I was asked last week whether I was aware of some uneasiness which, it was said, existed in the country on account of the gravity, as it was described, of the war situation. So I thought it would be a good thing to go and see for myself what this uneasiness amounted to. And I went to some of our great cities and seaports which had been most heavily bombed, and to some of the places where the poorest people have got it worst.
I've come back not only reassured but refreshed. To leave the offices in Whitehall with their ceaseless hum of activity and stress and to go out to the front, by which I mean the streets and wharves of London, or Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Swansea or Bristol, is like going out of a hothouse onto the bridge of a fighting ship. It is a tonic which I should recommend to any who are suffering from fretfulness to take in strong doses when they have need of it.
It is quite true that I've seen many painful scenes of havoc and of fine buildings and acres of cottage homes blasted into rubble heaps of ruin; but it is just in those very places, where the malice of the savage enemy has done its worst, and where the ordeal of the men, women and children has been most severe that I found their morale most high and splendid. Indeed, I felt encompassed by an exaltation of spirit in the people which seemed to lift mankind and its troubles above the level of material facts into that joyous serenity we think belongs to a better world than this.
Of their kindness to me I cannot speak because I have never sought it or dreamed of it and can never deserve it. I can only assure you that I and my colleagues, or comrades, rather, for that is what they are, will toil with every scrap of life and strength according to the lights that are granted to us not to fail these people or be wholly unworthy of their faithful and generous regard.
The British nation is stirred and moved as it never has been at any time in its long, eventful, famous history. And it is no hackneyed trope of speech to say that they mean to conquer or to die. What a triumph the life of these battered cities is over the worst that fire and bomb can do! What a vindication of the civilized and decent way of living we have been trying to work for and work toward in our island! What a proof of the virtues of free institutions! What a test of the quality of our local authorities and of customs and societies so steadily built!
This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain. The sublime but also terrible, sombre experiences and emotions of the battlefield, which for centuries had been reserved for the soldiers and sailors, are now shared for good or ill by the entire population. All are proud of being under the fire of the enemy. Old men, little children, the crippled, veterans of former wars, aged women, the ordinary hard-pressed citizen-or subject of the King as he likes to call himself-the sturdy workmen who swing the hammers or load the ships, the skillful craftsmen, the members of every kind of A. R. P. service, are proud to feel that they stand in the lines together with our fighting men when one of the greatest causes is being fought out. And fought out it will be to the end. This indeed is the grand, heroic period of our history and the light of glory shines on all.
You may. imagine how deeply I feel my own responsibility to all these people, my responsibility to bear my part in bringing them safely out of this long, stern scowling valley through which we are marching and not to demand from them their sacrifices and exertions in vain. I have thought in this difficult period, when so much fighting and so many critical and complicated manoeuvres are going on, that it is above all things important that our policy and conduct should be upon the highest level and that honour should be our guide.
Very few people realize how small were the forces with which General Wavell, that fine commander whom we cheered in good days and will back through bad; how small were the forces which took the bulk of the Italian masses in Libya prisoners. In none of his successive victories could General Wavell maintain in the desert or bring into action at one time more than two divisions or about 30,000 men.
When we reached Bengazi, and what was left of Mussolini's legions scurried back along the dusty road to Tripoli, a call was made upon us which we could not resist. Let me tell you about that call.
You will remember how, in November, the Italian dictator fell upon the unoffending Greeks and without reason and without warning invaded their country, and how the Greek nation, reviving their classic frame, hurled his armies back at the double-quick. Meanwhile, Hitler, who had been creeping and worming his way steadily forward, doping and poisoning and pinioning one after the other, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, suddenly made it clear that he would come to the rescue of his fellow-criminal. The lack of unity among the Balkan States had enabled him to build up a mighty army in their midst. While nearly all the Greek troops were busy beating the Italians the tremendous German military machine suddenly towered up on their other frontier.
