Sketch of Churchill by General Brooke on No. 10 writing paper, made during a War Cabinet meeting in March 1942
The North African Littoral
The Eastern Front
France and Germany
The Mediterranean Theatre
The Far East: Approaches to Japan
The Far East: The Pacific Route
The Far East: The Bay of Bengal Strategy
I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories.
Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 18 June 1940
Type ‘strategy second world war’ into the Google search engine and you will get no fewer than 1.64 million hits, so why am I trying to add to that figure? One aspect that I hope will differentiate this book from the hundreds already published on the subject is the inclusion of some hitherto unpublished material, including an extensive set of verbatim reports of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet meetings, previously quoted from only on the internet. In trying to reconstruct the intimacy of the often daily exchanges between my four principals, I was fortunate, through pure serendipity, also to chance upon the verbatim notes taken of the War Cabinet meetings by someone who was hitherto virtually unknown to history, Lawrence Burgis.
Burgis (pronounced Burgess) was, according to the diarist James Lees-Milne, ‘the last serious attachment of Lord Esher’s private life’.1 When Esher and Burgis first met–it is not known how–Burgis was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at King’s School, Worcester, and the fifty-seven-year-old Reginald, second Viscount Esher, was a former courtier to Queen Victoria, a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence and the man who had introduced the idea of a General Staff for the Army in 1904, as well as being perhaps the best socially connected man of Edwardian England.
After leaving school, ‘Thrushy’ Burgis worked as Esher’s private secretary, even though Esher’s eldest son Oliver thought him ‘plain and lower middle-class with a cockney accent’. Esher’s relationship with Burgis was described by Lees-Milne as ‘the most satisfactory of his love affairs, because it is unlikely that it was ever more than Socratic’. (He presumably meant ‘Platonic’; Socrates was altogether more hands-on.)
Thrushy was ‘alert, intelligent and eager to learn’, and took down dictation very fast in his own private shorthand. ‘It was wonderful [for Esher] to have once again a very young man to instruct,’ explained Lees-Milne, ‘to enrich with anecdotes of all the famous people he had known, to mould in his ways.’ Burgis was heterosexual and married at the age of twenty-two, although this proved no ‘impediment to their intimacy. There is no reason to suppose that Lorna Burgis resented Regy’s love for her husband.’2Lawrence Burgis and Esher were due to lunch together at Brooks’s Club on the day that Esher died in January 1930.
Esher was actuated by a strong desire to keep those he loved out of the fighting in the 1914–18 War, and by getting Burgis a post as aide-de-camp to Brigadier-General John Charteris, Lord Haig’s intelligence chief in the Great War, saved him from service in the trenches. It was also down to Esher that Burgis secured a place on the staff of the Cabinet Office before the war ended. It is therefore due to this physically unconsummated love of Lord Esher for the lad he called ‘My Thrush’ that we today have verbatim reports of the War Cabinet meetings held during the Second World War, for by 1940 Burgis had risen to the post of assistant secretary to the Cabinet Office, and was thus one of the few people whose job it was to take down word for word whatever ministers said there.
There were strict rules against officials keeping diaries, but Burgis’ practice of retaining the verbatim notes he made of War Cabinet meetings was far more serious. It was not simply a sackable offence; if he had been caught, he would have faced prosecution under the 1911 Official Secrets Act. That he knew he was breaking the law is evident from his unpublished autobiography, in which he explicitly stated that he kept his actions secret from the Cabinet secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, and his deputy Norman Brook. The Cabinet Office rules were unambiguous: all notes, after being used to draw up the official minutes, were to be burnt in the office grate in Whitehall. Instead, Burgis stashed them away. He had an eye for great events, and fully appreciated how fortunate he was to be present when history was being made. ‘To sit at the Cabinet table at No 10 with Churchill in the chair was something worth living for,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps some would have paid a high price to occupy my seat, and I got paid for sitting in it!’3He was proud to have been the only person besides Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts to have been present at the War Cabinet meetings of both world wars.
