As prime minister and minister of defense, Churchill held power “in ever growing measure,” as he himself put it, from May 1940 to July 1945. Probably no statesman in British history had held power for so long in so concentrated and extensive a form. So the first question to ask is: Did Churchill personally save Britain? Was his leadership essential to its survival and eventual victory?
The question is best answered by examining the factors and virtues which operated in his favor—some determined by objective events, others by his own genius and exertions. They were tenfold. First, as a civilian leader, Churchill benefited from a change of national opinion toward the relative trustworthiness of politicians and service leaders—“frocks and brass hats,” to use the phrase of his youth. In the First World War, reverence for brass hats and dislike of frocks made it almost impossible for the government, even under Lloyd George at his apotheosis, to conduct the war efficiently. As Churchill put it: “The foolish doctrine was preached to the public through innumerable agencies that generals and admirals must be right on war matters and civilians of all kinds must be wrong—inculcated billionfold by the newspapers under the crudest forms.” Lloyd George had the greatest difficulty in sacking any senior figure in uniform and could never take the risk of sacking Haig, the army supremo on the western front, much as he would have liked to.
By World War II, the truth about the mistakes of the brass hats in the earlier conflict had sunk so deeply into the national consciousness that the position had been almost reversed. There was no war hero until Montgomery made himself one late in the conflict by his own victories. Churchill by contrast came to power with the reputation of having been right throughout the thirties, and was now proved right by the danger in which Britain found herself. He never had to hesitate, except for genuine reasons, before sacking a general, even a popular one like Archibald Wavell, the British commander in Egypt. He felt his authority and exercised it: he was seen walking up and down the empty cabinet room once, after a major sacking, saying aloud, “I want them all to feel my power.” Churchill was overwhelmingly admired, even loved, but also feared.
Second, the concentration of power in Churchill’s person, with the backing of all parties, meant that there were never any practical or constitutional obstacles to the right decisions being taken. He always behaved with absolute propriety. He told the king everything and listened to all he said: within months George VI had swung right round in his favor and wrote, “I could not possibly have a better Prime Minister.” He also observed all the cabinet procedural rules. Above all, he treated Parliament, especially the House of Commons, with reverence and made it plain he was merely its servant. These were not mere formulae. Insofar as Churchill had a religion, it was the British constitution, spirit and letter: Parliament was the church in which he worshipped and whose decisions he obeyed. All this balanced and sanctified the huge power he possessed and exercised. Unlike Hitler, he operated from within a structure which represented, and was seen and felt to represent, the nation. He was never a dictator, and the awful example of Hitler was ever present before him to prevent him from ever acting like one. This was particularly important in his relations with his service chiefs, such as General Alanbrooke, Admiral Cunningham, and Air Marshal Portal. He and the cabinet took the decisions about the war. But the way in which they were executed was left to the service chiefs. Churchill might cajole and bully, storm and rant, but in the end he always meticulously stuck to the rule and left the responsible senior chiefs to take the decisions. This was the opposite of Hitler’s methods, and one principal reason why he lost the war. In another key respect Churchill did the opposite of Hitler: all his orders, without exception, were in writing and were absolutely clear. When issued verbally they were immediately confirmed in written form. All Hitler’s orders were verbal and transmitted by aides: “It is the Führer’s wish . . .” Churchill’s system of clear written orders, and his punctiliousness in observing the demarcation lines between civilian and military responsibility, is one reason the service chiefs were so loyal to him and his leadership, and indeed revered him, however much his working methods—especially his late hours—might try their patience and bodies.
Third, Churchill was personally fortunate in that he took over at a desperate time. The sheer power of the Nazi war machine, against which he had warned, was now revealed. The worst, as it were, had happened, was happening, or was about to happen. He was able to say in perfect truth, just after he took power (May 13, 1940), “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ ” He added, in the same speech, that his aim was quite simple and clear: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.” The last words were of deadly significance, and felt to be so. For Britain was not facing defeat in the sense that it had been defeated in the American War of Independence. It was facing extinction as a free country. Ordinary people were made to feel that. On Churchill’s orders, the national anthems of the Allies were played on the BBC before the 9:00 p.m. news every Sunday. There were seven of them, six already defeated, occupied, and under the total control of the Gestapo. Soon, France joined the losers. Churchill certainly did all in his power to save her, paying five perilous visits to consult with her disintegrating, scared, and defeatist government and service chiefs. He would not, however—and rightly—go beyond a certain point. He was prepared to offer France a union of the two states, a most imaginative and adventurous idea, characteristic of his fertility. He was not willing, however, to comply with their request to send all of Britain’s precious fighter squadrons to France in a despairing effort to stem the Nazi blitzkrieg. That, he said, would be “hurling snowballs into Hell.” Instead, as France lurched toward dishonorable surrender and puppet status under Marshal Pétain, Churchill concentrated on getting the British Expeditionary Force safely back home. And he succeeded. Nine-tenths were rescued from Dunkirk, and many Allied soldiers with them, more than three hundred thousand in all, brought back by an improvised armada of ships, great and small, including pleasure cruisers and fishing boats, which gave picturesque color and even romance to the story, a typically British tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Thus within a month of taking office, amid the unmitigated catastrophe of France’s fall, Churchill was able to report a British victory—Dunkirk—and to speak glowingly of “the Dunkirk spirit.” It was in a sense a bogus victory, for the troops had been forced to leave their heavy equipment behind, and in many cases even their rifles, which they had smashed before embarking. But Dunkirk nevertheless gave a huge boost to British morale: now that Churchill was in charge, the people felt that, far from plunging further down into the abyss, the country was moving upward, if only an inch at a time.
