Winston Churchill is one of the most famous figures in British history and the official approach is that it would be unpatriotic not to admire him. The purpose of this article is to draw aside the veils of myth and legend which establishment historians and fawning admirers have spun around him and look at the real Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. The facts reveal a different man altogether.
A man's reputation is like his shadow: it is often much bigger than the man himself. Such is the case with Winston Churchill. In a nationwide British TV poll in 2002 he was voted "The Greatest Briton of all Time", and even forty years after his death not a day passes without some TV or radio programme, some magazine or newspaper, praising his outstanding qualities as a statesman, orator, great military strategist and saviour of his people. He is one of the most famous figures in British history and the official approach is that it would be unpatriotic not to admire him.
The purpose of this article is to draw aside the veils of myth and legend which establishment historians and fawning admirers have spun around him and look at the real Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.
"He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises." (Lloyd George on Churchill)
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and ancestor of Winston, was a man driven by ambition and self interest, but he is arguably one of Britain's best ever generals. In the War of the Spanish Succession he was appointed supreme commander of the British forces and captain-general of the Allied armies. A charismatic figure possessed of great diplomatic skill, he was also a natural born general whose ability was recognized even in his adolescence when he commanded a British regiment which was then in the employ of the French. Later, his aggressive military flair won him victories at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde and Malplaquet; it also won him a dukedom and the grandiose Blenheim Palace which has remained the home of the Marlborough's ever since. He was a hard act to follow, and when he died in 1722 he cast a long shadow down through the succeeding generations of his long lineage.
But Winston Churchill was not prepared to live under any man's shadow, not even that of his illustrious ancestor whom he admired and desired to emulate. Born at Blenheim Palace in 1874, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and American heiress Jennie Jerome, Churchill was personal ambition personified; he had a raging, insatiable desire to gain world fame as a journalist, author, politician and, most of all, master of the battlefield. He longed to prove to the world that he too was a great military genius, another Marlborough, but when it came to the art of war the facts reveal that he was no more than an arrogantly overconfident dilettante who did not know his gluteus maximus from his elbow.
There was no evidence of genius, military or otherwise, in his early years. He did poorly at Harrow and only succeeded in gaining entry into Sandhurst at his third attempt, and even then he needed special tuition to help him pass the exam in 1893. After Sandhurst his mother used the help of her many influential friends and lovers to gain him entry into the 4th Hussars, then to wangle him leave to go where he pleased in order to further his ambitions as a writer and journalist. She also got him writing contracts and sometimes acted as his agent. During his four-year stint as a cavalry subaltern he travelled to Cuba, joined the Malakand Field force on India's North-West Frontier, gained attachment to the Army of the Sudan (much to Kitchener's annoyance) and participated in a cavalry charge at Omdurman. He was, during his early military career, more of a poseur than a soldier, doing more writing than fighting.
Leaving the army in 1899 he ventured into politics, standing as Tory candidate for Oldham, but failed to get elected. This setback prompted him to try his hand as a war correspondent in South Africa, a move which proved to be a great boost for his career. Accompanied by his personal valet and 70 bottles of vintage wine, he arrived in Cape Town in November only to be captured a month later by the Boers. He soon escaped from the poorly guarded prison camp in Pretoria and arrived in Durham on December 23rd to a hero's welcome. This was at a time when the reputedly "invincible" British forces had suffered several demoralising defeats at the hands of the Boers, so it was a small morale booster for the British. Much was made of his escape by the press: it hit the headlines throughout the English-speaking world. Now at last he had the fame he craved for. Riding on the crest of this wave of publicity he again contested the Oldham seat in 1900. This time, thanks in good measure to his newfound fame, he was successful.
The Boer War exposed the appalling living conditions, widespread poverty and poor health endured by the impoverished working classes from which the government endeavoured to draw army recruits. This was a cause for concern throughout the British establishment, but not because of any philanthropic concern for the welfare of the proletariat. It had dawned on the ruling classes that a man would produce more efficiently in the factory and fight more effectively on the battlefield if he was reasonably well nourished. It was necessary therefore to make concessions to the workers if the great British Empire was to be defended and expanded. Thus it was solely pragmatism, not benevolence, that motivated Churchill's and Lloyd George's support of welfare reforms in the years after the war. Meanwhile, Churchill's first stint with the Tories was short-lived; in 1904 he crossed the house and sat beside the equally ambitious Lloyd George, forming a long lasting but intermittent political partnership with the future Liberal Prime Minister.
After the General Election of 1906 Churchill was rewarded for deserting the Tories with the job of Undersecretary for the Colonies, a relatively junior post but he was on the way up. Lloyd George was appointed President of the Board of Trade. It is indicative of Churchill's political narrow-minded self-interest that in 1908-9 he tried to cut military spending and also opposed Reginald McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, who argued the case for a bigger navy. Churchill heaped scorn on the notion that there was a military threat from Germany. But when he himself became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 he immediately changed his tune; now that the navy was his responsibility he decided it had to be expanded after all. As Lloyd George put it, "As usual he regards the office he presides over for the time being as the pivot upon which the Universe attends."
By 1906 the co-operation between the two most ambitious men in parliament was well established, with Lloyd George always the dominant partner.
Churchill's reputation as a great orator is also exaggerated. He was undeniably a master of the English language and his grandiloquent, melodramatic style of delivery was effective in the House of Commons and well suited to radio. Aneurin Bevan, who was a far superior orator, said of him: "The mediocrity of his thinking is concealed by the majesty of his language." He once tried to emulate Lloyd George by speaking without notes, but dried up and sank to his seat in despair.
Lloyd George, on the other hand, was unmatched as an orator. He memorized his speeches till he knew them off by heart and, with his fiery, passionate style and expert use of body language, was capable of addressing any audience anywhere, capable of stirring its emotions and even moving it to tears.
