Let’s begin our exploration of Churchill’s famous ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech with a few problematic statements:
In June 1940, Winston Churchill gave a speech which roused and inspired the whole of Britain. He pledged to ‘fight on the beaches’ and never surrender. When he read the words out on the radio, his wartime audience were greatly impressed by them.
Only the middle sentence of the above paragraph is 100% correct, but we’ll come to the myths and misconceptions surrounding the speech in due course.
You can read Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech in full here. You can listen to the recording of the speech (which Churchill made after the war here. Let’s begin with a brief summary of the content of the speech.
‘Fight on the beaches’: context
Winston Churchill gave the speech commonly known by this name in the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. It was the second of three iconic speeches Churchill gave during this period shortly following his appointment as UK Prime Minister (replacing Neville Chamberlain): chronologically, it falls between his ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech (13 May 1940) and his ‘This was their finest hour’ speech (18 June 1940).
The context was what became known as the Battle of France. In early June 1940, British forces had completed the evacuation of Dunkirk, the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June.
‘Fight on the beaches’: summary
Churchill begins his speech by giving a long and detailed account of the Dunkirk evacuation, which had taken place over the previous week. He outlines the ‘desperate fighting’ that also took place at Boulogne and Calais, while the British troops were trying to distract the German army while the rest of the troops were rescued from Dunkirk.
He describes what a close-run thing the evacuation was, and that the British, French, and Belgian armies were up against fierce fighting from the enemy, and were far outnumbered in the air. He then outlines the impact of the surrender of the Belgian army, under the command of King Leopold.
Churchill goes on to describe the work of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force in making the evacuation possible, and in particular praises the young airmen who played such a decisive role, despite being relatively few in number. He likens each of them to a ‘noble knight’ who might have been at King Arthur’s Round Table or fought in the Crusades.
As well as reporting the loss of men, some of whom remain missing and did not return safely to England, Churchill also tells his listeners about the colossal loss of guns and other munitions. He reassures them that people are working night and day to manufacture new weapons, but it may take a few months to make up the losses.
Churchill then describes what has happened across the Channel as a ‘colossal military disaster’. The Germans have gained factories and mining districts in France and the French and Belgian armies have been weakened. Referring to something that an unnamed individual once told Napoleon Bonaparte, that there are ‘bitter weeds’ in England, Churchill underscores that there are more bitter people in England now since the British Expeditionary Force returned from Dunkirk.
Churchill is keen to make clear that it is not good enough for England to be on the defensive, ready to defend itself from German attack: it must also be ready to go on the offensive, and help the French, as allies of Britain, to defend their land against the Nazis. Any Fifth Columnists – traitors living within Britain who help and support the enemy – will be dealt with swiftly.
Having brought his listeners up to speed with what has happened, and what needs to be done, Churchill comes to the peroration of his speech: by far the most famous part. He reassures them that if nothing is neglected and all arrangements are made, he sees no reason why Britain cannot once more defend itself against invasion: something which, as an island nation, it has always been susceptible to by sea, and now by air. Even if it takes years, and even if Britain must defend itself alone without any help from its allies, this is what must happen. Capitulation to the Nazis is not an option.
Churchill then underscores the intention to fight the enemy, wherever they are encountered: on the beaches, on the oceans, in the air, in the streets, in the hills. Even if the worst-case scenario should happen (which Churchill reassures his listeners he finds unlikely), and Britain or part of it should be effectively under siege, cut off from supplies and effectively controlled by the enemy, the imperial fleets of the British Empire in other parts of the world would be able to come to its aid, until America, that mighty world power, was able to enter the fray and help out Britain.
‘Fight on the beaches’: analysis
Churchill’s speech is a rousing and inspirational one, but it is also a pragmatic one, grounded in the realities of the war Britain was facing. Churchill’s oratorical genius enabled him both to cut across the joyous national mood following what became known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ by telling a few unpalatable home truths, and to rouse his listeners to action, ‘whatever the cost may be’.
The poet and landscape gardener, Vita Sackville-West, wrote in a letter to Harold Nicolson that same evening that Churchill’s reported words ‘sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine’: an effect she attributed to his ‘Elizabethan phrases’ which appeared to have ‘the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress’.
Certainly, Churchill was aware of the power of his words. Immediately after he gave the speech, he muttered to a colleague, ‘And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!’. Chips Channon, a Conservative MP, noted in his diary that several Labour MPs cried after the speech. Indeed, much of Churchill’s support came from the Labour side of the House: his own party, the Conservatives, still largely backed Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Another Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, wrote to Churchill that his speech had been worth 1,000 guns and ‘the speeches of 1,000 years’.
But although it is now one of his best-known speeches of the entire war, Churchill’s vow to ‘fight on the beaches’ (and elsewhere) was not immediately heard by the rest of the nation, much less the world – at least, not in Churchill’s own voice. Instead, newsreaders simply reported what he had said in the House of Commons (Churchill would give his later ‘this was their finest hour’ speech as a live radio broadcast, but he didn’t do that with this speech).
Although he would regularly read his speeches to the nation over the radio, this speech would not be recorded until 1949 (and there’s a theory, widely discredited, that his speeches were read out by an impersonator of Churchill rather than the man himself). Some listeners, such as Sackville-West, were immediately inspired by Churchill’s rousing words, but the mood amongst the nation was not uniformly upbeat. Indeed, Churchill’s unwillingness to gloss over the hardships and colossal challenges Britain faced in the coming months or years actually dampened the spirits of some, who had perhaps hoped that Dunkirk represented a shift in the direction of the war.
The power of Churchill’s speeches lies partly in his use of repetition for rhetorical effect. In particular, Churchill was fond of using anaphora – a rhetorical device whereby the same word or phrase is used at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences – to reinforce an idea of course of action. In this speech, the repeated ‘we shall fight’ is obviously the most famous example of anaphora, with ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ being merely the best-known example. The accumulation of these ‘we shall fight’ statements rises to a pitch until Churchill can suddenly release the short four-word conclusion: ‘we shall never surrender’ (barked with a glorious bulldog spirit, in the 1949 recording of the speech linked to above).
Indeed, it has even been pointed out that only two words in this section of Churchill’s speech – the Latin ‘confidence’ and the French ‘surrender’ – do not have Germanic, Old English roots. Many of the words are short, Anglo-Saxon in origin, and therefore blunt and often monosyllabic or disyllabic. This makes the effect of ‘surrender’ even more pronounced: the word stands out from the others.