Finest Hour 158, Spring 2013
By Sarah H. Howells
CHURCHILL’S EFFORTS TO UNIFY BRITAIN, 1940-41
On 3 September 1939, King George VI spoke to Britain and the Empire, announcing his government’s declaration of war on Germany in response to German aggression against Poland. After denouncing Nazi Germany, he called on the British people to mobilize for war. The next day, the Daily Sketch published excerpts of the King’s speech, with his defining appeal as its title: “Stand calm, firm and united.”1
As the British banded together, Winston Churchill, first at the Admiralty and then as prime minister, emerged as the figurehead of the war effort in public and in Parliament. While Churchill as premier clearly guided British military efforts abroad, his leadership on the home front was notable. His techniques included a vivid public image, powerful and compelling speeches and creation of a coalition government, which in turn rewarded him with powerful civilian support.
When Churchill assumed the premiership, German forces were conquering wide swaths of territory throughout Europe. The British watched in horror as their allies, chief among them France, fell to Germany. The Western world seemed to be collapsing upon itself, and Britain was the only power left to challenge Germany. By 5 September 1940, only a year after the declaration of war, German bombs were falling on England’s capital. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that class strife and chaos in England caused by the destruction would help pave the way for German forces to invade the island.2
During the eight-month air attack known as the Blitz, the British government employed propaganda such as posters, videos and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a popular news source, to inform and reassure civilians. The government monitored morale and opinions of Londoners, carefully gauging the stability of the home front.3 Although the crime rate rose, along with outcries of political dissenters, the people’s high morale and resolve shredded Hitler’s hopes for their collapse. By mid-May 1941, with other fields of conquest in mind, the Germans no longer had the will to continue the attack on Britain. Although the war was far from over, Britons could rest assured that their homeland would be safe from invasion.
The Germans had underestimated a nation determined to “Keep Calm and Carry On”4 under the stress of war. Churchill not only organized the military effort he acted as a spokesman for the government. Civilians looked up to the prime minister who worked “with a calm assurance and a conviction that this, at last, was the realization of his destiny: to lead his beloved nation in an all-out war for survival and for the universal values it represented.”5 Wide-spread confidence in his leadership gave the populace a cause worth fighting for and the willpower to carry on.
Churchill as a Public Figure
As one of the iconic politicians of the 20th century, Churchill made his bold and overt character a fundamental component of his leadership and a symbol of the war effort. With his quintessentially British appearance and demeanor, he enjoyed a widespread appeal. He was often portrayed in photographs and cartoons, and regularly roamed about, cigar in hand, surveying the effects of German destruction.6 The people trusted him to protect the island, despite the frightening insecurity of World War II.7 At the same time, British confidence gave hope among the downtrodden and overrun countries of Europe.
Churchill’s stubborn unwillingness to let war disrupt normal life in England was broadly admired. Despite the many precautions required by the emergency, he himself was famously determined to maintain his day-to-day routine. By remaining in London whenever he expected a major raid, Churchill related to Londoners during the worst of the Blitz. There were risks associated with being a leader in the path of danger, but Churchill was unmovable, convincing the people to follow his example, whatever the horror or threat of attack.
Many famous and humorous quotations exemplify Churchill’s unfaltering character. When warned by his wife and ministers of the personal risks he faced, Churchill simply replied: “… as a child my nursemaid could never prevent me from taking a walk in the park when I wanted to do so. And as a man, Adolf Hitler certainly won’t.”8 His unwillingness to back down was an inspiration. The nation adopted his resolve.
