To a remarkable degree, even in 2010 the period of Winston Churchill’s war leadership continues to define many British people’s view of our own country. We have been told more about him than any other human being. Thousands of people of many nations have recorded encounters. The most vivid wartime memory of a British Eighth Army veteran whom I once met derived from a day in August 1942 when he found the prime minister his neighbour in a North African desert latrine.
Yet much remains opaque, because he wanted it that way. Always mindful of his role as a stellar performer upon the stage of history, he became supremely so after becoming Britain’s prime minister on 10 May 1940. He kept no diary because, he observed, to do so would be to expose his follies and inconsistencies to posterity. His war memoirs are poor history, if often peerless prose. We shall never know with complete confidence what he thought about many personalities- for instance Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Alanbrooke, the King, his cabinet colleagues- because he took care not to tell us. It may also be noticed that he wrote much less, and expressed himself much less than frankly, about the British Army which was, or perhaps should have been, the principal instrument of the country’s war effort.
Even in the 21st Century, some military aspects of the conflict, especially those in which Churchill played a key personal role, receive less attention from historians than they seem to me to deserve. To give a few examples: how many people recognise what I call the second Dunkirk, in June 1940, or the 1943 Dodecanese campaign, which wrote off five British infantry battalions and provided the setting for that great fictional war movie The Guns of Navarone ? I suggest that Britain was fortunate the 1940 debacle in France ended so quickly. If the campaign had been more protracted, the wreck of the British Army would have been irretrievable. It is insufficiently understood how deep was the class divide in British society about the alliance with the Soviet Union. Most of the public became almost obsessively enthusiastic about the Russians, ashamed of the contrast between how hard Stalin’s people were fighting, and how little and unsuccessfully Britain seemed to be.
Many British politicians and generals, by contrast, expressed hopes that both sides might lose the eastern war. They detested the Russians, because they knew of their ghastly cruelties and intractable hatred for the West, as the public did not. Gen.John Kennedy wrote in his diary: ‘The fundamental difficulty is that altho we want the Germans to be knocked out above all, most of us feel…that it would not be a bad thing if the Russians were to be finished as a military power too.’. Likewise Gen.Henry Pownall, Vice-Chief of the General Staff: ‘would that the two loathsome monsters, Germany and Russia, drown together in a death grip in the winter mud’. Churchill performed a vital function, by throwing the full weight of his authority behind support for Russia, when many of his colleagues recoiled. More than that, when he realized the limitations of the British and US armies, he perceived the advantage, indeed the vital necessity, to delay an invasion of the continent until the Red Army had done the bloodiest business of breaking Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Between June 1940 and June 1944, less than half the British Army engaged in active operations against the Axis forces, while the remainder was either training in Britain or performing garrison or support duties around the world. During that period, Churchill enthusiastically promoted local Resistance in Hitler’s occupied territories, ‘setting Europe ablaze’. Yet if we look beyond the romantic saga of SOE’s heroic agents, and examine the huge difficulties for civilians of fighting a ruthless tyranny, I would argue that only in Russia and Yugoslavia did Resistance justify its appalling human cost by significantly damaging Hitler’s war effort.
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story. As early as 1914, the historian A.G.Gardiner wrote a shrewd and admiring assessment of the then First Sea Lord. This concluded equivocally: ‘ ‘Keep your eye on Churchill’ should be the watchword of these days. Remember, he is a soldier first, last and always. He will write his name big on our future. Let us take care he does not write it in blood’.
By the time Churchill became prime minister, hours after Hitler launched his blitzkrieg in France, few contemporaries doubted his genius. He achieved office because even his political enemies recognised him as a warrior to the roots of his soul. But colleagues retained deep fears about his erratic and often reckless conduct. That he would draw his sword to lead a charge was not in doubt. But whether the outcome would be a triumph to match Blenheim and Waterloo, or instead a catastrophe, seemed much less assured.
By Sunday, 19 May, nine days after he took office, it was plain that the allied forces in France faced defeat. Gen.Ironside, head of the army, told Secretary for War Anthony Eden: ‘this is the end of the British Empire’. Eden noted: ‘Militarily, I did not see how he could be gainsaid’. Yet it was hard to succumb to despair, when their leader marvellously sustained his wit. That same bleak Sunday, the prime minister said wryly to Eden: ‘About time number 17 turned up, isn’t it ?’. The two of them, at Cannes casino’s roulette wheel in 1938, had backed the number and won twice.
