New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1941…
Somewhere east of Ottawa, a special train bore the Prime Minister of Great Britain toward Washington. He had been in Canada to address Parliament. His most memorable lines came as he spoke of the French in 1940:
When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their generals told their prime minister and his divided cabinet, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Some chicken! … Some neck.
A week earlier Churchill had won cheers from hardened American politicians in Congress, hurling defiance at the enemy. “They have certainly embarked upon a very considerable undertaking…. What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?”
High Sense of the Moment
No one not alive and sentient then can understand the magnitude of the task the Great Democracies faced as the New Year of 1942 began. Hitler held Europe from the Channel almost to Moscow. Nazi U-boats prowled the Atlantic, strangling British shipping; Rommel’s Afrika Korps was advancing toward Suez. Stalin’s Red Army was desperately hanging on. America had received a heavy blow at Pearl Harbor. Japan ran amok in southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Churchill saw in all this only an opportunity. “I was lucky in the timing of these speeches in Washington and Ottawa,” he wrote….
They came at the moment when we could all rejoice at the creation of the Grand Alliance, with its overwhelming potential force, and before the cataract of ruin fell upon us from the long, marvelously prepared assault of Japan. Even while I spoke in confident tones I could feel in anticipation the lashes which were soon to score our naked flesh. Fearful forfeits had to be paid not only by Britain and Holland but by the United States, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in all the Asiatic lands and islands they lap with their waves. An indefinite period of military disaster lay certainly before us. Many dark and weary months of defeat and loss must be endured before the light would come again.
It didn’t matter. Churchill would make his fighting speeches everywhere, to audiences large and small, to listeners grand and ordinary, time and again, until the end. One of his later bodyguards was flying Hurricanes in 1942. He said to me: “After one of those speeches, it didn’t matter that we were outnumbered and outgunned. We wanted them to come.”
Here’s to the New Year
The train rushed on as the last minutes of 1941 ticked away. Soon it was steaming southward on New York Central’s broad tracks along the Hudson. Appropriately close to Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, the Prime Minister called staff and reporters to the dining car. He wanted in a few words to “cast some forward light upon the dark, inscrutable mysteries of the future.”
Of course he would voice confidence in the certainty of victory. He would not minimize the challenges, or forecast when deliverance might come. That would depend “on our exertions, upon our achievements, and on the hazardous and uncertain course of the war.”
He entered the dining carriage amid cheers and applause, raising his glass to the company. “It was with no illusions,” he wrote, “that I wished them all a glorious New Year”…
Here’s to 1942, here’s to a year of toil—a year of struggle and peril, and a long step forward towards victory. May we all come through safe and with honour.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.*
Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing;
Learn to labor and to wait.