Churchill’s physical appearance contributed to his image. In addition to his imposing figure and ever-present cigar, his dress exemplified his role and leadership. His “siren suit” was a personally-designed kind of one-piece suit, easy to put on or take off, if he wished a siesta—a habit he had learned in Cuba as a young man. Adding to the fast-accumulating Churchill legend, what the public called his “rompers” were world famous. Nor were they all utilitarian: some siren suits were made of velvet, silk and wool for the “best” parties at Downing Street.9
A gentleman at heart, Churchill was conscious of his public persona. While respected by aristocrats, he appealed equally to the masses, suffering under wartime shortages and rationing. The image of him working away for the country, clad in his odd yet practical outfits, appealed to the people and enhanced their trust.10
Supporting his image, photographs were distributed to show the public the inner workings of their leader’s daily life. Photographs and cartoons in newspapers and magazines, circulated widely, Churchill often displaying the “V” for Victory sign, his signature gesture. The V-sign’s origins are lost in antiquity, but recently it had been said to have represented a powerful symbol of victory, corresponding to the Morse code “V”—three dots and a dash—and the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.11 In one photograph circulated by the Ministry of Information, Churchill strolls down Downing Street in a dark suit and Homburg, his right arm in the air, two fingers creating the “V.”12 Through this simple gesture, Churchill displayed his optimism in a way with which people could associate, symbolizing the unwavering certainty that “all will come right.“
Another 1940 photograph shows Churchill taking shelter from bombs during his visit to the heavily damaged city of Ramsgate.13 Apparently carefree, he smiles cheerfully for the camera, a protective steel helmet is strapped around his chin in place of his Homburg.14 Some photos showed him surveying Blitz damage, to assure people that the government cared. A September 1940 photo captioned “Are we downhearted?” portrays Churchill on a wrecked city street, surrounded by grinning young girls and a contingent of resolute military officers.15 Another (page 12) shows him with the King and Queen surveying the rubble of Buckingham Palace.16 Similar is the photo of him in the House of Commons, destroyed in the last raid of the Blitz, captioned: “The stony path we have to tread.”17 In such photos Churchill might appear grave and serious, but never desperate or hopeless. Their effect was to demonstrate that government figures shared the dire situation as civilians.
Churchill’s effort to present a positive public image was successful. Britons regarded him as a caring leader, confident yet realistic, ready for anything. The morning after the Blitz began, Samuel Battersby, a government official accompanied him on an inspection tour, recalling a teary-eyed Churchill watching as rescuers pulled civilians from the rubble of their homes. When one woman asked him, “When are we going to bomb Berlin?” Churchill ardently replied, “You leave that to me!,” raising the spirits of the desperate and confused survivors. The Prime Minister, Battersby recalled, transformed an atmosphere of despondency into one of hope in only a few words.18
Churchill understood how to reach out to civilians, first with sympathy, then by creating confidence. In his own recollections he described how the people looked to him:
They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration….When we got back into the car a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. “Give it to ‘em back,” they cried, and “Let them have it too.” I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out; and this promise was certainly kept.19
Despite all the fame created by his image and high office, Churchill remained humble, regarding his role less as a path to glory than a necessary hardship and responsibility. Victory was the goal—for the nation as a whole.
The Impact of Oratory
Churchill in the war was probably best known for his exceptional oratory. Many years before he had penned an essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” to outline the ingredients of a good speech. He had worked to diminish his vocal impediments and improve his voice, studying the speeches of great British politicians, including his father, Lord Randolph Churchill.20 Ascending the political ladder, he gained mastery as a speaker, but his best efforts were often improvised as he paced around his office or home, at any hour of the day or night, rehearsing. Shorthand secretaries took down his meticulously crafted words and had them typed for further review in a few hours.21
Whether delivered in the Commons, on platforms or at the microphone, Churchill’s speeches were, as his old colleague Arthur Balfour once observed, not “the unpremeditated effusions of a hasty moment.” He took care “to weigh well and balance every word,” creating speeches which were formal literary compositions, dictated in full beforehand, fastidiously revised and polished.22
In public and Parliament, Churchill’s words reached and motivated his countrymen. In 1898 he had said: “I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they give me.”23 Yet by the time he stepped down as premier in 1945, he had proved that the strong sentiments he wished to convey matched the rhetorical power of his speeches.
