1. Seeking Action
IN THE AUTUMN of 1940, even Churchill’s foes at Westminster and in Whitehall conceded that, since taking office, he had revealed a remarkable accession of wisdom. He had not become a different person from his old self, but shed the maverick’s mantle. He looked and sounded a king, “ay, every inch a king,” albeit one movingly conscious that he was the servant of a democracy. In a few months, he had achieved a personal dominance of the country which rendered his colleagues acolytes, almost invisible in the shadow of his pedestal. Only Eden and Bevin made much impact on the popular imagination.
Among politicians and service chiefs, however, widespread uncertainty persisted, even if it was discreetly expressed. Though the Germans had not invaded Britain, what happened next? What chance of victory did Britain have? The well-known military writer Captain Basil Liddell Hart saw no prospect beyond stalemate203, and thus urged a negotiated peace. In September Dalton reported Beaverbrook as “very defeatist,” believing that Britain should merely “sit tight and defend ourselves204 until the USA comes into the war.” But would this ever happen? Raymond Lee, U.S. military attaché in London, was among many Americans bemused about what President Roosevelt meant when he promised that their country would aid the British “by all means short of war.” Lee sought an answer from senior diplomats at his own embassy: “They say no one knows205, that it depends on what R thinks from one day to another. I wonder if it ever occurs to the people in Washington that they have no God-given right to declare war. They may wake up one day to find that war has suddenly been declared upon the United States. That is the way Germany and Japan do business. Or, can it be that this is what Roosevelt is manoeuvring for?”
Once the Battle of Britain was won, the foremost challenge facing Churchill was to find another field upon which to fight. In July 1940, Lee was filled with admiration for Britain’s staunchness amid the invasion threat. But he suggested sardonically that if Hitler instead launched his armies eastward, “in a month’s time206 England would go off sound asleep again.” Likewise MP Harold Nicolson: “If Hitler were to postpone invasion207 and fiddle about in Africa and the Mediterranean, our morale might weaken.” As long as Britain appeared to face imminent catastrophe, its people displayed notable fortitude. Yet it was a striking feature of British wartime behaviour that the moment peril fractionally receded, many ordinary people allowed themselves to nurse fantasies that their ordeal might soon be over, the spectre of war somehow banished. Soldier Edward Stebbing wrote on November 14: “I have heard a good many members208 of this unit say that they wished the war would end whether we win or lose … almost every day I hear some variations of the same idea, the common reason being that most of us are fed up with the whole business … The government is criticised for its lack of aggressiveness.”
A correspondent wrote to Ernest Bevin from Portsmouth:
At our weekly meeting last night209 of delegates representing thousands of workers … the members were very disappointed at your not telling the public that the government intended to prosecute the war more vigorously, and take the offensive, instead of always being on the defensive … We have retired service officers who tell us that we have no leaders. We have not won a battle since the war started and it is for that reason no country will join us, knowing full well that Germany will attack and swallow them, whilst our own government are debating the issue … Our workers’ clubs contain Unionists, Liberals and Labour, all united to push the present government out of office at the first chance, and if something don’t happen soon, the leaders will not be able to hold the workers.
Yet how could Britain display aggressiveness, a capability to do more than merely withstand Axis onslaughts by bombers and U-boats? Clementine Churchill enquired at lunch one day: “Winston, why don’t we land a million men210 on the continent of Europe? I’m sure the French would rise up and help us.” The prime minister answered with unaccustomed forbearance that it would be impossible to land a million men at once, and that the vanguards would be shot to pieces. Back in 1915, as Lt. Col. Winston Churchill prepared to lead a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers into the trenches, he told his officers, “We will go easy at first211: a little digging and feeling our way, and then perhaps later on we may attempt a deed.” This latter proposition commanded little enthusiasm among his comrades at the time, and even less among his generals a generation later. But, by the winter of 1940, Churchill knew that a “deed” must be attempted in order to sustain an appearance of momentum in Britain’s war effort.
