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Churchill's 'Finest Hour' and the Power of Speech

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) There'll always be an England, where there's a country lane...

CHADWICK: Sixty-five years ago tomorrow, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered one of the most memorable speeches in history, first to the British Parliament, and then that evening over the radio to the British people. He summoned them to what he called their finest hour. And in a long and spectacularly colorful life, this may have been his finest hour as well. Producer Adam Burke brings us this account of British life at a time when England stood alone in the world against the might of Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler.

ADAM BURKE: June 18th, 1940, was a tumultuous time in British history. Allied forces in mainland Europe had fallen beneath the crush of the Nazi blitzkrieg in a matter of weeks. And just days before, France had surrendered to Hitler. When Churchill came over the airwaves that evening, the world was listening.

(Soundbite of `Finest Hour' speech)

Prime Minister WINSTON CHURCHILL (Great Britain): What General Weygand has called the battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our empire.

BURKE: Churchill's fine writing and unflagging defiance became vital to the British people throughout the war, but his speeches immediately fell on welcome ears, because the citizens of England had endured a frustrating period of ambivalence known as the phony war.

(Soundbite of music)

BURKE: Technically, Britain had been at war with Germany since September of 1939.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Now imagine me in the Maginot Line, sitting on a mine on the Maginot Line. Now it's turned out nice again. The army life is fine.

BURKE: But while army troops served on the front lines of Europe and the British navy escorted supply ships across the Atlantic, political leaders in London refrained from using all-out force against Germany, and some in Parliament were even pressing to negotiate peace with Hitler.

Mr. CHARLES WHEELER (Veteran Correspondent, BBC): We were dropping leaflets. The Germans were avoiding bombing us. It was almost as though there was a kind of pact: Let's not bomb each other.

BURKE: Veteran BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler, who was 16 in 1940, says British foreign policy sowed seeds of cynicism and apathy.

Mr. WHEELER: People are unhappy about this. They say, `What the hell's going on? We're supposed to be at war. Why are we not attacking?' And it was called the phony war, and there's a little feeling that `If we're going to have a war, let's have it.'

(Soundbite of music; air raid siren)

BURKE: Meanwhile, the home front was enduring very real wartime stresses. England had been prepping for German bombing raids since at least 1938, and British people lived daily under the weight of that threat.

Mr. JOHN RAMSDEN (Historian; Churchill Biographer, Queens College): The sights, the sounds, the smells, they were all telling you all the time that death was expected to come raining down from the skies.

BURKE: Historian and Churchill biographer John Ramsden of Queens College in London.

Mr. RAMSDEN: The big buildings in central London, the museums and galleries, the palace even, you know, we were all surrounded by sandbags. And then there these great barrage balloons hanging over the city, and the searchlights playing across the clouds at night. And there were sirens ready. They were not yet used much, but the practices were going on.

(Soundbite of air raid siren)

BURKE: Food was rationed. Posters and cartoons warned about espionage and spies. There was even speculation that German paratroopers would land disguised as nuns. Ken Sefton(ph) was a 12-year-old boy in Belfast, Ireland.

Mr. KEN SEFTON: Everybody had to carry a gas mask. Ours were plain cardboard, but smart women might have a fancy carrier for their gas mask.

(Soundbite of broadcast; music)

Unidentified Man #3: You should have your gas mask with you always.

BURKE: People were barraged with constant radio broadcasts and film reels about sacrifice and war readiness.

(Soundbite of montage of broadcasts)

Unidentified Man #3: Take your gas mask by the side straps...

Unidentified Man #4: The people of this factory build bombers in their spare time.

Unidentified Man #3: ...pull the straps over the head as far as possible.

Unidentified Man #5: Evacuation of British children is going on smoothly and efficiently.

Unidentified Man #3 ...and run your fingers along the rubber part.

Unidentified Woman #1: Let the women of Britain collect every scrap of raw materials they can for the defense of their sons and their freedom.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: If you're wearing a hat, take it off calmly, but quickly.

