Dunkirk and the Dark Days


The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the Allies’ lowest points during World War Two

At one minute to nine on the evening of Friday 24 May 1940, cinemas across Britain shut down their programmes; crowds of people began to gather outside radio shops and a hush fell over clubs and hotel lounges. Millions more were gathered around their radios at home as the King prepared to make his first speech to the nation since his Christmas address at Sandringham. Lasting twelve and a half minutes, it was also to be his longest – and a major test of all the hours he had spent with Logue.

The occasion was Empire Day, which during wartime gained additional resonance from the huge contribution being made by many thousands of people across the Empire to the war against Hitler in Europe. Appropriately, the King’s words were to be heard at the end of a programme called Brothers in Arms. Featuring men and women born and brought up overseas, the programme, the BBC claimed, would ‘demonstrate in no uncertain fashion the unity and strength of which Empire Day is the symbol’.

Britain needed all the help it could get from the Empire. The phoney war had come to a sudden and dramatic end. In April the Nazis had invaded Denmark and Norway. Allied troops landed in Norway in an attempt to defend the country, but by the end of the month the southern areas were in German hands. In early June the Allies evacuated the north and on the ninth Norwegian forces laid down their arms.

The Nazis’ successes in Scandinavia brought the long-running pressure on Chamberlain to a head in the so-called Norway debate, during which the former cabinet minister Leo Amery famously quoted to the hapless prime minister the words that Oliver Cromwell had used to the Long Parliament: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’

Despite the political forces ranged against him, Chamberlain won the vote on 8 May by 281 to 200, but many of his own supporters abstained or voted against him. There was a growing clamour to widen the coalition to include Labour, but that party’s MPs refused to serve under Chamberlain. There was speculation that he might be succeeded by Lord Halifax, who had been one of the main architects of appeasement since replacing Eden as foreign secretary in March 1938.

Although Halifax enjoyed the support of both the Conservative Party and the King, and was acceptable to Labour, he realized that there was a better man for the job. When Chamberlain resigned two days later, he was replaced instead by Winston Churchill, who formed a new coalition government including Conservative, Labour and Liberal MPs as well as non-party figures. That same day, German forces marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The Nazis rapidly tightened their grip. At five o’clock in the morning of 13 May, the King was woken to take a call from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. At first he thought it was a hoax – but not once she began to speak and urgently begged his help in having more aircraft sent to defend her beleaguered country. It was too late; a few hours afterwards the Queen’s daughter Princess Juliana, her German-born husband Prince Bernhard and their two young daughters arrived in England. Later that day, Wilhelmina was on the phone to the King again, this time from Harwich, to which she had travelled aboard a British destroyer after fleeing German attempts to capture her and take her hostage. Her aim was initially to go back and join Dutch forces in Zeeland, in the south-west of the country, which were still resisting, but the military situation had deteriorated so sharply that everyone thought a return was impossible. On 15 May her army capitulated in the face of the German Blitzkrieg. Wilhelmina remained in Buckingham Palace, where she attempted to rally Dutch resistance at a distance.

It was against the background of these dramatic setbacks that Logue was called at 11 a.m. on 21 May by Hardinge and asked to go and see the King at 4 p.m. He arrived fifteen minutes early to find the King’s private secretary fretting over yet more bad news from the Continent. German forces, continuing their whirlwind advance across France, had reportedly entered Abbeville, at the mouth of the Somme and fifteen miles from the Channel, cutting the Allied armies in two. The future of the British Expeditionary Force, which had been deployed mainly along the Franco-Belgian border since it had been sent out at the beginning of the war, was looking bleak.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the King appeared in a strangely cheerful mood when Logue was called up to see him. Standing on the balcony, dressed in his military uniform, he was whistling to a young corgi sitting under a plane tree in the garden that was struggling to work out where the sound was coming from. Logue noticed the King’s hair was a little greyer on the side of the temples than he remembered it. The strain of war was clearly beginning to take its toll.

They went into a room that was bare of all pictures and valuables save for a vase of flowers. Logue was impressed by the text of the Empire Day speech, which he thought was outstanding and beautifully written, but they nevertheless still went through it together and made some alterations. As they were doing so a second time, there was a light tap at the door. It was the Queen, dressed in powder grey, with a loud diamond butterfly brooch on her left shoulder. While the King was writing out alterations to the text, he talked to Logue about the wonderful efforts the Royal Air Force was making – and ‘how proud one should be of the boys from Australia, Canada and New Zealand’. Soon afterwards, Logue went to leave.

