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Picking Up the Pieces

Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939-1941

by Martin Gilbert
Houghton Mifflin, 1,308 pp., $40.00

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Volume I: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

by William Manchester
Little, Brown, 973 pp., $25.00

Ten years after the end of the First World War, there was a sudden, powerful wave of antiwar literature. Nothing comparable has been seen, even a generation after the end of the Second World War. No one, knowing the facts of Hitler’s death camps, could dissent from A.J.P. Taylor’s judgment that it had been “a good war.” For Great Britian, it was also far less expensive in lives than its predecessor: in this respect, the fall of France was a blessing in disguise, for, their “finest hour” of 1940-1941 apart, the British could retire to their island and let subsequent, powerful allies take on most of the fighting. Their role in the war had something of a Hollywood flavor to it: romantic attitudes were struck while American money hired Russian extras to be shot at.

Winston Churchill, who was very good indeed at show business, attracts biographies such as Mr. Manchester’s. In more serious perspective, his historical function was to involve the United States in the maintenance of the European order. His life—despite Manchester’s effusions—was a failure until he obtained American support, without which his earlier ventures (intervention against the Bolsheviks, adherence to the gold standard, and maintenance of British rule in India) would not succeed. It was only in Churchill’s finest hour, when the country stood alone against Germany, that the United States came to support him, sometimes on grudging terms. This, implicitly or explicitly, is the theme of Martin Gilbert’s latest volume of his Churchill biography, a volume which matches the austere scholarship of its predecessors, and which has a tension that sustains the reader over its 1,300 pages.

The story that he has to tell is a straightforwardly heroic one, which no one British can read without being moved, whatever the qualifications that historians may make. Of course it was not sensible to go to war without some understanding with Stalin. It was also silly not to make sure of an immediate French offensive to save Poland from collapse. It was almost crazy to allow the Danzig issue to become as inflated as it did. Reason, by September 1939, had flown out of the window. Churchill himself had not been responsible for any of this—on the contrary, he had warned again and again, and had urged rearmament as the only way to deter Hitler. He described this war, early on, as “one of the most unnecessary,” but in May 1940 he had to pick up the pieces.

How he did this is Martin Gilbert’s theme. His method is chronological (at vast length), and there is some imbalance in that 1939 and 1940 receive more attention than 1941, where there is not much new to say. Gilbert sticks to original sources, and dispenses, by and large, with subsequent discoveries and judgments. The result is that the mistakes and miscalculations of the time are not as emphasized as they might be. True, Gilbert admits that British successes in the Battle of Britain were inflated by propaganda, and he gives us the exact figures. But he does not call sufficient attention to the fact that Hitler himself was often operating on a shoestring: even in April 1940, the British were producing 600 fighters every month, to the Germans’ 450; in 1939 the figures were respectively 8,300 and 7,900 aircraft, but in 1940, 10,200 and 15,000.

The German navy had also suffered so badly in the invasion of Norway that invasion of the British Isles was almost out of the question. One relative novelty in Gilbert’s account is that the invasion scare was effectively over by July 1940: by then British intelligence had cracked German codes, and knew the state of affairs. It may well be that the scare was kept going partly to secure internal unity (about which there were more alarms than Gilbert allows), and partly to appeal to the Americans. David and Goliath made a marvelous theme for propaganda, and the “Blitz” on London, which was utterly ineffective from any practical viewpoint, was, its destructiveness aside, a considerable present from Hitler. The one argument of unshakable strength which Churchill could use with Roosevelt was to threaten to collapse, and Hitler reinforced it with his bombardment of London. That Churchill himself did not take the invasion scare very seriously was shown at its very height, in late August, when most of Great Britain’s surviving armor was sent to the Middle East.

