IN THE LAST MONTHS of Churchill’s war premiership, his satisfaction about the Nazis’ imminent downfall was almost entirely overshadowed by dismay at the triumph of Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe. He wrote to a Tory MP on March 6, “We are now labouring to make sure that the Yalta Agreement about Poland and free elections is carried out in the spirit as well as in the letter.” In reality, of course, Yalta was flouted in both. Almost daily, news reached Downing Street of savage Soviet oppression in Poland, including the imprisonment of sixteen prominent Poles who had attended a meeting under a safe-conduct from the Red Army, and the deportation to labour camps of thousands of non-Communists. Beria’s NKVD conducted a war of repression against Polish democrats which persisted until the end of the German war, and after. Churchill drafted a fierce cable to Stalin, for which he invited American approval: “All parties were exercised,” he wrote, “about the reports that deportations, liquidations and other oppressive measures were being put into practice on a wide scale by the Warsaw administration against those likely to disagree with them.”
The dying Roosevelt vetoed this message, and thereafter repeatedly rejected Churchill’s imprecations for the United States to adopt a harsher policy towards Moscow. The president proposed a “political truce” in Poland, which the British believed would merely strengthen the Soviet puppet regime. “I cannot agree that we are confronted1072 with a breakdown of the Yalta Agreement,” Roosevelt wrote on March 15. “… We must be careful not to give the impression that we are proposing a halt to the land reforms [collectivisation] imposed by the new Polish government.” A stream of messages followed from Churchill to Roosevelt, emphasising the prime minister’s perception of the urgency and gravity of the Polish situation. Most went unanswered. The British persisted with their efforts, but received scant comfort from Washington, and none from Moscow.
Events on the battlefield had a momentum of their own, which Churchill could not influence. At this very late hour, he made a brief attempt to assert British influence by exchanging Tedder with Alexander. He wrote to his field marshal on March 1, as if this was a done deal: “I have written privately to Eisenhower to tell him that you will be replacing Tedder as Deputy Supreme Commander about the middle of this month and that I propose Tedder shall replace you in the Mediterranean.” The purported justification was that Alexander’s presence in northwest Europe would ease tensions between Eisenhower and Montgomery. In reality, Churchill wanted his favourite to assume control of the entire Allied ground battle for the last phase of the German campaign. The proposal was mistaken from every possible standpoint, not least Alexander’s unfitness for the role. The Americans swiftly quashed it. Churchill received no more satisfaction from Washington when he remonstrated about Eisenhower’s signal to Stalin, assuring him that the Western armies would stay away from Berlin. The Americans were not listening. If their manner towards Churchill was increasingly brusque, on the points of military substance it is impossible to doubt that they were right.
Churchill made one further intervention on strategic bombing policy, which has cast a baleful shadow over the historiography of the Second World War. On March 28, he minuted Portal and the Chiefs of Staff Committee:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.
Portal, the standard-bearer of the Royal Air Force, was affronted by these remarks, as well he might have been. He persuaded Churchill to withdraw them, substituting a fresh document which omitted such phrases as “acts of terror.” The new minute began in more pedestrian terms: “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so-called ‘area bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests …” This sanitised version was signed on April 1. Churchill was anyway in no doubt that he had ordered a halt to area attacks on cities. He was thus dismayed, soon afterwards, to learn that five hundred Lancasters of Bomber Command had devastated Potsdam. Some five thousand civilians were alleged to have perished, because the population had neglected air-raid precautions, supposing that the city’s architectural treasures granted it immunity from bombardment. Churchill wrote crossly to Archibald Sinclair, the secretary for air, and Portal, “What’s the point of going and blowing down Potsdam?” Portal replied that the Luftwaffe’s operational headquarters had been transferred there, and that the attack was “calculated to hasten the disintegration1073 of enemy resistance.”
The truthful answer to Churchill’s question was that a huge force of British heavy bombers existed, and there was deep reluctance to stand them down as long as German resistance continued. The Red Army had begun to fight the last great battle of the European war for Berlin, a few miles from Potsdam. Churchill’s attitude, displayed in his draft note to Portal of March 28, was characteristic in its impulsiveness, even irrationality. Earlier in the war, he had been a committed supporter of area bombing, though once delivered from the desperate predicament of 1940–41 he never shared the exaggerated faith of the airmen that this could win the war. When the great land campaigns began in Italy and France, he lost interest in Bomber Command. Its contribution might be useful, but was plainly not decisive. It may sound flippant to suggest that Britain’s prime minister was oblivious of the operations of hundreds of heavy aircraft, dealing nightly death and destruction to some of the greatest cities in Europe. Yet amid the huge issues crowding in upon him each day, the air offensive receded into the background—as also, it must be said, did the issue of the Nazi death camps and possible RAF operations to impede their activities. In Churchill’s mind, the fate of the Jews was entwined with that of millions of other European captives of Hitler. The best means of securing their delivery was to win the war as swiftly as possible. Amid the deep shock of the scenes at Bergen-Belsen when it was liberated by the British Army in April, the prime minister hastened to dispatch a delegation of MPs and peers to the concentration camp, to take formal heed of its horrors. But even in the light of unfolding evidence of genocide, the prime minister perceived the camps in the broader context of the Nazi tyranny.
So vast was the scale of the war by 1944–45, so diverse its manifestations, that no human being, even Winston Churchill, could address every aspect with the commitment which some modern critics believe should have been expected of him. How could it have been otherwise? He interested himself in a wider range of affairs than any national leader in history. But many things, including air policy in the last year of the war, were neglected. Commanders were left to do as they thought best. The only important bombing controversy to which Churchill seriously addressed himself from 1942 onwards was that concerning the 1944 assault on the French road and rail network before D-Day, which he was persuaded reluctantly to endorse.
Throughout the war, the direction of the strategic air offensive was impeded by the fact that its achievements were shrouded in mystery. The airmen’s extravagant claims could be assessed only through problematic interpretation of aerial photography, with limited assistance from Ultra signal decrypts. In December 1941, Mr. David Butt’s Cabinet Office report caused the prime minister to accept that the RAF’s campaign against Germany, so prodigious in its demands on national resources, was not achieving commensurate results. Thus the decision was made to change policy, to conduct “area bombing” of cities, in place of ineffectual precision attacks on military and industrial targets. “In the full tilt of war,”1074 observed Churchill in old age, “it was the only means of hitting back. I was of course ultimately responsible … But later I was not so sure of the effectiveness of the bludgeon.” Until June 1944, however, when great Allied armies became committed to the battlefield, the prime minister found it convenient to promote the view that strategic bombing was making an important contribution to the defeat of the enemy. If it was not, then many people—among whom Stalin was the most important—would have asked whether Britain was playing anything like a large enough part in fighting the war.
In attempting to distance himself from the bombing of Dresden, as Churchill did on March 28, 1945, he ignored his own request to Sinclair at the Air Ministry, just before Yalta, to launch major air attacks in eastern Germany, to assist and impress the Russians, who expressed an eagerness for such support. Dresden had featured for years on Bomber Command target lists. It had been left unscathed only because it was a low priority, and a long haul from British airfields. Throughout the war, none of Britain’s senior airmen showed much aesthetic sensitivity. Portal had advocated heavy bombing of Rome1075 when the city still belonged to Mussolini. Harris had assured the chief of the Air Staff that he had “no false sentiments” about dispatching his bombers against one of the greatest cultural centres in the world. Only American opposition deflected attacks. Churchill’s personal intervention was responsible for causing Dresden, together with Chemnitz and Leipzig, to be pushed up the February target schedule, and largely destroyed on the night of February 13–14. It is unsurprising that no one at Bomber Command headquarters voiced concern about the fate of baroque churches before unleashing the Lancasters.
The prime minister, however, had not thought much before making his own, almost casual request to Sinclair. Throughout the war, a host of matters briefly engaged his attention, then receded. It is implausible, but just possible, that by March 28 he had genuinely forgotten that he had urged the RAF to attack eastern German cities. The key to understanding the destruction of Dresden, so often misinterpreted as a unique atrocity, is that amid daily global carnage, the attack order had much less significance to those responsible than it seems to posterity to have merited.
In the aftermath of Dresden, however, the raid was the subject of widespread comment—and some criticism. Following a press conference at Eisenhower’s headquarters about bombing policy on February 16, an AP correspondent named Howard Cowan filed a dispatch stating: “The Allied air commanders have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of German population centres as a ruthless expedient to hastening Hitler’s doom.” This story received prominent play in American newspapers, though it was censored in British ones. U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson demanded an enquiry into Dresden, which prompted Gen. “Hap” Arnold of the USAAF to respond: “We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless.” In Britain, though there was no widespread outcry, questions were asked in the Commons by the government’s inveterate critic Labour MP Richard Stokes. For the first time in many months, Churchill addressed himself seriously to the issue of area bombing. He perceived that it was indeed wanton to continue the destruction of great cities, when the Germans were so close to collapse. With his usual instinct for mercy towards the vanquished, he wished to halt the process. This was both right and humane. The prime minister injured himself, however, by attempting in his draft minute to Portal to make this judgement retrospective, to condemn the Dresden decision to which he had been an implicit, if not absolutely explicit, party.
