The Retreat from Flanders
| WE SHALL DEFEND OUR ISLAND WHATEVER THE COST
by WINSTON CHURCHILL, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Before the House of Commons, June 4, 1940
From the moment when the defenses at Sedan on the Meuse were
broken at the end of the second week in May only a rapid retreat to
Amiens and the south could have saved the British-French armies who
had entered Belgium at the appeal of the Belgian King.
This strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French
High Command hoped it would be able to close the gap. the armies of
the north were under their orders. Moreover, a retirement of that
kind would have involved almost certainly the destruction of a fine
Belgian Army of twenty divisions and abandonment of the whole of
Therefore, when the force and scope of the German penetration
was realized and when the new French Generalissimo, General [Maxime]
Weygand, assumed command in place of General Gamelin, an effort was
made by the French and British Armies in Belgium to keep holding the
right hand of the Belgians and give their own right hand to the newly
created French Army which was to advance across the Somme in great
However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe south of
Amiens to the rear of the armies in the north-eight or nine armored
divisions, each with about 400 armored vehicles of different kinds
divisible into small self-contained units.
This forced cut off all communications between us and the main
French Army. It severed our communications for food and ammunition.
It ran first through Amiens, afterward through Abbeville, and it
shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, almost to
MASS OF ARMY FOLLOWED
Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of
German divisions in lorries, and behind them, again, plodded
comparatively slowly the dull, brute mass of the ordinary German Army
and German people, always ready to be led to the trampling down in
other lands of liberties and comforts they never have known in their
I said this armored scythe stroke almost reached
Dunkerque--almost but not quite. Boulogne and Calais were scenes of
desperate fighting. The guards defended Boulogne for a while and
were then withdrawn by orders from this country.
The rifle brigade of the Sixtieth Rifles (Queen Victoria's
Rifles), with a battalion of British tanks and 1,000 Frenchmen, in
all about 4,000 strong, defended Calais to the last. The British
brigadier was given an hour to surrender. He spurned the offer.
Four days of intense street fighting passed before the silence
reigned in Calais which marked the end of a memorable resistance.
Only thirty unwounded survivors were brought off by the navy,
and we do not know the fate of their comrades. Their sacrifice was
not, however, in vain. At least two armored divisions which
otherwise would have been turned against the B. E. F. had to be sent
to overcome them. They have added another page to the glories of the
The time gained enabled the Gravelines water line to be flooded
and held by French troops. Thus the port of Dunkerque was held open.
When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen
their communications through Amiens with the main French armies, only
one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn hope. The Belgian
and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat
was to a single port and it neighboring beaches. They were pressed
on every side by heavy attacks and were far outnumbered in the air.
When a week ago today I asked the House to fix this afternoon
for the occasion of a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to
announce from this box the greatest military disaster of our long
WERE PESSIMISTIC AT FIRST
I thought, and there were good judges who agreed with me, that
perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked, but it certainly
seemed that the whole French First Army and the whole B. E. F., north
of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken up in open field or else
have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition.
These were the hard and heavy tidings I called on the House and
nation to prepare themselves for.
The whole root and core and brain of the British armies of
later years, seemed due to perish upon the field. That was the
prospect a week ago, gut another blow which might have proved final
was still to fall upon us.
The King of Belgians called upon us to come to his said. Had
not this ruler and his government severed themselves from the Allies
who rescued their country from extinction in the late ware, and had
they not sought refuge in what has been proved to be fatal
neutrality, then the French and British armies at the outset might
well have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Holland.
At the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King
Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last
moment we came. He and his brave and efficient army of nearly half a
million strong guarded our eastern flank; this kept open our only
retreat to the sea.
Suddenly, without any prior consultation and with the least
possible notice, without the advice of his ministers and on his own
personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command
surrendering his army and exposing our flank and the means of
I asked the House a week ago to suspend its judgment because
the facts were not clear. I do not think there is now any reason why
we should not form our own opinions upon this pitiful episode. The
surrender of the Belgian Army compelled the British ARmy at the
shortest notice to cover a flank to the sea of more than thirty
miles' length which otherwise would have been cut off.
