Never was so much owed by so many to so few

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World War II poster containing the famous lines by Winston Churchill - all members of Bomber command

"Never was so much owed by so many to so few"[a] was a wartime speech delivered to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom by British prime minister Winston Churchill on 20 August 1940.[1] 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 and other Allied aircrew who were fighting in the Battle of Britain, the pivotal air battle with the German Luftwaffe.[2]

The speech came amidst German plans for an invasion. At the end of June 1940, the Luftwaffe had a large numerical superiority over the Royal Air Force, with around 2,550 planes compared to the only 750 planes of the RAF.[3] Pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain have been known as "the Few" ever since, at times being specifically commemorated for Battle of Britain Day, on 15 September. The speech has become one of Churchill's most famous, along with "we shall fight on the beaches", "their finest hour", and "blood, toil, tears, and sweat".[4]

Background[edit]

Churchill apparently first said the famous sentence to Major General Hastings Ismay after exiting the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge on 16 August, four days before the speech was given.[5] He had been visiting the No. 11 Group RAF operations room during the day of a battle, where at one point every squadron in the group was engaged while more waves of German planes were crossing the coast. After the fighting had slowed that evening and Churchill and Ismay had departed for Chequers, Churchill said, "Don't speak to me; I have never been so moved."[6] Several minutes later, he told Ismay, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."[7]

The speech was given as the United Kingdom prepared for an impending German invasion. Near the end of June 1940, codebreakers at Bletchley Park deciphered a message containing a request from a Flakcorps unit for detailed maps of the UK, suggesting that the Germans intended to land mobile anti-aircraft guns in Great Britain and Ireland.[8] However, Hitler knew that any invasion attempt would only be successful if the Royal Air Force was weakened or destroyed.[9]

Speech[edit]

Churchill's speech lasted nearly fifty minutes, in which he first remarked that, so far, there had been many fewer casualties than at the same point in the First World War, stating that the war was not a "prodigious slaughter", but instead a "conflict of strategy, of organisation, of technical apparatus, of science, mechanics and morale".[2]

The British casualties in the first 12 months of the Great War amounted to 365,000. In this war, I am thankful to say, British killed, wounded, prisoners and missing, including civilians, do not exceed 92,000, and of these a large proportion are alive as prisoners of war. Looking more widely around, one may say that throughout all Europe, for one man killed or wounded in the first year perhaps five were killed or wounded in 1914–15.

Churchill then spoke about Britain's military preparedness, noting that production of aircraft had increased significantly and would allow the United Kingdom to "continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases".[2] He praised British fighter pilots and aircrews, using the phrase that he had first said several days before:[10]

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.

While the speech is most well remembered for its praise of fighter pilots, it also commended bomber crews for their work and urged the public not to forget their actions.[11]

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.

He commented on his government's decision to withdraw its forces from Somaliland the week before, explaining that the British position was untenable due to the French decision to surrender. Churchill also defended the blockade of Germany and its occupied territories, acknowledging that the blockade could cause suffering but laying the blame on the Nazis.[12] He pledged to give food, aid, and relief to occupied countries once they had been "wholly cleared of German forces", helping to lay the groundwork for post-war relief programs.[13]

The final part of the speech was about the destroyers-for-bases deal, in which Britain gave the United States 99-year leases for military bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland in exchange for fifty American destroyers.[2] No mention was made of the US giving the UK destroyers, and the decision was presented as a goodwill gesture in the interests of mutual security instead of a direct trade of British territories for ships.[12]

Legacy[edit]

Pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain have since been known as "the Few".

The speech is well remembered for Churchill's use of the phrase "the few" when referring to Allied aircrew defending the United Kingdom; since then, they have been referred to as "The Few".[14] Nearly 3,000 aircrew from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and other Allied countries took part in the Battle of Britain, a third of which were either killed or wounded.[15] They have been honoured with ceremonies and flypasts on the anniversary of Battle of Britain Day, most recently on the 80th,[16] 75th,[17] and 70th anniversaries.[18]

In 1981, Australian printmaker James Swan changed the quote to "Never was so much owed to so many by so few" and replaced the airmen's faces by those of Australian politicians he deemed especially blameworthy. [19]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The speech has also been called "The Few"

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ "8 of Churchill's greatest speeches". www.historyextra.com. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d Gilbert 1983, pp. 741–743
  3. ^ "Royal Air Force". Royal Air Force. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  4. ^ "What makes a Churchill speech?". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  5. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 223
  6. ^ Gilbert 1983, pp. 748
  7. ^ Toye 2013, p. 66
  8. ^ Gilbert 1983, pp. 619–621
  9. ^ Venhuizen, Harm (16 July 2020). "Hitler released his failed plan to invade England 80 years ago today". Military Times. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  10. ^ Champion 2010, p. 75
  11. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 237
  12. ^ a b Toye 2013, pp. 67–69
  13. ^ "'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few' - UK Parliament". UK Parliament. Retrieved 10 April 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ "The Few". International Churchill Society. 20 August 1940. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  15. ^ "Winston Churchill's Battle of Britain 'Few' remembered". BBC News. 20 August 2010. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Royal Air Force". Royal Air Force. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  17. ^ "Battle of Britain: Historic flypast for 75th anniversary". BBC News. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  18. ^ "Flypast marks 70th anniversary of Battle of Britain". the Guardian. 19 September 2010. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  19. ^ ""James Swan-"Never was so much owed to so many by so few" (1981)"". Australian Prints + Printmaking. Retrieved 10 April 2022.

Bibliography[edit]