In their mortal peril the Greeks turned to us for succour. Strained as were our resources we could not say them nay. By solemn guarantee, given before the war, Great Britain had promised them her help. They declared they would fight for their native soil even if neither of their neighbours made common cause with them and even if we left them to their fate.
But we could not do that. There are rules against that kind of thing and to break those rules would be fatal to the honour of the British Empire, without which we could neither hope nor deserve to win this hard war. Military defeat or miscalculation can be remedied. The fortunes of war are fickle and changing. But an act of shame would deprive us of the respect which we now enjoy throughout the world and thus would sap the vitals of' our strength. During the last year we have gained by our bearing and conduct a potent hold upon the sentiments of the people of the United States. Never, never in our long history have we been held in such admiration and regard across the Atlantic Ocean.
In that Great Republic, now in much travail and stress of soul, it is customary to use all the many valid, solid arguments about American interests and American safety which depend on the destruction of Hitler and his foul gang and even fouler doctrine. But, in the long run-believe me for I know-the action of the United States will be dictated not by methodical calculations of profit and loss but by moral sentiment and by that gleaming flash of resolve which lifts the hearts of men and nations and springs from the spiritual foundation of human life itself.
We, for our part, were, of course, bound to harken to the Greek appeal to the utmost limit of our strength. We put the case to the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand and their Governments, without in any way ignoring the hazards, told us that they felt the same as we did. So an important part of the mobile portion of the Army of the Nile was sent to Greece in fulfillment of our pledge. It happened that the divisions available and best suited to this task were from New Zealand and Australia and that only about half the troops who took part in this dangerous expedition came from the mother country.
I see the German propaganda is trying to make bad blood between us and Australia by making out that we have used them to do what we would not have asked of the British Army. I shall leave it to Australia to deal with that taunt.
Let us see what has happened.
We knew, of course, that the forces we could send to Greece would not by themselves alone be sufficient to stem the German tide of invasion. But there was a very real hope that the neighbours of Greece would, by our intervention, be drawn to stand in the line together with her while time remained. How nearly that came off will be known some day.
The tragedy of Yugoslavia has been that these brave people had a government who hoped to purchase an ignoble immunity by submission to the Nazi rule. But, when at last the people of Yugoslavia found out where they were being taken and rose in one spontaneous surge of revolt, they saved the soul and future of their country, but it was already too late to save its territory. They had no time to mobilize their armies. They were struck down by the ruthless and highly mechanized Hun before they could even bring their armies into the field.
Great disasters have occurred in the Balkans. Yugoslavia has been beaten down. Only in the mountains can she continue her resistance. The Greeks have been overwhelmed. Their victorious Albanian Army has been cut off and forced to surrender and it has been left to the Anzacs and their British comrades to fight their way back to the sea, leaving their mark on all who hindered them.
I turn aside from the stony path we have to tread to indulge a moment of lighter relief. I dare say you have read in the newspapers that by a special proclamation the Italian dictator has congratulated the Italian Army in Albania on the glorious laurels they have gained by their victory over the Greeks. Here, surely, is the world record in the domain of the ridiculous and the contemptible. This whipped jackal, Mussolini, who to save his own skin has made all Italy a vassal state of Hitler's Empire, comes frisking up at the side of the German tiger with yelpings not only of appetite-that could be understood-but even of triumph.
Different things strike different people in different ways but I am sure there are a great many millions in the British Empire and in the United States who will find a new object in life in making sure that, when we come to the final reckoning, this absurd impostor will be abandoned to public justice and universal scorn.
