Deciphering Churchill: A Look at His Manuscript Notes For His Great Speech to Parliament Before the Outbreak of WWII


The evolution of his writing habits from the early years until 1939


Like most Victorians, Churchill grew up in a world where few people had typewriters, as the first usable, modern machine did not come into large scale production until 1895 (when he was 21). People maintained extensive handwritten correspondences, and writing was a very personal, hand-to-paper matter. The same held true for Churchill. In the years that he was a boy, went to Harrow, graduated from Sandhurst, served in the military in overseas campaigns, and found success as a journalist, right up to 1900 when he entered Parliament, you will generally find that his letters are Autograph Letters Signed (or ALSs), pieces written completely in his own hand, with an occasional one written out by a secretary and signed by him. From 1900 until 1904, as a member of Parliament, he had access to typewriters, and his typewritten letters begin to appear. However, his personal correspondence still clung to the same pattern: mainly ALSs.

1905 marked a departure for him, as he joined the government as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, and soon was promoted to President of the Board of Trade and then Home Secretary. Now he came to depend on typewriters to create his correspondence, and over those years the percentage of his ALSs overall, including personal letters, markedly decreased. By the time he was made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, ALSs are virtually a thing of the past. It is fair to say that with very few exceptions, the ALSs that we do see are really just brief notes rather than letters. So Churchill ALSs are not uncommon until his career really takes off, and then become very much so. I am illustrating one that we previously carried for you to see for yourself what it looks like. You can immediately see that, although his handwriting has idiosyncrasies, it is easily legible. He was writing for others to see, and recipients could read the letters, with little if any time required to decipher them.


Among the public men of influence, only Churchill recognized the profound peril to the world that the Nazis and Fascists represented. From 1933 until war came in 1939, he spoke out in Parliament (and in his public speeches and newspaper columns) demanding the government wake up and prepare. After his first speech went poorly in the House of Commons in 1901 because he had failed to prepare it with sufficient thoroughness, Churchill never again made a planned statement in the Commons without making careful preparations. This involved outlining the key points he wanted to make and organizing the material in manuscript form, and using this a basis for a typescript his secretaries would generate for his final use. Thus, in an era when Churchill was a clear devotee of the typewriter, and of dictating texts of all kinds to secretaries, these notes stood out as among the only manuscript materials he was creating. However, whereas his ALSs were designed to be read by others, these notes were written decades after he commonly wrote out ALSs and were intended for his eyes only. His legibility of his handwriting declined markedly.

This spring two pages of notes for his important statement to Parliament of April 13, 1939, presenting his comprehensive view of the world, surfaced. The manuscript had been retained by Churchill’s secretary Kathleen Hill, and it appeared largely illegible. Alas, no transcription existed. But we loved the piece for what it stood for and bought it anyway.  I decided to make it my summer’s project to make the manuscript come alive and reflect all of Churchill’s thoughts at that key moment. I am illustrating the two pages for you.

Like the Rosetta Stone, the transcribing of this manuscript could not be done simply by looking at the handwriting and comparing it to other handwriting samples of Churchill, though this was of course done and was useful in many regards. But it took an in depth knowledge of the history, which could only be gained by reading books that dealt with it day by day. For this, “Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years” proved the best and most essential, as it discussed this very speech. Plus it was necessary to make reference to the subsequent typescript developed from these notes, as this provided some answers and many clues, and to read and assess the actual final statement text as recorded in “Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates.” Over the course of weeks the clouds began to part. Slowly the abbreviations yielded up their meanings, the references clarified, the handwriting was deciphered, and Churchill’s points were made and understood. You see for yourself the manuscript as it came from Churchill’s mind; here is the transcription.

Page 1: “Policy of HMG [His Majesty’s Government]”, and at the top wrote “Anglo-Italian Agreement.” His concern about the danger to other nations, and the meaning of British guarantees given to some, was next on his mind, as he noted “Balkan Bloc vital…Situation in Spain…Greece, Turkey, Romania & Bulgaria.” To the right he wrote “Y.S. [Yugoslavia]…Where are we now?”, urging the need for immediate action “Up to the next Speed.” See below


His next thought was of Russia, again asking for a British approach to that nation: “Are we doing all that we might?”, and hoping Russia would “go on ” with its stalled negotiations with Poland. He also wanted to deal with the situation in Spain, where the Fascist Franco had just won the Civil War there with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. At lower left he noted two points he wanted to make about Italy, and German and British relations with that country. They were “1. Not her interest nor wish of [Italian] people to be in a mortal struggle [with] England & France. 2. Germany’s interest is to get Italy involved in war before striking in herself. Only then will Germans be sure of her…”  See below


Churchill then turned from foreign policy to domestic. He would demand “conscription” and a ‘M of S’ [Ministry of Supply]. He would state unequivocally that the “Fleet” was in “disarray,” and that although there was a “Concentration now. But it ought to have been before crisis.” He was obviously moved by the list of crises, failures, and dangerous prospects, so his next thought moved away from specifics and to a Churchillian warning: “Darkening scene…Another now impending.” At this point one can just imagine him in the House of Commons, on his feet and looking right at Chamberlain. He would admonish the government that we “Go on with our quiet life here & yet given to play so great a part.” Turning to attack Chamberlain’s policies, he would lead with “Disillusion & disappointment. Neville – who has been a second time deceived by the Dictator in whom he particularly trusts, &  invites us to trust. Everyone knows his high motives, his desire for peace. We all sympathize with him but sympathize with ourselves too.” That last line was clearly meant for Conservative Party back benchers, as a reminder that though people can sympathize with Chamberlain’s good intentions, no one can accept his invitation to trust Hitler nor forget to worry about the nation’s concerns (and not just the Prime Minister’s). See below


Page two Churchill heads “National unity.” He continues his thoughts about the government, both urging it and lecturing it: “But His Majesty’s Government must also rise to the height of events. Merely to be strong in the House of Commons or to be successful on by-elections is no ground for complacency. One does not feel that existing political machinery fairly represents the deep feeling of anxiety & dissatisfaction with conduct of affairs in country. My belief is country is far ahead of the Government. The days are upon us when majorities in Parliament, votes of confidence in ministers, friendly articles in the press, will no longer count.” He does not want promises, but actions. “Words do not count, achievements alone count.” See below


Summing up, he pleads “Recover initiative in foreign policy” rather than “Wait upon events.” There was a brief digression to claim that the recent failings were not the result of the intelligence service, but the government: “Our intelligence information: “1. Prague  2. Albania – dispersal of ministers & fleet.” He finished with a true Churchillian admonition: “There is a great danger in refusing to believe things you do not like.”  See below


Too see larger images of both the manuscript, visit:


Join Us

Stay informed about new historical documents, historical discoveries, and information for the educated collector.

Collect. Be Inspired.