“BRACE YOURSELVES” CHURCHILL TELLS BRITISH

London, England June 18, 1940

Four days after the fall of Paris to German invaders, Charles de Gaulle, a tall (6 ft, 4 in), young (49), rela­tively un­known French brig­a­dier gene­ral who had escaped to England on June 17, 1940, addressed the French people in a radio broad­cast from London on this date in 1940. In a cele­brated call to arms (“Appel du 18 juin”), de Gaulle said: “The flame of French resis­tance must not go out; it shall not go out.” Inter­estingly, former Deputy Prime Minis­ter Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who had just assumed author­ity over a defeated France, used the term “resis­tance” the day before in a radio address to the French people, ending it with the words: “It is with deep sorrow that I tell you today that the fight must end.”

The BBC gave de Gaulle’s “Free French” move­ment a five-minute slot each evening—it helped that the time slot was during curfew hours, when French­men were required to stay indoors. Over the next ten days de Gaulle’s voice gained author­ity. His mes­sage was the same: It was a crime for 38 million French men and women in occupied France to submit to their occupiers, and it was an honor to defy them. “Honor, common sense, patri­otism demand that all free French­men con­tinue the struggle wher­ever they are and how­ever they might,” de Gaulle said in his broad­cast on June 22. “Since they whose duty it was to wield the sword of France have let it fall,” he said accusingly several weeks later of the top mili­tary and poli­ti­cal people who coa­lesced around the vener­able 84‑year-old Marshal of France, “I have taken up the broken blade.”

Also on this date, June 18, 1940, Soviet Foreign Minis­ter Vya­ches­lav Molo­tov con­grat­u­lated Adolf Hitler for the “splen­did suc­cesses of the German Wehr­macht” (armed forces) in France and the Low Coun­tries. Molotov would live to regret his flattering words just over a year later, when Hitler vio­lated the Molotov-Ribben­trop Non­aggression Pact of August 1939 by launching his surprise invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

As British citizens anxiously awaited for the next shoe to drop—namely, Germany’s inevi­table inva­sion attempt of their island nation—Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, barely six weeks in office, stood before the House of Com­mons in London and in front of BBC micro­phones to say: “The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. . . . 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.” Chur­chill did not flinch from acknow­ledging the great appa­rent danger these events posed to Britain’s national survi­val and national interests in this, the third of three speeches he gave during (roughly) the Battle of France (May 10 to June 22, 1940). But he turned the grave situ­ation into a roar of deter­mi­nation and defi­ance when he con­cluded his address, saying: “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’.”





Call to Arms: Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, June 18, 1940

De Gaulle broadcasting to Free French, London, October 10, 1941 Churchill giving signature V-sign, May 20, 1940

Left: Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the studios of the BBC in Lon­don, Octo­ber 10, 1941. This photo­graph has some­times been used in con­nection with de Gaulle’s “Appel du 18 juin” speech of 1940, of which no photo­graph exists. De Gaulle’s June 18th “call to arms” appeal had little imme­di­ate mili­tary or polit­i­cal impact, for hardly a single French­man heard his ini­tial broad­cast from his London sanc­tu­ary much less ever heard of his name. The defiant 49-year-old general, who briefly served as French under­secretary for war in Prime Minister Paul Reynaud’s admin­is­tra­tion before it collapsed on June 16, was one of the few mili­tary or polit­ical leaders in France in the summer of 1940 to flee abroad and from there organize oppo­si­tion to the German occu­pa­tion. By early 1941 many patriotic French­men had adopted the upstart general and his two-barred Cross of Lorraine as symbols of French resistance against the Germans and their French lackeys.

Right: Winston Churchill giving his famous V-sign (used to repre­sent the letter “V” in “Vic­tory”; “Victoire” in French) on May 20, 1940, just ten days after he became prime minis­ter, and on the day German troops reached the English Chan­nel in pre­pa­ra­tion for their exter­mi­nating the British Expedi­tionary Force trapped at Dunkirk on the French coast.

Below: A draft of Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech shows the way he exten­sively edited it before deli­vering it to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940, the start date for German bombing raids on British cities and towns that became an almost nightly occur­rence. In 36 minutes of soaring ora­tory, Chur­chill sought to rally his country­men with what has gone down in his­tory as his “finest hour” speech. The speech—ending with the words, “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’”—has reso­nated ever since. On both sides of the Atlan­tic and beyond, it has been hailed as the moment when Britain found the resolve to fight on after the fall of France and, ulti­mately, in alli­ance with Allied mili­tary forces (what would be called the United Nations) to van­quish Hitler’s armies that had overrun most of Europe.


Edited draft of Churchill’s "Finest Hour" speech

Excerpt from Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940


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WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.