Some aspects of the 1940 story are still scarcely recognised by historians, never mind the public. Consider, for instance, the second Dunkirk, no less miraculous than the first. Churchill’s biggest misjudgement of that period was his decision to send more troops to France in June after the rescue of nine divisions from the beaches. When it was suggested that British units should embark slowly for Cherbourg, since the campaign was obviously lost, the prime minister said: ‘Certainly not. It would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing’. At every turn, he perceived his own words and actions through the prism of posterity. He was determined that history should say: ‘he nothing common did or mean upon that memorable scene’. Indeed, in those days Andrew Marvell’s lines on King Charles I’s execution were much on his lips. Seldom has a great actor on the stage of human affairs been so mindful of the verdict of future ages.
As for the British and Canadian troops sent to France after Dunkirk, only the stubborn insistence of their commander, Sir Alan Brooke, overcame the rash impulsiveness of the prime minister, and made possible evacuation of almost 200,000 men who would otherwise have been lost. A key point of that story, and indeed of the whole history of Churchill’s conduct of the war, is that he possessed an exaggerated faith in the virtue of boldness. He believed this alone could determine battlefield outcomes. Himself a hero, he perceived British history as a pageant in which again and again British pluck had prevailed against odds. It was a source of despair to his commanders, that he sought to resurrect the spirit of Crecy and Agincourt against Hitler’s Wehrmacht, probably the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen. This was more than his army could accomplish.
The image of British unity and staunchness in 1940 is broadly valid. It is not diminished by recognising that more than a few of the traditional ruling class thought the only rational option after Dunkirk was to make peace. There was also some defeatism lower in the social scale. Consider this extract from the diary of a woman named Muriel Green, who worked at her family’s Norfolk garage. At a local tennis match on 23 May with a grocer’s deliveryman and a schoolmaster, the deliveryman said: ‘I think they’re going to beat us, don’t you’. ‘Yes’, said the schoolmaster. He added that as the Nazis were very keen on sport, he expected ‘we’d still be able to play tennis if they did win’. Muriel Green wrote: ‘J said Mr.M. was saying we should paint a swastika under the door knocker ready. We all agreed we shouldn’t know what to do if they invade. After that we played tennis, very hard exciting play for 2 hrs, and forgot all about the war’.
It was fortunate that while the horror of Britain’s predicament was apparent to those in high places, Churchill was visibly exalted by it. At Chequers on the warm summer night of 15 June 1940, Jock Colville described how, as tidings of gloom were constantly received, the prime minister displayed the highest spirits, ‘repeating poetry, dilating on the drama…offering everybody cigars, and spasmodically murmuring: ‘Bang, bang, bang, goes the farmer’s gun, run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run’ ‘. In the early hours of morning when US ambassador Joseph Kennedy telephoned, the prime minister unleashed a torrent of rhetoric about America’s opportunity to save civilisation. Then he held forth to his staff about Britain’s growing fighter strength, ‘told one or two dirty stories’, and departed for bed at 1.30, saying to his staff ‘Goodnight, my children’. At least some of this must have been masquerade. But it was a masquerade of awesome nobility.
1940 was a bad year for telling the truth. That is to say, it was hard for even good, brave and honourable British people to know whether they better served their country by voicing private thoughts, allowing their brains to function, or by keeping silent. Logic decreed that Britain had not the smallest chance of winning the war in the absence of American participation, which remained unlikely. Churchill knew this as well as any man. Yet he and his supporters believed that the consequences of accepting defeat were so dreadful, so absolute, that it was essential to fight on regardless. Posterity has heaped admiration upon the grandeur of this commitment. Yet, at the time, it demanded from intelligent men and women a suspension of reason which some rejected. For instance Captain Ralph Edwards, director of naval operations at the Admiralty, wrote in his diary on 23 June: ‘Our cabinet with that idiot Winston in charge changes its mind every 24 hours…I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that we’re so inept we don’t deserve to win & indeed are almost certain to be defeated. We never do anything right’.
Churchill’s sublime achievement was to rouse the most ordinary people to extraordinary perceptions of their destiny. For instance, Eleanor Silsby, an elderly psychology lecturer living in south London, wrote to a friend in America on 23 July 1940: ‘I won’t go on about the war. But I just want to say that we are proud to have the honour of fighting alone for the things that matter much more than life and death. It makes me hold my chin high to think, not just of being English, but of having been chosen to come at this hour for this express purpose of saving the world…I should never have thought that I could approve of war…There is surprisingly little anger or hate in this business- it is just a job that has to be done…This is Armageddon’.
After the fall of France in June 1940, circumstances favoured Britain more than is sometimes recognised. Defence of the home island was the one contingency for which the country was well-fitted. The British were fantastically lucky to have got their army out of France with only 11,000 dead, against at least 50,000 French soldiers. The speed of Hitler’s triumph perversely worked in Britain’s favour. The longer the French campaign had continued, the heavier must have been the losses- for the same inevitable outcome. Thereafter, the RAF was well-equipped and organised to meet a bomber assault. It’s amazing that so many people, including the chiefs of staff, were in such panicky mood that they expected Hitler to launch an invasion without notice. This would almost certainly have proved suicidal in the face of a Royal Navy which was immensely powerful, outnumbering the Germans by 10 to 1. More even than the RAF, the Home Fleet offered a decisive deterrent to invasion.