He also gave a formidable hostage to history, by declaring that Bomber Command’s campaign was terroristic. No one in the upper reaches of Britain’s war machine had ever privately doubted that this was so, but ministers and airmen took elaborate pains to avoid acknowledging it. This was not Churchill’s first mention of terror, in the context of bombing. He used the word much earlier, in a memorandum to the War Cabinet in November 1942, about policy towards Italy. “All the industrial centres should be attacked in an intense fashion,” he wrote, “every effort being made to terrorise and paralyse the population.”
In war as in peace, there is unlikely to be much cause for pride in a policy about which it is deemed necessary to deceive one’s own people. The reputations of Churchill and Bomber Command alike were damaged by the exchanges of March–April 1945. The prime minister, who of all men should know, had put his signature to a document, albeit subsequently withdrawn, declaring Britain’s strategic air offensive to have been terroristic. He had then been privy to an administrative sleight of hand designed to suppress this admission of the truth.
Churchill’s writings, dating back to World War I, make plain that he thought air bombardment of civilians barbaric. In the early part of World War II, when Germany had already ravaged half the cities of Europe and Britain had no other plausible means of attacking Hitler’s Reich, he suppressed his instincts and endorsed the bomber offensive. That decision seems both inevitable and justifiable. It is a gross abuse of language to identify area bombing as a “war crime,” as do some modern critics. The policy was designed to hasten the defeat of Germany by destroying its industrial base, not wantonly to slaughter innocents. Yet it remains a blot on the Allied conduct of the war that city attacks were allowed to continue into 1945, when huge forces of aircraft employed sophisticated technology against negligible defences, and German industrial output could no longer much influence outcomes. Both the operational necessity to attack cities—because the RAF was capable of nothing else—and the strategic purpose of such operations were gone. Yet the assault was maintained because, until Churchill’s belated intervention, nobody thought to tell the air forces to stop, or rather to restrict themselves to residual military targets.
Here was a classic example of technological determinism. The weapons existed, and thus they continued to be used. The pity of Churchill’s March 28 memorandum, not least from the viewpoint of some 150,000 German civilians who perished under air attack in 1945, was that it had not been written several months earlier. Yet it is hard not to sympathise with the exhausted old prime minister, bearing the troubles of the world upon his shoulders, for being slow to act. The record of his conduct towards Hitler’s people shows an overarching instinct towards mercy, remarkable in the leader of a nation which had suffered so much at German hands since 1939. Churchill’s 1945 papers contain many charitable reflections and directions about the treatment of Germans. These should be set in the balance against the undoubted excesses of the bomber offensive, and his own responsibility for them.
In the last weeks of the European war, Churchill undertook two more battlefield joyrides. Much to his own satisfaction, he relieved himself in the Siegfried Line on March 3, with an aside to photographers: “This is one of the operations connected with this great war which must not be reproduced graphically.” He performed the same ceremony in the Rhine three weeks later, on a visit to watch Montgomery’s great river crossing with Alan Brooke. As he gazed down upon the vast panorama from a chair set out for him on a Xanten hilltop, he said: “I should have liked to have deployed my men in red coats on the plain down there and ordered them to charge.” Then he added, not without satisfaction: “But now my armies are too vast.” At the sound of aircraft, he sprang to his feet: “They’re coming! They’re coming!” He watched fascinated as the great armada passed overhead, thousands of multicoloured parachutes blossoming forth above the German riverbank. He was hurried unwillingly to the rear by the generals when desultory German shells began to fall. Brooke wrote: “It was a relief to get Winston home1076 safely … I honestly believe that he would really have liked to be killed on the front at this moment of success. He had often told me that the way to die is to pass out fighting when your blood is up and you feel nothing.”
At a lunch at Chequers a few days later, Churchill told his cousin Anita Leslie how much he had enjoyed his outing: “I’m an old man and I work hard1077. Why shouldn’t I have a little fun? At least, I thought it was fun but one has to hate seeing brave men die …” Leslie was driving an ambulance for the Free French. “With childish longing in his voice Winston asked what the French thought of him. ‘They do like me? They are fond of me? Give them my love.’” If these were the words of a sentimental old man, his flagging interest in daily business reflected the condition of an exhausted one. “The PM is now becoming1078 an administrative bottleneck,” wrote Colville.
There was a last spasm of frustration about his inability to influence military operations. When he learned that Eisenhower had signalled to Stalin that the Anglo-American armies would make no attempt to close upon Berlin, he expressed strong displeasure that such a communication should have been made without reference to the British or U.S. governments. As Russian behaviour rapidly worsened, he urged that the Anglo-American armies should advance as far eastwards as possible and stay there, heedless of agreed occupation zones, until Moscow showed some willingness to keep its side of the Yalta bargain. Meanwhile, Russian paranoia that the West would make its own peace deal with the Germans intensified. Zhukov visited the Kremlin on March 29. Stalin walked to his desk, leafed through some papers, picked one out and handed it to his marshal. “Read this,” he said. It was a report based upon information from “foreign sympathisers” who claimed that representatives of the Western Allies were conducting secret talks with emissaries of Hitler about a separate peace. Berlin’s overtures had been rejected, said the letter, but it remained possible that the German army would open its Western Front to give the Allies passage to Berlin. “What do you think?”1079 asked Stalin, continuing without waiting for Zhukov’s answer: “I do not believe Roosevelt will violate the Yalta agreement. But as for Churchill—that man is capable of anything.”
The Americans indeed showed no interest in diplomatic brinkmanship with the Kremlin. Though Roosevelt was persuaded to send a last challenging missive to Stalin about Poland, Washington would precipitate no confrontation. When Heinrich Himmler sought to parley with the Western Allies, Churchill reported the fact to Stalin, who had dispatched a stream of angry and indeed insulting cables to London and Washington about U.S. negotiations in Switzerland with SS general Karl Wolff, concerning a German surrender in Italy. Now, the Russian leader sent a notably emollient message to Churchill: “Knowing you, I had no doubt that you would act in just this way.”
The prime minister found the cable waiting in Downing Street on returning from dinner with the French ambassador on the night of April 25. It prompted a spasm of maudlin goodwill towards Stalin. Jock Colville noted in dismay that Churchill, not entirely sober, sat for ninety minutes in the Annexe, talking enthusiastically to Brendan Bracken about the cable, and then spent a further ninety minutes doing the same before the young private secretary: “His vanity was astonishing1080 and I am glad U[ncle] J[oe] does not know what effect a few kind words, after so many harsh ones, might well have on our policy towards Russia … No work was done and I felt both irritated and slightly disgusted by this exhibition of susceptibility to flattery. It was nearly 5 am when I got to bed.” Three days later, Churchill cabled Stalin, offering a further olive branch: “I have been much disturbed at the misunderstanding1081 that has grown up between us on the Crimea agreement about Poland.” There was no misunderstanding, of course. Stalin was bent upon asserting Soviet hegemony over Poland, and that was an end of the matter.
Back in December 1941, when Eden cabled Churchill from Moscow urging the necessity for acceptance of Russia’s demands for recognition of its pre-Barbarossa 1941 frontiers, the prime minister replied: “When you say that ‘nothing we and the US can do or say will affect the situation at the end of the war,’ you are making a very large assumption about the conditions which will then prevail. No one can foresee how the balance of power will lie, or where the winning armies will stand. It seems probable however that the US and the British Empire, far from being exhausted, will be the most powerful armed and economic bloc the world has ever seen, and that the Soviet Union will need our aid for reconstruction far more than we shall need theirs.” By 1945, the frustration of such hopes was plain. The Soviets were vastly stronger, the British much weaker, than Churchill had anticipated. The U.S. commitment to perceived common Anglo-American interests, in Europe or anywhere else, was more tenuous than it had ever been.
In the cold light of day, the prime minister understood this. On May 4 he wrote to Eden, then in San Francisco for the inaugural meeting of the United Nations, about the evolving situation in eastern Europe as he saw it:
I fear terrible things have happened1082 during the Russian advance through Germany to the Elbe. The proposed withdrawal of the United States Army to the occupational lines which were arranged … would mean a tide of Russian domination sweeping forward 120 miles on a front of 200 or 400 miles. This would be an event which, if it occurred, would be one of the most melancholy in history. After it was over and the territory occupied by the Russians, Poland would be completely engulfed and buried deep in Russian-occupied lands … The Russian frontier would run from the North Cape in Norway … across the Baltic to a point just east of Lubeck … half-way across [Austria] to the Izonzo river behind which Tito and Russia will claim everything to the east. Thus the territories under Russian control would include the Baltic Provinces, all of Germany to the occupational line, all Czechoslovakia, a large part of Austria, the whole of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Roumania, Bulgaria, until Greece in her present tottering condition is reached … This constitutes an event in the history of Europe to which there has been no parallel … All these matters can only be settled before the United States Armies in Europe are weakened … It is to this early and speedy showdown and settlement with Russia that we must now turn our hopes. Meanwhile I am against weakening our claim against Russia on behalf of Poland in any way.
