A page containing quotes and extracts from this mini-biography of "The Greatest Briton", Winston Churchill, by military historian John Keegan.
Note: Updated to include quotes from "Churchill's Generals", edited and introduced by John Keegan.
Churchill and History
~ Family and Youth
~ The Army: 1894-1900
~ Parliament: 1900-1910
~ The Centre of Events: 1910-1915
~ War and Peace: 1915-1932
~ The Coming of War: 1933-1940
~ A Prime Minister Alone: 1940-41
~ The Big Three: 1941-45
~ Beyond The Book: Churchill's Generals
~ Beyond The Book
Churchill, to those who were young in the wartime years, could seem a figure of exaggerated stature. The young seek heroes, and — to this schoolboy citizen of a Britain besieged — the Prime Minister seemed anything but heroic. Heroes strode the street in khaki or navy or air force blue, lean, fit and laughing, recently returned from battle or ready to depart. Churchill, in his shapeless siren suit and comic stovepipe hat, signatory cigar wedged between flabby fingers, looked wholly unsoldierly. The adulation of adults irritated: "Winston, good old Winston". A schoolboy in wartime Britain did not want old Winston but a young Winston, someone as dashing as the pilots who flew from local airfields... Portly Winston, with his jowls and grating voice, appeared a poor fellow beside such paragons. The Winston of the postwar years was worse. There was ungraciousness in his response to the people's will, which turned him out of office in 1945... Whatever their parents' political opinion, whatever their own, the young could not help but be touched by the excitement of the social revolution the winning Labour party promised. Churchill the opposition politician put the worst possible face on the socialism it preached. The young took the offers of socialism at face value. A free health service for all sounded self-evidently like a good thing... The Labour party said that it stood for a better Britain, and the young believed. Churchill's warning that a socialist Britain would be worse aroused disbelief, at least among the generation of the future. I was a member of that generation and remained quite immune to the Churchillian legend throughout my school and university years.
Churchill was succeeded (as Prime Minister in 1955) by his political son and heir, Anthony Eden... despite that rejuvenation, Eden's continuation of Churchillian postwar government failed to appeal to the new electorate. He and his colleagues seemd to them heavily Conservative in the old-fashioned sense: traditionally imperialist abroad, selfishly capitalist at home... Suez seemed the touchstone of last-gasp Churchillianism. The Suez crisis divided the country. To the older, the military attack may have seemed a proper reasseration of the imperial power that Britain was entitled to exercise by virtue of its history; to the young, it appeared a crass attempt at exerting an imperial authority that belonged to its historical past. One way or another, the failure at Suez marked the termination of the overseas epic of which Churchill, throughout his long life, had been standard-bearer. Suez spoke finis to all for which Churchill had stood.
"A tremendous battle
is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans [Churchill had a way of pronouncing
the word German that combined menace with contempt] by a remarkable combination
of air bombing and heavily armoured tanks ['remarkable' was a Churchillian
adjective that often conveyed contempt also] have broken through the French
defences north of the Maginot Line, and strong columns of their armoured
vehicles are ravaging the open country, which for the first day or two
was without defenders. They have penetrated deep and spread alarm and confusion
in their track. Behind them there are now appearing infantry in lorries,
and behind them, again, the large masses are moving forward."
- Analsying a speech from May 1940
Even as the crisis pressed upon Churchill the Prime Minister, Churchill the soldier could not resist recounting the sweep and drama of military maneuver, with brilliant if chilling effect.
I was suffused with
an unaccustomed sense of pride in country, and then with pride in common
citizenship with a man who, at a time when ordinary mortals might have
looked for accomodation with such an overpowering enemy, could feel such
courage and call for equal courage from those he led. That Churchill represented
the spirit of true leadership I thereafter had no doubt.
- John Keegan recalls his reaction to hearing the 'Finest Hour' speech in 1957
"We shall not flag
or fail. We shall go on to the end... We shall defend our island whatever
the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the
hills. We shall never surrender."
Those who heard those words, it is said, never forgot anything about them: the rhythem of his sentences, the timbre of his voice, above all the magnificiently defiant 'never' of "We shall never surrender". They were electrified; and that sensation, transferred by word of mouth from Members of Parliament to common people, began the process that Isaiah Berlin was to idenfity as the imposition of Churchill's "will and imagination upon his countrymen". It was transmitted "with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideals and began to see themselves as he saw them".
How did he see them?
Churchill the aristocrat was also Churchill the populist; in either guise
he was always, close beneath the skin, Churchill the romantic. He romanticized
the history of his country and, in so doing, easily romanticized its people.
Churchill the subaltern, as a young officer of the 4th Hussars, had known
Kipling's Tommy Atkins, the long-service private soldier of Empire... He
must, as Kipling did, have perceived their defects: social surliness, chauvinism,
contempt for racial inferiors. He also perceived their virtues: patriotism,
loyalty even to resented superiors, courage and the prevailing value of
fair play... As a soldier he learned of British manliness. As the son,
beloved charge and the husband of strong women he had come to understand
the deep Britishness of the opposite sex, Britishness to him standing for
courage, tenacity and an ultimate moral decency.
Hence the recurring themes of his great wartime speeches: the call to sacrifice, the warning of hardships in store — "The British are the only people who like to be told how bad things are," — and repeated, time after time, even when it defied reality, the promise of victory.
Churchill was innocent in his judgement of others' sexuality and apparently personally innocent of sexual experience until his marriage, at the age of 34, to Clementine Hozier, herself serenely pure-minded. Churchill was a moral oddity: a man who was wordly-wise without being a man of the world. It may have been his indifference to the lures of the flesh that heightened his susceptibility to the seduction of words and to the spell of history conceived as romance.
Famously, Charles de
Gaulle begins his memoirs with the declaration: "I have always had a particular
idea of France". Churchill, similarly, had a particular view of Britain...
Churchill loved France and admired its great men, particularly Clemenceau
and Foch, with whom he had waged the First World War; but he loved France
as a place of wartime adventure and of subsequent distraction and pleasures.
His feelings for his own country were different altogether: fierce, dutiful,
protective, proud. De Gaulle's were no doubt closely similar. While his
war memoirs, however, when they eventually appeared, were essentially an
explanation of how a great nation had preserved its spirit despite defeat,
Churchill had another story when he came to write "The Second World War"
— how a great nation, often threatened by tyrants, had in the severest
of ordeals staved off defeat and emerged once again victorious. De Gaulle's
war memoirs are a magnificent apology, Churchill's a paean of triumph.
Yet he indugles in no self-aggrandizing. Hold great office though he did, it was the greatness of others that he sought to proclaim, the greatness above all of the British people, stalwart and uncomplaining, and of the country to which they belonged.
Churchill saw Britain was the incarnation of its own history, told in terms of its institutions, laws and achievements. Parliament he venerated. Its laws he saw as the means by which Parliament, and therefore the people, gave force to the fundamental principles on which their society was founded: the freedom of the individual, the sanctity of justice, the limitation of the power of the state. Britain's achievements — the defeat on Continental imperialists, the foundation of its own Empire, victory over European warlords and dictators — he viewed as the process by which its constitutional values were enforced in the inetrnational arena and transmitted to the wider world.
Churchill's historical vision was simple and direct — too simple to be taken seriously by professional historians. They see complexities and ambiguities; Churchill saw certainties. Those certainties derived directly from the sources he used to teach himself the island's story, historians Henry Hallam, WEH Lecky, Thomas Babington Macauley, champions all of the Whig view that British life broadened down from precedent to precedent, each precedent an advance toward the desired ends of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, on which the Whig fathers of his mother's country had founded their commonwealth. They derived also from the mighty rhythms of the prose in which he learned the history he loved, made it his own, and transmitted it to his people in literature and rhetoric. No influence was more pervasive than the prose of Edward Gibbon... No influence was stronger on his mode of thought than the prose of the Old Testament.
Churchill the war leader was literature in action and written history in realization. When the terrible ordeal of conflict was over, the magnificient language of Exodus and "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" welled up into an epitome of his own and his nation's life.
The glow of military achievement and the splendour of empire have almost faded away, but a true glory continues to gleam over Churchill's life, works and words.
