By June 1940, Britain was the last combatant still free to resist the Nazis. Churchill wanted to enlist the United States for the struggle that lay ahead.
The escape of thousands of British and French soldiers from death or capture at the hands of the German enemy was greeted as a triumph by jubilant crowds in Britain. Winston, however, cautioned against the euphoria and in one of his most stirring speeches urged the nation to remain steadfast in the fight against Nazi tyranny.
Winston on Dunkirk
“We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of victory,” he warned the House of Commons on June 4, 1940.
Nevertheless, he continued: “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo (the dreaded Nazi secret police) and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
“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!”
The United States and Europe
The dramatic events unfolding in Europe made a serious impact across the Atlantic. Once the French surrendered to the invaders,as seemed inevitable after Dunkirk, the Germans would acquire new submarine bases along the western coast of France. This posed a great threat to Atlantic shipping.
In this situation, the United States was prompted to ask Britain for help.
The Americans wanted to lease bases in eight colonies of the British Empire in the New World: Newfoundland (now part of Canada), Bermuda, the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia and British Guiana (now Guyana) on the northern coast of South America.
Winston still lacked the fifty destroyers he had requested from the States, but Britain’s prospects in 1940 were so bad that the U.S. government feared the island country would also be overrun – and soon. If that occurred, the destroyers could fall into German hands.
In addition, handing over the destroyers would not go down well with American isolationists who wanted nothing to do with the European war.
Even so, Winston sensed that this impasse contained some of the leverage he required for his underlying goal: to circumvent the isolationists and persuade the United States to enter the war.
This goal became all the more important on June 17; 1940, eleven days after the last soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk. On that day, the French asked the Germans for an armistice. The documents were signed on June 22 at Compiègne northwest of Paris, in the same railway carriage where the defeated Germans were forced to sign the armistice of 1918, ending World War One. Hitler meant this as sweet revenge for that humiliation. The same day in June, Winston made a broadcast about this dire event.
The Fall of France
“The news from France is very bad,” he told his radio audience “and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune. Nothing will alter our feelings towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again.”
“What has happened in France makes no difference to our actions and purpose …we shall defend our island home and, with the British Empire, we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brow of mankind.”
After the Armistice, France was divided between a German-controlled north and in the south, the remaining one third of her territory which was ruled by the collaborationist Vichy government headed by Marshal Philippe Petain.
There was renewed talk, especially abroad, that the British would soon emulate the French and seek terms. In fact, Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president and then U.S. ambassador to Britain, made it clear that he thought the British were well and truly finished.
The Battle of Britain
It would require Winston’s most emphatic denials to dissipate these ideas. At the same time, national morale had to be boosted and the British people fortified for the hard road ahead.
“The Battle of France is over,” Winston told the House of Commons on June 18. “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.”
“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 …. 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 still say ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Hitler’s War on America
The inclusion of the U.S.A. in Winston’s fearful prediction was, of course, deliberate. As it transpired after the war was over, Hitler seriously considered an attack on America across the Atlantic, including the bombing of New York.
In 1940, the north Atlantic had yet to be flown in winter. The Luftwaffe’s aircraft, while extremely advanced in design and capability, were unable to carry sufficient fuel for a two-way journey over such a great distance. This made virtually impossible the logistics of such an onslaught, but the threat was nevertheless there.
It is not known if Winston was aware of Hitler’s intentions in this regard. All the same, his mention of them was meant to make the Americans think again about their involvement in a conflict like World War Two which in 1940, already looked as if it carried the risk of turning global.
- Jackson, Julian: The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (Making of the Modern World) (Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK.OUP Oxford, 2004) ISBN-10: 0192805509/ISBN-13: 978-0192805508
- Hixson, Walter: The American Experience in World War II: Isolationists and Internationalists: the Battle over Intervention Vol 2 (London, UK: Routledge, 2002) ISBN-10: 0415940303/ISBN-13: 978-0415940306