Issued on June 10, 1940, with the Germans already attacking Paris and defeatism in France rampant, Churchill praised French courage and promised reinforcements
“The maximum possible support is being given by British Forces in the great battle which the French Armies are now conducting with such undaunted courage. All available means are being used to give help on land, sea and in the air. The R.A.F. has been continuously engaged over the battlefields and within...
“The maximum possible support is being given by British Forces in the great battle which the French Armies are now conducting with such undaunted courage. All available means are being used to give help on land, sea and in the air. The R.A.F. has been continuously engaged over the battlefields and within the last few days fresh British forces have landed in France to take their place with those already engaged in the common struggle, whilst further extensive reinforcements are being rapidly organized and will shortly be available.”
Britain and France entered the Second World War following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. In expectation of a German advance westwards, the British Expeditionary Force, which grew to 390,000 men over the winter of 1939–40, deployed alongside the troops of its allies in France. For the rest of that winter, the Allies dug in along the borders facing their opponents, but there was no fighting. This period of anticipation became known as the ‘Phony War’. Fighting began in the spring of 1940, when German forces surprisingly invaded Denmark and Norway on April 9 with the dual objective of safeguarding their iron ore supplies from Sweden, which shipped out of Norwegian ports, and preventing the Royal Navy from controlling the North Atlantic by blockading German shipping in its own ports. Denmark surrendered on the day it was invaded. British and French troops fought briefly in Norway, but that country was lost as well.
Hitler envisaged a rapid German attack into the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg to prevent the Allied army having a clear route into Germany. The tactic would be a blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’, in which the Germans would strike with overwhelming force in a crucial location. This would be quickly followed by more attacks from fast-moving tanks, artillery, infantry and aircraft, with the aim of surrounding enemy troops in a pocket, causing their destruction or surrender. The key element of Blitzkrieg was disorientation, to stop the enemy from reorganizing and counterattacking. Hitler’s ideal objective was to entice the main Allied forces into northern France and Belgium, and to surround them in a huge ‘pincer’ maneuver. The northern arm of the pincer saw German forces on May 10 launch air raids on Belgium and Holland, followed by parachute drops and attacks by ground forces. But this attack, though formidable, was in reality a diversion. It had the desired effect of drawing the main and best Allied forces north to meet it. The Netherlands, a declared neutral country, was quickly overrun and would surrender on May 15. Meanwhile, also on the 10th, the massive southern arm of the pincer struck through Luxembourg and into Belgium. Having advanced through the heavily forested Ardennes – a region considered impossible for a large force to cross quickly – this main German force would fight its way across the river Meuse to Sedan in France in just three days. Immediately alarmed that the Germans had with such speed attacked and were conquering so many countries, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign and Winston Churchill was asked to form a new government and take over as Prime Minister. All these momentous events happened on the same day – May 10.
The German attack punched through the defending French forces and proceeded to race across northern France, causing confusion and disarray. With no strategic Allied reserve or counterattack of any strength to stop them, German advance forces reached the English Channel just a week later. Events were moving that fast. By May 26, all the French and Belgian ports north of the river Somme, apart from Dunkirk, had been captured. Belgium surrendered on May 28. By the last week of May 1940, most of the British Army, a large French contingent and some Belgian soldiers were, as the Germans had planned, trapped in a small area around Dunkirk. Though French Prime Minister Reynaud met in person with Churchill begging for more troops and planes, in fact the evacuation by sea of those trapped at Dunkirk was imperative. On the evening of May 26 an amphibious rescue was set in motion. Over the next nine days, the Royal Navy’s fighting ships, merchant transport vessels and small civilian boats of all kinds plied the dangerous waters to and from Dunkirk under frequent and intense German attacks from land, sea and air. Over 900 vessels in all took part in the evacuation. The operation came to a close in the early hours of June 4. By the end of that day, 338,226 British and Allied troops had been rescued and landed in England. The rescue has been described as a ‘miracle’ and remains the largest amphibious evacuation undertaken in any wartime conditions. It enabled the British Army to regroup and fight again, and also strengthened the credibility of Churchill’s insistence that Britain would fight on. But as Churchill said, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Starting on June 5, German forces struck south into the heart of France, with the intention of taking Paris. They began to destroy the Allied forces in the field in short order. Allied command was stunned and paralyzed, and the unthinkable – the fall of France – began to appear as a distinct possibility. The Germans launched a major offensive on Paris on June 9. Defeatism was rife in France, and Churchill reached for some way to encourage the French to fight on. On June 10 he prepared a message to Reynaud and the French people, one to be broadcast by the BBC.
This is the original of that famous, historic message. Typed statement for broadcast, London, dated in Churchill’s hand “10.6.40” (June 10, 1940).], with his handwritten indication that it was “Sent to the F[oreign O[ffice] for dispatch at 11 am.” “The maximum possible support is being given by British Forces in the great battle which the French Armies are now conducting with such undaunted courage. All available means are being used to give help on land, sea and in the air. The R.A.F. has been continuously engaged over the battlefields and within the last few days fresh British forces have landed in France to take their place with those already engaged in the common struggle, whilst further extensive reinforcements are being rapidly organized and will shortly be available.”
As Churchill indicates, this document was forwarded to the Foreign Office, which would send it to France. The cover letter to the Foreign Office, also dated June 10, reads: “Dear Mallet, Could you please arrange for the enclosed message from Mr. Churchill to Monsieur Reynaud to be sent off at once. The text has been telephoned to the Ministry of Information who has been told to put it out in the 1 o’clock news.” W.I. Mallet was a long-time Foreign Service officer, then working for the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax.
There is also the letter to the Ministry of Information, the central government department responsible for publicity, led by Duff Cooper, who would actually release the contents through the BBC that same day. “10th June 1940. Dear Hood, I enclose a confirmatory copy of the message I read over the telephone to Russell, which is to be put out in the 1 o’clock news.” Hood was Viscount Samuel Hood, then working under Cooper but later in the Foreign Office.
Receiving Churchill’s message promising assistance, Reynaud then urgently pleaded with President Roosevelt for help. He said, “Today, June 10, 1940, my duty is to ask you for even greater assistance. At the same time that you explain the situation to the men and women of America I beg you publicly to declare that the United States will accord the Allies their material support through all means, except the sending of an expeditionary corps. I beg you to do this before it is too late…”
On June 13 Paris was declared an open city, as the French government fled to Bordeaux. The first German troops entered the French capital on June 14, little more than a month after the campaign began. The end came with the surrender of France on June 22. Hitler insisted on signing the document of capitulation in the same railway carriage used when Germany had surrendered in 1918. The humiliation of France was complete. Now Churchill and Britain would have to fight on alone.
On June 18, four days earlier, Churchill have his Finest Hour speech, one of the greatest in the English language. It started by referring to this struggle in France: “The Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us…”
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