On the day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill gave a empowering speech in Parliament that signaled the beginning of his rise to the pinnacle, stressing the importance of unity, appealing for courage and patriotic sentiments from those around him. Britons had never been so well prepared to take on such a difficult task, he said: “…the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions…is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted.”24
Eight months later as prime minister, his oratory became more powerful, frequent and available. But now he had to prepare the public for “hard and heavy tidings.” His first broadcast as prime minister, promising “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat,” introduced themes that would appear in his speeches over the next year. Again he emphasized unity, and the need for victory at all costs. He ended his speech on a high note, saying, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”25
A few days later in his next broadcast, the theme of the homeland became paramount—the cause worth fighting for. Churchill invoked blatant nationalism: “…there will come the battle for our Island—for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means. That will be the struggle.”26 He continued by encouraging the people to raise their resolve, declaring that it was far better “to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation, and our altars.” In the past, only the military had been asked for such devotion; now civilians were asked for it too.
There was no substitute for victory, he declared. Britain had a responsibility to its empire and allies, to the bludgeoned races of Europe. His speech after Dunkirk extended the theme: “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.”27 Band together, he exclaimed: put aside domestic differences, at least for a while: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”28
By mid-1940 the population understood that it was likely only a matter of time before the German power was unleashed on them, but they were encouraged by the elaborate military preparations, by the Ministry of Information, and especially by Churchill’s speeches, to resist the aggressor, come what may.
Before the Blitz, themes of the “island home” and “a cause greater than ourselves” were the main focus of Churchill’s speeches. The Battle of Britain (which he named) caused him to warn that the nation’s endurance and patriotism would be seriously tested. On 14 July 1940 he said, “We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.”29 Referring to the people as “we” made them feel part of a team working toward the same goal. While Churchill demanded their resolve, he acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand, even though the war was still many miles away. Entitling one broadcast “War of the Unknown Warriors,” Churchill glorified the contributions of every citizen.
As bombs began to rain down in August, Churchill confessed to Parliament that “it is very painful to me to see …a small British house or business smashed by the enemy’s fire, and to see that without feeling assured that we are doing our best to spread the burden so that we all stand in together.”30 Despite efforts to ease the strain of attack, he worried that he had not done enough. Assured, however, by civilian response to the Blitz, Churchill was convinced that the country would survive. Even the King and Queen had felt the effects of the bombing, which demonstrated the equalizing effect of danger.31
Churchill saluted his countrymen: “All the world that is still free marvels at the composure and fortitude with which the citizens of London are facing and surmounting the great ordeal to which they are subjected, the end of which or the severity of which cannot yet be foreseen.”32 Though Churchill had declared, “We Can Take It!,” even he was surprised by the high morale of the people, who acted as if “one had brought some great benefit to them, instead of the blood and tears, the toil and sweat.”33 Although the attacks spread beyond London and lasted many more months, they soon became a part of everyday life that people learned to live with and work around.
Following His Example
Churchill personally made many efforts to boost civilian spirit. Early on he had realized that this war would be not a distant fight but an everyday emergency. When “night and the enemy were approaching,” he felt, “with a spasm of mental pain, a deep sense of the strain and suffering that was being borne throughout the world’s largest capital city” and worried if there was a limit to the suffering civilians would take.34 He was determined to stall dissatisfaction.
Morale was a serious concern as the bombing continued. The Ministry of Information used posters, films, pamphlets, and music to show civilians that the government cared. Other government agencies worked to distract civilians from the discomforts of the siege by providing shelters, covering the Blitz and military efforts abroad. A thorough investigation of the Churchill War Papers and Hansard shows that Churchill was not directly involved in these ministries. Although he commented on their work, they usually functioned as independent entities. He certainly demonstrated concern for projecting an effective public image and for delivering inspiring speeches. Meanwhile he supported every measure he thought would ensure the continuation of popular morale and support.
