Master & Commander: Anthony Tucker-Jones Interview

Anthony Tucker-Jones

The author of a new book on Churchill as a commander chatted with us about the great man.
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Anthony Tucker-Jones, it seems early on in his life Churchill had big ideas. His paper on invading Russia impressed his school master at Harrow. Did he always have grand strategic plans?

To start with no, he struggled to apply himself and was unhappy at Harrow. It was not until he joined the army that he became more focused. Foremost was his desire to impress Lord Randolph his distant father. Unfortunately, he died just before Churchill was commissioned. Afterwards Churchill firmly set his sights on becoming a politician to emulate his father.

As a young man, Churchill entered the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, before serving in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa, but it was at the Battle of Omdurman he seemed to have been addicted to the adrenaline of the cavalry charge, as you state in the book. How much did this event influence his later life?

Winston as a young officer in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars

It had an enormous impact. Just as important he remained unscathed and although he faced death on numerous occasions he always escaped serious injury. This greatly encouraged his risk taking. Furthermore, he lived in fear of dying young like his father and was determined to make his mark as quickly as possible.

Churchill famously attended the Siege of Sidney Street when serving as Home Secretary, but he was in the bath when he learnt of it. Do you think those extended baths were useful in providing him with planning time?

Yes, he was famous for multi-tasking, so would often have a secretary sit outside the bathroom door so he could dictate letters and memos. Over the years much has been written about Churchill’s mental health. In reality he was very good at taking care of himself by ensuring he relaxed. He enjoyed polo, hunting, horse racing, writing, painting and of course taking regular baths.

You write that Gallipoli haunted Churchill for the rest of his life, and it prompted his resignation. He was held almost solely responsible, but you state in the book this is unfair – why is that, and had there been one overall commander could the operation have succeeded?

As First Lord of the Admiralty he has been held responsible because the Dardanelles operation was his idea and a failure; but no one was in overall command. Allied warships started bombarding Gallipoli in late 1914. These ships ran into mines in the Narrows in mid-March 1915. The landings did not start until late April 1915 so the Turks and the Germans had plenty of time to prepare. The army claimed it could not secure Gallipoli until the Narrows were forced by the Navy and in turn they reasoned this could not be done without the army advancing. Churchill resigned at the end of May but the fruitless campaign dragged on until January 1916 – so his influence was limited.

How much responsibility should lie with Churchill for the behaviour of Black & Tans and Auxiliaries in Ireland, which was in contrast to the British Army?

Black & Tans and ‘Auxies’ in Dublin

They were paramilitary organisations sent to help the Irish police in the face of escalating sectarian violence and agitation against British rule. It was not Churchill’s idea to employ ex-servicemen to form the Black and Tans, although it was his idea to form the ‘Auxies’ from former army officers. However, as the Secretary of State for War he was responsible for their recruitment. In hindsight using men brutalised by the horrors of the trenches was not a recipe for success. While Churchill was not responsible for day to day security in Ireland, he knew the paramilitaries were running death squads and chose not to speak out.

1940 is the crowning achievement of Churchill’s career. How much was down to his actions alone as the reason for Britain’s continued resistance, and ultimately the allied victory?

He arrived just in time to give the country firm leadership. I don’t believe he intended to explore peace with Hitler, he knew it would be a pointless exercise. Taking charge just as Hitler invaded the Low Countries and France was a poison chalice especially once the Germans had broken through. However, it was his difficult decision to essentially abandoned the crumbling French Army that saved the British Expeditionary Force. Only this ensured Britain could continue defying Hitler. Likewise, Churchill ensured the country weathered the storm during the Battle of Britain. Likewise, he did not give in to the threat posed to Egypt by Mussolini’s forces stationed in Libya.

Eire’s neutrality was a problem for Churchill. How seriously did he contemplate occupation?

Churchill was furious that Ireland declared neutrality whereas the other dominion countries rallied to Britain’s support. Furthermore, a number of Irish ports that remained Royal Navy bases after the creation of Eire reverted to Irish control just before the outbreak of war. Churchill convinced himself that Ireland would become a back door for Germany. In reality the Irish Prime Minister was in a difficult position facing potential invasion by Germany and Britain.

During the war Churchill had hundreds of plans and schemes which he discussed with his commanders. What do you think were his best of the war?

Numerous plans never came to fruition thanks to the shifting nature of the war. An example of this was his plan to invade the Azores in the Atlantic which belonged to neutral Portugal. One of his best plans was his Mediterranean first strategy. This was possible thanks to his decision to hold both Gibraltar and Malta. The subsequent invasion of Sicily triggered the down fall of Mussolini and the partition of Italy by the Germans. His instincts for the Levant campaign and D-Day also proved right.

How should we look at Churchill as a Master and Commander?

I firmly believe as a success, his mistakes were numerous, but they were ultimately outweighed by his triumphs as a wartime leader.

What are you working on next?

Hitler’s Winter is my next book which looks at the Battle of the Bulge solely from the German perspective.


Anthony Tucker-Jones is the author of the acclaimed The Devil’s Bridge: The German Victory at Arnhem, 1944. Churchill, Master & Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945 is his latest book.

Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.

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