# FAMILY AND YOUTH
Winston's father, Lord Randolph Churchill, married an American heiress, Jennie Jerome, whose father was a stockbroker and part-owner of the "New York Times". It was an era of alliances between rich American beauties and titled British gentlemen. American money was desired to rescue once great families from the consequences of extravagance. British titles were sought as ornaments to vulgar fortune. In some cases the exchange worked. Mary Leiter, of Chicago, became Lady Curzon, beloved and loving wife of a future viceroy of India. In Lord Randolph's case it did not... Their relationship was fraught from the start with tension, and they spent much time apart even during Winston's infancy.
When death at last overtook Jennie, in 1922, she was still "very beautiful and splendid," in Winston's description of her lying at rest: "All the sunshine and storm of life was over." She had brought him more storm than sunshine. A boy born into the sort of family that normally supplied the imperial service class, in which he was to make his career, should have been able to count on the support of high-mined, principled parents, wedded to the ideals of duty, honour, country. Instead his family inheritance was of ruthless political ambition on his father's side and frivolous social and sexual self-indulgence on his mother's. Churchill should have gone to the bad. The wonder is that he did not. What perhaps saved him was the military ethic, which was to guide his path in the aftermath of his father's early death.
"I wrote my name at
the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question, '1'. After
much reflection I put a bracket around it, thus, '(1)'. But thereafter
I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant
or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and
several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle; and
then merciful ushers collected up my piece of foolscap and carred it up
to the headmaster's table."
- Churchill, recalling his Harrow Latin extrance exam in "My Early Life"
# THE ARMY
On entrance to the
fellowship of the 4th Hussars, Churchill became a fully-fledged soldier,
bound not only to the profession of arms but to a particular military society.
The British regiments founded in the Victorian age were an almost unique
form of military organization, not only self-selecting and self-governing
but also self-perpetuating... They copied the German system of drawing
their recruits from a specified geographical area, and in choosing, by
regimental scrutiny, their own officers, who thereafter became exclusively
their own. British regiments differed in this way: German soldiers were
conscripts, returning to civilian life after two years; British soldiers
enlisted for seven years and often re-engaged, so taht they both they and
their officers made long-service careers together... Regiments like the
4th Hussars were not only military units but social families, whose members
knew each other on intimate terms and knew no other life beyond the bonds
of regimental life.
Winston, given a different character, might have settled easily into a cosy hussar regime. Many of his contemporaries did so, making meritorious careers and retiring as respected veterans, honoured in regimental circles and in wider British society. Theirs was a small world, a conventional one, but known and understood. The clergy of the Church of Englanf pursued similar paths through life, as did Oxford and Cambridge dons and masters at the great public schools. They enjoyed the satisfaction of an insider's life, financially ill-rewarded but locally esteemed and emotionally secure.
To the pursuit of local esteem and emotional security Winston was temperamentally ill suited... Even as a newly commissioned subaltern he was seeking a wider stage, a national name, political importance... He had already identified the means to short-circuit the conventional career: journalism and politics.
Northwestern frontiersman were warriors in the Homeric sense, enjoying fighting for its own sake, often against one another, for the blood feud was central to their way of life. Acutely sensitive to slight, jealous of personal honour, and savagely cruel to an opponent unable any longer to defend himself, they tortured, mutilated, and killed without compunction. They were feared but also admired by the British, who enlisted them as irregular constabulary and even as regular soldiers of the Indian army, always in the knowledge that such brothers-in-arms, once back in tribal territory would, when the mood took them, snipe at, knife, or castrate sepoys or Tommies as if they were lifelong enemies.
As a soldier, between 1895 and 1900, Churchill had led a charmed life and he could count himself lucky to leave South Africa untouched by shot or shell, to take up the life of politics in England.
Though politics was to consume Churchill's later youth, adulthood and maturity, his military years must be counted among the most significant of his life. He had never reason to doubt thereafter his physical courage. He had been shot at many times, often from close range, had fired back with his personal weapons, and had killed other human beings. Winston had seen what death meant with his own eyes, and — though the excitement of making war would possess him throughout both world conflicts — he never lost sight of its tragedy.
"Horrible war, amazing
medley of the glorious and squalid, the pitiful and sublime, if modern
men of light and learning saw your face closer, simple folk would see it
- Winston Churchill, recalling the aftermath of a Boer War battle
Churchill did not belong to the world of simple folk, but — even as one of the 20th century's leading men — he would always strive, in his struggle against the seduction of war's glory, to keep its horror clear before his eyes.
In October 1900 Churchill was elected to the House of Commons by a narrow margin, and he took his seat on February 14, 1901.
In South Africa he had formed a powerful admiration for the Boer citizen-soldiers. His keen understanding of military realities had also brought him to doubt the wisdom of British efforts to emulate Germany and France in the expansion of the army... [He argued] one corps was "quite enough to fight savaged, and three not enough even to begin to fight Europeans." It was a penetrating point. France and Germany, the latter with the largest army in Europe and already beginning to build a 'high seas' navy, each had more than 20 corps.
Churchill made a curious Conservative... he had a Liberal suspicion of high state expenditure for military purposes.
"A European war cannot
be anything but a cruel, heartrending struggle, which, if we are ever to
enjoy the fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the
whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries,
and the concentration to one end of every vital energy of the community."
- Churchill, writing in 1901 to Britain's Secretary of State for War
Churchill's speechs on the Army Estimates of 1901 were remarkable for three reasons. The first is that they reveal an extraordinary prescience. Churchill's forecast of the nature of a future great European war, based entirely upon his observation of the efefct of high-velocity rifle and high-explosive artillery fire in South Africa, was acutely accurate. What he predicted — heavy casualties and protracted battles — was exactly what came about in France and Belgium from 1914 onward. The second is that they disclose an early and unremarked understanding of the importance of maintaining the nation's prosperity as a positive social good. Oldham was a working-class constituency, and Churchill recognized the claims of labour to security of employment and a decent wage... He was, at the time if not always in the future, a believer in free trade as a means to securing high living standards for all... The third remarkable dimension is the commitment it reveals to Britain's moral particularism. In his great wartime speeches of 1940-45, Churchill was to proclaim time and again his belief that his country was superior — by reason of its championship of democracy, personal liberty, and the rule of law — to the totalitarian regimes it opposed... Churchill believed, with fundamentla force, in his country's moral elevation above others, by reason of its electoral form of government and legal guarantees of the freedom of the individual.
What, Churchill asked, was the rational alternative to attempting to match the continental countries' military might? It was, he insisted, to concentrate expenditure as the instrument that protected Britain's true source of standing in the world, its industrial and commercial strength. "Why should we sacrifice a game in which we are sure to win, to play a game we are bound to lose? The whole course of our history, the geography of our country, all the evidences of the present situation proclaim beyond doubt that Britain's power and prosperity depend upon the economic command of markets and the Navy's command of the seas."
"I see little glory
in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its own sewers."
- Churchill, before his move from the Conservative to Liberal Party (1901)
On the pretext of deploring the consequences for recruitment to the armed forces, Churchill made Seebohn Rowntree's "Poverty: A Study of Town Life" a text of his speeches and writings.
The Liberals wanted a party readier to accept social responsibility, less devoted to the moneyed case. Churchill's particular concerns were with generosity to the defeated Boers, reduced military spending, and maintenance of free trade... By 1903 Joseph Chamberlain, who had become a Tory stalwart, was advocating a general program of tariffs, with exceptions for imports from the Empire — "imperial preference". Churchill opposed both consistently and loudly... Chamberlain was possessed by genuine concern for the survival of British industry in the face of more efficient competitors, which profited from the earliness of Britain's Industrial Revolution to imitate it and better it... Winston's convictions, nevertheless, were heartfelt. While he wanted to be a Conservative, it was on his father's terms of Tory democracy, which valued the needs of the working man as high as those of his employer and landlord. By early 1904 Churchill's separation from his party was almost complete.
