Their Finest Hour

[June 18, 1940. House of Commons.]

The disastrous military events which have happened during thepast fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise. Indeed,I indicated a fortnightago as clearly as I could to the House that theworst possibilities were open; and I made it perfectly clear then thatwhatever happened inFrancewould make no difference to the resolveof Britain and the British Empire to fight on, “if necessary for years, ifnecessary alone.” During the last few days we have successfullybrought off the great majority of the troops we had on the line ofcommunication in France; and seven-eighths of the troops we havesent to France since the beginning of the war–that is to say, about350,000 out of 400,000 men–are safely back in this country. Othersare still fighting with the French, and fighting with considerable success in their local encounters against the enemy. We have also broughtback a great mass of stores, riflesand munitions of all kinds which hadbeen accumulated in France during the last nine months.

We have, therefore, in this Island today a very large and powerfulmilitary force. This force comprises all our best-trained and our finesttroops, including scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at nodisadvantage. We have under arms at the present time in this Islandover a million and a quarter men. Behind these we have the LocalDefense Volunteers, numbering half a million, only a portion ofwhom, however, are yet armed with rifles or other firearms.

We haveincorporated into our Defense Forces every man for whom we have a
weapon. We expect very large additions to our weapons in the nearfuture, and in preparation for this we intend forthwith to call up, drilland train further large numbers. Those who are not called up, or elseare employed during the vast business of munitions production in allits branches–and their ramifications are innumerable–will serve theircountry best by remaining at their ordinary work until they receivetheir summons. We have also over here Dominions armies. The Canadians had actually landed in France, but have now been safely withdrawn, much disappointed, but in perfect order, with all their artilleryand equipment. And these very high-class forces from the Dominions will now take part in the defence of the Mother Country.

It seems to me that as far as sea-borne invasion on a great scale isconcerned, we are far more capable of meeting it today than we wereat many periods in the last war and during the early months of thiswar, before our other troops were trained, and while the B.E.F. hadproceeded abroad. Now, the Navy have never pretended to be able toprevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly acrossand thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night orfoggy morning. The efficacy of sea power, especially under modernconditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size.

It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. Ifit is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find andmeet and, as it were, bite on. Now, we must remember that even fivedivisions, however lightly equipped, would require 200 to 250 ships,and with modern air reconnaissance and photography it would not beeasy to collect such an armada, marshal it, and conduct it across the seawithout any powerful naval forces to escort it; and there would be verygreat possibilities, to put it mildly, that this armada would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and all the men drowned in the sea or, at the worst blown to pieces with their equipment whilethey were trying to land. We also have a great system of minefields,recently strongly reinforced.

This brings me, naturally, to the great question of invasion fromthe air, and of the impending struggle between the British and German Air Forces. It seems quite clear that no invasion on a scale beyondthe capacity of our land forces to crush speedily is likely to take placefrom the air until our Air Force has been definitely overpowered. In the meantime, there may be raids by parachute troops and attempted descents of airborne soldiers. We should be able to give those gentry a warm reception both in the air and on the ground, if they reach it inany condition to continue the dispute. But the great question is: Can we break Hitler’s air weapon? Now, of course, it is a very great pity that we have not got an Air Force at least equal to that of the most.

powerful enemy within striking distance of these shores. But we have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far in the numerous and fierce air battles which have been fought with the Germans. In France, where we were at a considerable disadvantage and lost many machines on the ground when they were standing round the aerodromes, we were accustomed to inflict in the air losses of as much as two and two-and-a-half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no-man’s-land, we undoubtedly beat the German Air Force, and gained the mastery of the local air, inflicting here a loss of three or four to one.

There remains, of course, the danger of bombing attacks, which will certainly be made very soon upon us by the bomber forces of the enemy. It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours; but we have a very large bomber force also, which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission. I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world. Much will depend upon this; every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race, and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us, at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation or our duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines:

He nothing common did or mean,
Upon that memorable scene.

I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war. There are a good many people who say, “Never mind. Win or lose, sink or swim, better die than submit to tyranny–and such a tyranny.” And I do not dissociate myself from them. But I can assure them that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should carry on the war, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory.

We have fully informed and consulted all the self-governing Dominions, these great communities far beyond the oceans who have beenbuilt up on our laws and on our civilization, and who are absolutely free to choose their course, but are absolutely devoted to the ancient Motherland, and who feel themselves inspired by the same emotions which lead me to stake our all upon duty and honor. We have fully consulted them, and I have received from their Prime Ministers, Mr. Mackenzie King of Canada, Mr. Menzies of Australia, Mr. Fraser of New Zealand, and General Smuts of South Africa–that wonderful man, with his immense profound mind, and his eye watching from a distance the whole panorama of European affairs–I have received from all these eminent men, who all have Governments behind them elected on wide franchises, who are all there because they represent the will of their people, messages couched in the most moving terms in which they endorse our decision to fight on, and declare themselves ready to share our fortunes and to persevere to the end.

During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced nothing but disaster and disappointment. That was our constant fear: one blow after another, terrible losses, frightful dangers. Everything miscarried. And yet at the end of those four years the morale of the Allies was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another, and who stood everywhere triumphant invaders of the lands into which they had broken. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question: How are we going to win? and no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us, and we were so glutted with victory that in our folly we threw it away.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.”

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