It was in 1910-11 that Churchill, now Home Secretary, showed his true attitude towards the ordinary working people of Britain. On November 8th he sent troops into the Rhondda Valley, patrolling the streets with fixed bayonets, to subdue a miners' strike. He also had the 18th Hussars on standby at Pontypridd. He planned to throw a military cordon around the Welsh Valleys with the aim of starving the miners into submission. This was hardly the act of a "great statesman"; it highlighted the crude class interests that Churchill stood for and revealed to what extent he would go to put down working class unrest. Again, when Lloyd George talked railway workers out of going on strike he told him "I'm very sorry to hear it, it would have been better to have gone on and given these men a good thrashing." Thus, by his own words and deeds, this great "social reformer" showed what he really thought of the British working class.
"Oh this delicious war!"
"Winston dashed into the (cabinet) room radiant, his face bright... he was really a happy man. I wondered if this was the state of mind to be in at the opening of such a terrible war as this." (Herbert Asquith).
"Oh this delicious war!" joyously exclaimed Winston Churchill, although historians will argue that he was not a war lover. Let them try to explain the following: "Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be made like this?" Thus did the so-called "great man" condemn himself with his own words in a letter to his wife on the approach of the First World War. He was also recorded as saying: "I think a curse should rest on me, because I love this war. I know it's smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment ‑ and yet I can't help it ‑ I enjoy every second of it."
The best his admirers can come up with when faced with such well documented evidence ‑ and there is a lot more of it ‑ is: "Well, he didn't love war for its own sake." Pathetic, hair-splitting nonsense! Of course he didn't love war for its own sake ‑ he loved it for "his" own sake! For him the way through the blood-soaked, corpse-strewn battlefields of Europe was his path to personal glory, the chance to be another Marlborough and write his name indelibly on the pages of world history. It meant nothing to him that millions would perish on the muddy, bloody fields of battle before they had even passed their teens; it mattered little that all over the continent of Europe the land would be filled with grieving widows, bereaved parents and orphaned children, all of whose hearts would be forever heavy with grief as a consequence of the relentless slaughter that was about to be unleashed. What did all that matter compared to the greater glorification of the name of Winston Churchill?
This was the warped and repulsive thinking of a man who was driven by all-consuming egotism. His egomania derived from the unshakeable belief that he was born superior to all others and had a divine right to lord it over the "riff-raff" who made up most of society. Early in October Prime Minister Herbert Asquith received an astonishing telegram from Churchill offering to resign his position and take command of the army being sent to Belgium's assistance. How big of him ‑ this ex-lieutenant who only managed to qualify for Sandhurst on his third attempt was going to hand out orders to generals, colonels and other officers who had years of experience behind them! Well, at least in those grim times it gave his fellow cabinet ministers something to laugh at.
Churchill's problem was that the correct British naval strategy was obvious but boring: keep the German navy bottled up in its ports, blockading Germany and preventing it from trading abroad. An important task, but hardly one which would win him the fame and acclaim he hungered for. Very well! If he couldn't have an army to play with he would just have to do something spectacular with the navy; he would make his name one way or the other. And so he did, but not quite as he intended.
"It is the nemesis of the man who had fought for this war for years. When war came he saw in it the chance of glory for himself, and he accordingly entered on a risky campaign without caring a straw for the misery and hardship it would bring to thousands, in the hope that he would prove to be the outstanding man of this war." (Lloyd George).
Frederick the Great once said that if you are obliged to draw the sword in defence of the state you must see that the enemy is struck by both thunder and lightning at the same time. In other words, combined operations are essential to success. Every armchair general that ever pushed a model soldier along a wargaming table was aware of this fundamental truth. But to our self-deluded master of modern warfare the rules of war did not apply; he was too impatient to demonstrate his military and naval genius. He pushed for the Dardanelles campaign, a campaign which was extremely inadvisable in the first place, but one which should have involved both army and navy (the air force was only in its infancy at the time) if it was to be carried out at all. But Churchill wouldn't wait till sufficient troops were available; he gave the go ahead for the disastrous naval attack which took place on March 18th, 1915. As a result three Royal Navy ships were sunk with the loss of 700 lives, and four others were put out of action.
This abortive operation also alerted the Turkish forces to the danger of further attacks, so on April 25th when a second attempt took place, this time involving 400,000 troops, they were ready and waiting. As a result allied losses amounted to 252,000. So the navy took a hammering, all those lives were lost, and troops who would have been better deployed on the Western front were diverted and slaughtered. All because an egomaniac wanted to build himself a reputation as a genius in the art of war.
His apologists will tell you this was not Churchill's fault. So whose fault was it? Who was so determined to carry out this half-baked plan of attack? Who foolishly decided to start the campaign without troops? Who was in overall command? Churchill! But it wasn't his fault? It beggars belief!
At this time the Liberal government decided to form a coalition with the Tories. A combination of this and the Dardanelles fiasco meant that Churchill, who had angered the Tories when he deserted them in 1904, was to be sacked from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was desperate to hold on to his position: he fought, he begged, he pleaded, but in the end he went. He was further humiliated by being given the post of Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, a job described by Lloyd George as being reserved for those "...who had just reached the first stages of unmistakeable decrepitude."
To add to his humiliation Asquith excluded him from his newly formed, streamlined War Committee; this was the final insult. He made his resignation speech to the House of Commons on November 15th, 1915 and on the 18th he crossed to France and reported for military duty. Commander of the British Expeditionary Force Sir John French made him the astonishing promise that he would soon be given command of an infantry brigade: so the ex-lieutenant of the 4th Hussars was to become a Brigadier General thanks to the patronage of another ex-cavalry officer. This would probably have been the most rapid promotion in military history since the days when the aristocracy could buy themselves commissions. However, the War Office refused to allow such an idiotic promotion (Churchill actually wanted to be Commander-in-Chief in East Africa). Instead, much to his disgust, he was "only" given command of an infantry battalion which was sent to Belgium on January 16th. It's just as well this battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, saw relatively little action while he was in command as he spent much of his time going back and forth to London and indulging in political intrigue.
Here is what Gordon Corrigan, in his excellent book on the subject, said of Churchill's short spell in the army: "To appoint an inexperienced outsider to command of a battalion, and then to allow him to bring in a chum who was not even an infantryman as his second-in-command, was nothing short of disgraceful. It ... exposed the soldiers to the whims of a military dilettante."
