Armed soldiers stand guard on a south coast beach, 2 September 1940.

Fight on the beaches

On 4 June 1940, as the Dunkirk evacuations drew to a close, Winston Churchill delivered a thrilling speech to the House of Commons. He looked back at the miraculous rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from France, and urged on the fight for Britain's future.

Photo: Armed soldiers stand guard on a south coast beach, 2 September 1940. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain

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More information about: Fight on the beaches

Between 26 May and 4 June, after retreating from the rapid German advance across western Europe, approximately 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated from the beaches of northern France. Whilst this was far men than the British government had hoped to recue the whole episode was still a military disaster. Around 34,000 troops were left behind to face death or the rest of the war in captivity, and almost all of the Army’s heavy equipment and vehicles were destroyed during the retreat.

On 4 June, Churchill went to the House of Commons to report on the evacuation and consequent military situation. This report has since become commonly known as his 'We Shall Fight on the Beaches' speech.

Churchill was keen to temper the nation-wide euphoria that so many troops had escaped – the so-called 'miracle of Dunkirk'. Churchill cautioned that: 'We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations'.

However, he praised the achievements of the Royal Navy during the evacuation and made a particular point of noting the efforts of the RAF. It had been accused of failing to sufficiently protect Allied soldiers waiting on the sand dunes at Dunkirk from the Luftwaffe. Churchill rebuffed this and described the RAF pilots as 'noble knights' and, in doing, so fashioned the myth of the Battle of Britain before it had even taken place.

In the most famous passage of his speech, Churchill warned Britain about the possible collapse of France and that, consequently, she would stand alone against Germany and face an invasion. He left the House in no doubt what the resolution would be should that occur: '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!'.

As well as rallying his audience at home, Churchill also appealed to the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany: ‘And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old’.

In total, Churchill spoke for over half an hour. Some Conservative MPs remained sceptical, but generally the speech was well received. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, the Conservative MP, wrote that Churchill was ‘eloquent and oratorical, and used magnificent English … several Labour Members cried’.