The Allies now found themselves in a bewildering and uncharted new world; Roosevelt was gone. Following the vast shock of his death on April 12, Churchill briefly entertained the notion of flying to Washington for the funeral. Finally, he decided that he was needed in London, an outcome that was also probably influenced by personal disinclination. The prime minister’s enthusiasm for the president had waned dramatically. There had been so many slights. Some were relatively trivial, such as a March decision by Washington to halt meat exports to Britain. Some were more serious, such as the imposition of draconian curbs on postwar British civil aviation in accordance with the terms of Lend-Lease. Above all, of course, there was American unilateralism on eastern European issues. Roosevelt’s greatness was not in doubt, least of all in the mind of Churchill. But it had been deployed in the service of the United States, and only incidentally and reluctantly in the interests of the British Empire or even of Europe. “We have moved a long way,”1083 wrote Moran in February, “since Winston, speaking of Roosevelt, said to me in the garden at Marrakesh ‘I love that man.’”
Now, Churchill had to deal with the wholly unknown figure of Harry Truman. In the first weeks of the new president’s tenure, though his inexperience was manifest, there were welcome indications that he was ready to deal much more toughly with the Russians than had Roosevelt in his last months. But no more than his predecessor was the newcomer at the White House willing to risk an armed clash with the Soviet Union for the sake of Poland or any other eastern European nation. At this stage, Washington believed, there was no virtue in empty posturing when the Red Army stood on the Elbe. Nor did Churchill’s combativeness towards Moscow find much resonance among his own people. For four years, the British had embraced the Russians as heroes and comrades-in-arms, ignorant of the absence of reciprocal enthusiasm. Beyond a few score men and women at the summit of the British war machine, little was known of Soviet perfidy and savagery. No more in Britain than in the United States was there any stomach for a Churchillian crusade against a new enemy.
VE Day was proclaimed on May 8, 1945. On the afternoon of the seventh, the Chiefs of Staff gathered at Downing Street for a moment of celebration. Churchill himself set out a tray and glasses, then toasted Brooke, Portal and Cunningham as “the architects of victory.” Ismay wrote in his memoirs: “I hoped that they would raise their glasses1084 to the chief who had been the master-planner; but perhaps they were too moved to trust their voices.” This was disingenuous. Brooke and Cunningham, if not Portal, nursed complex emotions towards the prime minister. Others, including Ismay and the Downing Street staff, forgave rough handling, amid their love and admiration for Churchill. The field marshal and the admiral found this more difficult. Brooke wrote on May 7: “I can’t feel thrilled, my main sensation1085 is one of infinite mental weariness! A sort of brain lethargy which refuses to register highlights, and remains on an even dull flat tone.” The next day he added, with some bitterness: “There is no doubt that the public has never understood1086 what the Chiefs of Staff have been doing in the running of this war … The PM has never enlightened them much, and has never once in all his speeches referred to the Chiefs of Staff.” A few months earlier, Brooke had written of Churchill: “Without him England was lost for a certainty1087, with him England has been on the verge of disaster again and again. And with it all no recognition hardly at all for those who help him except the occasional crumb intended to prevent the dog straying too far from the table.”
Brooke was envious of the greater power and fame enjoyed by Marshall, his American counterpart. A man of considerable vanity, he overrated his own talents, and was ungenerous in his estimate of Churchill’s. But a significant part of his achievement as CIGS—and it was a remarkable achievement—lay in his willingness to fight Churchill day or night when he believed him wrong. While Brooke was a cautious soldier who might not have prospered as a field commander, he had provided a superb foil for the prime minister, preserving him from many misfortunes. His contribution to Britain’s war effort had been substantial. Like the hedgehog, in 1942–43 he understood one big thing: that the Allies must not prematurely engage large elements of the Wehrmacht. He was unable to accept that the price of serving a towering historical figure was to be obscured by his shadow.
Clementine was visiting Russia on behalf of the Red Cross on VE Day, much to the sorrow of both Churchills. At three p.m., the prime minister broadcast to the British people: “Yesterday morning at 2.41am at Headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command … The German war is therefore at an end.” He recalled Britain’s lonely struggle, and the gradual accession of great allies: “Finally almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued … We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King.” His secretaries and staff lined the garden of Downing Street to clap him to his car. He grinned, responding, “Thank you so much, thank you so much.” Then he drove to the House of Commons, to repeat to MPs the speech which he had made to the nation.
A few grumblers muttered that they would have liked to hear from him some expression of gratitude to the Deity. It is interesting to speculate whether Churchill offered any private expression of indebtedness to a higher power at that afternoon’s Commons Service of Thanksgiving at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Jock Colville believed that the events of the war, especially the Battle of Britain, moved Churchill a considerable distance from defiant atheism towards faith. The prime minister once remarked to Colville that he could not help wondering whether the government above might be a constitutional monarchy, “in which case there was always a possibility1088 that the Almighty might have occasion to send for him.”
From a balcony in Whitehall that evening, Churchill addressed the vast, cheering crowd: “My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny …” The crowd sang “Land of Hope and Glory” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as Churchill returned to the Downing Street Annexe, to spend the rest of the evening with Lord Camrose, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. In his company, the prime minister cast aside the exuberance of the afternoon, once more rehearsing his dismay about Soviet barbarism in the east. At 1:15 a.m., when Camrose left, Churchill returned to his secretaries and papers.
Pravda asserted triumphantly that “the significance of the link-up of the Red Army1089 and the allied Anglo-American forces is as great politically as militarily. It offers further proof that provocations by Hitler’s people designed to destroy the solidarity and brotherhood-in-arms between ourselves and our allies … have failed.” Yet Churchill spent the first days of European peace plunged in deepest gloom about the fate of Poland. On May 13, he cabled Truman:
Our armed power on the continent is in rapid decline. Meanwhile what is to happen about Russia[?] I have always worked for friendship with Russia but, like you, I feel deep anxiety because of their misinterpretation of the Yalta decisions, their attitude towards Poland, their overwhelming influence in the Balkans excepting Greece, the difficulties they make about Vienna … and above all their power to maintain very large armies in the field for a long time.
What will be the position in a year or two, when the British and American armies have melted … and when Russia may choose to keep two or three hundred [divisions] on active service? An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front … Surely it is vital now to come to an understanding with Russia, or see where we are with her before we weaken our armies mortally, or retire to the zones of occupation. I should be most grateful for your opinion or advice … To sum up, this issue of a settlement with Russia before our strength has gone seems to me to dwarf all others.
Truman answered: “From the present point of view1090, it is impossible to make a conjecture as to what the Soviets may do when Germany is under the small forces of occupation and the great part of such armies as we can maintain are fighting in the Orient against Japan.” The president agreed with Churchill that a tripartite meeting with Stalin had become urgently necessary.
Yet what if talking to Stalin got nowhere, as was highly likely? Within days of Germany’s surrender, Britain’s prime minister astounded his Chiefs of Staff by enquiring whether Anglo-American forces might launch an offensive to drive back the Soviets by force of arms. Churchill was enthused by the robust attitude of Truman, whose tone suggested a new willingness to respond ruthlessly to Communist flouting of the Yalta terms. Brooke wrote after a War Cabinet meeting on May 13: “Winston delighted, he gives me1091the feeling of already longing for another war! Even if it entailed fighting the Russians!” On the twenty-fourth, the prime minister instructed the Chiefs of Staff that, with the “Russian bear sprawled over Europe,”1092 they should consider the military possibilities of pushing the Red Army back eastwards before the Anglo-American armies were demobilised. He requested the planners to consider means to “impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire” to secure “a square deal for Poland.” They were told to assume the full support of British and American public opinion, and were invited to assume that they could “count on the use of German manpower and what remains of German industrial capacity.” The target date for launching such an assault would be July 1, 1945.
The Foreign Office—though not Eden himself—recoiled in horror from Churchill’s bellicosity. One of Moscow’s Whitehall informants swiftly conveyed tidings to Stalin of an instruction from London to Montgomery about contingency planning. Zhukov wrote in his memoirs:
We received reliable information1093 that while the final campaign was still in progress Churchill sent a secret telegram to Marshal Montgomery instructing him carefully to collect German weapons and material and store them in such a way that would permit retrieving them easily in order to distribute among German units with which they would have to cooperate if the Soviet advance had continued. We had to make a harsh statement at the next session of the Allied Control Commission. We stressed that history knew few examples of such perfidy and betrayal of allies’ obligations and duty. We declared that we thought that British government and army leadership deserved the most serious condemnation. Montgomery attempted to refute the Soviet statement. His colleague American General [Lucius] Clay was silent. Apparently, he was familiar with this instruction by the British Prime Minister.
