‘We lie within a few minutes’ striking distance’

16 November 1934, London

Winston Churchill was, in November 1934, a lone voice in questioning the country’s policy of appeasement to Hitler:

“At present we lie within a few minutes’ striking distance of the French, Dutch and Belgian coasts, and within a few hours of the great aerodromes of Central Europe," he said. "We are even within canon-shot of the Continent.

"So close as that! Is it prudent, is it possible, however much we might desire it, to turn our backs upon Europe and ignore whatever may happen there? I have come to the conclusion – reluctantly I admit – that we cannot get away. Here we are and we must make the best of it. But do not underrate the risks – the grievous risks – we have to run.”

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'We take our stand for freedom'

5 October 1938, House of Commons, London

Just a few days after Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich brandishing his now infamous scrap of paper, Churchill predicted that war had certainly not been averted. He was right.

“This is only the beginning of the reckoning," he told the House of Commons. "This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

'Blood, toil, tears and sweat'

13 May 1940, House of Commons, London

It's May 1940. Chamberlain has resigned, and Churchill, now 65, has formed his government. This first speech in office settles the country’s nerves:

“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

"I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”

'We shall never surrender'

4 June 1940, House of Commons, London

After the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill calmed the nation’s euphoria and stiffened its resolve with this speech:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

'This was their finest hour'

18 June 1940, House of Commons, London

Churchill stands tall in the face of an impending onslaught, and inspires the pilots of the RAF to victory in the Battle of Britain.

“The battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned upon us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.

"If we can stand up to him, 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 made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

'The few'

20 August 1940, House of Commons, London

As the Battle of Britain climaxes, Churchill praises the bravery of the RAF pilots.

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Churchill speaks to a crowd
Churchill speaks to a crowd, July 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

'An iron curtain has descended'

5 March 1946, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri

In the spring of 1946, Churchill warned about the threat of Soviet Russia. This stopped America’s retreat into isolationism and led to the creation of NATO:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.”

'The nation… had the lion heart'

30 November, 1954. Presentation by both Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall, London

On his 80th birthday, Churchill showed he was still a master orator:

“I am very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was the nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar."


Winston S Churchill's Never Give in! The Best of Winston Churchill's Speeches was published by Pimlico in 2003. This feature was first published in Living History Magazine (later merged with BBC History Magazine) in 2003