More on ‘the Few’

A few years ago I argued that 'the Few' in Winston Churchill's famous speech of 20 August 1940 didn't refer to the pilots of Fighter Command, as is almost universally assumed, but instead referred to all British airmen, or even perhaps specifically the airmen of Bomber Command, since he spends about two paragraphs talking about bombers and about half a sentence talking about fighters. I still think that's pretty clearly the case (even if not everyone was convinced); and it's clear why he would have done so -- as he himself might have said, wars are not won by defensive victories. But I thought it was worth taking another look at the question of who people (or at least newspapers) at the time thought 'the Few' referred to, particularly since the British Newspaper Archive opened a few months after I wrote that post.

So I did a BNA search for the period 20 to 27 August 1940 (the day of the speech itself, to catch the evening newspapers, plus a week, to catch the weeklies) in articles only for the words 'Churchill' and 'few'. To be thorough, though, I really should have looked at all discussions of Churchill's speech, since some might have paraphrased that part of it or just not mentioned the word 'few'. I don't have time for that here, but focusing on the Few reveals just how few (ahem) newspapers thought that this phrase was worthy of comment. My search found just eight articles, once all irrelevant hits on 'few' were discarded.

One newspaper which did single out that phrase was the Yorkshire Evening Post, admiring Churchill's eloquence:

We take one example from his tribute to our young airmen: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. Who could read that masterpiece of honour to heroism and measure of its service without feeling the breath of genius and giving thanks that praise of noble youth can be so nobly sung?1

So there the Few are 'our young airmen' in general. Another Yorkshire paper, the Yorkshire Post also thought the line a striking one but (as I discussed previously) without indicating who the Few might be.2

However, the Yorkshire Post also quoted the famous phrase as one of a series of extracts from Churchill's speech, and this time it did so in a way which included his preceding remarks about British airmen in general:

Debt to R.A.F.

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 by 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.

I have no hesitation in saying that the process of bombing the military industries and communications of Germany, and the air bases and storage depots from which we are attacked -- which will continue on an ever-increasing scale until the end of the war, and may in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of -- assures one, at least, of the most certain, if not the shortest, of all the roads to victory.3

So there's certainly no mention of Fighter Command here, and if anything the reader of these extracts would tend to assume that he was talking about Bomber Command.

This selectivity, with the same bias, is evident in half of the eight articles I found. Both the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Press carried the same report of Churchill's speech, which mixed quotations with close paraphrases. The relevant passage is summarised in a section entitled 'TRIBUTE TO OUR AIRMEN':

Paying tribute to the British airmen who were turning the tide of world war by their prowess and devotion, he said never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Prolonged cheers.)

Our bombing of German military industries, communications, and air bases would continue on an ever-increasing scale, until the end of the war, and might in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of.

This afforded one of the surest, if not the shortest, of all roads to victory.4

So again, there is no mention of Fighter Command, only Bomber Command. In fact despite the closeness of this summary, Churchill's almost offhanded remark about the former ('All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but...') is omitted altogether. Instead it is the bomber offensive which is deemed worth talking about. This seems to be part of a trend. The same thing happened in a similar pair of summaries published in the Devon and Exeter Gazette and the Western Times:

TRIBUTE TO AIR FORCE.

Mr. Churchill paid a glowing tribute to the British airmen. 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 them, he said. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

"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 an invasion, and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meantime on numerous occasions to restrain."5

Actually, contradicting my basic argument somewhat, it's not the bombing offensive against Germany that is highlighted here, but the bombing offensive against the invasion ports -- in fact that's not mentioned directly, it's the future use of bombers against the coming invasion that Churchill notes. So it's a summary of the speech which dwells more on defence in this passage than offence, but one which still doesn't mention the fighter boys.

Finally, the final article my little search found, in the Derbyshire Times, is the only one of the eight to associate Churchill's 'few' with Fighter Command:

The finest passage in the Prime Minister's stirring survey of the war situation this week was his reference to our young airmen, who "are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion." "Never," he added, "in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Epic words, but so they will become in history. It is not only Britain, but the world which is being saved in these critical days by our intrepid young airmen.

