On this day 72 years ago, British prime minister Winston Churchill gave one of his most memorable speeches in the House of Commons. He had been prime minister for less than a month, having been appointed on 10th May 1940. The Second World War had been proceeding for 9 months, and Britain was faring so poorly that a week of prayer was held for the British soldiers in dire peril in France. After the collapse of the Belgian army, the British army was trapped at Dunkirk on the French coast near the Belgian border, with the German army closing in.
The British authorities commandeered a vast fleet of boats including life boats, pleasure craft and fishing boats, in an attempt to evacuate the trapped British and French troops. Under the cover of poor weather and the Royal Air Force, the evacuation operation was successful, and by 4th June some 338,000 men had been rescued. Enormous quantities of vehicles, armaments and fuel were left behind, but the bulk of the British army was saved.
Although the success of the Dunkirk evacuation brought some relief, Britain’s prospects in the war were looking increasingly grim. France was likely to capitulate soon, leaving Britain to stand on its own against the Germans. Churchill rose to the occasion with one of his most inspiring speeches: “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…”