‘It was a wonderful memory as I said goodbye and bowed over the King’s and Queen’s hands, the two of them framed in the large window with the sunshine behind them, the King in field marshal uniform and the Queen in grey,’ he recalled.

On Empire Day itself, Logue went to the Palace after dinner and, together with the BBC’s Wood and Ogilvie, made sure the room had been properly prepared for the broadcast. In case of air raids, Wood had run a cable down into the dugout. ‘It didn’t matter what happened,’ wrote Logue. ‘The broadcast would go on.’

The King, dressed in a double-breasted jacket, looked slim and fit. The two of them then went into the broadcasting room which, to Logue’s relief, was pleasantly cool: he had left instructions that the windows be left open to prevent a repetition of the previous day’s disaster when the unfortunate Queen Wilhelmina had made a lunchtime broadcast to her Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and the room was so hot and stuffy it was practically on fire.

Logue suggested only minor changes to the speech. Rather than beginning ‘It is a year ago today’, he proposed the King rearrange the text to start instead, ‘On Empire Day a year ago’. They had a last run-through of the speech and it took twelve minutes. With just eight minutes to go, the King walked off into his room to practise the emphasis on two or three of the more difficult passages.

A minute before he was due to start speaking, the King walked across the passage into the broadcasting room and stared out of the open window in the failing light. It was a beautiful spring evening and perfectly peaceful. ‘It was hard to believe that within a hundred miles of us, men were killing each other,’ thought Logue.

The red studio light flashed four times and went dark – the signal to begin. The King took two steps to the table, and Logue squeezed his arm for luck. The gesture spoke volumes about the closeness of the two men’s relationship; no one was meant to touch a king unbidden in that way.

‘On Empire Day last year I spoke to you, the peoples of the Empire, from Winnipeg, in the heart of Canada,’ the King began, adopting the first of Logue’s changes. ‘We were at peace. On that Empire Day I spoke of the ideals of freedom, justice, and peace upon which our Commonwealth of Free Peoples is founded. The clouds were gathering, but I held fast to the hope that those ideals might yet achieve a fuller and richer development without suffering the grievous onslaught of war. But it was not to be. The evil which we strove unceasingly and with all honesty of purpose to avert fell upon us.’

And so he went on, smiling like a schoolboy (or so Logue thought) whenever he managed a hitherto impossible word without difficulty. The ‘decisive struggle’ was now upon the people of Britain, the King continued, building up the tension. ‘It is no mere territorial conquest that our enemies are seeking; it is the overthrow, complete and final, of this Empire and of everything for which it stands and, after that, the conquest of the world . . .’

There was nothing for Logue to do but just stand and listen, marvelling at the King’s voice. When he had spoken his last words, Logue just gripped his hands; both men knew it had been a superb effort.

They didn’t dare speak immediately, though; at Logue’s insistence, they were trying a new way of working under which the red light – this ‘red eye of the little yellow god’, as Logue called it – didn’t stay on throughout the broadcast. This had the disadvantage of making it difficult to be absolutely certain that they were actually off air. The two men continued to look at each other in silence – ‘the King and the commoner and my heart is too full to speak’. The King patted him on the hand.

A few minutes later, Ogilvie came in – ‘Congratulations, your Majesty, a wonderful effort’, he said – followed by the Queen, kissing her husband and telling him how grand he had been. They all stayed there talking for another five minutes.

‘And then,’ as Logue put it, ‘the King of England says “I want my dinner” – and they all said good night and went down the stairs into another world.’

The King was suitably proud of his effort, and relieved that, despite the fluidity of the military situation, he had not been obliged to make major last-minute changes to the text. ‘I was fearful that something might happen to make me have to alter it,’ he wrote in his diary that evening. ‘I was very pleased with the way I delivered it, & it was easily my best effort. How I hate broadcasting.’85

The next morning, the newspapers were full of praise for the speech. The Daily Telegraph called it ‘a vigorous and inspiring broadcast’, adding, ‘Reports last night indicated that every word was heard with perfect clarity throughout the United States and in distant parts of the Empire.’ Logue’s telephone, meanwhile, had been ringing off the hook. ‘Everyone is thrilled over The King’s Speech,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Eric Mieville rang me from Buckingham Palace and told me that the reception all over the world had been tremendous. Whilst we were speaking the King rang for him, so I sent my congratulations through again.’ The reaction from the Empire and beyond had also been enthusiastic.

