I was asked last week whether I was aware of some
uneasiness which, it was said, existed in the country on account of
the gravity, as it was described, of the war situation. So I thought
it would be a good thing to go and see for myself what this uneasiness
amounted to. And I went to some of our great cities and seaports which
had been most heavily bombed, and to some of the places where the poorest
people have got it worst.
I've come back not only reassured but refreshed. To
leave the offices in Whitehall with their ceaseless hum of activity
and stress and to go out to the front, by which I mean the streets and
wharves of London, or Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Swansea or Bristol,
is like going out of a hothouse onto the bridge of a fighting ship.
It is a tonic which I should recommend to any who are suffering from
fretfulness to take in strong doses when they have need of it.
It is quite true that I've seen many painful scenes
of havoc and of fine buildings and acres of cottage homes blasted into
rubble heaps of ruin; but it is just in those very places, where the
malice of the savage enemy has done its worst, and where the ordeal
of the men, women and children has been most severe that I found their
morale most high and splendid. Indeed, I felt encompassed by an exaltation
of spirit in the people which seemed to lift mankind and its troubles
above the level of material facts into that joyous serenity we think
belongs to a better world than this.
Of their kindness to me I cannot speak because I have
never sought it or dreamed of it and can never deserve it. I can only
assure you that I and my colleagues, or comrades, rather, for that is
what they are, will toil with every scrap of life and strength according
to the lights that are granted to us not to fail these people or be
wholly unworthy of their faithful and generous regard.
The British nation is stirred and moved as it never
has been at any time in its long, eventful, famous history. And it is
no hackneyed trope of speech to say that they mean to conquer or to
die. What a triumph the life of these battered cities is over the worst
that fire and bomb can do! What a vindication of the civilized and decent
way of living we have been trying to work for and work toward in our
island! What a proof of the virtues of free institutions! What a test
of the quality of our local authorities and of customs and societies
so steadily built!
This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even
exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain. The sublime but
also terrible, sombre experiences and emotions of the battlefield, which
for centuries had been reserved for the soldiers and sailors, are now
shared for good or ill by the entire population. All are proud of being
under the fire of the enemy. Old men, little children, the crippled,
veterans of former wars, aged women, the ordinary hard-pressed citizen-or
subject of the King as he likes to call himself-the sturdy workmen who
swing the hammers or load the ships, the skillful craftsmen, the members
of every kind of A. R. P. service, are proud to feel that they stand
in the lines together with our fighting men when one of the greatest
causes is being fought out. And fought out it will be to the end. This
indeed is the grand, heroic period of our history and the light of glory
shines on all.
You may. imagine how deeply I feel my own responsibility
to all these people, my responsibility to bear my part in bringing them
safely out of this long, stern scowling valley through which we are
marching and not to demand from them their sacrifices and exertions
in vain. I have thought in this difficult period, when so much fighting
and so many critical and complicated manoeuvres are going on, that it
is above all things important that our policy and conduct should be
upon the highest level and that honour should be our guide.
Very few people realize how small were the forces
with which General Wavell, that fine commander whom we cheered in good
days and will back through bad; how small were the forces which took
the bulk of the Italian masses in Libya prisoners. In none of his successive
victories could General Wavell maintain in the desert or bring into
action at one time more than two divisions or about 30,000 men.
When we reached Bengazi, and what was left of Mussolini's
legions scurried back along the dusty road to Tripoli, a call was made
upon us which we could not resist. Let me tell you about that call.
You will remember how, in November, the Italian dictator
fell upon the unoffending Greeks and without reason and without warning
invaded their country, and how the Greek nation, reviving their classic
frame, hurled his armies back at the double-quick. Meanwhile, Hitler,
who had been creeping and worming his way steadily forward, doping and
poisoning and pinioning one after the other, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria,
suddenly made it clear that he would come to the rescue of his fellow-criminal.
The lack of unity among the Balkan States had enabled him to build up
a mighty army in their midst. While nearly all the Greek troops were
busy beating the Italians the tremendous German military machine suddenly
towered up on their other frontier.