The aspirations of the Catholic Irish were identical to those of the Boers and similar to those of the burgeoning Indian national movement. Against the concept of an independent India Churchill would, however, shut his face, right up to the grant of Indian independnece in 1947; Irish nationalism remained repugnant to his Unionist soul until Irish rebellion forced a change of heart in 1921. Then it was the character and courage of Michael Collins, the Sinn Fein guerrilla leader, which altered Churchill's mood. He came to admire Collins, as he had learned to admire the Boer warriors during his struggle against them in 1899-1900. He never came to admire the Indian nationalists, who took their lead from the pacifist Gandhi rather than the revolutionaries in the independence movement. Democrat and institutionalist though he was, Churchill had a gut sympathy for fighters. The Boers were fighters; the Indians were not, nor the Irish either until the extremity of the Anglo-Irish crisis was reached in 1916. Indians he was always to hold in contempt; eventually he was to grant the Irish a grudging respect; it was the fighting Boers who enjoyed his wholehearted admiration.
# WAR AND PEACE
To remake a political career he had himself done so much to destroy tried all Churchill's talents. His reputation was stained in so many ways: by his change of party, for which the Conservatives had never forgiven him; by his indulgence in controversial journalism; by the showiness of his excursion to Antwerp; above all, by his advocacy of the Dardanelles expedition and its costly failure... The early 20th century House of Commons, centre and hotbed of contemporary politics, could be very cruel indeed. The form of cruelty it showed to Churchill after his return from the trenches was studied indifference. He was ignored. When he rose to speak, ministers did not answer... He had never before failed to command attention. It hurt and humiliated him to find that he could not.
A true libertarian, Churchill had a hatred of the Soviet system as genuine as his hatred of Nazism, and of a longer date. It took a calculation of extreme expediency for him to set aside his repugnance for all that Stalin represented to recommend him to the British people as a confederate in common adversity. It was a temporary position. In old age, when the war was over, and the guarantee of the American alliance was sure, Churchill would revert, without inconsistency, to the anti-Communism that had been one of the central principles of his political life.
Churchill was alarmed by the rise of Britain's Labour Party. Despite his commitment in youth to Liberal welfarism, he feared Labour's tenderness toward the Soviet Union and its increasingly socialist economic policy. He doubted the capacity of the Liberal party to restore itself as an effective party of opoosition. During 1924 he began to adjust his political position... In April he told the Liverpool Conservatives that their party alone could defeat socialism.
Despite the strong and long-lingering suspicion that Churchill had left the Conservatives because the electoral mood doomed them to years out of office and had rejoined them again because by then it was the Liberals who looked the spent force, there was consistency in his conduct. Churchill, unlike most public men of the contemporary upper class, had strong political beliefs. Though not an intellectual, he was philosophically a libertarian who also held that the state had a responsibility to provide for the welfare of its poorer citizens. It was the welfare issue, characterized by him as "Tory democracy", that had impelled him to change sides in 1904. In 1924 it was his libertarianism. He took the Labour party's rhetoric at face value, recoiled from its commitment to expropriation and nationalization, and suspected its internationalis foreign policy. The Liberals having lost their electoral following, he recognized that only the Conservatives could oppose Labour in Parliament. It was for that reason that he crossed the floor a second time.
The menance of renascent German militarism was to be Churchill's theme for the next six years of his political and parliamentary life.
In February 1933, a
month after Hitler became chancellor, Churchill, speaking in Oxford, evoked
Germany's new spirit:
"I think of Germany with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on all the roads of the Reich, singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland."
# THE COMING OF WAR
Churchill's political life thus far had been associated with particular causes: Tory democracy first, then social reform, last of all "the Dardanelles", a cry that was to haunt him throughout his later 40s and 50s. After 1932, when he became 58, an age at which most politicians enter into decline, he espoused a new cause, opposition to appeasement, that was to carry him to political greatness.
Appeasement as a policy was slow to take form, developing only in response to the attack on democracy mounted by the totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian politics, the dominant movement of the 1930s, was a politics of grievance... The totalitarian idea made no room for opposition in the electoral system; though sometimes calling itself socialist, as the Nazi party did in Germany, it was violently opposed to the Bolshevik socialism of the Russian communists. It was also fiercely and radically imperialist.
Appeasement took definite shape only in 1936, but its outlines were detectable much earlier, and were recognized and denounced by Churchill in the first days of the Nazi seizure of power. It was that prescience that earned him, if in retrospect, his title as the 20th century's great champion of liberty. What Churchill saw, others did not.
Hindsight reproaches Churchill's opponents — particularly Neville Chamberlain — with unconcern for national security. Contemporary realities explain their desire to spend what money could be raised by revenue on import penalty, export subsidy, unemployment relief and balancing the budget. The critical event in British politics in the early 1930s was not, as later judgement suggests, Hitler's seizure of power in Germany in 1933 but the collapse of the national economy in 1931. It was an effect of the world economic crisis that began with the American stock market crash in 1929... Unemployment reached nearly 3 million in January 1933, out of a potential workforce of 20 million... Worse than the slump itself was the effect on popular perceptions of Britain's state and on official efforts to bring back better times... The British felt badly off during the 1930s.
Public alarm was unfounded. The 1930s were eventually to prove, public perception to the contrary, a prosperous decade. Outside the Depressed Areas — Welsh mining valleys, the Scottish Lowlands, the shipbuilding centres in Cumberland and Tyneside — most of Britain enjoyed a modest boom... Unemployment fell during the 1930s; real wages rose. The British felt badly off only because they empathized with the misfortunes of those objectively badly off, a shrinking minority. Nevertheless, the after-effects of the world crash and the subsequent British slump set the tone for British politics in what, for Churchill, would be his Wilderness Years.
Under Chamberlain's chancellorship the armed services were starved of funds. He denied the Royal Navy new capital ships and the Royal Air Force modern aircraft. The army was left in an almost archaic state, with equipment suitable only for conducting colonial operations.
France declared its intention to assist the Czechs (after the Anschluss) if they suffered unprovoked aggression. Churchill, speaking in the Commons, urged Britain to join in "a solemn treaty for mutual defence against aggression" under the League of Nations covenant. "If it were done," he urged, "in the year 1938 — and believe me it may be the last chance there will be for doing it — then I say that you might even now arrest this approaching war... Let those who wish to reject it ponder well and earnestly what will happen to us, if when all else has been thrown to the wolves, we are left to face our fate alone."
# A PRIME MINISTER ALONE
It is now often thought that Churchill became Prime Minister because of the success of the German blitzkrieg, which produced the strategic catastrophe against which he had warned throughout the appeasement years. It is ironic, in retrospect, to perceive that the appeasers were brought down by their mishandling of the comparitively insignificant sideshow in Norway, leaving Churchill to inherit the catastrophe he had argued so long to avert, during the first hours of its unrolling. Churchill became a wartime prime minister — at the age of 65 — in the fire of crisis, without a moment given to him to consider policy or even to learn the routine of office.
Churchill found supporters whom Chamberlain had been lacking. The Labour Party, led by Attlee, which Chamberlain had decline to include in government, came across to him en bloc; so did the surviving Liberals. It was as a true national leader that Churchill assumed power.
Churchill told the War Cabinet that "nations which went down fighting rose again, but those who surrendered tamely were finished".
The British remembered, and were reminded in every newspaper and broadcast, that they were an imperial and warrior nation, who had defeated every tyrant they had ever opposed and who were not now to submit to an Austrian house-painter (as Hitler was universally, if mistakenly, identified).
Churchill's belief that the defeated peoples of Europe could be brought to wear down Germany's control from within was to prove, almost everywhere, one of his most ill-judged ideas...The Special Operations Executive was to lend support and supplies to the fighting groups that Churchill expected to appear spontaneously behind enemy lines, as they had among the Boers after their defeat in the field in 1900-1902... However, his equation of the Boer War with the Second World War — and British imperialists with Nazi ideologues — was deeply mistaken. The idea of 'fair play' had prevailed in South Africa, particularly among the British conquerors. To the Nazis, legality and fair play were symptoms of democratic weakness that they glorified in affronting. Resistance was treated as illegal rebellion and put down by atrocity; resisters were sent to concentration camps, where most of them died sooner or later; those taken in arms were shot immediately... Rooted in public-school morality, Churchill never anticipated the advantage that nihilistic amorality accorded his enemies — or that those who heeded his call to "set Europe ablaze" would pay a terrible price for doing so.
