On ‘the Few’

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

RAF recruiting poster

As Alan Allport has noted, Winston Churchill's famous speech of 20 August 1940 was and is remembered for a 'single, unrepresentative sentence', i.e.:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The speech was given during the Battle of Britain, and 'the Few' are universally taken to be the pilots of Fighter Command, the last line of defence against the Luftwaffe. But, as Alan says, Churchill had relatively little to say about the Battle that day -- he did talk about it, but only as part of a general speech on the war situation. I suggested that if you read the line in context, it actually looks like Churchill is talking about Bomber Command, as he doesn't dwell on Fighter Command at all.

Here's a fuller extract from Churchill's speech (emphasis added):

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.

We are able to verify the results of bombing military targets in Germany, not only by reports which reach us through many sources, but also, of course, by photography. I have no hesitation in saying that this process of bombing the military industries and communications of Germany and the air bases and storage depots from which we are attacked, which process will continue upon an ever-increasing scale until the end of the war, and may in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of, affords one at least of the most certain, if not the shortest of all the roads to victory. Even if the Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea, or indeed upon the Caspian, even if Hitler was at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverised at home.

So he gives his famous line, but then says in effect 'yes, yes, the fighter pilots are great, but let's talk about the bomber boys, they're the ones who might win the war for us'. As Churchill himself might have said, wars are not won by defence. At most, I think he meant the 'few' to include all Britain's pilots, but the phrase soon narrowed to mean those flying fighters alone. For example, the 1942 film The First of the Few was about the genesis of the Spitfire.

So how were Churchill's words interpreted as he spoke them? The major newspapers all ran leaders on the speech. One which singled out the phrase in question was the Manchester Guardian (21 August 1940, 4):

The work of the R.A.F., both in defence and in offence, has been beyond all expectations and beyond all praise; in a striking sentence he said that "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

So here it is associated with the RAF as a whole, not just one part of it. The Times (21 August 1940, 5) also noted the phrase, in summing up a lengthy paragraph which itself summarises Churchill's comments on Fighter Command, Bomber Command, the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the Empire Air Training Scheme:

our airmen can look forward to attaining numerical parity with their opponents, and so to playing that dominant part in the whole war which their skill and gallantry have deserved. Already they have given us a clear vision of victory, even under the impact of what the PRIME MINISTER called a cataract of disaster. Truly, as he said, "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

So here too the fighter pilots are just one element of the Few.

The other newspapers I've looked at don't mention the Few explicitly. The Daily Express (21 August 1940, 5) barely even alludes to the Battle, saying only that 'the fight which this nation and this Empire is making has increased the respect' of Americans for Britain:

Soldiers, sailors, and pilots are at their greatest strength yet. Canada and America are hand in hand. We hold the seven seas.

All this the enemy has to beat.

All this -- and more. For we strike, strike, strike through our bombers. And Churchill promises that we shall strike harder yet.

The Daily Mirror (21 August 1940, 5) listed 'several points of real encouragement from Mr. Churchill's review', the first among them (and the only one relating to airpower) being:

Our bombing of military targets in Germany (one of the brilliant achievements of the R.A.F.) is certainly having its effect. And Mr. Churchill realises that this may be the surest of all roads to victory.

Air defence is presumably one of the other 'brilliant achievements of the R.A.F.', but it doesn't seem to be worth mentioning for the Mirror.

Complicating this picture is the Yorkshire Post (21 August 1940, 2), which in fact didn't mention the work of Bomber Command at all. Instead it focused on the Battle:

we can fairly claim that in these last dramatic weeks we have at least blunted the edge of that air terror on which Germany's hopes of final victory must largely depend [...] Unless Hitler can soon beat us in the air -- and even now it is we who are beating him -- he never will.

The Glasgow Herald (21 August 1940, 6) split the difference, remarking that

Our Air Force has faced the greatest aerial war machine ever known or imagined, has beaten back its first great assaults with great and disproportionate loss to the enemy, and has harried Germany far more effectively than the Luftwaffe has raided here [...]

So, out of this sample of half a dozen metropolitan and provincial dailies, only one, the Yorkshire Post, gave precedence to Fighter Command when discussing Churchill's speech, and even it didn't relate this to his praise of the Few.

