Winston Churchill’s addressed the Canadian Parliament after traveling from Washington. He was on top rhetorical form and the speech became notable for his account of how the French had claimed that Britain was about to have her ‘neck wrung like a chicken’ in the dark days of 1940.
That grand old minstrel, Harry Lauder – Sir Harry Lauder, I should say, and no honour was better deserved – had a song in the last War which began, “If we all look back on the history of the past, we can just tell where we are.” Let us then look back. We plunged into this war all unprepared because we had pledged our word to stand by the side of Poland, which Hitler had feloniously invaded, and in spite of a gallant resistance had soon struck down.
There followed those astonishing seven months which were called on this side of the Atlantic the “phoney” war. Suddenly the explosion of pent-up German strength and preparation burst upon Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium.
All these absolutely blameless neutrals, to most of whom Germany up to the last moment was giving every kind of guarantee and assurance, were overrun and trampled down. The hideous massacre of Rotterdam, where 30,000 people perished, showed the ferocious barbarism in which the German Air Force revels when, as in Warsaw and later Belgrade, it is able to bomb practically undefended cities.
On top of all this came the great French catastrophe. The French Army collapsed, and the French nation was dashed into utter and, as it has so far proved, irretrievable confusion. The French Government had at their own suggestion solemnly bound themselves with us not to make a separate peace.
It was their duty and it was also their interest to go to North Africa, where they would have been at the head of the French Empire. In Africa, with our aid, they would have had overwhelming sea power. They would have had the recognition of the United States, and the use of all the gold they had lodged beyond the seas.
If they had done this Italy might have been driven out of the war before the end of 1940, and France would have held her place as a nation in the counsels of the Allies and at the conference table of the victors. But their generals misled them.
When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Some chicken; some neck.
The whole speech is at Teaching American History.
The huge crowds and the warm reception that Churchill received in the Parliament provide a good indication of how much difference he personally made to inspiring people:
An audio extract is at CBC archives.
The BBC Archives has an interesting piece from Sir John Martin, his principal private secretary, on how Churchill wrote his speeches.