It’s June 11th, 1940 in the Chateau de Muguet, a mansion 100 miles south of Paris, one month after German troops invaded France in the beginning of World War II.
British prime minister Winston Churchill sits at the head of a conference table. He takes a sip from a cup of tea and silently stares down the British and French officers seated around him. But the moment of quiet is interrupted… at the sound of fighter planes flying overhead.
Churchill puts down his cup of tea and addresses the war council before him. He doesn’t mince words, saying that if the French army does not muster a defense of their country, France will fall into the clutches of the Nazis.
Churchill clamps a cigar between his teeth and lights up. As he blows smoke across the table, he demands to know how the French Generals plan to launch a successful counterattack. For a few awkward moments, the generals squirm looking uncomfortable. Until… General Maxime Weygand clears his throat. Weygand says there is no way France can stop the Nazis, and they should ask for a ceasefire.
Many Generals in the room nod and make known their approval of surrender. But Churchill is livid.
He slams his hands down on the table, shocking the room into silence again. He bellows that France must not surrender. And in response, another French General at the table insists that they have no choice.
Hearing this, Churchill rises from his seat and raises his voice even further, loudly announcing that Britain will never surrender.
In response, General Weygand rises as well. He looks Churchill in the eyes and, with a sneer, says that his plan to fight on is a fantasy. Germany will conquer France and when they do, the Brits will be next. In three weeks, he says, Britain will have her neck wrung like a chicken.
Winston Churchill left the Council of War and flew back to London with a heavy heart. He knew that the French were on the verge of capitulating to their German invaders. But Churchill was determined to prove General Weygand wrong by ensuring that Britain did not fall to the Nazis as well.
Over the next 18 months, Churchill will lead Britain through a dark period when a German invasion was a very real possibility. Initially, the German Air Force will take to the skies trying to destroy the Royal Air Force in what’s known as the Battle of Britain. Later, the Nazis will bomb civilians in an unrelenting campaign called the Blitz. In the end, Britain will survive these threats, and Churchill will deliver a famous rebuttal to General Weygand during a rousing speech to the Canadian Parliament on December 30th, 1941.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 30th, 1941: Winston Churchill’s “Some Chicken” Speech.
It’s nearing the end of September 1940, two months after the Battle of Britain began.
In the skies over southern England, 20-year-old Pilot Officer Bob Foster nudges his control stick and glances at the two aircrafts flying alongside his plane. He wants to make sure he does not drift out of this three-plane formation of British Hurricane fighters. Then he turns and looks out the cockpit window, scanning the skies for the enemy aircraft his squadron has been sent to intercept. Foster is nervous but excited. He’s been flying combat missions for less than a month, and although he’s been involved in a few dogfights, he has yet to shoot down an enemy plane. Today, he might just get his chance.
After the French surrendered to Germany three months ago, Adolf Hitler and his generals quickly turned their attention to Britain—the last major power in Europe to remain in the war. The German air force, known as the Luftwaffe, began an onslaught from above air, hoping to destroy the Royal Air Force, or the RAF. Once they were neutralized, Hitler planned to send German troops across the English Channel to invade Britain. But British fighter pilots did not give up without a fight. They flew several missions a day, aiming to intercept German bombers and their fighter escorts before they could destroy British airfields and radar stations. Now, Pilot Officer Foster hopes to break up another enemy raiding party. But there’s a problem. He can’t find them.
As Foster scans the horizon for signs of the enemy planes, a voice over the radio barks an order to “break, break, break.” Foster doesn’t hesitate. He immediately turns his stick and pulls away from the other two planes.
It doesn’t take Foster long to see why he was ordered to break formation. Right behind them are three enemy fighters. Foster recognizes their shape as Messerschmitt 109s. These German fighter planes are faster and can climb quicker than Foster’s Hurricane. And they are attacking from behind, where fighters are most vulnerable.
Foster turns tightly, trying to shake the enemy aircraft off his tail. But his stomach sinks as he hears a muffled explosion, he sees the plane of one of his compatriots on fire and dropping out of the sky like a flaming stone. Foster keeps an eye on the blazing wreck as it falls, and he doesn’t see a parachute before it drops into the sea.