But life in the trenches was somewhat less comfortable than life on the benches. His heroic gesture in volunteering for military service was just for show. He knew that even with his connections he wasn't going to get to be a Field Marshall, so in May, 1916, he was allowed to leave the army provided he promised not to attempt to rejoin again! What a pity the ordinary soldiers couldn't have the same option: if they could have there would be considerably fewer war graves in France and in Flanders' fields.
Back in London and eager to tread the corridors of power again, he intrigued with Lloyd George and others to force Asquith to resign. This was for the "good of the country" of course, not to mention for the good of Churchill himself, for surely once his erstwhile colleague Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister he would be granted high office himself. Not so. When Lloyd George did succeed Asquith as Prime Minister in December he refused to antagonize other members of his coalition government by including Churchill in the cabinet. Despite all his Machiavellian manoeuvres he was left seething with anger and frustration as once more he was given the cold shoulder.
However, Lloyd George did acknowledge that Churchill had been a staunch ally during the earlier years of their on-off political partnership and in July 1917 he felt in a strong enough position to offer him the post of Minister of Munitions. Churchill accepted despite the fact that he was not to be included in the War Cabinet.
"This movement among the Jews is not new. It is part of a world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, envious malevolence, and impossible equality."(Churchill)
The reader could be forgiven for thinking the above quotation was taken from some anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik, demented Hitlerian rant. It is in fact taken from a newspaper article printed in 1920 in which Churchill attacked the "sinister confederacy of international Jewry" and was aimed particularly at Marx, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg.
With the war over and Lloyd George's coalition government re-elected, Churchill was given the post of Secretary of State for War and Air. "What's the point of being Secretary for War if there isn't any war?" he complained to Bonar Law, who replied, "If we thought there was going to be a war you wouldn't have got the job."
The vindictive, draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles were humiliating to Germany, resulting in gross devaluation of its currency, mass unemployment, misery and festering resentment and unrest. It created the conditions for revolution in fact! Had it not been for the treacherous policy of the Social Democratic leaders, the German workers could have taken power. Instead the defeat of the working class and the conditions imposed by Versailles paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler and another terrible war. But meanwhile Churchill's attention was focused elsewhere; his warmongering instincts were being fuelled by his implacable hatred of Russia's Bolsheviks.
There were British troops in Russia before Churchill became Secretary for War. They were there mainly to protect the military supplies sent by Britain to aid Russia in its war against Germany, and they also played an auxiliary role in helping the White Russians. This was because they hoped that the counter-revolutionaries would smash the Russian Revolution, reconstitute the Russian army then resume the war with Germany, thus tying down a lot of Germany's forces on the Eastern front. Considering the fact that the Russian people had already suffered enough, Russia's dead, wounded and maimed exceeding the combined losses of all the Western Allies, it should have been obvious that the Russian masses ere seeking an end to the war with Germany. To expect the Russian workers and peasants to rally round the "White Russians" and submit themselves to the same bloody slaughter they had just experienced under the Tsarist regime was incredibly shortsighted.
When the war ended, the war weary people of Britain were sick and tired of fighting and wanted nothing more than to bring the soldiers home; there was no good reason to keep the interventionist forces in Russia. But Churchill had not lost his enthusiasm for war. He had already attempted, in April 1918, to trick the Bolsheviks into continuing the war with Germany by offering them an agreement that would "safeguard the fruits of the revolution" in exchange for their continued participation. What he wanted was to drown the Russian Revolution in blood, by pushing the Soviet government into renewed warfare with Germany. But Lenin and Trotsky were not so naïve; they had already signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany.
Thereafter he endeavoured with all his manic energy to bring about the destruction of the Bolshevik government. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George to sanction full-scale military operations against the Bolsheviks. Although Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George would also have liked to see the Revolution snuffed out, the most they could offer was an agreement to provide auxiliary help to the Whites, such as supplying arms and military equipment, food, money, and officers and men for training purposes. But Churchill wasn't satisfied; he wanted more. There were already military contingents from many other countries including Italy, Japan, USA and France in Russia trying to bring down Bolshevism. He urged them to mount full-scale military operations alongside the "white" armies to destroy the revolutionaries. Lloyd George said of him: "...a dangerous man who had Bolshevism on the brain. He saw himself riding into Moscow on a white charger in a triumphal procession after the defeat of the Bolsheviks, and being proclaimed as the saviour of Russia."
It is not surprising that most of the British high-ranking officers were against Bolshevism and therefore happy to co-operate with Churchill as he contrived to play a greater part in crushing the Russian Revolution. When he appealed for volunteers to go to Northern Russia to "help in the British army's withdrawal from Archangel" he got some 5,000 volunteers who naively believed they were going there to rescue their countrymen from a desperate situation, only to find that they were there to fight for the White Russians in an undeclared war. He lied constantly to the British public, slandering the Bolsheviks with every possible insult he could think of, while ignoring the rape, plunder, torture and murder of innocent civilians, along with the systematic wholesale slaughter of defenceless Jewish communities carried out continuously by his "heroic" White Russians. Even the most high-ranking British officers became sickened by the Whites, not to speak of the rebellious mood that developed among the rank and file soldiers. There were in fact several mutinous incidents in the ranks of the British forces who no longer wished to participate in this war which they could clearly see as a class war against the toiling masses of Russia.
With the help of British, French and American troops and expert Canadian gunners, with British planes dropping mustard gas on the Red Army while it was being pounded by British warships, the overjoyed Churchill was confident that the offensive by General Yudenitch in October 1919 was going to be a success. When he heard that the White Army was only 25 miles from Petrograd he sent Yudenitch a personal telegram congratulating him and promising the speedy delivery of more military equipment and arms. But there was another man involved in this struggle who was even more driven and determined than Churchill, and just as Churchill was determined that Bolshevism must die, he was determined that it must live. He was Russia's Commissar for Military Affairs, and his name was Leon Trotsky.