TWO FORCES LOST CONTACT
In doing this and closing this flank, contact was lost
inevitably between the British and two of three corps forming the
First French Army who were then further from the coast than we were.
It seemed impossible that large numbers of Allied troops could reach
the coast. The enemy attacked on all sides in great strength and
fierceness, and their main power, air force, was thrown into the
The enemy began to fire cannon along the beaches by which alone
shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the
channels and seas and sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft,
sometimes more than 100 strong, to cast bombs on a single pier that
remained and on the sand dunes.
Their U-boats, one of which was sunk, and motor launches took
their toll of the vast traffic which now began. For four or five
days the intense struggle raged. All armored divisions, or what was
left of them, together with great masses of German infantry and
artillery, hurled themselves on the ever narrowing and contracting
appendix within which the British and French armies fought.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless
merchant seamen and host of volunteers, strained every nerve and
every effort and every craft to embark the British and Allied troops.
Over 220 light warships and more than 650 other vessels were
engaged. they had to approach this difficult coast, often in adverse
weather, under and almost ceaseless hail of bombs and increasing
concentration of artillery fire. Nor were the seas themselves free
from mines and torpedoes.
It was in conditions such as these that our men carried on with
little or not rest for days and nights, moving troops across
dangerous waters and bringing with them always the men whom they had
rescued. The numbers they brought back are the measure of their
devotion and their courage.
Hospital ships, which were plainly marked, were the special
target for Nazi bombs, but the men women aboard them never faltered
in their duty.
Meanwhile the R. A. F., who already had been intervening in the
battle so far as its range would allow it to go from home bases, now
used a part of its main metropolitan fighter strength to strike at
The struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has
cleared. The crash and thunder has momentarily, but only for the
moment, died away. The miracle of deliverance achieved by the valor
and perseverance, perfect discipline, faultless service, skill and
unconquerable vitality is a manifesto to us all.
ENEMY "ROUGHLY HANDLED"
The enemy was hurled back by the British and French troops. He
was so roughly handled that he dare not molest their departure
seriously. The air force decisively defeated the main strength of
the German Air Force and inflicted on them a loss of at least four to
The navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over
335,000 men, French and British, from the jaws of death back to their
native land and to the tasks which lie immediately before them.
We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance
attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations, but there
was a victory inside this deliverance which must be noted.
Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the air force at
work. They only saw the bombers which escaped their protective
attack. This was a great trial of strength between the British and
German Air Forces.
Can you conceive of a greater objective for the power of
Germany in the air than to make all evacuations from these beaches
impossible and to sink all of the ships, numbering almost 1,000?
Could there have been an incentive of greater military importance and
significance to the whole purpose of the war?
They tried hard and were beaten back. They were frustrated in
their task; we have got the armies away and they have paid fourfold
for any losses sustained. Very large formations of German airplanes
were turned on several occasions from the attack by a quarter their
number of R. A. F. planes and dispersed in different directions.
Twelve airplanes have been hunted by two. One airplane was driven
into the water and cast away by the charge of a British airplane
which had no more ammunition.
All of our types and our pilots have been vindicated. The
Hurricane, Spitfire and Defiance have been vindicated. When I
consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air
above this island against overseas attacks, defending the air above
this island against overseas attacks, I find in these facts a sure
basis on which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest, and I will
pay my tribute to these young airmen.
May it not be that the cause of civilization itself will be
defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There
never has been, I suppose, in all the history of the world such
opportunity for youth.
The Knights of the Round Table and Crusaders have fallen back
into distant days, not only distant but prosaic; but these young men
are going forth every morning, going forth holding in their hands an
instrument of colossal shattering power, of whom it may be said that
every morn brought forth a noble chance and every chance brought
forth a noble deed. These young men deserve our gratitude, as all
brave men who in so many ways and so many occasions are ready and
will continue to be ready to give their life and their all to their
MORE THAN 30,000 LOST
I return to the army. In a long series of very fierce battles,
now on this front, now on that, fighting on three fronts at once,
battles fought by two or three divisions against an equal or
sometimes larger number of the enemy, and fought very fiercely on old
ground so many of us knew so well, our losses in men exceed 30,000 in
killed, wounded and missing. I take this occasion for expressing the
sympathy of the House with those who have suffered bereavement or are
The President of the Board of Trade (Sir Andrew Duncan) is not
here today. His son has been killed, and many here have felt private
affliction of the sharpest form, but I would say about the missing --
we have had a large number of wounded come home safely to this
country -- there may be very many reported missing who will come back
home some day.
