When Winston Churchill walked into the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, he had much to discuss. The Allies had just pulled off the “miracle of Dunkirk,” rescuing some 338,000 troops from a dire situation in France. But this victory was a hollow one. The soldiers were only saved thanks to a curious halt order from the German command, and the Nazis were just days away from entering Paris. Churchill knew he had to prepare his people for the possible fall of France. He also knew he had to send a message to a reluctant ally across the pond.
What followed was his now famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, regarded as one of the most rousing and iconic addresses of World War II. While much of the oration concerned the recent Allied military losses and a reflection on the challenging road ahead, it is best remembered for Churchill’s passionate pledge to fight in seas, oceans, hills, streets, and beaches — to “never surrender.” The speech has been spliced into countless documentaries and recreated in several films, including the forthcoming Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. But history has colored most people’s recollections of this oration. It was not the immediate morale booster we imagine, and actually depressed quite a few Brits. It was also, arguably not for them, but instead for the Americans who were still watching the war from the sidelines.
But what’s more challenging to historical memory today is that Churchill’s speech was not broadcast live over the radio to the British public. Aside from the audience gathered in the House of Commons, most Britons and Americans did not hear him say those iconic words until several decades later. An enduring conspiracy theory claims he never recorded them at all.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, the top government advisor on naval affairs, Churchill had been warning of the Nazi threat for months. Despite this, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain remained steadfast in his policy of appeasement, hoping to contain Hitler and Nazi Germany and avoid hostilities.
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk was complete, Churchill had a very specific tone to strike in his speech on June 4. He also had to address a reluctant ally in the United States: Franklin Roosevelt. Much of the American public was still hesitant to get involved in the war, and Roosevelt was trying not to anger the isolationists as he mounted a re-election campaign. But Churchill nevertheless saw an opportunity to make an appeal.
Churchill drew on suggestions from his private secretaries, colleagues, and cabinet in the shaping of his speech. Richard Toye, in his book The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches, cites a memo from American newspaper editor William Philip Simms that appears to have been particularly influential. Simms wrote that Churchill should convey “come what may, Britain will not flinch,” and emphasized, “Give in -- NEVER!” Churchill considered comments from his cabinet that he was being too hard on France in his speech, but he was more concerned with offending American listeners, deleting a line about the United States’s “strange detachment” from the draft, erring on the side of subtlety.
“He wanted to wake Americans to the dangers that would be posed by a Nazi victory, but at the same time he was careful to avoid alienating them through excessive frankness,” Toye writes. “The result was that the speech contained no overt reference to the USA at all, even though it was aimed at winning over American opinion.”
The final speech was wide-ranging. Churchill gave a detailed recap of the Battle of Dunkirk, praising every member of the Allied forces. But he did not dwell on the lives saved. He warned that the rescue “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Invasion, he insisted, could be imminent. But he was ready to fight.
“We shall go on to the end,” Churchill said. “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.”
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “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.”
As William Manchester and Paul Reid explain in The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, the speech was received well in the House of Commons. Churchill’s secretary Jock Colville wrote in his diary, “Went down to the House to see the P.M.’s statement on the evacuation of Dunkirk. It was a magnificent oration that obviously moved the House.” Member of Parliament Harold Nicolson wrote in a letter to his wife Vita Sackville-West, “This afternoon Winston made the finest speech that I have ever heard.” Henry Channon, another MP, wrote that Churchill was “eloquent and oratorical, and used magnificent English… several Labour members cried.”
Churchill also got excellent reviews in the American press. Journalist Edward R. Murrow, who heard the speech in the House of Commons, told listeners: “Winston Churchill’s speeches have been prophetic. Today, as prime minister, he gave…a report remarkable for its honesty, inspiration, and gravity.” The New York Times wrote, “It took moral heroism to tell the story that Winston Churchill unfolded to the House of Commons yesterday. Its meaning will not be lost upon the British people or their enemies, or upon those in the New World who know that the Allies today are fighting their own battle against barbarism.”
Not everyone, though, was a fan of Churchill's oration. Manchester and Reid note that the speech alarmed the French ambassador, Charles Coburn, who called the Foreign Office demanding to know exactly what Churchill meant about Britain carrying on alone. (He was informed that it meant “exactly what he had said.”)
