The Few: Winston Churchill’s Speech About the Battle of Britain

Peter Curry

3 mins

31 Oct 2018

The Battle of Britain was an aerial conflict which saw the fate of the Britain hang in the balance. Adolf Hitler had planned to invade England in Operation Sea Lion, but he needed air superiority before German forces could successfully cross the channel.

The engagement ran from July until October, and on the 20 August 1940, while the Battle of Britain was still ongoing and the winner unclear, Churchill gave a famous speech about the pilots flying in the Battle of Britain.

The speech has become known as a speech about “The Few”, referring to its most famous line, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Heinkel He 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

The origin of the phrase

Churchill apparently first used these famous words while exiting the Battle of Britain bunker at RAF Uxbridge.

Churchill had spent the day watching the operators and commanders directing planes to meet German threats, and he told Major General Hastings Ismay that he felt “deeply moved” by what he had seen.

After a few minutes of silence, he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Hastings “Pug” Ismay related an anecdote in 1953 suggesting that at first, Churchill actually said, “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few.”

Ismay retorted, “What about Jesus and his disciples?”

“Good old Pug,” said Churchill, who changed the wording to “Never in the field of human conflict…”.

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The speech

This is the complete wording of Churchill’s famous lines about the RAF:

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 the 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.

More important excerpts from the speech include:

One of the ways to bring this war to a speedy end is to convince the enemy, not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means, not only to go on indefinitely, but to strike heavy and unexpected blows. The road to victory may not be so long as we expect. But we have no right to count upon this. Be it long or short, rough or smooth, we mean to reach our journey’s end.

We have not only fortified our hearts but our Island. We have rearmed and rebuilt our armies in a degree which would have been deemed impossible a few months ago. We have ferried across the Atlantic, in the month of July, thanks to our friends over there, an immense mass of munitions of all kinds: cannon, rifles, machine guns, cartridges and shell, all safely landed without the loss of a gun or a round. The output of our own factories, working as they have never worked before, has poured forth to the troops. The whole British Army is at home.

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