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The phrase “never was so much owed by so many to so few” came from a wartime speech made by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20 August 1940. The name stems from the specific line in the speech, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, referring to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots who were at the time fighting the Battle of Britain, the pivotal air battle with the German Luftwaffe and with Britain expecting a German invasion.

 

The speech also refers to the aerial bombing campaign by RAF Bomber Command, although the speech is usually taken to only refer to Fighter Command. With the Battle of Britain won a few months later and German plans postponed, the Allied airmen of the battle ultimately became known as “The Few”.

Churchill apparently first used his famous words on 16th August 1940 after spending all day at the Battle of Britain oprations room at RAF Uxbridge. Visibly moved at what he had witnessed a Churchill told his aide Major General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, “Don’t speak to me, I have never been so moved”. After several minutes of silence he said “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” The sentence would form the basis of his speech to the House of Commons on August 20.

Churchill was rehearsing his speech on the way to the House of Commons and when he said “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few” General Ismay asked “What about Jesus and his disciples?” “Good old Pug,” said Winston, who immediately changed the wording to “Never in the field of human conflict …”

The speech was given as the United Kingdom prepared for the expected German invasion. In it, Churchill tried to inspire his countrymen by pointing out that although the last several months had been a series of monumental defeats for the Allies, their situation was now much better. Churchill’s argument was in fact correct; shortly thereafter the British won the battle – the first significant defeat for the hitherto unstoppable Nazi war machine.   This speech was a great inspiration to the embattled United Kingdom during what was probably the most dangerous phase (for Britain) of the entire war. Together with the three famous speeches that he gave during the period of the Battle of France (the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of 13 May, the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of 4 June, and the “This was their finest hour” speech of 18 June) they form his most stirring rhetoric.

The speech is also well remembered for his use of the phrase “the few” to describe the Allied aircrew of Fighter Command of the RAF, whose desperate struggle gained the victory; “The Few” has come to be their nickname.

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Category: Historic Events

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