The Bolsheviks blew up a railway bridge, bringing to a halt the advance of British tanks with Yudenitch's forces only ten miles from Petrograd when Trotsky arrived and took command, personally leading fleeing soldiers back to the front. Clear and decisive with his orders, restoring discipline and sparing neither himself nor anyone else, he was unwavering in his determination to turn the situation around. And turn it he did ‑ with a vengeance! The Red Army counter-attack drove the Whites back in shambolic retreat through Gatchina, through Gdov, through Yamburg until its battered remnants fled to safety across the Estonian border.
In Trotsky Churchill had found his nemesis: wherever the revolution was most threatened you would find Trotsky. With the Red Army being attacked on many fronts he had to be everywhere, rushing from front to front in his train along with his staff and bodyguard. He would consult with everyone including the ordinary soldiers, factory workers and trade unions, galvanising all who could help and ensuring his soldiers they would get the best supplies, food rations and other support that was available. It is to Trotsky that the credit must go for the Red Army's success in finally defeating the Whites and the armies of intervention, a feat that earned him the life-long hatred of Winston Churchill.
In his rather stupid book Great Contemporaries in 1937 Churchill poured out his puerile invective, throwing every conceivable insult at Trotsky, then concluding with the question "Who was Trotsky? He was a Jew. He was still a Jew, nothing could get over that." In his otherwise excellent book Churchill's Crusade the author Clifford Kinvig states that Churchill was not anti-Semitic. Perhaps he should think again.
General Briggs later assessed the outcome of the intervention as follows: "...our ill-staged interference in the Russian civil war cost us some thousands of British soldiers' lives and £100,000,000 in money, while we earned the bitter enmity of the Russian people for a decade... On the credit side I can think of nothing."
The unknown thousands of Bolshevik and White Army soldiers who died, along with the civilians who were ruthlessly butchered as a result of this vile intervention must also be considered. It was clearly in the interests of British imperialism to crush the Russian Revolution but there was also Churchill's implacable hatred of Bolshevism and his craving to make a name for himself.
In 1922 he lost his seat in Dundee, probably having become unpopular because of his attitude to Russia. Then in 1924, with the Liberal Party sinking, he jumped ship once more and rejoined the Conservatives: self interest and high office always took precedence over political principles. Baldwin made him Chancellor, a position he held until the 1929 General Election.
Not even his admirers claim that he was any good as a chancellor. His long tenure in that position was marked mainly by his energetic battling against the general strike (which his economic policies helped to trigger off) in 1926. When the print workers refused to work he took over the printing presses of the Morning Post, commandeered stocks of paper from The Times and, with the help of naval personnel and students from London University, produced the anti-strike paper the British Gazette. For good measure he brought in the Irish Guards to protect those involved in the Gazette's production. Then, in 1931, his imperialist instincts enraged by widespread support for government policy towards Indian nationalists, he resigned from the shadow cabinet. In the years that followed he spent much of his time writing (when he was not making childish, insulting remarks about Ghandi). He had once tried his hand at fiction, but his first and only attempt at a novel was so bad that even he was embarrassed by it. His historical works tended to find fault with others while obscuring his own mistakes and shortcomings. One notable politician said of The Wilderness Years: "Winston's brilliant autobiography disguised as a history of the universe."
A voice in the wilderness?
'Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” (Churchill).
Legend has it that throughout the thirties Churchill was a lone voice desperately trying to convince uncomprehending British politicians and the public against the evils of fascism and the menace of a Germany re-armed; he was the only one with the prescience to foresee the dangers. What nonsense! Any blithering idiot would be well aware of the danger of a revived, re-armed Germany, still seething from the injustices inflicted upon it by the Versailles Treaty, flexing its military muscles and re-asserting itself in Western Europe, as a force to be reckoned with.
Nor is it true that Churchill was more vociferous than others in calling for Britain to strengthen its air and military forces, in fact Neville Chamberlain had been advocating rearmament for much longer, at a time when Churchill was calling for cuts in defence. Churchill and most of the leading politicians were not really anti-fascist (the opening quotation comes from one of his books, published 1937). In fact he, like the rest of the British establishment, welcomed Nazi Germany as a buffer between Soviet Russia and Western Europe. With such conflicting ideologies it seemed much more likely that Germany and Russia would end up fighting each other, in which case France and Britain could sit back and enjoy the show.
But Hitler had other plans for expanding the Reich. In defiance of the Versailles Treaty he had built up his armed forces and in March 1936 his army marched into the Rhineland which was supposed to be a demilitarized zone as a buffer between Germany and France; in 1937 his Kondor legion infamously bombed Guernica; in 1938 Germany occupied Austria without meeting any resistance. In 1938, on the pretext that its three and a half million Germans were being persecuted, Hitler annexed the part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland (Poland also helped itself to part of Czech territory) with the acquiescence of Britain, France and Italy.
It was not the fate of small defenceless countries that worried Britain: it was the imbalance of power in Western Europe. It was all very well having fascist Germany as a bulwark against “Soviet expansionism” but it was quite another thing for Germany to get too powerful and become a threat to Britain's position in Europe and to her colonies. So Chamberlain went off to Munich and returned with his worthless “Peace in our time” scrap of paper. There really wasn't anything else he could do as Britain was not prepared for war at that time and the British public was not interested in going to war for the sake of a country they knew so little about. Encouraged by his easy successes Hitler decided to occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia as well. This, however, was too much. Britain and France guaranteed the territorial integrity of Greece, Poland, Turkey and Romania, hoping that this would put a brake on Hitler's expansionist policies. Adolph was not impressed.
In the early hours of September 1st 1939 the people of Poland awoke to the noise of the Luftwaffe in their skies and the march of German infantry boots in their streets ‑ the Nazi invasion of Poland had begun! Chamberlain immediately formed a War Cabinet which included Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. Both France and Britain issued Hitler an ultimatum to withdraw from Poland. The ultimatum was ignored and on September 3rd war was declared on Germany. Those in command in the navy at that time were well aware that it was madness to go hunting for U-boats in the open sea; the best way to defeat them was to combat them when they tried to attack escorted convoys. But Churchill was having none of it. He insisted that the navy must aggressively take the war to the enemy. As a consequence of his idiocy HMS Courageous was sent out into the open sea to hunt submarines and on September 17th it was sunk by a German U-boat. Hitler could thank Winston Churchill for his first major U-boat success of WWII.