Churchill himself, of course, bestrides the story in all his joyous splendour. It is hard for us, as it was for his contemporaries, to conceive what it was like to carry the burden of sole responsibility for preserving European civilisation. MP Harold Nicolson wrote of the prime minister’s remoteness from ordinary mortals. His eyes were ‘glaucous, vigilant, angry, combative, visionary and tragic….the eyes of a man who is much preoccupied and is unable to rivet his attention on minor things…But in another sense they are the eyes of a man faced by an ordeal or tragedy, and combining vision, truculence, resolution and great unhappiness’. There were moments when Churchill was oppressed by loneliness that only his old friend Max Beaverbrook seemed able to assuage. It was by his personal choice, indeed unflagging resolution, that he delegated to others few of the responsibilities of supreme command. But the exaltation of playing out his role gave way, at times, to a despondency which required all his powers to overcome. In 1940, he sustained his spirit wonderfully well, but in the later war years he became prone to outbursts of self-pity, often accompanied by tears.
Acute awareness of the prime minister’s load caused his staff to forgive his outbursts of intemperance. In small things as in great, he won their hearts. ‘What a beautiful handwriting’, he told Jock Colville when the young private secretary showed him a dictated telegram, ‘but, my dear boy, when I say stop you must write stop and not just put a blob’. One day in his car he saw a queue outside a shop and told his detective to get out and discover what people were waiting for. When the inspector returned and reported that they hoped to buy seed for their pet birds, his private secretary recorded: ‘Winston wept’. Most great men, including Franklin Roosevelt, are essentially cold figures, even if they possess a capacity to simulate warmth. In this as in so much else, Churchill was most unusual. Though he was a supreme egoist capable of extraordinary ruthlessness, he also possessed a humanity which extended even to the people of Germany, and even though he endorsed the policy of area bombing. If he had been a less profoundly lovable man, some of his mistaken enthusiasms and strategic follies might have been more harshly judged by posterity, as well by his colleagues.
Ministers and commanders were often less sympathetic to the prime minister than his personal staff. Their criticisms of Churchill’s lapses into irrationality were human enough, and objectively just. But they reflected a failure of imagination about the burden he bore. What seems astonishing is that he preserved such gaiety. Although an intensely serious man, Churchill displayed a capacity for fun as remarkable as his powers of concentration and memory, his unremitting commitment to hard labour. Seldom, if ever, has a national leader displayed such power to entertain, prompting his people to laughter even amid the tears of war.
He never doubted his own genius- subordinates often wished that he would. He believed that destiny had marked him to enter history as the saviour of western civilisation, and this conviction coloured his smallest words and deeds. When a Dover workman said to his mates as Churchill passed ‘There goes the bloody British Empire’, the prime minister was enchanted. ‘Very nice’, he lisped to Jock Colville, his face wreathed in smiles. But he preserved an awareness of himself as mortal clay which touched the hearts of those who served him, just as the brilliance of his conversation won their veneration.
The most damaging criticism of Churchill was that he was intolerant of evidence unless this conformed to his own instinct, and was sometimes wilfully irrational. Displays of supreme wisdom were interspersed with outbursts of childish petulance. Yet when the arguments were over, the shouting done, on important matters he almost invariably deferred to reason. In much the same way, subordinates exasperated by his excesses in ‘normal’ times- insofar as war admitted any- marvelled at the manner in which he rose to crisis. Disasters inspired responses which compelled recognition of his greatness. One of his staff wrote of ‘the ferment of ideas, the persistence in flogging proposals, the goading of commanders to attack- these were all expressions of that blazing, explosive energy without which the vast machine, civilian as well as military, could not have been moved forward so steadily or steered through so many setbacks and difficulties’.
Paradoxically the winter of 1940, when the threat of German invasion was temporarily past, was when Churchill’s strategic problems began in earnest. What next ? The British Army could never be strong enough to challenge the Wehrmacht in Europe. There was a rueful War Office joke, prompted by the blitz, that Britain’s soldiers were knitting socks for the civilians in the trenches. It would be disastrous for civilian morale, not to mention American opinion, if the British simply sat back behind their defences. Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee said later, very shrewdly: ‘[Winston] was always, in effect, asking himself…‘What must Britain do now so that the verdict of history will be favourable ?’…He was always looking around for ‘finest hours’, and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture one’.
