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Churchill’s powerful ‘fight on the beaches’ speech: The words few people actually heard

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill flashes the “V” for victory sign as he arrives in Washington a decade after the end of World War II. (AP)

World War II was over when Winston Churchill approached the microphone to record what was perhaps his most memorable wartime speech.

It was 1949, almost nine years since the German army had overrun France and driven British and French forces into the pocket around Dunkirk.

Nine years since enemy aircraft had bombed and strafed the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers huddled on the beach, and fears of a Nazi invasion loomed.

Nine years since Churchill had stood in the chamber of the House of Commons and vowed to fight the enemy on the beaches, in the fields and in the streets. “We shall never surrender,” he had thundered.

But few people had actually heard him deliver the speech.

Broadcast and recording equipment was prohibited in the House of Commons at the time, June 4, 1940, according to Britain’s Churchill Archives Centre.

A BBC announcer read excerpts during the 9 p.m. news. But only those present that afternoon — several hundred members of Parliament and other VIPs crammed into the chamber — heard it all live.

So four years after the war ended in 1945, the former (and future) prime minister, then 74, sat in his country home, Chartwell, outside London, as a recording company readied equipment to capture Churchill reading the speech for posterity.

But he left a lot out.

The original speech was about a half-hour long, historians believe. What was recorded appears to be only about 12 minutes or so. And, executed almost a decade after the desperate spring of 1940, the recording lacks the probable punch of the original.

It’s missing the cheers that news accounts say echoed in the chamber during the speech. And it’s missing Churchill’s poignant reference to the absence that day of Sir Andrew Duncan, president of the Board of Trade. “His son has been killed,” Churchill said.

Enter Gary Oldman, who portrays Churchill in the movie, “Darkest Hour.” Oldman, made up with Churchillian jowls, round-rimmed spectacles and blue polka-dot bow tie, delivers an impassioned version of the address. On Sunday night, Oldman won the Academy Award for best actor.

“One of the many wonderful things about ‘Darkest Hour’ is that it gives us the opportunity to hear that speech delivered as Churchill might have” in 1940, said Michael Bishop, director of the International Churchill Society and head of the National Churchill Library at George Washington University.

“It really allows people to see and hear Churchill delivering one of the greatest speeches in the English language . . . in a packed house chamber . . . at a moment of extreme peril,” he said. (The peril would get much worse. The historic chamber where Churchill spoke was destroyed in a German bombing raid less than a year later.)

Much of that drama is missing from the recording, Bishop said.

In 1949, Churchill was temporarily out of office, and all the cataclysmic events unfolding in 1940 were now in the past.

“The German eruption (that) swept like a sharp scythe” across France — a phrase in the original but left out of the recording — was part of history now.

The fall of France to the Nazis had been reversed.

And most of the “old and famous States (that) have fallen into . . . the odious apparatus of Nazi rule” —  another line missing from the recording —  were again free.

But back in 1940, with Britain about to face the conquering German forces alone, Churchill’s words roused his country, and future allies like the United States.

“We shall not flag or fail,” he said, according to the recording and the official government transcript.

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans . . . We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.”

But the actual text of the speech, which ran in many newspapers the next day, was slightly different.

The text, provided by two reputable wire services, had Churchill saying, less dramatically: “We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills.”

It seems likely that Churchill, an accomplished orator, deviated from the text to add pauses, rhythm and repetition, and make an average sentence unforgettable. He is depicted in the movie scribbling last-minute changes to another address.

The recording of the speech excerpts came about through the efforts of Oscar Preuss of Britain’s Gramophone Co., according to Sophie Bridges, an archivist at the Churchill Archives Centre.

Churchill had originally been interested in making records of his favorite music, to be called “Winston’s Tunes” and sold for charity.

He seems to have lost interest in that project, but Preuss — whose protege was future Beatles producer George Martin — arranged for Churchill to record, among other things, parts of the “fight on the beaches” speech.

A mobile unit was sent to Chartwell, and the recording was done in April 1949. Churchill was charged a fee, and the recordings became his property, Bridges wrote in an email. They were released on the Decca record label in 1964 as “Winston S. Churchill. His Memoirs and His Speeches.”

Bishop said the International Churchill Society has a copy. Alas, the excerpt of the famous speech is brief.

To have heard the whole thing in real time in 1940, he said, “would have been an incredible experience.”

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