Garry Campion analysed Churchill's speech in The Good Fight: Battle of Britain Propaganda and The Few (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He notes differing opinions as to whether the Few were just the fighter pilots or all RAF aircrew, both during the war and after. Richard Overy is on the former side; David Reynolds on the other. Campion himself sides with the usual interpretation (as might be guessed from the title of his book). But I think he is too quick to dismiss the idea that the Few included bomber crews too (78):

On this point it is noteworthy that Bomber Command had yet to strike at Berlin, its first attack occurring five days later on 25/26 August [...] It is hard to see at this early point that Bomber Command's undoubtedly heroic attacks had resulted in clear, tangible outcomes -- also capable of being propagandised -- comparable to that of the fighter squadrons.

But as the above quote from Churchill's speech shows, he did claim that there were 'clear, tangible outcomes' from RAF bomber raids, and he clearly was trying to propagandise them. And, as I have argued, Bomber Command's capabilities and effects were wildly overestimated at this time. Campion's is a Fighter Command view of the Battle of Britain. Perhaps mine is a Bomber Command view.

Image source: Spitfire Site.

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28 thoughts on “On ‘the Few’

  1. Dave

    Nice points, but of course it is in the post-war context that the real historical memory of 1940 is established, and that is a memory of heroic defence. That is something already established [perhaps despite the PM's own personal preferences] in wider presentations of the era during the war itself. I always think in this context of In Which We Serve, which in 1942 represented the career of the Torrin as a series of rearguards and retreats, and nonetheless glorious for all that.

    Given, also, that Bomber Command was having little material effect on Germany in 1940, it is perhaps also more realistic in retrospect to apply Churchill's words largely to the defensive effort, and tactfully ignore the inflated propagandistic rhetoric of air-offence.

  2. Dave, I think it depends if one finds it acceptable to overlay hindsight on contemporary or period views as in some way 'correcting' them. The mythologising of the Battle started soon after (see the wartime booklet 'The Battle of Britain') not postwar, and subsequent events have 'adjusted' what people thought of it at the time. Brett's post is a great follow up and corrective assuming (as I did) that we 'knew' 'the few' as just the fighter boys - it was much more complex than that.

  3. Edgar Brooks

    What the author needs to learn is, if you're going to rewrite history, first you must learn how to read history. On August 16th., 1940, Churchill, with his Chief-of-Staff, General Ismay, called in on Parks's HQ at Uxbridge, and watched as he committed all of his fighters in the defence of this country. As they left, Churchill told the General,"Don't speak to me; I have never been so moved." Shortly afterwards, he leaned across and said," Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." To say that, when he later made his speech, he was referring to bomber crews, and not fighter pilots, needs a leap in faith that even Evel Knievel would struggle to cross.

  4. Edgar: as with so many of his other famous phrases, Churchill had been working and reworking the 'Few' sentence for many years prior to 1940. Ronald Hyman notes at least five ur-versions that duplicate much of the syntax and imagery of the 'Human conflict' sentence:

    "Never before were there so many people in England, and never before have they had so much to eat." (1899, during Oldham by-election)

    "I do not think it is very encouraging that we should have spent so much money upon the settlement of so few." (April 1906, on land settlement in South Africa).

    "Never before in Colonial experience has a Council been granted where the number of settlers is so few." (November I907, on the Legislative Council for Kenya)

    "Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry." (1908, on a dam at Ripon Falls across the Victoria Nile)

    "Never before has so little been asked and never before have so many people asked for it." (I910, on Irish demands for Home Rule)

    Churchill was an efficient reuser and reviser of pithy and evocative phrases throughout his career, and he had no qualms about recycling them if the occasion demanded.

    It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that Churchill used the 'Few' quote spontaneously in private conversation on August 16; then, while it was still fresh in his mind, he decided to add it to his speech of August 20, while attaching a subtly different meaning to it.

    To insist that there must be an 'essential' meaning to the phrase is to misunderstand the way Churchill used rhetoric, IMHO.

  5. Post author


    Of course, you're right: the memory of 1940 and of the Few very quickly became fixed, and is tied to other self-images held by the British/English. There's nothing I or any other historian can do to change these myths, nor do I really want to. (I'm using 'myth' in the sense of an explanatory story, as per Angus Calder, not one that is necessarily untrue.) But it's precisely because of their power that they need to be resisted, at least to an extent, because they can blind us to other realities of the time.

