Churchill’s wartime speeches are overrated, claims academic

Winston Churchill’s World War Two speeches were met with skepticism and often failed to inspire, according to a political historian.

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Winston Churchill’s World War Two speeches were met with skepticism and often failed to inspire, according to a political historian.

In his new book The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill's World War II Speeches, Professor Richard Toye from the University of Exeter claims the leader’s speeches generated more controversy and criticism than historians previously thought.

Using government and unofficial survey evidence and the diaries of ordinary people, Toye concluded Churchill’s dialogue was poorly received by many.

His delivery was frequently criticised and some members of the public believed he did not feel the confidence he was proclaiming.

“Churchill's first speeches as Prime Minster in the dark days of 1940 were by no means universally acclaimed,” said Toye.

“Many people thought that he was drunk during his famous ‘finest hour’ broadcast, and there is little evidence that they made a decisive difference to the British people’s will to fight on.”

Toye analysed diaries collected by the Mass Observation group, which asked ordinary people to write and report not just their own opinions and views but also those of the people around them.

The professor also examined home intelligence reports, produced by the Ministry of Information. The reports, which paid particular attention to the reception of ministerial speeches, helped the government manage its response to the public.

Toye explains: “It is often claimed, not always with supporting evidence being provided, that these were the speeches that made the difference to the Britain’s will to fight on during the summer of 1940.

“In fact what we find is that although there were the ‘classic reactions’ of people feeling inspired, there was also much more controversy and criticism provoked by these speeches than we have ever been told.

“So the myth is unsatisfactory.”

Toye continues: “Now that does not mean that they were bad speeches.

“What in fact it tells us is that Churchill faced considerably more difficulties when giving his speeches than we normally assume, because in fact rather than everybody reacting with huge universal enthusiasm there was a very substantial proportion of the population that was very skeptical about what he was saying, and indeed about the way he was saying it.”

In his book, Toye also challenges suggestions Churchill was bull-headed. He claims that while the prime minister wrote his own speeches, he would often take advice from government departments.

This, Toye says, sometimes prompted him to tone down or adjust his speeches.

The Roar of the Lion will be reviewed in the November issue of BBC History Magazine

WATCH: Professor Richard Toye explains his findings

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