THROUGHOUT HISTORY, societies have enthused about victorious overseas conflicts and recoiled from unsuccessful ones. The U.S. declarations of war represented the fulfilment of all Churchill’s hopes since May 1940. Yet 1942 proved, until its last weeks, the most unhappy year of his premiership. It was not only that Britain suffered a further succession of defeats; it was that public confidence in the prime minister’s leadership waned in a fashion unthinkable during the Battle of Britain. Even if it remained improbable that he would be driven from office, he was beset by critics who questioned his judgement and sought to constrain his powers. Between his return from the United States in late January and the Battle of El Alamein in November, there were no moments of glory, and almost unremitting bad news. The British Empire suffered the heaviest blows in its history, which only the American alliance rendered endurable.
On the train back to London after his flying boat landed from Washington, Churchill indulged a last flicker of complacency. He told his doctor: “I have done a good job of work with the President … I am sure, Charles, the House will be pleased with what I have to tell them.” A glance at the day’s newspapers disabused him. He laid down the Manchester Guardian without enthusiasm. “There seems to be plenty of snarling,”449 he said. In the days that followed, ill tidings crowded forward. Naval losses in the Mediterranean meant that in the forthcoming months, Britain could deploy no battle fleet from Alexandria. Amid reports from Malaya that the British Army was falling back routed upon Singapore, Churchill enquired whether there was a case for writing off the “fortress” and diverting reinforcements and aircraft elsewhere. His message was copied in error to the Australian representative to the War Cabinet, Sir Earle Page—a man “with the mentality of a greengrocer,”450 in Brooke’s scornful phrase—who in turn forwarded it to Canberra. Prime Minister John Curtin responded with an indignant cable to Churchill, asserting that to abandon Singapore would be “an inexcusable betrayal.”
Relations between the Australian government and London, never cordial, entered a new phase of acrimony. Churchill valued Australia’s fighting men, but was contemptuous of its weak Labor government. He contrasted Australian pusillanimity—what would now be called “whingeing”—unfavourably with the staunchness of New Zealand. Throughout the war, he treated all the self-governing dominions as subject colonies, mere sources of manpower. Dominion politicians visiting London were accorded public courtesy and private indifference. Robert Menzies, the former Australian prime minister who was now opposition leader, commanded respect, but even Menzies had been moved to protest back in 1940, when his government heard of the Dakar operation only on reading about it in the press. The sole imperial figure to enjoy Churchill’s confidence was Jan Smuts, South Africa’s seventy-two-year-old prime minister. He was a man of notable intellect and good sense, a friend since the end of the Boer War and Churchill’s peer in adventure and experience. It was Smuts, honoured with field marshal’s rank in 1941, who said: “We should thank God for Hitler451. He has brought us back to a realization of brute facts … He has, in fact, taken the lid off Hell, and we have all looked into it.”
Churchill’s impatience with the dominions was understandable. Their governments—with the notable exception of New Zealand’s—often displayed a parochialism irksome to a British prime minister directing a global struggle for survival. Neither Canada nor Australia, for instance, introduced universal conscription for overseas service until the last stages of the conflict. But Churchill’s condescension towards Canberra and Ottawa was no more likely to please sensitive colonial governments than his absolute dismissal of Indian opinion won friends in the subcontinent. “The PM is not really interested in Mackenzie King,”452 wrote Charles Wilson about Canada’s prime minister. “He takes him for granted.”
The New Statesman complained, “Mr. Churchill has been unwilling to give453 so much as a gracious word to win the support of India and Burma.” The prime minister’s later reluctance to release scarce shipping to relieve the Bengal famine, which killed three million people, appalled both the viceroy and Leo Amery, secretary of state for India. When Amery wished454 to make a broadcast to explain British policy, the prime minister vetoed it, saying that such action was making too much of the famine and sounding apologetic. More than any other aspect of his wartime behaviour, such high-handedness reflected the nineteenth-century imperial vision of Churchill’s youth. As the Far East situation deteriorated, for four months there seemed a real possibility that Australia would be invaded. The Canberra government turned openly to the United States for protection, in default of reassurance backed by reinforcements which the threadbare “mother country” could not provide.
On January 27, amid increasing parliamentary criticism, Churchill faced the Commons. “It is because things have gone badly, and worse is to come, that I demand a Vote of Confidence,” he said. This was a device designed to force his critics to show their hands, or flinch. Having won the subsequent division by a majority of 464 to 1, he walked beaming through the throng in the central lobby on the arm of Clementine, who had come to lend support. But he knew that this outcome represented no ending of his troubles. He was unwell, nagged by a cold he could not shake off. On February 9, Eden’s private secretary Oliver Harvey told his chief that he should be prepared to take over the premiership, and noted in his diary: “I think he is.”455 Beyond the risks inherent in Churchill’s wartime travels, the health of a man of sixty-seven, labouring under huge strains, might collapse at any time. Such a contingency was never far from the consciousness of his close subordinates, who were also dismayed by unsurprising evidence of the strains under which he laboured. Brooke, less than two months in his job as CIGS, told Dalton at dinner on February 10: “Sometimes … the PM is just like a child456 who has lost his temper. It is very painful and no progress can be made with the business.”
Churchill signalled Wavell, newly appointed as Anglo-American supreme commander in the Far East, urging that while the Russians on the Eastern Front and the Americans on Luzon, in the Philippines, were fighting so staunchly, it was essential that the army in Malaya should be seen to give of its best: “The whole reputation of our country and our race is involved.”457 Two days later, on February 11, in response to continuing domestic criticism of his government and Beaverbrook’s desire to resign, he offered Stafford Cripps, whom he despised but who had a large popular following, the Ministry of Supply. Churchill grumbled about Cripps’s demand to sit in the War Cabinet: “Lots of people want to458. You could fill the Albert Hall with people who want to be in the War Cabinet.” Denied a seat, Cripps declined office.
There was a new shock on February 12. The German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau left Brest and steamed at full speed up the English Channel, assisted by fog. Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton entered the Cabinet Room at three p.m. to take dictation, where she found the prime minister “striding up and down, all on edge459. He dictated four telegrams like a whirlwind, and then phoned this and phoned that. I wondered if I should go, and once did slip out, but was recalled. Did another telegram, he marched up and down, talking to himself, a mass of compressed energy. Presently he sat down and said, ‘There’s a bloody great battle going on out there.’ I said, ‘Do you think we might get them?’ He said, ‘Don’t know. We winged ’em, but they aren’t dead yet.’” The navy did not “get them.” The German squadron reached Wilhelmshaven. Ultra informed Churchill that the ships had been severely damaged by mines on the last stage of their passage, but this was small comfort and could not be revealed because of its source. The British people saw only that the Royal Navy and RAF were unable to stop Hitler’s capital ships passing with impunity through British home waters.
Headlines screamed, the public was affronted. The Daily Mirror asked on February 14: “Is it any longer true that we trust the Prime Minister, but do not trust his Government?” The News Chronicle likewise: “Have we not been hypnotised by Mr. Churchill’s personality … into acquiescence in an inefficient war direction?” The Daily Mail wrote that there were two Churchills, “1. The Inspirer of the Nation. 2. The Controller of the War.” The British people were perplexed by the second Churchill, who claimed “that it was the duty of Parliament and Press to maintain the Government with the implication that any weakening of his own position would be a weakening of its cause.” The Mail rejected this view: “No man is indispensable.” Sir William Beveridge wrote a major article for the Times, urging the creation of a “proper” War Cabinet of ministers without portfolios. A Glasgow secretary, Pam Ashford, wrote on March 5: “Defeatism is in the air, and … I feel it too.”460 When Mass Observation quizzed its observers about the prime minister, the opinion-monitoring group was startled by the vehemence of criticism. A London clerk said: “I think it is time he went461. After all, the only connection in which one thinks of Churchill now is with regard to high strategy, whatever that may be. High strategy stinks to high heaven … This view I have confirmed with quite a few people. His speeches are no longer listened to.”
While this attitude was untypically strident, there was a yearning at every level of British society for a defence supremo who could deliver battlefield success, as the prime minister seemed unable to do. Many people sought a new deliverer, an aspiration no less strongly felt because it was unrealistic and unsupported by identification of an appropriate candidate. There was no appetite to change national leaders, but much enthusiasm for delegating Churchill’s military powers. The prime minister said to his old friend Violet Bonham Carter: “I’m fed up … I feel very biteful462 and spiteful when people attack me.” He was constantly urged to add talent to his Cabinet, “but where is the galaxy? I can’t get the victories. It’s the victories that are so hard to get.”
On February 15, Singapore surrendered. This time there was no Dunkirk, no miraculous escape for the garrison. Almost thrice as many imperial troops fell into captivity as in France in 1940. Jock Colville, temporarily removed from Downing Street to train in South Africa as a fighter pilot, heard Churchill’s broadcast addressing the disaster. He was deeply moved: “The nature of his words and the unaccustomed speed463 and emotion with which he spoke convinced me that he was sorely pressed by critics and opponents at home. All the majesty of his oratory was there, but also a new note of appeal, lacking the usual confidence of support … There was something about his voice and delivery which made me shiver.” The broadcast was much less well received than most of Churchill’s performances. In private, the prime minister was angry and depressed. “We have so many men in Singapore464, so many men,” he lamented. “They should have done better.” At a Pacific War Council meeting, he said of the Japanese: “They moved quicker and ate less than our men.”