A glance at their record of last week shows how well all that Mr. Churchill said of them is deserved. In seven days of the air blitzkrieg over this country the R.A.F. and our Defence Forces brought down and destroyed 571 enemy machines to say nothing of those damaged or so badly crippled that they would never regain their base. Thus in one week the Germans lost bombing and fighting 'planes destroyed £9,000,000, and what is more important no fewer than 1400 to 1500 trained airmen. Our losses were less than one-fifth of the enemy's, and of our 'planes brought down one in every two of our pilots have been saved.6

After a repeat of Churchill's taunts to Hitler about not haven broken Britain from the air, only then does there follow the bit about bombing Germany being the surest route to victory, etc. So on balance the Derbyshire Times not only thinks Fighter Command's role worth mentioning in connection with the 'few', but gives it much more prominence too.

So by a ratio of 7 to 1 in this sample the British press thought Churchill's 'few' referred to more to Bomber Command, or at least all British airmen, than to Fighter Command. But to be certain that this is representative of how the speech was interpreted more generally in 1940, a broader range of sources would need to be checked, such as other newspapers, the BBC's reports, and Mass-Observation diaries.


  1. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 21 August 1940, 4; emphasis in original. 

  2. Yorkshire Post (Leeds), 21 August 1940, 1

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 21 August 1940, 1; Western Morning News (Plymouth), 21 August 1940, 2

  5. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 23 August 1940, 4Western Times (Exeter), 23 August 1940, 5

  6. Derbyshire Times (Chesterfield), 23 August 1940, 4

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9 thoughts on “More on ‘the Few’

  1. Post author

    Yes, it's one of those things that we just assume we know what it means, because that's what we've always been told. I'm certainly not the first to point it out, but understandably there's reluctance to revisit who the Few were, at least in the original context (clearly it's not who they are now). It might be worth writing something up formally one day.

  2. Lancelot Hogben

    Fascinating stuff Brett. As regards writing this up, perhaps the question in need of careful historical analysis is not the immediate press interpretation itself, but the trickier question of how 'The Few' came subsequently to be so strictly associated with RAF fighter pilots. You mention the 1942 film, but this alone seems an unlikely source of such a powerful piece of mythology. Unraveling how we got from Churchill's speech to widespread public association of 'The Few' with only fighter pilots sounds like a question that awaits its historian.

  3. Erik Lund

    What no-one today realises is that all those British planes, fighters and bombers, flew from airbases near France.

    Explain that, Dr. Historian!

    In other news, your book finally arrived yesterday, Brett. JDK was right, of course.

  4. Post author

    Lancelot:

    I wouldn't argue that the film itself was the agent of change (though it surely helped cement it), but it's evidence that the change was already happening during the war itself. (And so it's nothing to do with any postwar discomfort with bombing civilians, for example.) You're right, it deserves closer scrutiny, someone should track how 'the Few' was used in the war years. One possibility based on no evidence whatsoever is that as time went on, it was clear that the bombers had not delivered victory in 1940, 1941, 1942... whereas (it certainly appeared that) the fighters had delivered the nation in 1940, whatever else happened after. So it will be bound up (of course) in the mythologising and elevation of 1940 as the finest hour, perhaps in the first half of 1942 (as the darkest hour). Richard North (for all that I have issues with him and his book) has noted that the government began promoting a 'Civil Defence Day' in 1942, on the anniversary of the Coventry raid, but in 1943 moved this to the last Sunday in September to be celebrated with a new Battle of Britain Day. So there are some parts of an answer, but not an answer.

    Erik:

    I can't explain it and I won't explain it. I probably didn't even know it. And JDK usually is right.

  5. Lancelot Hogben

    Thanks Brett, that's a very convincing first pass at an explanation. Makes sense to me.

  6. Ian

    "The Few" was certainly current well before the film. There was an Air Ministry booklet on the battle published 1944-ish which may have used the phrase - it's a long time since I had a copy (and no, it wasn't hot off the press). Olivier's 1944 film of "Henry V" can't have discouraged the idea either.

  7. Post author

    Ian:

    Which film are you referring to? The First of the Few came out in 1942. (In fact, if Wikipedia is to be trusted then in premiered in Leicester Square on 20 August 1942, i.e. two years to the day after Churchill's speech!)

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