Once the Battle of Britain was won, the foremost challenge was to find another field upon which to fight. It was because Churchill knew that the army was incapable of doing anything big that, with his brilliant understanding of the British people, he recognised the importance of what I call military theatre, as his service chiefs often did not. He perceived that there must be action, even if not always useful; there must be successes, even if overstated or even imagined; there must be glory, even if undeserved. This view underpinned his entire conduct of Britain’s war between 1940 and 1944, when the army was restricted to what we should never forget were relatively minor operations against the Axis.
Churchill owed a perverse debt to Mussolini, for bringing Italy into the war. The Italian army confronted the British on the borders of its African empire. It would be wrong to suggest that the Italians were bound to be a pushover for the much smaller British forces in the Middle East, but they were not remotely in the same class as the Germans. If the Italian Army had not been available to play 45 minutes each way on the other side, how else could the British army have been employed ? As it was, in 1940-41 British morale and prestige briefly soared, amid a succession of striking victories in Libya and Abyssinia.
But then, of course, the Germans and Japanese entered the reckoning. From April 1941 onwards, the British Army suffered a run of defeats, often by smaller numbers of enemies, which continued until November 1942. It is hard to overstate the distress which these inflicted on the prime minister. As disaster followed disaster in Libya, Greece, Crete, in Malaya and Burma and then at Tobruk, his confidence crumbled not only in his commanders but in the British Army. He found himself reduced almost to despair by the sense that it would avail Britain little if he himself was a hero, if the civilian population kept its nerve and the Royal Navy held open the sea lanes, if Britain’s soldiers could not deliver.
The army’s limitations went deeper than mere generalship. Even competent British officers found it hard to extract from their troops performances good enough to beat the Germans or Japanese. The public was increasingly conscious of this. A British general, Henry Pownall, wrote after the 1942 Far East disasters: ‘Our [career officers] regard [war] as an upsetting, rather exhausting and distinctly dangerous interlude in the happier, more comfortable and more desirable days of peace-soldiering…We need…a tougher Army, based on a tougher nation, an Army which is regarded by the people as an honourable profession’.
A senior British general said to war correspondents in the desert: ’We are still amateurs. The Germans are professionals’ “. This was an extraordinary admission in mid-1942. The army’s performance improved later that year. But, to prevail over the Germans, for the rest of the war British- and American- forces required a handsome superiority of men, tanks and air support.
When I was a teenager, even then avidly preoccupied with the Second World War, the study of its history was still dominated by fiercely nationalistic perceptions. Americans wildly overrated their battlefield contribution to victory, and perhaps underestimated their decisive industrial one. The British still perceived ourselves as the inhabitants of middle earth. The Russians barely acknowledged that the western allies had participated in the war at all.
Today, by contrast, in Britain and the US we see things more clearly. Even some knowledgeable people are still amazed to be told that US and British troops on the battlefield, in the course of the entire war, killed around 200,000 German soldiers, while the Russians killed almost four million. But there is a clear understanding first, that the Soviet Union did most of the fighting necessary to defeat the Wehrmacht, and second, that the United States provided a critical portion of the tools necessary to do so, for all the nations of the Grand Alliance. In Russia, objectivity remains elusive. The western contribution to the war is regarded, not only by veterans of the Red Army but by many Russian historians, with something close to contempt. Most Russians are irked by the fact that, once the tide had turned in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Anglo-Americans enjoyed a huge measure of strategic choice about when and where to engage Germany on the battlefield, and exercised this to the full. The leaders of America’s armed forces, from 1942 onwards, were always eager for an early confrontation in Europe. British persuasion and military reality deflected the Americans from pressing their point until 1944. The Soviets, of course, were compelled to fight Germans almost every day of their war. But in the West, the Americans and British waited until conditions overwhelmingly favoured their arms before launching each of their great operations. To say this is not to criticise; nor is it to underrate the extraordinary ferocity of the fighting which some western allied troops endured. It is merely to recognise an obvious reality, reflected in the vastly smaller casualties that the Westerners endured, to do their part towards victory.
My hero among historians, Professor Sir Michael Howard, often remarks that we should never forget that there was a time when events now in the past were still in the future. We know today that D-Day in Normandy took place on 6 June 1944. Yet there is little doubt that, without forceful American pressure in the months which preceded invasion, the British would have been content to allow the timetable to slip in a fashion which would probably have deferred a landing in north-west Europe until 1945.
Winston Churchill’s bitter dismay about the manner in which eastern Europe in general and Poland in particular were swallowed by Soviet tyranny is wholly understandable. President Roosevelt was naïve in his belief that he could do business with Stalin. Yet the British prime minister was disingenuous in pretending that in 1944-45, it was remotely feasible to undo the consequences of strategic decisions made years earlier. The simple truth was that the Soviets got to eastern Europe first. To frustrate their imperial design, the Western allies would have been obliged to fight them, as only General George Patton and a handful of others were eager to do.
