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Winston Churchill: Speech Reviews the War before the House of Commons

(April 9, 1941)

We are now able, and indeed required, to take a more general view of the war than when this resolution of thanks was first conceived.

The loss of Bengazi and the withdrawal imposed upon us by the German incursion into Cyrenaica are injurious chiefly on account of the valuable airfields around Bengazi which have now passed into enemy hands.

Apart from this important aspect we should have been content, in view of the danger which was growing in the Balkans, to have halted our original advance at Tobruk.

The rout of the Italians, however, made it possible to gain a good deal of ground easily and cheaply and it was thought worthwhile to do this, although in consequence of other obligations, already beginning to descend upon us, only comparatively light forces could be employed to hold what we had won.

The movement of German air forces and armored troops from Italy and Sicily to Tripoli had begun even before we took Bengazi and our submarines and aircraft have taken a steady toll of the transports carrying the German troops and vehicles.

But that has not prevented, and could not prevent, their building up a strong armored force on the African shore. With this force they have made a rapid attack in greater strength than our commanders expected at so early a date and we have fallen back upon stronger positions and more defensible country.

I cannot attempt to forecast what the course of the fighting in Cyrenaica will be. It is clear, however, that military considerations alone must guide our generals, and that these must not in any way be complicated by what are called prestige values or considerations for public opinion.

Now that the Germans are using their armored strength in Cyrenaica we must expect hard and severe fighting, not only for the defense of Cyrenaica but for the defense of Egypt.

It is fortunate that the Italian collapse in Eritrea, Ethiopia and British and Italian Somaliland is liberating progressively very substantial forces and masses of transport to reinforce the Army of the Nile.

This sudden darkening of the scene in Cyrenaica in no way detracts from the merits of the brilliant campaigns which have destroyed the Italian Empire in North and East Africa. Nor does it diminish our gratitude to the troops or our confidence in the commanders who led them. On the contrary, we shall show that our hearts go out to our armies even more warmly when they are in hard action than when they are sailing forward in the flowing tide of success.

A fortnight ago I warned the public that an unbroken continuance of success could not be hoped for; that reverses as well as victories must be expected; that we must be ready, indeed we always are ready, to take the rough with the smooth.

Since I used this language other notable episodes have been added to those that had gone before. Cheren was stormed after hard fighting which cost us about 4,000 casualties.

The main resistance of the Italian army in Eritrea was overcome. Foremost in all this fighting in Eritrea were our Indian troops, who at all points and on all occasions sustained the martial reputation of the sons of Hindustan.

After the fall of Cheren the army advanced. Asmara has surrendered, the port of Massawa is in our hands. The Red Sea has been virtually cleared of enemy warships, which is a matter of considerable and even far reaching convenience. Harar has fallen and our troops have entered and taken charge of Addis Ababa.

The Duke of Aosta's army has retreated into the mountains where it is being attended upon by the patriot forces of Ethiopia. The complete destruction or capture of all Italian forces in Abyssinia [Ethiopia] with corresponding immediate relief to our operations elsewhere, may be reasonably expected.

Besides these land operations the Royal Navy under Admiral Cunningham, splendidly aided by the fleet air arm and the R.A.F. have gained the important sea battle of Cape Matapan-decisively breaking Italian naval power in the Mediterranean.

When we look back upon the forlorn position in which we were left in the Middle East by the French collapse, and when we remember that not only were our forces in the Nile Valley out-numbered by four or five to one by the Italian armies, that we could not contemplate without anxiety the defense of Nairobi, of Khartum, of Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem and the Suez Canal, and that this situation has been marvelously transformed; that we have taken more Italian prisoners than we had troops in the country, that the British Empire has fought alone and conquered alone except for the aid of the gallant Free French and Belgian forces who, although few in number, have borne their part-when all this is recalled amid the unrelenting pressure of events, I feel confident that I can commit this resolution to the House, and that it will be most heartily and enthusiastically acclaimed.

I now turn from Cyrenaica and Abyssinia to the formidable struggle which has followed the German invasion of the Balkan Peninsula.

We have watched with growing concern the German absorption of Hungary, the occupation of Rumania and the seduction and occupation of Bulgaria.

Step by step we have seen this movement of German military power to the east and southeast of Europe. A remorseless accumulation of German armored and motorized divisions and of aircraft has been in progress in all these countries for months.

And at length we find that the Greeks and the Yugoslavs, nations and States which never wished to take part in the war, neither of which was capable of doing the slightest injury to Germany, must now fight to the death for their freedom and for the lands of their fathers.

