Churchill: Strategy and History
Bound in Duty: The Memoirs of a German Officer, 1932-45
The New Year had scarcely dawned in London when the Times1 carried a review of a book identifying a new culprit responsible for Britain’s decline. It was Winston Churchill’s fault. The reviewer was Alan Clark, a former junior minister of defense, who resigned when Margaret Thatcher was deposed, and who in appearance is a brutalized version of his famous father, Kenneth Clark.2
Churchill, he says, had forgotten that the Conservative Party exists to conserve, and the conservation of the British Empire should have been his first priority. Obsessed by his hatred of Hitler, he refused to hear what Hess had to say when Hess flew to Scotland in 1941. He should have made a “stand-off agreement” with Hitler in the spring of 1941, insisting on a demilitarized Norway and a demilitarized coastline from Holland to Spain. Then he could have sent the Fleet and the Spitfires to the Far East to preserve the Empire and forestall Pearl Harbor. Churchill did not do so because he wanted Japan to attack America. So he licked Roosevelt’s boots, and the war ended with Britain destitute, a client state, and its colonies ripe for revolt.
This twaddle has been evoked by a book of revisionist history written by John Charmley, who by a stroke of irony is this year a visiting professor at Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill had made his speech in 1946 warning that an “iron curtain” was falling in Europe.3 Aged thirty-seven, Charmley prides himself on not carrying the cultural baggage that impedes those who lived during the war. (He considers them therefore debarred from criticizing him.) Britain, he implies, should have cultivated Goering and persuaded him to get Hitler to stand down. That Goering was every inch a Nazi but had little influence with Hitler; that to abandon Europe to the Nazis would have been to install brutality and tyranny in every country; that a negotiated peace would have lasted only for as long as Hitler considered necessary, none of this troubles Charmley a whit.
Clark and Charmley remind one of clever schoolboys who have discovered what fun it is to shock their teachers by praising Realpolitik. Neither seems to realize that for the British people the war had a moral dimension without which they would never have accepted the need to fight. Churchill’s crucial political strategic decisions cannot be faulted. German hegemony over Europe had to be opposed; whatever its ideology and past behavior, the USSR had to be accepted as an ally because its army alone could wound, and perhaps destroy, the German army; and the Anglo-American alliance was Britain’s best hope of preserving Western civilization.
Serious revisionist history about the Second World War, however, continues to be written and it is a relief to turn to the work of an Israeli historian, Tuvia Ben-Moshe, who is a stern critic of Churchill’s military strategy.
Churchill was not a warmonger but he came after 1937 to believe war was inevitable. For him it also fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition. He remained at heart the Hussar lieutenant who had charged the dervish army at Omdurman in 1898. He had planned the disastrous Dardanelles expedition of 1915. This had ruined his reputation as a strategist, but he found justification for his brainchild when he came to write the life of his illustrious ancestor Marlborough. Marlborough had refused to fight a war of attrition in Flanders: he marched to Bavaria and fought a war of maneuver. What else, he argued, was the Dardanelles but an attempt (bungled by incompetent admirals and generals) to break the nightmare war of attrition on the western front? Had he only had plenary powers it could have succeeded. Now at last in 1940, minister of defense as well as prime minister, he had those powers and the chance to put his grand strategy into operation. Was he successful?
Ben-Moshe does not think so. He says Churchill’s strategy was consistent. It was also consistently wrong. Whether in the First World War, when he urged a landing on the island of Borkum in the mouth of the Ems on the Dutch-German border, or in the Second, when he planned the invasions of Norway, Greece, and Italy, he was always trying to evade the only place where the main German forces could be defeated. So he dragged America into his Mediterranean campaign and did all he could to scupper plans for the invasion of France. He failed to appreciate that the best way to destroy the German army was to bring the enormous weight of American industrial production to bear upon it. Obsessed by the string of British military failures in the Middle East and Far East, he lost faith in his generals and in the courage of their soldiers, and in so doing underestimated the fighting spirit that American troops had already displayed in the Philippines and at Guadalcanal.
