Winston Churchill, wearing his air raid ‘siren suit’, makes a radio address from his desk at 10 Downing Street in June 1942 © Getty Images

The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches, by Richard Toye, OUP, RRP£25, 309 pages

Winston Churchill achieved iconic status within his own long lifetime, thus transforming an earlier reputation that was far more controversial. We cannot ignore the retrospective aura of veneration that surrounds him but we also need to recover a sense of how Churchill’s career actually unfolded. The Roar of the Lion makes a notable contribution to this task and, though its publishers make some rather simplistic claims in packaging the book, implying a disparaging verdict on Churchill’s oratory, this is no crude exercise in debunking.

Richard Toye, professor of modern history at the University of Exeter, provides a nuanced and discriminating account of the pivotal episode in Churchill’s career. In November 1939, as he turned 65, Churchill was an immensely gifted but widely distrusted politician who was teetering on the edge of superannuation. Yet he succeeded in winning the confidence of his compatriots. They felt that they knew him, and perhaps knew him all too well. “Winston is not a man I admire in peacetime,” one voter, who would hardly have been on first-name terms, wrote in his diary on November 12 1939, “but right now he seems like the right man for the job.”

Many others evidently came round to this view. And all this happened, so Churchill later liked to tell the story, because an imperial “race” (as he termed it), with its collective “lion heart”, intuitively turned to a man who “had the luck to be called upon to give the roar”.

In its day, this was an agreeable and mutually flattering myth. True, his reputation rested as much on his words as on his actions. Indeed, to Churchill there was little distinction, since he had always believed that the best means of governing was by talking. Lacking any other means of financing his political career, moreover, he had long turned his own verbal facility to good account in fashioning a parallel career as a writer.

Toye shows that Churchill’s ascendancy was hardly just the product of happy chance. Rather than spontaneously roaring away, he carefully fashioned his public utterances. He targeted their impact with care, taking advice on how to appeal to different audiences simultaneously: not only to the House of Commons and the British public but to the self-governing Dominions that alone sustained Britain in 1940. And Churchill adroitly pitched his appeals for support from the US, whether aimed at the sympathetic President Franklin D Roosevelt or at those American voters who harboured inveterate suspicions of imperialist Britons.

What evidence do we have that Churchill’s speeches succeeded in mobilising the war effort? Opinion polling was in its infancy at the time but it provides significant evidence that from the summer of 1940, when he became prime minister, through to the summer of 1945, when he lost office, Churchill had approval ratings that only once slipped below 80 per cent. Toye also mines other archives, whether official surveys or the unofficial reports compiled by the Mass Observation organisation and a hoard of contemporary diaries. Such sources speak with a vividness that cuts through the conventional accounts in bringing out the sheer variety of responses that his words evoked.

Even in 1940, the reception of Churchill’s oratory was patchy and the “finest hour” speech, though thrilling in the Commons, was poor when rehashed that night on radio. Here, as he often complained when hauled off from a parliamentary triumph to perform for the BBC, the prime minister was simply tired – or worse. Reactions to one later broadcast speech show listeners’ judgments divided between “a little tipsy”, “slightly fuddled” and “completely sozzled”.

Even if the great orator was not himself tired, his listeners sometimes flagged. “Someone has told him that we are weary of his eloquence,” one MP noted in 1941; and, following the fall of Singapore in 1942, Mass Observation reported: “The breaking of the oratorical spell is thus a shock as well as a disappointment.” Fortunately, the memory of Singapore could soon be eclipsed by talk of the tide of Allied advances. “How grand it was not to hear about blood and tears and toil,” was one listener’s understandable response. Little wonder that one of Churchill’s best-received lines came after El Alamein in November 1942, when he declared “the end of the beginning”. The roaring lion’s best repartee, in the end, was victory itself.

Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)

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