Nearly nine months after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Phoney War had come to an end. The German armies advanced westward, as French and British troops were pushed further toward the coast. General Viscount Gort, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, ordered a retreat to the nearby port of Dunkirk. Government officials later identified this moment as the beginning of “the most glorious fighting retreat in history.” The operation to bring British back across the English Channel was codenamed Operation Dynamo, and it continued over the next week. The evacuation was, and today still is, largely considered a success, as nearly 330,000 soldiers were rescued in the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
Accounts of the evacuation have appeared in literature, on television, and most recently in film. A devastating scene unfolded upon the beaches as British, French, Canadian, and Belgian troops were cornered on the beaches. By May 27, sunken ships lined the harbor, preventing large ships from coming ashore. The waters were far too shallow for the likes of even larger carriers and British battleships. Yet, despite these challenges, nearly 700 ships, small motorboats, and private vessels rallied together in Britain’s final hours to bring soldiers back to safety in Britain. Churchill subsequently delivered the news of the evacuation to the House and, later, the nation.
Speech: “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”
Date: June 4, 1940
Context: Churchill’s response to the evacuation of Dunkirk
Audience: House of Commons (despite an ongoing myth that it was broadcasted live)
When, a week ago today, Mr. Speaker, 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 be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.
Ten German Panzer divisions pushed Allied forces toward the sea in a blitzkrieg (lightning war) campaign. The 1st Panzer Division established a bridgehead near Amiens, while the 2nd Panzer Division between Abbeville and the sea. It was between these two points in northern France that the frontline was established. Through this mouvement en tenaille (pincer movement), the Germans had successfully surrounded the three armies of the British, Belgian, and French.
The enemy attacked us 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 on which the troops had their only 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 armoured 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.
The Luftwaffe (German air force) played no small role in delaying an efficient Allied retreat. Above the English Channel, German Messerschmitt Bf 109 planes (“hostile aircraft”) were pitted against British Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires. More than 1500 jets battled above as desperate soldiers sought to traverse the Channel. At the same time, the Unterseeboote (U-boots) hurled torpedoes at ships carrying soldiers (“the vast traffic”). Both in the air and in the sea were the Germans determined to deter Allied forces. But it was on the land where the Allied forces were able to maintain a strong defense. True, the German had burned most of their piers and quays, prohibiting an easy exit by way of a large carrier or destroyer. Yet, by the order of someone in the Nazi high command (some ascertain it was Hitler himself, while others argue that it was an individual of lower rank), German Panzers were ordered to stop their westward push. Such was the important opportunity for the Allied soldiers to retreat from the beaches of Dunkirk en masse.
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.
The British Royal Navy worked under adverse conditions during the evacuation. As they were bombed from the air by German fighter jets, they also had to contend with the issue of docking on the beaches. Only one pier (the Eastern Mole) had remained standing in the harbor, and it later was responsible for the evacuation of two-thirds of all men. The vessels, both military and personal, that carried men also faced low visibility because of the fog (although, some have maintained that the fog protected ships against the raid from aerial bombs). In addition, hospital-ships, which were technically immune from attacks, also faced attacks from German U-boots in the Channel.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow from our 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 valour, 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. Sir, 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. I will tell you about it.
By this moment in his speech, Churchill returned to his description of the battle in the air. But, in this section, he praised the courage and valor of the brave individuals who risked their lives for their fellow soldiers. He attempted to explain how the battle was largely a defeat for Britain (“Wars are not won by evacuations”), while at the same time recognizing these men for their service (“there was a victory inside this deliverance”). This Churchillian oratory rang throughout his speeches, but it was certainly notable here when he struck a balance between solemnity and admiration.
This was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Forces. Can you conceive a greater objective for the Germans in the air than to make evacuation from these beaches impossible and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there have been an objective of greater military importance and significance for the whole purpose of the war than this? They tried hard, and they were beaten back. They were frustrated in their task. We got the Army away, and they have paid fourfold for any losses which they have inflicted.
Churchill’s recognized some military strategies of the Germans: to make a retreat impossible, or perhaps to draw out a retreat and make Allied forces weary. In this endeavor, the Germans were surely defeated as they had not been able to greatly deter the evacuation (“They were frustrated in their task”). As one biographer noted, the newly appointed Prime Minister had a “vision of total victory,” one in which Britain needed to achieve an outright win from this conflict. Perhaps this idea became more necessary for Churchill after the political instability associated with the abdication crisis of 1936. According to Professor Lori Maguire, this usage of confirmatio sought to highlight Britain’s advantages in the war, even ascertaining that the Germans suffered heavier losses than the British. Accentuating this ideal became the pivot in his speech in which he attempted to identify the necessary course of war.
Sir, when we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? 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.
Journalist Edward R. Murrow argued that Churchill effectively “mobilized the English language” in his speeches. Such a declaration noted that the Prime Minister used rhetorical devices and linguistic turns-of-phrase to make an argument. As Churchill reflected on the events of Dunkirk, he appeared to draw his viewpoints from the larger historical trend of warfare. From the Crusades to World War I, Churchill, who was a historian in his own right, urged his fellow men “to give life and all for their native land.” At this moment in his speech, Churchill began to showcase a type of moral-driven ambition toward the war. For it is Britain, and not Germany, who seeks to defend “civilisation” and restore the world order of peace.
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonising week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened. The Belgian Army has been lost. A large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone. Many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession. The whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that. And we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France. We are told, Sir, that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone: “there are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned. Sir, 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 more 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.
Professor Maguire remarked that Churchill returned to a tone of refutatio with his mention of the “colossal military disaster.” Both the French and Belgian armies faced incredible losses, and the fortified Maginot Line had failed to block a German invasion. More so, the loss of “mining districts and factories” presented a huge disadvantage to the British who desperately needed the supplies for war. While the country certainly had its own share of iron deposits, for example, the valuable resources in northern France and the Low Countries devastated the Allied cause. Combined with the additional ports of the Atlantic seaboard, Hitler faced significant casualties while at the same time an increase in raw materials for the Nazi war machine.
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. 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 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.
The rhetorical device of slightly evolving repetition, or anaphora, was the defining moment of Churchill’s speech. What began as a conflict “in France” had evolved into a battle “on the seas and oceans” and “in the air.” As Professor Maguire noted, the final part of his speech was meant to contrast the refutatio, as well as end on a more inspiring note than the confirmatio. The uplifting moments appeared at the end when, indeed, he spoke in a manner that was “patriotic, but not jingoistic.” His use of “we” evoked a feeling that the preceding events at Dunkirk affected more than the Allied soldiers or the British government. Rather, the threat of a Nazi-controlled Europe threatened the very foundation of the British Empire and even western civilization. This usage of the third-person plural pronoun encapsulated those in the New World as well, as he sought to make a call for help to the United States. He needed his American counterparts to enter the war. But, until that moment would come, the British Empire and their allies in the “[O]ld [World]” began the process of recovering from the evacuation at Dunkirk and taking on the great challenge before them: “to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny.”
Image Credit: Imperial War Museums