Until Greece was suddenly and treacherously invaded at the behest of the base Italian dictator, she had observed meticulous neutrality. It may be that the sentiments of her people were on our side, but nothing could have been more correct than the behavior of her government.

We had no contacts or engagements of a military character with the Greek Government. Although there were islands like Crete of the highest naval consequence to us, and although we had given Greece our guarantee against aggression, we abstained from the slightest intrusion upon her. It was only when she appealed to us for aid against the Italians that we gave whatever support in the air and in supplies was possible.

All this time the Germans continued to give friendly assistance to Greece and to toy with the idea of a new commercial treaty. German high officials, both in Athens and Berlin, expressed disapproval of the Italian invasion.

From the beginning of December the movements of German forces through Hungary and through Rumania toward Bulgaria became apparent to all.

More than two months ago, by the traitorous connivance of the Bulgarian King and government, advance parties of the German air force in plain clothes gradually took possession of Bulgarian air fields.

Many thousands of German airmen, soldiers and political police were ensconced in key positions before the actual announcement of the accession of Bulgaria to the Axis was made.

German troops then began to pour into Bulgaria in very large numbers. One of their objectives was plainly Salonika, which I may mention they entered at 4 o'clock this morning.

It has never been our policy nor our interest to see the war carried into the Balkan Peninsula. At the end of February we sent Foreign Secretary Eden and General Sir John G. Dill to the Middle East to see if anything could be done to form a united defensive front in the Balkans. They went to Athens, and to Ankara and would have gone to Belgrade but they were refused permission by Prince Paul's government.

If these three threatened States had stood together they could have had at their disposal sixty or seventy divisions, which with a combined plan and prompt united action taken, might have confronted the Germans with a resistance which might well have deterred them altogether and must in any case have delayed them a long time, having regard to the mountainous and broken character of the country and limits of communications.

Although we were anxious to promote such a defensive front, by which alone the peace of the Balkans could be maintained, we were determined not to urge upon the Greeks, already at grips with the Italians, any course contrary to their desires.

The support which we can give to the peoples fighting for freedom in the Balkans and in Turkey, or ready to fight, is necessarily limited at present and we did not wish to take the responsibility of pressing the Greeks to engage in a conflict.

With the new and terrible foe gathering upon their borders, however, on the first occasion Eden and Dill met the Greek King and the Greek Prime Minister. The latter declared spontaneously on behalf of his government that Greece was resolved at all costs to defend her freedom and native soil against any aggressor, and that even if left wholly unsupported by Great Britain or by Turkey and Yugoslavia, they would remain faithful to their alliance with Great Britain, which came into play at the opening of the Italian invasion, and would fight to the death against both Italy and Germany.

This being so, our duty was clear. We were bound in honor to give them all the aid in our power. If they were resolved to face the might and fury of the Huns, we had no doubts but that we should share their ordeal, and that the soldiers of the British Empire must stand in the line with them.

We were apprised by our generals on the spot, Dill and Sir Archibald Wavell, and Greek Commander in Chief Alexander Papagos-both victorious commanders in chief-that a sound military plan, giving good prospects of success, could be made.

Of course in all these matters there is hazard. In this case as any one can see, without particularizing unduly, there was for us a double hazard.

It remains to be seen how well these opposing risks and duties have been judged. But of this I am sure, that there is no less likely way of winning a war than to adhere pedantically to the maxim of "safety first."

Therefore, early in March we made a military agreement with the Greeks, and the considerable movement of British and Imperial troops and supplies began. I cannot enter into details or, while this widespread battle is going on, attempt to discuss either the situation or the prospects.

I therefore turn to the story of Yugoslavia. This valiant steadfast people, whose history for centuries has been a struggle for life and who owe their survival to their mountains and to their fighting qualities, made every endeavor to placate the Nazi monster.

If they had made common cause with the Greeks when the Greeks hurled back the Italian invaders, the complete destruction of the Italian armies in Albania could have been certainly and swiftly achieved long before the German forces could have reached the theatre of war.

Even in January or February this extraordinary military opportunity was still open. But Prince Paul's government, undeterred by the fate of so many small countries, not only observed the strictest neutrality and refused even to enter into effective staff conversations with Greece or with Turkey or with us, but hugged the delusion that they could preserve their independence by patching up some sort of pact with Hitler.

Once again we see the odious German poison technique employed. In this case, however, it was to the government rather than to the nation that the dose and inoculations were administered. The process was not hurried. Why should it be? All the time the German armies and air force were entering and massing in Bulgaria. From a few handfuls of tourists admiring the beauties of the Bulgarian landscape in the wintry weather, the German forces grew to seven, twelve, twenty and finally to twenty-five divisions. Presently the weak and unfortunate Prince and afterward his Ministers were summoned, like others before them, to Hitler's footstool and a pact was signed which would have given Germany complete control not over the body but over the soul of the Yugoslav nation.