The next day, a Saturday, Logue and Myrtle celebrated the King’s success by going to see a matinee of My Little Chickadee, a comedy set in the Old West of the 1880s, starring Mae West and W. C. Fields. Afterwards, Valentine took his parents to dinner at a restaurant Myrtle called ‘the Hungarian’. It was the first time they had been there since the war had started, and the band played all Myrtle’s favourites.

It would take more than one speech, however fine, to turn the tide of a war which was going against the Allies. Next to fall to the Germans was Belgium. King Léopold III, who was commander-in-chief of his country’s forces, had hoped to fight on in support of the Allied course, imitating the heroic example of his father, King Albert, during the First World War. Yet the situation this time was different, and on 25 May, convinced that further resistance was hopeless, Léopold surrendered. Controversially he chose to stay with his people rather than accompany his ministers to France where they attempted to continue to operate as a government-in-exile. However unfairly, he was vilified in Britain as a result. His behaviour during the war divided his own country and sowed the seeds for his abdication just over a decade later.

The British fury at Léopold’s capitulation was due in large part to the damaging effect it had on the Allied Forces, whose left flank was now entirely exposed and who now had to fall back to the Channel coast. The only solution was to mount a rescue – and what was to be one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. On 27 May the first of a flotilla of around 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and Royal National Lifeboats began to evacuate British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. By the ninth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) had been rescued.

On 4 June, the final day of the evacuation, Churchill made one of the most memorable speeches of the war – or, indeed, of all time. ‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail,’ he told the House of Commons, going on famously to vow to ‘fight on the beaches’.

In her diary the next day, Myrtle noted simply: ‘All our men off. God be praised. Have met some of the nurses, they have a story to tell which will live forever.’ There were some more immediate worries too: on 1 June, in the midst of the evacuation, she heard that Laurie, their eldest son, had joined the army. Already into his thirties, and with a wife and baby, he was not among the first to be called. At the end of March he received his call-up papers and when Myrtle heard the news, she and Jo had ‘a little weep’.

For many ordinary people, what became known as the Dunkirk spirit perfectly described the tendency of Britons to pull together at times of national emergency and adversity. Yet, however great the heroism and however remarkable some of the escapes, there was no disguising the fact that this was no victory. In private, Churchill told his junior ministers that Dunkirk was ‘the greatest British military defeat for many centuries’.

The bad news kept on coming. On 14 June Paris was occupied by the German Wehrmacht and then, three days later, Marshal Philippe Pétain (appointed head of state with extraordinary powers) announced that France would ask Germany for an armistice. ‘This is the blackest day we have ever known,’ wrote Myrtle in her war diary. She heard news of Pétain’s announcement from a disgusted bus driver who ‘proclaimed to the entire world what he would do to the entire French nation . . . Surely now, there is nobody left who can rat on us. We are all really alone, and if our government gives up there will be a revolution, and I am in it.’

Things were about to get even blacker. Late in the afternoon of 7 September, 364 German bombers, escorted by a further 515 aircraft, carried out air raids on London, with another 133 attacking that night. Their target was the Port of London, but many of the bombs fell on residential areas, killing 436 Londoners and injuring more than 1,600. The Blitz had begun. For the next seventy-five consecutive nights, the bombers targeted London repeatedly. Other important military and industrial centres such as Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester were also hit. By May the following year, when the campaign ended, more than 43,000 civilians, half of them in the capital, had been killed and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed in the London area alone.

Buckingham Palace was also hit several times that September during a daring daylight raid, when both the King and Queen were working there. The bombs caused considerable damage to the Royal Chapel and the inner quadrangle – prompting the Queen famously to declare, ‘I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.’ Logue wrote to the King to express his ‘thankfulness and gratitude to the Most High’ at his narrow escape from what he called ‘a dastardly attempt on your life’. He added, ‘It did not seem possible that even the Germans would descend to such depths of infamy.’

Tommy Lascelles wrote back to Logue four days later to thank him for his expression of concern, which the King and Queen had greatly appreciated. ‘T.M. [their majesties] are none the worse for their experience,’ he added. ‘I hope you manage to get some sleep now and then.’

