Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780199642526; 320pp.; Price: £25.00
George Mason University
Date accessed: 3 December, 2023
When Curt Zoller compiled his Annotated Bibliography of Works about Sir Winston Churchill (1) in 2004, the number of books about Britain’s best-known prime minister was close to 700. In the decade since, that number has grown larger still, leading to an obvious question: What more is there to say about the man and his career, particularly about his leadership during the Second World War? Judging from Richard Toye’s latest book the answer is, a great deal.
Toye, who has already contributed to the Churchill canon with his acclaimed Churchill’s Empire and a dual study, Lloyd George & Churchill (2), tackles a subject that until now largely has been ignored by other historians. In The Roar of the Lion he examines Churchill’s wartime speeches –how they were written and delivered and, not least, how they were received both at home and abroad, by friend and foe alike. To produce this study, Toye deftly combines secondary source material with archival research, especially in Churchill’s own, often overlooked speech-writing files. The result is a book that is by turns informative, engaging, and, all too often, frustrating.
In many ways, Churchill’s reputation as a speechmaker has been a prisoner of the success he achieved between the fall of France in 1940 and the victory at El Alamein in 1942. What most people know of these speeches is largely ‘confined to a few famous phrases excerpted from a limited number of radio broadcasts in the summer of 1940'. The result is that these ‘quotable bits’ have crowded out other equally important, if less memorable speeches made throughout the war (pp. 2, 229). Nothing better illustrates this point than a speech delivered by Churchill that same summer. With their nation’s defeat, it was altogether likely that the French navy – the world’s fourth largest – would fall into German hands. Before he would let that happen, Churchill took what he later called ‘a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’. With much of the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in North Africa, he ordered the Royal Navy to destroy his former ally’s warships before they could be used by the Nazis against Britain. Churchill’s address to the House of Commons the following day, like the attack itself, is all but forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world; but the immediate impact of both could not have been more significant. The ruthlessness of the assault demonstrated to the world, and especially to the United States, that Britain, in Churchill’s own words, would ‘prosecute the war with the utmost vigour’. For the first time, Conservative MPs joined their Labour and Liberal colleagues cheering the new prime minister, one witness recorded, ‘like mad’ (pp. 62–3). Even if, as Toye suggests, this show of support was stage managed, the Chamberlainite MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, detected a change. ‘At the end of his speech’, Channon recorded in his diary, ‘the House rose, cheered, waved Order Papers – as I have so often seen them do for Neville. Only it was not little Neville’s turn now. Winston suddenly wept’,(3) (Toye does not fully quote this part of Channon’s diary, which is unfortunate. It is a minor oversight, but there are others that are not – about which more later.)
While it is impossible to scrutinize every public utterance made by Churchill between 1939 and 1945, one of this book’s strengths is that it examines a number of speeches made during the war’s later years which, at the time, caused quite a stir even though they have long since receded from memory. On at least two occasions, for instance, Churchill caused major diplomatic rows with Britain’s wartime allies: first, in 1943, when he suggested that planning the post-war world should be left to ‘the three great victorious powers, the British Commonwealth of Nations, the United States, and Soviet Russia’ (p. 157). This triumvirate pointedly excluded China and sparked outrage not only among Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists but also among their American supporters, the so-called China Lobby. Much the same thing happened a year later, when Churchill told the House of Commons that his government would oppose any attempt to overthrow the Franco regime in Spain, this time arousing the displeasure of both Washington and Moscow. While the Spanish tempest was soon overshadowed by the D-Day landings in Normandy, it was not forgotten. During the 1945 general election, the Labour-supporting Daily Herald resurrected the incident with an article headlined, ‘A VOTE FOR CHURCHILL IS A VOTE FOR FRANCO’ (p. 182).
Nor was Churchill shy about involving himself in American domestic politics when he felt British interests were at stake. Even before the United States entered the war, the Anglo-Americans adopted a ‘Europe First’ strategy, meaning that Germany’s defeat would take precedence over Japan’s.(4) After Pearl Harbor, and for much of the war, a vocal minority in Congress demanded that America’s military might should instead be used to deliver a ‘death-blow against the Japanese’. Worse, during Churchill’s May 1943 visit to Washington, one Democratic senator, Kentucky’s A. B. ‘Happy’ Chandler, falsely accused the British of doing little to contribute to Tokyo’s defeat. Scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, Churchill, as he later told his Cabinet colleagues, gave the sort of speech more commonly heard in Westminster than on Capitol Hill. ‘Let no one suggest that we British have not at least as great an interest as the United States in the unflinching and relentless waging of war against Japan’, he told the assembled members of Congress, who were soon ‘heartily with him’. Having won over his audience in much the same way as he did the House of Commons, the prime minister then rounded on Chandler, though not by name. ‘Lots of people’, he observed, ‘can make good plans for winning the war if they have not got to carry them out’. It was a pointed suggestion that in America one man, Franklin Roosevelt, already had that responsibility and it would be foolhardy to hand it over to anyone else. As FDR was already contemplating an unprecedented fourth campaign for the White House in a year’s time, Churchill’s intervention did not go unnoticed. The American newspaper columnist Drew Pearson later wrote: ‘it looks as if the Prime Minister had already laid the groundwork for ‘44'. More immediately, Churchill’s speech did nothing to change the minds of Chandler and the other critics of ‘Europe First’. But the policy didn’t change, either (pp. 160–1).