Fourth, Churchill himself began to set a personal example of furious and productive activity at Ten Downing Street. He was sixty-five but he looked, seemed—was, indeed—the embodiment of energy. He worked a sixteen-hour day. He sought to make everyone else do likewise. In contrast to lethargic, self-indulgent old Asquith (“the bridge-player at the Wharf,” as Churchill called him) or even Lloyd George, who had high tea instead of a proper dinner to discus strategy and went to bed at nine o’clock, Churchill began to wear his own form of labor-saving uniform, a siren suit, easy to put on or take off, in which he could nap if he wanted during long nighttime spells at work. This added hugely to the fast-accumulating Churchill legend: the public called it his “rompers.” In fact, thanks to Clemmie, some of these siren suits were of elaborate and costly materials, velvet and silk as well as wool—for “best” parties in the Number Ten bombproof dining room, and so on. Churchill had always used clothes for personal propaganda and had a propensity to collect unusual uniforms. Since 1913 he had been an elder brother of Trinity House, a medieval institution which supervised all light-houses and port lights in the British Isles. Its uniform had a distinctive nautical flavor and for court dress he always wore it in preference to that of his Privy Council. General de Gaulle, who had by now taken charge of France’s resistance forces, asked him what it was and received the mystifying reply, “Je suis un frère aîné de la Sainte Trinité.” But the siren suit was the everyday wartime wear and proved a masterstroke of propaganda. In it the prime minister worked within days of taking over, as the first brief and pointed memos and orders flowed out under the famous headline: “Action This Day.” So did the endless series of brief, urgent queries: “Pray inform me on one half-sheet of paper, why . . .” Answers had to be given, fast. Churchill had teams of what he called “dictation secretaries.” He worked them very long hours. He was sometimes brusque or angry, swore, forgot their names, even lost his temper. But he also smiled, joked, dazzled them with uproarious charm and whimsicalities. They all loved him and were proud to work with him. They helped him to turn Number Ten into a dynamo, and its reverberations gradually resounded through the entire old-fashioned, lazy, obstructive, and cumbersome government machine, until it began to hum, too. Churchill’s sheer energy and, not least, his ability to switch it off abruptly when not needed were central keys to his life, and especially his wartime leadership. But it must be admitted that he killed men who could not keep up—Admiral Pound, for instance, and General Sir John Dill—just as Napoleon Bonaparte killed horses under him.
The fifth factor was Churchill’s oratory. It is a curious fact that he switched it on to its full power just as Hitler switched his off. Hitler had been, in his time, the greatest rabble-rouser of the twentieth century. In his successful attempt to destroy Versailles and make Germany a great power again—incidentally ending unemployment—his oratory had been a vital factor in making him the most popular leader in German history (1933-39). But the Germans, while overwhelmingly behind the campaign against Versailles, had no desire to see Hitler turn Europe into a servile German empire, let alone lead them into a world war. When Hitler marched into Prague in March 1939 it was his first unpopular act. Until now he had ruled mainly by consent. Thereafter it was by force and fear. Sensing his loss of personal popularity, Hitler ceased to address the Reichstag or make public speeches. By the time Churchill took charge, Hitler had retreated into his various military headquarters, mostly underground, rarely appearing and never speaking in public. He became a troglodyte, while Churchill became a world figure ubiquitous in newspapers and newsreels wherever Nazi censorship had no control.
The oratory had two interlocking audiences: the Commons and the radio listener. Here a personal word is in order. I was twelve when Churchill took power and had learned to caricature him since the age of five (I could also do Mussolini, Stalin, and Roosevelt). My father, having served four years in the trenches and lost friends in the Dardanelles, was suspicious of Churchill. In April 1940 I recall his saying, “There’s talk of making that fellow Churchill prime minister.” But by early May events had swung him round: “It looks as if we’ll have to put Winston in charge.” By then the nation was calling him “Winston.” My father and I read in the newspaper together all his speeches in the late spring and summer of 1940, and listened to all his regular broadcasts. The combined effect was electrifying and transforming. I can remember the tone of voice, the words, many whole phrases to this day. There were two passages in particular. After Dunkirk, and before the last phases in the already lost battle on the Continent, he insisted (June 4):
We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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.
In the Commons, Churchill characteristically supplemented the passage with a joking aside, sotto voce, “We shall fight with pitchforks and broomsticks, it’s about all we’ve bloody got.” Jokes were never far away when Churchill spoke, even in the gloomiest times. He was rather like Dr. Johnson’s old friend from Pembroke College: “I try to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in.” Of course we did not know that bit about the pitchforks. But the bit about never surrendering rang true. We believed it, we meant it.
After France capitulated, he struck again with memorable words: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” People believed this, too, and not only in Britain. Somehow his words were broadcast in Europe, where men and women listened to them at the peril of their lives, and they were believed there, too. At this time, a young archaeology don from Oxford, C. E. Stevens, thought of the V for victory sign. He spent his holidays “pigging it,” as he said, with French charcoal burners, and believed they would like it, and so would others. Its Morse code symbols, three dots and a dash, echoed the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The BBC spread the notion. Churchill adopted it with alacrity and enthusiasm and gave the V sign everywhere with one hand, clutching his huge cigar and holding on to his outsize bowler with the other, as he toured the troops and bombed cities. So the first true victory Britain won in the war was the victory of oratory and symbolism. Churchill was responsible for both.