Once the Blitz had demonstrated that the war was a direct threat to civilian lives, Churchill suggested that the King create medals honoring civilian heroism: the George Medal and George Cross.35 He asked that the BBC play the seven national anthems of the Allies each Sunday.36 Knowing that Britons had a tradition of “gathering round the wireless,” he communicated frequently, beaming broadcasts at the occupied nations as well.37 A BBC listener research survey in February 1941 revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents thought the news was “100% reliable,” while only one person in 1200 thought it “completely unreliable.”38
To Churchill’s relief, most citizens remained positive and devoted. Instead of inducing self-pity, the Blitz motivated them to defy it. “Many persons seemed envious of London’s distinction,” Churchill reflected later, “and quite a number came up from the country in order to spend a night or two in town, share the risk, and ‘see the fun.’”39 The attitude of ordinary Britons was surprising, considering the desperation of their situation—but reflects in part Churchill’s success as a role model and their own fierce determination.
In October 1940, one month into the Blitz, 80% of the public felt it was “impossible for Germany to win the war solely by air attacks” and 89% said they were behind Churchill’s leadership.40 Rarely did a leader have such an impact on opinion. Even as bombs destroyed landmarks, homes and ships at sea, the British people still believed they would win. It was a time, Churchill wrote, when the English, and particularly the Londoners, who had the place of honour, were seen at their best. Grim and gay, dogged and serviceable, with the confidence of an unconquered people in their bones, they adapted themselves to this strange new life, with all its terrors, with all its jolts and jars.41
Leading in Parliament
While his rapid creation of a coalition government earned Churchill high marks, some opponents continued to regard him as a pompous blowhard who would not be able to charm the populace. Stanley Baldwin once joked that at his birth, fairies had bestowed Churchill with many talents, yet denied him “judgement and wisdom.”42 To Baldwin Churchill was all words. Was there anything to this petty talk, or was it a case of two tenacious politicians butting heads? But Baldwin rallied to Churchill once war came, and such infighting became almost nonexistent.
Despite a coalition including many of their own leaders, some British radicals took a stance against the government. Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, was arrested in May 1940 under the Emergency Powers Act. To its credit, the Fascist newsletter Action condemned him and called for support of the war effort; but they might also have been considering their own self-interest.43
In 1941 came the People’s Convention: communists and other leftists who met to plan a new government that “would bring peace by negotiating with the German masses, not with their leaders.”44 Rejecting Churchill’s policy of fighting until Hitler had been defeated, these protesters wished to renew the prewar class struggles. Churchill, unconcerned, made no attempt to interfere with the Convention—demonstrating, as The New York Times put it, “the Government’s inherent strength, just as the impossibility of such a gathering in Germany, Italy or Russia proves the inherent weakness of the dictatorships.”45
The dissenters were a small minority: 77% of people, when asked, rejected the idea of “making overtures of peace with Germany,” and 82% still thought that “ultimately, Britain would win the war.”46 Under Churchill, the nation was ready to fight to the finish.
The strength of the coalition government contributed to solidarity. The Prime Minister maintained efficient and effective government, with a cabinet representing all parties. Their unity assured public confidence—in stark contrast to Hitler’s Germany, which often resorted to force, intimidation and oppression to buck up popular support. On 19 May 1940, shortly after formation of the new coalition government, the Evening Standard ran a David Low cartoon portraying a resolved Churchill leading a contingent of famous politicians, rolling up their sleeves and marching forward: “All Behind You, Winston.”
Churchill was himself pleased by the efficient work of Parliament: “I doubt whether any of the Dictators had as much effective power throughout his whole nation as the British War Cabinet….It was a proud thought that Parliamentary Democracy, or whatever our British public life can be called, can endure, surmount, and survive all trials.”47 Unlike Hitler, Churchill knew the value of a coalition respected by all parties and classes.48
Saving the West
Leading by example had created an inspirational and motivated environment that emphasized realism without resorting to jingoism. Despite the occasional critic, and two votes of no confidence which were defeated overwhelmingly, Churchill pacified his opposition through character and oratory. Some may have still thought—and some historians have argued—that backing away from the Hitler war would have been the better option. But if Churchill had taken that route, Nazism might have prevailed in Europe, delaying a Normandy invasion indefinitely.49 The willingness of the public to follow him into the unknown emphasized his success in leading the country and saving the West—at least until the United States entered the war and Russia had joined the Allies. The poet Patience Strong poignantly portrayed Churchill’s government:
We know that we can trust them—
for we know they will not fail….
