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How Wrong Was Churchill?

Churchill: Strategy and History

by Tuvia Ben-Moshe
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 397 pp., $45.00

Bound in Duty: The Memoirs of a German Officer, 1932-45

by Alexander Stahlberg, translated by Patricia Campbell
Brassey’s, 410 pp., £17.95

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.

  1. 1

    January 2, 1993.

  2. 2

    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.

  3. 3

    Churchill: The End of Glory (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993).

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