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Churchill and the Battle of Britain
"If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States…will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age."
Winston Churchill was truly one of the great communicators of history at a time when inspiring leadership had never been needed so much. During the 1930s, he had resolutely opposed the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain, warning repeatedly that Hitler and the Nazi regime were a menace like no other the West had ever faced in history. By the time he became prime minister in 1940, however, the Germans were already in the process of overrunning France and making preparations to invade Britain. Only the Royal Navy and Air Force stood in their way, and Hitler had no intention of risking a land invasion until his Luftwaffe had neutralized these threats. Churchill boldly refused to consider any of Hitler's offers for negotiations, and gambled that if Britain could simply hold out long enough then the United States and the Soviet Union would eventually enter the war, spelling the defeat of the Nazi regime. In the Battle of Britain that followed during 1940-41, Churchill's leadership and speeches were absolutely critical in maintaining public morale and hope in eventually victory, even as civilian population suffered horrendously during the Blitz. Some of his speeches such as the Finest Hour and Never Surrender rank among the literary masterpieces of the English language, and in very clear and easily understandable terms explained that Britain was standing for the cause of democracy and human liberty against the most ruthless tyranny in history, and always offered the hope of final victory after a long period of suffering and sacrifice.
Churchill's many admirers came from the most surprising quarters imaginable, always based on respect for him the image of him standing along against Nazi Germany in 1940-41 when the cause appeared hopeless. In 1964, Fidel Castro brushed aside all criticism by students of Churchill as an imperialist sating that "if Churchill hadn't done what he did to defeat the Nazis, you wouldn't be here, none of us would be here." Despite Churchill's support for colonialism, the vice president of Kenya called him the "savior of humanity," while Pandit Nehru said that "his admiration entirely outweighed the fact that Churchill had always opposed Indian independence" (Ramsden xvii). His flaws and failures were well-known, both as a person and politician, but "none of this matters when compared to what he achieved in 1940-41, without which the world would still be a very different place" (Ramsden xix). In Britain, of course, he is still regarded as The Man of the Century, and the only prime minister in the 20th Century who received the same type of state funeral as a monarch, on instructions from Queen Elizabeth II. At the funeral, the British stiff upper lip failed and the crowds in London "gave way to floods of tears" as his coffin passed (Ramsden 16). None expected that they would ever see another leader like him in the future.
Although Churchill was privately depressed over the series of defeats and setbacks that the Allied cause suffered in 1939-42, he never showed this in public. In his first speech as prime minister, when the Nazis were about to overrun France, he confidently asserted that "conquer we must; conquer we shall." As the future Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies put it "there is no defeat in his heart" (Keegan 3). In his Never Surrender speech of June 4, 1940, Churchill vowed "we shall not fail or falter, we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down" (Keegan 18). A more realistic or pragmatic leader like Lord Halifax might well have reached an accommodation with Hitler, but Churchill never considered it, and the people drew inspiration from him. For all his strategic flaws, "Churchill had early made himself as master of language" and deployed this skill not only to influence public opinion in Britain, but also the British Commonwealth, the United States and other neutral countries (Keegan 16). In contrast to Hitler, he did not use the media to spread threats, hatred and insults, but to uphold democratic ideals when they were never in greater danger of beings stamped out forever. He was Hitler's opposite in always appealing "to a commonality and nobility of sentiment that took liberty as its ideal and humanity as its spirit" (Keegan 17). As Edward R. Murrow asserted, "Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." He had a photographic memory and all of his speeches were carefully rehearsed. As he stated in 1940, he did not "begrudge twelve hours preparing a speech to the House of Commons" (Hayward 98).
In his use of language, Churchill borrowed heavily from the style, poetry and imagery of the King James Bible, Shakespeare and the Victorian poets and historians, all of which were thoroughly familiar to his audience in the 1940s. He strongly disliked jargon, overly complex words, and bureaucratic or technocratic verbiage, and instructed subordinates to use a simple 'yes' rather than 'affirmative'. His ability to coin a phrase that would be memorable to his listeners was legendary, and indeed even the term Battle of Britain came from one of his speeches, as did the Battle of the Atlantic to describe the submarine war there. In his speeches, Churchill "used short, crisp sentences, laden with analogy and vivid imagery" and he had no tolerance for pedants, such as when he wrote back to someone who criticized ending sentences with prepositions "this is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put" (Hayward 106). Just like his carefully crafted speeches, he demanded that all summaries and reports he received be clear and succinct.
Churchill was no dictator and he remained in power only because of the support of Parliament, the press and public opinion. In Parliament, he showed "a theatrical deftness in the handling of questions which delighted his audiences and surprised everybody," and he used the House of Commons as his "altar of mystic communion with the British people" (Best 184). His speeches in Parliament were widely covered in the press, even in the provincial papers that "had a vigor and intelligence now unimaginable" (Best 186). They were also widely distributed by the Ministry of Information in pamphlet form in 1940-46. In 1940, five of his House of Commons speeches were broadcast by the BBC, and were heard not only in people's home but in pubs and other public locations. Churchill once said that the people had "the lion's heart and all he provided was the roar," but by no means did ever promise quick and easy victories, bur rather "blood, toil, tears and sweat" and "many, many long months of struggle and suffering." Even after the Battle of Britain was won, he cautioned that "death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield" (Best 188). Even in the worst times, though, Churchill always held out the prospect of hope and eventual victory, as in his Finest Hour speech of June 18, 1940, when he said "if we can stand up to him [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands." On August 20th, just before the nighttime Blitz began on the British cities, he also held out the prospect that the United States would eventually join the war, saying "westward look, the land is bright" (Best 189).
Churchill was a very active prime minister and moved around the country constantly expecting bomb damage, following by the radio, newsreel and print journalists. Unlike Hitler, who never once appeared in any of the bombed out German cities and left almost all the wartime speeches to his Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, "during the Blitz and the months of threatened invasion, these outings contributed to sustaining popular morale" (Best 189). At the London Docklands, which had been hit very hard at the start of the Blitz with over 2,000 killed in the first night, the workers "literally mobbed him" and called him "good old Winnie," and it was the same in other cities like Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol, where the working class areas suffered the worst of the nightly bombing. Churchill was a Conservative politician who had never been popular in these Labour Party constituencies before the war. Coming from a privileged, aristocratic background, he "had no idea how ordinary people lived," but the punishment they were taking during the Battle of Britain "was real enough to upset him" greatly, and they saw this during his visits (Best 190). Unlike Hitler, he was not afraid to move freely and openly among his own people, even when they were suffering their worst hardships, and he repeatedly showed his courage even in the face of possible enemy attack.
For Winston Churchill and the British people, the years 1940-41…[continue]
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