It is widely believed that Chamberlain and other “appeasers” were responsible for Britain's unreadiness for war in 1939, and that Churchill was the “voice in the wilderness”, the only one who constantly advocated the building up and modernising of the armed forces, the only one who foresaw the threat of Nazi Germany. This is a myth propagated by Churchill and his cronies, a lie that should be corrected if historical truth is to mean anything at all. Chamberlain had in fact been one of the first to call for rearmament and would have fought the 1935 General Election with a policy of improving Britain's defences but was stopped from doing so by Baldwin. Churchill's record is somewhat different: in 1920 he campaigned for battleships when those who knew better wanted to switch to aircraft-carriers; in 1925 he opposed reinforcement of Singapore, claiming that the Japanese could never take Singapore by surprise; in 1928 he recommended extension of the 10-year rule (no need to spend extra money on armed forces for at least 10 more years); fought to reduce the naval estimates in 1928 and the army estimates in 1929. As Gordon Corrigan put it in his well researched book Blood, Sweat and Arrogance: “It was only when he was out of office, and increasingly unlikely to regain it, that Churchill underwent a conversion that makes the Black Death look like a minor outbreak of the sniffles, and began to bang the drum of opposing dictators and building up Britain's military strength. He was right, but he must also take the blame for contributing to that weakness in the first place.”
But the loss of HMS Courageous was by no means the only disaster incurred by Churchill's arrogant and incompetent interference during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty. It was expected that Germany would soon try to occupy Norway and a plan was drawn up involving both the Royal Navy and troops to prevent this happening. But in April 1940, when Germany did invade, attacking at various key points along the entire Norwegian coast, our modern day Nelson again knew better than his admirals. Troops were disembarked and warships were sent in all directions but the right one; Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, in command of the Home Fleet, had his orders cancelled by Churchill and the result was that Germany occupied Norway with relatively little loss. Had anyone else but Churchill shown such incompetence, even downright stupidity, he would have been sacked. But the farce continued. It was decided that Narvik, in the northernmost region of Norway, must be taken. Churchill wanted part of the Narvik force to be diverted to Namos, about 230 miles south, with a view to taking Trondheim. General Ironside, the CIGS, refused, stating that there were not enough troops for the Narvik expedition as it was. Three days later Ironside was awakened by Churchill at 2am, while the Narvik force was at sea, and told that the navy was to attack Trondheim and 146 Brigade was to be landed at Namos and Andalsnes to form a pincer attack from north and south.
To divert 146 Brigade in this manner meant it would land without its commander (who was on one of the other ships), with no anti-aircraft guns and without much of its equipment. Ironside explained this to Churchill, but Churchill lied, saying he had the full agreement of the War Cabinet's Military Co-ordination Committee. The resulting landing at Namos was a fiasco, with the army and navy commanders receiving conflicting orders and Churchill changing commanders, making impossible demands and directing action from hundreds of miles away for a scenario about which he knew nothing. At last common sense prevailed and it was decided that the original plan, to occupy Narvik, should be focussed on and Churchill's “military masterstroke” of also attacking central Norway should be abandoned. The navy managed to evacuate most of the troops of 146 Brigade against Churchill's wishes: he wanted the troops to disperse into the mountains and conduct a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Inexperienced and ill-equipped Territorials were to go off into the mountains at a time when the temperature was 40 degrees below, with no training for such terrain and no means of being fed or supplied!? This was folly on an insane scale, even for a commander as hare-brained as Churchill; it betrays not only his stupidity but also his contemptuous disregard for the lives of his soldiers.
Meanwhile the Scandinavian campaign had caught the attention of the House of Commons. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, speaking with authority, made an impassioned speech in which he blamed everyone except the guilty man himself for the debacle. In the angry debate that followed blame was diverted from Churchill and pointed at Chamberlain. In one of history’s great ironies it was Chamberlain who was forced to resign and Churchill succeeded him as Prime Minister. In the words of military historian Gordon Corrigan: “So a debate on the mismanagement of the Norwegian campaign brought to power the man who had been mostly responsible for that mismanagement.” Narvik was eventually captured by the French, Norwegians and Poles on May 28th, then abandoned in early June. Thus was concluded another inglorious chapter in the career of our great military and naval strategist.
It must be pointed out here that the generals and admirals who allowed Churchill to overrule them and impose his own strategy and tactics on the conduct of the war were as much to blame as him for the fiasco just related, and the others that followed during WWII. They could have given him the ultimatum en masse of keeping his interfering nose out of their operations or facing their collective resignation. Churchill would have been forced to back down; but instead they put their own careers before the lives of the men under their command.
“The man's mad. I suppose these figments of the imagination are telegraphed without consulting his military advisers.” (BEF Chief of Staff Pownall on Churchill).
When Germany invaded Holland and Belgium on 10th May, 1939, and put an end to the “Phoney War” the French and British had more men on the ground and more (and better quality) tanks. But this did not deter the Germans: they were more militarily competent, efficient, and co-ordinated in their execution of modern warfare and they proceeded to wipe the floor with the Allies. During the ensuing debacle the great man himself crossed the channel to give orders, prompting Chief of Staff Pownall to make the comment which heads this chapter. Churchill seemed to think armies were like chess pieces that could be moved here and there at a whim, disengaging from the enemy with impunity and repositioning themselves in a more favourable position while the enemy patiently waited their turn to move.
Fortunately for the thousands of ordinary soliders, General Gort ignored Churchill's orders, otherwise British casualties would have been higher and the evacuation from Dunkirk would have been less successful. In the end, about 250,000 British and over 100,000 French soldiers were rescued to fight another day. It had taken the German forces a mere month to see off the Allies in what is known as the Battle of France. The 51st Highland Division, the 1st Armoured Division were left behind, along with thousands of administrative and non-combatant staff. The Highlanders, commanded by Major General Victor Fortune, were placed under French command and were later ordered to surrender. They obeyed with great reluctance only after General Fortune was given written orders to do so.
