Great Britain finds itself the victim of the third major terrorist attack in three months. Westminster. Manchester. And now London Bridge. Exactly 77 years ago today, the United Kingdom – through a series of miracles – had just escaped total defeat at the hands of the Nazis at Dunkirk. Winston Churchill’s speech in front of Parliament on June 4, 1940, (called the “Finest Hour” speech or, colloquially, the “We Shall Fight On The Beaches” speech) is widely considered among the best examples of stirring defiant prose in the history of the English language — and indeed is among the best & most consequential speeches in the history of the world. And his words still hold true today, as his great country finds itself under assault from a new jihadist enemy.
In 1940, the Nazi Army seemed unstoppable. It had rolled through much of Europe – including France – at an alarming rate, delivering blow after blow to the French Army and forcing a reeling British Expeditionary Force numbering around four hundred thousand into a retreat to the edge of the European continent. Pinned down. Surrounded. On the brink of utter annihilation. If the British Expeditionary Force were defeated, it would take a massive portion of the British Army off the battlefield permanently – and very well could’ve resulted in the beginning of Hitler’s victory in World War Two right then & there. Instead, a series of miracles unfolded at the beachhead – which was named Dunkirk (a battle subject to a highly-anticipated upcoming film by Christopher Nolan of “Interstellar”, “The Dark Knight”, and “Inception” fame).
Operation Dynamo – the name given to the evacuation from Dunkirk – began in earnest on May 26, 1940. It was up to Britain’s outnumbered Royal Air Force (which was, at the time, widely disdained by the British Army due to each branch blaming the other for the current horrific predicament) to keep Nazi planes at bay while the Army made its escape by ship across the channel. Meanwhile, the British naval fleet was woefully small for the task at hand, and so hundreds of British civilian boats were called into service. Through a series of what can only be considered actual miracles – a sea that was unbelievably calm, tides that decided to be unbelievably favorable, a number of heroic air battles, and a string of (thankfully) mind-numbingly terrible decisions by Hitler & the Nazis – the British Army was able to make its escape back to Great Britain largely intact. Where it had been expected that perhaps as many as 300,000 soldiers or more were to be left stranded in Europe (to be captured or killed), even greater than that number actually made their escape to England, along with over 25,000 French soldiers as well. This retreat saved the British Army to fight another day and gave England the courage to withstand the Nazi barrage until the Americans arrived.
Winston Churchill would give his defiant “Finest Hour” speech in front of the House of Commons in Parliament exactly 77 years ago today. He had initially expected the speech to be about the biggest disaster in the history of the nation (as a week prior total defeat for the British Army seemed all but assured) – instead, it was a speech about the most awe-inspiring & successful retreat in the history of the nation. But, Churchill would point out, it was still a retreat. And all of the hardest fighting – the Battle of Britain, the Invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge – still remained ahead. Churchill promised that Britain would fight on the seas, in the streets, in the air, in the hills, and on the beaches. And Winston Churchill’s speech is as relevant today as it has ever been – as he made clear, defiant survival is important, but it is only a start. Just as unity after a terrorist attack is an important thing, that cannot be the end in and of itself – but it is a very important start. The British didn’t win the war simply because they survived Dunkirk – rather they won because surviving Dunkirk gave them the time, the breathing space, the manpower, and eventually the military alliance with the United States that was needed to eventually achieve total Allied victory over the Nazi regime. I’ve excerpted portions of the speech by Churchill, and you can read the speech in its entirety here and listen to it in its entirety below. It remains to be seen whether in this day & age — in the face of an enemy not attacking them from across an ocean channel like the Nazis but rather from within like radical Islamic terrorism — Great Britain will find a way to, as Churchill would say, “defend our Island, whatever the cost may be.” On this day and in the days to come, Winston Churchill’s words echo through time.
When, a week ago today, I asked the House to fix this afternoon as the occasion for a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. I thought-and some good judges agreed with me-that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked. But it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken up in the open field or else would have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition. These were the hard and heavy tidings for which I called upon the House and the nation to prepare themselves a week ago. The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.
The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness, and their main power, the power of their far more numerous Air Force, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated upon Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats, one of which was sunk, and their motor launches took their toll of the vast traffic which now began. For four or five days an intense struggle reigned. All their armored divisions-or what Was left of them-together with great masses of infantry and artillery, hurled themselves in vain upon the ever-narrowing, ever-contracting appendix within which the British and French Armies fought.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless merchant seamen, strained every nerve to embark the British and Allied troops; 220 light warships and 650 other vessels were engaged. They had to operate upon the difficult coast, often in adverse weather, under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire. Nor were the seas, as I have said, themselves free from mines and torpedoes. It was in conditions such as these that our men carried on, with little or no rest, for days and nights on end, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters, bringing with them always men whom they had rescued. The numbers they have brought back are the measure of their devotion and their courage. The hospital ships, which brought off many thousands of British and French wounded, being so plainly marked were a special target for Nazi bombs; but the men and women on board them never faltered in their duty.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of its main metropolitan fighter strength, and struck at the German bombers and at the fighters which in large numbers protected them. This struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment-but only for the moment-died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this.
There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:
Every morn brought forth a noble chance
And every chance brought forth a noble knight,
deserve our gratitude,
as do all the brave men who,
in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready,
and continue ready to give life and all for their native land.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government – every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.