Churchill's belief in the power of resisters to weaken to Nazi grip on occupied Europe belonged with other flights of his strategic imagination. General Sir Alan Brooke, for most of the war his military chief of staff, observed that the prime minister had ten ideas every day, one good, nine bad and that much of his own energy was consumed in discrediting the bad. They included a large number of schemes for diversionary offensives... Norway was a favourite objective, though its geography would have doomed a successful landing to frustration. Here Churchill's constant probing and feinting had at least the beneficial effect of feeding Hitler's own fantasy of a deadly Scandinavian danger, causing him to leave ten precious divisions idle in Norway throughout the war.
Yet Churchill's restless search for means to hit back at least had the effetc of sustaining his own fierce resolve to achieve eventual victory, even at the lowest points of the war... The Battle of Britain was hard fought to a narrow but decisive British victory. Even as it began, however, Churchill decided on August 11 to rob the garrison of the home islands of their last sizeable tank force and send it to Egypt, which Mussolini, who had brought Italy into the war on June 10, was threatening to invade. Egypt was the crucial link between Britain's European and Asian centres of power... With the Mediterranean Fleet and the Army of the Nile (later the Eighth Army), Churchill controlled the means to take the offensive against Italy but also to disrupt Hitler's plans to extend his empire into southern Europe.
Britain's small African victories did not weaken Hitler; indeed, Rommel was shortly to reverse the Eighth Army's successes in Libya. Nevertheless they sustained domestic morale and allowed Churchill to represent Britain to the United States as a nation still actively waging war. America's future strategic policy was now Churchill's chief preoccupation.
What sustained Churchill, and the British people, during the second six months of "standing alone", January-June 1941, now defies easy understanding. Bombing was killing thousands of civilians every month and burning out not only central London but also the centres of the provincial cities... U-boat warfare had reduced the individual's diet to one egg and a few ounces of meat each week. Clothing was wearing out and could not be easily replaced. Fuel for domestic heating was harshly rationed, like every other commodity. Luxuries had disappeared; alcohol was hard to come by; only tobacco, judged essential to morale, could readily be bought. The war was dragging out into an apparently interminable and cheerless future.
The answer to the question of what sustained Churchill and the British in the darkest days is that it was his own words. From them the people took hope and Churchill drew inspiration... By the practice of speaking and writing, particularly the writing of a herocized history of his own nation, he had built up a great reserve of imagery upon which he now drew to forge what would indeed prove to be his tools of battle.
Churchill's words did not only touch his people's hearts and move the emotions of their future American allies; they also set the moral climate of the war. Hitler, a mob orator, spoke little after 1939. When he did so, it was to utter threats and insults, glorifying aggression, deriding his enemies. Churchill, by contrast, avoided threats, condemned few. Instead he appealed to a commonality and nobility of sentiment that took liberty as its ideal and humanity as its spirit. He always spoke, moreover, as if the idea of liberty, though particularly incarnate in wartime Britain, was shared by all who did not actively oppose it, in this way reaching out to embrace as allies, actual or potential, all those not on Hitler's side.
Churchill's message triumphed. It was perhaps the greatest of his achievements. In 1940 his words captured the hearts of his people. In 1941, and in the years that followed, his words drowned out the drumbeat of totalitarianism that had dominated the airwaves of the dictator years, revived belief in democracy among the downtrodden, inspired a new patriotism in the defeated, created a new confidence, and transmitted a promise of victory that was believed. Morally, Churchill set the agenda for the Second World War. Its realization determined, after 1945, the future of the world.
"No one has been a
more consistent opponent of Communism for the last 25 years. I will unsay
no word I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle
which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies, its tragedies,
flashes away... Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have
our aid... It follows therefore that we shall give whatever help we can
to Russia and the Russian people."
- Churchill's broadcast after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union (1941)
# THE BIG THREE
By mid-summer 1943 the Red Army has passed to the ascendant on the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht had lost its strategic reserve of tanks in its ill-conceived attack at Kursk and would henceforth fight on the defensive. Staling was consequently emboldened to demand greater and more immediate efforts from his Anglo-American allies against Hitler's "Fortress Europe"... The issue of the invasion of Europe was driving Churchill into a corner... The Americans were in full stride in their reconquest of the Pacific islands. Britain, by contrast, had lost the ability to win victories unaided. A sortie into the Dodecanese Islands off the Turkish coast ended in disaster. Bomber Command's night offensive against Germany, on which Churchill had counted so much, was beginning to be matched in intensity by an American daylight campaign; the RAF's "Battle of Berlin" would end in stalemate, as destruction inflicted on the city was exceeded in value by aircraft losses.
The cheers that greeted
Churchill on VE-Day in Whitehall, and wherever else he went in Britain
in the weeks that followed, were genuinely heartfelt. He was supremely
popular. That was a tribute to the man himself. The British saw him as
the leader who had won the war.... The British people knew that had done
a great thing. Whatever their occasional and individual failings below
the nation's traditions of greatness to which he had appealed, they felt
that they had indeed done their best, that women and men alike had braved
the fierce attacks of the enemy, and that together they had sustained as
a people the nation's independent resolve, in the interest of the idea
Yet, though they willingly gave him a generous share of the glory that belonged to their victory, they had already decided that the leadership he had given in wartime was not what they wanted in the approaching peace. For all his early commitment to social reform, and despite his wartime government's enactment of an enlightened policy for education, Churchill was seen by the man and women in the street as reactionary. His reputation was anti-worker and anti-welfare. Detailed examination of his poltical record would have shown otherwise, but elections are fought not on academic analysis but on gut feeling. In 1945 the British political parties, Conservative and Labour (the Liberals having delined into insignificance), faced the first general election since 1935. The mass of the electorate, which included several million servicemen voting overseas, had decided it wanted a government that was pro-worker and pro-welfare.
Churchill had not helped his party's case by alleging, even while the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, remained his deputy in the interim government, that Socialism, as he always called Labour policy, was "inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State" and that Labour "would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo" to achieve its aims. Not only were the allegations extraordinarily insensitive, they were also unfair. Attlee's party had doctrinaire economic views, easily seen in retrospect to be quite inappropriate to the country's long-term material well-being; its leaders, Attlee foremost, were, however, sincere libertarians and proud British patriots. Attlee had commanded an infantry company in the Gallipoli campaign. The man he appointed Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was to prove one of the most defiant anti-Communists of the early Cold War. The Gestapo speech was one of the worst-judged acts of Churchill's political career. He wisely did not resume that theme.
At the pit of Britain's military fortunes, he had told one of his private secretaries, John Colville, "controversy could be left to History but he intended to be one of the historians". He resumed the role of historians almost as soon as political power had been taken from him.
His magnificant speeches of 1940-1 had succeeded in bringing the uncommitted to recognize the Nazis as villains and the British as heroes in a conflict between tyranny and liberty of universal significance.
Churchill's "The Second World War" is a great work of literature, combining narrative, historical imagination and moral precept in a form that bears comparison with that of the original master chronicler, Thucydides. It was wholly appropriate that in 1953 Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
The outcome of the
war in which the United States and Britain had been allies "was certainly
not the Liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains
the essential elements of permanent peace".
- Assessing Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946
The British people recognized in Churchill's death the passing not only of one of the greatest of their fellow countrymen who had ever lived but also of a supremely heroic moment in their own life as a nation.
In Britain his memory has been subsumed into something larger, the popular memory of the Second World War, which has been transformed into a national saga. "This is your victory," Churchill told the Whitehall crowds on May 8, 1945. With the passing of the years he has come to be believed even more. As the war generation ages, its survivors find themselves honoured and celebrated almost as Churchill himself was during the years of his leadership. Their obituaries fill long columns in the newspapers. The anniversaries of their victories fill the British calendar... On Remembrance Sunday in November the nation observes a two-minute silence; the Last Post and Reveille are sounded in Whitehall; and then the veterans defile in their thousands — sailors from the Arctic convoys, soldiers who fought at Alamein, the air crews of Bomber Command, parachutists in red berets, commandos in green, the firemen who fought the blazes of the Blitz, nurses, the blinded, amputees in wheelchairs, and the widows of men whose graves lie in Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Burma and the oceanic deep... The intensity of the British people's pride in what Churchill called their victory is the way in which they implictly remember him.