While these grievous events were taking place in the Balkan Peninsula and in Greece our forces in Libya have sustained a vexatious and damaging defeat. The Germans advanced sooner and in greater strength than we or our generals expected. The bulk of our armoured troops, which had played such a decisive part in beating the Italians, had to be re-fitted, and the single armoured brigade which had been judged sufficient to hold the frontier until about the middle of May was worsted and its vehicles largely destroyed by a somewhat stronger German armoured force. Our infantry, which did not exceed one division had to fall back upon the very large Imperial Armies that have been assembled and can be nourished and maintained in the fertile Delta of the Nile. Tobruk-the fortress of Tobruk-which flanks any German advance on Egypt, we hold strongly. There we have repulsed many attacks, causing the enemy heavy losses and taking many prisoners. That is how the matters stand in Libya and on the Egyptian front.
We must now expect the war in the Mediterranean, on the sea, in the desert and above all in the air to become very fierce, varied and widespread. We have cleaned the Italians out of Cyrenaica and it now lies with us to purge that province of the Germans. That will be a harder task and we cannot expect to do it at once.
You know I never try to make out that defeats are victories. I have never underrated the German as a warrior. Indeed, I told you a month ago that the swift, unbroken course of victories which we had gained over the Italians could not possibly continue and that misfortunes must be expected. There is only one thing certain about war, that it is full of disappointments and also of mistakes.
It remains to be seen, however, whether it is the Germans who have made the mistake in trampling down the Balkan States and in making a river of blood and hate between themselves and the Greek and Yugoslav peoples. It remains also to be seen whether they have made a mistake in their attempt to invade Egypt with the forces and means of supply which they have now got. Taught by experience, I make it a rule not to prophesy about battles which have yet to be fought. This, however, I will venture to say: that I should be very sorry to see the tasks of the combatants in the Middle East exchanged and for General Wavell's armies to be in the position of the German invaders. That is only a personal opinion and I can well understand there may be different views.
It is certain that fresh dangers besides those which threaten Egypt may come upon us in the Mediterranean. The war may spread to Spain and Morocco. It may spread eastward to Turkey and Russia. The Germans may lay their hands for a time upon the granaries of the Ukraine and the oil wells of the Caucasus. They may dominate the Black Sea; they may dominate the Caspian, who can tell? We shall do our best to meet them and fight them wherever they go.
But there is one thing which is certain; there is one thing which rises out of the vast welter which is sure and solid and which no one in his senses can mistake: Hitler cannot find safety from avenging justice in the East, in the Middle East or in the Far East. In order to win this war he must either conquer this island by invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United States.
Let us look into these alternatives if you will bear with me for a few minutes longer.
When I spoke to you early in February many people believed the Nazi boastings that the invasion of Britain was about to begin. Now it has not begun yet, and with every week that passes we grow stronger on the sea, in the air and in the number, quality, training and equipment of the great armies that now guard our island.
When I compare the position at home as it is today with what it was in the summer of last year, even after making allowance for a much more elaborate mechanical preparation on the part of the enemy, I feel that we have very much to be thankful for. And I believe that, provided our exertion and our vigilance are not relaxed even for a moment, we may be confident that we shall give a very good account of ourselves. More than that it would be boastful to say. Less than that it would be foolish to believe.
But how about our lifeline across the Atlantic? What is to happen if so many of our merchant ships are sunk that we cannot bring in the food we need to nourish our brave people? What if the supplies of war materials and war weapons which the United States are seeking to send us in such enormous quantities should in large part be sunk on the way? What is to happen then?
In February, as you may remember, that bad man, in one of his raving outbursts, threatened us with a terrifying increase in the numbers and activities of his U-boats and in his air attacks, not only on our island but, thanks to his use of French and Norwegian harbours, and thanks to the denial to us of the Irish bases, fell upon our shipping far out into the Atlantic. We have taken and are taking all possible measures to meet this steady attack. And we are now fighting against it with might and main. That is what is called the Battle of the Atlantic which, in order to survive, we have got to win on salt water just as decisively as we had to win the Battle of Britain last August and September in the air.