Foster completes his tight turn and then levels out. When he checks the skies around him, he realizes he is alone. His mid-air evasive maneuvers helped him escape from the German 109s, which he assumes scarpered off as quickly as they appeared. But he has also lost the third plane of his formation.
Foster searches the skies again and this time spots a dot in the distance. It’s a plane flying steady and level. Foster thinks it must be the other Hurricane. So he grips his control stick, picks up speed, and tries to catch up. He hopes the two fighters can land together to report the sad loss of their comrade.
But as he gets closer to the other aircraft, Foster realizes something isn’t right. He squints and tries to focus on the shape of its tail. And when he sees it, he realizes it’s not a Hurricane, but an enemy 109 - one of the planes that had attacked him. But Foster notices something else, too. As he closes in, the 109 does not make any attempt to alter its course which means the German pilot has no idea he’s being followed.
Foster peers through his gunsight, putting the enemy plane in the center. His thumb rests on the firing button that controls the eight machine guns ranged along his wings. He closes in just a little bit tighter, then presses his thumb down and the guns let loose.
Foster’s heart leaps as smoke pours out of the 109’s engine. The enemy plane’s nose drops, then sinks into a vertical dive. Foster feels little contrition as he sees the wings sheer off the plane, sending it spiraling to the ground. Then he turns for his home airfield, pleased that he has finally achieved his first kill in the Battle of Britain.
The Nazis’ attempt to take Britain might have succeeded were it not for the bravery of British and Allied airmen like Pilot Officer Foster. Eventually, the Nazis give up trying to overcome the stubborn resistance of the RAF. Winston Churchill will pay tribute to the pilots who fended them off, saying, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” But victory in the Battle of Britain comes at a price. More than 1,500 British and Allied pilots are killed.
But their sacrifice will force the German high command to pivot. Unable to secure dominance in the skies, the Nazis will shelve their plans for an invasion. Instead, the Nazis will try to bomb Britain’s civilian population into submission in a terror campaign known as the Blitz.
It’s midnight on December 29th, 1940, three months after the Battle of Britain ends.
27-year-old volunteer firefighter Leonard Rosoman hops out of a fire truck that’s just parked on Shoe Lane, a street in the center of London. Although the sky is pitch black, Leonard has no trouble seeing his way, because a fire blazes in a tall building along the street. Leonard unrolls a hose and grips it tightly before shouting to a colleague to turn the water on. For Leonard, this is routine. Nearly every day for the last month and a half, Leonard has been battling fires started by bombs dropped by German aircraft.
After the Luftwaffe failed to destroy the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Adolf Hitler ordered his airmen to change their strategy. Rather than knocking out Britain’s air force in advance of an invasion, he decided to bomb the British people until they gave up and demanded a ceasefire. Six weeks ago, the Luftwaffe began night-time bombing raids on towns and cities all across Britain. The Blitz, as it’s known, aims to demolish factories, leave civilians homeless, and destroy critical infrastructure. But firefighters like Leonard are determined to minimize the damage and keep Britain in the war.
Facing the blaze, Leonard steadies his feet and tightens his grip on the hose. He feels it tense and buck as water shoots out the end. A second firefighter runs to assist Leonard, and together they aim the water through the shattered windows of the blazing building.
Here, in the center of the city, most civilians spend the night sheltering in the underground train stations, deep beneath the streets. But even though the building is likely empty, Leonard knows that the fire might quickly spread if he doesn’t put it out.
Leonard’s arms and shoulders begin to ache under the weight of the water gushing forth from the hose. But he and his colleague fight through the pain and continue spraying the building until they’re able to stop the flames from spreading, but they can’t seem to extinguish the fire.
After a few minutes, a senior firefighter signals to Leonard to let another man take his place on the hose, and Leonard is grateful for the break. His arms and back ache, but after only a few moments’ rest, Leonard is eager to get back to dousing the blaze.
He’s instructed to set up a second hose in a different location, hoping to fight the flames on two fronts. Leonard nods and walks toward the fire engine to make preparations.