But Churchill had not yet grasped the magnitude of the Allied defeat. He once again overruled his generals and decided to start another BEF in France under the command of General Sir Alan Brooke. He ordered the 52nd Division, a lowland Scottish Territorial Division, and 1 Canadian Division which was in reserve in England, to embark for Cherbourg, sending Alan Brooke ahead to co-ordinate operations. Great military strategist? It is small wonder that Churchill had such a difficult time getting into Sandhurst ‑ a latrine-cleaner in the Pioneer Corps would have more military acumen than him.
When Sir Alan Brooke arrived in France he confirmed what he had already suspected: the French Army had collapsed and a second BEF was not an option. It is astonishing to think that these were the times that gained Churchill the reputation as a great man. His idiotic plan was scrapped and Brooke ordered all British personnel remaining in France to make for the nearest unoccupied ports where, in “Operation Ariel”, the remnants of 1st Armoured Division along with thousands more British and allied troops were rescued by the Royal Navy. The only senior British officer to come out of this debacle with any credit was General Gort, the unsung hero of the Battle of France, who disobeyed Churchill's orders and plugged the gap between Belgium and the BEF, thus enabling much of the British forces to reach Dunkirk and be evacuated.
Of the 120,000 French troops evacuated by the Royal Navy, all but 4,000 opted under international law to return to their defeated country. Only 1,500 sailors decided to stay and be part of the Free French Navy. It is easy for bourgeois historians to criticize those Frenchmen who opted for repatriation, but it must be remembered that they had wives and children in occupied France to worry about. The bourgeois historian sitting in the comfort of his study fails to understand that this could be an over-riding argument for these soldiers, rather than any lack of fighting spirit which influenced their decision. Proof of this was to come later with the heroic struggle of the French Resistance.
The sinking of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940, was opposed by all three admirals involved. They believed that negotiation could have won the fleet over to the British side, but Churchill's orders had to be obeyed and he was not prepared to do anything other than hand out ultimatums. A “great statesman”, as he was supposed be, would have done everything possible to persuade the French Fleet to join up with the Royal Navy. But Winston Churchill was out to demonstrate what a hard man he was, and so the British Navy reluctantly sunk the French ships, killing 1,297 naval personnel! This was the last tragic episode in the aftermath of the Battle of France.
Throwing babies into a fire
“What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none.” (Captain Philip Mumford)
In the years leading up to WWII the Jews had been viciously persecuted not only in Nazi Germany, but also in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Romania. It is to the everlasting shame of Britain, America and the other so-called civilized countries of the West that little was done to help the victims of this vile victimization, but as if that wasn't bad enough Churchill decided to go one better. He rounded up all the Germans living in Britain, most of them being German Jews who had fled from this persecution, and persecuted them again by throwing them in prison. Some were deported to Canada, where they were again imprisoned and others were imprisoned on the Isle of Man in the Mooragh detention camp. They started a newspaper called the Mooragh Times in which to voice their grievances but the authorities closed it down.
Meanwhile the Battle of France was quickly followed by the Battle of Britain which was a conflict between fighter planes. While Germany's army was superior to Britain's, the opposite was true of their air forces. The Spitfire and Hurricane were technically superior and more manoeuvrable than the Messerschmitt 110 and, because they were fighting in home skies, could stay in the air longer than the Messerschmitt. The British also had the advantage of radar which meant they could not be taken by surprise. The Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain which was inevitably followed by the Blitz on Britain and the bombing raids on Germany.
The front line was everywhere during WWII. A mother and child asleep at home were just as likely to be killed by enemy action as a soldier in battle. The Blitz ended in May 1941, not because Hitler wished it to, but because he wanted to concentrate on his “Lebensraum” (living space) plan, which meant clearing the “Untermenschen” (sub-humans) out of Russia to provide territory for the expansion of his Aryan “super-race”. The Blitz killed 43,000 civilians and wounded about 140,000, along with the obvious destruction of property involved. During one raid on Coventry Churchill knew in advance when the raid would take place, but refused to send fighters to intercept the Luftwaffe's bombers, his explanation being that he didn't want to put the Germans wise to the fact that Britain had cracked the Enigma Code. So he let the Luftwaffe rain death and destruction on the citizens of Coventry when he had an opportunity to get fighters in the air to hack them out of the sky. It is more likely that he sacrificed the citizens of Coventry in the hope that it would lure America into the war. Three months earlier he had in fact expressed great irritation because the Germans had not bombed Coventry, explaining to Charles De Gaulle: “You see, the bombing of Oxford, Coventry and Canterbury will cause such a wave of indignation that the United States will come into the war!”
But the German civilians suffered much worse, with British and American bombing raids continuing with ever increasing intensity throughout the war. Almost as many civilians perished (40,000) in a single raid on Hamburg as were killed in Britain throughout the Blitz, and their deaths were horrific: firestorms generated temperatures of 1,000 degrees Centigrade, sucking air into the flames at 150 mph, and of course sucking men, women and children into the flames as well; it was like being hurled alive into a huge crematorium. Throwing babies on to the fire or throwing fire onto babies – the Second World War brought forth the real brutal nature of the ruling classes.
Winston did not like General Wavell. For one thing, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East was obviously several rungs higher up the ladder of intelligence than his greatly overrated Prime Minister; for another, he had the guts to say 'No' to the great man, and that was unforgivable.
When the Italian forces drove the British forces out of British Somaliland in 1940 Churchill demanded that the officer in command there, Lt. General Alfred Godwin-Austin, be sacked immediately for incompetence (the pot calling the kettle black). Wavell refused, explaining to the angry Churchill that a general who could conduct an orderly retreat while outnumbered 5 to 1, sustaining only 250 casualties while inflicting 2,000 on the enemy, was in fact highly competent.
Shortly afterwards Wavell demonstrated that he himself was a highly competent general by his plan “Operation Compass”, executed on the ground by General Richard O'Connor. The Italian forces, who had occupied Libya, were driven hundreds of miles west along the North African coast all the way to Tripoli by an army half the size, but much better organized. 110,000 prisoners were taken, including a couple of dozen generals and one admiral, along with hundreds of tanks and guns. Simultaneously the Italian army in East Africa was defeated and Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia were freed from Italian occupation. From a military point of view it was a feat of planning and operation worthy of the highest praise, but all Churchill could do was whinge and whine about the high ratio of service/logistic personnel to actual combatants. He was too stupid too understand that in modern warfare the infantry, artillerymen and tank crews could only operate efficiently if they were adequately supplied with transport, food, ammunition, communications and all the other requisites of a well-oiled military machine; it was in fact the lack of all this that had contributed greatly to the collapse of Mussolini's army.