That twist gave the war one of its long-term features, the involvement of British (and, later, American) strength in a lengthy campaign on the fringes of Hitler’s empire. Once British prestige and armor were pinned down in the Middle East, the rest had to follow, and a large proportion of Allied resources were absorbed. This exemplified one of Churchill’s weaknesses, which was to suppose that, in modern war, there was an easy way out. In 1939, at the Admiralty, he was mainly instrumental in thinking up the campaign in Norway. The idea was to cut off supplies of Swedish iron ore, which reached Germany through ports in northern Norway. Perhaps a skillfully led commando force could have achieved this, and Churchill always felt resentful toward British commanders on the spot who had not acted with daring.

However, the history of both world wars was scattered with failed amphibious operations, especially when the enemy had command of the air, and the one at Narvik was no exception. Besides, it risked catastrophe. The pretext for breach of Norwegian and Swedish neutrality would have been an offer of direct help to the Finns in their fight with Russia, and could hardly have failed to end in war between Great Britain and Russia. Fortunately, the Finns sued for peace just before they were to be “saved.” As things turned out, Churchill’s scheme at Narvik was beyond British capacity: half-trained troops in snow and ice, to everyone’s bewilderment. In pushing this scheme, Churchill had railed against the negative forces and arguments that confronted any positive proposal when it was considered by the political, military, and inter-Allied committees. But at least it meant collective responsibility; so that Churchill, who was the chief author of the Narvik scheme, could plausibly (and very cleverly) evade the responsibility when he spoke to the Commons in ostensible support of his prime minister, Chamberlain.

During World War I he had, similarly, been the main supporter of the scheme to force the Dardanelles, and so knock out Turkey. William Manchester follows Churchill’s own arguments (in The World Crisis) and regards the Dardanelles campaign as a good idea, ruined by fainthearted executants. Churchill himself had been brought up on a doctrine of agile use of sea power and bold, imaginative strokes. But the bold strokes always presupposed that someone else would be doing the hard slog of fighting—in Napoleonic days, Austrians, Prussians, or Russians—and the days when the sea had been more effective than the land for rapid transfer of troops were ended with the extension of railways. In any case, modern (and not so modern) artillery changed most of the earlier equations. In such circumstances, the Dardanelles scheme was folly, as events showed. Of the nine battleships that tried to force the straits, six were crippled or sunk. Of 9,000 troops landed on April 25, 1915, 3,000 were knocked out, although only two of the five beaches were defended. After the troops landed, they were more or less immobile, just as were their fellows on the Western front, or on any other of the fronts of the First World War.

No historian could fail to envy Martin Gilbert his experience with the Churchill archives. Churchill’s company, to judge from his records, must be as exhilarating to his biographer as it was to those who worked with him. He had that “zigzag streak of lightning” which Asquith saw before the First World War. He could be very funny. He was usually extremely generous by temperament. In this volume, for instance, we hear him reprimanding “the system” for sentencing London firemen who, when called out in the Blitz to put out a fire in a pub, made off with three bottles of whisky each, and were given five years in prison; he also stoutly opposed the absurd imprisonment of all German subjects, including the Jews, on grounds of “national security.”

When he journeyed back and forth to France to put heart into its defeated, and defeatist, leaders, he behaved impeccably. He knew that Great Britain had let the French down very badly. How, after all, would any Frenchman regard the declaration of war in 1939? In the previous war, Frenchmen had bled to death, and had then been reproved for demanding guarantees against German resurgence. President Wilson, and to a lesser extent the British, had played “Holy, Holy, Holy” on an organ made of Bethlehem Steel, and the British, having permitted Germany’s resurgence, then turned around and told the French to stop it, while they themselves offered what Churchill described at the outset as a niggardly contribution. Even in mid-June 1940, all that Churchill could offer to the French prime minister Paul Reynaud was an infantry force smaller than Belgium’s by the spring of 1941. He well understood the bitterness of his French friends, and silenced his British subordinates when they groused. “We are companions in misfortune. There is nothing to be gained from recrimination.” Somewhat later, he sank many French ships at Oran: the first occasion when the British Tories were almost unanimously delighted at his leadership.