The British public also felt conflicted. In The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, Jonathan Rose details a Ministry of Information survey the next day which charted “a mood of growing public pessimism.” The social research organization Mass Observation uncovered similar findings at that time. According to the MO report, “Churchill’s speech has been mentioned frequently and spontaneously this morning. There does not appear to have been a great deal in it which was unexpected, but its grave tone has again made some impression, and may be in part the cause of the depression.”
But if these negative reactions are often minimized or forgotten in accounts of the speech, a more vital detail is obscured even further: the fact that Churchill’s speech was not broadcast live on the radio.
The recording that everyone has heard of Churchill urging Britain to “fight on the beaches” was not created in 1940. It was made in 1949, from the comfort of Churchill’s country home in Chartwell. Since the House of Commons was not wired for sound in 1940, any public broadcast would have to be delivered again, separately for the radio. Churchill was apparently too busy and too uninterested to deliver this second address. Instead, radio journalists simply reported his words on the air. It may have been for the best. When Churchill did repeat a June 18 speech, it went poorly. According to Nicolson, Churchill “hate[d] the microphone” and “sounded ghastly on the wireless.” He only returned to some of his most famous, unrecorded speeches after the war had ended at the insistence of a record company, Decca, which would not release LPs of the speeches until 1964.
So from 1940 through 1964, the vast majority of the British public had not heard Churchill deliver this famous speech.
But curiously, some began believing they had. Toye points to Nella Last, a British housewife who kept meticulous diaries during the war. She had originally written on the day of the speech, “We all listened to the news and the account of the Prime Minister’s speech and all felt grave and rather sad about things unsaid rather than said.” But by 1947, her recollection had shifted. “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets,’” she wrote. “I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there -- count on me; I’ll not fail you.’”
A Dunkirk veteran even conjured a false memory. The August 1965 issue of National Geographic shares the story of a Scottish man named Hugh, who took three vacation days to attend Churchill’s funeral. “The Nazis kicked my unit to death,” he recalled. “We left everything behind when we got out; some of my men didn’t even have boots. They dumped us along the roads near Dover, and all of us were scared and dazed, and the memory of the Panzers could set us screaming at night. Then he [Churchill] got on the wireless and said that we’d never surrender. And I cried when I heard him… And I thought to hell with the Panzers, WE’RE GOING TO WIN!”
These lapses in memory had another interesting permutation: people started believing they had heard not Churchill, but an impersonator, deliver his words. The actor Norman Shelley claimed in 1972 that he had recorded the “fight on the beaches” speech as Churchill for the radio. Shelley voiced several children’s characters for the BBC in the 1930s and 1940s and did impersonate Churchill in at least one recording dated 1942. But it’s unclear if this record was ever put to any use.
There is certainly no evidence that any version of the speech, impersonator or not, was broadcast on June 4, 1940. Numerous records detail newsreaders, not Churchill reciting the speech. Regardless, the conspiracy theory spread rapidly. David Irving, a dubious historian and Holocaust denier, ran especially hard with the allegations, claiming Churchill hadn’t really given any of his speeches. A few legitimate historians championed the story as well, but it was thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.
Toye has a theory on why people were -- and in some cases, still are -- so eager to believe this urban myth. “As a piece of psychological speculation one might hazard that they feel that the account of the almost mystical power of Churchill’s oratory, as it is usually presented, is in some sense too good to be true,” he writes in his book. Clearly, the mystique surrounding Churchill’s speeches is too good to be true. He did not have people cheering in the streets, shouting his name, and diving headfirst into the war effort after a single speech. They were certainly not responding to his “husky, rather stuttering” voice, which was not widely heard that day.
But the drive to believe and repeat these incorrect memories seems to stem from a desire to remember the war in neater, rosier terms than the actual timeline reveals. (Or, in the case of the Shelley truthers, confirm suspicions about a leader some despise.) There’s a longing to be part of a cultural moment that never existed, yet feels like it must have. While most people experienced Churchill’s cadence through a vinyl recreation years after the fact, those who survived the war would rather believe they heard the thunder and bluster only a privileged few in the House of Commons received in 1940.