At home, there could be no German invasion before spring. The nation’s city dwellers must bear the blitz, while the Royal Navy sustained the Atlantic lifeline against U-boats and surface commerce raiders. The navy had already suffered heavily, losing since 1939 one battleship, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, twenty-two submarines and thirty-seven destroyers. More ships were building, but 1941 losses would be worse. Churchill pinned great hopes on the RAF’s offensive against Germany, but as he himself observed on November 1, 1940, “the discharge of bombs is pitifully small.”212 It would remain so for a long time to come. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir John Dill instructed his director of military operations, Maj. Gen. John Kennedy, to draft a strategy paper on how the war might be won. Kennedy said the best that he could offer was a plan for averting defeat. To make victory possible, American belligerence was indispensable.
Lt. Gen. Henry Pownall attended an army conference addressed by the prime minister in November 1940, and was impressed by his robust good sense: “No more than anyone else did he see clearly213 how the war was going to be won, and he reminded us that for four years in 1914–18 nobody could foretell the final collapse of Germany, which came so unexpectedly … All we could do for the present, as during the Great War, was to get on with it and see what happened … He talked as well as ever, and I was much impressed by the very broad and patient view that he took of the war as a whole.” Churchill expressed the same sentiments to senior RAF officers conferring at Downing Street: “As the PM said goodnight to the Air Marshals214, he told them he was sure we were going to win the war, but confessed he did not see clearly how it was to be achieved.”
A Chiefs of Staff paper on future strategy, dated September 4, 1940, suggested that Britain should aim “to pass to the general offensive in all spheres and in all theatres with the utmost possible strength in the Spring of 1942.” If even this remote prospect was fanciful, what meanwhile was the army to do? Churchill, with his brilliant intuitive understanding of the British people, recognised the importance of military theatre, as his service chiefs often did not. The soldiers’ caution might be prudent, but much of the public, like unheroic Edward Stebbing and his comrades, craved action, an outcome, some prospect beyond victimhood. There was a rueful War Office joke at this time, prompted by the blitz, that Britain’s soldiers were being put to work knitting socks for the civilians in the trenches.
Here was one of the foremost principles of wartime leadership which Churchill got profoundly right, yet he often erred in implementation. He perceived that there must be action, even if not always useful; there must be successes, even if overstated or imagined; there must be glory, even if undeserved. Attlee said later, very shrewdly: “He was always, in effect215, asking himself … ‘What must Britain do now so that the verdict of history will be favourable?’ … He was always looking around for ‘finest hours,’ and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture one.”
Churchill addressed the conduct of strategy with a confidence that dismayed many of his commanders, but which had evolved over a lifetime. As early as 1909, he wrote to Clementine about Britain’s generals: “These military men v[er]y often fail216 altogether to see the simple truths underlying the relationship of all armed forces … Do you know I would greatly like to have some practice in the handling of large forces. I have much confidence in my judgement on things, when I see clearly, but on nothing do I seem to feel the truth more than in tactical combinations.” While he was travelling to America in 1932, Clementine read G. F. R. Henderson’s celebrated biography of Stonewall Jackson. She wrote to her husband: “The book is full of abuse of politicians217 who try to interfere with Generals in the field—(Ahem!).” Her exclamation was prompted, of course, by memories of his battles with the service chiefs during the First World War.
Churchill believed himself exceptionally fitted for the direction of armies, navies and air forces. He perceived no barrier to such a role in the fact that he possessed neither military staff training nor experience of higher field command. He wrote in his own history of the First World War:
A series of absurd conventions became established218, perhaps inevitably, in the public mind. The first and most monstrous of these was that the Generals and Admirals were more competent to deal with the broad issues of the war than abler men in other spheres of life. The general no doubt was an expert on how to move his troops, and the admiral upon how to fight his ships … But outside this technical aspect they were helpless and misleading arbiters in problems in whose solution the aid of the statesman, the financier, the manufacturer, the inventor, the psychologist, was equally required … Clear leadership, violent action, rigid decision one way or the other, form the only path not only of victory, but of safety and even of mercy. The State cannot afford division or hesitation at the executive centre.