There always was a streak of Hollywood romanticism to Churchill, which came to the fore in his “finest hour.” In Gilbert’s volume, he is seen at one moment wrestling with the serious questions—the use to which Germany might put France’s fleet; relations with the United States; the problem of Russia—and then taking endless time off to tackle matters of far less moment, such as Turkey’s intervention on the British side. His involvement in Balkan questions was nearly calamitous. The Yugoslavs were prodded into finding their “soul,” i.e., resisting Germany, suffering German occupation and the division of their country. In the same way, Greece was dragged into the Anglo-German war, and a British expedition to help the Greeks ended in disaster.

By that stage, Churchill’s ascendancy over his advisers was such that they almost automatically recommended a course of belligerence, knowing that anything less would cost them their jobs. Although the three military chiefs advised in favor of fighting in the Middle East and Greece, their arguments really amounted to a case against it, as the Australian prime minister Robert Menzies noted. Churchill’s style of leadership was such that they suppressed their own conclusions and allowed the North African campaign to be broken off in order for a hopeless expedition to be launched into Greece.

Churchill was told by people who read the lessons of the First World War properly that such adventures were pointless. William Ironside, his army chief, told him that the intervention of small neutral states was not worth it: he cited Romania’s intervention in 1916 on the Allied side. Among the first orders on mobilization for the Romanian army was a proscription that only officers above the rank of major could use makeup; the Germans’ rapid overthrow of Romania, and their conquest of Walachia’s grain and oil, enabled them to survive most of 1918. During World War II there was almost no end to the galères that Churchill got into, and the reader would have profited if Martin Gilbert had spelled out the consequences. I wonder how he will, in the subsequent volume, combine his Churchill biography with his own interest in the Allies’ failure—partly caused by Churchill’s endless diversionary activities—to do anything positive about the discovery of Auschwitz.

One obvious feature of this period is that, in a relative sense, the British war with Germany was in itself the intervention of a second-rank power. The Second World War came to involve the United States and Russia, powers with far greater resources than Great Britain. In that sense, there was some irony to Churchill’s own understanding of his role. During the Thirties, he had written an admiring, even adulatory, biography of his ancestor, the duke of Marlborough: “He performed most faithfully and vigilantly the daily duty of a soldier…. He earned from the rank and file the nickname of ‘the Old Corporal.’ ”

George Orwell wrote of the early period of the war that it had been “a tea-party of ghosts” (in this case, ghosts of 1918). One of the ghosts was Marlborough, but not in the way Churchill supposed. He himself was in the position, not of his ancestor, but of England’s Dutch ally. During the War of the Spanish Succession, Marlborough made the headlines, and got most of the credit. The brunt was borne by the Dutch: in Flanders, for instance, in 1708 they supplied 112,271 men to the English 58,228. They were mulcted by their English ally, gained some rather patronized glory, and declined thereafter; during the eighteenth century, a parasitically opulent banking and legal oligarchy in Amsterdam and The Hague presided over a collection of rotting provinces. This is not a historical parallel that would have had much appeal for Churchill, but it turns out to be accurate just the same: a great deal more accurate than the Greco-Roman parable so much beloved of after-dinner speakers on Anglo-American occasions up to a few years ago. But Churchill would have had enough humor to chuckle if anyone had described him as a Grand Pensionary.

