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Response to Review of The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches

I thank Professor Matthews for his review, and for the kind words of praise it contains. I am especially grateful for the close attention he has paid to the international dimension of the book, an aspect which other reviewers have not considered in such depth. However, although his criticisms raise serious issues, I am confident of answering all of them. Before I do so in detail, I will make some general points about the argument of the book, which Matthews appears not to have appreciated fully.

In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!

Once it is grasped that I am neither criticising Churchill nor rubbishing his speeches, then Matthews’s critique of my work loses its force. He claims I say that Churchill did not ‘rally the nation’, whereas in fact I write that he was not the sole person who had the capacity to do so. There were a range of other radio speakers who also went down very well, and Churchill should be viewed ‘as the outstanding performer in a rhetorical chorus – or rather a series of talented soloists – dedicated to delivering the same central messages’ (p. 44). In commenting on Churchill’s commendable political visibility versus Hitler’s silence when things went wrong, Matthews ignores the fact that I make exactly the same point myself (p. 230). He suggests that I fail to place Churchill’s oratorical skills in the context of his leadership more generally. But I say that ‘it was clearly possible for Churchill supporters to be depressed, concerned or confused by the contents of a speech without this shaking their faith in him as a leader […] expressing disappointment with a speech did not necessarily imply fundamental dissatisfaction with Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 228). Matthews also takes the view that to say that Churchill’s popularity oscillated as the war situation varied is to state the obvious. Doubtless it should be obvious, but surely a key part of the myth of 1940 is that Churchill made everyone feel great even when – perhaps especially when – things were going disastrously wrong.

Thus if Matthews finds my book frustrating, I feel the same way about some aspects of his review. This is especially the case when it comes to the methodological points. Matthews raises valid issues, without recognising the explicit ways I address them in the book. Thus he comments that Mass-Observation (MO) diarists often ‘sound like a ready-made awkward squad’. Indeed they do, but as I say in the book’s introduction:

This would present a serious difficulty if the diarists had only reported their own thoughts, but in fact they also reported the opinions of others around them. […] Of course, those who disliked Churchill may have been biased in terms of what they recorded. But, crucially, some people who did like Churchill’s speeches recorded that others didn’t, and expressed their surprise at this. Taken in combination with survey evidence – with which they often correlate – diaries can be a potent source. Although they cannot by themselves provide definitive evidence of how many people held a particular opinion about Churchill’s speeches, they do give a good illustration of the range of views that were held. (pp. 8–9)

Matthews further complains that I too frequently quote negative comments about speeches ‘even when those comments represented “minority feeling”’. But minority feeling is exactly what I was trying to elucidate! No historian need apologise for paying attention to society’s dissidents, because even heretical opinions can illuminate the assumptions of the orthodox. Matthews observes: ‘negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.’ But my point is exactly that reactions to the speeches cast light on issues far beyond what people happened to think about the man who gave them. I would add further that, perfectly naturally, Churchill’s critics tended to be more expansive in their accounts of why they didn’t like speeches than admirers were in explaining why they did. When I found diary entries that detailed the reasons for approval (such as that of Naomi Royde Smith) I quoted them at length. With respect to the Chips Channon passage that Matthews upbraids me for excluding, it should be noted that I included several other quotations, one from Churchill himself, attesting to the powerful response evoked by the speech in question. Meanwhile, I failed to quote (although I cited) the memoirs of the journalist Paul Einzig, who recalled Tory backbenchers on that occasion remaining ‘seated and silent’ until they received a signal from their Chief Whip, whereupon ‘they rose to a man and burst into enthusiastic cheering at the top of their voices’.(1) Channon’s words, perhaps, were not quite as straightforward as Matthews suggests.

Furthermore, I do not dismiss the Gallup polls, although I offer some reasons for thinking that they may have exaggerated the extent of Churchill’s (nonetheless very high) popularity. My point about the inadequacy of ‘yes/no’ questions for ascertaining reactions to his speeches stands. High approval ratings can take account neither of those who supported Churchill politically but who were not that keen on his broadcasts, or of those who thought that the speeches were all very fine but had doubts about his leadership nonetheless. Matthews asks why those surveyed by MO and the Ministry of Information (MoI) should have been less influenced by social pressures than those interviewed by Gallup. To begin with, those who entrusted their diaries to the eyes of strangers clearly were, pretty much by definition, less inhibited than the ordinary run of people. Second, where MO and MoI used face-to-face interviews, it is quite possible that some respondents held back – in other words, there may have been more criticism than the reports reveal. Finally, though, these bodies had other sources of information besides interviews. MO observers attended public places and wrote down what they overheard. MoI too drew on a network of informants, as well as on questionnaires filled in by bodies ranging from W.H. Smith and Sons to the Brewers’ Society. Postal censorship and Special Branch reports were also used.(2) Matthews takes me for task for not quoting more widely from censorship summaries of soldiers’ letters. Obviously, if such documents existed, and if they analysed the political opinions of serving men, they would be a treasure trove of material. Yet, except for the report created in the special circumstances of the Greek crisis, I do not believe that they have been preserved, assuming them to have created in the first place. If I am wrong, and if Matthews knows where these documents are, he will be doing a great service to the profession if he reveals where they are to be found.

Matthews is right to suggest that Churchill re-recorded the ‘Finest Hour’ speech in 1949.(3) He also makes a valuable point about the variant versions floating around, and about the lack of care that broadcasters have exercised over the years. The post-war history of the speeches is certainly a very interesting issue, and my reference to it, it is true, is buried in a footnote (p. 252, n.173). It is certainly a topic deserving of more extensive treatment, but examining it in the book would not have materially altered my findings about the speeches’ contemporary reception. This may, however, be a good moment to own up to a genuine error, which was kindly drawn to my attention by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre. The book makes the clear suggestion that Churchill broadcast his famous 20 August 1940 speech which referred to ‘The Few’, having earlier given it in the House of Commons (pp. 69, 231). This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that he did so. But having heard the recording of it he made later, I gave into the powerful sense that somehow he ‘must’ have delivered it on the radio at the time. This, I think, is strong testimony to the cognitive dissonance generated when familiar historical myth collides with historical fact, even when one is doing one’s utmost to be hard-headed.

My mistake, however, highlights an important point. In my view, the correct procedure is to build up the story of the speeches from the surviving contemporary evidence, however problematic it may be. Others however – and I fear that Matthews falls within this category – take what we ‘know’ about the impact of Churchill’s speeches as a starting point and then seek to explain away all the evidence that conflicts with it. If we are to reach a full understanding of the complexity of Churchill as a historical figure, and the true sources of his rhetorical strength, we need to begin by rescuing him from the well-intentioned reductionism of his latter-day admirers.

(1) Paul Einzig, In the Centre of Things, Hutchinson & Co. London, 1960, p. 217.

(2) Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang (eds.), Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour: May to September 1940, The Bodley Head, London, 2010, p. xiv.

(3) See Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge CHUR 4/445/A/115.