In their mortal peril the Greeks turned to us for
succour. Strained as were our resources we could not say them nay. By
solemn guarantee, given before the war, Great Britain had promised them
her help. They declared they would fight for their native soil even
if neither of their neighbours made common cause with them and even
if we left them to their fate.
But we could not do that. There are rules against
that kind of thing and to break those rules would be fatal to the honour
of the British Empire, without which we could neither hope nor deserve
to win this hard war. Military defeat or miscalculation can be remedied.
The fortunes of war are fickle and changing. But an act of shame would
deprive us of the respect which we now enjoy throughout the world and
thus would sap the vitals of' our strength. During the last year we
have gained by our bearing and conduct a potent hold upon the sentiments
of the people of the United States. Never, never in our long history
have we been held in such admiration and regard across the Atlantic
In that Great Republic, now in much travail and stress
of soul, it is customary to use all the many valid, solid arguments
about American interests and American safety which depend on the destruction
of Hitler and his foul gang and even fouler doctrine. But, in the long
run-believe me for I know-the action of the United States will be dictated
not by methodical calculations of profit and loss but by moral sentiment
and by that gleaming flash of resolve which lifts the hearts of men
and nations and springs from the spiritual foundation of human life
We, for our part, were, of course, bound to harken
to the Greek appeal to the utmost limit of our strength. We put the
case to the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand and their Governments,
without in any way ignoring the hazards, told us that they felt the
same as we did. So an important part of the mobile portion of the Army
of the Nile was sent to Greece in fulfillment of our pledge. It happened
that the divisions available and best suited to this task were from
New Zealand and Australia and that only about half the troops who took
part in this dangerous expedition came from the mother country.
I see the German propaganda is trying to make bad
blood between us and Australia by making out that we have used them
to do what we would not have asked of the British Army. I shall leave
it to Australia to deal with that taunt.
Let us see what has happened.
We knew, of course, that the forces we could send
to Greece would not by themselves alone be sufficient to stem the German
tide of invasion. But there was a very real hope that the neighbours
of Greece would, by our intervention, be drawn to stand in the line
together with her while time remained. How nearly that came off will
be known some day.
The tragedy of Yugoslavia has been that these brave
people had a government who hoped to purchase an ignoble immunity by
submission to the Nazi rule. But, when at last the people of Yugoslavia
found out where they were being taken and rose in one spontaneous surge
of revolt, they saved the soul and future of their country, but it was
already too late to save its territory. They had no time to mobilize
their armies. They were struck down by the ruthless and highly mechanized
Hun before they could even bring their armies into the field.
Great disasters have occurred in the Balkans. Yugoslavia
has been beaten down. Only in the mountains can she continue her resistance.
The Greeks have been overwhelmed. Their victorious Albanian Army has
been cut off and forced to surrender and it has been left to the Anzacs
and their British comrades to fight their way back to the sea, leaving
their mark on all who hindered them.
I turn aside from the stony path we have to tread
to indulge a moment of lighter relief. I dare say you have read in the
newspapers that by a special proclamation the Italian dictator has congratulated
the Italian Army in Albania on the glorious laurels they have gained
by their victory over the Greeks. Here, surely, is the world record
in the domain of the ridiculous and the contemptible. This whipped jackal,
Mussolini, who to save his own skin has made all Italy a vassal state
of Hitler's Empire, comes frisking up at the side of the German tiger
with yelpings not only of appetite-that could be understood-but even
Different things strike different people in different
ways but I am sure there are a great many millions in the British Empire
and in the United States who will find a new object in life in making
sure that, when we come to the final reckoning, this absurd impostor
will be abandoned to public justice and universal scorn.
