Many thought he was drunk during famous finest hour address’, claims academic
Martin Robinson — Daily Mail Aug 20, 2013
Winston Churchill’s powerful speeches have long been credited with helping to win the war, but one leading academic says there is ‘little evidence’ his oratory inspired the British to beat Nazi Germany.
Professor Richard Toye also claims that the Second World War leader’s ‘finest hour’ radio address, one of his most famous, lacked impact ‘because many people thought that he was drunk’.
The University of Exeter academic claims in a new book that Churchill was not a decisive influence on the nation’s willingness to fight on against Hitler when Britain was almost on its knees in 1940.
His research also found that when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, one Londoner said his rallying speech was ‘f****** bull****’ and a ‘f****** cover-up’.
Churchill’s legendary oratory, which included unforgettable phrases like ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ and ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’, had moved many to join up and fight the Nazis.
But Professor Toye denies the traditional view that Churchill was universally loved and said his speeches had led to criticism and controversy.
‘Churchill’s first speeches as prime minister in the dark days of 1940 were by no means universally acclaimed,’ he said.
‘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.’
Prof Toye’s new book – The Roar Of The Lion – examines government documents and surveys, as well as the diaries of ordinary people.
He used both the Home intelligence reports and the mass observational archives to analyse what people thought of Churchill’s speeches at the time and separate that reaction from what people later remembered or thought they remembered their reactions to be.
And he admitted that even he was surprised by the results.
He said: ‘I thought the established story was completely true I simply thought one had to check it out and find confirmatory evidence for it, I even thought it might be rather dull.
‘But when I actually started analysing the records I realised that I wasn’t finding the established story that I was expecting.
‘I’m not saying Churchill’s speeches were bad speeches but people often got depressed by them and that is perfectly understandable because they were often conveying very sobering messages.
‘In July and August 1940 we do genuinely find people being excited by his speeches but this feeling then gets projected throughout the whole period and it’s actually much more complicated than that.
‘I would argue that by the summer of 1940 moral had actually improved on account of the British action in Africa and that bucked everybody up.
‘That fact that moral had gone up improved the reception which Churchill’s speeches got rather than his speeches improving morale.
‘The material I used has all be around but no-one has ever looked at it for these purposes before – to systematically analyse the public response to Churchill’s speeches.’
One of the most vivid accounts was written by a journalist who had joined the Army and had written down in shorthand the comments of his friend George, a 24-year-old French polisher from south London.
As George listened to Churchill’s speech on the fall of Singapore in February 1942, he reportedly said: ‘F****** bulls***. Get on with it. What a f****** cover-up. Any normal person could see it’s just pulling the wool over their eyes.’
Prof Toye, who works in the Department of History at the University of Exeter, said: ‘There was a complexity to people’s reactions to Churchill’s speeches at the time, as the evidence shows that they may have liked one bit of a speech and not another section, or liked some speeches but not others.
‘People sometimes changed their minds following discussions with friends or after reading newspaper commentaries.
‘There was not a blanket acceptance and positive reaction. A more measured response to his speeches is in evidence. This is possibly why the speeches didn’t always have the effect now credited to them.’
Prof Toye said Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech of June 1940 was to the House of Commons, and never broadcast, but people convinced themselves they heard it.
‘It was never broadcast, though it was reported on the BBC by an announcer and quoted in the press,’ he said.
‘However, people claim to remember having heard this famous speech from June 1940, even though they hadn’t.
‘It was recorded for posterity along with others of his wartime speeches nine years later.’
Mr Toye has some academic pedigree, after a PhD from Cambridge, his book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness, won him awards, including The Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Award in 2007.
Three years later he wrote the book: Churchill’s Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made.