Clemmie Churchill perceived at the outset his towering ambition to be "in office and power". Office seekers and the power hungry are, almost without exception, defective human beings and often dangerous to their fellows. Clemmie saw beyond the ambirion to recognize the nobility of purpose that his ambition strove to fulfil. She saw that he sought to stand above the crowd not out of selfishness or vanity, but because he believed in the greatness of his country and the universal validity of the principles — above all that of individual freedom — that through the evolution of its long history it had come to represent.
Churchill never abandoned his love affair with war... However the gratification of victory, which he enjoyed in India, the Sudan and South Africa, he learned to see as a shallow sensation, unless victory was moral as well as material. In South Africa, in particular, he learned respoect for the vanquished and concern for the welfare of the defeated.
His early political life was devoted to organizing a system of support for the weak who had been defeated by the harshness of industrial life. Churchill's reputation as a social reformr has now been so overlaid by that of war leader as to be forgotten. His commitment, however, was genuine and his achievements were considerable. Had peace persisted he might now be remembered, if only by political historians, as a pioneer of Britain's welfare state.
In 1940 events offered him the opportunity to make the present itself into an epic.
The essence of Churchill's
magnificient life is captured in a speech he wrote to mark the unveiling
of the memorial to the Royal Navy Division, of which he had been the founder,
in 1925, long before the culmination of the horrors of the 20th century
that brought him to greatness:
"We are often tempted to ask ourselves what we gained by the enormous sacrifices made by those to whom this memorial is dedicated. But that was never the issue with those who marched away. No question of advantage presented itself to their minds. They only saw the light shining on the clear path to duty. They only saw their duty to resist oppression, to protect the weak, to vindicate the profound but unwritten Law of Nations. They never asked the question, 'What shall we gain?' They asked only the question, 'Where lies the right?' It was thus that they marched away for ever, and yet from the uncalculating exaltation and devotion, detached from all consideration of material gain, we may be sure that good will come to their countrymen and to this island they guarded in its reputation and safety, so faithfully and so well."
Occasionally and unintentionally men write their own epitaphs. Winston Churchill's tribute to the sailors-turned-soldiers of the RND may stand as his own memorial.
# CHURCHILL's GENERALS edited by JOHN KEEGAN
[Inroduction by John
Churchill was a soldier. He had been commissioned from the Royal Military College into the 4th Hussars, had charged with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, served in the South African Light Horse, and commanded the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers in the trenches of the First World War.
Much of the British army had *met* churcholl soldiering and were familiar with the sight of him in khaki. It was not, however, as a soldier that his brother officers thought of him. He had been a minister and had sat in the Cabinet. He remained an MP. Above all, however, he had been a war correspondent, a trade he had begun while still a subaltern. It had caused resentment at the time, resentment which Churchill had returned when he was denied facilities to write as he chose.
Churchill relished the military life, revelled in action, romanticized the profession of arms, thought of himself as a soldier, treading in the footsteps of his ancestor the great Duke of Marlborough, yet nevertheless expected that as a junior officer he should be allowed, as his biographer William Manchester put it, "to praise or deprecate his seniors... to write for newspapers while wearing uniform".
By the time the Second World War broke out, Churchill had added greatly to his output of military writing but had also transformed his reputation... His life of 'Marlborough' had won nothing but praise... Churchill's party loyalty might have been compromised in the past. His patriotism had never been in doubt and, now that circumstances had driven the country to war with dictators against whom he had railed so long as a lonely voice, he had become *the* patriot, awaiting only the moment when circumstances would bring the victory in which he could rejoice or the setback which would carry him to national leadership.
How gifted was Churchill to command the war-making power of Britain at the supreme crisis of the nation's life? Although he had held all three service ministries, and the Admiralty twice, had been a member of Lloyd George's and Chamerlain's War Cabinets, and had fought as a combatant on the North-West Frontier, in the Sudan, in South Africa and on the Western Front, the only campaigns in which he had been closely involved in the direction of operations were Antwerp and the Dardanelles. The first had been a brief and peripheral episode in 1914, but may be judged a success; The second had been a protracted and tragic failure, which had forced Churchill to leave office and had overshadowed his reputation and his own thinking for years after.
Churchill saw Britain's "war-making power" as essentially amphibian, even though he was wise enough to perceive that the essence of war in his own time was attritional. The tension between his emotional, romantic vision of war as an escapade and his sombre, realistic appreciation of the relentless character it had assumed in the modern age was to dominate his direction of operations and later his strategic diplomacy throughout the Second World War. His heart was fired by daring lunges at the enemy's weak points... His head told him that the power of the German Reich had to be broken by other means: the defeat of the U-boats, the strategic bombing of German cities, the invasion of north-west Europe. Throughout the war his conduct of operations was to oscillate between the romantic and the realistic: he could rarely resist an adventure but was consistently drawn back into the mainstream of strategy by the promoptings of his own common sense, reinforced, of course, by the arguments and advice of his staff officers, of whom Alanbrooke was to prove the most influential.
Churchill's other fascination was with 'special operations'... His experience in the Boer War had been formative. It had persuaded him that a people in arms could disrupt the purpose of even the mightiest empire, and from that conclusion he drew the belief that what the Boers had done the Poles, Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and French might do likewise. It was in that belief that he most clearly revealed his tendency to romanticize war-making. For the truth was, of course, that the British had been as 'good-hearted' as the Boers in their conduct of the campaign in South Africa... What Churchill failed to grasp was that the Germans under Hitler were not prepared to play the gentlemen... Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment without trial, summary execution, hostage-taking and finally mass murder were all methods that the Germans were prepared to use.
What sort of men were Churchill's generals? In age, background, education, training and experience they were remarkably similar, typical products of ther class and age... British generals of the Second World War were almost exclusively infantrymen or gunners, a reflection of the character of the First World War in which they had all served. A high proportion had fought in the trenches and been highly decorated for bravery. Many of them had been wounded at close range.
The spirit of the German
(staff officer) course was intellectual rather than procedural, concerned
not to teach routines, but to inculate powers of analysis and a cast of
mind that would ensure all graduates should react congruently when confronted
by a similar military problem.
British officers, by contrast, had a far wider range of experience, military and non-military, than their German contemporaries or those of any other army, an advantage which went far to compensate for the defects in their formal training. The small wars of empire gave them frequent practice in the command of troops in action; the politics of empire, which underlay such wars, accustomed them to co-operating with imperial civil servants in the implementation of strategies which, though smale in scale, were often complex in nature; while the varied terrain and climate of the empire itself, and the absence of resources and difficulties of supply in remote campaigning-grounds imposed an excellent practical training in logistics.
One among Churchill's generals escaped categorization by training or experience: Alan Brooke — or Alanbrooke as he became known after assuming that title in the peerage. He had both a mind and a character of exceptional quality... and was demonstrably the most able man in Churchill's military entourage. He was a superb military technician... and also a large-minded strategist, who comprehended both the essentials of Britain's interests in the waging of the Second World War and the limits which Britain's strengths and weaknesses imposed on the strategic choices which had to be made. He disapproved of Churchill's "sideshows"; on the other hand, he stoutly supported Churchill in his objection to a premature launching of the cross-Channel invasion, because he recognized how injurious failure would be to a Britain weakened by three years of war which the US had not undergone... Such differences (between Churchill) he disguised from the Americans, however, thus acting perfectly correctly as a shield to his master but a supported of his policies in the public forum.
Churchill admired physical courage above almost all other qualities. Some men held that the brave could do no wrong in his eyes; Auchinleck was brave and Churchill had confided to Alexander a few days after dismissing him the emotional trouble it had caused him. "You know", he said, "it was like killing a magnificient stag." ...He called Freyburg 'the Salamander', because like the mythical creature he could live in fire, and forgave him even the loss of Crete, which may have been taking indulgence too far. All these generals - Auchinleck, Alexander, Gort, Freyburg - were warriors "that every men at arms would wish to be", or that Churchill in his romantic mood would wish to have been; that they were not very good generals was a truth to which he could blind himself.