Unlike Clausewitz, Ben-Moshe argues, Churchill forgot that war is related to politics. He became so engrossed in military operations that he neglected the Soviet threat to postwar Europe. When at last Churchill became alarmed by the Soviets, he wanted Allied forces deployed to take Vienna, an operation quite beyond their power. He later blamed America for allowing the extension of communism over eastern Europe, although he himself had agreed to it at Yalta. And had he not decided to back Tito in Yugoslavia? Churchill’s history of the Second World War is a long study in self-exculpation. The best that can be said of him is that he knew how to avoid defeat: but not how to win.
My own experience in the war cabinet office during World War II confirms nearly all of Ben-Moshe’s account. Churchill was by nature bellicose. What more astonishing proposal can ever have been made by a British cabinet minister than that of Churchill on October 5, 1914, when he told Asquith he would resign from the admiralty if he could be given senior military rank and the “full powers of a commander of a detached force in the field” in order to reinforce Antwerp where the Belgian army was still holding out? (In the end he formed a naval division and sent it there: Antwerp fell to the Germans five days later with heavy losses.) Yet although he urged his generals in World War II to take absurd risks, he was dogged by the memory of the casualties in World War I. So he would backtrack and declare that Germany could be defeated by saturation bombing.
His restless mind, which fired off instructions to his ministers for “action this day” to remedy some malaise, bred one military scheme after another. As a member of the joint intelligence staff in the War Cabinet office, I would arrive in the morning wondering which rabbit had jumped out of the hat during the night. “Oh God, not Norway again”—and down we would sit once again to work out how many German divisions and air squadrons could oppose a landing near Trondheim while the Joint Planners next door tried to find ever more reasons why such a venture was impracticable. Later it would be Churchill’s plan to land at Bordeaux, or on Spitzbergen or on Sardinia or on the tip of Sumatra. What such expeditions were expected to achieve, where they were to advance, and how they would escape annihilation by superior forces was clear only to Churchill: he was like a schoolboy drawing arrows on a map, one pointing south from Norway, another north from the Balkans, oblivious of mountains or logistics.
Not all Churchill’s military strategies were wrong. He admired France and it went against his nature to refuse to send Spitfire squadrons to France in June 1940, when they would have been of no use, but he did so; nor did he shrink from destroying the French fleet at Oran in order to keep it from falling under German control. But Ben-Moshe is right to say that Churchill’s worst mistake of all was to send forces to Greece in 1941 instead of allowing General O’Connor to capture Tripoli and thus possibly forestall German reinforcement of the shattered Italian army in North Africa. Churchill was a romantic. The victories of the Greek army in the Epirus over that hyena Mussolini, and the Serbian coup that overthrew Prince Paul in Yugoslavia, convinced him that Britain had a duty to support the Greeks. General Wavell held out for weeks against the proposal. So Churchill sent Anthony Eden and General Dill, the chief of the General Staff, to Cairo to soften him up. British defeats in Greece and Crete followed and Rommel drove the British from Libya. The same impetuosity made Churchill send two battleships to reinforce Singapore in 1942: both, without air cover, were sunk at once. Had Churchill had his way the list of British defeats would have been even longer.
But he did not have his way. The man who saw to it that he did not, Alan Brooke, had succeeded Dill in October 1941.
This is not Ben-Moshe’s view. He has no use for the British Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Pound was “too sick and apathetic,” Air Marshal Portal too much under the spell of his bomber chief, Arthur Harris. But his full contempt is reserved for Brooke, the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, whose “nerves, which had never been very strong, were torn to shreds by the Prime Minister’s vacillations.” When Churchill tried to get landing craft to capture the Dodecanese Islands, he writes contemptuously, “even Brooke objected” (my italics). The “distress and mental tension [which] are apparent from both his behavior and his diaries” unfitted him for high command.