Tensions between his instincts and the judgements of Britain’s professional commanders would characterise Churchill’s leadership. A Polish officer, attending a lecture at the British staff college on principles of war, rose at its conclusion to suggest that the speaker had omitted the most important: “Be stronger.” Yet where might Britain achieve this? As minister of defence, Churchill issued an important directive. Limitations of numbers, he said, “make it impossible for the Army, except in resisting invasion, to play a primary role in the defeat of the enemy. That task can only be done by the staying power of the Navy and above all by the effect of Air predominance. Very valuable and important services may be rendered Overseas by the Army in operations of a secondary order, and it is for these special operations that its organization and character should be adapted.” After a British commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, Churchill wrote to the C-in-C Home Fleet: “I am so glad you were able to find the means219 of executing‘Claymore.’This admirable raid has done serious injury to the enemy and has given an immense amount of innocent pleasure at home.” The latter proposition was more plausible than the former.
Churchill and his military chiefs renounced any prospect of engaging Hitler’s main army. They committed themselves to a strategy based on minor operations which persisted, in substantial measure, until 1944. Pantelleria, the tiny Italian island between Tunisia and Sicily, exercised a baleful fascination upon the War Cabinet. After a dinner at Chequers in November 1940, Churchill fantasised about an assault “by 300 determined men220, with blackened faces, knives between their teeth and revolvers under their tails.” Eden in 1940–41 cherished absurd notions of seizing Sicily: “The Sicilians have always been anti-fascist,” he enthused. A War Office plan dated December 28 called for a descent on the island by two infantry brigades. There was talk of Sardinia, and of the Italian-held Dodecanese Islands. The Chiefs of Staff learned to dread mention of northern Norway in the prime minister’s flights of fancy.
None of these schemes was executed, save a brief and embarrassingly unsuccessful foray into the Dodecanese, because the practical objections were overwhelming. Even the most modest raid required scarce shipping, which could not sensibly be hazarded within range of the Luftwaffe unless air cover was available, as it usually was not. It was hard to identify credible objectives for “butcher and bolt” strikes, and to gather sufficient intelligence to give them a reasonable chance of success. However strongly the prime minister pressed for British forces to display initiative and aggression, the Chiefs of Staff resolutely opposed operations which risked substantial losses in exchange for mere passing propaganda headlines.
… In the autumn of 1940, Africa offered the only realistic opportunities for British land engagement. Libya had been an Italian colony since 1911, Abyssinia since 1936. Churchill owed a perverse debt of gratitude to Mussolini. If Italy had remained neutral, if her dictator had not chosen to seek battle, how else might the British Army have occupied itself after its expulsion from France? As it was, Britain was able to launch spectacular African campaigns against one of the few major armies in the world which it was capable of defeating. Not all Italian generals were incompetents, not all Italian formations fought feebly. But never for a moment were Mussolini’s warriors in the same class as those of Hitler. North Africa, and the Duce’s pigeon-chested posturing as an Axis warlord, offered Britain’s soldiers an opportunity to show their mettle. If the British Army was incapable of playing in a great stadium against top-class opposition, it could nonetheless hearten the nation and impress the world by a demonstration in a lesser league.
