Celebrated photojournalist Harry Benson recalls hearing the address portrayed in the Oscar-winning film
I remember the first time I heard the voice of King George VI, father of the current queen and the subject of the much-buzzed about film, “The King’s Speech.” It was 1939; Britain had declared war on Germany that September, and everyone was anxiously waiting to hear what our sovereign would have to say to the country during his annual Christmas address.
I was ten years old — old enough to know what was happening. (Funnily enough, I had no idea until I saw Colin Firth’s portrayal that the King suffered from a speech impediment). I remember that when war was declared, my father met two of our neighbors to talk at the bottom of our garden in Clarkston, a suburb of Glasgow where the farmlands began. (These were the same farmlands where in 1941 Hitler’s deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, would crash-land his plane. To my mind Hess’s actions have never been adequately explained — was he defecting or coming to make peace with Britain and anoint Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, as quisling king?)
1939 had seen a huge call-up of young men, and we were sending our soldiers to fight in France. The roads leading into and out of Glasgow were roadblocked. Balloon barrages were in the sky above to keep German planes from coming in too low. There was no bombing yet; that came the following year. We all got fitted for gas masks. They came in little cardboard boxes, and we had to carry them to school with us. Our family cut up an old coat to make knapsacks to carry them in.
We had a dachshund named Tillie. One day my mother was leaving the grocery store when another woman threw a brick at the dog and yelled, “Go back to Germany, you dirty German.” We kept Tillie at home after that incident.
The King’s speech that Christmas was a very, very important moment to all. He would speak to the whole country for the first time since the war began. My mother, father, grandfather, uncle, three aunts, brother, sisters and I were at the dinner table. The times were grim; rationing had begun, but my mother managed to get two chickens, some boiled potatoes, Brussels sprouts and a plum pudding for our dinner. Now, we didn’t eat until after the King spoke. I got stern looks from my father and my Uncle Eddie, as I was the naughty one and was told to be quiet. I remember it clearly. But after all, it was a holiday and I wanted to go out and play with my pals or paint with the paint set I had received as a gift. My father got up from the table umpteen times to make sure the wireless (radio) was on the correct station.
When the speech was to begin, we all gathered. My father kept asking if we could hear all right. No one spoke a word. There was no one in the streets. Everyone was in their home, listening. The address itself was filled with a mix of hope, strength and a warning of hard times ahead. Afterward, I remember my father and grandfather saying it was a great speech.
What surprised me after seeing the film was learning that King George VI stuttered. I knew he was a very quiet man and an ardent stamp collector — but not that he suffered so poignantly. I asked several friends who are acquainted with the royal family who said they never knew about the stutter either. I did like the film, but I would have rather seen more about what was happening in the country at the time.
The impact of King George’s first radio speech of the war was immense. It united the people. It gave us hope, even though we didn’t know what the next Christmas would bring. Coupled with the rousing and inspiring speeches of Churchill throughout the war, the King’s speech built the morale of the British people. Even during the darkest hours, we believed Churchill when he said, “We shall never surrender.” And we did not.