If the Anglo-Americans had seriously wanted to dictate the political shape of postwar Europe, to make the freedom of eastern Europe a war aim, they could have achieved this only by invading north-west Europe in 1943, at huge risk, and driving for Berlin with a ferocity and indifference to casualties which would have been unthinkable for the Western democracies. Had the publics of Britain and America been told in 1943 that their leaders were proposing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of extra allied lives to secure the welfare of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, it is not difficult to guess how they would have responded.
Instead, of course, whatever their vague hopes for the political future of Europe, the Americans and British conducted their military operations in a manner and according to a timetable which was designed to achieve the destruction of Nazi Germany, and nothing much more. I am among those who believe that the Western allies deserve a considerable share of blame for the tragedy of the Warsaw Rising in the fall of 1944. They armed and incited the Poles to resist, and resist they rashly did. Of course the Russians behaved ruthlessly by declining to assist the Home Army’s cause. But what else could ever have been expected from Stalin ? He could reasonably have argued that he adopted no different a view to that of Eisenhower about Holland. The Dutch suffered terribly in the winter of 1944, thousands of their people starving to death, because after the failure at Arnhem the allies declined to drive north to liberate the balance of Holland. Instead, they argued entirely rationally that they must focus on the sole strategic purpose of thrusting into Germany, to free all the oppressed peoples of Europe, by the earliest possible defeat of Nazism.
Twenty-three years ago, in my earlier book Overlord, I described the D-Day invasion of Europe and the campaign in Normandy. That narrative ended with the American and British breakthrough in August 1944, followed by a triumphant dash across France. Many allied soldiers believed that the collapse of Hitler’s empire must swiftly follow. The British Joint Intelligence Committee declared that for planning purposes, it might be assumed that Germany would have collapsed by 31 December 1944. Most front-line commanders, including Eisenhower, were of the same opinion. Only Winston Churchill disagreed. No man knew better than Britain’s Prime Minister just how formidable were the fighting powers of the German Army. He responded to that JIC note by asserting first, that he thought it much more likely than not, that the Germans would still be fighting in 1945. And second, that if they were not, this would be because of a political collapse in Germany, not a military one.
My starting point for writing Armageddon was personal curiosity, to see why the allies did not win the war in 1944 as everyone expected in August, and as our vast superiority of resources should have made possible. In the West, the allies possessed 2000 tanks against less than 100 German, 14,000 aircraft against a few hundred of the Luftwaffe’s. And we should remember that back in 1940 and 1941, the British attributed most of their defeats to the superiority of the German air force. In the autumn of 1944, it has sometimes been suggested that the allies had to cross a succession of great rivers and difficult terrain features to break into Hitler’s Germany. Yet none of these things had stopped the Germans, coming the other way in 1940.
The truth was that Hitler’s army, even in the last months of the war, was the most formidable fighting force the world had ever seen. The Western allies to the very end displayed the limitations and inhibitions of citizen armies. These were not professional warriors, but store clerks and truck drivers, schoolteachers and factory workers, masquerading for an unwelcome season in uniform to do a job they knew had to be done for the cause of democracy. But most, who now knew that the allies were sure of final victory, were pathetically eager to live to see the end and come home to resume the ordinary lives among their loved ones, which had been so pathetically interrupted. HOLLIS STORY.
In Overlord, my earlier book, I emphasised the harsh fact that Hitler’s army was, as a fighting force, better than the American and British armies. Yet in Armageddon I have added an important corollary to what I’ve said above, about the limitations of the soldiers of the democracies. In many ways, one of the most admirable things about them was that amid total war, they preserved most of the inhibitions and decencies of democratic citizens at war. Their soldiers didn’t like killing people, flattening towns, witnessing the tragedies of a host of innocents. By the time I finished writing Armageddon, I found myself concluding: if the Americans and British had been as good soldiers as the Waffen SS, as suicidally brave as some men of the Red Army, they would have needed to be people like them, imbued with their ethos of tyranny and savagery. And if that had been so, the very purposes for which the war was being fought would have been set at naught. The British and American armies in 1944-45 did as well as could have been expected, given the sort of people they were, and we should be very grateful for the sort of people they were.
But, from the viewpoint of their commanders, it was a handicap in getting into Germany that most allied formations lacked the ruthless fighting power quickly to break down the German defence, when the soldiers of Hitler were fighting with the courage of fear and despair. The irony, of course, is that many German veterans whom I have met assert to this day that they fought on to the end, because of fear of what the Soviets would do to Germany, as they relentlessly advanced into Hitler’s empire, to revenge themselves for what Hitler’s legions had done in Russia.. Yet the Germans’ last ditch resistance only made sense if they had let the Anglo-Americans into Germany in 1944, while continuing to resist the Russians. As it was, by fighting to the end, the German Army ensured that its country’s fate in 1945 was incomparably worse than it would have been, had the country been forced to surrender in 1944. The bombing of Dresden and many other horrors would have been avoided, for a start. Let us never forget that Hiroshima and Nagasaki inflicted fewer deaths on the Japanese than allied bombing inflicted on Germany in the last months of the war, in 1945.