Sixth, however, came his sense of the importance of airpower and his speed in grasping the opportunities it offered. Under his rule as secretary of state for war and air, just after the First World War, the RAF had been the world’s largest air force. It had been grievously neglected in the twenties and early thirties but the level of research and development had been high—Lindemann had explained to him the importance of Robert Watson-Watt in radar and Frank Whittle in advanced jet engines—and by the beginning of the war Britain was producing better aircraft than Germany. By the time Churchill took power, production was equal to Germany’s in numbers. He made Beaverbrook his minister for aircraft production and told him to go flat out. By the end of the year British production of war aircraft, both fighters and bombers, had overtaken German in both quantity and quality. So had the output of trained aircrews. Meanwhile, radar stations were spreading all over southern England. For the first time in the war, British technological superiority was established, and Churchill and Beaverbrook put all available resources behind maintaining and lengthening their lead. The result was that when Hitler and Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, unleashed large-scale air attacks on Britain at the end of June, using air bases in northwest France and Belgium, the RAF was ready and eager. The Luftwaffe’s first object was to destroy the RAF’s southern airfields. Had this been accomplished there is no doubt that a seaborne invasion would have been launched with a good prospect of establishing a bridgehead in Kent or Sussex. After that the outlook for Britain’s survival would have been bleak. But the RAF successfully defended its airfields and inflicted very heavy casualties on the German formations, in a ratio of three to one. Moreover, the German aircrews were mostly killed or captured whereas British crews parachuted to safety. Throughout July and August the advantage moved steadily to Britain, and more aircraft and crews were added each week to lengthen the odds against Germany. By mid-September, the Battle of Britain was won. The sign of defeat was the German decision to switch to night bombing raids on British cities. These caused misery and some loss of civilian life, but the move from hard to soft targets was strategically very welcoming and encouraging for Churchill. As early as August 20 he scented victory and was able to report to the Commons in a speech which contained the memorable tribute to the RAF fighter pilots: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Moreover, by now he was able to envisage that the air offered Britain her one big opportunity to move over to the offensive. He wrote to Lord Beaverbrook (July 8, 1940):
When I look round to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. We have no Continental army which can defeat the enemy military power—the blockade is broken and Hitler has Asia and probably Africa to draw from. Should he be repulsed here or not try invasion, he will recoil eastward, and we have nothing to stop him. But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.
Churchill knew of course of plans to make an atomic bomb. In the meantime, the Lancaster bomber was being created to carry five tons of bombs apiece in thousand-strong raids. The Battle of Britain had in effect made a Nazi invasion impossible. At the same time, Churchill was gearing up to begin the Battle of Germany, which was waged with growing force over the next four and a half years. It was at this point that he adopted the RAF, got himself made an air commodore, and wore this uniform on public and official occasions more often than any other. Like the siren suit, it was rich in symbolism.
Seventh, though Britain was not in a position to attack Hitler on the Continent, Churchill ensured that powerful blows were struck against his ally Mussolini. The moment it became clear that an invasion of Britain was unlikely (Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely on September 17, 1940), every available aircraft and tank was sent to the Middle East. Before long, the results came flowing in. Italy’s ramshackle empire in East Africa was overrun, and Italian troops surrendered in entire units, often without firing a shot. The British position in Iraq was secured against an Arab uprising, and from that point there was no serious threat to Britain’s oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, whereas Hitler was soon driven to manufacturing an inferior form of gasoline known as ersatz, one of many German words eagerly adopted by the British (blitz was another) as a subtle sign that they were capable of swallowing the enemy: Churchill encouraged the trend—kaput became a favorite term of his, and kamerad, the German cry of surrender. Britain had already seized France’s principal warships or put them out of action. Now the two French protectorates in the Middle East, Syria and the Lebanon, which had opted for Vichy, were occupied. This impressed Turkey, which began to lean toward Britain, a process reinforced by Churchill, who sent Eden (now foreign secretary) out to the area for a visit. “What shall I tell Turkey?” he asked. Churchill replied: “Warn her Christmas is coming.”
Eighth, Wavell was encouraged to “go for Musso,” as Churchill put it, and eventually did. In January 1941 the Italian Libyan force collapsed and countless prisoners were taken, though Wavell did not pursue the fleeing Italians and take the capital Tripoli, being slow and cautious, characteristics Churchill did not like and which eventually led to his replacement. More to his taste was Admiral Cunningham, who had, he said, “the Nelson Touch.” In November 1940 Cunningham’s seaplanes sank a third of the Italian fleet in harbor at Taranto, and in March 1941 he won the largest fleet action in European waters at the battle of Cape Matapan. Churchill’s reaction was characteristic: “How lucky we are the Italians came in!” These victories made welcome headlines at home and were reinforced by the fact that ships that had taken tanks to Cairo were filled going home by over one hundred thousand Italian prisoners of war. They were promptly put to work on farms where they showed themselves industrious and grateful that they were still alive. They proved mighty popular as visible symbols that Britain would win battles as well as suffer defeats. “Friendly Wops,” as Churchill put it, “are good for morale.” He began to think of the Mediterranean coast as “the soft underbelly of Europe” and planned to attack it as the easiest way to the Nazi vitals.