He suggested to his naval aide, Capt. Richard Pim, that this might be the moment for him to surrender the premiership. Pim said: “But my God, sir, you cannot do that.”465 It is unlikely that Churchill seriously considered resignation, but his despair was real enough. What use was it for him to display a warrior’s spirit before the world if those who fought in Britain’s name then showed themselves incapable of matching his rhetoric? In Norway, France, Greece, Crete, Libya and now Malaya, the British had been beaten again and again. Alan Brooke wrote in his diary: “If the army cannot fight better466 than it is doing at the present, we shall deserve to lose our Empire.”
Some blame attached to Wavell, not for failing to achieve victory, but for declining to avow the inevitability of Singapore’s fall and for not making an uncompromising recommendation to halt reinforcements and evacuate every possible man. Brooke had done exactly this in France in June 1940. The British 18th Division landed at Singapore on January 29, 1942, by which date there was no prospect of saving the campaign. Almost the entire army fell into captivity a fortnight later. It remains hard to understand why Churchill deluded himself that Singapore could be held. Every soldier knew that its fate must be decided in southern Malaya, that the island in isolation was indefensible, and the Chiefs of Staff made this plain to the prime minister on January 21. It was regrettable that commanders on the spot did not adopt a more trenchant tone. While Wavell’s signals about Malaya were unfailingly pessimistic, they did not explicitly acknowledge that Singapore’s demise was inevitable until it was too late to save any portion of its garrison. It was true that he exercised his short-lived command amid draconian signals from Churchill, demanding a last-man, last-round defence. But whereas it should have been possible to hold Crete, Singapore was doomed.
British and imperial forces in Malaya were ill-trained, poorly equipped and badly led at every level. They faced an enemy who commanded the air, but two years later German and Japanese soldiers displayed extraordinary resilience in the face of vastly stronger air forces than the Luftwaffe deployed in Greece or the Japanese in Malaya. It was the absence of any scintilla of heroic endeavour, any evidence of last-ditch sacrifice of the kind with which British armies through the centuries had so often redeemed the pain of defeats, that shocked Churchill. In Malaya, there was no legend to match that of Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna in the Napoleonic Wars, of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand, of the defence of Mafikeng and Ladysmith in the Boer War. The Americans forged a propaganda epic, however spurious, out of their defence of the Bataan Peninsula between December 1941 and April 1942. The British salvaged nothing comparable from Southeast Asia. Their soldiers gave up pitifully easily, 130,000 surrendering after the loss of only around 3,000 killed. The Times of February 16 offered its readers crumbs of comfort for Singapore: “The sacrifice and the suffering and the incomparable gallantry of the defence were not wholly in vain.” This was nonsense. There was only abject defeat, surrender to numerically inferior enemies who had proved themselves better and braver soldiers. It is brutal, but seems valid, to suggest that Malaya might have been defended with greater determination had British, Indian and Australian soldiers known the fate that awaited them in Japanese captivity.
Who could wonder that Churchill should be plunged into despair? “At the back of his mind and unconsciously467, I believe,” wrote Oliver Harvey shrewdly, “the PM is jealous of Stalin and the successes of his armies.” Even if American aid enabled Britain to survive the war, how could the nation hold up its head in the world, be seen to have made a worthy contribution to victory, if its army covered itself with shame whenever exposed to a battlefield? Lack of shipping remained a massive constraint on deployments. John Kennedy wrote: “We have masses of reinforcements468 we cannot move.” At any one moment of 1942, two thousand British and American merchantmen were afloat on the Atlantic shuttle, three or four hundred of them vulnerable to U-boat attack. In peacetime, a cargo ship took an average thirty-nine days to complete a round-trip between Europe and North America. Now, the same rotation took eighty-six days, with forty-three spent in port instead of a peacetime fourteen, mostly waiting for convoys. Dill cabled the Chiefs of Staff from Washington, saying that this seemed a time for the Allies to focus on essentials: security of the British Isles and United States and preventing a junction of German and Japanese forces on the Indian Ocean: “These simple rules might help us469 to stick to things that matter in these difficult days.” Yet, as so often with British generals’ strategic visions, this one was entirely defensive.
Churchill told the Commons on February 24: “The House must face the blunt and brutal fact that if, having entered a war yourself unprepared, you are struggling for life with two well-armed countries, one of them possessing the most powerful military machine in the world, and then, at the moment when you are in full grapple, a third major antagonist with far larger military forces than you possess suddenly springs upon your comparatively undefended back, obviously your task is heavy and your immediate experiences will be disagreeable.” Many MPs nonetheless voiced discontent. James Griffiths, Labour member for the Welsh mining constituency of Llanelli, said that at the time of Dunkirk people had responded to the call. By contrast, “we believe that now there is a feeling of disquiet in the nation. We ought not to resent it.” Commander Sir Archibald Southby, Epsom, spoke of the German “Channel dash” and the fall of Singapore as two events which “shook not only the Government but the British Empire to its foundations. Nay, it would be fair to say that they influenced opinion throughout the world. They produced the most unfortunate reverberations in the United States of America just at a time when harmony and understanding between the two nations was of paramount importance.”
Sir George Schuster, Walsall, said he thought the public wanted to feel that it was being told the truth, and was beginning to doubt this. People had been assured that in Libya the British Army was now meeting the enemy on equal terms. Then, after Rommel’s dramatic comeback, they heard that the Germans had a better antitank gun, that our guns were inadequate to pierce enemy armour. “That was a shock to public opinion. They felt they had been misled.”
During lunch at Buckingham Palace that day, Churchill told the king that Burma, Ceylon, Calcutta, Madras and parts of Australia might well be lost. The defence of Burma had already begun badly. Brooke noted with his customary spleen that some politicians allowed the bad news to show. “This process does not make Cabinet Ministers470 any more attractive,” he wrote to a friend. “But Winston is a marvel. I cannot imagine how he sticks it.” Clementine wrote to Harry Hopkins, “We are indeed walking through the Valley of Humiliation.”471
In consequence of the disasters on the battlefield, Churchill was obliged to make changes in his government, more painful and embarrassing than some historians have acknowledged. Beaverbrook finally resigned. Stafford Cripps was given his seat in the War Cabinet, as lord privy seal and leader of the Commons. For the prime minister, this was a bitter pill. Accepting Cripps was a measure of the weakness of his position. The two men, wrote Eden wonderingly, had “always been as distant as a lion and an okapi.”472Churchill is alleged to have said of Libya: “There are miles and miles of nothing but arid austerity. How Cripps would like it!”
Cripps was fifty-two, a product of Winchester and New College Oxford, and nephew of the socialist intellectual Beatrice Webb. He became first a research chemist, then a successful commercial barrister. A pacifist in World War I, he was elected as a Labour MP in 1931 and served briefly in Ramsay MacDonald’s government before refusing to join his coalition. A vegetarian and teetotaller, in the 1930s he became converted to Marxism, an uncritical enthusiast for the Soviet Union whose name was often coupled with that of Aneurin Bevan. In 1939, he was expelled from the parliamentary Labour Party after differences with Attlee. When Cripps served in Moscow between 1940 and 1942, Churchill was not displeased to note that Stalin showed much less enthusiasm for the ambassador, and for his company, than his British admirer displayed for the Soviet leader.
In many respects a foolish man, Cripps nonetheless became temporarily an important one in 1942. A fine broadcaster, his commitment both to the Soviet Union and to a socialist postwar Britain won him a large popular following. He spoke passionately, and without irony, of Russian workers “fighting to keep their country free,”473 and of the alliance between “the free workers of England, America and Russia.” Amid the mood of the times, such sentiments struck a powerful chord, contrasting with the stubborn conservatism of many other MPs—and of the prime minister. In a poll that invited voters to express a preference as prime minister if some misfortune befell Churchill, 37 percent of respondents named Eden, but 36 percent opted for Cripps.
Churchill was well aware that his new minister aspired to the premiership. For most of 1942, he felt obliged to treat Cripps as a potential threat to his authority. Amid so many misfortunes, some surprising people supported the lord privy seal’s ambitions. Private conclaves of MPs, editors, generals and admirals discussed Churchill and his government in the most brutal terms. John Kennedy dined at Claridge’s on March 5, 1942, with Sir Archie Rowlands of the Ministry of Aircraft Production and John Skelton, news editor of the Daily Telegraph: “The talk was very much about Winston474 and very critical. It was felt that Winston was finished, that he had played his last card in reforming the government. S[kelton] is very hostile to Winston and thinks Cripps should be put in his place. He feels that we shall lose the whole Empire soon and be driven back on G.B. It is easy to make a case for this.” Averell Harriman wrote to Roosevelt on March 6:
Although the British are keeping a stiff upper lip475, the surrender of their troops at Singapore has shattered confidence to the core—even in themselves but, more particularly, in their leaders. They don’t intend to take it lying down and I am satisfied we will see the rebirth of greater determination. At the moment, however, they can’t see the end to defeats. Unfortunately Singapore shook the Prime Minister himself to such an extent that he has not been able to stand up to this adversity with his old vigor. A number of astute people, both friends and opponents, feel it is only a question of a few months before his Government falls. I cannot accept this view. He has been very tired but is better in the last day or two. I believe he will come back with renewed strength, particularly when the tone of the war improves.
