Announcing the 10th International Conference on World War II —bringing the best and brightest scholars, authors, and historians from around the globe to discuss key battles, personalities, strategies, issues, and controversies of the war that changed the world.
Joining our featured speakers are hundreds of attendees who travel from all over the world to learn more about the event that shaped the 20th century. By emphasizing nonacademic presentations and encouraging presenters to be conversation leaders rather than lecturers, the Conference strives to connect with its audience through engaging discussions, questionand-answer sessions, book signings, and receptions throughout the weekend.
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By Jeremy Collins, Director of Conference & Travel Program Development
The National WWII Museum
As history tells it, dissuading Winston Churchill from participating in the D-Day landings required the efforts of several generals and King George VI himself. But nothing could stop the formidable leader from paying a personal visit to the Normandy beachhead just six days later, on June 12, 1944. The world was changing after all; Churchill needed to be there to see it for himself. Today, it is the children and grandchildren of the brave souls that fought World War II who visit these places. They go to remember, explore, engage, and reflect on the lessons learned, and to fulfill a duty to pass those insights along to future generations. While many organizations offer brief visits to sites where the war was fought and won, none provide such comprehensive, informed, and poignant journeys as The National WWII Museum.
Thanks to the efforts of Museum leaders, travelers with an interest in World War II have the opportunity to embark on thoughtfully planned Signature Journeys designed and led by esteemed WWII historians, best-selling authors, and curators of The National WWII Museum collection. Each journey explores a theme— such as war correspondents or the secret lives of spies—and features exclusive access to related behind-the-scenes settings and authentic local experiences.
By day, guests travel in the company of renowned historians and authors, talented tour managers, and local guides who bring the stories of each site to life in vivid detail. With exclusive access to archival materials from the Museum’s collection— including digital recordings of intimate interviews with veterans— travelers are able to relive the pivotal moments on the beaches and bridges and in the cities and villages where crucial battles took place, and where history-making decisions were made. Highlights of the journeys include special access to rarely seen sites, participation in VIP events, and opportunities to interact with people who were eyewitnesses to history.
Here you can listen to Churchill’s recordings of many of his key speeches made over his long career. Some of these recordings are contemporary (recorded at the time), others were made by Churchill after the war, in 1949 at Chartwell, and issued by Decca in 1964
‘The printed page is not the correct medium for them, of course. To feel the shiver down one’s spine at Churchill’s words, only recordings will do. They alone can convey the growls, the strange pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, the sudden leonine roars, the cigar-and-brandy toned voice.’
Andrew Roberts, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership
Above all, in his management of the WWII, Churchill made things happen. He scribbled memoranda and despatched these with amazing frequency to his commanders in the field and stamped his red ‘Action this Day’ labels on documents, urging a speedy resolution. He demanded commitment and action alike from his colleagues and staff – just as he did from himself – and his constant prodding resulted in hundreds of different ideas and initiatives being pursued at any one time. Churchill famously employed the ‘Action This Day’ red stickers in response to a missive from four of his overworked code-breakers (including Alan Turing) in October 1941. When the under-resourced code-breakers at Bletchley Park asked for more help, Churchill wrote ‘Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done’. Throughout his life, Churchill made things happen. He was relentlessly driven and focussed; a workaholic, determined to fulfil his own destiny and to protect his country – and he did all he could to ensure all those round him followed him and made things happen too.
‘I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen I like to make them happen.’
Churchill, undated; as Richard Langworth explains in his Churchill: In His Own Words, Arthur Ponsonby quoted this phrase of Churchill’s in a letter to Eddie Marsh, explaining that Churchill said this ‘many years ago’.
All the Churchills supported their father. The children, to varying degrees, served him – and their country – in the Second World War, too. Diana served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Sarah with the Photographic Interpretation Unit of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Mary served in the armed forces in mixed anti-aircraft (AA) batteries with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Mary also attended the Quebec conference of 1943 as an aide to her father, while Sarah played a similar role at Teheran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. Randolph served as an Intelligence Officer in the Middle East, was attached to the newly formed Special Air Service (SAS), and undertook missions in the Libyan desert and in Yugoslavia.
Churchill’s reputation as an orator is based principally on his speeches and broadcasts as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940 during a particularly vital point in the WWII when Britain was under the threat of invasion. You’ll probably know lots of famous phrases or quotes from these speeches: ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, ‘This was their finest hour’ and ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. His most well-known and most quoted speeches are those known usually as ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ (13 May), ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ (4 June) and ‘This was their Finest Hour’ (18 June), all of which were delivered in the House of Commons, though Churchill also broadcast the ‘Finest Hour’ speech over the BBC. He only made a total of five broadcasts to the nation during this vital stage of the Second World War (19 May, 17 June, 18 June, 14 July, 11 September), but these speeches conveyed Churchill’s determination and commitment, and they gave his country confidence. Did Winston’s Words Win the War? Click here to learn more.
‘It has been said words are the only things which last forever.’
