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What was the significance of Pearl Harbor?

Source 2

Part of the script for a speech broadcast by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 9 February 1941


➜ CHAR 9/150A/70-75

Simplified Transcript

The fate of the war rests with England – what happens on its oceans, in the air, and on the island itself. It now seems certain that the US will provide ample supplies. Britain does not need American military intervention, but it does need vast amounts of supplies, war materials and technical support. We also need enormous amounts of shipping.

Hitler is aware of this and he will try to sink as many of the supply ships as possible. Hitler has bases in Norway and France he can use to attack us. I have never hidden this threat and I believe it to be very serious. But I have every confidence in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and I believe they can defeat the threats. And I have faith in the courage of our merchant seamen and the abilities of our dock workers to beat this threat.

I have left the greatest issue to the end. Our military commanders have warned that Hitler may try to invade. I assure you that we are far stronger now than we were last year. Our Navy is strong. Our Air Force beat the Germans last year. Our Army is larger and better equipped than before. I have confidence we can defend our shores.

But we must not be complacent. Hitler has also had time to organize his forces and he may use paratroopers or other forces against us.

Original Transcript

But after all, the fate of this war is going to be settled by what happens on the oceans, in the Air, and above all, in this Island. It seems now to be certain that the Government and people of the United States intend to supply us with all that is necessary for victory.


But we do need most urgently an immense and continuous supply of war materials and technical apparatus of all kinds. We need them here, and we need to bring them here. We shall need a great mass of shipping in 1942, far more than we can build ourselves if we are to maintain and augment our war effort in the West and in the East.

These facts are of course all well-known to the enemy, and we must therefore expect that Herr Hitler will do his utmost to prey upon our shipping, and to reduce the volume of American supplies entering these Islands. Having conquered France and Norway, his clutching fingers reach out on both sides of us into the ocean. I have never underrated this danger, and you know I have never concealed it from you.

I have left the greatest issue to the end. You will have seen that Sir John Dill, our principal military adviser, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, has warned us all yesterday that Hitler may be forced by the strategic, economic and political stresses in Europe to try to invade these Islands in the near future. That is a warning which no one should disregard. Naturally, we are working night and day to have everything ready. Of course, we are far stronger than we ever were before, incomparably stronger than we were in July, August and September.

But I must drop one word of caution; for next to cowardice and treachery, over-confidence leading to neglect or slothfulness is the worst of martial crimes. A Nazi invasion of Great Britain last autumn would have been a more or less improvised affair. Hitler took it for granted that when France gave in we should give in. But we did not give in. An invasion now will be supported by a much more carefully prepared tackle and equipment, of landing-craft and other apparatus, all of which will have been planned and manufactured in the winter months. We must all be prepared to meet gas attacks, parachute attacks, and glider attacks with constancy, forethought and skill.

What is this source?

These are the speaking notes Churchill used for a speech which was broadcast by the BBC on 9 February 1941.

Background to this source

Churchill prepared all his speeches extremely carefully, choosing his words for maximum impact, and key speeches like this one were often changed several times. You can see several edits he has made to the notes on these pages. Churchill’s staff were trained to lay his notes out on the page in the way you see here, making the layout look like a poem. The layout helped Churchill get the emphasis and pauses right and also made sure that it was easy for him to keep his place.

Churchill’s skillfully crafted speeches had a massive impact during the war. They were designed not only to restore British morale, but also to send a message of hope to occupied Europe, a signal of defiance to Nazi Germany, and an appeal for support to the United States. Churchill’s political opponent, Clement Attlee, summed it up: when asked what Churchill did to win the war he replied, ‘talk about it’.

Although Britain’s situation at the time of this broadcast was probably slightly better than it had been in 1940, the situation was still very serious. Britain faced the threat of German forces in France and a possible invasion. At the same time, British troops were fighting against the Italians and Germans in North Africa, and British and Empire forces were fighting the Japanese in the Far East and Pacific.

Additional information

Churchill comments that this war would not be like the First World War with mass armies, and that instead equipment and technology were more important. He was absolutely determined that the mass slaughter of the Western Front should not be repeated in the Second World War. Churchill was correct about the war on the Western Front in Europe, although once Germany attacked Russia later in 1941 there were massive battles with huge losses.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating the significance of Pearl Harbor. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. What does Churchill say that Great Britain needs from the United States? What does Churchill say that it does not need?
  2. How did Hitler’s control of France and Norway affect British shipping?
  3. What were the causes for concern if Hitler should try to invade Great Britain? What were some reasons for British confidence?
  4. What qualities does Churchill expect the British people to embody? What actions does he ask them to take?
  5. How would you characterize the British position in February 1941?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

  1. Do you think Churchill really meant that he could not foresee a need for US troops? If you think he was avoiding saying that US troop involvement might be required, why might he have done so?
  2. Based on this broadcast, do you think Churchill would have welcomed an event that would rapidly engage the United States in the war effort in a more dramatic way?

Need help interpreting the source?

  • This broadcast, delivered some ten months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, lays out the state of the war effort prior to Pearl Harbor from the British perspective, the critical importance of not allowing the Nazi forces to take over the British Isles, and the pivotal role of American support in the plans for Allied victory.
  • By 1941, Norway and France were both in Nazi hands, leaving shipping vulnerable to attacks coming from two separate shores.

Explore the guide to interpreting speech notes

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