To insinuate that Brooke was a wimp is astonishing to someone who observed him in action. Brooke was the only man to stand up to Churchill, tell him to his face that what he was proposing was disastrous and to endure night after night being kept up until one in the morning listening to Churchill’s reminiscences and countering his schemes that would have dissipated the Allied Forces. “I do not want any of your long-term projects, they cripple our initiative,” Churchill growled. “I told him,” said Brooke, “that he must know where he was going to which he replied he did not want to know.”
Alan Brooke had a brusque manner, a sharp tongue, and a razor mind that held all the facts and figures that govern strategy—about shipping, landing craft, transport, and reinforcements. William Cavendish Bentinck, the elegant Foreign Office chairman of the joint intelligence committee, who looked like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey (and in fact ended his days as the Duke of Portland), thought Brooke a bully. “I flatly disagree,” Brooke would bark not just at his subordinates but at the American Chiefs of Staff. They did not warm to Brooke. The staccato voice; the rapid speech; the lack of bonhomie or consideration for the views of others, they found unattractive. In his diaries written late at night, Brooke would explode with rage at Churchill’s inconsiderateness and, as he saw it, imbecilities.
One morning he arrived to find that his brief for the first item of the War Cabinet agenda—which his planning staff had sat up all night to prepare—was the prime minister’s new proposal to substitute for Overlord—the code name for the cross-Channel invasion that finally took place in June 1944—a landing at Lisbon and advance across the Pyrenees. Brooke, who had been brought up as a boy on the French side of the Pyrenees, told Churchill how ridiculous his plan was, adding that the time of his staff should not be wasted on such proposals. At one point Churchill told General Ismay, his liaison officer with the Chiefs of Staff, that he did not think he could continue to work any longer with Brooke because “he hates me. I can see hatred looking from his eyes.” “Hate him?” Brooke told Ismay, “I don’t hate him. I love him. But the first time I tell him that I agree with him when I don’t will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him.” When Churchill was told this he murmured, “Dear Brooke.”
The great contention between the American and British Chiefs of Staff was, of course, over the Mediterranean campaign and its impact on Overlord. Arguments about Overlord, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote in these pages, fill whole libraries.4 Curiously enough, Ben-Moshe does not argue, as some British and American critics do, that had the Allies halted on the North African coast in May 1943, a cross-Channel invasion could have been mounted that year and not in June 1944. On that point he admits the evidence is “not convincing.” Early in 1942 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had agreed to aim at launching a major assault in 1943 or even (if either the Germans or Russians appeared on the verge of collapse) a more rapid and smaller-scale expedition in 1942; and when they met again in Washington in June 1942, they reaffirmed the original plan.
But their generalissimos had other ideas. Roosevelt and Churchill had met at Hyde Park and agreed that in 1942 American forces as) well as British should land in Algeria and cut off Rommel’s army. It was not a case of Churchill persuading the President. Before Roosevelt sent Marshall to Britain to argue for a landing in France, he had been toying with the idea of an expedition to North Africa. Churchill had the same idea in mind as early as December 1941. Roosevelt himself was anxious that somewhere that year American troops should be in action against the Axis. He feared that if they were not, public opinion would demand that the main American effort should be transferred to the Pacific.
Of this meeting Ben-Moshe says not one word; nor does he mention that Churchill sent Mountbatten to explain to Roosevelt why a cross-Channel operation in 1942 would be catastrophic and in 1943 full of problems.
