Epic defeats are usually the source of national shame and humiliation. But not always. Sometimes defeat reveals character and gives a leader a chance to inspire a nation. Such was the case on June 4, 1940, when Britain completed its rushed evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk and British prime minister Winston Churchill pledged that Britain would “never surrender” to Nazi Germany.
The march to Dunkirk and Churchill’s speech began with the end of the so-called Phony War that had prevailed in Europe in the seven months after Germany attacked Poland in September 1939. On May 10, 1940, the German army invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The result was as devastating as it was rapid. By May 26, some 400,000 British and French troops were surrounded at Dunkirk, a small port city northeast of Calais on the French coast six miles from the Belgian border. After just two weeks of fighting, the Allied military coalition faced a catastrophic defeat.
By late afternoon on May 26, British officials acknowledged reality: if they did not begin evacuating Dunkirk immediately, their troops would either be annihilated or captured en masse. At 6:57 p.m., the order went out to begin Operation Dynamo, so named because it was directed from a room under Dover Castle that had once housed an electric dynamo. The goal was to ferry as many Allied soldiers as possible across the English Channel.
News of the evacuation became public on May 29. Within hours, hundreds of private boats, dubbed the “Little Ships,” joined the Royal Navy to help ferry soldiers back to English soil. Over the next week, ships large and small crisscrossed the English Channel, dodging Luftwaffe fighters in a bid to save as many soldiers as they could. The Royal Navy had originally estimated that Operation Dynamo would save at most 40,000 men. By the time it ended on June 4, roughly 340,000 soldiers—nearly 140,000 of them French—were rescued. Although the British were forced to abandon most of their tanks and armored equipment at Dunkirk, the British Army lived to fight another day. And they would do so alone. Paris fell to the Germans just ten days after Operation Dynamo ended, and nearly all of the French troops returned to France to sit out the remainder of the war.
Churchill was left with putting the best face on the terrible news at Dunkirk in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4. He offered up one of the most famous and stirring calls to arms ever delivered in the English language. He carefully avoided saying that escaping Dunkirk amounted to a victory because “wars are not won by evacuations.” He instead acknowledged the failure on the continent, hailed the “miracle of deliverance” at Dunkirk, and looked to the future. The final lines of his speech are unforgettable:
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.
In oft-told and possibly apocryphal story, Churchill turned to an aide while the House of Commons cheered after the “never surrender” line and whispered, “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!” In another version of the story, Churchill said, “we shall fight with pitchforks and broomsticks, it’s about all we’ve bloody got.”
Whether true or not, the story of Churchill’s whispered aside highlights the reality of what Britain faced in June 1940: a brutal war against a brutal opponent with no immediate prospect for help. Churchill’s reference to the New World coming to help the Old World alluded to his hope that the United States would come to Britain’s aid. But American assistance would be slow in coming. American isolationists were bitterly resisting calls to aid London. The Destroyers-for-Bases deal, the Lend-Lease Act, and the eventual U.S. entry into World War II would come well after Churchill and his countrymen faced the terrible test that the summer of 1940 brought: the Battle of Britain.
No one can say to what extent Churchill’s defiance rallied Britons to face the travails that the summer of 1940 brought. His remarks, which lasted about 30 minutes in all, were only summarized on the radio that evening. A transcript was published in the British papers the next day. It was recorded later for release to the public. Perhaps it’s only through the misty gauze of memory that Churchill’s speech takes on the importance we give it today.
Or maybe it did inspire a nation at the moment that inspiration was what it needed most. And maybe, just maybe, Churchill’s “never surrender” speech deserves being hailed, as a Sony poll found last month, as the top moment in the history of radio.