An Analysis of J. B. Priestley’s Broadcast from June 5, 1940: (Listen here)

Winston Churchill’s speech “we shall fight on the beaches” is often considered as the turning point of the Second World War, but historical investigation indicates that the soft Yorkshire tones of author J. B. Priestley over the wireless the following evening might have played a more immediate role in boosting morale and turning the tide from capitulation to the Third Reich to mustering an English fighting spirit – despite popular memory mistakenly hearing Churchill. Priestley championed the English underdog, and characterised that as a peculiarly English trait, a feat of national mythologisation that became known as the “Dunkirk Spirit”. In the early stage of the Second World War, Priestley’s radio broadcasts played a vital role independent of, and aiding, Churchill in galvanising the nation to join in the war effort, turning it from an imperial war to a “people’s war”.

The evacuation of Dunkirk was a retreat from the battlefield – though not a capitulation – rather than a victory, which Churchill acknowledged in his speech to the House of Commons on June 4, as the nine-day Operation Dynamo concluded. That 336,000 English, Belgian and French troops had been conveyed to safety – albeit leaving 30,000 individuals behind as fugitives, prisoners or corpses – was remarkable considering they remained under bombardment from air and sea. Contested by historians, participants and their contemporaries was the size of the evacuation role played by the RAF, Royal Navy and civilian sailors – as well as fatigued British Expeditionary Forces. Priestley did not mention air power, but Churchill emphasised the crucial and heroic role they played in engaging the Luftwaffe, invisible from below the clouds. He was responding to widespread disillusionment with the RAF that was reflected in Mass Observation reports of pub conversations in Suffolk, and also by the BBC’s only broadcasting rival at the time – Reichssender Hamburg’s English-language Nazi propaganda. The nasal faux-aristocratic tones of Irish-American fascist William Joyce’s “Germany Calling” vied with the BBC’s Home Service, attracting up to 12 million listeners during the Phoney War period. On May 28, two days after the Dunkirk evacuation began, Joyce broadcast:

As the bloody and battered fragments of what was once the BEF drift back in wreckage to the shores of England, it is not impossible that the public will turn savagely on the men who have so cruelly and unscrupulously deceived them. At any rate the bitterness and disillusion will now blend with the fear of invasion, which has not unreasonably been growing stronger every day. England has received a psychological shock which not even the strongest nation could bear. And the fault is very much that of the warmongers who educated the public to believe that it would be an easy matter to deal with Hitler. The decisive campaign of the war has been won by Germany, who now commands the English Channel and the North Sea.

It is amazing that witness accounts frequently recall Churchill’s speech of June 4 as the switch of their – and the national mood – from one of ignominious defeat to a rousing and defiant “we shall never surrender”. No one outside the House of Commons did hear Churchill’s speech at the time – only passages of it were quoted by a BBC newsreader, and relayed to America’s CBS network by reporter Ed Murrow. Penny Summerfield in 2010 suggested the myth-making of Dunkirk began after 1949, when Churchill was persuaded to record the speech for posterity. But as novelist and columnist for The Spectator, Graham Greene noted in December 1940:

Priestley became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr. Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us – an ideology.

This ideology might be described – with some trepidation – as English national socialism, a semi-autonomous opposite to force-fed German Nazism. This collectivist instinct – which by 1941 had become mythologised as the “Dunkirk Spirit” – was not imposed from above, but was, Priestley suggested, a natural reaction, the unity of the English underdog to snatch “glory out of defeat”.

Since Edwardian times, English – or British – patriotism had been framed by Elgar’s boastful and triumphant Pomp and Circumstance, but in the deflation of 1940, its anthem Land of Hope and Glory would have rung hollow. Priestley used “hope” in the first sentence and “glory” in the last, but (re)defined Englishness as “folly” and “grandeur”. By paying tribute to the “little pleasure-steamers”, nicknamed “shilling sicks”, and the people who used them (including him), he evoked a middlebrow shared vision of England that gently mocked but mostly celebrated working-class culture, a world he had observed from within its bosom. The left-populist writer put the icing on the cake for Conservative Churchill, whose speech was fairly downbeat and airily imperial, barely mentioning the non-military aid.

While Churchill praised the evacuation of Dunkirk as “a miracle of deliverance”, courtesy of the RAF and Navy, and the “willing help of countless merchant seamen”, Priestley saw the rescue mission as “typically English…” because of “the part played not by the warships but by the little pleasure-steamers”. Churchill culminated his speech in a thinly-veiled appeal to America to get involved – he stressed the evacuation had assured him that British people would resist Nazi invasion alone if necessary, and would not surrender at the beaches, but continue fighting in the hills and towns. But Priestley did not conjure up any notion of violence to defend English land from invaders. Instead he peaceably predicted how these “fussy little steamers” would be remembered to “our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory…”

Newspaper reports from June 1 had begun to acclaim the Dunkirk evacuation as a “miracle”, and Churchill and Priestley developed this theme, obscuring less endearing realities. Priestley mythologised “how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious”, and overlooked that in many cases the 850 private vessels (most not passenger steamers) had been commandeered by the Royal Navy and piloted by military men rather than civilians, that they had only been used in the last few days of the evacuation, and that small boats had already been employed by the navy as minesweepers.

This June 4 broadcast was Priestley’s first outing for the BBC Home Service’s Postscripts section which was introduced after Sunday news broadcasts to offer some respite from state control with an independent voice – perhaps to provide a counterpoint to Joyce’s commentary.

From October 1940 Priestley was off the air. He self-mythologised his departure saying the BBC and Ministry of Information each blamed each other in letters to him (which he claimed to have lost) for taking him off due to his left-wing bias, but subsequent research suggests Priestley himself demanded a break as the war became a heavier burden on the opinion influencer. He returned in 1941.

Churchill headed a wartime government that was jointly Labour and Conservative. At the culmination of the war, the public elected the first – and perhaps one and only – British socialist government. This, Margaret Thatcher later claimed, was inevitable:

The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality… Broadcasters like J. B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction… [Conservatives] were not able effectively to take the credit… for victory, let alone to castigate Labour for its irresponsibility and extremism, because Atlee and his colleagues had worked cheek by jowl with the Conservatives in government since 1940. In any event, the war effort had involved the whole population.

This “essentially socialist mentality” can surely be connected with the “ideology” formed by Priestley as cited by Greene, and the “Dunkirk spirit” that has endured and been repurposed time and time again without really losing its main meaning – that ordinary people can work together and achieve miracles in the face of adversity.

However, since advocates of Brexit began associating the Dunkirk Spirit as a means of staying afloat outside the European Union, some commentators have begun reappraising the expression as jingoistic.

But we only need to return to the source – Priestley – to demonstrate the Dunkirk spirit was a fine example of mutual aid, and that positive patriotic notion was given real power by invocation, to counter the jingoistic Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, and Churchill himself. Priestley may have pinned this “typical English” trait to the Dunkirk evacuation, but was giving voice to a spirit already in existence – a spirit of co-operation over competition, a natural persuasion for collective action rather than individual glory-grabbing, a spirit which Colin Ward astutely defined as “anarchy in action”; this natural social behaviour flourished in 1940 in spite of State failures to properly equip and task the BEF, and the negligence of British, French and Belgian authorities to protect their peoples from Nazi brutality.

Most importantly, even if more mythology than reality, Priestley’s distilled Dunkirk spirit acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy: eventually winning the war against fascism – even if popular memory has given Churchill the credit as chief morale-booster, rather than Priestley, who appears on no bank notes.