General Marshall felt that the British had gone back on their agreement to mount a cross-Channel operation in the summer of 1943; so in July of 1942 he and Admiral King and Harry Hopkins went to London. Why not, they argued, land six divisions on the Cherbourg Peninsula and establish a bridgehead in 1942? But in the end they were convinced that if American forces were to engage the Germans in 1942, North Africa was the only possible theater. Ben-Moshe argues that a smaller-scale diversionary operation across the Channel was feasible and brushes aside the argument (which Brooke thought self-evident) that the Dieppe raid in which the Canadians suffered such heavy losses showed it was not. Ben-Moshe says of Dieppe that common sense should have warned the planners that large flanking movements were needed to take a heavily defended port. He is right that the Dieppe raid was bungled. But the real reason why a diversionary operation was rejected was more somber. The middle of 1942 was a time of disasters for the British. The Caucasus and hence British Middle East oil supplies were threatened by the German army, the British forces in the Libyan port of Tobruk surrendered, and Burma was abandoned. Brooke had to give priority in shipping to the Indian Ocean rather than the Channel.
Ben-Moshe’s mastery of the voluminous sources is scrupulous as well as impressive. He is rightly wary of evidence from memoirs: old men forget and can have opportunistic memories. But the minutes of the Chiefs of Staff meetings and of their planning and intelligence committees are not like judgments of the Supreme Court. They exhibit the doubts and hesitations of their authors, they are full of weasel’ words and qualifications designed to protect those authors from being convicted of dangerous error. Sometimes junior officers cannot get their seniors to accept their view. For instance Ben-Moshe mocks the British for failing to spot Hitler’s plan to attack Russia. In 1941 I worked in the War Office in a room assigned to watching German troop movements. Captain Peter Earle (one of only three regular officers who were trained before the war to interpret air photographs and later to be Brooke’s military assistant) counted the barges in the Channel ports and became convinced that no German invasion of England would take place that spring. I counted the German trains to the Balkans but noted how many were also going toward the Russian frontier. In April, Ultra (the decrypts of the German air force) reported the movements of Luftwaffe formations from France to Poland. On May 5 a German unit set up to hold prisoners of war moved from Zagreb to Kracow. Yet neither of us could convince the head of the German section, Colonel Kenneth Strong (later Eisenhower’s intelligence chief), that a German attack was on the way.
Why did we fail? For three reasons. Diplomatic sources were so full of rumors of an attack on the Soviets that Churchill warned Stalin on April 3 (Stalin was convinced this was a capitalist plot to embroil him). Then suddenly these sources changed their tone and discounted an attack, probably as the result of German disinformation. The second reason was that Britain could do little to help the Soviets; but if the intelligence chiefs had made a mistake and Hitler had suddenly switched forces to attack Cairo through Turkey and Syria or, worse, had mounted the invasion of Britain, they would have deserved to be shot. The third reason Ben-Moshe himself provides. Those who formulate strategy, he writes, “must assume that their enemy will act with the utmost strategic wisdom.” The British chiefs could not believe Hitler would attack the Soviets before he had destroyed the puny power whose army stood in his way to the oil of the Middle East. That was why it was not until early June that the military and the foreign office changed their minds about the likelihood of a German invasion. Far more culpable was our failure to detect the movement of Rommel’s striking force through the Italian ports to Tripoli.
When senior intelligence officers forecast what the enemy may or may not do, they are sometimes influenced, more than they should be, by what they believe their chiefs want to hear. I noticed how much the papers by the joint intelligence staff expressed in code the divergent interests of the three services. How right Ben-Moshe is to note the tendency of British intelligence to predict the imminent collapse of German resistance. The air force representatives on the joint intelligence staff always plugged this line because it helped Portal to plead for more resources for the heavy bombers; a few more saturation raids, it was implied, and the war would be over.
Brooke was skeptical but he feared the casualties that the British army could ill afford. At the time of Overlord America had eleven million men under arms, the British five million; and by September 1944 British divisions were being cannibalized to produce replacements. (The disparity in strength made Montgomery’s arrogance and vanity in demanding to command all land forces all the more insufferable.) To Churchill’s ears the predictions were music because, as Henry Stimson told the President, “the shadows of Passchendaele and Dunkerque still hang too heavily over the imagination of those leaders”—though Churchill was less optimistic about German collapse than some of his generals.
