The Big Ben clock and a statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill are silhouetted against the morning sky in central London
The Big Ben clock and a statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill are silhouetted against the morning sky in central London, Jan. 1, 2010. REUTERS

Even before the rise of Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill warned of the danger of the Nazis, only to be fought at every turn by the British government. What Churchill had foreshadowed became reality as one by one Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and France had fallen under Nazi control.

In the spring of 1940, Britain was the last one standing, the last barricade to all of Europe being under Hitler’s full control. The man leading Britain onto the battlefield was Churchill, who had been prime minister all of six weeks.

As the threat of invasion encroached from a Nazi-occupied France, Churchill, on this day 73 years ago, gave what historians have called one of the greatest speeches -- the “finest hour” speech of June 18, 1940 -- ever delivered in the English language.

“When Churchill began speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, his fellow parliamentarians knew that June 18th marked a significant date in British history – the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo,” the Council of Foreign Relations wrote in a blog post, “when British troops under the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon. Churchill’s task was to rally their descendants to stop another authoritarian from dominating the European continent, this time against even longer odds.”

In his 36-minute speech, which he wrote entirely himself, as he always did, and which he’d rework up until the last moment, Churchill reiterated what he had feared for Britain -- and all of Europe -- for years:

“The Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and care for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so b ear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.”