    To take your second point, for example, I would argue that in fact we should not ignore Churchill's propagandising of the bomber offensive at this time. Yes, it was pretty much completely ineffective; but virtually nobody in Britain thought so at the time; and it was the great hope for winning the war. I'd go further and say it was one source of strength for the British people, in that they felt the RAF was hitting back on their behalf, more powerfully than the Luftwaffe was hitting them. So the bomber offensive should be seen as part of the myth of 1940. But it's not, and that in itself tells us something about 1940 and about memory. The bomber offensive doesn't, in fact, fit into the myth of plucky, heroic self-defence against the odds, and so it must get left out.


    Yes, I was aware of Ismay's diary entry when I wrote the post; Campion discusses it in his book. It has the ring of truth about it; Churchill was an emotional man. But as Alan and JDK both point out, there's no necessary contradiction between Churchill coming up with the phrase in private after visiting 11 Group HQ and re-deploying it in a different context for the House of Commons, and ultimately the British (and international) public, which is my interest here.

    As for my 'leap of faith', I'm reading the words Churchill actually used in his speech. Do you not think it a little odd that if Churchill's intention was pour his oratorical tributes on Fighter Command, that he only expends a single clause on it, says 'but' and then discusses Bomber Command's activities in great detail?

  6. Chris Williams

    "There's nothing I or any other historian can do to change these myths, nor do I really want to."
    Is that a bit pessimistic?

  7. I think that's just realistic Chris. The most you can hope for I think is to make people question why they think what they think: that's surely the social purpose of history. Myths aren't, almost by definition, rooted in the past any more - they're floating free, fulfilling lots of other explanatory purposes in people's lives. And if you did, by a sustained campaign, begin to change what people thought, they'd replace one myth with another, potentially just as misleading - cf the success of so-called revisionism of the First World War. I used to not be able to persuade students that parts of the war might have been well fought, now sometimes I can't persuade them that anybody was anything other than enthusiastic for it all to continue as long as possible.
    Brett: have you written a review of Campion's book anywhere? I'd love to hear your fuller opinion.

  8. Neil Datson

    As regards the Yorkshire Post, obviously l don't have the context, but surely it could be argued that it too was at least obliquely referring to Bomber Command as well as Fighter Command?

    we can fairly claim that in these last dramatic weeks we have at least blunted the edge of that air terror on which Germany's hopes of final victory must largely depend [...] Unless Hitler can soon beat us in the air -- and even now it is we who are beating him -- he never will.

    The idea 'even now it is we who are beating him' could embrace the bombing of Germany. Just a thought.

  9. Chris Williams

    Dan, surely the relative 'success' of WW1 revisionism means that at least one profesional historian has managed to change the way that people think?

    I am highly pessimistic about the ability of the professional history project to have _much_ purchase on historical myths, but I think that there is some potential for some influence on some myths, rather than no prospect whatever.

  10. Neil Datson

    On history and mythology.

    Surely historians should strive to counter the subversions of the past that are wrought by popular mythology? But if they dare to believe that they can succeed, they'll only succeed in making themselves mad.

    (I've been desperately wracking my brains and internet archives to find which film director it was who said something like: 'If you've got a choice between shooting the truth and shooting the myth, always shoot the myth.' I thought it was John Ford, but I can't track it down. If anybody can steer me to it, please put me out of my misery!)

  11. Maybe we need more books like Zombie Myths of Australian Military History: The 10 Myths That Will Not Die, Craig Stockings, Ed?

    And speaking very much as a non-academic in history, it seems historians need to play a long game, aiming at change over generations. What someone learnt at school will be their touchstone history, and unlikely to be effectively challenged, unless it's an 'enhancement' - which may win acceptance. So it's the next school generation that perhaps should be the objective, rather than the current generation with often ossified-beliefs.

  12. Edgar Brooks

    As I said, read history before rewritiing it; in the October issue of Aeroplane Monthly, the editor quotes Churchill's writings in Volume II of his history of "The Second World War," subtitled "Their Finest Hour." He wrote,"At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons:"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." A few strokes of a pen would have added "and bomber," but it didn't.

  13. in the October issue of Aeroplane Monthly, the editor quotes Churchill's writings in Volume II of his history of "The Second World War," subtitled "Their Finest Hour."

    Their Finest Hour was written and published in the late 1940s, and as David Reynolds has described at length in his marvellous In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, the former Prime Minister used his memoir to recast wartime events as much as to remember them. It is hardly surprising that Churchill wanted to play down his early enthusiasm for Bomber Command's raids in Their Finest Hour, if only because it had become clear how ineffectual they actually were. A document written with almost a decade of hindsight is not a good guide to the mindset of 1940.