We in intelligence were most at fault. No one analyzed what “collapse” meant. How in a police state could the people, or some group of plotters, be expected to carry off a revolt when any defeatist after terrifying air raids would be strung up on a lamppost? In Italy the monarchy provided an alternative to Mussolini. In Germany there was no such alternative to Hitler. When Italy collapsed, my air force colleagues’ optimism knew no bounds. Sensible strategy, they said, dictated that the Germans would abandon Italy. The Balkans would be open to us. Had not Ultra revealed Hitler’s meeting with Field Marshal Kesselring, in which “the Führer drawing with his finger on the map indicated the three lines on which the army must stand.” What else could they be but the line between Pisa and Rimini, the Po River, and the Alps—the successive steps of German withdrawal? In fact Hitler did intend at first to withdraw in this way. But then he changed his mind and told his generals to hold every inch of ground south of Naples.
Intelligence officers build up over the months a series of dogmas that govern their assessments of the enemy’s strategy. From 1942 onward a prime dogma of the British intelligence staff was that the German army was so heavily engaged in Russia that it could not transfer any appreciable number of divisions to the West. The joint intelligence staff had argued successfully before the North African landings that Hitler would not invade Spain (Admiral King believed they might, even in 1943). How, as the army’s representative, could I now convince my air force and other colleagues that the Germans would still be able to conjure troops out of the air after their huge offensive had been launched in July 1943 at Kursk, where the Soviets were to score one of the war’s decisive victories? Yet Hitler did so.
The Germans did so again at Anzio and in the Balkans. Later I was instructed by the War Office to argue against our skeptical colleagues that the Germans might move divisions from Russia to confront Overlord. Unconvinced, I produced a draft saying they “might conceivably send 1–2 divisions to the west”; this came back amended by the War Office to say “may well send 4–5 divisions to the west.” Cavendish Bentinck, the Foreign Office chairman of the joint intelligence committee, ruled against such army estimates and in favor of the dogma. Ben-Moshe often cites these hesitations and differences of emphasis.
Supreme among the dogmas with which we worked was the concept of the “build-up.” If the Allies were able—at Salerno, Anzio, and most vital of all, in Normandy—to land, with equipment, so many divisions, how soon and with how many divisions could the Germans oppose them? If the Germans could move more than a certain number of divisions within the first two to seven days, then—argued the British—the operation was not feasible. Hence the plan devised by Professor Solly Zuckerman to bomb the French railways and communications in order to delay the German build-up against the beachhead.
Hence indeed the Italian campaign. For Ben-Moshe the Italian campaign was yet another British attempt to evade Overlord. He forgets that the central issue was shipping. Open the Mediterranean and the long haul round the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East would be ended. The battle of the Atlantic was not won until July 1943 when for the first time new ship construction exceeded sinkings. Brooke justified his strategy in Italy as a device to overstretch the German army. If Italy could be knocked out of the war. Hitler would have to remove divisions from France and indeed from Russia to hold the front in Italy and replace the Italian divisions in the Balkans. But Brooke wanted no sideshows, as Churchill urged, in the Balkans.
This strategy had some success. Whereas in July the Germans had six divisions in Italy and twelve in southeast Europe, in November they had committed twenty-five in Italy and the Allies only eleven. They also had to cobble together forces to replace Italians in the Balkans. But, says Ben-Moshe, the Germans had only 820,000 men in the Mediterranean and the Allies 1.6 million. The disparity in numbers is irrelevant. Whereas the Germans had been forced to withdraw troops from France and the Russian front, there was nowhere else at that time for the Allied troops to fight Hitler. Brooke believed that the Italian campaign and Overlord were interdependent, not alternatives. It was a policy he expounded at both the Washington and Casablanca conferences.