The Battle of the Atlantic had taken a serious turn for the worse. In January, the German navy introduced a fourth rotor into its Enigma ciphering machines. This refinement defied British code breakers through the bloody year of convoying that followed. Charles Wilson, Churchill’s doctor, noticed that the prime minister carried in his head every statistical detail of Atlantic sinkings. Nonetheless, Wilson wrote, “he is always careful to consume476 his own smoke; nothing he says could discourage any-one … I wish to God I could put out the fires that seem to be consuming him.” Mary Churchill noted in her diary that her father was “saddened—appalled by events477 … He is desperately taxed.” Cadogan wrote likewise: “Poor old P.M. in a sour mood and a bad way.”478
On March 6, Rangoon was abandoned. The next day, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt, urging that the Western Allies should concede to Russian demands for recognition of their 1941 frontiers—which Britain had staunchly opposed the previous year. The Americans demurred, but the prime minister’s change of attitude reflected intensified awareness of the Western Allies’ vulnerability. He was now willing to adopt the most unwelcome expedients, if these might marginally strengthen Russia’s resolve. Amid alarm that Stalin might be driven to parley with Hitler, eastern Poland became expendable. In the same spirit, Churchill cabled Moscow promising that if the Germans employed poison gas on the Eastern Front, as some feared was imminent, the British would retaliate as if such a weapon had been used against themselves. Western fears that Stalin might seek a separate peace persisted for many months.
Germany triumphs in both west and east. Blazing shore facilities on Crete in May 1941.
Germany triumphs in both west and east. One of some three million Russian soldiers who surrendered to the Wehrmacht during the first year of Operation Barbarossa
Friendship of state. Harry Hopkins and his host pose outside Downing Street on January 10, 1941, with Brendan Bracken behind
Friendship of state. FDR and Churchill at Placentia Bay on August 10, the president leaning on the arm of his unlovable son Elliot
War in the desert. British troops advance through a minefield.
War in the desert. Some of the tens of thousands of Italian prisoners who fell into British hands during Wavell’s Operation Compass
Civilian chroniclers of the wartime experience: Vere Hodgson
Civilian chroniclers of the wartime experience: George King in Home Guard battle dress
Whitehall diarists: Sir John Kennedy
Whitehall diarists: Sir Alexander Cadogan
Whitehall diarists: Harold Nicolson
Clockwise from top left: Charles Wilson, Lord Moran; Hugh Dalton; Leo Amery; Cuthbert Headlam; Oliver Harvey; Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Pownall
Working on his train, with a secretary’s “silent” typewriter at hand to take dictation
Viewing new aircraft with (left to right) Lindemann, Portal and Pound
Jock Colville’s September 1941 farewell to Downing Street gathering, on the steps to the garden. Front row, left to right: Colville, Churchill, John Martin, Tony Bevir; (back row, left to right) Leslie Rowan, “Master” John Peck, Miss Watson, Commander “Tommy” Thompson, Charles Barker
Return from Arcadia: Churchill briefly at the controls of the British plane that brought him home from Washington in January 1942
One of the many impassioned Second Front rallies held in Britain’s cities in 1942–43
Beyond the great issues on Churchill’s desk, he was obliged to address myriad lesser ones. He warned about the risk of a possible German commando raid, launched from a U-boat, to kidnap the Duke of Windsor, now serving as governor-general of the Bahamas. The Nazis, said the prime minister, might be able to exploit the former king to their advantage. Having inspired the creation of the Parachute Regiment, which carried out its first successful operation against a German radar station at Bruneval, on France’s northern coast, on February 28, Churchill pressed for the expansion of airborne forces on the largest possible scale. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded for the Royal Navy’s March 28 attack on the floating dock at St.-Nazaire. This generous issue of decorations was designed to make the survivors feel better about the losses—five hundred men killed, wounded or captured. Propaganda made much of St.-Nazaire. The public was assured that the Germans had suffered heavily, though in reality their casualties were many fewer than those of the raiders. Meanwhile, ministers solicited Churchill about appointments, honours and administrative issues. Such nugatory matters were hard to address when the Empire was crumbling.
Churchill’s obsession with capital ships persisted even in the third year of the war. He asserted that the destruction of the 42,000-ton Tirpitz, anchored in a Norwegian fjord where it posed a permanent threat to Arctic convoys, would be worth the loss of a hundred aircraft and five hundred men. On March 9, twelve Fairey Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm attacked the German behemoth, with clumsy tactics and no success. Churchill asked the first sea lord “how it was that 12 of our machines managed to get no hits as compared with the extraordinary efficiency of the Japanese attack on Prince of Wales and Repulse?” How not, indeed? Though British aircraft made an important contribution to interdicting Rommel’s Mediterranean supply line in 1942, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s record of achievement in attacks upon enemy surface ships remained relatively poor until the last months of the war. Churchill thought so, minuting Pound in the following year that it seemed “a pregnant fact”479 that the Fleet Air Arm had suffered only 30 fatalities out of a strength of 45,000 men in the three months to the end of April. The 1940 attack on Taranto and the 1941 crippling of the Bismarck were the only impressive British naval air operations of the war.
During the winter of 1941–42, Churchill had become unhappily conscious of the failure of British “precision bombing” of Germany. He was party to the important change of policy which took place in consequence, largely inspired by his scientific adviser. Lord Cherwell’s intervention about bombing was his most influential of the war. It was a member of his Cabinet Statistical Office staff, an official named David Butt, who produced a devastating report based on a study of British bombers’ aiming-point photographs. This showed that only a small proportion of aircraft were achieving hits within miles, rather than yards, of their targets. Cherwell convinced the prime minister, who was shocked by Butt’s report, that there must be a complete change of tactics. Since, under average weather conditions, RAF night raiders were incapable of dropping an acceptable proportion of bombs on designated industrial objectives, British aircraft must henceforward instead address the smallest aiming points they were capable of identifying: cities. They might thus fulfil the twin objectives of destroying factories and “dehousing” workers, to use Cherwell’s ingenuous phrase. No one in Whitehall explicitly acknowledged that the RAF was thus to undertake the wholesale killing of civilians. But nor did they doubt that this would be the consequence, though British propaganda for the rest of the war shrouded such ugly reality in obfuscation, not least from the aircrew conducting bomber operations at such hazard to themselves.
Churchill always considered himself a realist about the horrors and imperatives of war. Yet as recently as 1937, he had proclaimed his opposition to air attacks upon noncombatants, during a Commons debate on air-raid precautions: “I believe,480” he said, “that if one side in an equal war endeavours to cow and kill the civil population, and the other attacks steadily the military objectives … victory will come to the side … which avoids the horror of making war on the helpless and weak.” Now, however, after thirty months of engagement with an enemy who was prospering mightily by waging war without scruple, Churchill accepted a different view. Bomber Command had failed as a rapier. Instead, it must become a blunt instrument. Operational necessity was deemed to make it essential to set aside moral inhibitions. For many months, indeed years ahead, bombing represented the only means of carrying Britain’s war to Germany. The prime minister approved Cherwell’s new policy.
On February 22, 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris became C-in-C of Bomber Command. Contrary to popular myth, Harris was not the originator of “area bombing.” But he set about implementing the concept with a single-minded fervour which has caused his name to be inextricably linked with it ever since. The first significant event of Harris’s tenure of command was a raid on the Renault truck plant in the Paris suburb of Billancourt. The War Cabinet hoped that this would boost French morale, which seemed unlikely when it emerged that more than four hundred civilians had been killed. On March 28, 134 aircraft carried out a major attack on the old German Hanse town of Lübeck. The coastal target was chosen chiefly because it was easy for crews to find. The closely packed medieval centre was, in Harris’s contemptuous words, “built more like a fire-lighter481 than a human habitation.” The raid left much of Lübeck in flames, and was judged an overwhelming success. Four successive attacks on the port of Rostock in late April achieved similar dramatic results, causing Goebbels to write hysterically in his diary, “Community life in Rostock is almost at an end.” On May 30, Harris staged an extraordinary coup de théâtre. Enlisting the aid of training and Coastal Command aircraft, he dispatched 1,046 bombers against the great city of Cologne, inflicting massive damage.