Churchill was fond of saying that it was the role of the political leader to organize 'creative tension' between subordinates. No more creative tension existed in his war leadership that that between himself and his leading general, Montgomery. Both were men of high self-consciousness and of deep emotion. Both found it easy to believe that they were right and others wrong.
The flaw in all Churchill's appointments to high command was that he would, had circumstances permitted, really have preferred to exercise command himself, at all times and all places. Churchill was a frustrated Marlborough, who itched to be both the general on the field of battle and the presiding genius of the alliance.
Churchill was the longest serving of all Hitler's opponents and, by any reckoning, the most implacable and successful of his foes.
Gort by Brian Bond]
Gort attained the heights of his profession as CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) and Commander-in-Chief of the Field Force (between 1937 and 1940) and at a comparitively young age, but then suffered the common fate of British commanders at the start of the war, being made a scapegoat for peacetime neglect of the army and relegated to the sidelines.
John Dill by Alex Danchev]
John Greer Dill, for so many the epitome of the perfect English gentleman, was born in 1881 in Lurgan, County Armagh, Ulster, "where in those days the Pope was not very well spoken of," as he recalled much later for the Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish Society. "In my youth I have seen Orangemen on side-cars driving down what they calkled Papish streets spoiling for a fight, and getting it..."
Dill is held to have an ineffective CIGS because he allowed himself to be 'worn-down' and possibly 'worn out' by Churchill; because he failed to deliver what the faithful Ismay called the "one thing that was necessary, and indeed that Winston preferred - someone to stand up to him"... In reality Dill did stand up to Churchill, but not in the most effective fashion. The most obvious problemn was Churchill's peculiarly forensic personalized approach to any operation which engaged his attention, together with the 'Parliamentary manners' so alienating to some generals. As John Connell has explained, "Churchill had matured in an atmosphere in which it is taken for granted that one Member may... abuse another with unrelenting ferocity on the floor of the House and then - his speech ended - walk out arm in arm with his opponent to a drink in the smooking room or bar." Dill experienced classic difficulties of adaptation.
To paraphrase Balfour's celebrated remark about Churchill's earlier memories, Winston wrote an enormous book about himself and called it 'The Second World War'.
It was Dill's misfortune to joins the Chiefs of Staff committee at a time when acquiescent colleagues, impossibly scarce resources and an impetuous Prime Minister combined to make the cautionary advice of the CIGS at once desperately necessary and singularly unpalatable.
'Finest hours' were beyond the Army's means in 1940-41.
Perhaps the most fundamental
issue on which Dill stood up to Churchill was that of strategic priorities...
Dill's note was prompted by recent admonitions on the signal importance
of Egypt to the British war effort. Dill argued that:
"The loss of Egypt would be a calamity which I do not regard as likely and one which we should not accept without a most desperate fight; but it would not end the war. A successful invasion alone spells our final defeat. It is the United Kingdom... and not Egypt that is vital, and the defence of the UK must take first place. Egypt is not even second in order of priority, for it has been an accepted principle in our strategy that in the last resort the security of Singapore comes before that of Egypt..."
Dill's immediate concern was that further reinforcement of the Middle East, ardently sponsored by Churchill, would endanger the safety of the UK. It was in this contect that Dill responded to Churchill's taunts: "I am sure that you, better than anyone else, must realize how difficult it is for a soldier to advise against a bold and offensive plan... It takes a lot of moral courage not to be afraid of being thought afraid." On this occasion Dill was prepared to resign if overruled; and to appeal to the War Cabinet if that were refused. The Prime Minister was induced to retract.
It was Dill who responded to the imperative of the moment and established the wearying but constructive adversarial relationship between Churchill and the Chiefs of Staffs on which Brooke, blessed with new allies and augmented resources, so successfully built in 1942 for the duration of the war... The essential forerunner of the matchless combination of Churchill and Brooke was the ill-matched combination of Churchill and Dill. The prerequisite for Brooke's acceptability and longevity as CIGS was Dill's purgatory.
Wavell by Ian Beckett]
Wavell directed no less than fourteen campaigns - Libya, British Somaliland, Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, Abyssinia, Crete, Egyot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Malaya and Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Burma and the Arakan... As Wavell was the first to admit, not all had been successes. Armies under his command had triumphed only over Italians and Vichy French, Iraqis and Iranians; against German and Japanese Forces he had known only defeat. Nevertheless his achievements were significant. Wavell had his qualities as well as his defects and, in the last analysis, it was not his fault that he was always seemingly waging what Ronald Lewin has described as "a poor man's war".
Alanbrooke by David Fraser]
Churchill and Brooke shared courage, self-confidence, sharp wits - and a good deal of intolerance of dimmer mind. Yet at another level they looked at each other with mixed feelings, right from the start of their supremely fruitful association; and in each man's admiration - at good moments affection - alternated with exasperation and impatience... Churchill seldom let the sun go down on his wrath; but when the battle between them was on, it was often fierce.
Once their professional relationship was under way Churchill's periodic anger would be quickly succeeded by affectionate sentiment, as when he told General Ismay, his principal staff officer and confidant, "Brooke hates me! I can see it in his eyes!", to be contradicted by Ismay - who had run to Brooke and had his answer:
"The CIGS doesn't hate you! He loves you! But he will never tell you he agrees when he doesn't!"
"Dear Brooke!" Churchill's eyes filled with tears.
There were many such occasions. And although the sparks flew right to the end, Churchill said and assuredly meant of Brooke, "I love that man!"
Brooke, for his part,
never wavered in his appreciation of what Churchill meant to Britain in
terms of leadership, rhetoric and imagination... But his resentment was
aroused by three facets in particular of Churchill's conduct of affairs.
First, he was provoked by the Prime Minister's way of doing business; by
his endless meetings at intolerable hours, his seemingly total lack of
consideration for others, his frequent late-night garrulity. This was understandable
- but in the ultimate trivial, although it did not seem so to tired and
responsible men directing a world war. The fact is that Churchill's was
an indisciplined genius and he needed a certain disorder and spontaneity
in his personal dealings, a certain self-indulgence in small things, if
his imagination and energy were to flourish.
Second, Brooke (and his colleagues) were often angered by what they wrongly thought was Churchill's personal hostility in argument, the way he cross-examined and criticized and cavilled and condemned what they put to him - and did so, often, with peremptory brutality - only to adopt their advice, exactly, next day and advance their propositions as his own. In this, Brooke failed to recognize an essential, a natural difference. Churchill was a poltician, a parliamentarian... his genius was for the political battle and in that battle loud argument, hard verbal knocks, the challenge of opponents' motives, the use of sarcasm and invective are the ordinary tools of the trade... They were his way of arriving at the truth, the solution. He had to test other men's ideas by direct attack.
But the third cause of Brooke's resentment of Churchill was substantive. Churchill's most provoking weakness in his direction of the war was his passion for detail. This absoprtion in matters operational or tactical — which he loved — led to a neglect of priorities and, often, to a temporarily hazy view of strategy.
Their personalities clashed at times, but their qualities were complementary. Brooke was, like Churchill emotional, but he was a realist, a pragmatist, a calculator. His will was very strong. He was never prepared to accede to an idea - or a campaign - unless he was personally convinced that it was the best way, that it had at least a decent chance of success, and that the fighting men attempting it were bring committed to battle in as good order as could be managed. That, he said and felt, was his responsibility as the professional head of the Army... Brooke understood the political imperatives of grand strategy as clearly as any man, but to agree an unsound operation for a political motive however estimable would be to get soldiers killed unncecessarily; and that he would not do. Nor would Churchill, once convinced, wish him to.
Churchill loathed the casualties of war; like Brooke he was influenced, perhaps on occasions over-influenced, by memories of the Somme and Third Ypres. Like Brooke he preferred caution to risk. In one, fortunately fleeting, mood he even shrank at the eleventh hour from the invasion of France. Churchill was a romantic, an enuthusiast of history who envisaged battle in highly coloured and sometimes archaic pictures; but he was deeply sensitive to the human aspects of war.