Nevertheless, the Italian campaign remains the most contentious issue in the grand strategy of the war, and American critics are not alone in condemning it. One of the most trenchant attacks on the Mediterranean strategy—and arguments for an earlier cross-Channel attack in 1943—was launched by the British writer John Grigg.5 The troops necessary for success were available in Europe, he writes, but they were not being sent to the right place; the Atlantic wall had not then been built by Rundstedt; the dithering about Overlord enabled Admiral King to switch landing craft to the Pacific theater; the artificial harbors and other gadgets used in Overlord could have been devised a year earlier if the will had been there from the start. If the attack through Normandy had been launched earlier, at least a million Jews, the Polish underground army, and the victims of the guided missiles that attacked Britain could have been saved. So perhaps could most of Eastern Europe have been spared forty-five years of Communist rule.
Grigg argues that, though the Americans too were at fault, the real culprits were the British. Those like myself who believe that the Mediterranean strategy was inevitable can with hindsight argue that the experience gained by the amphibious landings in Algeria, Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio were crucial to the success of Overlord. But Ben-Moshe goes even further than Grigg. His study of the documents, he says, “permit[s] one clear and major conclusion.” Had Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff had their way there would have been no invasion of France in 1944 any more than in 1943. Did they not keep on insisting that Overlord could not be launched until German strength had been drastically weakened?
Yet at no time was planning for Overlord interrupted. Of course there was tension. The Americans were right to fear that if too many forces were committed elsewhere Overlord might be indefinitely postponed. The British were right to plead for flexibility so that if the Allies broke through in Italy they could exploit their victory. Of course there were disputes over the date of departure of the seven divisions and landing craft earmarked for Overlord; but they went. In fact Brooke exacted sacrifices not from Overlord but from the Burmese front. The British Chiefs of Staff abandoned three amphibious operations in that theater to provide landing craft for Overlord and the Anzio operation.
The main objection of the British Chiefs of Staff was not to Overlord but to the decision taken at the Quebec conference to invade the South of France as a supporting operation. Marshall found himself arguing so strongly against the cancellation of that plan that he wrote to Eisenhower that the positions had now been reversed. “We have become the Mediterraneanites and they heavily pro-Overlord.” On the merits of that operation, which drew off not one single German unit from the battle in Normandy or from the Russian front and entailed the withdrawal of troops from the Italian front at the very time that Rome fell, Ben-Moshe is silent.
No one, neither Brooke nor Dill, could ever convince Churchill that his endless demands to the President that Overlord be canceled and that the Allies should attack from Italy over the Balkans exasperated Roosevelt.6 When Churchill ordered, over Brooke’s head, General Wilson to capture without air cover the Dodecanese Islands after the Italian surrender, this minor fiasco convinced the Americans that the British really wanted to chicken out of Overlord. On October 19, 1943, Churchill ordered plans to be made on the assumption that Overlord would be canceled. His Chiefs of Staff clucked in sympathy. But whatever the doubts about casualties they committed to their diaries, the Chiefs of Staff and the planners had no intention of canceling it; and on November 11 they reaffirmed Overlord. Meanwhile both American and British staff officers tried month after month to increase the number of landing craft and hence the strength of the assault forces for the Normandy beaches.
There was one disturbing factor in assessing British intentions, to which Ben-Moshe has every right to refer. After the surrender of Singapore and Tobruk Churchill feared that the morale of the army had crumbled. “Get you the sons your fathers got, And God will save the Queen” ended the first poem in Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. But were we the sons of our fathers who had fought in the trenches during the First World War? It was not a matter I found I could raise with my air force colleagues, when the morale and the casualties of the pilots in the Battle of Britain and of the air crews bombing Germany were so high. But Stimson was right to see that the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele had eaten into the British memory. Ben-Moshe is right to say that the British failed to realize that no such losses or doubts inhibited, the American army. The prodigal American production of every item of warfare and the self-confidence of American commanders who had no more experience of war than their British counterparts were both impressive.