In the weeks that followed, Logue and the King kept up an occasional correspondence. The monarch was often surprisingly frank about his feelings, such as after he visited Coventry on 15 November in the immediate aftermath of a devastating overnight raid on the city. More than 500 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiaries were dropped, turning the centre into a sea of flames and killing nearly 600 people. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed and the King spent hours tramping through the rubble. The effect of his visit on the city’s morale was huge, although the King himself was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destruction. ‘What could I say to these poor people who had lost everything, sometimes their families[;] words were inadequate,’ he asked Logue.

Amid the stress and misery there were some lighter moments. A few days later, when the King was practising his speech for that year’s State Opening of Parliament, he greeted Logue grinning like a schoolboy. ‘Logue, I’ve got the jitters,’ he declared. ‘I woke up at one o’clock after dreaming I was in parliament with my mouth wide open and couldn’t say a word.’ Although both men laughed heartily, it brought home to Logue that even now, after all the years they had spent working together, the King’s speech impediment still weighed heavily on him.

Logue was invited back to Windsor on Christmas Eve, and then again on Christmas Day, to help with the speech. This year, as the previous one, there could be no question of the King not addressing the Empire.

The weather was cold but cheerful. Logue felt he couldn’t chance the trains and so took the Green Line bus to Windsor instead. ‘I had been standing in the cold all night and when the door was opened, and we got in, the cold hit you,’ he wrote. ‘It was like getting into an Ice House. I got colder and colder and when I reached Windsor, I fell out of the bus a frozen mass.’ The walk up to the castle thawed him a little; a glass of sherry with Mieville after he arrived helped further, as did the coal fire burning in the grate. He was also delighted by a gold cigarette case given to him by the Queen.

After a Christmas dinner of boar’s head and prunes, Logue followed the King to his study and they got down to work. Logue did not like the speech; as far as he was concerned there was nothing for the King to get his teeth into, but there was little he could do about it. In it, the King warned his people that the future would be hard ‘but our feet are planted on the path of victory and, with the help of God, we shall make our way to justice and to peace’.

And so it went on. On 22 June 1941 Germany, along with other European Axis members and Finland, invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The aim was to eliminate the country and communism, providing not just Lebensraum but also access to the strategic resources Germany needed to defeat its remaining rivals. In the months that followed, Hitler and his allies made significant gains in Ukraine and the Baltic region, as well as laying siege to Leningrad and coming close to the outskirts of Moscow. Yet Hitler had failed to attain his objective and Stalin retained a considerable part of his military potential. On 5 December the Russians began a counter-attack. Two days later the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, bringing in the might of the United States on the Allied side.

The Axis powers continued to make advances through 1942: Japanese forces swept through Asia, conquering Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. The Germans, meanwhile, ravaged Allied shipping off America’s Atlantic coast, and in June launched a summer offensive to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus and occupy the Kuban steppe. The Soviets made their stand at Stalingrad.

War was also raging in Africa, where Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, composed of German and Italian infantry and mechanized units, was threatening to reach the gates of Cairo. Rommel opened his attack on 26 May, forced the evacuation by the French of Bir Hachim on 11 June and laid siege to Tobruk a week later. He then swept eastwards out of Libya into Egypt, reaching El Alamein, sixty miles west of Alexandria, on 1 July. It was a bitter blow to the Allies: Churchill, in Washington, flew back to face a censure motion in the Commons, which he won easily.

Then came the turning point in Africa and, it could be argued, the war. The British forces counter-attacked, repulsing Rommel. The Germans dug in, however, and a stalemate ensued, during which Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed commander of the Eighth Army. On 23 October the Allies attacked again, with Montgomery’s 200,000 men and 1,100 tanks ranged against the Axis’s 115,000 men and 559 tanks: Rommel was back home in Germany on sick leave, but hurried back to lead his men. The numbers were overwhelmingly against him and on 2 November he warned Hitler his forces were not capable of offering any more effective opposition. The Nazi leader would not tolerate any talk of surrender: ‘It would not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions,’ Hitler replied the next day. ‘As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.’