In the confusion of departure it is inevitable that many should
be cut off. Against this loss of over 30,000 men we may set the far
heavier loss certainly inflicted on the enemy, but our losses in
material are enormous. We have perhaps lost one-third of the men we
lost in the opening days of the battle on March 21, 1918, but we have
lost nearly as many guns -- nearly 1,000 -- and all our transport and
all the armored vehicles that were with the army of the north.
These losses will impose further delay on the expansion of our
military strength. That expansion has not been proceeding as fast as
we had hoped. The best of all we had to give has been given to the
B. E. F., and although they had not the number of tanks and some
articles of equipment which were desirable they were a very well and
finely equipped army. They had the first fruits of all our industry
had to give. That has gone and now here is further delay.
How long it will be, how long it will last depends upon the
exertions which we make on this island. An effort, the like of which
has never been seen in our records, is now being made. Work is
proceeding night and day. Sundays and week days. Capital and labor
have cast aside their interests, rights and customs and put
everything into the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has
leaped forward. There is no reason why we should not in a few months
overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us without
retarding the development of our general program.
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our army with
so many men, and the thankfulness of their loved ones, who passed
through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what
happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.
The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been
lost and a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much
faith was reposed has gone, and many valuable mining districts and
factories have passed into the enemy's possession.
The whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the
strategic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect
another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France.
We were told that Hitler has plans for invading the British
Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at
Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army,
some one told him there were bitter weeds in England. There
certainly were and a good many more of them have since been returned.
The whole question of defense against invasion is powerfully affected
by the fact that we have for the time being in this island
incomparably more military forces than we had in the last war. But
his will not continue. We shall not be content with a defensive war.
We have our duty to our Allies.
We have to reconstitute and build up the B. E. F. once again
under its gallant Commander in Chief, Lord Gort. All this is en
train. But now I feel we must put our defense in this island into
such a high state of organization that the fewest possible numbers
will be required to give effectual security and that the largest
possible potential offensive effort may be released.
On this we are now engaged. It would be very convenient to
enter upon this subject in secret sessions. The government would not
necessarily be able to reveal any great military secrets, but we
should like to have our discussions free and without the restraint
imposed by the fact that they would be read the next day by the
The government would benefit by the views expressed by the
House. I understand that some request is to be made on this subject,
which will be readily acceded to by the government. We have found it
necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against
enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities but
also against British subjects who may become a danger or a nuisance
should the war be transported to the United Kingdom.
I know there are a great many people affected by the orders
which we have made who are people affected by the orders which we
have made who are passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very
sorry from them, but we cannot, under the present circumstances, draw
all the distinctions we should like to do. If parachute landings
were attempted and fierce nights followed, those unfortunate people
would be far better out of the way for their own sake as well as
There is, however, another class for which I feel not the
slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us powers to put down fifth
column activities with the strongest hand, and we shall use those
powers subject to the supervision and correcting of the House without
hesitation until we are satisfied and more than satisfied that this
malignancy in our midst has been effectually stamped out.
NO ABSOLUTE GUARANTEE
Turning once again to the question of invasion, there has, I
will observe, never been a period in all those long centuries of
which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still
less against serous raids, could have been given to our people. In
the days of Napoleon the same wind which might have carried his
transports across the Channel might have driven away a blockading
fleet. There is always the chance, and it is that chance which has
excited and befooled the imaginations of many continental tyrants.
We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we
see the originality, malice and ingenuity of aggression which our
enemy displays we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of
novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous manoeuvre.
I think no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and
viewed with a watchful, but at the same time steady, eye.
We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and
those which belong to air power if they can be locally exercised. I