World War II had started horribly for the Entente, the Allied powers. German armor and infantry flooded across Europe in what became known as the “blitzkrieg” or “lightning war.” Countries were felled, one by one, in quick succession. The hope of Western Europe was left in the hands of France and the United Kingdom. However, there remained hope. France had the Maginot Line, the strongest stretch of fortifications every built, and together the French and British had a superior numerical advantage. Yet, the hope soon soured. The Germans rushed through Belgium, circumventing the Maginot Line, and pushed deep into France, cutting off thousands of French and British troops. The British were forced to enact Operation Dynamo and pulled off a daring evacuation of Dunkirk, rescuing almost 340,000 soldiers. The Entente clung to their remaining optimism… until Paris fell on June 14, 1940 and with it, the organized French resistance. The world was left in stunned silence. In just over a month, the Germans had managed to capture more ground than they had during the entirety of World War I. Seemingly, the only country left standing in the wake of Germany was the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom had thrown its troops onto the front-line and failed miserably, costing them 243 ships, 931 aircraft, and much of their mechanized ground forces because they were forced to abandon their vehicles and artillery. In this moment of history someone was needed: that man was Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Prime Minister Churchill was able to reignite hope in the faint hearts of his people when he delivered his “Their Finest Hour” speech on the 18th of June, 1940. Using his powerful oratorical skills and an appeal to peoples’ logic and emotions, Winston Churchill managed to give all of the United Kingdom hope in the coming fight.
No man was better suited to give this speech than Winston Churchill. He had lived a distinguished life, earned the respect of the people, and became the second powerful man in the United Kingdom. He was born on November 30, 1874 to Lord Randolph Churchill and Jeanette Jerome. When he came of age, Winston Churchill entered into the British Royal Military College graduating ranked 20th in his class of 130. Churchill joined the military at the height of the British Empire, serving time in India and the Sudan. After leaving the army in 1899, Churchill became a war correspondent for the Morning Post and was captured by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War. He made headlines after he escaped and traveled to Portuguese-controlled Mozambique. Afterwards, Churchill followed in his father’s footsteps and became a politician. In 1908, he was finally elected to Parliament and appointed as president of the Board of Trade, a cabinet position of the prime minister. While in that position, Churchill introduced the first minimum wage, unemployment insurance, the eight-hour work day, and helped arrange for labor exchanges for the unemployed. Furthermore, he assisted in the passing of the People’s Budget, which enacted new taxes on the rich to pay for the new social programs. British workers heralded Churchill as champion of their cause. Subsequently, Churchill served as first lord of the Admiralty where he championed the modernization of the British Navy and setup the Royal Navy Air Service. For a brief period during World War I Churchill rejoined the British Army to fight on the Western Front. During the late 1930s, he proceeded to become a leading advocate for British rearmament and was a staunch critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler. Then on September 3, 1939, Churchill was again appointed as first lord of the Admiralty and a member of the war cabinet and by April of 1940, he rose to chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee. Churchill finally rose to the height of power when he was appointed as prime minister on May 10, 1940 by King George VI. Winston Churchill had a distinguished career in the military and politics and earned the respect of the British people by championing their causes. By the time he spoke on June 18, 1940; no man had more credibility than Winston Churchill. In that dire situation, Winston Churchill was the right man to stand in front of the House of Commons and the British people and layout their situation.
Using his credibility, Winston Churchill was able to make a strong logical argument for why the United Kingdom would prevail. In the face of dissipating morale, Churchill was quick to bring up that fact that a dozen British divisions had fought along their French comrades and had been quite successful. Unfortunately, had it not been for the failings of French commanders, Churchill believed those forces would have been able to turn the tide. Churchill followed with the point that many of those forces were now safely home due to the evacuation of Dunkirk; making the remark: “…in this Island today [we have] a very large and powerful military force. This force comprises all our best-trained and our finest troops, including scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at no disadvantage.” Adding to that, Churchill pointed to the fact that a German invasion of England would be extremely difficult. With the number of troops and defense forces that the British had at home, their island was heavily defended. With their radar technology an invasion would be even more difficult. The British could have advanced warning beforehand and their powerful naval force and air force could make the German crossing of the English Channel a hassle. The time required for Germany to amass an invasion fleet was beneficial to the British as well. Looking at these factors together meant that England looked like a fortress. Since a naval invasion would be so difficult, Churchill turned his thoughts to the air. For those who questioned the United Kingdom’s air force, Churchill reputed their claims: “…we were accustomed to inflict in the air losses of as much as two and two-and-a-half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no-man’s-land, we undoubtedly beat the German Air Force, and gained the mastery of the local air, inflicting here a loss of three or four to one day after day.” Churchill considered that figure could be even higher when fighting over home territory. Finally, Churchill ensured the British people they were not alone. The United Kingdom had been promised support by their former colonies which included Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand and supplies from the United States. Great Britain had a great chance to come out of this fight in one piece.
If Winston Churchill’s logical appeal was not strong enough to rally everyone for the fight, his use of pathos was. One of the strongest appeals that Churchill makes is through a comparison to World War I. He stated, “During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced nothing but disaster and disappointment. That was our constant fear: one blow after another, terrible losses, frightful dangers. Everything miscarried.” Even after all the horrors, the allies managed to come out as the victors. This comparison showed citizens that even though things seem bad now, in a similar situation 30 years ago the allies still managed to win. It means there is always hope. In order to generate more enthusiasm from the people, Churchill points to the death and suffering of the British army and that of conquered people such as the Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, and French. If these people are already suffering at the hands of the despotic Hitler, then why should the British people not keep fighting? The British people have a duty not just to themselves and their country, but to those they promised protection too. Churchill even turns the war into a fight of good versus evil and light versus dark with his use of terms like “sunlit uplands” and “despotic control.” There are few arguments that connect better than being the light against the darkness. The epitome of this argument in Churchill’s speech is: “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire… If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free 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…” The argument made with this quote is powerful. This isn’t just any war, this is a war about survival of culture and goodness. If the British give in, they will lose everything they have created and everything they love. The survivors would be subjected to a dark new world. This creates a deep fear of losing and an intense burning within to never give up, because even if you survive… you will not want to live in a world controlled by the Nazi’s.
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years,” Churchill cried, ”men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” A powerful and hopeful ending to an imperative speech. In a dire time of need, Winston Churchill stepped up and made a strong appeal to his nation to stand strong and be proud. He urged them to do their duty and keep their hope up. The true power of the speech lays into what happened afterward. The same day as this speech, Charles de Gaulle, the French general, made his famous appeal to the French people to keep fighting. Churchill even foreshadowed the coming battle stating, “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” And the Battle of Britain began just three weeks later. During the hard times of the Battle of Britain, this speech showed its staying power by holding British morale together. They knew what they were fighting for and that the hope of much of the world laid on their shoulders. Using that strength, they managed to outlast the Germans repeated bombardments and, ultimately, won the skies over their home. Five years later, the British and their allies had won the war. Europe was free again and the darkness that had threatened the world was pushed back into the breach from which it came. Winston Churchill’s words had a powerful effect on its audience and he delivered it when they needed it most. Therefore, “Their Finest Hour” is one of the greatest speeches ever.