Richard Wilkinson charts the highs and lows of Winston Churchill in 1940-45.
‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour.’ Winston Churchill’s description of his feelings on becoming Prime Minister reveals tremendous self-belief, and this quality combined with his undoubted ability to make him a great warlord. Just how great is the question addressed in this article. What were his objectives when he became Prime Minister? On May 13 1940, while he promised the Cabinet ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, he continued: ‘What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory!’ Clearly he succeeded on both counts. But what sort of a victory and how avoidable were the blood, toil, sweat and tears?
Only a blockhead would question Churchill’s achievement between the fall of France in June 1940 and Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union a year later. If this was Britain’s ‘finest hour’, it was also the Prime Minister’s. Churchill was responsible for rejecting the siren voices of those who advocated a deal with Hitler, notably Lord Halifax the Foreign Secretary. Halifax was no fool. When Hitler protested ‘I cannot see why this war should go on’, he backed up his opinion by offering Britain generous peace terms. He would leave the British Empire alone if he could have a free hand in Europe. Given Britain’s weakness after Dunkirk and the overwhelming strength of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s offer seemed to Halifax and his friends worth exploring. But Churchill would have none of it. He appreciated the compromising implications of negotiating with Hitler. Instead, in default of weapons left behind on the beaches of northern France, Churchill mobilised the English language. ‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be ...We shall never surrender.’ His sublime oratory was backed by the heroism of RAF Fighter Command. After the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve air-superiority, Operation Sealion – the codename for Hitler’s projected invasion of Britain – was abandoned. Consequently Britain survived as a huge aircraft carrier for Anglo-American bombers and a springboard for later military operations.
How on earth could Churchill responsibly offer any realistic possibility of such a counter-attack? Was he merely whistling in the dark? His answer was the USA. No one else in Britain could have approached Churchill’s achievement in winning the support of President Roosevelt and his fellow citizens. It was not simply that Churchill was half-American. He displayed a profound and sincere admiration for America. His courtship of Roosevelt was a marvellous mixture of flattery, bonhomie, and the reiteration of those values which the USA and Great Britain shared and therefore of the threat which Nazism posed to both democracies. Churchill appealed to America’s interests and to her sentiments. He was seen at his most persuasive at the meeting between the two leaders in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland (August 1941). Churchill and his entourage travelled across the Atlantic aboard the new battleship Prince of Wales. At a service on the quarterdeck of the majestic, battle-scarred ship Churchill and Roosevelt sat side by side as they sang ‘Eternal Father, strong to save.’ Churchill wept. The words were a felicitous choice – though the jolly sailors who sang so lustily would soon be ‘in peril on the sea’ with a vengeance after their ship was sunk by Japanese torpedobombers off Malaya. When Roosevelt subsequently quoted a couple of lines by Whittier about a Civil War heroine, Churchill recited the rest of the poem. How many contemporary British politicians could have attempted that – and got away with several inaccuracies? But Churchill realised that his credibility depended on British victories. Here he was seen at his weakest.
Churchill insisted on appointing himself Minister of Defence so that he could control operations on land, sea and in the air. The disasters in Norway and France which brought him to power were more his fault than he was prepared to admit. For instance in June 1940 he unrealistically committed British troops in Normandy after the evacuation from Dunkirk and was only saved from humiliation by Lieutenant General Alan Brooke’s forthright insistence on the telephone that another evacuation was essential: ‘All right. I agree with you.’ Churchill certainly impressed America with his destruction of the French fleet at Oran because it refused to join the British – but it was in his own words ‘a melancholy action.’ The Prime Minister also showed courage and vision by shipping the remaining British tanks and guns out to the western desert where Mussolini’s attempt to exploit his German ally’s brilliance was soon in trouble. But Churchill gambled fatally by ordering General Wavell, the Commanderin- Chief in Egypt, to send troops to defend Greece against the Germans. This magnanimous response to victims of Nazi aggression might impress the Americans, but unfortunately, not for the first or last time, British soldiers demonstrated their inferiority to the Germans. The remnants of the Greek expedition were subsequently chased out of Crete by a smaller force of paratroopers. Badly equipped British and imperial troops were poorly led by General Freyberg; he was a typical Churchillian hero whose VC proclaimed his courage though not, alas, his brains. Assuredly the Minister of Defence’s hands-on interference was not working.