Zhukov’s story was founded in a reality unacknowledged in detail in Britain until the relevant papers were released by the National Archive in 1998. Alan Brooke and his colleagues faithfully executed the prime minister’s wishes, to examine scenarios for initiating military action against the Russians. The report prepared by the War Cabinet Joint Planning Staff required feats of imagination from its creators unprecedented in Churchill’s premiership. In the preamble, the drafters stated their assumption that, in the event of hostilities between the Russians and the Western Allies, Russia would ally itself with Japan. “The overall or political object is to impose upon Russia1094 the will of the United States and British Empire.” Yet the planners immediately pointed out that the scope of any new conflict initiated by the Western powers would not thereafter be for them to determine: “Even though ‘the will’ of these two countries may be defined as no more than a square deal for Poland, that does not necessarily limit the military commitment. A quick success might induce the Russians to submit to our will … but it might not. That is for the Russians to decide. If they want total war, they are in a position to have it.”
The planners observed that even if an initial Western offensive was successful, the Russians could then adopt the same tactics they had employed with such success against the Germans, giving ground amid the seemingly infinite spaces of the Soviet Union: “There is virtually no limit to the distance to which it would be necessary for the Allies to penetrate into Russia in order to render further resistance impossible … To achieve the decisive defeat of Russia … would require … (a) the deployment in Europe of a large proportion of the vast resources of the United States [and] (b) the re-equipment and re-organisation of German manpower and of all the Western European allies.”
The planners concluded that Western airpower could be used effectively against Soviet communications, but that “Russian industry is so dispersed that it is unlikely to be a profitable air target.” They proposed that 47 Anglo-American divisions might credibly be deployed in an offensive, 14 of these armoured. More than 40 divisions would have to be held back for defensive or occupation tasks. The Russians could meet an Allied thrust with 170 divisions of equivalent strength, 30 of them armoured. “It is difficult to assess to what extent our tactical air superiority and the superior handling of our forces will redress the balance, but the above odds would clearly render the launching of an offensive a hazardous undertaking.” The planners proposed two main thrusts, one on the northern axis Stettin-Schneidemühl-Bydgoszcz, the second in the south on an axis Leipzig-Poznań-Breslau. They concluded, “If we are to embark on war with Russia, we must be prepared to be committed to a total war, which will be both long and costly.”
They warned in an annexe that Moscow could probably call upon the aid of local Communists in France, Belgium and Holland to conduct an extensive campaign of sabotage against Western lines of communications. The word hazardous is used eight times in the planning document, to describe the proposed Anglo-American operations. Annexe IV addressed likely German attitudes to an invitation to participate in hostilities between Russia and the West: “The German General Staff and Officer Corps are likely to decide that their interests will be best served by siding with the Western Allies, although the extent to which they will be able to produce effective and active co-operation will probably be limited at first by the war-weariness of the German Army and of the civil population.” It was dryly suggested that German veterans who had fought on the Eastern Front might be reluctant to repeat the experience. However, addressing the issue of morale among Anglo-American soldiers invited to fight the Russians, the planners displayed astonishing optimism. They claimed that their men might be expected to fight with little diminution of the spirit they had displayed against the Germans—this, though Alexander in Italy had already annoyed the prime minister by reporting that his troops were reluctant to engage Tito’s Communists.
The Chiefs of Staff were never under any delusions about the military, never mind political, impracticability of launching an offensive against the Russians to liberate Poland. The CIGS wrote on May 24: “The idea is of course fantastic1095 and the chances of success quite impossible. There is no doubt that from now onwards Russia is all-powerful in Europe.” On the thirty-first, the Chiefs “again discussed the ‘unthinkable war’1096 against Russia … and became more convinced than ever that it is ‘unthinkable!’” The debate cannot have failed to rouse, in the minds of those privy to the secret, echoes of 1918–19, when Churchill insisted upon committing to Russia an abortive Allied military expedition designed to reverse the verdict of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Passing the planners’ report to the prime minister on June 8, Ismay wrote: “In the attached report1097 on Operation ‘UNTHINKABLE,’ the Chiefs of Staff have set out the bare facts, which they can elaborate in discussion with you, if you so desire. They felt that the less was put on paper on this subject the better.” The Chiefs themselves appended a comment to the report: “Our view is … that once hostilities began, it would be beyond our power to win a quick but limited success and we should be committed to a protracted war against heavy odds. These odds, moreover, would become fanciful if the Americans grew weary and indifferent and began to be drawn away by the magnet of the Pacific war.”
Churchill responded on June 10:
If the Americans withdraw to their zone and move the bulk of their forces back to the United States and to the Pacific, the Russians have the power to advance to the North Sea and the Atlantic. Pray have a study made of how then we could defend our Island, assuming that France and the Low Countries were powerless to resist the Russian advance to the sea. What naval forces should we need and where would they be based? What would be the strength of the Army required, and how should it be disposed? How much Air Force would be needed and where would the main airfields be located? … By retaining the codeword “UNTHINKABLE,” the Staffs will realize that this remains a precautionary study of what, I hope, is still a purely hypothetical contingency.
In the original draft of this note, Churchill’s final words were “a highly improbable event.” He altered these in his familiar red ink, to make implementation of Unthinkable seem remoter still.
On July 11, the Chiefs’ Joint Planning Committee responded to the prime minister’s enquiries about the implications of a possible Soviet advance to the Channel, following demobilisation of Eisenhower’s armies. Russian naval strength, they concluded, was too limited to render an early amphibious invasion of Britain likely. They ruled out a Soviet airborne assault. It seemed more likely, they suggested, that Moscow would resort to intensive rocket bombardment, on a scale more destructive than that of the German V-1s and V-2s. To provide effective defence against a long-term Russian threat, they estimated that 230 squadrons of fighters, 100 of tactical bombers and 200 of heavy bombers would be necessary.
The Unthinkable file was closed a few days later, when another cable arrived from Truman. He rejected the arguments for renouncing or even delaying Anglo-American withdrawal to the occupation zones agreed to at Yalta. Washington had decided there was no case. The prime minister was obliged to recognise that there was not the slightest possibility that the Americans would lead an attempt to drive the Russians from Poland by force, nor even threaten Moscow that they might do so. It was also unimaginable that Churchill’s own government and fellow countrymen would have supported such action. In June 1945, his perception of the Soviet Union was light-years apart from that of his nation. Most British people were much less impressed by the perils facing Poland than by the wartime achievement of their Russian comrades-in-arms, whom they had learned to regard with enthusiasm. Churchill was obliged hereafter to undertake a dramatic reversal of view. If the Western Allies could not liberate Poland by force, then a new political attempt must be made to persuade Stalin to compromise about its future. Turning aside from his brief dalliance with Unthinkable, the prime minister committed himself to renewed efforts to exploit his supposed relationship with Stalin in pursuit of Polish interests.
It was fortunate for Churchill’s reputation that his speculation about confronting Russia in arms was not revealed in detail for another half century. In the years following the end of the war, it became progressively apparent to the Chiefs of Staff, and to the Western world, that it was necessary for the Western Allies to adopt the strongest possible defensive measures against further Soviet aggression in Europe. On August 30, 1946, Field Marshal “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson reported from Washington that the U.S. Chiefs of Staff had become sufficiently fearful of possible conflict with the Russians to favour commencing military planning for such a contingency. In London, the Unthinkable file was taken1098 out and dusted down. Military preparations for a conflict with the Soviet Union became a staple of the Cold War, though at no time was it ever deemed politically acceptable or militarily practicable to attempt to free eastern Europe by force of arms. In May and June 1945, Churchill’s warrior instincts were still astonishingly powerful. But the society in which he lived had only just sufficient ardour to finish the Japanese war. There was none whatsoever for engaging new enemies, whatever the principled merits of the cause.
Labour leader Clement Attlee at first favoured sustaining the coalition government and delaying a general election until the defeat of Japan. His party, however, was minded otherwise. On May 23 the coalition was dissolved, after five years and thirteen days of office. There was an emotional farewell gathering of ministers at Downing Street. Then Churchill set about forming a new ministry, without Labour and Liberal members. An election was called for July 6, which almost every pundit anticipated that the Tories would win. The nation’s gratitude to Winston Churchill, it was assumed, outweighed its undoubted alienation from the Conservative Party.
Yet, for those who sought evidence about the mood of the British people, much had been available since 1939. On July 3, 1940, the American general1099 Raymond Lee had lunched in London with an unnamed Tory MP who asserted his conviction that even if Britain won the war, Labour would govern afterwards. By 1945, roosting time had come for many old chickens. Anthony Eden, widely perceived as the brightest star of his Tory generation, disliked his own party even more than did Churchill. He wrote during a visit to Greece about his sense of remoteness from British soldiers he met, and his doubts about how to reach them on the hustings:
It would be the highest honour1100 to serve and lead such men. But how is one to do it through party politics? Most of these men have none, as I believe that I have none. And how is this General Election to express any of this, for they could not be farther from the men of Munich in their most extreme form, for whom I have to ask the electors to vote. It is hell. Curiously enough W[inston] doesn’t seem to feel any of this and is full of the lust for electoral battle, and apparently content to work with men afterwards, with many, probably most, of whom he doesn’t agree. No doubt he is confident that he can dominate them, but I feel a responsibility to ask the electorate to vote for them.
