One for all and all for one. That simple principle underlies all alliances. But what happens when the all dwindles and the one ends up alone? That’s the position Britain found itself in the late spring of 1940. Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France had all fallen under the Nazi jackboots. Britain was the only thing standing between Adolf Hitler and control of Europe. With Britain tottering on the abyss, its prime minister, Winston Churchill, gave one of the great rallying cries in world history, the “finest hour” speech of June 18, 1940.
As Churchill wrote the speech—he did not rely on others to craft his words—the situation was dire. Indeed, over the previous six weeks Churchill had given two major speeches preparing Britons for what was to come, first telling them he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and then urging them to “never surrender.” Now the Germans had raised the swastika over Paris. It was just a matter of time—four days in fact—before the French government would formally surrender. Britain was left alone to face Hitler’s Germany.
When Churchill began speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, his fellow parliamentarians knew that June 18th marked a significant date in British history—the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, when British troops under the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon. Churchill’s task was to rally their descendants to stop another authoritarian from dominating the European continent, this time against even longer odds.
Churchill spoke for thirty-six minutes. His final paragraph summarized what Britain and the world faced:
The Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. 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 freed 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 made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty 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.
That night at 9:00 p.m., Churchill repeated his speech almost word for word, this time on BBC radio. An estimated 60 percent of the British people listened to the broadcast. Churchill’s delivery left a lot to be desired. He spoke the entire time with a cigar in his mouth, leaving some of his listeners to conclude he was drunk.
However imperfect Churchill’s delivery may have been, the emotional power of his words is unquestioned. Three weeks later, on July 10, 1940, the German Luftwaffe began bombing Britain. What Churchill had named the Battle of Britain had begun. The tribulations of that summer would show Britons at their finest hour, in no small part because Churchill gave one of his finest speeches at his country’s moment of greatest need.