Churchill was decidedly more circumspect when it came to domestic British politics, in particular when the subject was post-war reconstruction. For good reason. Though leader of the Conservative Party from October 1940, he was also ‘national leader’ of a coalition government. This forced Churchill to maintain a delicate balance in the House of Commons where Tory MPs still held a majority of seats, but where his administration depended on the participation of both Labour and the Liberals. Conveniently, for Churchill, he could argue that it was premature to talk of what would happen after victory. To his mind, the important thing – indeed, the only thing – that mattered was winning the war. After the triumph at El Alamein, soon followed by Sir William Beveridge’s report on the future of social services, that position was no longer tenable. A post-war Britain could be detected just over the horizon, and the Beveridge Report laid out a blueprint for how that Britain could be a very different nation from the one that had emerged after the last world war.
Churchill tried seizing back the initiative with a March 1943 broadcast known as the ‘Four Years’ Plan’. Although its title made it sound more like a speech that would have originated in the Kremlin than in Downing Street, Churchill’s intent was to sketch an outline of Britain’s transition during the first few years of peace. According to Toye, the broadcast allowed Churchill to ‘relieve pressure for immediate reform by paying lip service to its importance’ – at some future date. This may explain why it caused so much confusion and why a government analysis found that public reaction to it was ‘more varied than for any of Churchill’s previous war speeches.’ While one listener called the broadcast ‘almost pure socialism’, the Liberal News Chronicle chastised parts of Churchill’s remarks as ‘typically Tory’ (pp. 203–6). Nor, for that matter, did the speech remove domestic issues from Churchill’s agenda. Before the year was out, a threatened Labour rebellion over demands to nationalise the coal industry forced him to intervene. While making clear that he himself could support such a move, no government, he told the House of Commons, could take such a far-reaching step without first receiving a mandate from the people in a general election (pp. 170–1). That is just what happened in 1945, sweeping both him and the Conservatives from power.
Important as these later speeches were, Churchill’s reputation as an orator still largely rests on the ones he gave during the war’s early years. And that is where the trouble lies with this book. According to Toye, a ‘powerful myth’ envelops Churchill’s role in the war, one in which through his speeches alone he rallied the British people by making them ‘feel the same way’ or by putting ‘into words what they were all feeling but could not express themselves’. This myth, he explains, is ‘crucial’, not least when it comes to the ‘popular image of the summer of 1940'. In fact, says Toye, historians would have us believe that whenever Churchill spoke ‘people were reduced to a condition of helpless ecstasy every time he opened his mouth’ (p. 3–4, 227–8).
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)
This points to a problem with Toye’s use of these two sources. More than once, while the Home Intelligence Division reported overall support for a Churchill address, Toye is quick to highlight negative comments about the same speech found in the MO files, even when those comments represented ‘minority feeling’ (p. 108). Moreover, these negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public. According to one MO report, by mid-April 1942 what most Britons wanted was ‘more action and less talk, they are feeling that the present is no time for oratory’. Yet even as this same report noted complaints about the ‘flatness’ of Churchill’s recent speeches, and that some Britons were now calling him an ‘old windbag’, they nonetheless had come to expect him to deliver ‘great and moving speeches every time’ (p. 138).
As Toye concedes, ‘MO diarists were self-selecting, and were disproportionately drawn from the middle classes’ (p. 8). But the problems do not stop there. John Lukacs has praised the MO diaries, saying they ‘breathe with the presence of authenticity’. But he also notes that the organization’s researchers ‘made no pretense to anything “scientific” and did not attempt to quantify all their data’.(5) And, it must be said, at times the diarists sound like a ready-made awkward squad, or ‘confirmed grousers’ as one of them called Churchill’s critics (p. 149). There was no greater collection of grousers than those serving in the military, where the words ‘bastard’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ seemed to go hand-in-hand. (pp. 131, 174, 269, n. 39). According to one sailor, the Royal Navy had ‘special dislike for him, as we do all his dirty work’ (p. 140). Contrast those remarks with reaction to one of Churchill’s most controversial actions: his 1944 intervention in the Greek Civil War. Thanks to censorship summaries of their letters, Toye reveals that Churchill’s policy was ‘highly popular’ with British soldiers sent to Greece to carry it out (p. 191). Instead of a random letter here, or a diary entry there, these censorship reports promise a broader, invaluable insight into the feelings of British servicemen and women and, perhaps, their relatives and friends. But Toye only refers to these summaries in this one instance.