Then at last the people of Yugoslavia saw their peril, and with a universal spasm of revolt swept from power those who were leading them into a shameful tutelage, and resolved at the eleventh hour to guard their freedom and their honor with their lives.

A boa constrictor who had already covered his prey with his foul saliva and then had it suddenly wrested from his coils, would be in an amiable mood compared with Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop and the rest of the Nazi gang.

A frightful vengeance was vowed against the Southern Slavs. Rapid, perhaps hurried, redispositions were made of German forces and German diplomacy. Hungary was offered large territorial gains to become the accomplice in the assault upon a friendly neighbor with whom she had just signed a solemn pact of friendship and non-aggression. Count Teleki, Hungarian Premier, preferred to take his own life rather than join in such a deed of shame.

A heavy forward movement of the German armies, already gathered in Austria, was set in motion through Hungary to the northern frontier of Yugoslavia. A ferocious howl of hatred from the supreme miscreant was the signal for the actual invasion. The open city of Belgrade was laid in ashes and a tremendous drive by the German armored forces in Bulgaria was launched westward into Southern Serbia.

When it was no longer deemed worth while to keep up the farce of love for Greece, other powerful forces rolled forward into Greece, where they were at once unflinchingly encountered and have already sustained more than one bloody repulse at the hands of the heroic Greek Army. The British and Imperial troops have not up to the present been engaged. Further than this, I cannot attempt to carry the tale.

I therefore turn for a few moments to the larger aspects of the war. I must first speak of France and of the French people, to whom in their sorrows we are united not only by memories but by living ties.

I welcomed cordially the declaration of Marshal Petain that France would never act against her former allies or go to war with her former allies. Such a course, so insensate, so unnatural and on lower grounds so improvident, might well-though it is not for me to speak for any government but our own-such a course might alienate from France for long years the sympathy and support of the American democracy. I am sure that the French nation would, with whatever means of expression are still open to them, repudiate such a shameful course.

We must, however, realize that the government of Vichy is in a great measure dependent and, in a great many matters, though happily not in all, in Hitler's hands, acting daily through the Armistice Commission at Wiesbaden. Two million Frenchmen are in German hands. A great part of the food supply in France has been seized by Germany. Both prisoners and food can be doled out in return for hostile propaganda or unfriendly action against Britain. Or again, the cost of the German occupation of France, for which a cruel and exorbitant toll is exacted, may be raised still further as a punishment for any manifestation of sympathy with us.

Admiral Darlan tells us that the Germans have been generous in the treatment of France. All the information which we have, both from occupied and unoccupied France, makes me very doubtful whether the mass of the French people would endorse that strange and sinister tribute.

But I must make it clear that we must maintain our blockade against Germany and rights of contraband control at sea, which have never been disputed or denied to any belligerent and which a year ago France was exercising with us.

Some time ago we were ready to open economic negotiations with the French to mitigate the hardships of their conditions, but any chance of fruitful negotiations was nipped in the bud by "the generous Germans" and imperative orders were given from Wiesbaden to Vichy to break off all contact with us.

We have allowed very considerable quantities of food to go into France out of a sincere desire to spare the French people every hardship in our power. When, however, it comes to thousands of tons of rubber and other vital war material which pass, as we know, directly to the German armies, we are bound, even at the risk of collisions with French warships at sea, to enforce our rights as recognized by international law.

There is another action into which Vichy might be led by the dictation of Germany: namely, sending powerful war vessels which are unfinished or even damaged from the French African parts to ports in metropolitan France now under German control or which may at very short notice fall under their control.

Such movements of French war vessels from Africa to France would alter the balance of naval power and would thus prejudice the interests of the United States as well as our own. I trust that such incidents will be avoided, or if they are not avoided, that the consequences which will follow from them will be understood and fairly judged by the French nation for whose cause we are contending no less than for our own.

I am glad to be able to report a continued and marked improvement in the relative strength of the R.A.F. compared with that of Germany. Also, I draw attention to the remarkable increase in its actual strength and in its bombing capacity and also a marked augmentation in the power and size of the bombs which we shall be using in even greater number.

The sorties which we are now accustomed to make upon German harbors and cities are increasing both in the number of aircraft employed and in the weight of the discharge with every month that passes.

In some cases we have already in our raids exceeded in severity anything which a single town has in a single night experienced over here. At the same time, there is a sensible improvement in our means of dealing with German raids upon this island.

