

First Broadcast as Prime Minister to the British People

By May 14, the news from the front was uniformly bad. The Germans had broken through the French defences at Sedan, and everywhere the French forces were reeling under a devastating barrage from land and air. “At almost all points where the armies had come in contact,” Churchill later wrote, “the weight and fury of the German attack was overwhelming.” Holland fell on May 15, and Churchill flew to Paris on the same day to confer with the French leaders. It was evident that the military situation was near to catastrophic, and that the military commanders and political leaders were resigned to overwhelming defeat. Churchill agreed to send ten fighter squadrons to France, thereby imperilling the situation in England, as a desperate attempt to restore the spirits of his Ally. On May 19, the Cabinet was informed that Lord Gort was “examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk.” In these sombre circumstances, Churchill made this, his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British people. Read More >

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