But then Ben-Moshe spoils his case by trying to prove that the German army was not at all impressive. He says it took the German forces three and a half years to reach Stalingrad and they were defeated in two and a half years—a silly argument. The German army was better trained and the aggressive spirit of their troops incomparable. They had better weapons, and their tanks and the famous dual purpose 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns were superior to what the West could manufacture. In Normandy the Germans, outnumbered in men, tanks, and aircraft, fought virtually without air cover. In the cast, despite taking vast numbers of prisoners and weapons even in retreat, they could not hold an extended front against Russian manpower and tank output. When all was lost, they still fought on to the end. How did Hitler’s bestial regime inspire such loyalty?
“Why didn’t you stop it? Why did you follow that psychopath?” young Germans asked Alexander Stahlberg, the author of Bound in Duty. Stahlberg was a Prussian aristocrat. To avoid having to join the Nazi Party when he took over his father’s business, he joined the army reserve in a crack cavalry regiment, took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland, served in the Polish and French campaigns, and endured the merciless weather and fighting on the outskirts of Leningrad in 1941–1942. From this he was rescued by his cousin Henning von Tresckow. Tresckow like Stahlberg knew that in Poland the SS had shot prisoners and Hitler had ordered Red Army commissars to be shot if captured. They thought Hitler’s declaration of war on America was the act of a madman. Tresckow’s plan was to get Field Marshal von Manstein, admired throughout the army as its most brilliant strategist and commander, to accept Stahlberg as his adjutant so that when the time came Manstein could be persuaded to take over command of the army from Hitler.
Stahlberg’s book resembles a tragedy by Ibsen. Manstein proved to be someone who blinds himself to the truth. After Stalingrad the chief of the army staff General Zeitzler sent his staff officer Graf von Stauffenberg to Manstein. For hours they talked, Stauffenberg urging that the war was lost and someone must act. (Characteristic of these Prussian officers, Stauffenberg’s final plea was to utter the word “Tauroggen”—the place where in 1808 General von Yorck on his own authority abandoned Napoleon and changed sides—they lived by military history.) Manstein was appalled—and phoned Zeitzler to say that this brilliant officer had been too long on the staff and should be sent to the front. But Stahlberg remained by his side, respectfully needling him each time fresh evidence of Nazi brutality reached his ears. “Prussian Field-Marshals do not mutiny” was Manstein’s reply. Manstein says in his memoirs that “no senior military commander can…expect his soldiers to lay down their lives for victory and then precipitate defeat by his own hand.” He continued to delude himself that a stalemate would be reached on the Russian front and Hitler would then call for an armistice.
The British put Manstein on trial for war crimes. Churchill and several distinguished soldiers protested and gave money for his defense, which was conducted by Reginald Paget, an eccentric, passionate, fox-hunting Labour member of Parliament, and by a Jewish junior counsel. Manstein was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, of which he served four. He had in fact signed and distributed an anti-Jewish manifesto drafted by Hitler’s staff in November 1941 before Stahlberg joined him. Manstein is disingenuous in his memoirs. He wrote that he stayed at his post because “it was not granted to me…to perceive Hitler’s true nature, or the moral deterioration of his regime to the extent to which we can obviously do today.” But if Stahlberg is to be believed, he drew Manstein’s attention to numbers of atrocities, for instance by the SS (who were not under Manstein’s command), in the rear of his army group. Moreover generals Fellgiebel and Oster, who were hanged by Hitler after the July 20 plot, told him all he needed to know. Yet he found the news of Auschwitz “so incredible that he refused to accept it.”
Manstein considered that Hitler was a slave to his experience as a front-line soldier in the First World War. Hitler’s only notion was to hold territory he had gained to the last round and the last man. Only once did he take a tactical risk—in backing Manstein’s plan to attack through the Ardennes in 1940. But then he twice halted his tanks and let the British army escape through Dunkirk. Hitler never understood the doctrine of the Schwerpunkt: he would never strip the forces from a subsidiary theater or another part of the front to build up overwhelming strength at the vital point. He did not realize the need to build up a strategic reserve. Had he retreated to the Alps and abandoned the Balkans in 1943 he could have done so. Instead, when Mussolini fell from power in 1943, he transferred to Italy divisions that had been committed to the crucial battle at Kursk and lost it. In the vast spaces of Russia the German forces were certain to be outnumbered and surrounded. They would have done better if they had fought a war of movement, giving ground to lure the enemy into a trap and then punch in his flanks. Hitler believed it was his will that had saved the army from a Napoleonic retreat in the winter of 1941. In fact it was the will of the German soldiers and their commanders.