Ninth, Churchill was always on the lookout for allies, large or small. That was why when Mussolini, desperate for a victory, invaded Greece in October 1940 and was soundly thrashed, calling desperately to Hitler for help, Churchill was in favor of sending troops to Greece, which he did in March 1941. The majority opinion was against him, the Germans invaded in April, and in due course both Greece and Crete were lost. In the long run, however, Churchill was proved right. By this time, thanks to possession of the Nazi encryption machine Enigma and the British decoding center at Bletchley, he was getting regular intercepts of top-level Nazi messages. This was the most closely guarded secret of the war, and it says a lot for the precautions Churchill personally took, and his own discretion, that the Nazis never suspected their codes were broken and continued to use them to the end. The excerpts persuaded Churchill that Hitler intended to invade Russia in May. By coming to the aid of Italy in Greece, Hitler was forced to postpone the invasion till the second half of June 1941, which in practice made it impossible for him to take Moscow and Leningrad before the winter set in. So the attack on Russia, instead of being a blitzkrieg, became a hard slog. Moreover, his attack on Crete with his prize paratrooper forces proved so costly that he banned their use in the Russian campaign, a serious handicap as it turned out. Primed by the intercepts, Churchill warned Stalin that he was about to be invaded. Stalin took no notice, suspecting a “capitalist trick” to drag him into the war. When it occurred, Churchill was delighted, and at once reversed his quarter century of hostility to the Soviet Union. “And why not, after all,” he joked. “If Hitler invaded Hell, at least I would ensure that in the House of Commons I made a favourable reference to the Devil.” So Russia was warmly welcomed by Churchill as “our new and great ally.” When Hitler failed to demolish the Red Army, as most experts expected, Churchill’s opinion rose. On October 29 he made a rousing speech to the boys of his old school, Harrow:
Do not let us speak of darker days. Let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived. And we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.
A month later Japan attacked Britain and America. Hitler then made his biggest mistake: quite needlessly he declared war on the United States. Churchill had been strikingly successful in getting Roosevelt to send war supplies in growing quantities and on “lend-lease,” for Britain’s dollar resources were now exhausted. In a broadcast to America, on February 9, 1941, he had said, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” But he knew this was over-optimistic: Britain alone was not capable of crushing Germany. Now the odds had been changed completely. As he put it, “An eventual Allied victory is odds-on.” However, he clinched matters by persuading Roosevelt and his advisers that priority should be given to defeating Germany first. This was perhaps the most important act of persuasion in Churchill’s entire career, and it proved to be absolutely correct.
Indeed, and this is the tenth point, Churchill had an uncanny gift for getting priorities right. For a statesman in time of war it is the finest possible virtue. “Jock” Colville, his personal secretary, said, “Churchill’s greatest intellectual gift was for picking on essentials and concentrating on them.” But these essentials were always directed toward the destruction of the enemy. General “Pug” Ismay, his closest military adviser, noted, “He is not a gambler but never shrinks from taking a calculated risk if the situation so demands. His whole heart and soul are in the battle, and he is an apostle of the offensive.” He made it clear in his memos that no commander would ever be penalized for an excess of zeal toward the enemy. This was a huge comfort and safeguard for aggressive generals and encouraged the spirit of adventure.
These ten points are essential to answering the question: did Churchill save Britain? The answer must be yes. No one else could have done it. This was what was felt at the time by the great majority of the British people, and it has been since confirmed by the facts and documents at our disposal. By the end of 1940 Britain was secure. By the end of 1941 she was clearly on the winning side. Churchill had done it by his personal leadership, courage, resolution, ingenuity, and grasp, and by his huge and infectious confidence. But it must not be thought that he was just a kind of implacable machine making war. He never lost his humanity. His jokes continued and were repeated in ever-widening circles like stones dropped in a pool, until they became the common currency of wartime Britain. People learned to imitate his speech mannerisms. He was referred to on the bus as “Winnie.” Brendan Bracken described how, driving round Hyde Park Corner with Churchill, they came across a man fighting with his wife. The man recognized Churchill, stopped, and took off his hat: “It’s the Guv’nor—are you well, sir?”
Churchill also punctuated his grim, endless pursuit of the war by curious acts of kindness. On the evening of May 10, 1940, having just taken office, and while forming his cabinet, he found time to offer asylum to the elderly kaiser, once a friend and now in danger of being made Hitler’s propaganda puppet. He was always and thoughtfully generous to former political opponents. By the time of the Battle of Britain, Chamberlain (whom he had insisted on keeping in the government and treating with respect) was ill with terminal cancer. On the day of one of the biggest RAF victories, Churchill telephoned the stricken man to tell him of the number of Nazi aircraft shot down. There is also a record of his taking old Baldwin to lunch and cheering him up. When Beaverbrook, as minister of aircraft production, commandeered everyone’s iron gates to be melted down, he specially confirmed that Baldwin’s gates at Bewdley, his country house, were not to be spared. Churchill found time to cancel the order. He hardly ever cherished a grudge or a grievance or nursed enmity in his heart. He remembered to thank people for their help, too. Before America entered the war, Churchill made a thrilling broadcast on April 27, 1941, which I remember vividly, saying how important American help was, and that it was being provided “in increasing measure.” He ended by quoting Arthur Clough’s lines:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
Comes, silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright!
