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 Wehrmacht.
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.
Rather more than a quarter of a year has passed since the new Government came into power in this country. What a cataract of disaster has poured out upon us since then!… Meanwhile, we have not only fortified our hearts but our Island. We have rearmed and rebuilt our armies in a degree which would have been deemed impossible a few months ago.… The whole Island bristles against invaders, from the sea or from the air. …the stronger our Army at home, the larger must the invading expedition be, and the larger the invading expedition, the less difficult will be the task of the Navy in detecting its assembly and in intercepting and destroying it in passage; and the greater also would be the difficulty of feeding and supplying the invaders if ever they landed… Our Navy is far stronger than it was at the beginning of the war. The great flow of new construction set on foot at the outbreak is now beginning to come in.
Why do I say all this? Not, assuredly, to boast; not, assuredly, to give the slightest countenance to complacency. The dangers we face are still enormous, but so are our advantages and resources. I recount them because the people have a right to know that there are solid grounds for the confidence which we feel, and that we have good reason to believe ourselves capable, as I said in a very dark hour two months ago, of continuing the war "if necessary alone, if necessary for years.
The great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity. It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration. We must certainly expect that greater efforts will be made by the enemy than any he has so far put forth.… It is quite plain that Herr Hitler could not admit defeat in his air attack on Great Britain without sustaining most serious injury. If after all his boastings and bloodcurdling threats and lurid accounts trumpeted round the world of the damage he has inflicted, of the vast numbers of our Air Force he has shot down, so he says, with so little loss to himself …if after all this his whole air onslaught were forced after a while tamely to peter out, the Fuhrer's reputation for veracity of statement might be seriously impugned. We may be sure, therefore, that he will continue as long as he has the strength to do so…
…It must also be remembered that all the enemy machines and pilots which are shot down over our Island, or over the seas which surround it, are either destroyed or captured; whereas a considerable proportion of our machines, and also of our pilots, are saved, and soon again in many cases come into action.… We believe that we shall be able to continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues the more rapid will be our approach, first towards that parity, and then into that superiority, in the air upon which in a large measure the decision of the war depends.
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…
A good many people have written to me to ask me to make on this occasion a fuller statement of our war aims, and of the kind of peace we wish to make after the war, than is contained in the very considerable declaration which was made early in the autumn.… I do not think it would be wise at this moment, while the battle rages and the war is still perhaps only in its earlier stage, to embark upon elaborate speculations about the future shape which should be given to Europe… But before we can undertake the task of rebuilding we have not only to be convinced ourselves, but we have to convince all other countries that the Nazi tyranny is going to be finally broken. The right to guide the course of world history is the noblest prize of victory. We are still toiling up the hill; we have not yet reached the crest-line of it; we cannot survey the landscape or even imagine what its condition will be when that longed-for morning comes. The task which lies before us immediately is at once more practical, more simple and more stern.… For the rest, we have to gain the victory. That is our task.
…Some months ago we came to the conclusion that the interests of the United States and of the British Empire both required that the United States should have facilities for the naval and air defence of the Western Hemisphere against the attack of a Nazi power… We had therefore decided spontaneously, and without being asked or offered any inducement, to inform the Government of the United States that we would be glad to place such defence facilities at their disposal by leasing suitable sites in our Transatlantic possessions for their greater security against the unmeasured dangers of the future.… His Majesty's Government are entirely willing to accord defence facilities to the United States on a 99 years' leasehold basis… Undoubtedly this process means that these two great organisations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage. For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.
- 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.
- Winston Churchill (20 August 1940). "The Few". The Churchill Centre and Museum. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
- 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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