How Great Was Churchill?

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J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Winston and Clementine Churchill inspecting damage done by German bombs in the City of London, December 1940

Code word “Cromwell”—the warning that German invasion was imminent—was communicated to British army units on September 5, 1940. The 130th Infantry Brigade of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, in which I was serving, was rushed to the southeast coast to take up positions in and around Dover, the British port nearest to occupied France. Our division was said, after the losses at Dunkirk, to be the only fully equipped division in England, but most of us had no experience of war, and in training we had fired only our World War I rifles; there was no ammunition for practice with mortars or antitank weapons. A likely beach for a German landing, St. Margaret’s Bay, a crescent of sand to the east of Dover, was defended by some two hundred Dorset soldiers of my old battalion. (I had just become the brigade intelligence officer because I was fluent in French and German.) I visited them often and found them enthusiastic and full of confidence. “Jerry going to get a nasty shock if he tries to land here,” they said.

At the end of the war I read the German invasion plan, Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion). St. Margaret’s Bay was one of the main landing beaches all right—heavy air and sea bombardment, parachute troops behind the beach, amphibious and armored units from the sea, followed by infantry divisions would descend on our two hundred faithful defenders with their ancient rifles. Even in 1940 we might have foreseen at least some of this nightmare for ourselves and quailed at the grotesque imbalance of forces, but fortunately Winston Churchill had captured our imaginations. That growling, indomitable voice on the radio had told us that this was our finest hour. In the absence of adequate numbers, armament, experience, or training, his words were our best, perhaps our only, defense. Luckily we did not, in the end, have to put it to the test of resisting a German invasion. Although it was impossible at that time to imagine how we might win the war, it was inconceivable to us that we should lose it. That too was part of the Churchill effect.

Of Winston Churchill at this time Max Hastings writes:

His supreme achievement in 1940 was to mobilise Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters, and to stir the passions of the nation, so that for a season the British people faced the world united and exalted. The “Dunkirk spirit” was not spontaneous. It was created by the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for the rest of time.

Hastings’s Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940–1945 is a magnificent achievement. After the vast number of works on Churchill that have appeared in the last sixty-five years, one could be forgiven for thinking that everything significant must …

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