British soldier Edward Stebbing had written back in November 1940, “There are … many who think that this war1101 will only be worth fighting if there is a new order of things to follow.” Everything that had happened since strengthened this belief in the minds of many British people. In December 1944 the Wall Street Journal displayed notable prescience, identifying popular anger in Britain towards Churchill’s Greek policy with a deeper rejection of old Tory imperialism: “It is clear that the Churchill government1102 will last out the war in Europe, but the chances of its return to office when the election after victory is held are more doubtful. It is not very likely that Mr. Lloyd George’s  ‘khaki election [victory]’ will be repeated.”
The Mayhews were an upper-middle-class Norfolk family, of whom in 1945 one younger scion, Christopher, was standing as a Labour candidate in the county against a Tory who was a former member of a notorious right-wing movement—the Link. Mayhew’s uncle, Bertram Howarth, secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in a family newsletter: “[I am] in the throes of a mental political upheaval1103. I believe I have voted Conservative all my life, but unless something epoch-making happens between now and the General Election, I can’t do it again.” His wife, Ellie, district commandant of the local Women’s Voluntary Service, felt likewise: “Personally I cannot vote for our sitting [Tory] member; he is stupid, elderly and reactionary … He was the sole MP to vote against the Beveridge Report. So I shall have to be a Liberal.” When Churchill spoke optimistically about his election prospects to General Bill Slim, home on leave from Burma, Slim responded with characteristic bluntness: “Well, Prime Minister, I know one thing1104. My Army won’t be voting for you.”
A tide of sentiment was sweeping British people of all classes, driven by determination to build a new future rather than cherish pride in the past. Churchill himself said back in 1941, of the state school boys who occupied many of the RAF’s cockpits: “They have saved this country1105; they have the right to rule it.” Labour’s Aneurin Bevan told one of his many election audiences, “We have been the dreamers1106, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders.” Churchill was applauded everywhere he went during his June 1945 election tours, and public admiration for him was very real. But with the wisdom sometimes displayed by democracies, few people allowed this to influence their votes. Churchill’s election broadcasts were harshly combative. He deployed against the threat of socialism all the impassioned verbiage which he had mobilised for so long against the nation’s enemies. Even many supporters thought his tirades ill-judged, and there were moments when he himself seemed to agree.
Clementine wrote to her daughter Mary on June 20: “Papa broadcasts tonight. He is very low, poor Darling. He thinks he has lost his ‘touch’ and he grieves about it.” Londoner Jennifer McIntosh wrote to her sister in California on July 4: “One of the most extraordinary things1107 has been the terrific slump in the Churchill prestige … I wish you could have heard his election broadcasts—they were deplorable, the last one pitifully cheap.” Likewise, Oliver Harvey at the Foreign Office perceived Churchill as conducting “a jingo election which is terrifying1108 in its inappropriateness.” Churchill was much more a social conservative than he was a political Conservative. He lacked real sympathy for or interest in the party which he nominally led at the hustings. He anticipated that the election outcome would represent a vote of confidence in his own war leadership, rather than a verdict on the Tories’ fitness to rule.
But the war was almost ended. While the rival candidates campaigned, most of the complexities of occupying Germany and sustaining the struggle against Japan were addressed without interventions from the prime minister. Addicted to tidings from battlefields, he often stumped into the secretaries’ room at Downing Street to demand: “Any news come in?” Told, perhaps for the sixth time in a day, that there was none, he said irritably: “I won’t have it … I must have1109 more regular reports. It’s your business to keep me informed.” Yet opportunities were now few to order the movements of armies, fleets or air forces. He directed Alexander to act vigorously to expel Tito’s partisans from Trieste and northeastern Italy, to which they laid claim. When the C-in-C warned that British troops were much less enthusiastic about fighting Yugoslavs than Germans, Churchill dismissed his fears—and ordered a display of force. Faced with this, the Yugoslavs withdrew behind the Izonzo River. The prime minister again used British troops to force the French to withdraw from Syria, which was handed over to an indigenous Arab government. France occupied an area of northwestern Italy which it claimed. Here, too, Churchill acted ruthlessly and successfully, insisting upon removal of de Gaulle’s forces.
In Southeast Asia, Slim’s Fourteenth Army was mopping up the last of the Japanese in Burma, and preparing for an amphibious assault on Malaya, scheduled for September. Captain Pim diligently moved the relevant pins and arrows on the walls of the Map Room at Downing Street, but the prime minister’s heart was never deeply engaged. He remained preoccupied with the fate of Europe, and with urging upon the new U.S. president the need to adopt firm policies towards the Russians.
On May 18, the Churchills entertained to lunch at Downing Street the Russian ambassador, Fyodor Gusev. When Clementine and other guests left the table, the prime minister unburdened himself to the Soviet emissary. It seems worth relating at length Gusev’s account of the meeting, as evidence both of Churchill’s sentiments and of the manner in which these were reported to Moscow. The prime minister began by describing the importance he attached to a new summit meeting at which “either we shall achieve an agreement on future cooperation between our three nations, or the Anglo-American community will become united in opposition to the Soviet Union. It is difficult to anticipate the possible consequences of this second scenario.” Gusev wrote:
Here Churchill raised his voice, saying “We are full of grievances.” I asked him what he had in mind. Irritably and in heightened tones, he began to catalogue the issues: 1) Trieste. Tito has “sneaked up to Trieste and wants to seize it.” Churchill laid his hands on the table and showed how Tito was sneaking up to Trieste. “We will not allow”—Churchill roared—“the resolution of territorial disputes by seizure … We and the Americans are united in our resolution that all territorial issues should be resolved through a peace conference.” I remarked that as far as I knew Tito did not intend to resolve any territorial issues. Churchill ignored me and continued: “Armies are confronting each other. Grave trouble can break out at any time unless goodwill is displayed.” 2) Prague. Churchill declared that we did not allow British representatives into Prague. “Our accredited ambassador has been prevented from entering Czechoslovakia,” he said. I remarked that only the previous day Czech government representatives had travelled from London to Prague on a British aircraft. Churchill continued: “You wish to claim exclusive rights for yourselves in every capital occupied by your troops. The British government cannot understand such a Soviet attitude and cannot justify it to the British people, mindful that we are under mutual obligations to display friendship and cooperation … We, the British, are a proud nation and cannot allow anyone to treat us in this way.”
Churchill would not listen to my comment on this and continued: 3) Vienna. “You do not allow us to enter Vienna. The war is over, but our representatives cannot inspect quarters for our soldiers.” [Gusev launched into an exposition of the Soviet position which the prime minister cut short:] “Why will you not allow our representatives to enter Vienna? Now the war is over, what possible consideration can justify the refusal of the Soviet government to admit our representatives to Vienna?” There were more brusque exchanges about the Soviet establishment of a puppet regime in Austria, then Churchill turned to the German capital: “You do not allow us into Berlin. You want to make Berlin your exclusive zone.”
I declared that Churchill’s statement was groundless as we have an agreement on occupation zones and control of greater Berlin. Churchill again repeated that he is willing to allow any number of Soviet representatives to go anywhere. Churchill moved on to Poland and spoke with even greater anger. Things were going from bad to worse where the Polish issue was concerned, he said. He saw no hope for a satisfactory resolution of it: “We have endorsed Polish delegates, and you have imprisoned them. Parliament and the public are deeply concerned” … Churchill thinks that forthcoming debates in Parliament will demonstrate the great indignation of the British nation, and he will find himself at a loss about how to satisfy public opinion. Churchill then vaguely hinted that a satisfactory outcome of the Polish issue might lead to a resolution of the issue of the Baltic States.
Churchill did not want to hear my comments and moved on to characterize the gravity of the general situation. “Your front stretches from Lubeck to Trieste. You allow no one to enter the capitals which you control. The situation in Trieste is alarming. Polish affairs have reached a dead end. The general climate is at boiling point.” I told Churchill that he was familiar with the Soviet government’s position—that it makes no claims on territory or on the European capitals. Our front does not stretch as far as Trieste. Marshal Tito’s troops may be there, but we are not responsible for Marshal Tito. He and the Yugoslav people have won themselves a place of honour among the United Nations by their struggle.