Both Hitler and Churchill were determined to control their generals. Both had a retentive mind for figures—Hitler would quote production figures of tanks and aircraft to counter reports of losses on the front, Churchill the figures of support troops and vehicles in order to accuse his generals of incompetence. If opposed, both would introduce political considerations which their generals could not counter. Both held meetings late at night intending to wear their officers out in argument. Churchill would sit with his experts (such as the “Prof,” the scientist Lord Cherwell, on his right). At first his tone was genial and bantering; but as the night drew on he would become menacing, truculent, and harsh. If he could not overbear the opposition, the meeting would adjourn at one in the morning and at the next meeting he might bring Attlee, Eden, and Oliver Lyttelton, members of the War Cabinet, to back up his proposals. The opposition would be browbeaten for putting forward new statistics, the army pilloried for pusillanimity, and the planners taunted with their lack of imagination to seize the “glittering prizes.”
But there was this difference. Unlike Napoleon or Hitler, Churchill in the end nearly always gave way to his marshals and admirals—and they in turn gave way on the matter of appointments or decorations. But in Germany no battalion, let alone army group, could move without Hitler’s agreement. This struck at the root of the cardinal principle of the German general staff, which was to give assignments to junior commanders who were trained to use their own initiative to carry them out and exploit situations: not to lumber them with detailed orders. Brooke once said that Hitler was “worth forty divisions to us.”
Hitler never visited any German city after it had been bombed and never went to the front. He did not feel for those who fought for him, and died protesting that the German people were unworthy of him. He was not only evil but ignoble. Churchill, on the other hand, enjoyed the drama of danger. He visited and put heart into the inhabitants of bombed cities and liked nothing better than to visit the front line. In 1945 the US general William H. Simpson had to order him to leave a bridge over the Rhine which was being shelled. “The look on Winston’s face,” wrote Brooke, “was just that of a small boy being called away from his sandcastles by his nurse. He put both his arms round one of the twisted girders of the bridge and looked over his shoulder at Simpson with pouting mouth and angry eyes.”
Churchill had many faults, gargantuan egoism to which family and friends were sacrificed, and his judgments were often reckless. Most of his contemporaries in politics distrusted him. After discussing some of his faults, however, Ben-Moshe is right to pay him a gracious tribute. He was an incomparable leader, “who embodied hundreds of years of British history and of its heroic struggle against European despotism, as well as the most enlightened values of Western culture.” Such leadership may not guarantee sound strategy, “but it does guarantee the acquisition of eternal glory.”
January 2, 1993. ↩
Clark recently behaved with honor when he saved some businessmen from a jail sentence for selling arms illegally to Iraq during its war with Iran. Clark admitted that the Ministry of Defense had connived at the sale. Why lose a profitable market? The case for the Crown collapsed. ↩
Churchill: The End of Glory (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993). ↩
The New York Review, May 7, 1987, p. 23. ↩
1943: The Victory that Never Was (Hill and Wang, 1980). ↩
Roosevelt was right to suspect that Churchill’s strategy was in part dictated by his resolve to save the British Empire—and lost few chances to rib Churchill about this anachronism. That was why in 1940 Churchill appointed his school chum from Harrow days and fellow imperialist, Leo Amery, to the India Office. On India’s future Churchill was a notorious diehard. A new book on Amery shows that Amery had come to see that self-government for India was inevitable. If Amery had had his way, there might have been no partition of India. See William Roger Louis, In the Name of God, Go! (Norton, 1992). ↩