Things were looking bad for Hitler's ally and although he was not interested in N. Africa he reinforced the Italian army with what was to become known as the Afrika Korps, the first units of which arrived in February, 1941. The commander of this Korps was Erwin Rommel, the legendary “Desert Fox”. Although he was officially under the overall command of General Batico, Commander-in-Chief of Axis forces in North Africa, Rommel emerged as the real commander in the situation.
Almost all of XIII Corps, which had carried out Operation Compass, was shipped off for urgent duties elsewhere and Wavell was left with inexperienced replacements and a large proportion of his tanks, guns and transport equipment in need of repair. The British military chiefs were aware of the German reinforcements but all of the generals, including Wavell, were sure that Rommel would not be ready to begin active operations before May or June, which would allow plenty of time for the British and Commonwealth forces to reorganize themselves. Likewise Berlin was not interested in Rommel's North Africa campaign and more or less told him to go away and not bother them ‑ to take limited actions with a view to taking Tobruk in the autumn. Both his enemies and his own side greatly underestimated Erwin Rommel.
Rommel returned to Africa on March 24th, having been given the cold shoulder by Berlin, and went into action the next day. He attacked and took El Aghelia, then a week later took Mersa el Brega, then on April 2nd he was in Agadabia. In just 10 days the British forces had been driven back 50 miles. The following evening he took the port of Benghazi. Rommel's success continued, much to the annoyance of Berlin, where he was only expected to “go through the motions” of helping the Italians. Nor did it please the British, who were thrown into headlong retreat. Wavell counter-attacked on 15th May, regaining some ground, but was driven back again two days later. By June the British had been driven back to the border of Egypt, but this was not through any shortcomings on Wavell's part. He was also dealing with problems in Greece, Crete, Syria and Iraq while the resources at his disposal were totally inadequate.
Wavell wanted, correctly from the viewpoint of military strategy, to build up superiority in tanks and air forces and to train troops in co-operating with tanks in desert warfare, which would have taken about three months, before taking on Rommel. But Churchill was adamant that an attack must be made immediately. Reluctantly Wavell launched “Operation Battleaxe”. Battleaxe inevitably failed and Wavell, a very competent, dedicated and highly respected officer, was replaced, being blamed for yet another failure that was due entirely to Churchill's irresponsible demand for premature action.
Any fool can learn from his mistakes, but Churchill was not just any fool ‑ he was an exceptional one. He could not grasp the basics of modern warfare; not only could he not understand that every soldier, sailor and airman fighting on the front line needs to be backed up by adequate logistics, he also failed to realise that they had to be trained and fully briefed before any large scale operation. Throw soldiers at an important military objective without thorough preparation and you throw their lives away to no avail. But then, what did he care about soldiers' lives?
And so this dangerous dilettante continued to make the same mistakes. The next general to fall victim to Churchill's folly was General Sir Claude Auchinleck, who took over as Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 4th July 1941. As Germany had invaded Russia only twelve days earlier it was obvious that all its military resources would be concentrated on the Eastern Front, thus allowing the British ample time to build up the Eighth Army and train officers and men for combined operations in Desert warfare. This was Auchinleck's view and everyone concerned agreed with him, everyone except Churchill. Churchill overruled his Chiefs of Staff and ordered Auchinleck to launch an offensive against Rommel as soon as possible. This was to be called “Operation Crusader”.
Another focus of Churchill's meddling in North Africa was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Middle East. Churchill decided, in his ignorance, that the RAF personnel were too numerous and cut the number destined for Egypt. This led to a quarrel with Tedder, whom he would have sacked but for the fact that if he had done so his Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, would have resigned.
Operation Crusader was a partial success; Rommel's forces, outnumbered and with no renewable supplies of men, fuel and equipment, were forced to retreat and Tobruk was recaptured. This did not satisfy Churchill, he was expecting much better. But at least the picture had improved from the British point of view, or so they thought. They were in for a shock. In January 1942 Rommel received some much needed tanks and armoured cars, along with a large supply of fuel; he wasted no time in going back into action. His Panzer Army went into attack on January 21st and four days later had advanced seventy miles, crushing 1st Armoured Division and capturing ninety-six tanks and numerous guns and other vehicles. By 4th February he had retaken the important port of Benghazi. The complacent British and Commonwealth forces were thrown into panic and confusion.
There was a three month respite before Rommel made another, somewhat inconclusive attack on 26th May. The British counter-attacked on 5th June, but were defeated with the loss of about 200 tanks. Rommel attacked again on 11th June and the next day gave the British an utter pasting; they lost 260 tanks. The Germans went on to capture Tobruk and drive the British back into Egypt. Rommel was now confronting the Eighth Army at Mersah Mutrah, 170 miles into Egypt. Auchinleck took personal command; he knew how dangerous the situation had now become for the British army. If Rommel destroyed the Eighth Army he would control the Middle East and the Persian oilfields. Auchinleck understood that the imminent Battle of Mersah Mutrah should not be transformed into “a last stand”; the Eighth Army could not be allowed to be destroyed in one of Churchill's “fight to the last man” scenarios. If the British could not achieve victory at Mersah Mutrah then it was vital that they make an orderly retreat and reconsolidate their forces.
Rommel's offensive continued and the British forces were driven back to El Alamein, where the defensive line prepared by Auchinleck held fast. This remarkable performance by Rommel, driving the British and Commonwealth forces into a 1,000 mile retreat, earned him promotion to Field Marshal. It earned Auchinlek the sack. Nevertheless, Auchinleck had fought well at the first battle of El Alamein, choosing a position that, if defended by adequate troops, armour and artillery, would be extremely difficult to overrun. Using his troops and artillery to the best possible advantage, and armed with vital information from British Intelligence about Rommel's movements, Auchinleck repelled the Germans and halted their spectacular run of victories. But it was now Rommel who was in trouble; he had outreached himself and was now at the end of a very long supply line, running out of fuel, and with little hope of receiving any more help from Berlin.