By the time of the Second World War, Lawrence Burgis was, according his friend Leslie ‘Jo’ Hollis, who also worked in the Cabinet secretariat, ‘a short, rotund and rubicund person, who loved a good story and a glass of wine’.4 In later life he became an authority on judging gymkhanas in Oxfordshire, where he retired. He hugely admired Churchill, and was certain that had the Germans invaded Britain in 1940 the Prime Minister ‘would have mustered his Cabinet and died with them in the pill-box disguised as a WH Smith bookstall in Parliament Square’. He recalled Churchill in the Cabinet Room:
sitting in his chair at the long table in front of the fire, either in his siren suit, or, if some engagement or attendance at the House of Commons followed the meeting, immaculately dressed in a short black coat, striped trousers, silk shirt and bow-tie with spots. Wonderful hands too–so well kept. He gave the impression that he had just dressed after a bath and had used talcum powder with liberality. As one entered that historic room one could generally tell from the expression on Churchill’s face if the meeting was set for fine, fair, or wet and stormy…though, as with the uncertainty of our weather prophets, one could not be absolutely sure that an unexpected storm would not blow up from somewhere.5
After the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies sent Churchill a stuffed flat-billed platypus as a present, it was put on view to the left of the lobby at No. 10. A group of people, including Burgis, were waiting there one day when Churchill arrived and, ‘beaming all over’, pretended to be the showman at a fairground, crying: ‘This way to the flat-billed platypus, gentlemen!’6
Sir Edward Bridges’ instructions for the writing of Cabinet minutes insisted on their being ‘(a) brief (b) self-contained (c) in the main, impersonal, and (d) to the full extent the discussion allows–decisive’.7 Often this was the very opposite of what had actually happened in meetings that were prolix, open ended, highly personal and indecisive. Official Cabinet minutes are therefore opaque documents, usually deliberately so. As one War Cabinet secretariat clerihew put it:
A page from Lawrence Burgis’ account of the War Cabinet meeting of 10 December 1941
And so while the great ones depart to their dinner,
The secretary stays, growing thinner and thinner,
Racking his brains to recall and report
What he thinks that they think they ought to have thought.8
Sometimes the Cabinet minutes adopted a form of code for the initiated, similar to the Foreign Office euphemism whereby ‘a full and frank discussion’ meant a blazing row. When at the Cabinet Defence Committee of 2 March 1942, for example, Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke clashed over the problems caused by the fan-belt drive and the lubrication system of the Cruiser tank, and the minutes record, ‘Some discussion then took place on the subject of these defects, in the course of which surprise was expressed that they should not have been detected earlier,’ one can be fairly sure that there was a hard-fought and possibly ill-tempered argument.9
By reading the original, contemporaneous, handwritten notes that Burgis took, one can see who said precisely what at the meetings. From his jottings it is now possible, six decades later, to recreate the exact discussions that took place. Burgis’ very extensive papers have lain almost completely unexamined in the Churchill Archives in Cambridge since they were deposited in 1971. As he was a comparatively minor official, he has not so far excited any interest among historians, although admittedly his calligraphy and private shorthand is more hieroglyphic than easily interpreted English. Nonetheless the hundreds of yellow secretarial sheets do contain the record of what was actually said at those crucial meetings. Readers can if they wish check on my website–www.andrew-roberts.net–how I have reconstructed the sentences of speech from Burgis’ shorthand notes.
Also appearing here for the first time in book form are the verbatim reports of Cabinet meetings made by Norman Brook (later Lord Normanbrook). These were released by the British National Archives in 2007 and provide a similar treasure trove of what precisely was said by ministers. Some of the more sensational revelations–such as Churchill’s scheme to execute Hitler by the use of the electric chair–were reported in the press, but huge amounts of fascinating information were not, and appear here with the source notes CAB 195/1, 195/2 and 195/3.
Of course verbatim records, however well reported, can tell us next to nothing about the all-important aspects of exchanges besides the mere choice of words used. Swiftness of reply, absence of normal courtesies, tempo of speech, tone of voice, body-language, sheer decibel level, veins standing out on foreheads, clenching of fists, snapping of pencils and everything else that went to make up the expression of the arguments over wartime grand strategy simply cannot be conveyed in an account recording in cold print what was agreed, or even what was actually said. Attempting to reconstruct the scenes of wartime meetings from committee minutes and verbatim reports is like trying to rebuild a Roman villa from a handful of tiny floor mosaics. Nevertheless, a couple of sentences from a diarist who was present can sometimes be far more useful than pages of official documentation. It is therefore very fortunate for historians that there were so very many diarists among the primary actors of the Western Allies and among their best-placed spectators. Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), was the only one among the four principal actors of this book, but a remarkable number of other senior figures kept diaries, ‘a vast cloud of witnesses’ as one of them put it, even though it was expressly forbidden in Britain on security grounds.
