“An ordeal of the most grievous kind”: World War II through Winston Churchill’s eyes

There’s a new 3-D film coming to the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre on Friday, May 23: D-Day: Normandy 1944. Telling the story of the largest Allied operation of World War II through an incredible visual spectacle, this film brings a fresh perspective to the planning, perseverance and sacrifice that came together to bring victory to the Allied forces.

In the spirit of the film’s message, our newsletter last week (which announced D-Day: Normandy 1944), included a quote by Winston Churchill:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

This quote, however, was used out of context. In fact, it refers to the Battle of Britain rather than D-Day. Some of you wrote in to notify us, and we thank you for your keen eyes and diligence.

As I researched the quote to double (and triple) check the origins and meaning behind it, I realized what an incredible wordsmith Churchill had been. Quotes from his various speeches, orders and interviews remain some of the most recognizable and poignant references to WWII today. It then occurred to me that Churchill was a figure so deeply entrenched in the war and emblematic of the character of the United Kingdom that his personal quotes can serve quite well as a timeline for the war — not just indicating battles, but also the collective feelings, attitudes and spirit of the United Kingdom during the war.

1938
“You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

This quote was made in reference to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia, which had been praised by then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a way to ensure “peace for our time.”

1940
“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.”

This quote is taken from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister, given on May 13, 1940. At this point, Germany had taken Poland and had invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, whereupon Chamberlain resigned.  

1940
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

This quote was made in reference to the Battle of Britain in August 1940 (the name “Battle of Britain” was also coined by Churchill in a speech to Parliament in 1940 after Germany took France). At this point in the war, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) was involved in fighting the German Air Force in the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. Britain’s victory in the battle prevented the German “Operation Sea Lion,” which was planned to be an amphibious and airborne invasion of England. German forces, however, would continue bombing operations, known as the Blitz.

1941
“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Churchill made this statement during a speech given at Harrow School in Harrow, England on October 29, 1941.

1942
“I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat. Now, however we have a new experience. We have a victory — a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts.”

These remarks were given after Britain drove German troops out of Egypt — a sign that the tide of the war was turning in favor of the Allies.

1944
“It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship.”

Churchill made this speech on June 6, 1944 as the Allied forces took hold in France on D-Day, opening the second front of the war.

1945
“It was the middle of the night, but it was as if seven suns had lit the earth; two hundred miles away the light could be seen. The bomb sent up smoke into the stratosphere … The secret has been wrested from nature … Fire was the first discovery; this is the second.”

Churchill made these comments on the atom bomb in conversation with his doctor, Lord Moran, on July 23, 1945.

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