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Churchill at War

By: Justin D. Lyons
September 7, 2011

A review of Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, by Carlo D’Este
and Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945 (Vintage), by Max Hastings

We have been told more about Winston Churchill than any other human being," writes Max Hastings. Tens of thousands of people, admirers and detractors alike, from those who worked closely with him under the strain of cataclysmic events to those who merely glimpsed him in passing, have left accounts of Churchill. His more than 60 years in political life were marked by much controversy and have led to countless studies, both contemporaneous and historical.

The flow of Churchill biographies continues unabated. Carlo D'Este in Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 and Max Hastings with Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945 have provided us two new portraits of Churchill. These authors wish us to take a step beyond the well-known elements of the Churchill story, explaining that up close, the countenance of the great man bears its share of blemishes. This is dangerous territory: to focus on imperfections is to risk losing sight of the whole. Just as painted portraits are meant to be viewed from a distance, peering too narrowly at a life can lead to false judgments. Escaping this danger is a difficulty of writing works like these, and for the most part, Hastings and D'Este examine Churchill's mistakes without losing sight of his great accomplishment. "Warts and all," D'Este writes, "Winston Churchill nevertheless represented the indomitable spirit and symbol of a defiant nation under siege."

Their mild criticism of Churchill is but an echo of what was said during his own life. "Churchill's wartime colleagues, above all the Chiefs of Staff," Hastings tells us, "emerged from the Second World War asserting the prime minister's greatness as a statesman, while deploring his shortcomings as a strategist." Judging Churchill as a strategist must be done cautiously. We must be careful not to depart from historical context. After all, we have knowledge that was unavailable to those laying plans and making difficult decisions at the time. Avoiding chronological superiority is one of the purposes of Churchill's account of his own leadership in his six-volume history The Second World War (1948-1953), as he indicates clearly in his introduction to the third volume The Grand Alliance (1950). D'Este puts it well: "History and hindsight are handmaidens that all too often demand perfection from those who have no grasp or experience of the grave burdens that fell upon Churchill's shoulders in 1940."


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The relationship between the political and the military sides of Churchill is one of the key themes of D'Este's book. "Long before he became a statesman," he points out, "Winston Churchill was first a soldier." Churchill's childhood fascination with military matters and his early life as a soldier shaped his wartime leadership. But it is also true that Churchill took up politics at a young age. He entered into Parliament rapidly and ascended to the higher realms of national direction for which he had been preparing himself since childhood. "War and soldiering were in his blood," but politics was in his heart. This is illustrated particularly well in Churchill's decision to unite in himself the offices of prime minister and minister of defence. Churchill thought much about the proper organization of a war administration and was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He "was convinced that a political leader must establish strategic policy: that is, where a war would be fought, what it must achieve, and how the generals, airmen, and admirals would carry it out, and not the other way around as was the case in the recent war." It is not surprising that this led him into conflict with professional military men such as Sir Alan Brooke, who considered Churchill's military enthusiasms an intolerable interference.

Hastings seeks "to present a portrait of [Churchill's] leadership from the day he became prime minister, May 10, 1940, set in the context of Britain's national experience." He explores Churchill's conduct of the war intending to bring to light underappreciated elements of the Churchill story. For example, though Churchill was a national symbol of defiance during wartime, many of his countrymen questioned his strategic judgment. Hastings explains "between the end of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and El Alamein in November 1942, not only many ordinary citizens, but also some of [Churchill's] closest colleagues wanted operational control of the war machine to be removed from his hands." This was a period of great disappointment for Churchill, in which the inadequacies of the British army made it impossible to visit upon the enemy the pain and destruction the British had already suffered. Frustrations in North Africa combined with the losses of Hong Kong and Singapore brought him under fire in the House of Commons. Churchill was victorious in a vote of confidence and defeated a motion of censure largely because of his tremendous rhetorical ability. His search for a fighting general finally resulted in the appointment of Bernard Montgomery, who delivered the long-awaited and desperately needed victory at El Alamein.


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Yet even before the fall of France, the wisdom of Churchill's strategic decisions was called into question. The deliverance of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk out of the jaws of the German war machine is well known. What is less known, Hastings points out, is that there were two Dunkirks. The second was the successful evacuation of the bulk of the British forces still in France, along with sizeable Allied contingents, more than a week after the first. In Hastings's presentation, this miracle was necessitated by Churchill's stubborn attachment to France. Up to the eve of the fall of Paris "perversely and indeed indefensibly, Churchill continued to dispatch more troops to France," he writes. Why did Churchill do this? Both D'Este and Hastings note that he had hopes of maintaining a beachhead in France, which would allow for a counteroffensive. But this was not the only reason. France had not yet capitulated. It was vital, in Churchill's view, to reassure France that Britain would continue to fight. If France fell, Britain would stand alone.

Churchill exerted himself massively, and in the end unsuccessfully, attempting to breathe the spirit of resistance into the French leadership. His purposes transcended the country's immediate military perspective. Military commanders on the scene, most notably Alan Brooke, thought Churchill pushed these things nearly to the point of lunacy. But Brooke understood Churchill's thinking: he saw "the prime minister's motive—to demonstrate to the French that the British army was still committed to the fight. But he rightly deplored its futility." Brooke was proven right in the end, but it is Churchill who had to bear the burden of the larger conflict, and it was Churchill who eventually agreed with Brooke's assessment, later than Brooke would have liked, but in time.

"In two world wars," D'Este notes, "Churchill never lost his appetite for the attack, disdaining defense as an occasional necessary evil." This appetite led him to favor, in Hastings's words "dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions, and sallies more appropriate—as officers who often worked with him often remarked—to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort." Military men often despaired at Churchill's tactics. From a purely military standpoint, many of them seemed unwise, but this is not the only measure that applies. One of the most controversial was Churchill's decision to send a British army to Greece in the spring of 1941. The British lost 12,000 men (9,000 of them taken prisoner) and achieved nothing militarily measurable. Churchill had in mind considerations broader than those on which generals must focus. He had also to take into account vital impressions on the world stage, as Hastings notes, "British passivity in the face of destruction of Greek freedom would have created a sorry impression upon the world, and especially the United States." Churchill knew that without the eventual belligerence of the United States, there would be no victory—and the United States must see Britain to be fighting. As prime minister, he had to consider the domestic scene as well. The morale of the British people had to be maintained. Giving in to inertia would lead to timidity, despair, and, ultimately, defeat. These concerns and others, such as the difficulties of working with a vital ally with its own plans and purposes after American entry into the war, must be brought to bear on any assessment of Churchill as war leader.

Both authors deserve credit for communicating that whatever mistakes Churchill made as a strategist, he never made a deadly mistake. Even Brooke, who had one of the most tempestuous relationships with Churchill, wrote "I thank God I was given an opportunity of working alongside such a man, and of having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth." Churchill was the driving force Britain needed to carry it through its darkest and finest hour. It could not have been done without him.