Although the ship of state may roll and rock upon the sea—
They will steer her safely to the ports of Victory.
Many are the perils, and the risks that they must take—
Many are the dangers of the journey they must make.
May they have the favour of the wind and of the tide—
As upon the waters of the unknown seas they ride.
May their hands be strengthened
by the knowledge that we place—
Reliance in their enterprise. God bless them! We shall face—
The future with new confidence in their capacity—
To bring us through the greatest tempest in our history.50
Under Churchill’s leadership, long before the bombing of London and other cities began, Britons were prepared for the worst. They trusted in their government to lead them through the worst with Churchill the unwavering captain of the ship. He led them through their greatest challenge with staunch resolution. No other politician could have achieved so much, for so many.51
1. “The King’s Message to His Peoples,” Daily Sketch, 4 September 1939.
2. Patricia D. Netzley and Moataz A. Fattah, Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Terrorism (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2007); “The Blitz,” in Gale World History in Context website, GALEICX3205400078.
3. Robert Mackay, Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain During the Second World War (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 9.
4. Mary Dale, letter interview by author, February 2012.
5. Geoffrey Best, “Winston Churchill: Defender of Democracy,” BBC History, 30 March 2011 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/churchill_defender_01.shtml).
8. Kay Halle, Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World, 1966), 167.
9. Paul Johnson, Churchill (New York: Viking, 2009), 113.
10. Netzley and Fattah, “The Blitz.”
11. Johnson, Churchill, 116-17.
12. “Winston Churchill displaying the V for Victory sign,” 5 June 1943, Ministry of Information Print Collection, Imperial War Museum, London.
13. “Churchill Dons Helmet,” Associated Press, 6 September 1940, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004666450/).
14.”World War II” in Churchill and the Great Republic, accessed 1 January 2012 (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/churchill/interactive/_html/2_07_00.html).
15. David Cannadine, ed., Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Speeches of Winston Churchill (1989; repr., Boston: Penguin
18. Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2, Never Surrender, May 1940-December 1940 (New York: Norton, 1994), 788-89.
19. Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 307-08.
20. Cannadine, Blood Toil Tears and Sweat, xv-xix.
21. Ibid., xiv.
22. Ibid., xx.
23. Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (New York: Crown, 2008), 351.
24. Winston S. Churchill, Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 197.
25. Ibid., 204-06.
26. Ibid., 206-09.
27. Ibid., 218.
28. Ibid, 229.
29. Ibid., 235.
30. UK Parliament, “Commons Sittings in the 20th Century,” Hansard, last modified 2005 (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/C20).
32. Churchill, Never Give In!, 252-53.
33. Ibid., 255.
34. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 316-17.
35. “George Medal,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 18 March 2012 (http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceFor/Veterans/Medals/GeorgeMedal.htm).
36. Johnson, Churchill, 112.
37. Mary Dale, letter interview by author, February 2012.
38. Mackay, Half the Battle, 146.
39. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 328-29.
40. Mackay, Half the Battle, 75.
41. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 316.
42. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, 357.
43. British Union of Fascists: Newspapers and Secret Files, British Online Archives, Microform Academic Publishers, last modified 7 Febtuary 2009 (www.britishonlinearchives.co.uk).
44. James MacDonald, “British Leftists Demand Control,” The New York Times, 13 January 1941 (http://search.proquest.com/docview/105516365?accountid=618).
45. “‘The People’ in Britain,” The New York Times, 14 January 1941 (http://search.proquest.com/docview/105522808?accountid=618).
46. Mackay, Half the Battle, 86.
47. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 315.
48. Johnson, Churchill, 110-11.
49. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, 358.
50. Patience Strong, “New Leaders” in The Daily Mirror (Manchester), 20 May 1940 (http://www.ukpressonline.co.uk/ukpressonline/getDocument?fileName=DMir_1940_05_20_007&fileType=pdf).
51. David Low, “All Behind You, Winston,” cartoon, Evening Standard, London, 14 May 1940.