Churchill was rescued from his own incompetence by Hitler’s invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941. There had been no more consistent or outspoken critic of Russian communism than Churchill, and he now emphasised that he stood by every word he had said about ‘the foul baboonery of bolshevism’. He nevertheless acted at once on the rule that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, welcoming Stalin into the anti-Nazi camp. To Stalin’s plea for a renewal of a second front in France, Churchill responded with the specious argument that the RAF’s bombing of Germany already constituted a second front, actual invasion not being feasible at present. He did dispatch convoys of weapons to Murmansk, at great cost to the Royal and the Merchant Navies. However, it was Hitler’s folly that saved British lives. If the only way to defeat Germany was to kill Germans, the Red Army was responsible for four-fifths of German casualties during World War Two. Churchill was never in any doubt that this was the case.
Yet Churchill still looked to America for salvation. Once again democracy was saved by its enemies. On 7 December 1941 Japanese dive-bombers blitzed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, while the Japanese army invaded British Malaya and Hong Kong. In support of his ally Hitler declared war on the USA. ‘So we had won after all,’ Churchill subsequently exclaimed. But in the short term democracy was in trouble. Churchill took one of his most stupid and disastrous decisions when he dispatched the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse to Singapore, in the absurd belief that the Japanese would be deterred. The British ships had no air cover and were commanded by Admiral Phillips, who refused to recognise the threat of aircraft to battleships. He was speedily disillusioned when both ships were sent to the bottom. Churchill was devastated as well he might have been. Worse followed. The British army in Malaya outnumbered the Japanese invaders, but unlike the invaders the British had no tanks, while they speedily lost air superiority and control of the sea. ‘Fortress Singapore’ was proved to be a myth, the price paid for Churchill’s refusal to take the Japanese seriously. A leaked memo accepting the probability of Singapore’s capture produced from the Australian Prime Minister James Curtin the protest that this would be ‘an inexcusable betrayal’. Churchill was infuriated by such criticism from a colonial. Perhaps British and imperial troops would have fought more resolutely if they had only known how horrendous capture by the Japanese would prove. In the event 85,000 British soldiers went into captivity – the worst military disaster since Yorktown (1781). This was to a great extent Churchill’s fault.
In 1942 Churchill confronted disaster at home and overseas. Defeats in the western desert and a terrible year in the Atlantic where the U-boats ran amok combined with a disastrous raid on the French coastline at Dieppe. ‘Father, the trouble is your soldiers won’t fight,’ Churchill’s son Randolph tactlessly remarked. Churchill’s instruction to Hugh Dalton, in charge of the Special Operations Executive, ‘to set Europe ablaze’, backfired by simply delivering thousands of Europeans to Nazi vengeance. To retain credibility Winston needed victories.
Churchill bravely flew out to Egypt to see for himself what was wrong. He sacked the C-in-C Middle East, Field Marshal Auchinleck, and replaced him with General Alexander, a typical Churchill favourite, a fellow Harrovian, upper-class, charming and brave. He also appointed a new leader of the Eighth Army, the conspicuously uncharming Lieutenant General Montgomery who stood up to Churchill’s interference: ‘Look, you’re the politician, I’m the soldier. If you don’t rate me, sack me. Otherwise leave me to get on with my job.’ This meant waiting until October before taking the offensive. Montgomery now had superiority over Rommel’s Africa Korps in tanks, guns and fuel which compensated for British fighting inferiority. The ensuing confrontation at El Alamein was, in Montgomery’s words, ‘a hell of a party’. For the first time since the outbreak of war the church bells were rung to commemorate a British victory. The Prime Minister was able to proclaim ‘the end of the beginning.’
Churchill now achieved strategic victories of sorts, first, by persuading his ally Roosevelt to join him in overruling the American Chiefs of Staff ’s preference for a second front in 1942. This was put off until 1943 and then, to Stalin’s disgust, until May 1944. Historians are surprisingly unanimous that Churchill was right in his belief that an Anglo-American assault on the French coast in 1942-3 would be repulsed, with unacceptable casualties, prolonging the war in the west by years. We shall never know. It is the great ‘might have been’ of history. The postponement certainly witnessed the Red Army’s destruction of millions more Germans. On the other hand, the Atlantic Wall was strengthened and the measures adopted to repel the allies perfected. Actually Churchill was still dragging his feet in 1944 so that DDay was postponed until June. Churchill would have preferred 1945 – or never. In the event the invasion succeeded.
