[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]
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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