It seems to me essential not to look at the Eastern and Western wars separately, but to examine them together, putting in context the campaign of Patton and Rokossovsky, Montgomery and Zhukov. Soviet casualties dwarfed those of the western front. The Russians thought their campaign for Rumania, which took only two weeks in August 1944, among the least costly of the war. Yet in Rumania alone, the Red Army lost more men than the British and Canadians in the course of the whole campaign for NW Europe, took almost as many casualties as the US Army between June 1944 and May 1945. A former Red Army tank officer, a delightful and wonderfully articulate man named Gennady Ivanov, said to me: ‘We were living in a time in which human life possessed absolutely no value. All that mattered was to stay alive oneself’.
A cultural collision took place in Germany in 1945, between societies whose experience of the war was light years apart. What the Soviet and German people did, as well as what was done to them, bore scant resemblance to the war the British and Americans knew. There was a chasm between the world of the Western allies, populated by people still striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated. The lives of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet subjects embraced unspeakable miseries, even before the Nazis entered the story. I have met many people whose families perished in Russia’s famines and purges of the pre-war 1941 era. One man described to me how his parents, illiterate peasants, were anonymously denounced by neighbours as counter-revolutionaries, and shot in 1939 at the prison outside St.Petersburg. A woman who was listening to our conversation interjected: ‘My parents were shot at that prison, too !’. She used the commonplace language we might employ on discovering that somebody we met had attended the same school as ourselves. After she spoke, another woman said darkly: ‘You shouldn’t talk about things like that in front of a foreigner’. In Russia, there is no tradition of pursuing objective historical truth. Even in the 21st century, it remains difficult to persuade a fiercely nationalistic people to speak frankly about the bleaker aspects of their wartime history. Historians try to write of Russia’s commanders as if they were people cast in the same mould as their Western counterparts. They were not. They were brutes, for none but brutes could have prospered in Stalin’s world, steeped in blood. Consider that great Soviet commander Rokossosvky. He started the war without his fingernails, because they had been removed during his incarceration in the Purges, weakly expecting his own execution. Once when Marshal Zhukov began to complain to him about Beria, Stalin’s terrible secret policeman, Rokossovsky interrupted. ‘Don’t talk to me about Beria’, he growled. ‘I have seen his prisons !’ In the first two years of the war alone, the Red Army executed 167,000 of its own men for alleged cowardice or desertion. 900,000 Russians died defending Leningrad, and some of that city’s people ate each other when there was nothing else left.
The Army’s institutional weakness was overcome only because vastly superior allied resources became available, and the Red Army killed two million German soldiers. It is interesting to compare eastern and western experiences of 1943. In that whole year, against the Germans the western allies seldom deployed more than a dozen divisions and suffered 60,000 killed. In the East, by contrast, each of the two sides committed over 200 divisions, and Russia lost around three million dead. Against that background, it is easy to comprehend Stalin’s contempt for Anglo-American sluggishness in launching their vaunted cross-Channel invasion.
The British and American peoples owe a large debt to Churchill for persuading President Roosevelt to join the Mediterranean campaign in November 1942, and delaying D-Day until it could be launched on overwhelmingly favourable terms in June 1944. Hundreds of thousands of British and American lives were thus preserved. But in consequence it became one of the cruel ironies of the war, that most of the bloody business of destroying the tyranny of Hitler was done by the tyranny of Stalin, with only late and limited assistance from the armies of the democracies.
The British Army never fulfilled Churchill’s soaring warrior ideal. In the end it did enough, but only just enough, to prevail. It never matched the institutional achievement of the Royal Navy, which I suggest was Britain’s most effective service of the war. He inspired his nation to accomplish more than it dreamed possible in June 1940, but never as much as he wanted. Such is the nature of the relationship between many great leaders and their peoples. Had Britain- or America- produced legions of warriors such as those of Germany and Japan, they would have ceased to be the kind of liberal democracies the war was fought to preserve.
Churchill from the earliest days displayed an understanding of the need to clasp the Americans in the closest possible embrace, when many British people high and low spurned them. Lord Halifax, whom Churchill dispatched to become Britain’s Washington ambassador in December 1940, once said: ‘I have never liked Americans, except odd ones. In the mass I have always found them dreadful’. Lord Linlithgow, as Viceroy of India, wrote to commiserate with Halifax on his posting: ‘the heavy labour of toadying to your pack of pole-squatting parvenus ! What a country, and what savages those who inhabit it !’.
