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In the Churchill Museum

Take, for example, the central question of Churchill’s attitude to the cross-Channel second front. Arguments about this question already fill libraries.4 What does Gilbert add to our understanding of it? Alas, very little. He gives us much chronological detail and direct quotation, but as the quotations pile up the picture becomes more and more confused. In April 1942 Hopkins and Marshall personally bring Churchill the American master plan, giving top priority to the cross-Channel second front as the principal operation of the war. Gilbert quotes Churchill’s first response to what he called, with characteristic euphuism, Roosevelt’s “masterly document”: “I am in entire agreement in principle with all you propose, and so are the Chiefs of Staff.” The words “in principle” should be a red warning light, for in Whitehall and Westminster “yes in principle” is often a synonym for “no.” Gilbert does not gloss this (although he does show us the British Chiefs of Staff already insisting that cross-Channel landings in 1942 would be impossible). Yet if we turn to the American sources we find that his American interlocutors were perfectly alert to the ambiguity of that agreement “in principle.” In response to Hopkins’s and Marshall’s reports from London, Roosevelt telegraphed (to Hopkins), “I agree that mere acquiescence on the part of our friends is not sufficient”^5. Three months later Churchill is urging on Roosevelt the virtues of landing first in French North Africa (operation “Gymnast”): “Here is the true Second Front of 1942.” After some hard discussion that diversion was agreed to (with “Gymnast” expanded and renamed “Torch”) as the only feasible operation to give some semblance of relief to the Russians in 1942. However, the head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, Field Marshal Dill, warned Churchill in a long telegram:

Marshall believes that your first love is “Gymnast,” just as his is “Bolero” [the buildup for cross-Channel invasion], and that with the smallest provocation you always revert to your old love. Unless you can convince him of your unswerving devotion to “Bolero” everything points to a complete reversal of our present agreed strategy and the withdrawal of America to a war of her own in the Pacific, leaving us with limited American assistance to make out as best we can against Germany.

Churchill now had the unenviable task of telling Stalin that there would be no second front in Europe in 1942. As he awaited his plane to Moscow (via Cairo) at Lyneham airport a message came through from Dill “stating that in ‘the American mind,’ an offensive in Europe in 1943 was ‘excluded’ by the acceptance of a North Africa landing in 1942. ‘Torch’ in 1942 would make the cross-Channel ‘Round-Up’ impossible in 1943” (Gilbert’s words, my italics).

Now this is a really vital point. But Gilbert does not pause to tell us, here or subsequently, how Churchill himself responded to this American insight, as relayed by Dill, an insight fundamental to the whole future conduct of the war. Did he disagree? Did he agree, but refuse to admit it publicly? Did he simply not take it in? The biographer’s only passing comment, a rather cryptic one in the circumstances, is that “this American support enabled Churchill to approach Stalin with greater confidence.” In Moscow, Churchill told Stalin that “the British and American governments were preparing for a very great operation in 1943,” but noted the possibility that in 1943 “the Germans would have a stronger army in the West than they now had”—at which point, as the British minutes noted, “Stalin’s face crumpled up into a frown.” He then partly succeeded in selling the North African landings to Stalin with the aid of the famous (and misleading) metaphor of the soft underbelly of the crocodile, thus hinting also at the possibility of a follow-up into Italy.

Gilbert is nonetheless at pains to show how in the autumn of 1942 Churchill was still earnestly pressing for the cross-Channel invasion in 1943 (and blaming the Americans for an inadequate build-up of forces in the UK). He quotes, for example, a November 18 minute to the British Chiefs of Staff: “My own position is that I am still aiming at a ‘Round-up’ retarded till August. I cannot give this up without a massive presentation of facts and figures which prove physical impossibility.” Only in April 1943 was it formally agreed at a Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting that (save in the event of an unexpected German collapse) the Channel would not be crossed in 1943.

Churchill, in Gilbert’s account (supported as always by direct quotation), was nonetheless rooting for it still. Three months later, however, he is urging the Chiefs of Staff to consider landings in northern Norway (with icebergs used as floating air bases) as an alternative to landing in France in spring 1944, with the cross-Channel plan (renamed “Overlord”) now merely serving as a cover. The “right strategy,” he argues, would be to push up from Italy and down from Norway, pinning the Germans in between.

Yet a month later, in his presentation to the Americans at the Quebec Conference, all his emphasis is once again on the priority for “Overlord”: limitations in Italy might have to be accepted “in order that the integrity of Operation ‘Overlord’ should not be marred.” By the autumn, however, he is once again blowing full steam for Italy, looking to the possibility of a lunge into the Balkans, fuming at the very limitations that he accepted (“in principle,” so to speak) at Quebec, and warning Eden (“for your internal consumption”) of “the dangers of our being committed to a lawyer’s bargain for ‘Overlord’ in May for the sake of which we may have to ruin the Italian and Balkan possibilities.”

By this time the reader may well be asking himself the question that Stalin asked Churchill at Tehran: whether “the Prime Minister and the British Staffs really believe in ‘Overlord.”’ Gilbert, however, insists, in a rare authorial judgment, that “in spite of his grave doubts, Churchill’s work for ‘Overlord’ was continuous and wholehearted.” Yet at a meeting with Dominion prime ministers in May 1944, only a month before the Normandy landings, Churchill himself declared that his own inclination “would have been in favour of rolling up Europe from the South-East, and joining hands with the Russians. However, it had proved impossible to persuade the United States to this view.”