Churchill said: “I know that you are a great nation. By your struggle you have won an equal status among the great powers. But we, the British, are also a proud nation and we will not allow anyone to abuse us and trample upon our interests. I want you to understand that we are profoundly concerned by the current situation. I have ordered that demobilization of the Royal Air Force should be delayed.” He then abruptly terminated the conversation, apologized for his frankness and departed to discuss with Attlee the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The Soviet ambassador appended to this dispatch a personal commentary on the meeting:
Churchill was extraordinarily angry1110, and seemed to be making an effort to keep himself under control. His remarks were full of threats and blackmail, but it was not just blackmail. Following his radio broadcast of 13 May, the English press has adopted a stronger anti-Soviet line in reporting European events. It seeks to interpret all the emerging problems in terms of the USSR’s attitude. Churchill’s speech was an instruction to the press. Polish agents are conducting a bold anti-Soviet campaign in parliamentary circles and demand new debates on the Polish issue. Eden had already announced in the House of Commons that a foreign affairs debate will take place after the holidays. We may expect this to develop into a big anti-Soviet demonstration intended to pressure and threaten the USSR. So far we have no precise information on the purpose of Eisenhower’s and Montgomery’s forthcoming visit to London, but we have reason to think that they have been summoned to discuss and evaluate the allies’ military position. We should recognise that we are dealing with an adventurer who is in his element at war, who feels much more at ease in the circumstances of war than those of peace.
Gusev’s account of this meeting is unlikely to have been shown to Stalin, because Churchill’s bluntness would have displeased him. In any event, it could have exercised not the smallest influence upon Moscow’s policies. The Russians knew that the Americans shared little of the prime minister’s passion about eastern Europe. For all Churchill’s bluster and his mutterings to the Chiefs of Staff about the possibility of launching Operation Unthinkable, neither Western nation was ready to challenge the Russians by force. The old statesman’s diatribe merely vented his personal bitterness and frustration. He knew in his heart that the tyranny established by the Red Army could not be undone either through diplomacy or by force of arms.
After polling day on July 6, there was a three-week pause before the election result was announced, to allow the overseas service vote to be counted. Churchill flew to southwestern France for his first holiday since 1939, at a château owned by a Canadian well-wisher. Then, on July 15, he took a plane onward to Berlin, for the last great Allied conference, the closing episode of his own war.
Churchill professed confidence about the election outcome. This was shared by Stalin who believed he would be returned to power with a parliamentary majority of at least eighty. Nonetheless, in a most honourable display of his respect for democracy, Churchill invited Clement Attlee, the possible prime minister–in–waiting, to join the British delegation at Potsdam. The Labour leader was waiting to greet him at his appointed villa, 23 Ringstrasse, along with Montgomery, Alexander and Eden. On July 16, Churchill held his first two-hour meeting with Harry Truman. He emerged much encouraged by what he saw and heard. Truman spoke much more toughly than had Roosevelt in his last months. Later, the prime minister toured the ruins of Berlin, and gazed without animosity upon the Germans foraging amid the rubble. “My hate had died with their surrender,”1111 he wrote later. “I was much moved by their desolation, and also by their thin haggard looks and threadbare clothes.” Staring at the remains of Hitler’s bunker, he reflected that this was how Downing Street would have looked had matters turned out differently in 1940. But he quickly wearied of tourism. Now as ever, what seized his imagination was the opportunity to discuss great issues with the most powerful men on earth, if not as their equal in national might then at least as their acknowledged peer in personal stature.
The Potsdam conference, of which the first formal session took place on July 17, achieved no meaningful decisions or conclusions. Churchill said of himself: “I shall be only half a man1112 until the result of the poll.” Diplomat John Peck noted with some foreboding that, when the prime minister and Attlee inspected a parade of British troops in Berlin, Attlee received the louder cheers. Opening a soldiers’ club, Churchill said: “May the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war never die!” Yet many of his audience, men of Montgomery’s armies, viewed both their recent past and future prospects in much more pragmatic terms.
Churchill’s first responsibility was to take the measure of Harry Truman, and to lay before the new president his fears for Britain and the world. Truman, in his turn, felt a certain apprehension about the encounter. Harry Hopkins, in Moscow late in May, told Zhukov as he bade farewell before flying to London to see Churchill: “I respect the old man, but he is difficult1113. The only person who found talking to him easy was Franklin Roosevelt.” Now, in Potsdam, Churchill described to Truman his fears for British solvency, when the country owed £3 billion of external debt. He expressed his hopes of American support. They talked much of eastern Europe, from which the news daily grew worse. Churchill was very excited by news, which reached the president at Potsdam, of the successful atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. He encouraged the president to disclose to Stalin “the simple fact that we have this weapon”—a significant and optimistic use of the plural possessive.
Churchill agreed, without consulting his cabinet colleagues, that the Americans would employ the atomic bomb against Japan without further reference to London. He urged that Britain and the United States should maintain the closest postwar military links, with reciprocal basing rights around the world. When Truman took refuge in bromides, and declined an explicit commitment, Churchill sallied in disappointment: “A man might make a proposal of marriage to a young lady, but it was not much use if he was told that she would always be a sister to him.” He was rash enough to indulge a tirade against China and its pretensions, which of course irked the Americans. Brooke was indignant that the U.S. Chiefs of Staff discussed strategy for the final phase of the Pacific war in the absence of the British. What else could he have expected? The most significant British role was to endorse, and marginally to modify, the so-called Potsdam Declaration to Japan, warning of dire consequences if she failed forthwith to surrender to the Allies.
Brooke was exasperated by Churchill’s exuberant display of enthusiasm about the news of “Tube Alloys”—the atomic bomb project. The CIGS displayed an extraordinary failure of understanding when the prime minister discussed the issue with his Chiefs of Staff over lunch on July 23. “I was completely shattered by the PM’s outlook!” wrote the CIGS.
He had absorbed all the minor American1114 exaggerations, and as a result was completely carried away. It was now no longer necessary for the Russians to come into the Japanese war, the new explosive alone was sufficient to settle the matter. Furthermore we now had something in our hands which would redress the balance with the Russians! The secret of this explosive, and the power to use it, would completely alter the diplomatic equilibrium! Now we had a new value which redressed our position (pushing his chin out and scowling), now we could say if you insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karkhov [sic], Stalingrad, Sebastopol etc. etc. And now where are the Russians!!! I tried to crush his over-optimism based on the results of one experiment, and was asked with contempt what reason I had for minimizing the results of these discoveries. I was trying to dispel his dreams and as usual he did not like it. But I shudder to feel that he is allowing the half-baked results of one experiment to warp the whole of his diplomatic perspective!
If the prime minister failed to perceive the strategic limitations of nuclear weapons, his senior military adviser displayed in this encounter an extraordinary ignorance about the greatest scientific undertaking of the war, indeed the most momentous in history. Here was a manifestation of the manner in which even exalted Allied directors of strategy were slow to grasp the significance of the Bomb. Back in 1940–41, British scientists’ theoretical nuclear research was well ahead of their American counterparts’. Following the joint commitment to build an atomic bomb, and the transfer of all relevant British material and personnel to the United States, the Americans adopted an increasingly ruthless proprietorial policy towards nuclear research. It had been agreed that the project should be a partnership. But Sir John Anderson, the responsible minister, soon reported to Churchill that the Americans were concealing information from the British in a “quite intolerable” fashion. At Quebec in May 1943 a new agreement was reached between Britain’s prime minister and the U.S. president, subsequently confirmed in writing at Hyde Park in August. At Hyde Park again in September 1944 Churchill persuaded Roosevelt belatedly to sign a document agreeing that Anglo-American nuclear cooperation and exchange of information should continue after the war. But the Americans none the less displayed little inclination to regard atomic research as a shared venture—and impoverished Britain was in no condition to build a bomb of its own. After the war, successive British governments were reduced to pleading with Washington for the honouring of the nuclear agreements struck between Roosevelt and Churchill.
The social nuances of Potsdam were endless. During an Allied reception1115 at Churchill’s villa, the host offered a toast to Marshal Zhukov. The Russian, caught by surprise, responded by addressing the prime minister as “comrade.” Then, alarmed by the perils of being heard to use such fraternal language to an archcapitalist, he hastily amended this to “comrade-in-arms.” The next day in Stalin’s office, the soldier was indeed taunted about the readiness with which he had made a comrade of Churchill. Only Stalin, among the Russians, allowed himself freedom to take personal liberties with the Western Allies.
Churchill spent much time—there was one session of five hours—alone with the Soviet warlord. Stalin was in the highest humour. He perceived himself as the foremost victor of World War II. Not for decades would it become apparent that the Soviet Union’s devastation, and the economic consequences of subordinating all other interests to Russia’s vast military machine, had sown the seeds of the Communist system’s eventual collapse. In July 1945 the world, like the Soviet leader himself, perceived only that he presided over the greatest power on the European continent, one that was militarily unassailable. Stalin professed to confide in Churchill as if he was an old friend, apologising for Russia’s failure to publicly display its gratitude for British wartime supplies, and promising that he would make amends at some suitable moment. At a banquet given by Churchill, the tyrant amazed guests by circling the table and collecting autographs on the menu: “His eyes twinkled with mirth and goodwill.” He flattered the prime minister shamelessly—and was rewarded with Churchill’s beaming benevolence. Eden wrote in dismay: “He is again under Stalin’s spell1116. He kept repeating ‘I like that man.’” Yet the Soviet warlord, inevitably, conceded nothing. The puppet Polish leadership was brought to Potsdam at Churchill’s urging, and listened stonily to his arguments that non-Communists should be included in the Warsaw government, and that Poland should moderate its western frontier expectations.