Martin Gilbert sometimes lays himself open to the charge of not seeing the wood for the trees. Mr. Manchester, on the other hand, lays himself open to the charge of not seeing the trees for the pulp. If Churchill played to an American gallery, there was, to judge by Manchester’s reactions, a considerable gallery to be played to. He has written a vast and uncritical, indeed mainly unthinking, account of Churchill’s life from 1874 to 1932. There is almost nothing in Manchester’s book that I have not read before, and it advances no thesis to give the book some kind of intellectual center. It is rather longer than Ted Morgan’s recent—and in my opinion, better-written—popular biography of the young Churchill;1 virtually all of the time, Manchester accepts Churchill’s own version of events, including episodes such as the Dardanelles campaign of 1915. Works such as Roy Foster’s on Churchill’s father or Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure have not been absorbed.2 I simply do not see any need for Manchester’s book. In the matter of sources, his work is yet another boat living off Gilbert’s vast and inexhaustible flagship. True, he has been to talk to some of the people who knew Churchill well, and he describes his experiences in his acknowledgments: “Such graciousness…. At No. 1 Eaton Square, Lord Boothby broke out a shining bottle of prime bourbon although it was only 2:00 PM…. Harriman…seems at home in either London or New York, provided the background is expensive and in exquisite taste….”

Summary notes on one, quite representative, section of this book would read as follows: pp. 58-59, awed description of the British empire, officer having tiffin, chota peg, etc., “by then he might be ready for his first trip to the thunder box”; p. 60, Jack the Ripper and Soames Forsyte; p. 61, Nelson’s Column and Eros; p. 62, “Lie still, and think of England”; p. 63, Norfolk jackets; p. 64, caste system (illustrated); p. 65, Patience, with comments on Eton and Harrow; p. 66, Nell Gwyn; p. 67, “Bubbles”; p. 69, music hall; p. 86, “Blenheim and other shrines of the advantaged.” Some eight hundred pages later, Churchill has an accident in New York which takes about a dozen pages. In the middle of it all is Churchill. His “feeling for the English language was sensual, almost erotic; when he coined a phrase he would suck it.” My heart goes out to Lord Boothby.

By contrast, Professor Kenneth Thompson has written a decent, honest book with an interesting but misleading title. Churchill’s Weltanschauung—let us not be coy and find an Anglo-Saxon word for that almost untranslatable expression—is a good subject: where did he get his strength and conviction (so rare, by 1940, in members of his class)? He, almost alone among the British upper classes, voiced opposition to Hitler forthrightly, and from the start. He did not become prime minister through the Tories, who by and large disliked him. They preferred Chamberlain, and cheered him, not Churchill, even when Churchill had become prime minister. It was thanks to the support of the Labour party that Churchill survived the strictures of most Tories, and of the king, for their preferred candidate for the job was the ineffable trimmer Halifax.

Professor Thompson’s book is not about any of this. It is a tract for the times in that the life of Churchill is used as a parable for the present. The professor is rather out of his depth when it comes to British politics. It does not make much sense to distinguish between “traditional” and “bourgeois” conservatism, and to hold up Churchill as an exemplar of traditional conservatism; it makes very little sense indeed to hold up Disraeli as an exemplar of Tory tradition, in that empire, free trade, and religious indifference were not exactly “traditional” conservative causes. But the professor is writing for a contemporary audience, and the message he wishes to put across is that to deal with aggressive and nasty foreign states you should talk from a position of strength. This point is argued in long, whiffling paragraphs of a sub-Kantian style (“interconnectedness of ideals and reality”).

I doubt that such a theory of international relations clearly emerges from a subject so specific and relative, but all honor to those of his readers who will get something more from the book than I can do. Still, if Professor Thompson wishes to argue historically that the wars of 1939 and 1914 were both “caused” by the West’s inadequate supply of armaments, I could argue back at him. In 1914, the German government’s calculations were interrupted by a panic at the other side’s sudden and effective rearmament. I could argue the same for Hitler’s attitudes in 1939: Germany, in a few years, will not have a hope, he might well have thought, therefore war now, not later. Bethmann Hollweg said the same more or less explicitly in July 1914. Hitler did not say it in 1939, but he could have done so.

  1. 1

    Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry (Simon and Schuster, 1982).

  2. 2

    Roy Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (Oxford University Press, 1981); Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939 (World, 1970).

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