Within days of Brooke's
assumption of office Churchill sailed on HMS Duke of York to meet Roosevelt
in America. Churchill produced during that voyage a series of papers for
the comments of the Chiefs of Staff — papers on grand strategy in the new
sutuation created by Japanese aggression and by the near-simultaneous declaration
of war by Germany and Italy on the US. Churchill's papers on that occasion
must rank as some of the most influential and prescient state papers of
the war... While in the Pacific Churchill envisaged a struggle for maritime
supremacy, the winning of which could lead to an Allied progress from island
to island, bringing air bombardment and the threat of invasion ever nearer
Japan. As for ultimate victory over Germany, Churchill was clear in his
papers that the German armies must be defeated in Europe (unless inner
convulsions brought the Reich to its knees) and that this must be the aim
of a return to the Continent - probably after Italy had, somehow, been
knocked out of the war. The strategic situation was looking black for the
Allies, but Churchill's eyes were on the dawn.
Brooke agreed with the thrust of all this, but at that stage of the war it needed the vision, the historical grasp of a Churchill to articulate it, and it was this grand conceptual sweep which the Prime Minister, in this superior to his professional advisors, was able to provide.
By a complex interaction of military and (largely American) political factors the Allied had determined on an expedition to French North Africa - Operation Torch. The Americans, or some of them, regarded this as a distraction from the main task, the invasion of Western Europe, but Brooke, at a series of conferences, played the lead part in demonstrating that such an invsion was beyond Anglo-American capacity, certainly in 1942 and (as later became very clear) probably in 1943 as well. If the Anglo-American Armies were to fight the Germans anywhere in the short term it had better be — it probably could only be — in North Africa, where a British Imperial Army was already engaged.
The British, the Americans sometimes said and often thought, were obsessed with the Mediterranean. Some of this, they suspected, might be Imperial nostalgia about the 'route to India' and British concerns in the Near East... Some of it might dervive from exaggerated respect for German ability after the nightmare of 1940, and from grim recollections of losses in France and Flanders between 1914 and 1918. For whatever reason the British — and this principally meant Brooke — were suspected of being lukewarm towards a major Western European campaign, and thus of urging an essentially peripheral effort in the Mediterranean. Even Churchill was suspected by the Americans of having too little heart in the cross-Channel business.
This was unfair, and Brooke took the lead part throughout the ensuing months of 1943 in demonstrating its unfairness... Invasion, Brooke argued, could not come before 1944. The view was unpalatable, but unanswerable, and any who contend with hindsight that with the amphibious resources then available to the Allies could have invaded France from Britain in 1943 should consider the actual Normandy fighting in the summer in 1944 and ask themselves how it might have gone had a much stronger German Army been able to reinforce the western from the eastern front far more powerfully than in fact occured... But there were other factors. The American Army in Britain in 1943 had not and could not have achieved anything of the strength or skill it was able to acquire during the additional months actually provided before a 1944 D-Day.
Brooke — Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke in the aftermath of War — was the greatest Chief of the Imperial General Staff ever produced by the British Army. It was his destiny to come to authority at exactly the right hour; an hour when the country was in fearful peril. and was being certainly sustained but sometimes endangered by the mercurial genius of Churchill. Alanbrooke was the perfect complement to that genius. He and Churchill formed an incomparable partnership in the higher direction of the Second World War.
Alexander by Brian Holden Reid]
Every great soldier had an individual style of command - a unique footprint that he makes upon the battlefield - which identifies him and his methods at once. Alexander's style of command was singularly British. The immaculate clothes, fastidiousness of person, coolness under fire and imperturbability were reminiscent of Wellingon without the wit. The effortless superiority, languid manner and polished manners signalled that he was a perfect Anglo-Irish gentleman of a type that had officered the British Army for centuries. In his zeal for the frontline he demonstrated not only a disdain for the 'chateau generalship' of the First World War, but upheld the very best traditions of British generalship. He was the spiritual heir of Marlborough and Wellington. He was a general who kept his head while all others were losing theirs, and like these ducal forebears, he too was a scion of the aristocracy.
For every soldier war is the acid test, not only of professional skill, but of his character. The British Army has traditionally placed the attributes of character above those of intellect. An officer could be a good soldier without being cleve, but a clever officer was rarely a good soldier. Alexander in his diffident and unselfconscious way had developed an abundance of character - of a type cherished and praised by his fellow Englishmen.
George Washington once remarked that bullets had a charming sound; for Alexander their sound was no less charming. He was bored without the exhilaration of battle.
Alexander's conduct at Dunkirk made his reputation as a field commander. Confirmed in command of I Corps, he threw himself into preparations to resist a German invasion. In the event, he was not to face the Germans in the field again for another two years. The most formidable foe he had to face before his next field command, in Burma against the Japanese, was Alan Brooke. In October 1941 during Operation Bumper, a large anti-invasion exercise in whcih Alexander commanded the defending forces, Brooke gave public vent to doubts about Alexander which he had long nursed in secret. He criticized him for 'sadly mishandling' the armoured forces.
Alexander had for time been attracted by an analogy popularized by Major-General JFC Fuller in the interwar yars, of the boxer, feinting with one fist, striking with another. This permitted a more flexible mode of operations to develop than was permissible with Montgomery's "master plan" which emphasized a single punch. The enemy was to be worn down, distracted and then annihilated. This was to be the object of Operation Vulcan - the drive to Tunis.
Mark Clark's fundamental misunderstanding was to suppose that the object of battle was not the destruction of the enemy's army but the seizure of geographical objectives. This appears to be a major weakness of several American commanders in the Second World War. All Clark's thoughts were concentrated on the glory of seizing Rome, and no doubt the greater glory of Mark Clark.
It might have been better for all concerned if Mark Clark had publicly delcared his hand so that Alexander knew where he stood, rather than merely confided his frustrations to a diary; Alexander's habitual courtesy made such confrontations virtually impossible. In his Cyropaedia, Xenophon described Proxenus the Boetian, "a good commander for people of a gentlemanly type", who "imagined that to be a good general... it was enough to give praise to those who did well and to withhold it from those who did badly." Alexander fitted this pattern exactly.
Liddell Hart once wrote perceptively that "Alexander was a born leader, not a made one. He won men's confidence at first sight. He was 'good-looking' in every sense, yet self-effacing to the point of handicapping his own powers... he might have been a greater commander if he had not been so nice a man, and so deeply a gentleman."
The final verdict on Alexander's generalship was that he was not a great soldier, though he was a strategist of some insight. Alexander was not a great diplomat, though he had a remarkable facility for making divergent and powerful personalities work together. He was not a great battlefield commander, though he never lost a battle. Alexander could never be said to be a master of detail, nor a managerial wizard, though his armies operated over the most difficult terrain encountered in the European theatre of operations, and yet they were universally regarded as well administered. Like another successful commander considered unintelligent by several critics, George Washington, the whole of Alexander's talents were greater than the sum of their parts.
Claude Auchinleck by Philip Warner]
Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck was one of the most capable generals of the Second World War but through a combination of misfortunes was unable to stay to the end at the operational centres where the ultimate accolades were to be won. Like his contemporary Wavell, he was faced with virtually impossible tasks and then, havin failed to complete them to Churchill's satisfaction, he was moved out to what appeared to be a backwater appointment, that of Commander-in-Chief India. In the event, his presence in this post had a greater effect on the outcome of the war than is generally realized, for he mobilized the resources of the subcontinent with great skill, thus enabling India to send invaluable troops and supplies to several fronts. The final irony of his career was that he was required to preside over the partition of the country which he loved and was unable to slow down government policy sufficiently to prevent widespread bloodshed.
It was said that he was never happier than when in a frontier village talking and reminiscing with former soldiers of the Indian Army. His early days on the frontier, where constant alertness and keen observation were essential for survival, also helped to develop an instinct for sensing impending trouble. Up on the frontier, warfare large or small was regarded as a way of life and tribesmen would take a shot at someone he did not know, or even someone he did, without giving much thought to the matter. The price of life, rather than the price of peace, was eternal vigilance.
Auchinleck's transfer to India indicated the importance which the War Cabinet now attached to that country. It could clearly be a source of many divisions of trained troops, all equipped from local manufacturing resources. It could also act as a deterrent to the Japanese, who were becoming increasingly belligerent. But India could also be an area of much trouble. The country was known to be full of agitators and demagogues, who might choose this awkward moment to create the maximum problems for the British government in India. If they should manage to subvert portions of the army, a highly dangerous situation would be created. To avert this, a man who was honoured and liked was needed to command the Indian Army. There was no more suitable person than Auchinleck, even though his removal from the front line to the support area seemed surprising.