Wonderful exertions have been made by our Navy and Air Force, by the hundreds of mine-sweeping vessels which with their marvelous appliances keep our ports clear in spite of all the enemy can do, by the men who build and repair our immense fleets of merchant ships, by the men who load and unload them, and, need I say, by the officers and men of the Merchant Navy who go out in all weathers and in the teeth of all dangers to fight for the life of their native land and for a cause they comprehend and serve. Still, when you think how easy it is to sink ships at sea and how hard it is to build them and protect them, and when you remember that we have never less than 2,000 ships afloat and three or four hundred in the danger zone, when you think of the great armies we are maintaining and reinforcing in the east and of the world-wide traffic we have to carry on-when you remember all this can you wonder that it is the Battle of the Atlantic which holds the first place in the thoughts of those upon whom rests responsibility for procuring the victory?
It was, therefore, with indescribable relief that I learned of the tremendous decisions lately taken by the President and people of the United States. The American Fleet and flying boats have been ordered to patrol the wide waters of the Western Hemisphere and to warn the peaceful shipping of all nations outside the combat zone of the presence of lurking U-boats or raiding cruisers belonging to the two aggressor nations. We British will, therefore, be able to concentrate our protecting forces far more upon the routes nearer home and to take a far heavier toll of the U-boats there. I have felt for some time that something like this was bound to happen.
The President and Congress of the United States, having newly fortified themselves by contact with their electors, have solemnly pledged their aid to Britain in this war because they deemed our cause just and because they know their own interests and safety would be endangered if we were destroyed.
They are taxing themselves heavily. They have passed great legislation. They have turned a large part of their gigantic industry to making the munitions which we need. They have even given us or lent us valuable weapons of their own. I could not believe that they would allow the high purposes to which they have set themselves to be frustrated and the products of their skill and labour sunk to the bottom of the sea.
U-boat warfare, as conducted by Germany, is entirely contrary to international agreements freely subscribed to by Germany only a few years ago. There is no effective blockade but only a merciless murder and marauding over wide indiscriminate areas utterly beyond the control of the German sea power.
When I said ten weeks ago, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job," I meant, "Give them to us; put them within our reach." And that is what it now seems the Americans are going to do. And that is why I feel a very strong conviction that though the Battle of the Atlantic will be long and hard and its issue is by no means yet determined, it has entered upon a more grim but at the same time a far more favourable phase. When you come to think of it, the United States are very closely bound up with us now and have engaged themselves deeply in giving us moral, material and, within the limits I have mentioned, naval support.
It is just worth while, therefore, taking a look on both sides of the ocean at the forces which are facing each other in this awful struggle from which there can be no going back.
No prudent and far-seeing man can doubt that the eventual and total defeat of Hitler and Mussolini is certain in view of respective declared resolvers of the British and American democracies. There are less than 70,000,000 malignant Huns, some of whom are curable and others killable, most of whom are already engaged in holding down Austrians, Czechs, Poles and the many other ancient races they now bully and pillage. The people of the British Empire and of the United States number nearly 200,000,000 in their homelands and in the British Dominions alone. They possess the unchallengeable command of the ocean and will soon obtain decisive superiority in the air. They have more wealth, more technical resources and they make more steel than the whole of the rest of the world put together. They are determined that the cause of freedom shall not be trampled on nor the tide of world progress turned backward by the criminal dictators.
While, therefore, we naturally view with sorrow and anxiety much that is happening in Europe and in Africa and may happen in Asia, we must not lose our sense of proportion and thus become discouraged or alarmed. When we face with a steady eye the difficulties which lie before us we may derive new confidence by remembering those we have already overcome. Nothing that is happening now is comparable in gravity with the dangers through which we passed last year. Nothing that can happen in the East is comparable with what is happening in the West.
Last time I spoke to you I quoted the lines of Longfellow which President Roosevelt had written out for me in his own hand. I have some other lines which are less well known but which seem apt and appropriate to our fortunes tonight and I believe they will be so judged wherever the English language is spoken or the flag of freedom flies:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only, .
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! .
But westward, look, the land is bright!
 British Library of Information.