Meanwhile he was able to achieve an even more questionable strategic triumph by persuading the Americans to participate in an assault on first Sicily and then Italy. This was typical Churchill. He remained rooted in his conviction that Germany could be defeated by assaulting ‘the soft under-belly of Europe.’ As it turned out, the soft underbelly turned out to be the spinal chord. The Italian campaign was a horrible affair in which Field Marshal Kesselring conducted a brilliant holding operation, withdrawing slowly from defensive position to defensive position in the perfectly suited mountainous terrain which Alexander could never master. An attempt to outflank the Germans at Anzio was only too reminiscent of Gallipoli in 1915. It was an embarrassing failure. Alexander’s army was still fighting in Italy when the war ended. Churchill’s obsession with ‘the way round’ is illustrated at its worst by another under-belly project, the campaign to capture the Dodecanese islands in summer 1943. He was anxious to engineer a last wholly British triumph. In the event it was a wholly British calamity. A numerically inferior German force humbled the British, inflicting needless casualties to the bewilderment and humiliation of the Prime Minister. Churchill rejected the advice of his professionals. He had only himself to blame. Max Hastings describes this campaign as the triumph of impulse over reason. It destroyed American faith in Churchill’s judgement. As a result, for the remaining two years of the war Churchill was on the way down. Britain and her empire came a poor third behind the Soviet Union and the ever-increasing contribution of the USA.
In material terms and fighting efficiency Britain was always punching above her weight. So far as strategy was concerned Churchill pursued goals which were not shared by his allies. For instance, he was overruled with regard to the liberation of Burma which he wanted to entrust to another of his glamorous favourites, the aristocratic Lord Mountbatten, in preference to the methodical General Slim. At the summit conferences of Teheran and Yalta Roosevelt hurt Churchill’s feelings by conferring with Stalin on his own. The two leaders of the superpowers joked at Churchill’s expense, mocking his obsession with the Mediterranean and the Aegean and his determination to protect the British Empire. Roosevelt entertained American journalists by satirising Churchill’s Victorian obsession with the route to India. Tragically Churchill was unable to save Poland from Communist domination.
On one issue the Big Three were in total agreement. The Anglo-American bombing of Germany was to be relentlessly pursued. Stalin was happy to see German cities reduced to rubble before the Red Army arrived to loot and rape what was left. The British contribution does not redound to Churchill’s credit. There were strong arguments against the campaign on moral grounds (‘Are we beasts?’ Churchill once asked.) The campaign caused massive loss of life not only on the ground but in the air. Over 52,000 RAF aircrew perished in the unwieldy four-engine bombers which were for the most part unprotected, despite the Americans having developed the Mustang – a brilliant fighter which had the range to fly to Germany and back, thanks to its drop-tanks. Controversy still persists as to the damage inflicted on German industry. Air Marshal Harris, in charge of Bomber Command, was not one of Churchill’s favourites. The personification of anti-charm, Harris believed against the evidence that his bombers could defeat Germany on their own. Churchill funked arguing with Harris.
There was a dreadful corollary to Harris’ obsession with the area-bombing of Germany. Until scandalously late in the war, very long range aircraft, especially the four-engine Liberators, were unavailable for the protection of convoys in mid-Atlantic. Harris would not release these planes. It is difficult to disagree with Admiral Tovey that the citizens of Cologne would not have noticed the difference between a thousand bomber raid, as implemented by Harris, and, say, a 950 bomber raid, if 50 VLR planes had been supplied to Coastal Command. It was due to such inter-service quarrels in Whitehall that over 32,000 merchant seamen were drowned or burnt alive in atrocious conditions. Churchill every now and again professed himself worried by the slaughter achieved by U-boats, surface raiders and the Luftwaffe; but he did very little about it. Key innovations in centrometric radar and antisubmarine weapons such as Leigh lights were not pursued with sufficient determination. Rescue ships whose role was to pick up seamen from wrecked merchant ships were too few and only arrived after three years of submarine warfare. True, Churchill was not First Lord of the Admiralty. But here again is a sad scandal. The First Sea Lord Admiral Pound was not up to the job, a veritable Churchillian poodle and mortally ill for the last months of his tenure of office. Significantly his successor Admiral Cunningham and Churchill disliked each other, partly because Cunningham knew his business and stood up to the Prime Minister.
Churchill tried to close down the Daily Mirror when it published a cartoon of a drowning merchant seaman. Alan Brooke’s opposite number on the American Chiefs of Staff, General Marshall, wrote about casualty statistics: ‘Because you get hardened to these things you have to be very careful to keep them at the forefront of your mind.’ I am not sure that Churchill always succeeded here. Witness his reply to a gushing society lady who asked him what was his worst moment of the war: ‘My dear, I enjoyed every minute of it.’