Britain’s Chiefs of Staff, however, remained sceptical about the strategic value of any big commitment in the Middle East, win or lose. The Suez Canal route to the east was anyway unusable, because the Mediterranean was too perilous for merchant shipping, and remained so until 1943. The Persian oil fields fuelled British military operations in the theatre of Middle East C-in-C Sir Archibald Wavell, but lay too far from home by the Cape route to provide petrol for Britain, which instead relied upon American supplies. It is often forgotten that, in those days, the United States was overwhelmingly the greatest oil producer in the world. Dill advocated reinforcing the Far East against likely Japanese aggression, and remained in his heart an opponent of the Middle East commitment throughout his tenure as head of the army. The CIGS understood the political imperatives facing Churchill, but foremost in his mind was a fear that acceptance of unnecessary new risk might precipitate further gratuitous disaster. The prime minister overruled him. He believed that the embarrassment of inertia in the Middle East much outweighed the perils of seizing the initiative. In the midst of a war, what would the world say about a nation that dispatched large forces to garrison its possessions on the far side of the world against a possible future enemy, rather than engage an actual one much nearer to hand?
In September 1940, an Italian army led by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, 200,000 strong and thus outnumbering local British forces by four to one, crossed the eastern Libyan frontier and drove fifty miles eastward into Egypt before being checked. Meanwhile, in East Africa, Mussolini’s troops seized the little colony of British Somaliland and advanced into Kenya and Sudan from their bases in Abyssinia. Wavell ordered Somaliland evacuated after only brief resistance. He remained impenitent in the face of Churchill’s anger about another retreat.
This first of Britain’s “desert generals” was much beloved in the army. In World War I, Wavell won an MC and lost an eye at Ypres, then spent 1917–18 as a staff officer in Palestine under Gen. Edmund Allenby, whose biography he later wrote. A reader of poetry and prone to introspection, among soldiers Wavell passed as an intellectual. His most conspicuous limitation was taciturnity, which crippled his relationship with Churchill. Many who met him, perhaps over-impressed by his enigmatic persona, perceived themselves in the presence of greatness. But uncertainty persisted about whether this extended to mastery of battlefields, where a commander’s strength of will is of greater importance than his cultural accomplishments.
On October 28, 1940, the Italians invaded northwestern Greece. Contrary to expectations, after fierce fighting they were evicted by the Greek army and thrown back into Albania, where the rival forces languished in considerable discomfort through the five months that followed. British strategy during this period became dominated by Mediterranean dilemmas, among which aid to Greece and offensive action in Libya stood foremost. Churchill constantly incited his C-in-C to take the offensive against the Italians in the Western Desert, using the tanks shipped to him at such hazard during the summer. Wavell insisted that he needed more time. Now, however, overlaid upon this issue was that of Greece, about which Churchill repeatedly changed his mind. On October 27, the day before Italy invaded, he dealt brusquely with a proposal from Leo Amery and Lord Lloyd, respectively the India and colonial secretaries, that more aid should be dispatched: “I do not agree with your suggestions that at the present time we should make any further promises to Greece and Turkey. It is very easy to write in a sweeping manner when one does not have to take account of resources, transport, time and distance.”
Yet as soon as Italy attacked Greece, the prime minister told Dill that “maximum possible” aid must be sent. Neville Chamberlain in March 1939 had assured the Greeks of British support against aggression. Now, Churchill perceived that failure to act would make the worst possible impression upon the United States, where many people doubted Britain’s ability to wage war effectively. At the outset, he proposed sending planes and weapons to Greece, rather than British troops. Dill, Wavell and Eden—then visiting Cairo—questioned even this. Churchill sent Eden a sharp signal urging boldness, dictated to his typist under the eye of Jock Colville.
He lay there in his four-post bed221 with its flowery chintz hangings, his bed-table by his side. Mrs. Hill [his secretary] sat patiently opposite while he chewed his cigar, drank frequent sips of iced soda-water, fidgeted his toes beneath the bedclothes and muttered stertorously under his breath what he contemplated saying. To watch him compose some telegram or minute for dictation is to make one feel that one is present at the birth of a child, so tense is his expression, so restless his turnings from side to side, so curious the noises he emits under his breath. Then out comes some masterly sentence and finally with a “Gimme” he takes the sheet of typewritten paper and initials it, or alters it with his fountain-pen, which he holds most awkwardly half way up the holder.
