Peter Hoskin

Remembering the few

Remembering the few
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Today is the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill's 'Few' speech. Here's how the Spectator reviewed it at the time:

Mr Churchill looks ahead, The Spectator, 23 August 1940

Mr Churchill surpassed even his own masterpieces of lucid and spirited exposition in his speech on Tuesday, in which he surveyed the first year of the war and the last exciting days of victory in the air and looked fearlessly into the future. During the previous fortnight, and especially during the previous week, the nation had become aware of the fact that the intensified air attack was part of that onslaught on Britain whose approach was trumpeted in Germany. It might be no more than a preliminary to bigger attacks to come, but none the less it has been evident that so severe a defeat in an opening engagement, inflicted by the incredible skill and daring of the R.A.F., could not be without its effect on the whole campaign, whilst the destructive attacks by our bombers on the bases and industrial centres of the enemy proved that our capacity was as great in offensive as in defensive operations.

These spectacular triumphs achieved by a relatively small number of flying-men had already heartened the people and nerved them to endure the casualties which must be a consequence of even unsuccessful raids. But it was left to Mr. Churchill to put these events in their wider perspective and to indicate with authority and vision the grounds for confidence in the future. There was a superb but reasoned assurance in his conviction that the British Empire, though confronting the combined power of Germany and Italy, is capable of bringing the war to a victorious conclusion. He alluded ironically to the new German threat of "total blockade," and affirmed our own intention to maintain and enforce a real blockade of Germany, Italy, France, and all the countries that are occupied by the enemy. He dismissed the pleas of those who asked that food should be sent to France or other occupied countries on the grounds that it was for Germany to organise the food supplies that she had disorganised, and that to allow food to go to the subject peoples would be to help the enemy.

This is an argument the force of which is fully appreciated in the United States. No less satisfying to them and to us is the statement that the interests of the United States and of the British Empire both require that the former should have facilities for the naval and air defence of the Western Hemisphere, and that this country will be glad to afford these by leasing suitable sites in the Western Atlantic to be fortified and defended by them. He refrained from linking up this question in any way with the suggestion that America should send us old destroyers and other vessels. That was wise. In such a matter there should be no thought of striking a bargain. Co-operation, to the utmost that either side feels free to offer, is profoundly to be desired – and Mr Churchill has not disguised the fact that we should be glad of their destroyers. But to attempt to achieve such a result under the constraints of a deal would be the wrong sort of approach to this or any similar problem.

Mr Churchill reminded us that it is not in our hearts only that we have been fortified. In preparing our defences immense advances have been made in the short time that has elapsed since Dunkirk. Our aircraft production now surpasses that of Germany. The Army is growing in strength and equipment with every day that passes. Both the Navy and the mercantile marine are stronger than at the beginning of the war. The forces that we are piling up – numbers of trained men ever-increasing in proportion to the increasing supplies of warships, aircraft, tanks, cannon, machine-guns and rifles – are for the moment acting mainly on the defensive, but not without an offensive in the air which is dealing smashing blows at the very sources of German power and an offensive at sea which maintains the blockade. But though at this stage the defensive is necessarily our first pre-occupation it will not always be so, nor perhaps for long. Behind us is not only the vast potential of our expanding war industries but that of the Empire, and in addition the expanding output of friendly America. We are prepared for invasion now with the confidence borne of resolution and knowledge of strength, and the same knowledge gives us equal confidence of our ability during the next year or two to carry the war against the enemy to a victorious conclusion.