Montgomery by Michael Carver]
Fortune, which had been in some ways but cruel to others, favoured Montgomery. He took over the army's most important command when everything was turning in its favour and in circumstances which related fairly closely to his previous experience and expertise. The front line was limited and less likely to be subjected to the bewildering uncertainties of desert warfare than at any time since the war there had started against the Italians in 1940. The strength of both the army and the air force, in quality and quantity, had been substansially improved. It was much easier for him than it had been for his predecessors to be 'well-balanced', one of the criteria on which he laid great emphasis. He arrived brimming with confidence that he knew all the answers.
Montgomery's claim to rank among the great commanders must rest on his victory at El Alamein and the success of the landings and subsequent operations in Normandy. In both, the effort he devoted to preparation was as important as his actual conduct of operations. It involved planning, from the general concept to intricate detail, training and inspiration... Although he was fond of emphasizing that morale was the most important single factor in war, he knew that morale could not be maintained unless everyone, from the top to the bottom, was confident that they could succeed. For that, the strategy, the 'masterplan', had to be sound, the tactics adapted to the circumstances and the soldiers thoroughly trained to implement them. He started with the intermediate stage between strategy and tactics, operations at formation level.
In Normandy, the Germans had been forced by Hitler to play into his hands. By forbidding any withdrawal and fighting the battle forward, including the fatal counter-attack towards Moratin, Hitler ensured that the Battle of Normandy decided the Battle of France. The French should be grateful. Although the Normandy area suffered terrible destruction, the rest of France was largely spared, operations between the closing of the Falaise-Argentan gap and France's eastern borders being limited to a virtually unopposed pursuit.
Montgomery's decision to launch Operation Market Garden has rightly been criticized... Its failure gave a handle to his critics, who could deride his concept of bringing the war to an end by a "pencil-like thrust towards Berlin". Neither before nor after Arnhem had that been his concept. He consistently pressed for a single concentrated thrust of at least 40 divisions. Back on his "almightly crack" line, he calimed that such a strategy had always been successful. His claim cannot be upheld. In both world wars there were countless examples of single thrusts, however concentrated and strong, attracting the enemy's reserves and thus being brought to a halt. Given the forces that the Germans were able to assemble for their Ardennes offensive, it is at least arguable that, at any rate after the Allied pause in Belgium, they could have used sufficient strength to halt a single concentrated thrust, if not on the Rhine, at least onto bridgeheads on the far side. The strategy which had been generally successful was one of alternating thrusts, delivering a blow in an unexpected area when the enemy's reserces had been attracted elsewhere and tied down there by a previous thrust, That was how the battles had been won at El Alamein, in Normandy, and at Mareth after the failures of a single thrust: in fact by the methods Montgomery had outlined at Tripoli.
Wilson by Michael Dewar]
When on 10 June 1940 Mussolini declared that he would be at war with Great Britain from midnight, at one minute past midnight British troops and aircraft crossed the frontier into Italian-occupied Cyrenaica. Wilson had decided to take the offensive from the outset. After initial British successes, the strategic picture was drastically altered by the collapse of France which allowed the Italians in Libya to rlease their forces on the Tunisian front to reinforce Cyrenaica. The resulting Italian offensive met with limited initial success, penetrating as far as Maktila about 60 miles into Egypt where it fizzled out. This was at great cost to the Italians and at remarkably little to the Western Desert Force - 105 casualties between 11 June and 16 September - whilst over 700 Italian prisoners were taken and the enemy admitted 3500 casualties during the same period.
It was Wavell who, with Eden's backing, actually decided that the time was right for a counter-offensive. Odds were about 2.5 to 1 in favour of the enemy but the British had several crucial advantages, for many of which Wilson was in part responsible. He had insisted on an intensive program of all-arms training by the 4th Indian and 7th Armoured Divisions, debunking the fashionable but dangerous doctrine that tanks could win battles by themselves. He immediately recognized the importance of this one area in which the British had a numerical superiority of 275 to 120 tanks... Wilson had also encouraged the formation of long-range patrols into the desert which brought back valuable information on Italian dispositions and intentions and which were the forerunners of the legendary Long Range Desert Group. But his greatest contribution to the success of the December offensive was his insistence on complete suprise.
Two days after the attack was launched the Italian Army had been broken at Sidi Barrani, the British taking 38,000 prisoners, 400 guns and 50 tanks. Wilson capitalized on this early success so that by 7 February all of Cyrenaica was under British control. A campaign which had started with a limited objective ended after an advance of 500 miles in two months. The tally was now 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1290 guns whilst British casualties totalled 500 killed, 1375 wounded and 55 missing. Although executive command was always in the hands of O'Connor, Wilson had played a major part in the planning of the initial stages of this offensive and in the direction of operations during the first few weeks.
[General Sir Richard
O'Connor by Barrie Pitt]
Churchill had recently taken the decision to send a supply convoy out to the Middle East carrying over 150 tanks, 100 pieces of artillery, nearly 1000 machine- and anti-tank guns and as much ammunition as could be crammed aboard — and this at a time when the Battle of Britain had not been won, and men all over England were drilling with pikes instead of guns, armbands instead of uniforms, flags instead of artillery.
Although he was in no way bitter about it, O'Connor remained convinced that had Wavell had the vision to see the opportunities that success offered Western Desert Force during the first three days of Operation Compass, then the advance into Cyrenaica would have been that much faster... 4th Indian Division could have been in Benghazi well before the end of January, and on their way to Tripoli before Hitler decided to intervene, let alone actually despatched Rommel and the first of his panzer units. The Ifs of history are of course imponderable. But one certainty is that the loss, so early, of General Richard O'Connor from the higher direction of Britain's war effort was as unfortunate for us as it was for him.
Ritchie and Leese by Michael Craster]
Probably the single most famous Army in popular British military history, the Eighth Army had come to occupy a unique place in our military mythology. It overshadows even the Fourteenth Army, a fact sourly recognized in the nickname 'The Forgotten Army' adopted by the latter, and this despite the fact that other Armies in other theatres fought battles of equal skill and savagery and had victories of great consequence. In part the Eighth Army owes its fame to the timing of its most celebrated victory; the Second Battle of El Alamein on 23 October 1942 came at a moment when the fortunes of the Allies appeared to be at their lowest. The Japanese were sweeping all before them in the Far East, the entry of the Americans into the war had not yet been marked by success of arms, and a victory was desperately needed for the sake of national morale. It is a measure of that need that the victory effectively overshadowed the memory of all that had gone before in the desert, so that to the man in the street there was really one battle of Alamein; Auchinleck's battle of July 1942 was forgotten. Above all, however, the fame of the Eighth Army is due to Montgomery, th man who commanded it in this historic battle. This was a deliberate policy on Montgomery's part, for publicity was always his forte.
In numerical terms the two sides were not ill-matched at the Battle of Gazala. Rommel had 561 tanks, of which 280 were German medium tanks. The British had 850, of which 167 were the new Grants that shook the Germans so seriously when they first encountered them. The British Crusader tanks had not been a success, noted for their unreliability above all, and their low track-mileage life which restricted training. Nevertheless it does seem that contrary to popular mythology the tanks were well matched in terms of armour and armament, perhaps even with a slight advantage to the British. Where the Germans scored, and scored heavily, was in their skilful and aggressive use of the ample supply of anti-tank guns which they held, both the 50mm and 88mm. The British frequently mistook the effects of these guns, deployed forward with the German tanks, for the effect of the tank guns, which gave rise to the prevalent belief in the superiority of the German armour. It was particularly unfortunate that the British never managed to deploy their excellent 3-inch anti-aircraft gun (the direct counterpart to the 88mm) in the same way.
"I always tell young
officers that there will be moments when your soldiers will drive you almost
mad, but never forget this: that we are privileged to command the nicest
men in the world."
- General Brian Horrocks
Carton de Wiart's wound
history is a sort of shorthand index of his style of leadership.
- GD Sheffield
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