The general reader who looks to Gilbert’s biography for an explanation of Churchill’s attitude to the cross-Channel second front must by now be thoroughly confused: more confused, I think, than the intrinsic confusion of the events themselves would warrant. Understanding beings with recognition of the simple fact that Churchill, like most human beings in general, and politicians in particular, said different things to different people at different times, and quite often did not say precisely what he meant or mean exactly what he said. This lack of perfect consistency was reinforced by at least two contrasting aspects of his immensely complex personality.

On the one hand, there was the mercurial, volatile, ceaselessly fertile enthusiast of war, at best producing fresh, bold, and original responses to each new military opportunity as it arose; at worst, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity in the elaboration of quite harebrained schemes. On the other hand, there was the past master of politics, skillfully trimming his language to suit and woo each separate interlocutor. The first Churchill is most visible in his minutes to the Chiefs of Staff, and the testy diaries of General Brooke; the second, in the record of his dealings with Stalin, Roosevelt, and their senior associates, notably Marshall and Eisenhower.

So vast is the forest of Churchill’s recorded words that out of its wood you can easily carve a dozen quite different life-size Churchills. If you choose to isolate the latter aspect, you can depict him as paying hypocritical lip service to the cross-Channel second front, while in fact assiduously pursuing the peripheral, and specifically the Mediterranean, strategy which he felt to be in the best interests of the British Empire: Churchill as imperial Machiavelli. If you single out the former, then you can portray him as a gung-ho amateur enthusiast, blind to the hard quantitative realities of modern warfare, wanting everything at once—landings in Italy and Norway and France and the Balkans—less Machiavelli than Evelyn Waugh’s Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, raring to go “biffing” the enemy wherever the enemy might be biffed.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated than either of these caricatures, although it contains elements of both. Churchill was part Machiavelli and part Ritchie-Hook; but there were many other parts as well. Any convincing interpretation of Churchill’s attitude to the second front—or any other great issue—must attempt to take account of all the parts; to weigh the elements of opportunism against the constant concerns; to collate all Churchill’s statements with a precise appreciation of the moment and the audience and the purpose for which each was crafted or tossed off by the master draughtsman. It is a formidable task, but not an impossible one.

Gilbert is uniquely placed to perform it, but alas, he does not: at least, not in this volume. The opportunity to clarify the great Anglo-American strategic dispute—and with it one of the largest “ifs” in recent history—has here been missed. There is a curious blandness, almost a seeming naiveté, about his presentation of Churchill’s statements, without clear indication of a context that often (though not always!) makes underlying consistency out of apparent inconsistency. It is almost as if he expects us always simply to take the great man at his word. It is not—let us be clear—that he ignores the contradictory evidence: there is much of that here. But the evidence is presented without the commentary, analysis, or interpretation that would really make sense of it. In the absence of a real biographical interpretation, the general reader will fall back either into confusion, or, more probably, into the vivid, compelling, but artistically simplified interpretation which Churchill himself gave in the memoirs—especially since Gilbert himself cleaves to that interpretation at crucial points.

The specialist scholar, meanwhile, will be left with an almost unbearable itch to get hold of all the documents. Gilbert’s posture is that of a chronicler who will “let the facts speak for themselves”: it would be nearer the truth to say that he lets the facts speak for Churchill—and for Churchill’s interpretation of Churchill. Curiously enough, the effect is not to augment the stature of the hero but if anything slightly to diminish it. The simplified Churchill of the memoirs is obviously a great man. But the real, enormously complex Churchill, deploying all that fantastic verbal armory to sustain—at times, almost to substitute for—imperial Britain’s waning power: surely the real man is greater still.

This problem of, so to speak, the missing dimension, is felt most acutely in Gilbert’s presentation of the personal relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, which Churchill of course made the symbolic centerpiece of the “special relationship,” and which has been the model for British prime ministers, Conservative or Labour, in their relations with American presidents ever since.6 Obviously the truth was far more complicated than Churchill’s mythopoeic account. There was never perfect confidence, and much underlying suspicion, especially in the White House and particularly on the distaff side. A reading of Warren F. Kimball’s edition of the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence clearly shows how the relationship actually deteriorated from a high point of harmony and cordiality in 1943, under the multiple strains of the “eternal triangle” with Stalin, the growing preponderance of American over British power, the increasing immediacy of postwar issues on which interests diverged, and, not least, sickness and exhaustion on both sides.

  1. 4

    See, for example, Mark A. Stoler, The Politics of the Second Front (Greenwood Press, 1977), which makes excellent use of the American military archives; W.S. Dunn, Second Front Now–1943 (University of Alabama Press, 1980), which draws fruitfully on German archives; and John Grigg, 1943: The Victory That Never Was (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), which draws brilliantly on an imaginative understanding of what British leaders at that time thought and felt.

  2. 6

    Vide Margaret Thatcher passim. The closest thing to an exception was probably Edward Heath.

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