Britons who ignored the strict official regulations against keeping a journal included Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his chief of staff Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and his private secretary Oliver Harvey, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, Colonel Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet secretariat, the British Ambassador to Washington Lord Halifax, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office Sir Alec Cadogan, Brigadier Vivian Dykes of the Joint Staff Mission in Washington, Harold Nicolson MP, the Minister Resident in North-west Africa Harold Macmillan MP, Churchill’s doctor Sir Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran), Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal’s private secretary Stewart Crawford, the Secretary of State for India Leo Amery, General Sir Edmund Ironside, and even King George VI himself and his private secretary Sir Alan Lascelles. American diarists, who were admittedly under no such official strictures, included Dwight D. Eisenhower and his aide Harry Butcher, Vice-President Henry Wallace, the War Secretary Henry L. Stimson, the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Leahy, the head of the US Army Air Force General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, the Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and General Joseph Stilwell. In Canada, the Prime Minister William Mackenzie King also kept one. These men knew they were making history, and as the official records can be extremely opaque, we must be grateful that they did. I have drawn extensively on these diaries, and on the unpublished papers of more than sixty confidants and contemporaries of the four principals, in order to try to recreate the drama and passion that went into the formation of Allied grand strategy.
Anyone who was shocked by the attacks on Churchill contained in Brooke’s unexpurgated diaries that were published in 2001–and serialized in the Sunday Telegraph under the headline ‘Britain’s Wartime Military Chief Thought Churchill “A Public Menace”’–ought to read the journals of the equally peppery Admiral Lord Cunningham in the British Library, which I have drawn on particularly in the second half of the book. Yet in Cunningham’s 710-page autobiography, A Sailor’s Odyssey, it is hard to spot a sentence of criticism of Churchill, who was prime minister at the time of publication.
Similar self-censorship took place in 1957 when Brooke’s former director of military operations, Major-General John Kennedy, published The Business of War, an autobiography based on his daily diaries, at a time when many of the senior Allied wartime figures were still alive and in senior positions (Eisenhower was president for example, and Macmillan prime minister). Born in 1893, and thus ten years younger than Brooke, though sharing many experiences during their careers, Kennedy was educated at Stranraer Academy and Woolwich and entered the Royal Navy in 1911. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in January 1915 and served on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918, including at the Somme. Wounded in August 1916, he nonetheless fought at the battle of Ancre in 1917, becoming an acting major. He then served on the British military mission during the Russian Civil War, working with the White commanders-in-chief Denikin and Wrangel, which he ‘looked upon as an adventure…when I was getting bored’. At the end of a decade spent at the Staff College and the War Office, he became director of plans in 1939.
John Kennedy receives relatively little attention today–possibly because attempting to locate him on internet search engines results in more than sixty million hits relating to someone else of the same name–but his testimony from the very heart of the military decision-making process is compelling. In June 1940 he commanded the Royal Artillery section of the 52nd Division in France under Brooke, and between 1940 and 1943 was director of military operations (DMO), the senior War Office Planner, before becoming assistant CIGS for the rest of the war. He was thus a central eyewitness, but The Business of War excised many of the most caustic comments that he had originally written in his diaries, which have never been published in extenso. The handwritten daily journals now in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London show what this exceptionally well-placed officer genuinely thought at the time, and are an invaluable, though by no means entirely objective, source for both the strategic thinking of the British War Office and the machinations between the principals in this story.10
In the decades after the war ended, with self-serving autobiographies and diaries, admiring biographies and slanted histories being published en masse, and with the fear of resurgent Communism revising the story of Yalta for political purposes in the West, it was difficult to arrive at an objective judgement about Allied grand strategy. History was often written in a partisan way, perhaps inevitably because of the immediacy, importance and sheer immensity of the subject. One of the quartet of power–President Roosevelt–never had the chance to tell his own tale, as Brooke did in the sulphurous diary extracts edited by Sir Arthur Bryant, published as The Turn of the Tide in 1957 and Triumph in the West in 1959, and as his American opposite number General George Marshall did to his biographer Forrest C. Pogue between 1956 and 1959. Churchill himself published no fewer than six beautifully written but highly subjective, not to say in many respects misleading, volumes of war memoirs. Today we can see that the real story was far subtler than the one that emerged shortly after the conflict, and than any of the surviving three represented it. As I hope this book will help show, historical truth tends to defy easy explanations, and is all the more fascinating for it.