His Finest Hour? Winston Churchill and the War

Anthony Tucker-Jones

For every victory, there was a defeat lurking during Churchill's war.
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His Finest Hour? Winston Churchill and the War

‘Never has any land found any leader,’ remarked Field Marshal Montgomery, ‘who so matched the hour as did Sir Winston Churchill.’ Fatefully on 10 May 1940 Churchill became Prime Minister. He not only became the country’s premier, he also made himself the country’s very first Defence Minister. He became Britain’s political master and military commander in one fell swoop. By taking on the role of Defence Minister he personally took charge of the strategic direction of the British war effort. ‘During the war Mr Churchill maintained such close contact with all operations,’ observed allied supreme commander General Dwight Eisenhower, ‘as to make him a virtual member of the British Chiefs of Staff.’

Churchill remarked ‘At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene. … I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail.’ These were confident words in light of the British Expeditionary Force facing defeat in France and the French army on the verge of collapse. Churchill, journalist, author and historian always with an eye on his legacy added, ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’ Poetic words, but were they true? His comments raise two questions; firstly, was Churchill qualified for the job and second did he really make a success of it?

‘Winston never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor, Marlborough,’ observed General Alan Brooke who served as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. General Edward Spears who attended Churchill’s maiden address as Prime Minister recalled ‘suddenly he was transformed into an inspired leader, the High Priest of a great religion dedicating a nation to measureless sacrifice.’

Thanks to his military career and as a senior politician Churchill had developed an intimate knowledge of the nation’s armed forces. He served as First Sea Lord, the political head of the Royal Navy as well as Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air. Both these latter posts made him the political head of the army and the Royal Air Force. Furthermore, during the First World War he had been the Minister for Munitions so fully understood the logistical needs of the armed forces. Likewise, his stint of Secretary of State for the Colonies had greatly enhanced his strategic outlook on the world, especially in the Middle East.

What followed under his wartime premiership was a remarkable catalogue of triumphs and abject failures. Under him Britain would face down Germany, Italy and Japan. He alone refused to negotiate with Hitler and he alone ordered the rescue of the BEF from Dunkirk. Under him the country triumphed in the Battle of Britain and stoically endured the terrible Blitz. In Egypt and Libya his generals fought and decisively defeated the Italians.

The humiliation of Singapore in February of 1942

Then came the errors as Churchill became strategically distracted. The chance to take the Libyan capital Tripoli was thrown away when Churchill rashly pledged to help the Greeks fend off Mussolini. Hitler riding to Mussolini’s rescue overran both Yugoslavia and Greece and the survivors fled to Crete. Hitler then preceded to capture the latter with the most audacious airborne invasion in history. In the meantime, General Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya to take advantage of Britain’s weakened position in Egypt. Churchill’s insistence on counterattacking Rommel then led to a series of costly and embarrassing defeats.

Defiantly though Churchill clung to the vital naval bases at Gibraltar and Malta providing a vital life line across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and Egypt. Holding Malta meant that the Royal Navy and the RAF were ultimately able to strangle Rommel’s supply lines. He also headed off German aspirations in the Levant and Middle East and defeated the Italians in the Horn of Africa. Hitler’s foolhardy invasion of the Soviet Union gave Churchill a much-needed ally, but his pledge to arm the Red Army greatly weakened Britain’s armed forces. Then disaster struck with the muddled defence of Burma and Malaya in the face of Japanese attack. The loss of Singapore was particularly humiliating for Churchill as was the loss of the warships Prince of Wales and Repulse sent in a futile display of naval power.

The only consolation was that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the war in December 1941 creating the grand alliance between Britain, America and the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted Churchill and Roosevelt to open the Second Front in France as soon as possible to take the pressure off the mauled Red Army. Churchill however, successfully argued for a Mediterranean first strategy, in which the Germans and Italians would be cleared from North Africa. Churchill persuaded Roosevelt and Eisenhower that invading Sicily and then the Italian mainland would negate an invasion of France.

In the event Churchill was proved wrong. Hitler swiftly occupied northern Italy and tenaciously held on there. The defection of the remainder of Italy opened up new possibilities and Churchill instructed that the Germans be driven from the Dodecanese islands before they could take over. This was another botched and rushed operation that ended in defeat for the British. A disgruntled Churchill watched as his influence waned once the Allies invaded Normandy and the Riviera and relentlessly pushed on Germany. Against Roosevelt’s wishes Churchill sent troops to Greece to prevent Greek communists seizing power in the wake of the German withdrawal. Although Athens was saved the country was plunged into a costly civil war.

Churchill’s direction of the war had mixed results, but crucially he had galvanised the country in its hour of need, provided firm leadership and seen it through to victory. Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, recalled ‘The machinery for the military and political conduct of the war had been discerningly built and it worked.’ Even King George VI was move to say, ‘I could not have a better Prime Minister.’

Eisenhower noted that Churchill embodied ‘the age-old truth that politics and military activities are never completely separate.’ Churchill was determined to lead and lead he did. Air Marshal Arthur Harris, in charge of Bomber Command, observed, ‘He was always at his best when things were worst, which, of course, is the mark of real leadership.’ Churchill’s domination of his War Cabinet was not without upsets. ‘This balance, as between chiefs of staff and political chiefs, is not easily achieved,’ wrote Field Marshal Harold Alexander. ‘During the war it worked out pretty satisfactory in the end, but not without blood, sweat and tears.’ It is true that his generals often struggled to control Churchill’s impulses and to avoid being sacked. ‘His military plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions at one end,’ said General Brooke, ‘to the wildest and most dangerous ideas at the other.’

Churchill was an impatient man and that came at a cost. ‘There were times when it would appear,’ noted Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, ‘that he would almost prefer action at any cost providing it was immediate.’ Montgomery ensured victory at El Alamein in late 1942 by standing up to Churchill. He would only attack Rommel when he was ready. ‘You do not know how to fight this battle, or when. I do know,’ Montgomery had sternly warned the Prime Minister. It is notable that on VE day the chiefs of staff did not toast Churchill. He had trodden on too many toes over the years. Nonetheless, General Brooke who endured a quite turbulent relationship with the prime minister generously concluded, ‘For all that I thank God that I was given the opportunity of working alongside such a man and having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.’

‘We all think back to Sir Winston Churchill as a man who bespoke confidence,’ said Eisenhower in 1965 upon Churchill’s death. He was right. Churchill drawing on all his hard-won experience on the battlefield and in government had risen admirably to the role of master and commander. His wartime failures proved he was human and prepared to make unpleasant decisions.

Anthony Tucker-Jones is the author of Churchill: Master & Commander and his latest, Hitler’s Winter: The German Battle of the Bulge which is out now and published by Osprey.