CHURCHILL TO BRITISH: BRACE YOURSELVES

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 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, de Gaulle said: “The flame of French resistance must not and shall not die!”

The BBC gave de Gaulle’s “Free French” move­ment a five-minute slot each evening, and over the next ten days the French­man’s voice gained author­ity. His mes­sage was the same: It was a crime for French men and women in occupied France to sub­mit to their occu­piers, and it was an honor to defy them. “Since they whose duty it was to wield the sword of France have let it fall,” he said accusingly nearly a month later of the top mili­tary and poli­ti­cal people who coa­lesced around the 84‑year-old Vichy presi­dent Marshal Philippe Pétain, “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 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.” 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 “call to arms” speech of June 18, 1940, of which no photograph exists.

Right: Winston Churchill giving his famous V-sign (used to repre­sent the letter “V” in “Vic­tory”) 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. 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