Winston Churchill & George Orwell: ‘Their Finest Hour’
Few events affected me as much, I’ve written, as Winston Churchill’s passing on January 24, 1965.
Each year at this time, I find myself reflecting on Churchill. This year my revisiting of George Orwell’s essays and letters turned up a short piece he wrote on Churchill. It was the last he published.
At Orwell’s birth in 1903, Churchill was in his 30th year and a national figure as a journalist, soldier and adventurer. He had begun his career in the House of Commons three years before. With much in Churchill’s career – his handling of the General Strike of 1926, his opposition to Indian independence, among many instances – would the socialist, anti-imperialist Orwell find fault.
Orwell spent the last year of his short life in hospitals as his tuberculosis ran its course. He published just three short pieces before falling silent nine months before his death on January 21, 1950.
His last publication is a review of volume two of Churchill’s World War II memoir, now called The Second World War: Their Finest Hour (1949). Its title comes from the final line of one of Churchill’s greatest speeches. On June 18, 1940, with France defeated and the British Expeditionary Force evacuated, Churchill told the world: Britain would fight on. He concluded:
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.’
Rarely have political figures been so honest about a nation’s desperate position. Never has a leader spoken better – comforting, challenging, preparing his people. Said Orwell of Their Finest Hour:
…Churchill’s writings are more like those of a human being than of a public figure. His present book does, of course, contain passages which give the appearance of having escaped from an election address, but it also shows a considerable willingness to admit mistakes. 
Whether or not 1940 was anyone else’s finest hour, it was certainly Churchill’s. However much one may disagree with him, however thankful one may be that he and his party did not win the 1945 election, one has to admire in him not only his courage but also a certain largeness and geniality which comes out even in formal memoirs of this type….
We think of Churchill’s phrases. But quips apart, they grace long or extremely long writings. ‘Their finest hour’ concludes a 4372 word (probably 80 minutes) speech – which seems to have been spoken quite slowly – and is the title of the second of six very long volumes.
This speech was long for good reason. It had not one but two urgent purposes: to head off divisive questions about responsibility for the defeat in France and to give the British and their allies reasons to believe they could hold off the Germans.
In his first sentence, he spoke of ‘the colossal military disaster’. The first paragraph continues, ‘…the battle in France has been lost….’ His second paragraph confirms Orwell’s judgment in all particulars. Said Churchill:
I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments–and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too–during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
Nowhere will one find a better example of Churchill’s ‘largeness’ – Orwell’s word – and wisdom as a political leader than in this paragraph. And those last five sentences!
The phrases we quote from the ‘finest hour’ speech illuminate a very detailed discussion of Britain’s strengths and challenges. They would have been so much unignited gas had most of the speech not been made up of long paragraphs like this:
Therefore, it seems to me that as far as sea-borne invasion on a great scale is concerned, we are far more capable of meeting it today than we were at many periods in the last war and during the early months of this war, before our other troops were trained, and while the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force] had proceeded abroad. Now, the Navy have never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning. The efficacy of sea power, especially under modern conditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size; It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. If it is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find and meet and, as it were, bite on. Now, we must remember that even five divisions, however lightly equipped, would require 200 to 250 ships, and with modern air reconnaissance and photography it would not be easy to collect such an armada, marshal it, and conduct it across the sea without any powerful naval forces to escort it; and there would be very great possibilities, to put it mildly, that this armada would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and all the men drowned in the sea or, at the worst blown to pieces with their equipment while they were trying to land. We also have a great system of minefields, recently strongly reinforced, through which we alone know the channels. If the enemy tries to sweep passages through these minefields, it will be the task of the Navy to destroy the mine-sweepers and any other forces employed to protect them. There should be no difficulty in this, owing to our great superiority at sea.
In 311 words, Churchill offers a candid forecast of what Britain could expect by way of seaborne assault. The admission the Royal Navy could do little to halt raids seems astonishing 70 years on when no American leader can acknowledge the impossibility of preventing all terrorist attacks.
As Orwell notes there was only one occasion – an insignificant one, as it turned out – ‘…throughout this period when he underrated public morale’, the public’s ability to accept the truth. This was Churchill’s genius in 1940.
Churchill had another strength Orwell recognized but which is largely forgotten:
…The British people have generally rejected his policies, but they have always had a liking for him, as one can see in the tone of the stories about him that have been told throughout most of his life…. At the time of the Dunkirk evacuation… when Churchill made his often-quoted fighting speech, it was rumoured that what he actually said, when recording the speech for broadcasting, was: ‘We will fight on the beaches, we will fight in the streets…. We’ll throw bottles at the b-s, it’s about all we’ve got left’ – but, of course, the BBC’s switch-censor pressed his thumb on the key…. One may assume that this story is untrue, but at the time it was felt that it ought to be true. It was a fitting tribute from ordinary people to the tough and humourous old man whom they would not accept as a peace-time leader but whom in the moment of disaster they felt to be representative of themselves. 
This last essay was not Orwell’s only homage to Churchill. In a review nine years ago, Simon Schama noted:
Though in 1939 Orwell had been suspicious of Churchill’s belligerent rhetoric and ominous potential for a personality cult of his own, by the time  he came to write 1984, it was not Big Brother who would be baptized Winston but the doomed renegade, “the last man.”
For the one thing on which Orwell and Churchill agreed was the imperative to fight totalitarianism, both Nazi and Communist. As Churchill said on June 18, 1940:
I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war. There are a good many people who say, ‘Never mind. Win or lose, sink or swim, better die than submit to tyranny–and such a tyranny.’ And I do not dissociate myself from them.
In death, Orwell and Churchill seem to me linked. The anniversary of Orwell’s death (January 21, 1950) falls three days before Churchill’s. They rest 17.5 miles apart, in modest churchyards about equidistant from Oxford University.
1. The first of the three is, I think, his greatest essay: ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ published in The Partisan Review in January 1949. Of that masterpiece, I’ll have more to say another day. The second is a note, almost a letter to the editor, on Ezra Pound. George Orwell, ‘The Question of the Pound Award’ (1949), as reprinted in Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus, eds, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4 In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 490.
2. George Orwell, ‘Review of Their Finest Hour by Winston S. Churchill’ (1949), as reprinted in Id., pp. 491, 492.
3. Id., p. 494.
4. Id., p. 494.
5. Id., pp. 494-95.