Churchill never doubted the malevolence of Soviet intentions in eastern Europe, and indeed around the world. But he sustained residual delusions that he himself might influence Stalin, and thus fulfil purposes from which the full commitment of the United States was withheld. Sergo Beria, son of the NKVD chief, wrote: “Of all the western leaders Churchill1117 had the best understanding of Stalin and succeeded in seeing through almost all of his manoeuvres. But when he is quoted as suggesting that he gained an influence over Stalin I cannot help smiling. It seems amazing that a person of such stature could so delude himself.”
Stalin could be dispossessed of his vast trove of booty only by force of arms. He knew that the Western Allies lacked stomach or means for such a trial. Thus, he felt at liberty to divert himself in the company of the old imperialist, who indeed perhaps amused him, as he amused the world. Britain lost nothing by Churchill’s dalliance with Stalin at Potsdam and elsewhere, because nothing could have been said or done to change outcomes. But it was a sad end to so much magnificent wartime statesmanship by the prime minister that the lion should lie down with the bear, roll on his back and allow his chest to be tickled. Far back in October 1940, Churchill had observed that “a lot of people talked a lot of nonsense1118 when they said wars never settled anything; nothing in history was ever settled except by wars.” In July 1945, it was impossible to pretend that the affairs of Europe had been satisfactorily “settled” by Allied victory in the Second World War.
On July 25, the British delegation left the Americans and Russians to confer, and returned to Britain to discover the election outcome. Churchill landed back at Northolt that afternoon, expecting to return to Potsdam two days later. Even the Russians assumed this: “no one in our conference delegation1119 had the slightest doubt that he would be reelected,” recalled Admiral Kuznetsov. At Downing Street, Captain Pim had reorganised the Map Room to display poll results as they came in—a somewhat generous interpretation of his naval duties, on behalf of a political party leader. On the morning of the twenty-sixth, Churchill settled himself in front of Pim’s boards, remaining there throughout the day with the companionship of Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken. It was soon plain that the Conservatives had suffered a disaster. In the new House of Commons, Labour would hold 393 seats. The Tories’ numbers fell from 585 to 213. The Conservative government was at an end. Churchill had lost his parliamentary majority. He could no longer serve as prime minister. At seven p.m., he said quaintly to Pim: “Fetch me my carriage, and I shall go to the Palace.” He resigned his office. Clement Attlee assumed the mantle, formed his own government and returned to Potsdam in Churchill’s stead. The Russians were bewildered by Churchill’s defeat. “I still cannot comprehend1120 how this could happen that he lost the election!” said Molotov later. “Apparently one needs to understand the English way of life better … In Potsdam … he was so active.”
The fallen leader strove to act manfully. On his return to Downing Street from Buckingham Palace, he said to his private secretary Leslie Rowan: “You must not think of me any more1121; your duty is now to serve Attlee, if he wishes you to do so. You must therefore go to him, for you must think also of your future.” Rowan broke down and cried. When Moran said something about voters’ ingratitude, Churchill responded: “Oh no, I wouldn’t call it that, they have had a very bad time.” Yet the misery of his predicament cut to his heart. For nearly six years, he had inhabited a universe of fevered action. An almost unbroken stream of reports, minutes, cables and issues for decision flowed through his study, the Map Room, the Cabinet Room, his bedroom and even his bathroom day and night. Now, instead, with devastating abruptness, there was nothing. The vacancy seemed almost unendurable. “The rest of my life will be holidays,”1122 he said to Moran. “It is a strange feeling, all power gone.”
Churchill moved from Downing Street into Claridge’s Hotel. He was confronted with all manner of domestic problems such as he had been allowed to ignore for six years, not least the need to pay bills. His personal finances during the war years remain somewhat opaque. He received a monthly salary of £449 from the Treasury, for his services as prime minister. In addition, his books generated substantial income. There was some postwar political controversy about the fact that, throughout the war, he gained handsome royalties from sales of collections of his prime ministerial speeches. For instance Into Battle, the first volume, generated £11,172, of which sum the prime minister instructed his bank to divert half to the account of his son, Randolph. He received a huge amount, £50,000, in October 1943 for the film rights of his biography of Marlborough and a further £50,000 in April 1945 from Alexander Korda for film rights to his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He was able to adopt a lofty attitude about book contracts and delivery dates with his publisher, Macmillan, because one of its most influential directors was a member of his government. An old friend, Sir Henry Strakosch, who died in 1943, bequeathed the prime minister £20,000 in his will. Yet punitive wartime taxation, more than 80 percent, absorbed a large part of these sums. Even on a care-and-maintenance basis, Chartwell, his home in Kent, incurred costs. Randolph, the monstrous pelican in the family, represented a major drain on his purse. As prime minister, he contributed about £351123 a month for his personal share of the costs of Chequers. What is undisputed is that he emerged almost penniless from his experience as the saviour of his nation.
Smuts said, more than two years earlier, “Winston’s mind has a stop in it1124 at the end of the war.” Churchill grumbled: “I do not believe in this brave new world1125 … Tell me any good in any new thing.” Even had he won the election, the great conflict with which he would be inseparably identified for the rest of human history had barely three weeks to run. The nugatory military decisions still at the discretion of a British national leader could exercise little influence upon the manner in which its final operations were conducted. Thereafter, while Churchill might have enjoyed retaining the trappings of power, as all prime ministers do, he was quite unsuited to address the challenges of peace. Isaiah Berlin wrote: “Churchill sees history—and life1126—as a great Renaissance pageant: when he thinks of France or Italy, Germany or the Low Countries, Russia, India, Africa, the Arab lands, he sees vivid historical images—something between Victorian illustrations in a child’s book of history and the great procession painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Riccardi Palace … No man has ever loved life more vehemently and infused so much of it into everyone and everything that he has touched.”
Yet by July 1945 the British people hungered for simpler and more immediate things. They had played their parts in the most terrible global drama in history. Now they were eager to quit the stage, to address themselves to their own private and social purposes, which Churchill only dimly understood, and was unsuited to assist them to fulfil. Alexandre Dumas wrote: “Il y a des services si grands qu’on ne peut les payer que par l’ingratitude.” The electorate had performed a service to Churchill, as well as to itself, by parting company with its great war leader when there was no more war for him to lead. He was profoundly glad for his nation that its struggle was approaching a conclusion, but deeply grieved for himself. At noon on July 27, he held his final cabinet—“a pretty grim affair,” in Eden’s words:
After it was over I was on my way1127 to the front door when W. called me back and we had half an hour alone. He was pretty wretched, poor old boy. Said he didn’t feel any more reconciled this morning, on the contrary it hurt more, like a wound which becomes more painful after the first shock. He couldn’t help feeling his treatment had been scurvy. “Thirty years of my life have been passed in this room. I shall never sit in it again. You will, but I shall not,” with more to the same effect.
As he left Chequers after a final weekend with his family and intimates, he wrote in its visitors’ book: “FINIS.” Three weeks later, on August 15, Japan’s surrender brought an end to the Second World War.
Churchill had wielded more power than any other British prime minister had known, or would know again. In 1938, he seemed a man out of his time, a patrician imperialist whose vision was rooted in Britain’s Victorian past. By 1945, while this remained true, and goes far to explain his own disappointments, it had not prevented him from becoming the greatest war leader his country had ever known, a statesman whose name rang across the world like that of no other Englishman in history. Himself believing Britain great, for one last brief season he was able to make her so. To an extraordinary degree, what he did between 1940 and 1945 defines the nation’s self-image even into the twenty-first century.
His achievement was to exercise the privileges of a dictator without casting off the mantle of a democrat. Ismay once found him bemoaning the bother of preparing a speech for the House of Commons, and obviously apprehensive about its reception. The soldier said emolliently: “Why don’t you tell them to go to hell?”1128 Churchill turned in a flash: “You should not say those things: I am the servant of the House.” General Sikorski remarked at Chequers that the prime minister was a dictator chosen by the people. Churchill corrected him: “No, I am a privileged domestic1129, a valet de chambre, the servant of the House of Commons.” It should be a source of wonder and pride that such a man led Britain through the war, more than half believing this. It was entirely appropriate that he led a coalition government, for he was never a party man. He existed, sui generis, outside the framework of conventional politics, and never seemed any more comfortable with the Conservative Party than it was with him. A. G. Gardiner wrote of Churchill back in 1914: “He would no more think of consulting a party1130 than the chauffeur would of consulting the motor car.” The same was true in 1945.
As for Churchill’s war direction, it is not difficult to identify his strategic errors and misplaced enthusiasms. Anatole France wrote, “Après la bataille, c’est là que triomphent les tacticiens.” Yet the outcome justified all. The defining fact of Churchill’s leadership was Britain’s emergence from the Second World War among the victors. This, most of his own people acknowledged. No warlord, no commander in history has failed to make mistakes. As Tedder observed, “War is organised confusion.” It is as easy to catalogue the mistakes of Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon as it is those of Churchill. Both Britain’s most distinguished earlier war leaders, Pitt the Elder and Younger, were responsible for graver strategic follies than himself.