On November 5, Churchill addressed the Commons, reporting grave shipping losses in the Atlantic, and describing a conversation he had held on his way into the Commons with the armed and helmeted guards at its doors. One soldier offered a timeless British cliché to the prime minister: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” This, Churchill told the MPs, was Britain’s watchword for the winter of 1940: “We will think of something better by the winter of 1941.” Then he adjourned to the smoking room, where he devoted himself to an intent study of the Evening News, “as if it were the only source of information222 available to him.” Forget for a moment the art of his performance in the chamber. What more brilliant stagecraft could the leader of a democracy display than to read a newspaper in the common room of MPs of all parties, in the midst of a war and a blitz? “‘How are you?’223 he calls gaily to the most obscure Member … His very presence gives us all gaiety and courage,” wrote an MP. “People gather round his table completely unawed.”
Despite Wavell’s protests, Churchill insisted upon sending a British force to replace Greek troops garrisoning the island of Crete, who could thus be freed to fight on the mainland. The first consignment of matériel dispatched to Greece consisted of 8 antitank guns, 12 Bofors antiaircraft guns, and 20,000 American rifles. To these were added, following renewed prime ministerial urgings, 24 field guns, 20 antitank rifles and 10 light tanks. This poor stuff reflected the desperate shortage of arms available for Britain’s soldiers, never mind those of other nations. Some Gladiator fighters, biplanes capable of fighting the Italian air force but emphatically not the Luftwaffe, were also committed. Churchill was enraged by a cable from Sir Miles Lampson, British ambassador in Egypt, dismissing aid to Greece as “completely crazy.” The prime minister told the Foreign Office: “I expect to be protected from this kind of insolence.” He dispatched a stinging rebuke to Lampson: “You should not telegraph at Government expense224 such an expression as ‘completely crazy’ when applied by you to grave decisions of policy taken by the Defence Committee and the War Cabinet after considering an altogether wider range of requirements and assets than you can possibly be aware of.”
On the evening of November 8, however, the prospect changed again. Eden returned from Cairo to confide to the prime minister first tidings of an offensive Wavell proposed to launch in the Western Desert the following month. This was news Churchill craved: “I purred like six cats.”225 Ismay found him “rapturously happy.” The prime minister exulted: “At long last we are going to throw off226 the intolerable shackles of the defensive. Wars are won by superior will-power. Now we will wrest the initiative from the enemy and impose our will on him.” Three days later, he cabled Wavell, “You may … be assured that you will have my full support at all times in any offensive action you may be able to take against the enemy.” That same night of November 11, twenty-one Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers, launched from the carrier Illustrious, delivered a brilliant attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and sank or crippled three battleships. Britain was striking out at the enemy.
Churchill accepted that the North African offensive must now assume priority over all else, that no troops could be spared for Greece. A victory in the desert might persuade Turkey to come into the war. His foremost concern was that Wavell, whose terse words and understated delivery failed to generate prime ministerial confidence, should go for broke. Dismayed to hear that Operation Compass was planned as a limited “raid,” Churchill wrote to Dill on December 7: “If, with the situation as it is227, General Wavell is only playing small, and is not hurling in his whole available forces with furious energy, he will have failed to rise to the height of circumstances … I never ‘worry’ about action, but only about inaction.”
On December 9, at last came the moment for the “Army of the Nile,” as Churchill had christened it, to launch its assault. Wavell’s 4th Indian and 7th Armoured divisions, led by Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor, attacked the Italians in the Western Desert. Operation Compass achieved brilliant success. Mussolini’s generals showed themselves epic bunglers. Some 38,000 prisoners were taken in the first three days, at a cost of just 624 Indian and British casualties. “It all seems too good to be true,” wrote Eden on December 11. Wavell decided to exploit this success, and gave O’Connor his head. The little British army, by now reinforced by the 6th Australian Division, stormed along the coast into Libya, taking Bardia on January 5. At 5:40 a.m. on January 21, 1941, red Very lights arched into the sky to signal the start of O’Connor’s attack on the port of Tobruk. Bangalore torpedoes blew gaps in the Italian wire. An Australian voice shouted: “Go on, you bastards!”