Auchinleck and his Chief of Staff, Major General Dorman-Smith drew up plans for an offensive from El Alamein which were sent to London, and later used to great effect at the second battle of El Alamein, and at Alam Halfa. Meanwhile, Churchill arrived in Egypt on August 3rd and replaced Auchinleck with General Sir Harold Alexander as new Commander-in-Chief Middle East and Montgomery took over as Commander of the Eighth Army.
The main reason why Auchinleck was sacked was because he said he could not start an offensive before September; Churchill wanted action much sooner. But he was wrong if he thought he could hustle Alexander or Montgomery into premature action. Montgomery adamantly refused to budge until he was fully reinforced and re-supplied. His offensive did not begin until the night of October 23rd, but, although he didn't bother to publicize the fact, it was not his plan of attack; it was Auchinleck's. Of course Rommel was defeated, it could hardly be otherwise. Not only was he outnumbered in every department, but many of his troops were sick, his ammunition and fuel were in short supply and Montgomery had the benefit of massive air superiority. As if this wasn't enough, thanks to the breaking of the Enigma code Montgomery knew Rommel's plans and was informed of all communications between Rommel, his officers, and Berlin. With all these advantages Field Marshal Mickey Mouse could have beaten Rommel.
El Alamein was trumpeted as a great victory but in reality it was only a minor battle in the great WWII scheme of things; compared with Kursk it was hardly even a skirmish. But it gained Montgomery a knighthood, while Auchinleck wasn't even given credit for the fact that it was his battle plan. “Monty” did not publicize the fact that he had used Auchinleck's battle plans because, like Churchill, he was a vain and arrogant glory-seeker who stabbed his fellow officers in the back and chose to work with officers who would not outshine him. Furthermore, he also resembled Churchill inasmuch as that he was not nearly as good a soldier as he thought he was.
Overlord: the invasion of Normandy
Montgomery pursued Rommel at a snail's pace and it was not until May 1942 that the North Africa Campaign finally came to an end. But that was not all that was about to end; Winston Churchill's roll on centre stage in the drama of World War Two was all but over. America had now entered the war, and Uncle Sam would take no lip from Churchill or anyone else.
While tough fighting was going on in Sicily and Italy, plans were being made for “Overlord” ‑ the invasion of Normandy. Churchill wanted Sir Alan Brooke to be Supreme Allied Commander but the Americans, not unreasonably, decided that as ultimately they would be supplying most of the men and material an American, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, would fill that post. Montgomery got the job of ground forces commander. D-Day was set for June 1944 and the allies had to make a huge effort to build landing craft, train men and get together all the weapons, aircraft and equipment necessary for what would be the biggest combined allied operation of the war; it was becoming increasingly obvious that if the Allies did not establish themselves on the continent soon the unstoppable Russian army would sweep Hitler's armies all the way into the English Channel. The very idea that this might happen became an obsession for Churchill. At one stage he suggested that Allied soldiers should be parachuted into east Germany, far from the bulk of allied forces, so as to avoid the region being taken by the Russians, something which would have meant sure death for all the soldiers involved. It was the Americans who refused such a hare-brained idea!
Overlord began on the night of June 5th-6th 1941. Montgomery's main task was to reach certain objectives and engage German armoured divisions and destroy them while the Americans broke out from their positions. He held press conferences boasting that his master plan was going well, which was hardly the case: the Germans lost 75 tanks, the British 353. He made claims that were proved to be false then tried to cover them up and it is only the fact that he had been hyped-up as a hero by the British that saved him from the sack: it would have been too much of an embarrassment. But the writing was on the wall for the German army. They fought on two fronts against overwhelming odds, but by 5th May 1945 Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was over.
All the stories related here about Winston Churchill are straightforward facts, not in anyway distorted or exaggerated. So why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has he acquired the reputation as a great military/naval strategist and a great statesman, the man who “won the war”, the “saviour” of his country, when he was no such thing?
Any Prime Minister who serves his term during wartime gets the credit if the country is victorious, but Churchill had more than that going for him. He had plenty of influential friends in high places who praised him because he was “one of their own”. He was also his own public relations agent; he wrote his History of the Second World War, which was of course entirely his own version of events, and he was held in such reverence by the establishment that any criticism of him was strangled at birth. But things are changing at last. Three recent publications: Blood, Sweat and Arrogance, by Gordon Corrigan, Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker, and Lloyd George and Churchill, by Richard Toye, have given much more honest appraisals of his character.
Churchill's Britain was the Britain of dukes and earls, of rich and powerful businessmen and influential press barons. For the rest of us he had nothing but contempt. The working class riff-raff were there for one purpose ‑ to serve him and his kind by toiling in factory and farm to keep the rich in luxury, and to die in the field of battle to defend the great British Empire. For that reason they had to be fed and housed to a degree that would serve that purpose, but if they ever showed dissent he was ready and willing to bring out the tanks and the military to grind them into submission. He loved war, despite all the human suffering it caused. His interference and vindictiveness during the conduct of the war caused the deaths of thousands of British and Allied servicemen and the failure of several military and naval operations. It lost several ships and had he had supreme control over Allied operations he could even have lost the war. He was at best an incompetent, arrogant, elitist, self-obsessed egomaniac, constantly seeking self-glorification.
WWII was won, at horrendous cost to themselves, by the Russians on the Eastern Front; that was where the cruel, hard gaze of Hitler's fascism was focussed, and that is where at least three quarters of the Germany army was destroyed. Even if the Allies had never invaded Normandy, Hitler would still have been defeated; when he took the insane step of invading Russia he sealed his own fate.
Nor was it Churchill who “won the war” on the Western Front. It was the thousands of working-class American, Commonwealth and British servicemen who fought and died in what they perceived as a war to rid the world of Hitler's hated Nazi regime. It was these men that won victory in the West, and not the cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling boastful little man in the bowler hat.