This quote had a tremendous impact on the listeners. Before dinner, he telephoned Violet Bonham Carter (née Asquith), who had read him the poem thirty-five years before. He asked, “Did you hear my broadcast? ” “Of course I did, Winston. Everyone listens when you speak.” He reminded her of her reading him the lines so many years before: “And now I have read them to the nation. Thank you!”
By the end of 1941 Churchill was confident that the war would be won. But there were heavy blows to bear. In some ways the first half of 1942 was the worst period of the war for him, for any disasters due to mistakes could no longer be blamed on anyone else. He blamed himself bitterly for underestimating the power and malevolence of Japan, for allowing two capital ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, to be sent to sea without air cover, both being sunk with almost all hands, and for the fall of Singapore. There were disastrous reverses in North Africa, where Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps proved, for their numbers, the most successful German army of the entire war. Worst of all there were heavy sinkings of Allied supply ships in the North Atlantic, for which Churchill could not provide the explanation. The truth, we now know, was that Enigma intercepts had been providing information about the positions of U-boats, making them easier to sink, but early in 1942 a change in Nazi coding made this intelligence unavailable for several months, until the Bletchley code breakers caught up.
The concentration of bad news in 1942 led to the most serious challenge Churchill faced in the entire war. Though often criticized by individual MPs, including one heavyweight, Aneurin Bevan—“a squalid nuisance,” as Churchill described him—he always won the rare debates by enormous majorities or without a vote. However, early in July, the news that Rommel was only ninety miles from Cairo led to a vote of censure proposed by Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, who was described by Harold Nicolson as “an imposing man with a calm manner which gives an impression of solidity.” Hitting hard at Churchill personally, Milne demanded the prime minister be stripped of his position as minister of defense and that it be handed over to “a dominating figure to run the war,” and “a generalissimo to command all the armed forces.” Who was this to be? Milne announced: “the Duke of Gloucester.” This man was the booby younger brother of the king, notorious for his large body and tiny brain. The House shrieked and bellowed with laughter. Churchill was saved—it was the best stroke of pure luck he enjoyed in the war, and remained a delightful national joke for months.
Shortly after the tide turned again. Churchill got himself a winning general in Africa in the shape of Bernard Montgomery, who (like Nelson) also possessed a gift for turning himself into a national hero. He beat Rommel at the decisive battle of El Alamein in November 1942, and this prepared the way for Allied landings in North Africa, which ultimately brought the surrender of three hundred thousand Germans and Italians in Tunisia—the biggest “bag” of the war. Soon thereafter the Russians won the battle of Stalingrad, with the surrender of Hitler’s entire Sixth Army. The decoded intercepts were renewed, with a consequent sinking of U-boats, freeing the way for enormous numbers of American supplies and troops to reach Britain, preparing for a landing on the Continent.
By the end of 1942 Churchill, who had been thinking about postwar geopolitics ever since the Battle of Britain had been won, was actively working to create a world capable of containing the power of the Soviet Union. He did this, to the best of his ability, through the summit system, a form of negotiation he loved—the top men face-to-face, surrounded by their staff and experts (he often traveled with eighty people). In 1943 Captain Pim, who ran his map room, calculated that Churchill had already traveled 110,000 miles since the beginning of the war and had spent thirty-three days at sea and fourteen days and three hours in the air, often exposed to real danger. He had to work his aging body hard. He hated having injections, though he joked about them, telling one nurse, “You can use my fingers or the lobe of my ear, and of course I have an almost infinite expanse of arse.” His health was on the whole remarkably good, considering his workload, but he suffered from three strokes or heart attacks, bouts of pneumonia, and other ailments. His doctor, Moran, was (after his patient’s death) criticized by the Churchill family and other doctors for writing a book, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, describing in detail the threats to his life arising from health problems. But historians think he was quite right to do so: it is a vital part of the story. Moran did a first-class job in keeping Churchill alive, helped by the prime minister’s fundamentally strong constitution, amazing powers of recuperation, and will to live. Churchill was indispensable, and those around him did not dare to think of who could take over if he died. The assumption was Eden—an appalling prospect to those familiar with his over-anxiety bordering on hysteria.
Churchill’s great strength was his power of relaxation. Sometimes he painted, discovering in the process of one summit Morocco, and above all Marrakech, where the superb Mamounia Hotel was much to his taste. He loved having his womenfolk with him—Clemmie and his daughters, Diana, Sarah, and Mary. Sarah had made an unfortunate marriage to a stand-up comic, Vic Oliver, whom Churchill detested, even after he faded from the scene during the war. At a conference in Cairo, Churchill was recounting his worries to the resident minister of the Mediterranean, Harold Macmillan, who told him, “You are lucky. Things are going well, really. Look at Musso.” The Italian dictator was nearing the end of his power. Everything was going wrong. His foreign minister, Count Ciano, who had married Musso’s daughter, had been accused of treason and shot. Churchill reflected on Mussolini’s plight and then said, “Well, at least he had the pleasure of murdering his son-in-law.”