The chief merit of the “Thousand Raid,” together with others that followed against Essen and Bremen, lay less in the injury they inflicted upon the Third Reich—a small fraction of that achieved in 1944–45—than in the public impression of Britain striking back, albeit in a fashion which rendered the squeamish uncomfortable. Some 474 Germans died in the “Thousand Raid” on Cologne, but on June 2 the New York Times claimed that the death toll was 20,000. Churchill cabled Roosevelt: “I hope you were impressed482with our mass air attack on Cologne. There is plenty more to come.”
Throughout 1942 and 1943, British propaganda waxed lyrical about the achievements of the bomber offensive. Churchill dispatched a stream of messages to Stalin, emphasising the devastation. The British people were not, on the whole, strident in yearning for revenge upon Germany’s civilian population. But many sometimes succumbed to the sensations of Londoner Vere Hodgson, who wrote: “As I lay in bed the other night483 I heard the deep purr of our bombers winging their way to Hamburg … This is a comfortable feeling. I turned lazily in bed and glowed at the thought, going back in my mind to those awful months when to hear noise overhead was to know that the Germans were going to pour death and destruction on us … One cannot help feeling that it is good for the Germans to know what it feels like. Perhaps they won’t put the machine in motion again so light-heartedly.”
Later in the war, when great Allied armies took the field, Churchill’s enthusiasm for bombing ebbed. But in 1942 he enthused about the strategic offensive because he had nothing else. Again contrary to popular delusion, he never found Sir Arthur Harris a soulmate. The airman sometimes dined at Chequers, because his headquarters at High Wycombe was conveniently close. But Desmond Morton was among those who believed that the prime minister thought Harris an impressive leader of air forces, but an unsympathetic personality. Churchill said of Bomber Command’s C-in-C after the war: “a considerable commander—but there was a certain coarseness about him.”484 In the bad times, however—and 1942 was a very bad time—he recognised Harris as a man of steel, at a time when many other commanders bent and snapped under the responsibilities with which he entrusted them.
From the outset, area bombing incurred criticism on both strategic and moral grounds, both inside and outside Parliament. Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and deputy prime minister, was a persistent private critic, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. He stressed the value of bombers in support of ground and naval operations. In the public domain, the New Statesman argued that it was perverse to heap praise485 on the fortitude of the civilian population of Malta in enduring Axis air attack, without perceiving the lesson for Britain’s own forces attacking Germany. “The disaster of this policy486 is not only that it is futile,” the distinguished scientist Professor A. V. Hill, MP for Cambridge University, told the House of Commons, “but that it is extremely wasteful, and will become increasingly wasteful as time goes on.” But Hill’s words reflected only a modest minority opinion.
There was a powerful case for accepting the necessity for area bombing. A major British industrial commitment was made to creating a massive force of heavy aircraft. This attained fulfilment only in the very different strategic circumstances of 1944–45. The most pertinent criticism of 1942–43 bombing policy was that the airmen’s fervour to demonstrate that their service could make a decisive independent impact on the war caused them to resist, to the point of obsession, calls for diversions of heavy aircraft to other purposes, above all the Battle of the Atlantic. John Kennedy wrote in May 1942 that the bomber offensive “can be implemented only487 at severe cost to our command of the sea and our military operations on land. I have just been looking at an old paper of Winston’s, written in Sept. 1940, which begins ‘the Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it …’ I am convinced that events will prove this to have been a profound delusion.”
Cherwell supported Harris in resisting calls for the reinforcement of Coastal Command, but they were both surely wrong. Evidence is strong that even a few extra squadrons could have achieved more in fighting the U-boats, a deadly menace well into 1943, than they did over Germany in the same period. But the navy made its case without much skill or subtlety. Admiral Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, denounced the bomber offensive as “a luxury, not necessity.” His words infuriated the prime minister, who was also irked by Tovey’s reluctance to hazard his ships within reach of Norwegian-based German airpower. He described Tovey as “a stubborn and obstinate man,”488 and was delighted when in May 1943 he was replaced by the supposedly more aggressive Adm. Sir Bruce Fraser. The admirals’ difficulty was that, while their service’s function of holding open the sea routes to the United States, Russia, Malta, Egypt and India was indispensable, it was also defensive. As Churchill said, the fleet was responsible for saving Britain from losing the war and played a more distinguished part than either of Britain’s other services in 1942, but could not win it. The Admiralty damaged its own case by insisting that the RAF lavish immense effort, and accept heavy casualties, on bombing the impregnable U-boat pens of northwest France in and patrolling the Bay of Biscay. The sailors would have done better to emphasize the issue of direct air cover for the Atlantic convoy routes, which drastically impeded the operations of German submarines.
Churchill thought better of the Royal Navy as a fighting service than he did of most of its commanders. They seemed relentlessly negative towards his most cherished projects. He was justifiably angry that the admirals had ignored repeated urgings to master techniques for refuelling warships at sea, thus severely restricting the endurance of capital ships. But, even after the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, he remained cavalier about their vulnerability to air attack. Most of his naval commanders were fine professional seamen, whom Britain was fortunate to have. It was galling for them to have their courage implicitly and even explicitly impugned, when they were merely anxious to avoid gratuitous losses of big ships which would take years to replace. Nonetheless, like the generals, the admirals might have shown more understanding of the prime minister’s fundamental purpose: to demonstrate that Britain could carry the fight to the enemy, and to do more than merely survive blockade and air bombardment.
Herein lay the case for the bomber offensive. Churchill seems right to have endorsed this, when Britain’s armed forces were accomplishing so little elsewhere; but he was mistaken to have allowed it to achieve absolute priority in the RAF’s worldwide commitments. Concentration of force is important, but so too is a prudent division of resources between critical fronts, of which the Atlantic campaign was assuredly one. By a characteristic irony of war, Churchill enthused most about bombing Germany during 1941–42, when it achieved least. Thereafter, he lost interest. In 1943, Bomber Command began to do serious damage to Ruhr industries, and might have achieved important results if the economic direction of Harris’s operations had been more imaginative. In 1944–45, its impact on Germany’s cities became devastating. But more intelligent American targeting policies enabled the USAAF to achieve the critical victories of the air war, against the Luftwaffe and German synthetic oil plants. The last volume of Churchill’s war memoirs mentions Bomber Command only once, in passing and critically.
On April 1, 1942, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt: “I find it very difficult to get over Singapore489, but I hope we shall redeem it ere long.” Instead, however, bad news kept coming. On the fourth a Japanese battle fleet, ranging the Indian Ocean, launched planes to bomb Ceylon. In the days that followed, enemy aircraft sank two Royal Navy cruisers and the carrier Hermes. Mandalay fell, and it was plain that the British must withdraw across the Chindwin River out of Burma, into northeast India. Malta was in desperate straits, under relentless Axis air attack. Convoys to Russia suffered shocking losses from German air and U-boat attack. PQ13 in April lost five ships out of nine. Only eight ships of twenty-three dispatched in the next convoy reached their destination, fourteen having been turned back by pack ice. Churchill urged Stalin to provide more air and sea cover for the Royal Navy in the later stages of the Arctic passage, but the Russians lacked means and competence. There was also little goodwill. British sailors and airmen venturing ashore at Murmansk and Archangel were disgusted by the frigidity of their reception. Nowhere, it seemed, did the sun shine upon British endeavours, and the prime minister’s spirits suffered accordingly: “CIGS says WSC is often in a very nasty mood these days,”490 noted John Kennedy on April 7.
Even at this dire period, it was remarkable how many newspaper column inches were devoted to the needs and prospects of postwar reconstruction. This galled the prime minister. He expressed exasperation at having to bother with what he called “hypothetical post-war problems491 in the middle of a struggle when the same amount of thought concentrated on the question of types of aeroplane might have produced much more result.” Yet many ordinary citizens found the war a less rewarding, more dispiriting experience than did Winston Churchill. The present seemed endurable only by looking beyond it to a better future.
Articles and correspondence constantly appeared in print, addressing one aspect or another of a world without war. As early as September 4, 1940, a letter writer to the Times named P. C. Loftus urged that “this nation not be found unprepared for peace as we were found unprepared for war.” A correspondent signing himself “Sailor” wrote to the New Statesman on February 21, 1942: “Men wonder what they are fighting for. The old empty jingoisms about ‘Freedom’ and ‘Homeland’ no longer satisfy. There is a suspicion that all will not be well after the peace—that, after all, we are fighting for property and private interests.” The prominent socialist intellectual Harold Laski complained of Churchill’s refusal to declare a commitment to social change: “He does not seem to see that the steps492 we take now necessarily determine the shape of the society we shall enter when the war is over.”
Gnawing dissatisfaction extended well beyond the confines of the political left. “This nation has become very soft,”493 John Kennedy wrote sadly in his diary on February 23, 1942. “The people do not want to fight for the Empire. Mostly, I suppose, they do not care whether they have an empire or not so long as they have an easy and quiet life. They do not realise that German domination will be very unpleasant … I think something more is wanted on the political side. There is a great lack of any sense of urgency everywhere. We do not know what we are fighting for. The Atlantic Charter is not good enough an ideal up against the fanaticism of the Germans and the Japs.” Officers commanding two army primary training centres told a morale investigator that the great majority of their recruits “lack enthusiasm and interest in the war494 and betray ignorance of the issues involved in it.”
