France: Royal Air Force / British Official Photograph, Crown Copyright Reserved, 1940. Photograph. This original press photo captures First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill touring the Royal Air Force Headquarters in France on 7 January 1940, less than half a year before his ascension to wartime premier, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the fall of France. The image, measuring 6 x 8.125 inches (15.3 x 20.6 cm), is a gelatin silver print on glossy photo paper. Condition is very good. The paper is crisp and clean with some edge wear and a missing upper left corner both confined to the margins, original crop markings, and light scuffing visible only under raking light. The verso bears some handwritten notations and a printed caption indicating that this is a British Official Photograph from the Royal Air Force under copyright of the Crown. The caption is titled “The Royal Air Force in France” and reads, “Photo taken during the visit to France of the Rt. Hon. Mr. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Mr. Churchill inspects a guard of honour of R.A.F. airmen. P.N.A. JAN. 10th. 1940.” It is worth noting that the original caption’s date of “Jan. 10th. 1940” is incorrect.
On 4 January 1940 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill embarked on a four-day visit of France, a nation on the brink of invasion. Just twelve months prior Churchill had been in political exile, an elder statesman of 64 whose warnings against the growing Nazi threat had gone substantially unheeded. But in September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill was called back to the Admiralty, filling the same position he held in the previous war. On this trip Churchill visited the Maginot Line, the headquarters of General Gort (head of the British Expeditionary Force), and a number of RAF squadrons stationed in France, where this photograph captures him on 7 January.
Following Churchill’s return to England on 8 January, a press statement was released. Churchill encouraged the public that he “visited a British Brigade which is in direct contact with the enemy and found them in splendid spirits… Anyone at home who feels a bit gloomy or fretful about the war would benefit very much by spending a few days with the French and British Armies. They would find it at once a tonic and a sedative.” (Gilbert, Documents Vol XIV, 617) Five months later Churchill became wartime Prime Minister, and shortly after swift Nazi subjugation of France required the dramatic rescue of Allied forces trapped in northern France. An incredible mobilization of British civilians helped effect a near-miraculous evacuation of 224,000 British and 111,000 French soldiers. In recognition of this effort Churchill gave one of his most defining – and defiant – wartime speeches. In his 4 June 1940 speech he set the tone that would carry his nation through long years of war still ahead: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
This press photo once belonged to a newspaper’s working archive. During the first half of the twentieth century, photojournalism grew as a practice, fundamentally changing the way the public interacted with current events. Newspapers assembled expansive archives, including physical copies of all photographs published or deemed useful for potential future use, their versos typically marked with ink stamps and notes providing provenance and captions. Photo departments would often take brush, paint, pencil, and marker to the surface of photographs themselves to edit them before publication. Today these photographs exist as repositories of historical memory, technological artifacts, and often striking pieces of vernacular art. Item #005573