In the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation and the fall of France in June 1940, things looked pretty bleak for the Allies, and indeed they were. The Battle of Britain followed almost immediately, and lasted until the end of October 1940, but the British outlast the German bombing raids. The next year, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill went to North America on a moral-boosting trip, both to welcome Britain’s new ally (the United States) and to thank its long-standing ally (Canada).
While addressing the Canadian Parliament in their House of Commons in Ottawa, Churchill famously quipped that Britain, despite being bombed almost into oblivion by the Luftwaffe, never had its neck wrung like a chicken, by saying “some chicken, some neck.” That’s right, Buzzkillers, this is a Churchill quote that’s genuine. It was said by him. No, really, it was. Here’s the actual recording. I’ll set it up.
Churchill spoke in the Canadian House of Commons on 30 December 1941. He starts off by saying, “When I warned them…” and by “them” he means the French government, who, at the time (June 1940), were considering whether to surrender to the conquering Germans or not. By the way, Buzzkillers, you’ll may hear low banging noises in this audio clip. This is because members of the Canadian House of Commons have desks at their seats, and they’re banging on them. Banging on desks is a way of expressing approval above and beyond clapping. OK, enough background, here’s the original audio:
“When I warned them [the French] 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!”
The problem is that Institute researchers can find no evidence of any French general (or any French politician) saying, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” I double-checked, and it’s true, there’s no evidence of a French military leader saying this. What seems to have happened is this.
On June 14, 1940, the French cabinet was debating what to do (that is, give in to the Germans or create a stronger alliance with the British), the Secretary of the French Navy said, “better to be a French province (of Germany). At least we know what that means.” Paul Reynaud, still Prime Minister of a France at the mercy of the Germans, replied, “I prefer to collaborate with my allies rather than my enemies.” Marshal Pétain (who would later become head of the collaborationist Vichy French government), said that Britain was dying, and that making a stronger governmental alliance with them would be, “fusion with a corpse.”
I have to say, Buzzkillers, that no doubt easier for Churchill to respond haughtily to something like “neck wrung like a chicken” than “fusion with a corpse.” “Some corpse, some corpse’s neck.” Not nearly as good. Maybe Churchill was given the wrong story about what Pétain said, or maybe, when writing the Canadian speech a year later, he just used whatever came to mind, or maybe he deliberately set up the French comment as the chicken and neck thing because he knew it would get applause.
He was crafty that way.
Norman Moss, Nineteen Weeks: America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940 (2004).