  14. otis

    I am struggling to comprehend what the new discovery is being explained here ?

    Brett and Alan are trying to persuade us that if you take a cracking line ( like the "few" ) out of context of the speech it is written in, then it's meaning becomes slightly different.

    That's nothing. You gotta see this here. When you pull my finger I make a rude noise. You two will be so impressed by it.

  15. Brett and Alan are trying to persuade us that if you take a cracking line ( like the "few" ) out of context of the speech it is written in, then it's meaning becomes slightly different.

    Actually, I think Brett and Alan (and others too) are suggesting that for seventy years everyone else has been taking this cracking line out of context of the speech it's written in, and ... oh, never mind.

  16. otis

    Alan, re-read the original speech. Brett has decided to remove the immediate / preceding paragraphs that talk about the Battle of Britain, loss rates and production, to prove his point.

    Brett asks us to read the line in context, but then cuts out all the context.

    He happily includes the following stuff about Bomber Command, and "Hey Presto" like some cheap conjouring trick we have a line that must be about Bomber Command or all Airmen.

  17. Post author


    No, I haven't written anywhere about Campion's The Good Fight. I was a little disappointed by it, I must admit, probably because its close in topic and sources to a lot of my stuff but not how I would have written it -- there's not nearly enough on the crucial prewar period, but then I always think that! And too rigid a distinction between the Battle and the Blitz (and again I always think that...) It perhaps also suffers from being too comprehensive, e.g. the analyses of feature and documentary films which a number of other historians have covered before. But for sure there's a heap of interesting stuff in there and it's the go-to book for representations of the Battle as it happened.


    Well, perhaps some myths can be challenged by historians; but the myths of 1940 are particularly powerful ones so I don't like anyone's chances. Besides which, I'm also conscious of my status as an outsider: I'm not British so it's not my myth, it's not really for me to say you lot should or shouldn't be using it.


    What Alan said, and I second his recommendation of David Reynolds' book. In fact, here's what Reynolds had to say about 'the Few':

    Similarly, when Churchill lauded 'the few' on 20 August 1940, he was referring to all Britain's airmen. His famous sentence was following by a brief tribute to the fighter pilots, 'whose brilliant actions actions we see with our own eyes day after day', but then two whole paragraphs about 'the shattering blows' inflicted by unseen British bombers 'night after night, month after month' on the 'war-making structure of the Nazi power'. But in the Air Ministry pamphlet [The Battle of Britain, 1941], juxtaposed between photos of Spitfires and their pilots and shorn of reference to the bomber crews, his words became indissolubly linked to Fighter Command. Churchill had already adopted this linkage in his victory broadcast on 13 May 1945, and he was happy to leave it that way in his memoirs.

    David S. Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 186-7.

    As for 'read history before rewriting it', perhaps you should read a little about me before making assumptions.


    No comment!


    Did I cut out all the context? Sure, I cut out some; selection is necessary unless I'm just going to dump the whole speech here. What I did was link to the speech so you can read it yourself, noted that the Battle was discussed in the speech as part of Churchill's summary of the war situation, and then quoted far more of the speech, both before and after the phrase in question than is usually the case.

    Here's a breakdown by paragraph of Churchill's speech (usually known as 'the Few', remember): 3 paragraphs on the difference between WWI and WWII; 1 on the prospects for winning the war; 3 on the blockade of Germany and Italy; 2 on the change in fortunes since he came to power; 1 on the status of the Army; 1 on the status of the Navy; 1 summing up British strength and resolve; 2 on the Battle; 1 on aircraft salvage and production (including bombers!); then 2 on the bomber offensive, including 'the few' and the half-sentence about Fighter Command; 3 on the implications of French neutrality/semi-hostility; 1 on war aims (or the lack thereof); and finally 2 on relations with the US.

    So, it's mostly got nothing to do with the air war at all (offensive or defensive), and the parts about the air war are separated by a paragraph praising the efforts of the Ministry of Aircraft Production in recovering damaged aircraft and building new ones, both fighters and bombers: it 'has given us overflowing reserves of every type of aircraft' and 'our bomber and fighter strengths now, after all this fighting, are larger than they have ever been'. So that's a rhetorical hinge between the Fighter Command part, which he has finished talking about, and the Bomber Command part, which he is about to talk about, and which I quoted in the post. 'The Few' bit, is, I think, best read as part of that hinge; he's talking about all Britain's pilots.

