The Second World War
The students are deep into studying WWII at present, having read primary source documents about Pearl Harbor. Recently, military historian and biographer Carlo D’Este had an inspiring piece up at HNN l on Sir Winston Churchill, drawn from his book Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945:
….From the time he became prime minister, until December 1941, when Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, Churchill’s strongest weapon was oratory. As a young army officer stationed in India in 1897 he wrote that: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”
His speeches of 1940 become legendary, not only for their magnetism but more importantly for their effect on public morale. To counter both the disastrous news in France and to put to rest any notion that Britain might capitulate, Churchill delivered one of his many patriotic speeches to Parliament on June 18 that was also broadcast by the BBC. He made no effort to sugarcoat the extent of the dire situation Britain faced. The struggle that lay ahead from the air and likely from invasion would be met with every means and would be rebuffed. Of Hitler and the nations now under the Nazi jackboot, he said, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free . . . But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States . . . 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 Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
Read the rest here (D’Este has written biographies on George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower among other published works).
Churchill was an inordinately creative military leader, deeply interested in all facets of warfare from intelligence to technological innovations in armaments ( famously a proponent of the development of the tank in WWI) to military tactics. The amphibious landing at Gallipoli was a disaster but Normandy a generation later, despite Churchill’s misgivings, was a providential success. When in political disgrace – mostly undeserved – as a result of Gallipoli, Churchill did not retire to the shadows but donned a uniform and went to the Western Front ! Moreover he demonstrated there exemplary bravery under fire.
Can anyone imagine a politician doing that today? Or the public expecting him to do so ?
In the Second World War, in 1940 -1941, Churchill was the indomitible rock upon which Western civilization rested. A lesser man as Prime Minister would have taken easy terms from Hitler and made Great Britain a satellite empire of the Greater German Reich, akin to the Phonecians’ relationship to ancient Persia. Few people alive today realize how dire the situation was in the Spring of 1941 and how close liberal democracy came to vanishing from history.
Thanks to Churchill and the bravery of the RAF, the West had a chance to catch it’s breath.