Saturday, February 15, 2014

Great Speeches: Winston Churchill's "Fight on the beaches" speech

The Speech:

Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall never surrender" speech to the British House of Commons, 4 June 1940.


When Germany refused to withdraw from Poland by 3 September 1939, as demanded by Britain, the latter declared war. As a result a number of other countries, including Australia, were automatically at war with Germany and its allies. The US, following an isolationist policy that saw the war as a European problem, remained out of the war although leasing military hardware to Britain. For the first few months there was little battle, leading to a description of it as The Phoney War. Neither side committed to a serious land offensive, notwithstanding that treaties obliged England and France to go to the aid of Poland. 

On 10 May 1940 Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, quickly defeating the French Army with its tactic of blitzkrieg (“lightning war”, a tactic based on speed and surprise and using a military force based around light tank units supported by planes and infantry). As part of the Battle of France, German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. British and adjacent French forces were pushed back to the sea by the highly mobile and well organised German operation. With German forces advancing and the sea behind them, it looked like hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, cut off from their support to the south and isolated at Dunkirk, would be killed, wounded and captured. 

Instead, the British government mounted a rescue operation named Operation Dynamo and sometimes referred to as the Miracle of Dunkirk. As the RAF kept the Luftwaffe at bay, thousands of ships were co-opted and volunteered to cross the English Channel to assist in the evacuation. Military destroyers sailed alongside small fishing boats, navy personnel and ordinary civilians in family craft made the trip over and over again, to evacuate 338,000 French and British troops, much more than had been thought possible. The evacuation took place between 27 May and 4 June 1940. On 4 June, 1940 British PM Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons, calling the events in France "a colossal military disaster". The following are extracts from that speech, the famous “fight on the beaches” speech.


Hear part of it by clicking on:

Some parts of the speech:

. . . the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. . . . Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.

. . . 

When, a week ago today, I asked the House to fix this afternoon as the occasion for a statement, I feared it 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-embarked. But it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken up in the open field or else would have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition. These were the hard and heavy tidings for which I called upon the House and the nation to prepare themselves a week ago. The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.

. . . 

Nevertheless our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, 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 for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay 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 are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.

. . . 

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding 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 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.

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Some Dunkirk pics:

Allied soldiers await evacuation on the beaches at Dunkirk

Abandoned vehicles at Dunkirk

Ad hoc pier from abandoned vehicles and timber to assist in the evacuation

A recreation of the "little ships" evacuation at Dunkirk in 2010, the 70th anniversary

The Tamzine, the 4.5m fishing boat that was the smallest to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation, now on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.

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1 comment:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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