Historians and biographers have a duty to present evidence for the prosecution, to identify blunders and shortcomings. But before the jury retires, it is necessary to strip away nugatory matter, and focus upon essentials. Churchill towers over the war, standing higher than any other single human being at the head of the forces of light, as many Americans recognised. Mark Sullivan wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on May 11, 1945: “Churchill’s greatness is unexcelled … Churchill’s part in this world war reduces the classic figures of Rome and Greece to the relatively inconsequent stature of actors in dramas of minor scope … Churchill was the fighting leader, and his own poet.” Anyone who attempts the difficult feat of imagining British wartime history deprived of his presence will find it sadly shrunken in stature. Even Brooke was once moved to complain, “Dull cabinet without PM.”1131 To an extraordinary degree, one man raised his nation far above the place in the Grand Alliance which its contribution in troops, tanks, ships and planes could have justified from 1943 onwards. It is a mistake to assess Churchill’s war leadership in isolation. When it is measured against that of Roosevelt or Stalin, not to mention Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo, his failures and shortcomings shrink dramatically. No honourable course of action existed which could have averted his nation’s bankruptcy and exhaustion in 1945, nor its eclipse from world power amid the new primacy of the United States and Russia.
Churchill possessed the ability, through his oratory, to invest with majesty the deeds and even failures of mortal men. More than any other national leader in history, and aided by the power of broadcast communications, he caused words to become not mere assertions of fact or expressions of intent, but acts of governance. “His countrymen have come to feel1132 that he is saying what they would like to say for themselves if they knew how,” wrote Moran. “… Perhaps for the first time in his life, he seems to see things through the eyes of the average man. He still says what he is feeling at the moment, but now it turns out that he is speaking for the nation.”
In reality, as this book has sought to show, Churchill did not command the respect and trust of all the British people all of the time. But he empowered millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield, and the squalor of their domestic circumstances amid privation and bombardment, and to perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices. This was, of course, of greater importance in averting defeat in 1940–41 than later, when the Allies were able to commit superior masses of men and matériel to securing victory. Churchill’s rhetoric has played a significant part in causing the struggle against Hitler to be perceived by posterity as “the good war.” He explained the struggle as no one else could, in terms mankind could comprehend and relate to, now as then. Even most American historians, when chronicling the wartime era, are more generous in their use of quotations from the words of Winston Churchill than from those of their own president, Franklin Roosevelt.
He cherished aspirations which often proved greater than his nation was capable of fulfilling. This, too, has been among the principal themes of this narrative. But it seems inconsistent to applaud his defiance of reason in insisting that Britain must fight on in June 1940, and then to denounce the extravagance of his later demands upon its people and armed forces. The service chiefs often deplored his misjudgements and intemperance. Yet his instinct for war was far more highly developed than their own. If they were often right in pleading that the time was not ripe to fight, left to their own devices they would have been intolerably slow to fight at all. While Brooke was an officer of remarkable qualities, like many soldiers he was a limited human being. He deluded himself in claiming, as he did after the conflict, that Western strategy had evolved in accordance with his own conception. While this may have been so in 1942–43, thereafter the European war was brought to a conclusion in consequence of Soviet exertions aided by American supplies, with significant assistance from the strategic air offensive and Eisenhower’s armies. In the west, major military operations—which means the northwest Europe campaign—conformed to an American design, to which the foremost British contribution was to delay the invasion of the Continent until conditions were overwhelmingly favourable.
Britain produced few outstanding military commanders in the Second World War, a reflection of the institutional debility of the British Army, which also afflicted its tactics, choice of weapons and battlefield performance. The Royal Navy was Britain’s finest fighting service, its performance tarnished only by the limitations of the Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Air Force also made an outstanding contribution, but like the USAAF it suffered from the obsessive reluctance of its higher commanders to subordinate their independent strategic ambitions to the interests of naval and ground operations.
It is often and justly remarked that Churchill enjoyed war. He revered heroes. Yet away from the battlefield, he seldom found such men congenial companions. Few generals are highly cultured men or notable conversationalists, capable of illuminating a conference room or dinner table to Churchill’s standard. In his peacetime life, even after the two world wars, old warhorses played little part. Many people supposed that he himself would have coveted a Victoria Cross. This was surely true in his youth. But when his daughter Mary asked in his old age whether he felt that anything was missing from his wondrous array of laurels, he said nothing of medals, but instead answered slowly: “I should have liked my father1133 to have lived long enough to see that I made something of my life.”
During the war years, his commanders far more often disappointed his hopes than fulfilled them. He was forever searching for great captains, Marlboroughs and Wellingtons, yet towards the end he grew impatient even with Alexander, his unworthy favourite. He valued both Brooke and Montgomery, but never warmed to them, save as instruments of his will. Neither the British Army nor its chieftains fulfilled his soaring warrior ideal, and it was never plausible that they should. Much of the story of Churchill and the Second World War is of Britain’s leader seeking from his nation’s torpid military culture greater things than it was capable of achieving. He inspired it to accomplish more than it dreamed possible in June 1940, but never as much as he wanted. Such is the nature of the relationship between many great leaders and their peoples, who know themselves mortal clay. Had Britain—or America—produced legions of warriors such as those of wartime Germany and Japan, they would have ceased to be the kind of liberal democracies the war was fought to preserve.
If Churchill’s rhetoric and personality had been less remarkable, if he himself had not been so lovable, some of his military decisions might have been more harshly judged both by his contemporaries and by posterity. As it was, he was able to weave spells in the House of Commons and in his writings, which deflected even the best-merited criticisms. The only charge against him which stuck with the public, and lost him the general election of 1945, derived from his indifference to forging a new society. Moran wrote in 1943: “With Winston war is an end in itself rather than a means to an end.” The British people understood his indifference to humdrum domestic issues, and thus acted as sensibly in evicting Churchill from Downing Street in 1945 as they had done by supporting his installation there in 1940.
Macmillan was at least half right in asserting that only Churchill could have secured the commitment of American power to the Mediterranean and Europe in the year following Pearl Harbor. Without his personal influence, the lure of the Pacific might have proved irresistible to Roosevelt and his Chiefs of Staff. If the Americans in 1944–45 came to regret their engagement in the Mediterranean, in 1942–43 it is impossible to perceive how else the Western Allies’ armies could have played some part in fighting Hitler’s armies.
There is an escapable pathos about Churchill’s predicament in the last year of the war, because almost all his ambitions were frustrated, save for victory over the Axis. His engagement with armies became almost exclusively that of a tourist, because he could no longer much influence their movements. For such a mighty warrior, this was a source of unhappiness. The limits to his powers of negotiation with Roosevelt and Stalin were set by economic and strategic realities. But he accomplished the little that a British leader could.
Churchill’s view of the British Empire and its peoples was unenlightened by comparison with that of America’s president, or even by the standards of his time. This must be set in the balance against his huge virtues. He excluded brown and black peoples from his personal vision of freedom. Yet almost all of us are discriminatory, not necessarily racially, in the manner and degree in which we focus our finite stores of compassion. In this as in many other things, Churchill displayed mortal fallibility. Most great national leaders are cold men, as Roosevelt ultimately was, for all his capacity to simulate warmth. Churchill, despite monumental egoism, displayed a human sympathy that was none the less impressive because he often neglected intimates and servants, and failed to extend his charity to imperial subject races.
Any assessment of Churchill’s wartime contribution must include words of homage to his wife. Clementine provided a service to the world by her manifold services to her husband, foremost among which was to tell him truths about himself. He was a domestic and parental failure, as most great men are. It would be disruptive to any family to accommodate a lion in the drawing room. Without ever taming Winston, Clementine managed and tempered him as far as any mortal could, while sustaining her husband’s love in a fashion which moves posterity. Whatever he might have been without his indomitable wife, it would surely have been something less than he was.
History must take Churchill as a whole, as his wartime countrymen were obliged to do, rather than employ a spokeshave to strip away the blemishes created by his lunges into excess and folly. If the governance of nations in peace is best conducted by reasonable men, in war there is a powerful argument for leadership by those sometimes willing to adopt courses beyond the boundaries of reason, as Churchill did in 1940–41. His foremost quality was strength of will. This was so fundamental to his triumph in the early war years that it seems absurd to suggest that he should have become more biddable, merely because in 1943–45 his stubbornness was sometimes deployed in support of misjudged purposes.
He was one of the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs whom the world has ever known. Familiarity with his speeches, conversation and the fabulous anecdotage about his wartime doings does nothing to diminish our capacity to be moved to awe, tears and laughter by the sustained magnificence of his performance. He was the largest human being ever to occupy his office. If his leadership through the Second World War was imperfect, it is certain that no other British ruler in history has matched his direction of the nation in peril or, please God, is ever likely to find himself in circumstances to surpass it.