Myths About Britain's 'Finest Hour'

Alexander Cockburn

There's a myth now about the British hanging together in those dark days [of 1939-1941]. "London can take it," Ed Murrow told America in his CBS broadcasts. Actually, morale was appalling. Most people correctly had little confidence in the competence of their government and thought Germany was going to win. In the Channel Islands, which the Nazis did take over, the people greeted them hospitably and turned in Jews with zest. The British Ministry of Information employed 10,000 people to read people's mail surreptitiously, intercepting about 200,000 letters a week, and discovered that people were deeply pessimistic and thought Churchill was "played out."

A secret government report spelled out the popular lack of nerve: "Portsmouth -- on all sides, we hear that looting and wanton destruction had reached alarming proportions. The police seem unable to exercise control ... The effect on morale is bad and there is a general feeling of desperation ... their nerve had gone."

Churchill's famous speeches about their "finest hour" and so forth didn't have much effect either. He delivered them in the House of Commons, and when the BBC asked him to rebroadcast them on the radio, he refused. So the BBC secretly used an actor named Norman Shelley to read them, pretending to be Churchill. Shelley's usual role was to play Larry the Lamb on "Children's Hour." Most people didn't actually know what Churchill's voice sounded like, and those who did thought it sounded funny. Letters poured into No. 10 Downing St. asking what was wrong with the PM.

Many people tried to shut out the war as much as they could. By the end of 1940, nearly a third of the population admitted to not following news of the war. When asked what depressed them most, people put the weather first, then war news, then the air raids. Life was rotten anyway for a huge slab of the population, which was malnourished, poorly housed, barely educated and deeply discontented. When they visited the [London] East End, the king and queen were soundly booed. In the summer of 1941, a woman got five years in prison for saying "Hitler is a good man, a better man than Mr. Churchill."


About the Author

Alexander Cockburn, author and columnist, was born in Britain in June 1941. This is from his essay, "Remembrances of War and Summer," Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2000. It was reprinted in The Journal of Historical Review, March-April 2002 (Vol. 21, No. 2), page 34.