As for US attitudes to us, the historian Michael Howard, in 1941 an Oxford student, has written: ‘It is never very easy for the British to understand that a very large number of Americans, if they think about us at all, do so with various degrees of dislike and contempt…In the 1940s the Americans had some reason to regard the British as a lot of toffee-nosed bastards who oppressed half the world and had a sinister talent for getting other people to do their fighting for them’. A poll in July 1942 invited Americans to say which nation they thought was trying hardest to win the war. A loyal 37% answered, the US; 30% named Russia, 14% China, 13% offered no opinion. Just 6% identified the British as most convincing triers.
No other statesman could have conducted British policy towards the US with such consummate skill as did Churchill, nor have achieved such personal influence upon the American people. This persisted until 1944, when it declined precipitously, to revive only when the onset of the Cold War caused many Americans to hail Churchill as a prophet.
It was a perverse feature of the war, that while the British people showed huge admiration for Russian achievements, they seldom displayed the same generosity towards Americans- and their battlefield performance. A Home Intelligence report of 14 January 1943 declared: ‘At the time of Pearl Harbor, public interest in the US received a momentary stimulus which soon declined and has (in marked contrast to the attitude to Russia and things Russian) remained low ever since’. In February 1943 a Londoner reported meeting a vegetable seller in Covent Garden who said: ‘Good news today, sir !’. ‘Have the Russians done well ?’. ‘No- the Americans have got the knock’. This, asserted the diarist- Violet Bonham-Carter- represented ‘the universal reaction’ to news of the reverse which had befallen Eisenhower’s army at Kasserine Pass. A 1942 Gallup Poll asked British people which ally was making the greatest contribution to winning the war. Some 50% answered ‘Russia’; 43% ‘Britain’; 5% ‘China’; and just 3% ‘the United States’.
In their hearts, most British people knew that their country could accomplish nothing alone, that only American resources had averted Hitler’s assured triumph. But it was sometimes hard to feel gratitude, amid British consciousness that the struggle was reducing their own nation to penury, while America grew relentlessly in wealth and might.
By 1944-45, with Russian and American dominance of the Grand Alliance painfully explicit, Churchill seemed to many of his colleagues old, exhausted and often wrong-headed. Yet he possessed a global stature which lifted Britain’s prestige far beyond that conferred by its shrinking military contribution. Jock Colville wrote: ‘Whatever the PM’s shortcomings may be, there is no doubt that he does provide guidance and purpose on matters which, without him, would often be lost in the maze of inter-departmentalism or frittered away by caution and compromise. Moreover he has two qualities, imagination and resolution, which are conspicuously lacking among other Ministers and among the Chiefs of Staff’. All this was profoundly true.
In December 1944, Churchill flew to Athens in the midst of the civil war in which newly-liberated Greek communists were shooting it out with the British Army, using weapons supplied to them by SOE. This was his last dramatic military adventure, during which he addressed a conference of rival local factions while gunfire and explosions rent the air outside. When he emerged, it was explained that the meeting’s late start had been caused by a row with the communist delegates, who had resisted demands to surrender their guns. Hearing this, the prime minister looked thoughtful and withdrew a pistol from his own pocket. He growled complacently: ‘I cannot tell you the feeling of security one enjoys, knowing that one is the only armed man in such an assembly as that !’.
Churchill’s companions became bored when he recited long extracts from the epic poems Marmion and The Lays Of Ancient Rome across the dinner table at Chequers, but how many other national leaders in history could have matched such performances ? He was moved to ecstasies by a screening of Laurence Olivier’s new film Henry V, not least because he was in no doubt who was playing the king’s part in England’s comparable mid-twentieth century epic.
The divide between public enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and the prime minister’s bitterness about Stalinist imperialism became a chasm in May 1945. After Germany’s surrender, amazingly he considered the possibility of driving the Russians from Poland from force. He ordered the chiefs of staff to plan an operation codenamed Unthinkable, using 47 allied divisions and- even more astonishing- the remains of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. The resulting document began: ‘The overall object is to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire’. But they pointed out that the scope of any new conflict would not be for the West to determine: ‘Even though ‘the will’ of these two countries may be defined as no more than a square deal for Poland, that does not necessarily limit the military commitment. If the Russians want total war, they are in a position to have it’. The planners concluded: ‘We must be prepared to be committed to a total war, which will be both long and costly’.
It was a bizarre notion, that Hitler’s defeated legions might be mobilised to fight the Russians under allied command. Alan Brooke as head of the army wrote on 24 May 1945: ‘The whole idea is of course fantastic and the chances of success quite impossible’. It was lucky for Churchill’s reputation that the Unthinkable file was not released in the National Archive until more than 30 years after his death.