One aspect of his life Churchill had to neglect during the war was Chartwell. The Nazis knew all about it, and its system of three lakes made it an easy target to identify, night or day. So he was able to visit it only twelve times during the six years of the war, a painful loss. Of course he had Chequers, the beautiful house given to the nation for the relaxation of the prime minister in Lloyd George’s day. Churchill used it especially for top-level military conferences and receiving American envoys like Harry Hopkins and W. Averell Harriman. He had there an excellent cook and a fine cellar and installed a cinema in the Elizabethan gallery. He liked action movies, such as Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again, also a favorite of Lord Beaverbrook, who saw it scores of times. One prize movie Churchill hated was Citizen Kane. He walked out halfway through in disgust. He also improved the art collection, adding a mouse to a painting of a lion then believed to be by Rubens: “A lion without a mouse? I’ll change that. Pray, bring me my paints.” Talk at Chequers went on late into the night. Jock Colville said, “No one comes to Chequers to make up for lost sleep.” But Chequers, too, was regarded as vulnerable to Nazi raiders on nights with a full moon. So he got hold of Ronald Tree, a Tory MP who owned Ditchley, a spacious and beautiful golden stone house in Oxfordshire. Could he and his staff use it on the dangerous weekends? Tree, half American (his money came from the Marshall Field’s department store fortune), with his wife from Virginia, was glad to help. The Churchill circus settled there for a total of fifteen weekends up to March 1942, when the danger from raiders ended. The food was even better than at Chequers, though Churchill once remarked of a sweet course, pushing the plate away, “This pudding has no theme.” It was there also that he objected to a secretary’s saddling him with the typescript of a dictated memo which included a sentence ending with a preposition. It was a grammatical solecism he hated, and he barked, “Up with this I will not put.” He slept in bedroom number one, which has a magnificent four-poster. The house is now a conference center, and I have slept in this bed myself, in Churchillian comfort.
In the second half of the war, confident in its outcome, Churchill was chiefly preoccupied with keeping as close as possible to the United States while steering it in the direction he wanted to go. He was conscious of the huge superiority of American power but hoped by his ingenuity, powers of argument, and skillful use of his prestige—as when he addressed both houses of Congress—to “punch above my weight,” a phrase he coined. He gloried in the “special relationship,” telling the Commons:
The British Empire and the United States have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage. For my own part, looking to the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished. No one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, to broader lands and better days.
In his dealings with Roosevelt, Churchill had two difficulties. FDR was an anti-imperialist, opposed strongly to Churchill’s evident wish to keep colonies (“I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” he said in November 1942). He often suspected Churchill of being guided by imperialist motives when all he wanted was to win the war. But generally, if FDR was oversuspicious of Churchill, he was undersuspicious of Stalin. He had no direct experience of Bolshevism, as Churchill had, and did not hate Communism with every fiber of his being, as Churchill did. In meetings with Stalin, especially at Yalta in January 1945, he blocked Churchill’s attempts to coordinate Anglo-U.S. policy in advance: he did not wish, said Averell Harriman, to “feed Soviet suspicions that the British and Americans could be operating in concert.” Churchill sadly accepted this. As the Red Army began to push the Nazis back in Eastern Europe, he noted:
It is beyond the power of this country to prevent all sorts of things crashing at the present time. The responsibility lies with the United States and my desire is to give them all the support in my power. If they do not feel able to do anything, then we must let matters take their course.
There were, however, many points on which Britain, under Churchill’s leadership, was in a position to influence and even determine events. Where did he succeed, and where did he fail? When was he right and when wrong? He got the Americans to agree to a joint landing in Africa (Operation Torch), which succeeded and led to the surrender of all Axis forces there, as already noted. This was Churchill’s doing and led him in turn to the successful invasions of Sicily and Italy, and the Italian decision to make peace and join the Allies. Compare this, though, with Churchill’s decision to “roll up Italy,” as he put it. He put his old Harrovian friend Field Marshal Alexander, the general he liked most, in charge. But Italy was defended inch by inch by the Germans under Field Marshal Kesselring, the ablest Nazi general of all, and it proved a long and costly campaign. Probably the resources could have been better used elsewhere. Then there was the massive bomber assault of Germany. This was very much Churchill’s campaign, and speaking as one who lived through the war in England, I can testify that it was the most popular of all Churchill’s initiations. It was one reason his popularity remained high even when things were going badly wrong in other parts of the war, for virtually every day BBC radio was able to announce heavy raids on Germany the previous night. The British public rejoiced at these raids, the heavier the better. Churchill never repudiated the bombing campaign, even after the war, whilst it was heavily criticized on both strategic and humanitarian grounds. But he did not dwell on it either, or stress his personal responsibility for initiating and continuing it. The head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris, was made the hero (or villain) of the assault.