Does Churchill’s life-style as a leader merit respect? While his secretarial staff seem to have been devoted to him, he was a terrible chairman of the War Cabinet and of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. ‘All I want is agreement with my wishes after reasonable discussion’, he once explained. But reasonable discussion meant listening to interminable monologues by the Prime Minister, often in the small hours of the morning. Ironically he resembled Hitler here. When Clement Attlee, Deputy Prime Minister, wrote to Churchill criticising him for his verbosity and ignorance of the relevant documents, the Prime Minister was furious. Nor did he react kindly to criticism from Alan Brooke and Cunningham or publicly acknowledge their contribution. There was a sad scene when on VE day Churchill toasted the Chiefs of Staff; they did not respond. Perhaps Alan Brooke had most to put up with. ‘I am convinced that the man is mad. Don’t tell him anything. The more you tell him, the longer the war will last.’ Only too often Churchill was drunk. Brooke again (6 July 1944): ‘At 10pm we had a frightful meeting with Winston which lasted till 2 am!! It was quite the worst we have had with him. He was very tired, and … had tried to recuperate with drink. As a result he was in a maudlin, badtempered, drunken mood, ready to take offence at anything’.
We owe to Roy Jenkins the story of the infant Nicholas Soames finding his way into Churchill’s study. ‘Grandpapa, is it true that you are the greatest man in the world?’ ‘Yes. Now bugger off!’ Churchill was indeed a great man if the term means anything – great in his magnanimity, in his accomplishments, in his humour, in his courage. His vanity, which was undeniable, had been diminished by disasters such as his dismissal from cabinet office in the First World War. He was not a popinjay (Harold Macmillan’s word for Mountbatten). When asked whether he would have appreciated the Victoria Cross, he replied, ‘I should have liked my father to have lived long enough to see that I had made something of my life.’ This answer commands respect. Whether Churchill was a great war-leader is another matter.
Churchill’s perception could be seriously warped, so that he overrated physical courage and aristocratic blood. Did he think that the deaths of merchant seamen, many of them Lascars, or of starving Indian peasants mattered? With a little help from the Americans and the Russians, he did indeed deliver victory. Has enough, however, been made of that electoral defeat in summer 1945? The consensus is that people did not believe that he was the right man to create a new, welfare state. ‘Help him finish the job’ demanded the Tory election posters. But was there a perception that the job of winning the war had been too costly for Churchill to be trusted with the lives of people who had survived? Home on leave in April 1945 General Slim, the GOC in Burma, predicted: ‘My army won’t be voting for you, Prime Minister.’ Not for nothing was it called ‘the forgotten army’. Short of leave and under-resourced, it had no reason to be grateful when it voted, like other British combatants, ‘with scandalous irresponsibility.’
Churchill’s record as warlord was flawed, even if nobody else could have achieved as much. The historian A.J.P. Taylor rightly admitted that Churchill made mistakes, though was amazed that he did not make more. Perhaps he was too reluctant to learn from his mistakes and to accept criticism. Nevertheless there is much to be said for the tribute paid him by Alan Brooke: ‘On reading these diaries I have repeatedly felt ashamed of the abuse I have poured upon him ... I thank God that I was given the opportunity of working alongside such a man.’ We should recall with gratitude Churchill’s struggle for democracy and decency. When it was suggested to Churchill that there was nothing worse than war, he replied: ‘Yes there is – slavery for one thing and dishonour for another.’ Compare Mary Churchill’s tribute: ‘In addition to all the feelings which a daughter has for a loving, generous father, I owe you what every Englishman, woman & child does – liberty itself.’ Was the price paid for liberty unnecessarily high in terms of preventable human suffering? A bad warlord such as Hitler did not believe that loss of life matters. An inadequate warlord such as Lloyd George could see the problem –‘it takes twenty years to make a man’ – but lacked the determination to solve it. Churchill was at times too ready to accept casualties – in SOE adventures, in crazy projects like Dieppe and the Dodecanese, in Malaya, in the skies over Germany and in the merciless Arctic and Atlantic. Yes, he delivered victory. But there were too many tears and too much blood. He fell from his own high standards.
• What were Churchill’s strengths and successes as wartime leader?
• What were his main weaknesses and failures as wartime prime minister?
• How great a warlord was he?