By 1945, though most of the British people were profoundly grateful to Churchill for his wartime leadership, they were bent upon installing a new order. Harold Nicolson was shocked one day to notice a scrawled graffiti in a station lavatory: ‘Winston Churchill is a bastard’. When he remarked upon it to an RAF officer standing beside him, the airman shrugged: ‘Yes. The tide has turned. We find it everywhere’.
‘But how foul. How bloody foul !’
‘Well, you see, if I may say so, the men hate politicians’.
‘Winston a politician ! Good God !’.
Smuts said, more than two years earlier: ‘Winston’s mind has a stop in it at the end of the war’. Even had Churchill won the 1945 election, the great conflict with which he would be inseparably identified for the rest of history had less than three weeks to run. The electorate performed a service to him, as well as to itself, by parting company when there was no more war for him to lead.
Churchill had wielded more power than any other British prime minister had known, or would know again. In 1938, he seemed a man out of his time, a patrician imperialist whose vision was rooted in Britain’s Victorian past. By 1945, while this remained true, and goes far to explain his own disappointments, it had not prevented him from becoming the greatest war leader his country had ever known. Himself believing Britain great, for a last brief season he was able to make her so.
His achievement was to exercise the privileges of a dictator without casting off the mantle of a democrat. General Ismay, his chief of staff, once found him bemoaning the bother of preparing a speech for the Commons, and obviously apprehensive about its reception. The soldier said emolliently: ‘Why don’t you tell them to go to hell ?’. Churchill turned in a flash: ‘You should not say those things: I am the servant of the House’. It should be a source of wonder and pride, that such a man ran Britain’s war more than half believing this.
It is easy to identify his strategic errors and misplaced enthusiasms. Yet the outcome justified all. The defining fact of Churchill’s leadership was Britain’s emergence from the war among the victors. No warlord, no commander, in history has failed to make mistakes. It is as easy to catalogue the errors of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon as those of Churchill. He towers over the war, standing higher than any other single human being at the head of the forces of light. Without him, Britain’s part would have seemed pretty small by VE-Day. Russia and the United States had played the dominant parts. No honourable course of action existed which could have averted his nation’s bankruptcy and exhaustion in 1945, its eclipse from world power.
Churchill did not command the confidence of all the British people all of the time. But his rhetoric empowered millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield, the squalor of their circumstances amid privation and bombardment, and to perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices. This was, of course, of greater importance in 1940-41 than later, when the allies could commit superior masses of men and material to securing victory. But Churchill’s words remains a lasting force in causing the struggle against Hitler to be perceived by posterity as ‘the good war’.
He cherished aspirations which often proved greater than his nation was capable of fulfilling, which is one of my central themes. But it is inconsistent to applaud his defiance of reason in insisting that Britain must fight on in June 1940, and denounce the extravagance of his later demands upon its people and armed forces. Service chiefs often deplored his misjudgements and intemperance. Yet his instinct for war was much more highly developed than their own.
There has often been speculation, about whether Churchill harboured any regrets at the end of his awesome career. Many people supposed that he had coveted a Victoria Cross, and this was surely true in his youth. But when his daughter Mary asked in his old age whether he felt that anything was missing from his own wondrous array of laurels, he said nothing of medals, but instead answered slowly: ‘I should have liked my father to have lived long enough to see that I made something of my life’.
Any assessment of Churchill’s wartime contribution must include words of homage to his wife. Clementine provided a service to the world by her manifold services to her husband, foremost among which was to tell him truths about himself. It would disrupt any family, to accommodate a lion in the drawing room. Without ever taming Winston, Clementine managed and tempered him as far as any mortal could, while sustaining her husband’s love in a fashion which moves posterity. Whatever he might have been without his indomitable wife, it would surely have been something less than he was.
History must take Churchill as a whole, as his wartime countrymen were obliged to do, rather than employ a spokeshave to strip away the blemishes created by his lunges into excess and folly, which were real enough. If the governance of nations in peace is best conducted by reasonable men, in war there is a powerful argument for leadership by those sometimes willing to adopt courses beyond the boundaries of reason, as Churchill did in 1940-41. His foremost quality was strength of will. This was so fundamental to his triumph in the early war years, that it seems absurd to suggest that he should have become more biddable, merely because in 1943-45 his stubbornness was sometimes deployed in support of misjudged purposes.
As he left Chequers for the last time in July 1945, he wrote in its visitor’s book: ‘FINIS’. Three weeks later, on 15 August, Japan’s surrender brought an end to the Second World War. Churchill was among the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs the world has ever known. Familiarity with his speeches, conversation and the fabulous anecdotage about his wartime doings, does nothing to diminish our capacity to be moved to awe, tears, laughter by the sustained magnificence of his performance. He has become today a shared British and American legend. If his leadership was imperfect, no other British ruler in history has matched his achievement nor, please God, is ever likely to find himself in circumstances to surpass it.