In fact, on February 14, 1942, Harris was directed by the war cabinet that his primary object was the destruction of the morale of German civilians. Churchill wrote this order. The first big raid in accordance with it was on Lübeck on March 28, 1942, the city “burning like kindling,” according to the official report. The first thousand-bomber British raid followed on May 30. Churchill was enthusiastic, for at this date the news was bad and bombing was all he had to show. Altogether, bombing used up 7 percent of Britain’s total manpower and maybe as much as a quarter of the country’s total war production. It killed six hundred thousand German civilians and reduced but could not prevent the expansion of German war production into the second half of 1944. By the end of 1944 bombing was effectively putting the German war economy out of action, but at that point Nazi survival was being decided on the ground anyway. The nearest Harris and Churchill (helped by U.S. air power) came to a strategic victory was on Hamburg, by far the best-protected German city, from July 24 to August 3, 1943. They used the “window” foil device, which confused German radar. On the night of July 27-28, the RAF created temperatures of 800 to 1,000 degrees centigrade over the city, producing colossal firestorm winds. Transport systems of all kinds were destroyed, as were 214,350 homes out of 414,500, and 4,301 out of 9,592 factories. Eight square miles of the city were burned out entirely, and in one night alone up to 37.65 percent of the total population then living in the city were killed. Albert Speer, the war production minister, told Hitler that if another six cities were similarly attacked he could not keep production going. But Britain did not have the resources to repeat raids on this scale in quick succession. The losses in bombers and aircrews were heavy because of Hitler’s concentration of fighter squadrons and air defenses to defend his cities. On the other hand, without the British bombing these assets would otherwise have gone to the eastern front. As a result the Germans lost the air war there: by mid-1943, their air superiority had disappeared, and this was a key factor in their losing the ground war, too. These facts tend to be forgotten by those who assert that it was Russia which really defeated Nazi Germany. Without Churchill’s bombing campaign, the eastern front would have become a stalemate.
In attacking Germany, Churchill was never held back by humanitarian motives. The destruction of Dresden on the night of February 13-14, 1945, when between 25,000 and 40,000 men, women, and children were killed, was authorized by him personally. The origin of this atrocity was the desire of Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta in January to prove to Stalin that they were doing their best to help the Russian effort on the eastern front. The Russians had particularly asked for Dresden, a communications center, to be wiped out. When Harris queried the order, it was confirmed direct from Yalta by Churchill and Air Chief Marshal Portal. Would Churchill have used the atomic bomb against Germany, had it been available in time? Undoubtedly. The British nuclear weapons project had begun seriously in March 1940, before he took over supreme command. But he accelerated it in June, when the Military Application of Uranium Detonation Committee (or Maud, as it was called, whimsically, after a Kentish governess) was joined by the French team, which brought with them the world’s entire stock of heavy water, 185 kilograms in twenty-six canisters. In the autumn of 1940 Churchill sent a team to Washington headed by Sir Henry Tizard and Sir John Cockcroft, Britain’s two leading military scientists, taking with them all Britain’s nuclear secrets in a celebrated “black box.” At that time Britain was ahead of any other nation in the quest for a nuclear bomb, and moving faster. Churchill was asked to authorize production plans for a separation plant by December 1940. In July 1941 he got the Maud Report, “Use of Uranium for a Bomb,” which told him the weapon could be ready by 1943. When America joined the war, Churchill decided that the risk of Nazi raids against a British A-plant was such that it was safer, with the scientific work now complete, for the industrial and engineering work to be done in America. In fact it proved much more difficult, lengthy, and costly than Maud had anticipated. So the first A-bombs were essentially American. If an all-British bomb had been made in time, Churchill would have commanded its use against Germany.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the successful outcome of the war, at this stage, was his insistence on the right timing for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwest Europe. This was necessary for the defeat of Germany, and Churchill made sure it worked and was achieved with minimum loss of life for so immense and hazardous an operation. He argued that an opposed air-sea landing against formidable defenses manned by large, prepared German forces was perhaps the most difficult military undertaking of all. With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in his mind, he insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success. The Russians had asked for the second front to be opened in 1942. The Americans were willing to risk it in 1943. The “dress rehearsal” at Dieppe in 1942, where Allied losses were unexpectedly high, had shown what hazards lay ahead. Churchill’s conditions could not be met until the early summer of 1944. Even so, Overlord might have failed or proved extremely costly had not a highly successful deception plan persuading the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the real invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais area—another idea of Churchill’s—prevented a massive German counterattack in the early stages. Thanks to Churchill, and his memories of the Dardanelles, Overlord was a dramatic success. He wished to be present on the first day to enjoy his triumph. It was the last major occasion on which his desire to participate in military action manifested itself. All those concerned in the operation were horrified. Indeed, the desire was foolish in the extreme, a grotesque exhibition of the childish side of his nature. But he persisted, despite unanimous opposition from the service chiefs, the cabinet, his own staff, and the White House. In the end it was only the opposition of King George VI, who said that if his prime minister risked his life he must do so himself, which scotched the plan.
The delay occasioned by Churchill’s ensuring the invasion succeeded necessarily meant the Western forces were behind the Russians in pushing into the heart of the Nazi empire. This had grave political consequences. Churchill sought to mitigate them by demanding a full-speed drive to Berlin by the Anglo-American forces. This was supported by Montgomery, the army group commander, who was sure it was possible and would end the war in autumn 1944, with the West in Berlin first. But Eisenhower, the supreme commander, thought it was risky and insisted on a “broad front” advance, which meant that the war continued into the spring of 1945, and that the Russians got to Berlin first—and Prague, Budapest, Vienna, too. In his last weeks of life, FDR, despite Churchill’s pleas, did nothing to encourage Eisenhower to press on rapidly. Montgomery wrote sadly: “The Americans could not understand that it was of little avail to win the war strategically if we lost it politically.” That was exactly Churchill’s view.