While these grievous events were taking place in the
Balkan Peninsula and in Greece our forces in Libya have sustained a
vexatious and damaging defeat. The Germans advanced sooner and in greater
strength than we or our generals expected. The bulk of our armoured
troops, which had played such a decisive part in beating the Italians,
had to be re-fitted, and the single armoured brigade which had been
judged sufficient to hold the frontier until about the middle of May
was worsted and its vehicles largely destroyed by a somewhat stronger
German armoured force. Our infantry, which did not exceed one division
had to fall back upon the very large Imperial Armies that have been
assembled and can be nourished and maintained in the fertile Delta of
the Nile. Tobruk-the fortress of Tobruk-which flanks any German advance
on Egypt, we hold strongly. There we have repulsed many attacks, causing
the enemy heavy losses and taking many prisoners. That is how the matters
stand in Libya and on the Egyptian front.
We must now expect the war in the Mediterranean, on
the sea, in the desert and above all in the air to become very fierce,
varied and widespread. We have cleaned the Italians out of Cyrenaica
and it now lies with us to purge that province of the Germans. That
will be a harder task and we cannot expect to do it at once.
You know I never try to make out that defeats are
victories. I have never underrated the German as a warrior. Indeed,
I told you a month ago that the swift, unbroken course of victories
which we had gained over the Italians could not possibly continue and
that misfortunes must be expected. There is only one thing certain about
war, that it is full of disappointments and also of mistakes.
It remains to be seen, however, whether it is the
Germans who have made the mistake in trampling down the Balkan States
and in making a river of blood and hate between themselves and the Greek
and Yugoslav peoples. It remains also to be seen whether they have made
a mistake in their attempt to invade Egypt with the forces and means
of supply which they have now got. Taught by experience, I make it a
rule not to prophesy about battles which have yet to be fought. This,
however, I will venture to say: that I should be very sorry to see the
tasks of the combatants in the Middle East exchanged and for General
Wavell's armies to be in the position of the German invaders. That is
only a personal opinion and I can well understand there may be different
It is certain that fresh dangers besides those which
threaten Egypt may come upon us in the Mediterranean. The war may spread
to Spain and Morocco. It may spread eastward to Turkey and Russia. The
Germans may lay their hands for a time upon the granaries of the Ukraine
and the oil wells of the Caucasus. They may dominate the Black Sea;
they may dominate the Caspian, who can tell? We shall do our best to
meet them and fight them wherever they go.
But there is one thing which is certain; there is
one thing which rises out of the vast welter which is sure and solid
and which no one in his senses can mistake: Hitler cannot find safety
from avenging justice in the East, in the Middle East or in the Far
East. In order to win this war he must either conquer this island by
invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United
Let us look into these alternatives if you will bear
with me for a few minutes longer.
When I spoke to you early in February many people
believed the Nazi boastings that the invasion of Britain was about to
begin. Now it has not begun yet, and with every week that passes we
grow stronger on the sea, in the air and in the number, quality, training
and equipment of the great armies that now guard our island.
When I compare the position at home as it is today
with what it was in the summer of last year, even after making allowance
for a much more elaborate mechanical preparation on the part of the
enemy, I feel that we have very much to be thankful for. And I believe
that, provided our exertion and our vigilance are not relaxed even for
a moment, we may be confident that we shall give a very good account
of ourselves. More than that it would be boastful to say. Less than
that it would be foolish to believe.
But how about our lifeline across the Atlantic? What
is to happen if so many of our merchant ships are sunk that we cannot
bring in the food we need to nourish our brave people? What if the supplies
of war materials and war weapons which the United States are seeking
to send us in such enormous quantities should in large part be sunk
on the way? What is to happen then?
In February, as you may remember, that bad man, in
one of his raving outbursts, threatened us with a terrifying increase
in the numbers and activities of his U-boats and in his air attacks,
not only on our island but, thanks to his use of French and Norwegian
harbours, and thanks to the denial to us of the Irish bases, fell upon
our shipping far out into the Atlantic. We have taken and are taking
all possible measures to meet this steady attack. And we are now fighting
against it with might and main. That is what is called the Battle of
the Atlantic which, in order to survive, we have got to win on salt
water just as decisively as we had to win the Battle of Britain last
August and September in the air.