At 6:45, British tanks lumbered forward. The Italians resisted fiercely, but by dawn the next day the sky was lit by the flames of their blazing supply dumps, prisoners in the thousands were streaming into British cages, and the defenders were ready to surrender. O’Connor dispatched his tanks on a dash across the desert to cut off the retreating Italians. The desert army was in a mood of wild excitement. “Off we went across the unknown country228 in full cry,” wrote Michael Creagh, one of O’Connor’s division commanders. In a rare exhibition of emotion, O’Connor asked his chief of staff: “My God, do you think it’s going to be all right?” It was indeed “all right.” The British reached Beda Fomm ahead of the Italians, who surrendered. In two months, the desert army had advanced four hundred miles and taken 130,000 prisoners. On February 11, another of Wavell’s contingents advanced from Kenya into Abyssinia and Somaliland. After hard fighting—much tougher than in Libya—here, too, the Italians were driven inexorably towards eventual surrender.
For a brief season, Wavell became a national hero. For the British people in the late winter and early spring of 1940–41, battered nightly by the Luftwaffe’s bombardment, still fearful of invasion, conscious of the frailty of the Atlantic lifeline, success in Africa was precious. It was Churchill’s delicate task to balance exultation about a victory with caution about future prospects. Again and again, in his broadcasts and speeches, he emphasised the long duration of the ordeal that must lie ahead, the need for unremitting exertion. To this purpose he continued to stress the danger of a German landing in Britain: in February 1941, he demanded a new evacuation of civilian residents from coastal areas in the danger zone.
Churchill knew how readily the nation could lapse into inertia. The army’s Home Forces devoted much energy to anti-invasion exercises, such as Operation Victor in March 1941. Victor assumed that five German divisions, including two armoured and one motorised, had landed on the coast of East Anglia. On March 30, presented with a report on the exercise, Churchill minuted mischievously, but with serious intent: “All this data would be most valuable for our future offensive operations. I should be very glad if the same officers would work out a scheme for our landing an exactly similar force on the French coast.” Even if no descent on France was remotely practicable, Churchill was at his best in pressing Britain’s generals to forswear a fortress mentality.
But public fear and impatience remained constants. “For the first time the possibility229 that we may be defeated has come to many people—me among them,” wrote Oliver Harvey, Eden’s private secretary, on February 22, 1941. “Mr. Churchill’s speech has rather sobered me,”230 wrote London charity worker Vere Hodgson after a prime ministerial broadcast that month. “I was beginning to be a little optimistic. I even began to think there might be no Invasion … but he thinks there will, it seems. Also I had a feeling the end might soon be in sight; he seems to be looking a few years ahead! So I don’t know what is going to happen to us. We seem to be waiting—waiting, for we know not what.”
Churchill had answers to Miss Hodgson’s question. “Here is the hand that is going to win the war,” he told guests at Chequers, who included Duff Cooper and General Wladyslaw Sikorski, one evening in February. He extended his fingers as if displaying a poker hand: “a Royal Flush—Great Britain, the Sea, the Air, the Middle East, American aid.” Yet this was flummery. British successes in Africa promoted illusions that were swiftly shattered. Italian weakness and incompetence, rather than British strength and genius, had borne O’Connor’s little force to Tobruk and beyond. Thereafter, Wavell’s forces found themselves once more confronted with their own limitations in the face of energetic German intervention.