On March 6, 1942, an editorial in the Spectator declared: “The national fibre is today unmistakably different from what it was in those days of 1940 which the Prime Minister could speak of, in accents which carried universal conviction, as our finest hour. No one can pretend that we are living through our finest hour today.” The writer, like his counterpart on the New Statesman, felt that the British people lacked a core of belief to move them, as the Russian people were moved: “Why do men and women in Britain today wait for inspiration from outside? Why are they listening for a voice? Have we no voice within us? Are we ignorant of what is needed?”
In May 1942, America’s Fortune magazine published an entire issue about the postwar world. Henry Luce, proprietor of Fortune, invited Britain’s foreign secretary to contribute an article about his own country’s vision. Eden declined, prompting an official in the American Department of the Foreign Office, one C. R. King, to express dismay. It seemed to him a serious mistake to snub Luce. Yet he recognised the problem. Eden had no idea what to say: “I do not know that HMG have formulated (much less announced) any ideas on these problems beyond those that find expression in the Atlantic Charter.” King added that there was wide agreement in the United States “that America will emerge, after total victory495, militarily and economically supreme.” TheEconomist challenged Churchill in an editorial: “When has the Prime Minister made one496 of his great and compelling speeches on the theme, not of world strategy, but of the hopes and fears of the British people? So long as he is silent, Conservatism, the dominant political attitude in Britain, is silent, and Americans inevitably believe that maybe the Conservatives are out to do nothing but conserve.” The intellectuals’ preoccupation with postwar Britain exasperated the prime minister when he was struggling to find means to avert the destruction of European freedom. But in this matter, his instincts were ill-attuned to those of the public.
Early in April, Churchill’s honeymoon with Roosevelt was rudely interrupted. The prime minister had planned to go to India, to address its defence and constitutional future, but crises elsewhere made it seem inappropriate for him to leave London and travel so far. Stafford Cripps was dispatched in his stead, with a mandate to discuss with India’s nationalist leaders prospective postwar self-government. Talks quickly collapsed. The Hindu-majority Indian National Congress rejected delay, and insisted upon immediate admission to political power. Cripps reported accordingly to London, and was told to come home. Churchill had expected, and indeed wished, no other outcome. He was content that the gesture had been made, and that it was Cripps who bore the odium of failure.
On April 11, however, Roosevelt cabled Churchill, urging that Cripps should remain in India and preside over the creation of a nationalist government. The president asserted that American opinion was overwhelmingly hostile to Britain on this issue: “The feeling is almost universally held497 that the deadlock has been caused by the unwillingness of the British Government to concede to the Indians the right of self-government … [if] minor concessions would be made by both sides, it seems to me that an agreement might yet be found.” Many Americans explicitly identified India’s contemporary predicament with that of their own country before the Revolution of 1776. “You’re the top / You’re Mahatma Gandhi!” wrote Cole Porter euphorically, reflecting the huge enthusiasm of his countrymen for the guru of the Indian independence movement. Such sentiment was wormwood to Churchill. At the best of times, he had little patience with the Indian people. His view was unchanged since he served among them as a cavalry subaltern in the 1890s. Leo Amery, the India secretary, found Churchill “a strange combination of great and small qualities498 … He is really not quite normal on the subject of India.” The prime minister opposed, for instance, granting Indian commissioned officers disciplinary powers over British other ranks. He expostulated against “the humiliation of being ordered about499 by a brown man.”
Churchill was ruthlessly dismissive of Indian political aspirations when the Japanese army was at the gates. He could scarcely be expected to forget that the Mahatma had offered to mediate Britain’s surrender to Hitler, whom the standard-bearer of nonviolence and Indian freedom described as “not a bad man.” Gandhi in 1940 wrote an open letter to the British people, urging them to “lay down arms and accept whatever fate500 Hitler decided. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your minds.”
Much worse, however, was the U.S. president’s attempt to meddle with what the prime minister perceived as an exclusively British issue. It would never have occurred to Churchill to offer advice to Roosevelt about the future governance of America’s Philippines dependency. He deemed it rank cant for a nation which had itself colonised the North American continent, dispossessing and largely exterminating its indigenous population, and which still practised racial segregation, to harangue others about the treatment of native peoples.
Here was an early, wholly unwelcome foretaste of the future. The United States, principal partner and paymaster of the alliance to defeat Fascism, was bent upon exercising decisive influence on the postwar global settlement. Churchill, who thought of nothing save victory and knew how remote this was in April 1942, found Roosevelt’s heavy-handedness irksome. He lost no time in flagging both his determination to stand fast against the Indian National Congress’s demands, and his sensitivity about American meddling. “Anything like a serious difference between you501 and me would break my heart,” he wrote to the president on April 12, “and would surely deeply injure both our countries at the height of this terrible struggle.” Roosevelt’s belief that the day of empires was done would achieve postwar vindication with a speed even he might have found surprising. Britain’s exercise of power over the Indian people between 1939 and 1945 was clumsy and ugly, and Churchill must bear some of the blame. But the prime minister was surely right in believing that a transfer of power in the midst of a world war was wholly unrealistic, especially when the Indian Congress’s attitude to the Allied cause was equivocal.
The spring of 1942 brought some lifting of Allied spirits, especially after the U.S. Navy inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese in the May 4 Battle of the Coral Sea. Churchill changed his mind yet again about acceding to Russian demands for recognition of their territorial claims on Poland and the Baltic states. “We must remember that this is a bad thing,”502 he told the Cabinet. “We oughtn’t to do it, and I shan’t be sorry if we don’t.” On May 5, British forces landed in Madagascar, seeking to preempt a possible Japanese coup. Churchill wrote to his son, Randolph: “The depression following Singapore503 has been replaced by an undue optimism, which I am of course keeping in proper bounds.” He was much wounded by the criticisms that had fallen upon him since January. Before he made a national broadcast on May 10, he drafted a passage which he subsequently—and surely wisely—omitted to deliver, but which reflected the pain he had suffered in recent months:
Everyone feels safer now504, and in consequence the weaker brethren become more vocal. Our critics are not slow to dwell upon the misfortunes and reverses which we have sustained, and I am certainly not going to pretend that there have not been many mistakes and shortcomings. In particular, I am much blamed by a group of ex-ministers for my general conduct of the war. They would very much like to reduce my power of direction and initiative.
Though I have to strive with dictators, I am not, I am glad to say, a dictator myself. I am only your servant. I have tried to be your faithful servant but at any moment, acting through the House of Commons, you can dismiss me to private life. There is one thing, however, which I hope you will not do; I hope you will never ask me or any successor you may choose to bear the burden of responsibility in times like these without reasonable authority and the means of taking decisions.
Hugh Dalton wrote on May 12, 1942: “Dinner with [Tory MP] Victor Cazalet, who thinks we cannot possibly win the war with the present PM. He has, however, no good alternative.” King George VI, of all people, suggested to his prime minister at luncheon one day that the burden of also serving as defence minister was too much for him, and enquired gauchely what other aspect of public affairs he was interested in. Yet Churchill’s difficulty henceforward was that the most formidable challenge to his authority came not from his British critics, but from the nation’s overwhelmingly more powerful partner, the United States. When Harry Hopkins addressed MPs at the House of Commons on April 15, he sought to bolster Churchill’s standing by asserting that the prime minister was “the only man who really understands Roosevelt.” But the American also declared bluntly, as Harold Nicolson reported, that “there are many people in the USA505 who say that we are yellow and can’t fight.”
Dill mused in a letter to Wavell from Washington, “One trouble is that we want everything506 from them from ships to razor blades and have nothing but services to give in return—and many of the services are past services.” A clever British official, Arthur Salter, wrote early in 1942: “It must be accepted that policy will increasingly507 be decided in Washington. To proceed as if it can be made in London and ‘put over’ in Washington, or as if British policy can in the main develop independently and be only ‘coordinated’ with America, is merely to kick against the pricks.” The prime minister led a nation whose role in the war seemed in those days confined to victimhood, not only at the hands of the enemy, but also at those of its mighty new ally. He yearned inexpressibly to recover the initiative on some battlefield. His generals, however, offered no prospect of offensive action before autumn. Amid the deep public disaffection of spring and summer, this seemed to Churchill an eternity away.
2. Warriors and Workers
CHURCHILL was reconciled to the fact that Britain’s defeats by Japan were irreversible until the tide of the war turned. Henceforward, recognising American dominance of Far East strategy, he devoted much less attention to the Japanese struggle than to the campaign against Germany. He remained bitterly dismayed by the failures of Auchinleck’s forces in the Western Desert, where a paper comparison of strengths, showing significant British superiority, suggested that victories should be attainable. At a meeting with his military chiefs, he asserted repeatedly: “I don’t know what we can do for that Army508—all our efforts to help them seem to be in vain.” Back in 1941, Cadogan, at the Foreign Office, wrote: “Our soldiers are the most pathetic amateurs509, pitted against professionals … The Germans are magnificent fighters and their Staff are veritable Masters of Warfare. Wavell and suchlike are no good against them. It’s like putting me up to play Bobby Jones over 36 holes. We shall learn, but it will be a long and bloody business.” Yet a year later, there seemed no evidence that the British Army and its commanders had yet “learned.” Cadogan wrote after the Far East disasters: “What will happen if the Germans get a footing here510? Our army is the mockery of the world!”
