There's an excellent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel last week titled "The Man Who Saved Europe -- How Winston Churchill Stopped the Nazis." It's all the more extraordinary considering how 70 years ago this month the Battle of Britain was at it's height and the survival of Britain was held in the balance. August 20th is also the 70th anniversary of the speech in which Prime Minister Winston Churchill acknowledged the debt owed to the British and allied pilots fighting over England.
The speech (The full audio is item #15 here, text here.) listed a catalog of disasters, defeats and retreat, since Churchill had taken over as Prime Minister just a few months before. But it's not the defeats or disasters which are remembered by history. It is instead the tribute he made to the brave airmen:
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." -- Winston Churchill, delivered in Parliament August 20, 1940
Churchill's Leadership Key to Britain's Survival
Churchill took over as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. In June, France surrendered to the Nazis leaving Britain alone to fight the Germans who soon began preparations for an invasion of Great Britain. After the devastating defeat in France there was little to stand in the Nazis way but the British airforce which had to be defeated before the invasion, called Operation Sea Lion, could proceed.
In the decade leading up to the outbreak of war Churchill had repeatedly warned about the low state of Britain's military readiness, particularly in the area of air defenses. His statements were dismissed as warmongering. And yet, here he was responsible for the last sure line of defense in the air at the time of maximum danger with an air force that was still woefully inadequate. Britain's very survival hung by a thread.
Lesser men might have despaired and sunk to accept their fate. Not Churchill. Not only did he rouse the will of the British people with his speeches, he inspired them by the energetic effort and initiative he undertook to improve their defense. Production of new aircraft and the training of new pilots soared. The broken remnants of the soldiers rescued from Dunkirk were quickly reorganized into a defense against invasion. Churchill was everywhere, urging people on to greater and greater efforts.
Churchill was himself a dynamo of action. He demanded the same from those who worked for him. He would attach stickers to important memos to government departments which demanded "ACTION THIS DAY." One of Churchill's Private Secretaries, Jock Colville, described how ordinarily lethargic civil servants in government buildings could be seen running down the corridors. No longer did vital work languish in the in boxes of civil servants.
Still, despite Churchill's efforts the catalogue of disasters continued. The Battle of Britain was only won when the Nazis shifted gears and began bombing cities instead of airfields. 40,000 civilians were to die in what became known as "The Blitz." Thousands were to die in the Battle of the Atlantic as German U Boats sunk the shipping that kept the British war machine afloat. In the Mediterranean and North Africa British troops were defeated and pushed back all the way to Egypt, their last line of defense for the Suez Canal the lifeline to India.
It was not until 1942 after the United States had entered the war that the tide began to turn. But the British stuck with Churchill throw all the darkest days. Considering the deaths of so many tens of thousands in a nation of 47 million, it's amazing that the British people maintained their faith in Churchill during this time.
References for Readers
There is so much written about Churchill and so much history he wrote himself it would be beyond the scope of this short post to list it all. Therefore, a smattering of my favorite links will have to do:
- Audio archive of Churchill's Speeches
- Imperial War Museum web page: Britain's Finest Hour.
- The BBC's Finest Hour collection.
- Churchill's War Rooms. The bunkers from which he directed the war.
- The Paintings of Winston Churchill.
- The Churchill College at Cambridge archives.
- A photo gallery of Churchill's life from the National Library of Scotland.
- Library of Congress exhibition: Churchill and the Great Republic.