But an ominous cracking sound makes him stop. Leonard turns to see the top half of the blazing building begin to topple forward as its front wall collapses. For a split second, the wall seems to hang in mid-air. Then it crashes down to the street, right on top of the two firefighters - where Leonard was just standing moments ago.
Leonard rushes over to dig his comrades out of the hot rubble, but he already knows their fate. There is no way they could have survived the wall’s collapse.
Eight hours later, Leonard walks down Shoe Lane as dawn begins to break. The sunlight's streaking through the smoke still billowing from the now extinguished fire. But Leonard has a heavy heart. In a few hours’ time, the Luftwaffe bombing raids will begin again, and Leonard will have to resume his firefighting duties but this time without two of his colleagues, whose bodies are still buried the rubble.
Leonard looks around at the bustling street. Now that the air raid is over, a new day is beginning, and everyday life resumes in London. Men in smart suits walk to their offices, stepping around debris on the sidewalk. A milkman wanders along with his crate, whistling a tune. Leonard even sees a young mother pushing a stroller down the middle of the street, its wheels bouncing over fallen bricks. As she passes Leonard, he hears her talking to her baby, pointing at the pristine white dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, saying “Look at that. They can bomb London all they want, but they’ll never burn St. Paul’s!”
Leonard can’t help but smile. The deaths of two firefighters is a tragedy. But Leonard knows that his work is making a difference. Londoners are carrying on and living as normal a life as possible. Hitler’s plan to bomb Britain into submission is failing. And the devastation of the Blitz does not lead to calls from British civilians to end the war. If anything, it makes them more determined.
Britons will hold out over months of nightly attacks until the German high command is forced to change strategy once again, focusing instead on attacking naval convoys in what is known as the Battle of the Atlantic. And with the immediate threat of defeat over, Winston Churchill will travel to North America to celebrate his nation’s perseverance in a speech to Canadian Parliament that will survive the ages.
It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on December 30th, 1941, more than a year after the Blitz began.
Winston Churchill rises from his seat to the sound of raucous cheering from more than 2,000 politicians, military officers, and government officials who are crammed into the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament. But they are not the only people who will soon hear Churchill speak. Banks of microphones are arranged on the table, transmitting the British prime minister’s words through a loudspeaker to the crowds gathered outside on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill - and through the radio to millions more listening at home.
Churchill is here in Canada today to celebrate Britain's survival of the Blitz and galvanize support for the ongoing war against Germany and the Axis powers.
23 days ago, a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into the Second World War. Churchill immediately recognized the importance of his new ally and her abundance of wealth and manpower.
Within a week, he boarded a warship and took a perilous journey across the Atlantic to confer with President Roosevelt. But while in North America, Churchill took a side trip to Canada to thank the Canadian people for their support during the dark days when Britain was at risk of invasion. And Churchill will take this moment as an opportunity to settle an old score against the French generals who predicted Britain’s demise.
Churchill begins by telling the Canadians that he is grateful for all they have done to help Britain in her war with Germany. Then he recalls what General Maxime Weygand told him during a council of war, shortly before the French surrender.
"CHURCHILL (02:47-02:53): In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken."
But as Churchill explains, Britain did not quit. She kept fighting. Pilots took to the skies during the Battle of Britain, and civilians stood firm under the onslaught of the Blitz. Given these facts, Churchill offers a cutting response to General Weygand:
"CHURCHILL (02:54-03:08): Some chicken. Some neck."
Churchill goes on to say that Britain—with the support of her allies from North America—will now go on the offensive and take the fight to Germany.
It will be another long and hard-fought two and a half years before Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day in June of 1944. By then, it will be clear that the tide of the war had turned, and Germany’s dreams of conquest will be dashed. A result that many thought inconceivable at the beginning of the conflict, but celebrated as inevitable in Churchill’s famous speech to the Canadian Parliament on December 30th, 1941.
Next onHistory Daily. January 2nd, 1981: Police arrest Peter Sutcliffe for a routine traffic violation in Sheffield, England. But they soon realize he is a no ordinary scofflaw but instead, the mass murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.