But if he was unable to stop Stalin from turning much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans into Soviet satellites, he did snatch one brand from the burning—Greece. He used British troops, against much well-meaning advice, to intervene decisively in the civil war raging there between Communist guerrillas and forces loyal to the Crown. The politics were complex and made it difficult to decide whom to back among the contending loyalist leaders. Eventually Churchill decided in favor of the republican, anti-Communist general Nikolaos Plastiras. He joked, “The evidence shows we must back Plaster-arse. Let us hope his feet are not of clay.” “Tommy” Lascelles, King George VI’s secretary, remarked, “I would rather have said that than written Gray’s Elegy.”
Churchill also saved Persia by negotiating a highly satisfactory deal with the Russians, which enabled the British eventually to reduce their influence to a minimum. He kept a tight grip on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Of course, by saving Greece, he also enabled Turkey to stay beyond the reach of the triumphant Soviet forces. What is more, by picking a first-class general and backing him with adequate forces, Churchill also made a major contribution to victory in the Far East. Field Marshal William Slim was, next to Montgomery, the ablest of the British generals produced by the war. His Fourteenth Army was often called “the Forgotten Army,” in contrast to Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army. But it was not forgotten by Churchill. With his encouragement and support it conducted a hard and skillful campaign in Burma, ending in complete victory, which did a great deal to restore British prestige so cruelly damaged by the Singapore disaster. Indeed within four years Britain was able to get back Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Of course the restoration of Britain’s power in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East could not be permanent. But for most of a generation, and in some cases longer, Britain was able to enjoy the economic advantages brought by her investments in Gulf oil, Malay rubber and tin, and the mercantile wealth of Hong Kong. For this, Churchill’s energy, foresight, and ability to seize on the essentials deserve much of the credit.
As the war drew to a close in the early months of 1945, Churchill visibly held back his efforts. His aggressiveness declined. He enjoyed his brief and successful intervention in Greece. But destruction now sickened him. He sent a memo to Harris to slacken off the attack on German cities as opposed to strategic targets, “otherwise,” as he put it, “what will lie between the white snows of Russia and white cliffs of Dover? ” Much of his imaginative energy was spent in trying to get the sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. “No lover,” he said, “ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” The death of FDR, however painful to Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman, brisk, decisive, much better informed on strategy, proved infinitely easier to deal with. When Churchill was tired, he talked, often off the point. He refused to read his papers. Colville noted on April 26: “The PM’s box is in a ghastly state. He does little work and talks far too long, as he did . . . before his Greek adventures refreshed him.” The businesslike and monosyllabic Clement Attlee, his deputy premier, sent him a sharp memo of complaint. Churchill is credited with many jokes about the Labour Party leader. “Yes, he is a modest man. But then he has so much to be modest about.” “An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out.” Sometimes they were mean and savage: “Attler, Hitlee.” One of Attlee’s staff used to whistle, a habit Churchill could not bear. His antipathy to whistling is curiously apt, for Hitler was an expert and enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of The Merry Widow, his favorite operetta. It seems expert whistling by music lovers was a feature of pre-1914 Vienna: Gustav Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were whistler maestros.
Tired as he was, Churchill treated the surrender of Germany with suitable rhetoric and champagne popping. He drank a bottle of his prize 1928 vintage Pol Roger. He was relieved by Hitler’s suicide. He had not relished the prospective task of hanging him. As Beaverbrook said, “He is never vindictive.” His saying had always been—it is one of his best obiter dicta—“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill.” Magnanimity came naturally to this generous, jovial old man (he was seventy at the end of the war). Lord Longford, the British minister for postwar Germany, showed notable compassion for the German people. Churchill came up to him at a Buckingham Palace garden party and said, slowly, “I am glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of the Germans.”
Churchill wanted to carry on the coalition until Japan surrendered. But the Labour Party refused. So he formed a Tory government, had Parliament (which was now ten years old) dissolved, and reluctantly began an election campaign. He hit hard, or rather fairly hard, for him. The prevailing wisdom was that he hit too hard, and that his anti-Labour speeches, inspired, it was said, by Lord Beaverbrook, did the Tory cause terrible harm. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one took much notice of opinion polls in those days. In fact Gallup had been predicting a Labour victory for some time by the huge margin of 10 percent: a landslide. Churchill had a good case. After all, if his advice had been taken in the 1930s, the war might have been avoided altogether. By contrast, Labour had opposed rearming Britain right up to the declaration of war. Attlee himself had told the Commons on December 21, 1933, “We are unalterably opposed to anything in the nature of rearmament.” Churchill was right to remind voters of these things. There was nothing personal in his criticism. Before the Labour ministers left his government, he gave a party for them and offered a toast. With tears running down his cheeks, he said, “The light of history will shine on all your helmets.” The evidence shows that Churchill’s speeches reduced the Labour lead to 8.5 percent by polling day. There was a delay between polling and the announcement of the results to allow the voters of the overseas forces to be counted. Few, it is thought, voted against Churchill. The vote was against the Tory Party, or rather against the upper classes, the officer class who spoke in clipped accents, wore cavalry breeches, and drank port after dinner. The result was due to be announced on July 26. The night before, Churchill recorded, he was awoken by a presentiment of disaster: “a sharp stab of almost physical pain.” The next day came the news: Labour had won nearly 400 seats, the Conservatives were reduced to 210 seats, and Churchill was out. As he put it:
On the night of 10 May 1940, at the outset of the mighty Battle of Britain, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.
Mrs. Churchill’s comment was: “Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise.” To which Churchill replied: “It appears to be very effectively disguised.”