Unidentified Woman #2: Pay attention, as there's a war on.

BURKE: But if depravations on the home front and a phony war abroad made for confusing times, things became clear for the British public in the spring of 1940. That was when Britain collectively recognized Winston Churchill as the only leader who could be trusted to stand up against Germany. Here's John Ramsden and Charles Wheeler.

Mr. RAMSDEN: At that moment he became prime minister, they were sweeping all before them...

Mr. WHEELER: The French collapsed...

Mr. RAMSDEN: ...and the British army was being driven into the sea.

Mr. WHEELER: ...and we suffered the most enormous defeat on the ground.

Mr. RAMSDEN: And Churchill is prime minister for a few weeks when everything's going wrong.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BURKE: The British army retreated to Dunkirk in northern France, where the majority of troops were evacuated safely across the channel. BBC reporter Bernard Stubbs filed this report from Dover.

(Soundbite of vintage BBC report)

Mr. BERNARD STUBBS (Reporter, BBC): For days and nights, ships of all kinds have plied to and fro across the channel under the fierce onslaught of the enemy's bombers. And every one of them was crammed full of tired, battle-stained and bloodstained British soldiers.

Mr. WHEELER: We brought back most of the army we had in France, but a lot of them left their rifles behind. They lost all their equipment, didn't bring back a single lorry or tank, and we were naked.

BURKE: With hordes of German forces just across the channel, Charles Wheeler says Churchill's conviction and clarity became essential.

(Soundbite of `Finest Hour' speech)

Prime Min. CHURCHILL: I have thought it right on this occasion to give you some indication of the solid practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war, that we are able to carry on the war, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory.

BURKE: Most of the `Finest Hour' speech is concerned with cataloging the might of the British armed forces and explaining why England should fight on in the wake of the disastrous defeats in continental Europe. But to John Ramsden, Charles Wheeler and Ken Sefton, it wasn't all saber-rattling. There was an honesty, an appealing inclusiveness to the speech.

Mr. RAMSDEN: Populations have a great gift for understanding when people are telling them cheerful news that doesn't really make sense. They hate it.

(Soundbite of `Finest Hour' speech)

Prime Min. CHURCHILL: Hitler knows that he will have to break us in these islands or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed, and the life for the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

Mr. WHEELER: He was aggressive. His rhetoric, nowadays, sounds desperately overblown and rather old-fashioned. But at the time, it seemed exactly right. It struck all the right notes.

(Soundbite of `Finest Hour' speech)

Prime Min. CHURCHILL: But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.

Mr. SEFTON: What the country needed at that time was a leader whom we could all believe in, not a pompous politician.

Mr. RAMSDEN: It's a very popular phrase, but it's very good phrase that Churchill conscripted the English language and sent it into battle. He drafted the English language as part of the war effort.

Mr. SEFTON: And they were stirring speeches, even to schoolboys, maybe even especially to schoolboys.

(Soundbite of `Finest Hour' speech)

Prime Min. CHURCHILL: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its commonwealths last for a thousand years, men will still say, `This was their finest hour.'

(Soundbite of explosions)

BURKE: By August 1940, British towns and cities were shuddering beneath the German blitz. No doubt the mounting rubble piles and civilian casualties shook the foundation of British resolve. But by then, citizens were armed with a common purpose and with Churchill's words. And while they didn't know it at the time, people probably felt in their bones what history shows us now, that Churchill's visionary words had a force, a staying power, a truth that was stronger than German bombs.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

(Soundbite of explosions)

CHADWICK: And this note for those of you beginning `gotcha' e-mails that Churchill's radio speeches were actually recorded by an actor impersonating him, we know that story. It's not widely accepted by historians. It mostly applies to a different speech. In short, that was Winston Churchill that you just heard.

I'm Alex Chadwick, and we have more coming just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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