A very great measure of security has been given to this country in daylight and we are glad that the days are lengthening; but now the R.A.F. looks forward to the moonlight periods as opportunities for inflicting severe losses upon raiders as well as for striking hard at the enemy in his own territory. The fact that technical advisers welcome daylight, moonlight and starlight and that we do not rely for our protection on darkness, clouds and mist, as would have been the case some time ago, is pregnant with hope and with meaning. But, of course, all these tendencies are only in their early stages.

But, after all, everything turns upon the Battle of the Atlantic which is proceeding with growing intensity on both sides. Our losses in ships and tonnage are very heavy and, vast as are the shipping resources we control, these losses could not continue indefinitely without seriously affecting our war effort and our means of subsistence.

It is no answer to say that we have inflicted upon the Germans and Italians a far higher proportion of losses, compared with the size of their merchant fleet, and that our world-wide traffic is maintained. We have in fact sunk, captured or seen scuttled over 2,300,000 tons of German and Italian shipping. We have lost nearly 4,000,000 tons of British tonnage. Against that we have brought under the British flag over 3,000,000 tons of foreign or newly constructed tonnage, not counting considerable Allied tonnage under our control. Therefore, at the moment our enormous fleets sail the seas without any serious or obvious diminution so far as numbers of ships is concerned.

But what is to happen in the future if losses continue at the present rate? Where are we to find another 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 tons to fill the gaps which are being created and to carry us on through 1942?

We are building merchant ships upon a very considerable scale and to the utmost of our ability. We are also making a most strenuous effort to repair the large number of vessels damaged by the enemy and the still larger number damaged by Winter gales. We are doing our utmost to accelerate the turnaround of our ships, remembering that even ten days' saving on turnaround of our immense fleet is equal to a reinforcement of 5,000,000 tons of imports in a single year.

All the energy and contrivance of which we are capable have been and will be devoted to these purposes and we are already conscious of substantial results.

But when all is said and done, the only way in which we can get through the year 1942 without a very sensible contraction of our war efforts is by another gigantic building of merchant ships in the United States similar to that prodigy of output accomplished by the Americans in 1918.

All this has been in train in the United States for many months past. There has now been a very large extension of the program and we have assurance that several millions of tons of American newly-built shipping will be available for the common struggle during the course of the next year.

Here, then, is the assurance upon which we may count for the staying power without which it will not be possible to save the world from the criminals who assail its future.

But the Battle of the Atlantic must be won not only in the factories and shipyards but upon the blue water. I am confident that we shall succeed in coping with the air attacks which are made upon the shipping in our western and northwestern approaches.

I hope eventually the inhabitants of the sister isle [Ireland] may realize that it is as much in their interests as it is in ours that their ports and airfields should be available for naval and air forces which must operate ever further into the Atlantic.

But while I am hopeful we shall gain mastery over the air attacks upon our shipping, the U-boats and the surface raiders range ever farther to the westward, ever nearer to the shores of the United States, and constitute a menace which must be overcome if the life of Britain is not to be endangered and if the purposes to which the Government and peoples of the United States have devoted themselves are not to be frustrated. We shall, of course, make every effort in our power.

The defeat of the U-boats and of surface raiders has been proved to be entirely a question of adequate escorts for our convoys.

It will indeed be disastrous if the great masses of weapons, munitions and instruments of war of all kinds made with the toil and skill of American hands at the cost of the United States and loans to us under the Aid to Britain Bill were to sink into the depths of the ocean and never reach the hard-pressed fighting line.

That would be lamentable to us and I cannot believe it would be found acceptable to the proud and resolute people of the United States.

Indeed, I am authorized to say that ten United States Revenue cutters, fast vessels of about 2,000 tons displacement with a fine armament and a wide range of endurance, have already been placed at our disposal by the American Government and will soon be in action. These vessels, originally designed to enforce prohibition, will now serve an even higher purpose.

It is, of course, very hazardous to try to forecast in what direction or directions Hitler will employ his military machine in the present year. He may at any time attempt the invasion of this island. That is an ordeal from which we shall not shrink.

At the present moment he is driving fast through the Balkans and at any moment he may turn upon Turkey. But there are many signs which point to an attempt to secure the granary of the Ukraine [both in Russia] and the oil-fields of the Caucasus as a German means of gaining the resources wherewith to wear down the English-speaking world.

All this is speculation, but I will say one thing more: Once we have gained the Battle of the Atlantic and are sure of the constant flow of American supplies which are being prepared for us, then, however far Hitler may go or whatever new millions and scores of millions he may lap in misery, we who are armed with the sword of retributive justice shall be on his track.

[1] New York Times, April 10, 1941.

Sources: ibiblio