Britain’s generals were conscious of their service’s low standing, but deemed it unjust that their own prime minister should sustain a barrage of harassment, criticism and even scorn against it. Especially between 1940 and 1942, they perceived themselves obliged to conduct campaigns with inadequate resources, in consequence of interwar defence policies imposed by the very Conservative Party which still dominated the government—though not, of course, by Churchill himself. Until 1943, and in lesser degree thereafter, the prestige of Britain’s soldiers lagged far behind that of its sailors and airmen. Churchill’s intemperate goading caused anger and distress to naval officers. He often threatened to sack dissenting or allegedly insufficiently aggressive admirals, including Sir Andrew Cunningham, Sir James Somerville of Force H and the Home Fleet’s Sir John Tovey. But even when the Royal Navy suffered severe setbacks and losses, its collective honour and reputation remained unchallenged. The army, meanwhile, enjoyed a more secure social place in British national life than did its U.S. counterpart, and attracted into its smart regiments successive generations of aristocratic younger sons. But it was much less effective as a military institution. For every clever officer such as Brooke, Ismay or Jacob, there were a hundred others lacking skill, energy and imagination.
Churchill spent much of the first half of the war searching in mounting desperation for commanders capable of winning victories on land. Throughout his own long experience of war, he had been impressed by many heroes, but few British generals. In his 1932 work Great Contemporaries, he painted an unsympathetic portrait of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, principal conductor of the nation’s armies through the World War I bloodbath in France and Flanders:
He presents to me in those red years511 the same mental picture as a great surgeon before the days of anaesthetics, versed in every detail of such science as was known to him: sure of himself, steady of poise, knife in hand, intent upon the operation: entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient, the anguish of relations, or the doctrines of rival schools, the devices of quacks, or the first-fruits of new learning. He would operate without excitement, or he would depart without being affronted; and if the patient died, he would not reproach himself.
Churchill was determined that no British army in “his” war would be commanded by another such officer. Every general between 1939 and 1945 carried into battle an acute awareness of the animosity of the British people, and of their prime minister, towards the alleged “butchers” of 1914–18. In this baggage, indeed, may be found a source of the caution characteristic of their campaigns. Yet Britain’s military limitations went much deeper than mere generalship. It might have been profitable for Churchill to divert some of the hours he devoted to scanning the countenances and records of commanders instead to addressing the institutional culture of the British Army. John Kennedy expressed the War Office’s bafflement: “We manage by terrific efforts to pile up resources512 at the necessary places and then the business seems to go wrong, for lack of generalship and junior leadership and bad tactics and lack of concentration of force at decisive points.”
Carl von Clausewitz laid down principles, rooted in his experience of the Napoleonic Wars, based on his perception that all European armies possessed approximately the same quality of weapons, training and potential. Thus, the Prussian believed that outcomes were determined by relative mass, and by the respective skills of rival commanders. If this was true in the early nineteenth century, it certainly was not in the Second World War. Allied and Axis armies displayed widely differing levels of ability and commitment. Superior weapons systems deployed by one side or the other sometimes produced decisive effects. Clausewitz distinguished three elements of war—policy, strategy and tactics. Churchill addressed himself with the keenest attention to the first two, but neglected the third, or rather allowed his commanders to do so.
Britain could take pride in its distaste for militarism. But its inability to deploy effective armies until a late stage of the Second World War was a grievous handicap. Even competent British officers found it hard to extract from their forces performances good enough to beat the Germans or Japanese, who seemed to the prime minister to try much harder. Conversely, Axis troops sometimes achieved more, especially in defence, than indifferent generalship by local commanders entitled Hitler or Hirohito to expect. Rommel, who in 1941–42 became a British obsession, was a fine leader and tactician, but his neglect of logistics contributed much to his own difficulties in North Africa. His triumphs over the British reflected the institutional superiority of his little German force as much as his own inspired opportunism. The Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead, a perceptive eyewitness, wrote from the desert in August 1942, in an assessment laid before British readers while the war was still being fought: “Rommel was an abler general than any on the British side513, and for this one reason—because the German army was an abler army than the British army. Rommel was merely the expression of that abler German army.”
This seems to identify a fundamental Allied difficulty. Eighth Army’s defeats in North Africa in 1941–42, almost invariably by German troops inferior in numbers and armoured strength, certainly reflected inadequate generalship. But they were also the consequence of deeper shortcomings of method and determination. The British public was increasingly conscious of these. Glasgow secretary Pam Ashford wrote on June 24, 1942: “There is a general feeling that there is something wrong514 with our Forces … Mrs. Muir thought it was our generals who were not equal to the German generals, they get out-manoeuvred every time.” Young laboratory technician and former soldier Edward Stebbing wrote, “The feeling is growing that we are having515 our present reverses in Libya and the Far East not merely because of inferiority in numbers and equipment, but also because the enemy are really too clever for us, or rather that we are too stupid for the enemy.”
Ivan Maisky, the Russian ambassador in London516, once observed to Hugh Dalton that he found British soldiers unfailingly stiff and formal, unlike their counterparts in the other services. The army, he suggested, lacked the Royal Navy’s and RAF’s collective self-confidence. This was so. General Pownall wrote after the Far East disasters:
Our [career officers] regard [war]517 as an upsetting, rather exhausting and distinctly dangerous interlude in the happier, more comfortable and more desirable days of peace-soldiering … We need … a tougher Army, based on a tougher nation, an Army which is regarded by the people as an honourable profession to which only the best can gain admittance; one which is prepared and proud to live hard, not soft, in peace. One whose traditions are not based on purely regimental history but on the history of the whole British Army; where the competition is in efficiency, not in games or pipe-blowing and band concerts … Training must be harder, exercises must not be timed to suit meal-times. Infantry shouldn’t be allowed to say that they are tired … We must cultivate mobility of mind as well as of body, i.e., imagination; and cut out the great hampering “tail” which holds back rather than aids the “teeth.”
The regimental system was sometimes an inspirational force, but often also, as was implied by Pownall’s remarks, a source of parochialism and an impediment to the cohesion of larger formations. German, American and Russian professional soldiers thought in divisions; the British always of the regiment, the cherished “military family.” Until the end of the war, the dead hand of centralised, top-down command methods, together with lack of a fighting doctrine common to the entire army, hampered operations in the field. Techniques for the recovery of disabled vehicles from the battlefield—a vital skill in maximising combat power—lagged badly behind those of the Afrika Korps. British armoured units, imbued with a cavalry ethos, remained childishly wedded to independent action. In the desert as in the Crimea a century earlier, British cavalry charged—and were destroyed. This, when since 1940 the Germans had almost daily demonstrated the importance of coordinating tanks, antitank guns and infantry in close mutual support.
British unit as well as army leadership left much to be desired. On the battlefield, local elements seldom displayed initiative, especially if outflanked. Troops engaged in heavy fighting sometimes displayed resolution, but sometimes also collapsed, withdrew or surrendered more readily than their commanders thought acceptable. The sybaritic lifestyle of the vast rear headquarters nexus around Cairo shocked many visitors, especially Americans but also including British ministers Oliver Lyttelton and Harold Macmillan. Here, indeed, was a new manifestation of the “château generalship” condemned by critics of the British Army in the First World War, and this time focused upon Shepheard’s Hotel and the Gezira Club.
Sloth and corruption flourished in the workshops and bases of the rear areas, where tens of thousands of British soldiers indifferent to the progress of the war were allowed to pursue their own lazy routines, selling stores, fuel, and even trucks for private profit. “Petrol, food, NAAFI supplies518, vehicle engines, tools, tyres, clothing—all rich booty—were pouring into Egypt, free for all who dared,” wrote a disgusted colonel responsible for a network of ordnance depots, who was as unimpressed by the lack of “grip” in high places as by the systemic laziness and corruption he perceived throughout the rear areas of Middle East Command. It was a serious indictment of the army that such practises were never checked. Even at the end of 1943, Harold Macmillan complained of the then Middle East C-in-C, Sir Henry “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson, that “the Augean stables are still uncleaned.”519 Since shipping shortages constrained all Allied operations, waste of matériel and supplies transported at such cost to theatres of war was a self-inflicted handicap. The Allies provided their soldiers with amenities and comforts quite unknown to their enemies. These became an acceptable burden in the years of victory, but bore heavily upon the war effort in those of defeat.