Churchill, Press conference, Foreign Office, London (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words), 10 June 1909
Churchill is perhaps now best remembered for his powerful speeches and broadcasts, particularly those delivered during the Second World War – ‘a series of speeches that rank with the greatest in British history’ (Simon Jenkins, in A Short History of Britain, 2011). He used his great skill with the written word, and his dedication to rehearsing its delivery, to influence a national and an international audience. His speeches were carefully crafted both to raise morale at home and to act as political and diplomatic weapons abroad, sending messages of defiance to the enemy and calls to arms to allies. Learn more about Churchill’s development as a speaker, in an exhibition showcasing relevant documents from the Churchill Archives, here. And this review of the exhibition in the New York Timeshere.
‘I was very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’
Churchill, Westminster Hall, London, 30 November 1954
By the time Churchill was facing another World War, in 1939, he understood more readily that while risks had to be taken, a balance needed to be struck between caution and ‘over-daring’. As Prime Minister during WWII, he walked the narrow road between the ‘precipices’ on either side; he needed nerves of steel to keep Britain and the Allies on the path to victory.
‘Winston Churchill has emerged from the first five weeks of the war as the most inspiring figure in Great Britain … He has been condemned as a Russophobe and a Teutophobe, as an irresponsible genius, but even his old critics now seem to agree that he will make a great wartime leader.’
James Reston, New York Times, 8 October 1939
Chamberlain had resigned on 10 May 1940, the day that German forces attacked British and French ground forces and the day the ‘phoney war’ ended. With the only other contender, Lord Halifax, ruling himself out, Churchill’s appointment was inevitable and his time in the wilderness was over.
In the evening of 10 May, Churchill went to see King George VI at Buckingham Palace and became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task that lay ahead.
Churchill, as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was in a powerful position, with full oversight of both the armed forces (all three of them; the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) and the government of the country. He was also the only cabinet minister who had held high office during the previous war, and was widely hailed as the necessary war leader. But he did not yet have the full confidence or leadership of his own conservative party, and there were many in government who were worried that he might prove rash and dangerous in his actions. He needed to prove himself.
Back in August 1941, and the signature of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt hadn’t been ready or able to enter the war. But the situation changed dramatically on 7 December 1941.
Churchill was at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s official country residence) with the American Ambassador and Averell Harriman when news of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor came on the radio. Churchill immediately called the President to confirm the news and then on 8 December, Britain declared war on Japan.
The partial involvement of the US and the Pearl Harbor attack led Hitler to declare war on the US three days later. Did Churchill (and Roosevelt) know of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Find out.
A more unexpected ally had already been found in the form of the Soviet Union: an uncomfortable ally, certainly, but Churchill couldn’t afford to be choosy and realized the necessity of the relationship. When Hitler invaded Russia on 22 June 1941, Germany had unwittingly played into the hands of the Allies. Churchill seized on the advantage. And so the ‘grand alliance’ – of ‘The Big Three’ – was established.
Not satisfied with only Austria, Hitler began demanding parts of Czechoslovakia, too. In September 1938, with war against Germany seeming increasingly likely, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich (according to a British Pathe newsreel, his first trip in an aeroplane), to meet the German leader. His aim of this ‘mission of peace’ was to secure a guarantee that there’d be no further German aggression.
The summer of 1940 was, as Churchill called it, Britain’s ‘finest hour’. It was also his. When the German armies conquered France, Britain found itself in the line of attack. With German U-boats patrolling the seas and soon to have bases on the Atlantic, and German bombers marshalling on the coast of France, Britain faced its first serious threat of invasion since 1805.
I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
Churchill, The Second World War
Many found it difficult to see how Britain could avoid being defeated. Victory seemed impossible. But Churchill was passionately opposed to negotiating with Hitler. The War Cabinet did consider a compromise peace – or at least the offer of mediation, by Italy, between Germany and the allies – but Churchill argued strongly against this. He was convinced that Hitler would renege on any promises or agreement, just as he had done back in 1938.
After failing to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing raids against London and other British cities. The ‘Blitz’, as it became known, aimed to disrupt production and break morale. London was the main target and suffered the heaviest bombing but, by the end of the war, there was hardly a large city or town in Britain that had not come under attack.
As the winter wore on, the air raids became heavier. But the repeated heavy raids would not crush the morale of the British people. The ‘Blitz’ spirit kept them going. And Churchill played his part in keeping up morale. He made sure he was frequently in the public eye, constantly travelling around the country, visiting ammunition factories, shipyards, the troops.
Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.
For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.
We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940
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The next issue of Finest Hour will be about "Churchill, Race, and Religion." In the foreword, Lord Boateng, Chair of the Churchill Archives Trust, writes: “Sir Winston did not run away from controversy in his life and would not expect anything less in that which has followed. We do owe him and each other, however, civility and respect in the conduct of those arguments—not least, since we owe to him and the global anti-fascist fight, which he helped lead to such good effect, the secure freedom to hold those arguments at all.” … See MoreSee Less
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.