Public opinion surveys were conducted during the war by the Gallup organization and these, too, show widespread support for Churchill. Yet, Toye by and large dismisses these findings by noting that questions have been raised about the polls’ methodology. Beyond that, he argues that, especially during the war’s early years, there was a lot of pressure to conform, to give ‘socially acceptable’ answers (p. 7). Why Toye believes that average Britons would have been any more honest when interviewed by an official from the MoI’s Home Intelligence Division (a government agency after all), or why they would have been more open with MO interviewers or, even in diaries handed over to these same strangers, he does not say. Even after making allowances for sampling errors and the like, the fact remains that Churchill’s popularity during the war was, in Toye’s own words, ‘astonishingly high’ (p. 6). This was still the case when large discrepancies appeared between Churchill’s MO ‘satisfaction figures’ of 66 per cent, and a Gallup approval rating of 81 per cent for the same month (p. 228). That month, March 1942, happened to be one of the worst of the war: British forces were reeling under hammer blows from the Japanese, including the loss of Singapore just weeks earlier; Axis forces threatened Egypt; and German U-boats were winning the Battle of the Atlantic. What is astonishing is not the gap between these surveys of public opinion but that they were still so high despite this string of disasters.
For the purposes of his study, Toye also disregards public opinion surveys because most were ‘not directed to the reception of speeches per se but to approval/disapproval of Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 227). The fault, though, is with his premise, that Churchill’s oratory, and its impact, can be assessed in isolation. Toye admits as much when, at the end of his book, he quotes a December 1942 MO report. According to this assessment, Churchill’s personal popularity along with reaction to his speeches, rose or fell in ‘very close association with the general feelings of cheerfulness or depression about the war situation’ (p. 227). Which is rather stating the obvious.
This leads back to the crucial year between May 1940 and May 1941. Toye is adamant that Churchill’s speeches during this period did not ‘rally the nation’, nor were they ‘the decisive factor influencing Britain’s willingness to fight on’ (pp. 44, 72). But oratorical skills are but one tool of leadership, and focusing on the impact of one speech or another without placing them in context is to miss the point. Churchill understood that. Unlike Chamberlain, he made full use of the powers and prestige of his office as well as other media. His private secretary John Colville later recalled that during those desperate 12 months he seemed to be everywhere, inspecting military forces and munitions factories, and especially visiting the nation’s bombed-out cities – all captured by the newsreels to be shown in cinemas throughout Britain and around the world. Contrast that with the approach taken by Adolf Hitler, who was seldom heard or seen when the war started to go wrong for Germany.
To be fair, there is something to Toye’s argument that time has clouded memories of the impact of Churchill’s speeches, especially those delivered in 1940. And here, perhaps, is this book’s greatest missed opportunity: Are the Churchill speeches we hear today, those ‘quotable bits’, the same broadcasts that were made over 70 years ago? This is not to suggest, as have some, that an actor impersonating Churchill delivered the addresses on radio. Toye puts that fairytale to bed early on in his book (p. 11). But in at least one instance, Churchill’s June 1940 ‘Finest Hour’ speech, there are two, and possibly more, versions all purporting to be the original broadcast. That is impossible. Compare, for instance, this version:
The first, flatter version chimes with criticism of the broadcast noted by Mass-Observation. Some said Churchill sounded ‘tired’, others ‘suggested that he was drunk’ (p. 58). According to the BBC, however, the second, livelier version is the one that was broadcast on the evening of 18 June 1940. Worse, still, the BBC archive posts another version of the speech which, in fact, combines portions of this broadcast with Churchill’s ‘The news from France is very bad’ address made the night before. It can be heard here:
What is important is that the version found on the BBC’s ‘School Radio’ site is the one used in documentaries, such as ITV’s 1973–4 World at War series. It is the version that people, including those who listened to the actual broadcast, think of when they think of this speech. But is it what the British people heard in the summer of 1940? There are hints here and there that Churchill ‘re-recorded’ some of his wartime speeches for Decca Records around 1949. Strangely, none of Churchill’s biographers mention this, and neither does Toye. More’s the pity. It is a mystery that, if solved, could help explain why reactions to Churchill’s broadcasts when they were given differ from the impressions we have of them today.
Having said all that, The Roar of the Lion is a valuable addition to the study of Churchill’s wartime premiership and demonstrates that there is still much to say about the man and his work. What is remarkable is not the number of complaints that contemporary listeners registered about this or that speech, but the number of times Churchill hit his mark. That was never more true than during the early days of the Blitz when his broadcasts helped reassure the British people. The novelist Naomi Royde Smith put it best when she described one of those broadcasts in September in 1940. ‘The statement of facts made’, she wrote in her diary, ‘the danger is presented, [and] long successions of monosyllables beat on in the ear like the sound of an army marching to drums ... It sounds simple enough, but how few men can do it’ (p. 74).
- Curt Zoller, Annotated Bibliography of Works about Sir Winston Churchill (Washington, DC, 2004)Back to (1)
- Richard Toye, Churchill's Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made (Basingstoke, 2010); Lloyd George & Churchill: Rivals for Greatness (Basingstoke, 2007).Back to (2)
- Robert Rhodes James, Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (London, 1967), p. 260.Back to (3)
- Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 (New York, NY, 2009), pp. 45, 50.Back to (4)
- John Lukacs, Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven, CT, 2001), p. 34.Back to (5)
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.