Throughout the conflict, in Britain’s media there was debate about the army’s equipment deficiencies, tactics and commanders. The government vacillated about how far to allow criticism to go. In December 1941, Tom Wintringham wrote an article for Picture Post entitled “What Has Happened in Libya?” He attacked the army’s leadership, tanks and guns. As a result, Picture Post was briefly banned from distribution in the Middle East and British Council offices worldwide. Few people doubted that what Wintringham said was true. The difficulty was to reconcile expression of realities with the need to sustain the morale of men risking their lives on the battlefield equipped with these same inadequate weapons, and sometimes led by indifferent officers.
In March 1942 the popular columnist John Gordon delivered a withering blast against Britain’s service chiefs in Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express. They were, he said, men who had achieved high rank merely by staying on in uniform in pursuit of “cushy billets” after the last war ended in 1918, while their betters earned civilian livings. “All this,520” noted a general who read Gordon’s rant, “has a devastating effect on army morale. When soldiers are in a tight corner, how can they be expected to fight if they have been led to believe that their leaders are men of straw?”
Brooke, Alexander and others believed that some of the army’s difficulties derived from the fact that its best potential leaders, who should have been the generals of World War II, had been killed in the earlier Great War. It may be of marginal significance that the German army husbanded the lives of promising junior officers with more care than did the British, at least until the 1918 campaigns, but it seems mistaken to make too much of this. The core issue was that Germany’s military culture was more impressive. That of the prewar British Army militated against recruitment and promotion of clever, imaginative, ruthless commanders, capable of handling large forces—or even of ensuring that they were equipped with weapons to match those of the enemy. All too many senior officers were indeed men who had chosen military careers because they lacked sufficient talent and energy to succeed in civilian life. Brooke privately agreed with much of what John Gordon wrote. His own fits of melancholy were often prompted by reflections on the unfitness of the British Army to engage the Wehrmacht: “We are going to lose this war unless we control it521 very differently and fight it with more determination … It is all desperately depressing … Half our Corps and Divisional Commanders are totally unfit for their appointments, and yet if I were to sack them I could find no better! They lack character, imagination, drive and powers of leadership.”
Harold Macmillan saw the wartime army at close quarters, and thought little of most of its senior officers. He accused both the British and U.S. Chiefs of Staff of surrounding themselves with a host of acolytes “too stupid to be employed in any operational capacity.”522 Observing that one British commander was “a bit wooden,” Macmillan continued:
These British administrative generals523, whose only experience of the world is a military mess at Aldershot or Poona, are a curiously narrow-minded lot. They seem to go all over the world without observing anything in it—except their fellow-officers and their wives … and the various Services clubs in London, Cairo, Bombay, etc., but they are honourable, hard-working, sober, clean about the house and so on. At the end of their careers, they are just fit to be secretaries of golf clubs. War, of course, is their great moment. In their hearts (if they were honest with themselves) they must pray for its prolongation.
This was harsh, but not unjust. Churchill was imbued with a belief that the Admiralty’s execution of Adm. Sir John Byng in 1757, for failing to relieve Minorca, had a salutary effect on the subsequent performance of the Royal Navy. He was right. Following Byng’s shooting524, from the Napoleonic Wars through the twentieth century, the conduct of British naval officers in the face of the enemy almost invariably reflected their understanding that while they might be forgiven for losing a battle, they would receive no mercy if they flinched from fighting one. After the sacking of General Sir Alan Cunningham in Libya, Churchill muttered to Dill about the virtues of the Byng precedent525. The then CIGS answered sharply that such a view was anachronistic.
Dill could justly argue that displays of tigerish zeal such as the prime minister wanted were inappropriate to a modern battlefield, and frequently precipitated disasters. Neither Marlborough nor Wellington won battles by heroic posturing. But the prime minister was surely right to believe that generals should fear disgrace if they failed. The British Army’s instinctive social sympathy for its losers was inappropriate to a struggle of national survival. Even the ruthless Brooke anguished over the dismissal of Ritchie, a conspicuous failure as Eighth Army commander in Libya: “I am devoted to Neil526 and hate to think of the disappointment this will mean to him.” Some middle-ranking officers who proved notoriously unsuccessful in battle continued to be found employment: Ritchie was later allowed to command a corps in northwest Europe—without distinction. It would have been more appropriate to consign proven losers to professional oblivion, as the Americans often did. But this was not the British way, nor even Brooke’s.
Fundamental to many defeats in the desert527 was an exaggerated confidence in manoeuvre and an inadequate focus on firepower. Until 1944, successive models of tank and antitank guns lacked penetrative capacity. It was extraordinary that, even after several years’ experience of modern armoured warfare, British- and American-made fighting vehicles continued to be inferior to those of the Germans. Back in 1917, in the first flush of his own enthusiasm for tanks, Churchill had written to his former battalion second-in-command, Archie Sinclair, urging him to forsake any thought of a life with the cavalry, and to become instead an armoured officer: “Arm yourself therefore my dear528 with the panoply modern science of war … Embark in the chariots of war and slay the malignants with the arms of precision.” Yet a world war later, Churchill was unsuccessful in ensuring that the British Army deployed armour capable of matching that of its principal enemy. From 1941 onwards, the British usually deployed more tanks than the Germans in the desert, sometimes dramatically more. Yet the Afrika Korps inflicted devastating attrition by exploiting its superior weapons and tactics.
Again and again MPs raised this issue in the Commons, yet it proved beyond military ingenuity or industrial skill to remedy. American tanks were notably better than British, but they too were outmatched by those of the Germans. Both nations adopted a deliberate policy of compensating through quantity for well-recognised deficiencies of tank quality. It is impossible to overstate the significance of this failure in explaining defeats. Nor was the problem of inadequate weapons restricted to tanks. In 1941, when the War Office was offered a choice of either one hundred 6-pounder antitank guns or six times that number of 2-pounders, it opted for the latter. By winter, Moscow was telling London not to bother sending any further 2-pounders to Russia, because the Red Army found them useless—as did Auchinleck’s units in the desert. Only late in 1942 did 6-pounders become available in substantial numbers. The War Office struggled in vain to match the superb German 88mm dual-purpose antiaircraft and antitank gun, which accounted for 40 percent of British tanks destroyed in North Africa against 38 percent which fell to Rommel’s panzers.
British tank and military vehicle design and production were nonstandardised and dispersed among a ragbag of manufacturers. Given that the RAF and Royal Navy exploited technical innovations with striking success, the failure of Britain’s ground forces to do so, certainly until 1944, must be blamed on the army’s own procurement chiefs. It was always short of four-wheel-drive trucks. Mechanical serviceability rates were low. Prewar procurement officers, influenced by the experience of colonial war, had a visceral dislike for platoon automatic weapons, which they considered wasteful of ammunition. The War Office of the 1920s dismissed Thompson submachine guns as “gangster weapons,” but in 1940 found itself hastening to import as many as it could buy from the Americans. Only in 1943–44 did British Sten guns become widely available. Infantry tactics were unimaginative, especially in attack. British artillery, always superb, was the only real success story.
Until late in 1942, Eighth Army in North Africa was poorly supported by the RAF. Air force leadership was institutionally hostile to providing “flying artillery” for soldiers, and only sluggishly evolved liaison techniques such as the Luftwaffe had practised since 1939. Churchill strongly defended the RAF’s right to an independent strategic function, asserting that it would be disastrous to turn the air force into “a mere handmaid of the Army.”529 But it proved mistaken to permit the airmen such generous latitude in determining their own priorities. Close air support for ground forces was slow to mature. “In all its branches, the German war machine530 appeared to have a better and tighter control than our army,” wrote Alan Moorehead. “One of the senior British generals said to the war correspondents … ‘We are still amateurs. The Germans are professionals.’” This was an extraordinary admission in mid-1942. The army’s performance improved during the latter part of that year. But, to prevail over the Germans, British and American forces continued to require a handsome superiority of men, tanks and air support.
There remained one great unmentionable, even in those newspapers most critical of Britain’s military performance: the notion that man for man, the British soldier might be a less determined fighter than his German adversary. The “tommy” was perceived—sometimes rightly—as the victim of his superiors’ incompetence, rather than as the bearer of any personal responsibility for failures of British arms. In private, however, and among ministers and senior officers, this issue was frequently discussed. George Marshall deplored the manner in which Churchill spoke of the army’s other ranks as “the dull mass,” a phrase which reflected the prime minister’s limited comprehension of them. There was an embarrassing moment at Downing Street, when following a Cabinet meeting Randolph Churchill joined a discussion about the army, and shouted, “Father, the trouble is your soldiers won’t fight.”531 Churchill once observed of his son: “I love Randolph, but I don’t like him.”532 It was astonishing that, in the midst of debates about great matters, he indulged his son’s presence, and expected others to do so. On this occasion, however, Randolph’s intervention might have been hyperbolic, but it was to the point. Many British officers perceived their citizen soldiers as lacking the will and commitment routinely displayed by the Germans and Japanese. Underlying the conduct of Churchill’s wartime commanders was a fundamental nervousness about what their men would, or would not, do on the battlefield.
