By Paul Millward
LITERARY TRAVELER, February 2011 – In 1940, from deep beneath the buildings of Whitehall in London, in an underground complex known as the Cabinet War Rooms, Winston Churchill saved Britain. This secret cavern became the nerve centre of the war. Churchill would even sleep here on occasions. In Room 60 of this political bunker, he made his historic radio speeches to the nation, speeches which gave the people the strength and resolve to win the war.
I sometimes imagine my mother as a teenage girl at home, huddled around the radio with her brothers and sisters in 1940, anxiously listening to Churchill’s addresses. These were desperate times for Britain following the withdrawal at Dunkirk, when Hitler had consumed much of Western Europe and we stood alone against the might of Nazi power. It must have been with great fear and trepidation that they waited for his words. Every syllable he uttered would be devoured with intense concentration.
And what they heard were some of the greatest words spoken in history, words which even today as I read them, I am filled with resolve and determination to never give in to any of life’s difficulties. Churchill was in effect a poet in the guise of a politician. He used his ability to manipulate words into unforgettable speeches, thus instilling the listener with incredible fortitude. This particular speech transcends its political context and becomes a literary tour de force, which actually reads as if it were written in verse form:
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.
The speech takes on an inexorable rhythm, which coupled with the use of repetition, acquires a kind of imperial power reminiscent of Shakespeare. The extraordinary potency of these words transformed the nation. It filled everyone who heard it with faith and conviction, and it enabled our small island to withstand pure evil. It somehow reaches into the very soul of England and calls up that lion spirit which lies dormant within every English heart.
Here was the source of my mother’s indomitable spirit which shone strongly even in her last years. I vividly remember one Christmas, when at the age of 79 she fell from the top of her stairs all the way down to the bottom. Not only did she survive, battered and bruised as she was, but she was up and dressed Christmas morning, determined the day would not be ruined. I knew this amazing toughness had been moulded by the events of the Second World War, and along with all her generation, it had been shaped in steel by Churchill’s remarkable speeches.
© Literary Traveler
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