Logue was one of the first to hear of Montgomery’s victory. On the afternoon of 4 November he was at the Palace with the King, going through a speech he was due to give at the State Opening of Parliament, set for the twelfth, when the telephone rang. The King had given orders that he was not to be disturbed unless he was wanted urgently. With a quizzical look, he walked over and picked up the receiver.

The King immediately became excited. ‘Yes! Yes! Well read it out, read it out,’ he said, before adding, ‘The enemy is in full retreat. Good news, thanks,’ and hung up. Smiling, he turned to Logue. ‘‘Did you hear that?’ he asked, and repeated the gist of the news. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘That’s grand.’

That evening the King wrote in his diary: ‘A victory at last, how good it is for the nerves.’86 Four days later, Allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, both nominally in the hands of the Vichy France regime. Operation Torch, intended to open a second front in North Africa, was under way.

Amid such drama, yet another Christmas speech was looming. A couple of days before, Logue rehearsed it with the King, whom he had found in excellent form. The speech itself required a little surgery; Logue wasn’t keen on passages that Churchill had written into the text as they just didn’t seem right coming out of the King’s mouth. ‘It was typical Churchill and could have been recognised by anyone,’ Logue complained in his diary. ‘With the King’s help, we cut out adjectives and the Prime Minister.’

The weather that year was lovely, despite a touch of fog, and there was no repeat of the snow of the previous two years. Logue was again summoned to join the royal family for the festivities. He thought the Christmas tree looked much nicer and better decorated than the year before; a decoration Myrtle had sent had made all the difference. When the Queen came in, she walked over to Logue and told him how pleased she was to see him. To his surprise, she then asked him to repeat a trick he had been showing a couple of the equerries before lunch: how to breathe using only one lung. He happily did so, but warned her and the two princesses not to attempt the trick themselves.

Just after 2.30, Logue followed the King into his study to go through the speech for one last time. At 2.55 they entered the broadcasting room, he and Wood synchronized watches and at 2.58 the Queen came in to wish her husband good luck. A few seconds later the three red lights went on and, with a glance in Logue’s direction, the King began.

‘It is at Christmas more than any other time, that we are conscious of the dark shadow of war,’ he started. ‘Our Christmas festival today must lack many of the happy, familiar features that it has had from our childhood . . . But though its outward observances may be limited, the message of Christmas remains eternal and unchanged. It is a message of thankfulness and of hope – of thankfulness to the Almighty for His great mercies, of hope for the return to this earth of peace and good will.’ Logue followed the printed text for a couple of paragraphs, but then gave up – he realized there was no need to do so any more.

During the speech, the King spoke of the great contribution being made to the war effort by the other members of the Empire – and also by the Americans. He ended with a story once told by Abraham Lincoln about a boy who was carrying a much smaller child up a hill. ‘Asked whether the heavy burden was not too much for him, the boy answered, “It’s not a burden, it’s my brother.”’

After exactly twelve minutes it was all over and Logue was delighted by what he had heard. ‘It is a grand thing to be the first to congratulate a King, and letting a few seconds go by to make sure we were off the air, I grabbed him by the arm, and in my excitement said “splendid”,’ Logue wrote in his diary. ‘He grinned and said, “I think that’s the best we have done, Logue. I will be back in London in February, let us keep the lessons going.” The Queen came in, kissed him fondly and said, “That was splendid, Bertie”.’

The newspapers were full of praise for the royal performance. ‘Both in manner and in matter, the King’s broadcast yesterday was the most mature and inspiriting that he has yet made,’ commented the Glasgow Herald. ‘It worthily maintained the tradition of Christmas Day broadcasts.’ Churchill, the greatest orator of them all, rang to congratulate him on how well he had done.

On Boxing Day the King sent Logue a handwritten letter that reflected quite how pleased he had been with how it had gone.

My dear Logue,

I’m so glad that my broadcast went off so well yesterday. I felt altogether different and I had no fear of the microphone. I am sure that those visits that you have paid me have done me a great deal of good and I must keep them up during the new year.

Thank you so very much for all your help.

With all good wishes for 1943

I am

Yours very sincerely

George R.I.

Logue wrote back full of enthusiasm. ‘Today, my telephone has been beating a “tattoo”, all manner of people have been ringing to congratulate you, saying how they wished they could write and let you know how much they enjoyed the broadcast,’ he said. He singled out for praise the way the King had approached the dreaded microphone ‘almost as if it were your friend’ and how he had never looked as if he were being held up.

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