Churchill understood that if British troops were to overcome Germans, they must become significantly nastier. This represented a change of view. In 1940 he favoured civility towards the enemy, reproaching Duff Cooper as minister of information for mocking the Italians: “It is a well-known rule of war policy to praise the courage of your opponent, which enhances your own victory when gained.” Likewise, in January 1942, he declared his admiration for Rommel on the floor of the House of Commons: “a very daring and skilful opponent533 … and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” Progressively, however, the prime minister came to think it mistaken to suggest that Axis soldiers were honourable foes. Such courtesies encouraged British troops to surrender too readily. As the war matured, Churchill deplored newspaper reports of chivalrous German behaviour: “These beastly Huns534 are murdering people wholesale in Europe and have committed the most frightful atrocities in Russia, and it would be entirely in accordance with their technique to win a reputation for treating British and American soldiers with humanity on exceptional and well-advertised occasions.”
In the spring and summer of 1942, Churchill was right to believe that the British Army’s performance in North Africa was inadequate. Many of his outbursts about the soldiers’ failures, which so distressed Brooke and his colleagues, were justified. It remains debatable whether remedies were available at a time when positions of military responsibility had perforce to be filled from the existing pool of regular officers. Most were captives of the culture to which they had been bred. Its fundamental flaw was that it required only moderate effort, sacrifice and achievement, and produced only a small number of leaders and units capable of matching the skill and determination of their enemies. The army’s institutional weakness would be overcome only when vastly superior Allied resources became available on the battlefield.
At home among the civilians, wartime unity was a considerable reality. The majority of the British people remained staunch. Yet class tensions ran deep. Significant groups, above all factory workers, displayed disaffection. Sections of Britain’s industrial workforce perceived no contradiction between supporting Churchill and the crusade against Nazism while sustaining the class struggle which had raged since the beginning of the century. Strikes were officially outlawed for the duration by the government’s March 1941 Essential Work Order, but legislation failed to prevent wildcat stoppages, above all in coal pits, shipyards and aircraft plants, often in support of absurd or avaricious demands. At the depth of the Depression, in 1932, just 48,000 working days were lost to strikes in the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries. In 1939, by contrast, 332,000 days were lost; in 1940, 163,000; 1941, 556,000; 1942, 526,000; 1943, 635,000; 1944, 1,048,000; and 1945, 528,000. This was a better record than that achieved in 1917, when stoppages in the same industries cost three million days of production. Nonetheless, it suggests a less than fulsome commitment to the war effort in some factories, also manifested by dockyard workers who, to the disgust of ships’ crews, were guilty of systematic pilferage, including on occasion lifeboat rations.
Few workers broke ranks during the Dunkirk period. But as the war news improved, they perceived less urgency about the struggle for national survival. “I gather that production535 is not nearly good enough,” wrote Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam in December 1940, “that the work people in airplane and other gov[ernment] factories are beginning to go ca’canny; that the dockers at the ports are giving trouble … communists active—I only hope that much of this gossip is exaggerated, but it is alarming nonetheless.” In September 1941, when Churchill visited the Armstrong-Siddeley factory at Coventry, where Whitley bombers were being manufactured, he was warned that the plant was “a hotbed of communism.” Jock Colville wrote: “I was disgusted to hear that their production tempo536 had not really grown until Russia came into the war.” Nine thousand men at Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow went on unofficial strike in a dispute over piecework rates. When a tribunal found against them, the strike committee held a mass meeting at a local football ground, and put forward a motion suggesting that the men should resume work “under protest.” This was overwhelmingly defeated, and the dispute dragged on for weeks.
Of eight serious strikes in the aircraft industry537 between February and May 1943, six concerned pay, one was sparked by objections to an efficiency check on machine use, and one by refusal to allow two fitters to be transferred to different sections of the same shop. There were twenty-eight lesser stoppages prompted by disputes about canteen facilities, alleged victimisation of a shop steward, the use of women riveters, and refusal by management to allow collections for the Red Army during working hours. A report on the de Havilland factory at Castle Bromwich noted “a marked absence of discipline538 … slackness … difficulty in controlling shop stewards.” Ernest Bevin reported that the aircraft industry “had failed to improve its productivity539 in proportion to the amount of labour supplies.” A total of 1.8 million working days were lost during 1,785 disputes in 1943, a figure which rose to 3.7 million in 2,194 disputes in 1944.
“Strikes continue to cause much discussion,”540 declared a 1943 Home Intelligence report. “The majority feeling is that strike action in wartime is unjustified … Fatigue and war-weariness, combined with the belief that we are ‘out of the wood’ and victory now certain, are thought by many to account for the situation.” American seamen arriving in Britain were shocked by the attitudes they encountered among dockers. Walter Byrd, chief officer of the U.S. merchantman James W. Marshall, “made very strong criticism of the attitude of stevedores and other dockworkers in the port of Glasgow. He accused them of complete indifference to the exigencies of any situation, however urgent.” Byrd complained to harbour security officers541 that many trucks and tanks were being damaged by reckless handling during off-loading. It was decided to dispatch some shipworkers to work in U.S. yards on British vessels. At a time when passenger space was at a premium, the service chiefs were enraged when these men refused to sail without their wives—and their demand was met: “I do not see why the country sh[oul]d not be mobilized542 and equality of sacrifice demanded,” a senior army officer commented indignantly.
Of all wartime industrial disputes543, 60 percent concerned wages, 19 percent demarcation, and 11.2 percent working arrangements. A strong Communist element on Clydeside was held responsible by management for many local difficulties. Some trades unionists adopted a shameless view that there was no better time to secure higher pay than during a national emergency, when the need for continuous production was so compelling. Those who served Britain in uniform were poorly rewarded—the average private soldier received less than a pound a week—but industrial workers did well out of the war. The Cost of Living Index rose from 88544 in 1939 to 112.5 in 1945, while average wages rose from 106 to 164.
In the coal industry, wage increases were much steeper—from an indexed 109 to 222. But these did nothing to stem a relentless decline in production—by 12 percent between 1938 and 1944—which alarmed the government and bewildered the public. The mines employed 766,000 workers in 1939, 709,000 in 1945. Loss of skilled labour from the pits to the services provided an inadequate explanation for the fall in per capita output, since the German coal industry achieved dramatic increases under the same handicap. The official historians wrote later: “one can hardly overstress the effect545 of the Depression years upon the morale of the mining community … many miners … felt a sardonic satisfaction in finding themselves for once able to call the tune. Their attitude was not antisocial. It was only un-social … We have to consider how far these narrowed and embittered men could be expected to respond to inducements wrung from the authorities by the urgency of war.”
In 1944, three million tons of coal production were lost by strikes. A team of American technical experts who studied Britain’s mining industry reported to the government: “The center of the problem … is the bad feeling546 and antagonism which pervade the industry and which manifests itself in low morale, non-cooperation and indifference. In almost every district we visited, miners’ leaders and mine owners complained of men leaving the mines early, failure to clear the faces and voluntary absenteeism.” The Cabinet decided against publishing this report.
Class divisions sustained notable variations in communities’ health. The southeast had prospered economically in the last years before war came, but other regions remained blighted by the Depression. In 1942, while four babies of every thousand born in southeast England died, seven perished in south Wales, the northwest and the northeast. Measles produced four times as many fatalities among children in the latter areas as in the former, and tuberculosis rates were much higher. A 1943 Ministry of Health study found that 10 percent of a sample of six hundred children were ill-nourished: “Many of the people had lived for years past547 in poverty and unemployment, and had given up the struggle to maintain a decent standard of housekeeping and cooking.” The condition of many children evacuated from blitzed cities shocked those who received them. Of 31,000 registered in Newcastle, for instance, 4,000 were deficient in footwear, 6,500 in clothing. Authorities in Wales reported that among evacuees from Liverpool there were “children in rags,”548 in a personal condition that “baffles description.” Many of the families from which such offspring came perceived the war in less than idealistic terms.
Churchill had much greater faith in the British people than did ministers, which helps to explain his bitterness when they expelled him from office in 1945. Most Conservative politicians were fearful of the working class, conscious of deep popular discontent with the old order. Many voters would never forget the perceived betrayals of the Depression and the prewar foreign policy which had permitted the ascent of Hitler. Thoughtful Tories knew this. Halifax once wrote to Duff Cooper: “We [Chamberlain’s ministers in early 1940] were all conscious549 of the contrast between the readiness of the Nation … to spend £9 million a day in war to protect a certain way of life, and the unwillingness of the administrative authorities in peace to put up, shall we say, £10 million to assist in the reconditioning of Durham unless they could see the project earning a reasonable percentage.”
Many of Britain’s “haves” were acutely nervous of its “have-nots,” especially when popular enthusiasm for Russia was running high. Fear of “the reds,” and of malign consequences from the boost the war provided to their prestige, was a pervasive theme among Britain’s political class. Those with a taste for blunt speaking asserted that Russian Communists seemed to be conducting their war effort more impressively than British capitalists. Self-consciousness about this state of affairs was never far from the minds of either Churchill or his people in 1942–43. A deep, persistent discontent about perceived Western Allied inertia, contrasted with Soviet achievement, prevailed in many of the humblest homes in Britain.