Procrastination on September 8, 2017

Weekend Reading: Winston S. Churchill: Their Finest Hour

Edward Wood Lord Halifax

Winston S. Churchill: Their Finest Hour "AFTER THE COLLAPSE of France the question which arose in the minds of all our friends and foes was, 'Would Britain surrender too?'...

...So far as public statements count in the teeth of events, I had in the name of His Majesty’s Government repeatedly declared our resolve to fight on alone. After Dunkirk on June 4 I had used the expression, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” This was not inserted without design, and the French Ambassador in London had been instructed the next day to inquire what I actually meant. He was told “exactly what was said.”

I could remind the House of my remark when I addressed it on June 18, the morrow of the Bordeaux collapse. I then gave “some indication of the solid practical grounds on which we based our inflexible resolve to continue the war.” I was able to assure Parliament that our professional advisers of the three Services were confident that there were good and reasonable hopes of ultimate victory. I told them that I had received from all the four Dominion Prime Ministers messages in which they endorsed our decision to fight on and declared themselves ready to share our fortunes.

“In casting up this dread balance-sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye I see great reasons for vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or fear.” I added:

During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced nothing but disaster and disappointment…. We repeatedly asked ourselves the question “How are we going to win?” and no one was ever able 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. However matters may go in France or with the French Government or other French Governments, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people….

If final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains–aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede…. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

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 civilisation. 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 say, “This was their finest hour.”

All these often-quoted words were made good in the hour of victory. But now they were only words. Foreigners who do not understand the temper of the British race all over the globe when its blood is up might suppose that they were only a bold front, set up as a good prelude for peace negotiations. Hitler’s need to finish the war in the West was obvious. He was in a position to offer the most tempting terms.

To those who like myself had studied his moves, it did not seem impossible that he would consent to leave Britain and her Empire and Fleet intact and make a peace which would have secured him that free hand in the East of which Ribbentrop had talked to me in 1937, and which was his heart’s main desire. So far we had not done him much harm. We had indeed only added our own defeat to his triumph over France. Can one wonder that astute calculators in many countries, ignorant as they mostly were of the problems of overseas invasion, and of the quality of our air force, and who dwelt under the overwhelming impression of German might and terror, were not convinced?

Not every Government called into being by Democracy or by Despotism, and not every nation, while quite alone, and as it seemed abandoned, would have courted the horrors of invasion and disdained a fair chance of peace for which many plausible excuses could be presented. Rhetoric was no guarantee. Another administration might come into being. “The warmongers have had their chance and failed.” America had stood aloof. No one was under any obligation to Soviet Russia. Why should not Britain join the spectators who, in Japan and in the United States, in Sweden, and in Spain, might watch with detached interest, or even relish, a mutually destructive struggle between the Nazi and Communist Empires?

Future generations will find it hard to believe that the issues I have summarised here were never thought worth a place upon the Cabinet agenda, or even mentioned in our most private conclaves. Doubts could be swept away only by deeds. The deeds were to come...