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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.

1.

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 already have been said, but Winston’s War is something fresh and different. Churchill’s inspired leadership and the unique strength of his will saved Britain from defeat and occupation and did much to make the ultimately victorious alliance possible. Hastings’s wealth of research, quotation, anecdote, and comment builds up a living picture of the genius, as well as of the heroic flaws, of this immensely gifted and fascinating human being.

Hastings’s other books on World War II are remarkable for their stimulating interplay of military strategy, tactics, battles, personalities, and cogent analysis, lit up by firsthand descriptions from soldiers and from the civilians in their path. Winston’s War is one of those rare books that create in the reader a palpable feeling of the excitement, fear, frustration, grief, dread, all-too-occasional elation, and numbing fatigue of those critical days, as well as a lucid understanding of what happened and why. Churchill’s own oratorical, literary, and conversational style and wit provide a vivid, and sometimes hilarious, counterpoint to Hastings’s own succinct and shrewd judgments.

2.

Few leaders can have assumed power in such dire circumstances. Churchill entered 10 Downing Street on May 10, 1940, the first day of the German blitzkrieg on Western Europe. A peace movement, led by the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was gaining strength. (Even seventy years later, the thought of making “peace” with a victorious Hitler from a hopelessly weak position, and its inevitable consequences, is terrifying.) Churchill’s first great achievement was to snuff out this catastrophic idea, an effort complicated by the fact that he could not realistically hold out any prospect of an early British military recovery. Only a month later it seemed likely that the whole British Expeditionary Force in France would be taken prisoner. At least the “miracle of Dunkirk” avoided that disaster—when 300,000 troops were rescued and brought back across the Channel, many of them in small private boats—but then France surrendered, and Britain was left to fight Hitler alone.

Churchill’s political position was initially weak. His own Conservative Party for the most part disliked and distrusted him as a maverick and aisle-crosser. In the country at large he was regarded as a mercurial aristocrat and adventurer who was particularly remembered as the begetter of one of World War I’s most spectacular disasters, the Dardanelles operation.

Churchill’s claim to wartime leadership, in Hastings’s words, rested “upon his personal character and his record as a foe of appeasement. He was a warrior to the roots of his soul….” Among British politicians there was no one else with such qualities, but if he was to get the nation behind him to continue the military struggle, he had to gain the confidence of the British people, while at the same time dealing with the greatest threat that Britain had faced in all her history. He won the people’s confidence during the critical summer of 1940 by a display of courage, defiance, and leadership that has never been surpassed.

Churchill’s triumph was that Britain, for more than one year, outlasted the threat of invasion and remained in the fight against Hitler, thus providing a rallying point and base for later allies in the much larger conflict to come. For all the vast risks involved, this was the simplest and most satisfying period of Churchill’s leadership. He alone was in charge.

In June 1941, the Soviet Union, Hitler’s erstwhile accomplice, was invaded in its turn and became an ally in the anti-Nazi struggle. Five and a half months later Pearl Harbor pushed the Americans into war with Japan, and a few days later Hitler, inexplicably, declared war on the United States. On his reaction to the United States’ entry into the war Churchill wrote, “I went to sleep and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful. One hopes that eternal sleep will be like that.”

By December 1941 there were, at last, substantial reasons to believe that the war could, and would, be won, although years of bitter struggle still lay ahead. Ironically, this was also the beginning of the end of Churchill’s predominance as a war leader. The vast resources of the United States and the sheer manpower and size of the Soviet Union would, from then on, steadily reduce the role and influence of Britain and its extraordinary prime minister. Churchill’s already legendary standing in the world certainly mitigated this process, but his influence at summit meetings declined from the triumphal first wartime visit to Washington in December 1941 to the frustrations of Tehran and Yalta (which Churchill called “the Riviera of Hades”)1 and the final humiliation in 1945, when he was voted out of office in the middle of the post–European–war summit at Potsdam.

3.

Although in public Churchill maintained a consistently positive and enthusiastic attitude about his two gigantic allies, his relations with them became a constant and unequal struggle. His late-nineteenth-century, imperial outlook—he had wanted to keep Gandhi in jail during the 1930s—and his sometimes wrongheaded ideas of strategy and operations annoyed FDR, and increasingly irritated the most important American soldier, General George Marshall. Churchill was bitterly aware of Britain’s military failures, the limitations of his generals, and their diminishing role in actually fighting the enemy.

Hastings’s analysis of Anglo-American relations and the relationship between Churchill and FDR is a major theme throughout his book. Britain desperately needed assistance from the United States, but in 1940 the United States was by no means wholly sympathetic to British war requirements, and a large majority of the people and in Congress was determined to stay out of another European war. This greatly limited what President Roosevelt could do to help.

Of the disastrous year 1941, Hastings writes:

American assistance fell far short of British hopes, and Churchill not infrequently vented his bitterness at the ruthlessness of the financial terms extracted by Washington for supplies. “As far as I can make out,” he wrote to Chancellor [of the Exchequer] Kingsley Wood, “we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.”

Supply purchases were strictly on a cash basis until the end of 1941. To meet these bills, British businesses in the US were sold off at fire-sale prices, and a US cruiser collected Britain’s last £50 million in gold bullion from Cape Town. About the first round of Lend-Lease, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wrote, “Our desperate straits alone could justify its terms.”

Personal relations between Americans and British in Washington started, and badly, at the top with Lord Halifax, who had been sent as ambassador to get him out of London after the failure of the movement to negotiate with Hitler. Halifax, who had told Stanley Baldwin, “I have never liked Americans, except odd ones,” hated being in Washington and reported that trying to pin down US officials was “like a disorderly day’s rabbit-shooting.”

At the top level of the US army there were many who had no enthusiasm for another European expedition to fight for the British cause, and some who were openly anti-British. Suspicions of imperial motives also reduced what enthusiasm there was for assisting Britain. There were notable exceptions—Harry Hopkins, Averell Harriman, John Winant, and Edward R. Murrow, for instance—who were indefatigable throughout the war in preserving cooperation and mutual respect between the two countries.2

The personal relationship of Roosevelt and Churchill was, for official purposes at least, an important symbol of warmth and solidarity. Both men were accomplished actors, but at the personal level there seems to have been little real friendship or mutual sympathy. FDR, Hastings writes, had “a capacity for forging a semblance of intimacy,” but the two were very different in character. “Churchill was what he seemed,” Hastings comments. “Roosevelt was not.”

Their first wartime meeting was on a battleship at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941. “It would be an exaggeration to say that Roosevelt and Churchill became chums at this conference or at any subsequent time,” Robert Sherwood wrote. “They established an easy intimacy, a joking informality and a moratorium on pomposity and cant—and also a degree of frankness in intercourse which, if not complete, was remarkably close to it.” At the time, both men believed that the Soviet Union would collapse before the Nazi onslaught. Apart from producing the Atlantic Charter, a document that was never signed, the talks were desultory. To Churchill’s disappointment FDR never mentioned the possibility of US belligerence.

  1. 1

    Of the Quebec conference with FDR in September 1944, Churchill commented sourly on the way home on the Queen Mary, “What is this conference? Two talks with the Chiefs of Staff; the rest was waiting to put in a word with the President.”

  2. 2

    In a new book, Citizens of London (Random House, 2010), Lynne Olsen gives a lively and intimate account of this group at a critical place and time.

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