Never was so much owed by so many to so few
"Never was so much owed by so many to so few" was a wartime speech made by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20 August 1940. The name stems from the specific line in the speech, Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few, referring to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force crews who were at the time fighting the Battle of Britain, the pivotal air battle with the German Luftwaffe with Britain expecting an invasion. Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since; at times being specially commemorated on 15 September, "Battle of Britain Day".
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Churchill apparently first used his famous words upon his exit from the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge on 16 August when visiting the No. 11 Group RAF Operations Room during a day of battle. Afterwards, Churchill told Major General Hastings Ismay, 'Don't speak to me, I have never been so moved'. After several minutes of silence he said, 'Never in the history of mankind has so much been owed by so many to so few'. The sentence would form the basis of his speech to the House of Commons on 20 August.
However, in 1954 "Pug" Ismay related an anecdote to publisher Rupert Hart-Davis; when Churchill and Ismay were
travelling together in a car, in which Winston rehearsed the speech he was to give in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940 after the Battle of Britain. When he came to the famous sentence, ‘Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few’, Ismay said 'What about Jesus and his disciples?' 'Good old Pug,’ said Winston' who immediately changed the wording to ‘Never in the field of human conflict....'.
The speech was given as the United Kingdom prepared for the expected German invasion. In it, Churchill tried to inspire his countrymen by pointing out that although the last several months had been a series of monumental defeats for the Allies, their situation was now much better than before. Churchill's argument was in fact correct; shortly thereafter the British won the battle, the first significant defeat for the hitherto unstoppable Luftwaffe.
This speech was a great inspiration to the embattled United Kingdom during what was probably its most dangerous phase of the entire war. Together with the three famous speeches that he gave during the period of the Battle of France (the "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech of 13 May, the "We shall fight on the beaches" speech of 4 June and the "This was their finest hour" speech of 18 June), they form his most stirring rhetoric.
At the end of the speech, he introduced the first phase of the growing strategic alliance with the United States and referred to the coming agreement for establishing U.S. bases on various British territories.
The speech is also well remembered for his use of the phrase "the few" to describe the Allied aircrews of RAF Fighter Command, whose desperate struggle gained the victory; "The Few" has come to be their nickname. It is clear that Churchill took his inspiration from various sources, including Hall and Shakespeare. Duff Cooper had also given a speech immediately before Churchill's which captured the essence of 'the few and the many', though not as eloquently.
Some historians take the view that Churchill was not referring to just the fighter pilots but that his remarks were intended to refer to all allied aircrew, specifically including Bomber Command.
A version of the title of the speech appears in Benjamin Clementine's Winston Churchill`s Boy song.
- Bungay 2000, p. 223
- The World at Arms. Wright M. Readers Digest 1989
- Hart-Davis, Rupert (1998) [First ed. published]. Halfway to Heaven: Concluding memoirs of a literary life. Stroud Gloucestershire: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1837-3.
- Campion 2010, pp. 74–83
- Brett Holman (31 August 2011). "On 'the Few '". Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- Bungay, Stephen. (2000) The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press ISBN 1-85410-801-8
- Campion, G. 2010. 'The Good Fight; Battle of Britain Propaganda and the Few'. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.
- Document in the custody of The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom, document reference ZHC 2 / 873
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