    So, yeah, I still think that if you read the famous line in its original context its meaning is different to the one almost universally accepted today.

  18. Incidentally, I have a Hurricane* sitting on my office desk at this very moment - and a Spitfire* on the bookshelf nearby - just in case anyone seems to think that I'm motivated by some peculiar anti-Fighter Command animus ...

    * Note: not actual size.

  19. Neil Datson

    Brett, it seems to me that your position as expressed:

    There's nothing I or any other historian can do to change these myths, nor do I really want to.

    Is not really defensible. If historians don't challenge myth (while acknowledging its enduring power) what are they left with? The greater danger is to knowingly perpetuate it. Or, at least, to sigh: 'well, people are going to believe the old myth whatever I say or do, so I might as well let them get on with it'. Unfortunately, the most powerful myths are protected by the massed armies of believers, so challenging them is bound to be slow work. Some of the comments on this thread illustrate that some people are determined to believe something they've always believed, rather than even considering that a fresh enquiry might just persuade them that a different narrative is worth considering.

    Some myths seem to just fade away. When I was young (more than a few years ago now) people spoke of the 'little ships' that rescued the Army from Dunkirk. The RN hardly got a look in, at least in the popular picture. Now we are left with 'the Dunkirk spirit', but there seems to be very little rememberance within the phrase of what actually happened. Perhaps, in another thirty or forty years, 'the Few' will have as little relation to the events of 1940 as 'the Dunkirk spirit' seems to now.

    Which gives me opportunity to introduce an irrelevant, not quite personal, anecdote. My mother was one of the first people in England to be aware of the boats coming back from Dunkirk. She'd cycled up to the Dover Patrol Memorial, at St Margarets Bay, and had a grandstand view. She went home to tell her father, who sternly told her not to tell such outrageous fibs.

    Hmm. Possibly it isn't completely irrelevant?

  20. Post author


    It's not just hard work challenging myths, it's practically impossible: any 'revisions' provided by historians are either ignored or incorporated into the myth. To take the 'little ships', for example, it doesn't matter how many times historians point out that they ferried over only a small minority of troops or that they mostly weren't manned by volunteers but naval reservists, or that there were some (eg) lifeboat crews who refused to go over to France, the little ships will remain the dominant image of the Dunkirk myth. Until, as you suggest, one day it will fade from memory -- but that won't be because of anything historians do or say, it will be because the myth will no longer have any relevance or meaning for the Britain of the mid-21st century.

    Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz is really good on this process.

  21. The press doesn't help, because journalists are usually so utterly out-of-touch with developments in historiography. So (for instance) someone writes a book suggesting that British morale during the Blitz was less than wholeheartedly positive; the Red Tops' inevitable response is to portray it as a provocative, irreverent work of revisionism. Leaving unmentioned the fact that Angus Calder was saying it in, oh, 1969 ...

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  23. Adam

    Brett. I am delighted to have found this. I am in the midst of researching a piece on Bomber Command in the BoB and I am firmly of the school that believes the Command are significantly under represented in the popular mythology. I don't entirely blame Susannah York, Michael Caine and his bent golf clubs also have much to do with it!

  24. "(I've been desperately wracking my brains and internet archives to find which film director it was who said something like: 'If you've got a choice between shooting the truth and shooting the myth, always shoot the myth.' I thought it was John Ford, but I can't track it down. If anybody can steer me to it, please put me out of my misery!)"

    I'll try. It wasn't a quote about film, but a line from a film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The newspaper editor character says: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Sources: a combination of my memory for trivia - I've never even seen the film - and IMDB).

  25. Neil Datson

    Thanks for coming back on that old request Nick. As a matter of fact I have since tracked it down to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which is another film I haven't seen either). Of course, if one is searching for precision, or maybe pedantry, it may originate in the short story the film is based on. Then if it isn't, was it first coined by the scriptwriters or John Ford . . . or somebody else?

  26. Post author


    Glad if it's of use or inspiration to you! I wasn't the first to point this out (see the discussion upthread, and here for an earlier blogging effort which I must have read, since it's pinged by Airminded), but per the discussion I have little confidence that anything can, or really should, be done to change what 'the Few' means now.

    Nick, Neil:

    You should both watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- it's a great film! (But a terrible song.) Apparently the line in question isn't from the original short story.

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