Wonderful exertions have been made by our Navy and
Air Force, by the hundreds of mine-sweeping vessels which with their
marvelous appliances keep our ports clear in spite of all the enemy
can do, by the men who build and repair our immense fleets of merchant
ships, by the men who load and unload them, and, need I say, by the
officers and men of the Merchant Navy who go out in all weathers and
in the teeth of all dangers to fight for the life of their native land
and for a cause they comprehend and serve. Still, when you think how
easy it is to sink ships at sea and how hard it is to build them and
protect them, and when you remember that we have never less than 2,000
ships afloat and three or four hundred in the danger zone, when you
think of the great armies we are maintaining and reinforcing in the
east and of the world-wide traffic we have to carry on-when you remember
all this can you wonder that it is the Battle of the Atlantic which
holds the first place in the thoughts of those upon whom rests responsibility
for procuring the victory?
It was, therefore, with indescribable relief that
I learned of the tremendous decisions lately taken by the President
and people of the United States. The American Fleet and flying boats
have been ordered to patrol the wide waters of the Western Hemisphere
and to warn the peaceful shipping of all nations outside the combat
zone of the presence of lurking U-boats or raiding cruisers belonging
to the two aggressor nations. We British will, therefore, be able to
concentrate our protecting forces far more upon the routes nearer home
and to take a far heavier toll of the U-boats there. I have felt for
some time that something like this was bound to happen.
The President and Congress of the United States, having
newly fortified themselves by contact with their electors, have solemnly
pledged their aid to Britain in this war because they deemed our cause
just and because they know their own interests and safety would be endangered
if we were destroyed.
They are taxing themselves heavily. They have passed
great legislation. They have turned a large part of their gigantic industry
to making the munitions which we need. They have even given us or lent
us valuable weapons of their own. I could not believe that they would
allow the high purposes to which they have set themselves to be frustrated
and the products of their skill and labour sunk to the bottom of the
U-boat warfare, as conducted by Germany, is entirely
contrary to international agreements freely subscribed to by Germany
only a few years ago. There is no effective blockade but only a merciless
murder and marauding over wide indiscriminate areas utterly beyond the
control of the German sea power.
When I said ten weeks ago, "Give us the tools
and we will finish the job," I meant, "Give them to us; put
them within our reach." And that is what it now seems the Americans
are going to do. And that is why I feel a very strong conviction that
though the Battle of the Atlantic will be long and hard and its issue
is by no means yet determined, it has entered upon a more grim but at
the same time a far more favourable phase. When you come to think of
it, the United States are very closely bound up with us now and have
engaged themselves deeply in giving us moral, material and, within the
limits I have mentioned, naval support.
It is just worth while, therefore, taking a look on
both sides of the ocean at the forces which are facing each other in
this awful struggle from which there can be no going back.
No prudent and far-seeing man can doubt that the eventual
and total defeat of Hitler and Mussolini is certain in view of respective
declared resolvers of the British and American democracies. There are
less than 70,000,000 malignant Huns, some of whom are curable and others
killable, most of whom are already engaged in holding down Austrians,
Czechs, Poles and the many other ancient races they now bully and pillage.
The people of the British Empire and of the United States number nearly
200,000,000 in their homelands and in the British Dominions alone. They
possess the unchallengeable command of the ocean and will soon obtain
decisive superiority in the air. They have more wealth, more technical
resources and they make more steel than the whole of the rest of the
world put together. They are determined that the cause of freedom shall
not be trampled on nor the tide of world progress turned backward by
the criminal dictators.
While, therefore, we naturally view with sorrow and
anxiety much that is happening in Europe and in Africa and may happen
in Asia, we must not lose our sense of proportion and thus become discouraged
or alarmed. When we face with a steady eye the difficulties which lie
before us we may derive new confidence by remembering those we have
already overcome. Nothing that is happening now is comparable in gravity
with the dangers through which we passed last year. Nothing that can
happen in the East is comparable with what is happening in the West.
Last time I spoke to you I quoted the lines of Longfellow
which President Roosevelt had written out for me in his own hand. I
have some other lines which are less well known but which seem apt and
appropriate to our fortunes tonight and I believe they will be so judged
wherever the English language is spoken or the flag of freedom flies:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only, .
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! .
But westward, look, the land is bright!
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