In the autumn of 1940, Hitler had declared that “not one man and not one pfennig” would he expend in Africa. His strategic attention was focused upon the east. Mussolini, with his ambition to make the Mediterranean “an Italian lake,” was anyway eager to achieve his own conquests without German aid. But when the Italians suffered humiliation, Hitler was quite unwilling to see his ally defeated, and to risk losing Axis control of the Balkans. In April, he launched the Wehrmacht into Yugoslavia and Greece. An Afrika Korps of two divisions under Gen. Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Libya. A new chapter of British misfortunes opened.
Churchill’s decision to dispatch a British army to Greece in the spring of 1941 remains one of the most controversial of his wartime premiership. When the commitment was first mooted back in October, almost all the soldiers opposed it. On November 1, Eden, the secretary for war, cabled from Cairo: “We cannot, from Middle East resources231, send sufficient air or land reinforcements to have any decisive influence upon course of fighting … To send such forces there … would imperil our whole position in the Middle East and jeopardize plans for offensive operations.” These remarks prompted a tirade from the prime minister, and caused Eden to write in his diary two days later: “The weakness of our policy232 is that we never adhere to the plans we make.”
Passion and disdain: Winston Churchill walking in Whitehall with Lord Halifax in March 1938, when the lofty peer was already foreign secretary and his companion still in the wilderness.
Outside Downing Street in May 1940
Blitzkrieg: German columns advancing through France in May 1940
In Paris on May 31, 1940, with Dill, Attlee and Reynaud
Disaster and deliverance: Dunkirk
Invasion fever: Inspecting an unconvincing roadblock.
Invasion fever: the Mid-Devon Hunt combine business with pleasure by patrolling Dartmoor.
French warships blaze at Mers-el-Kebir under British bombardment, July 3, 1940.
The Battle of Britain: Hurricane pilots scramble.
The cockpit of war in 1940: The filter room at RAF Fighter Command, Bentley Priory
A classic image, sometimes branded as faked for the benefit of German propaganda, but nonetheless symbolic: A Luftwaffe Heinkel over the London docks in September 1940
The blitz: A street scene repeated a thousand times across the cities of Britain
A study in defiance: Churchill portrayed by Cecil Beaton in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on November 20, 1940
It seemed extraordinarily unlikely that a mere four divisions—all that could be spared from Wavell’s resources—would make the difference between Greek victory and defeat. Aircraft especially were lacking. With German intervention looming in North Africa, such a diversion of forces threatened Britain’s desert campaign. Kennedy told Dill on January 26 that he would have liked to see the Chiefs of Staff adopt much firmer resistance to the Greek proposal—“We were near the edge of the precipice233 … CIGS said to me that he did not dissent, and considered the limitation placed upon the first reinforcements to be offered to the Greeks to be a sufficient safeguard. This seemed to me to be frightfully dangerous … If the Germans come down to Salonika the whole thing is bound to collapse, and nothing short of 20 divisions and a big air force, maintained by shipping we cannot afford, would be of any use … What we should do is keep the water in front of us. Anything we send to Greece will be lost if the Germans come down.” As so often with the counsels of Churchill’s generals, this view represented prudence. Yet what would the British people, never mind Goebbels, say if the British lion skulked timorous beside the Nile?
Probably the most significant indication of Churchill’s innermost belief derives from his remarks to Roosevelt’s envoy Harry Hopkins early in January. Hopkins reported to Washington on the tenth: “He thinks Greece is lost234—although he is now reinforcing the Greeks and weakening his African army.” Just as the prime minister’s heart had moved him to dispatch more troops to France in June 1940 against military logic, so now it inspired him to believe that the Greeks could not be abandoned to their fate. An overriding moral imperative, his familiar determination to do nothing common or mean, drove the British debate in the early months of 1941. He nursed a thin hope that, following the success of Operation Compass, Turkey might join the Allies if Britain displayed staunchness in the Balkans.
It is likely that Churchill would have followed his instinct to be seen to aid Greece, even if Wavell, in the Middle East, had sustained opposition. As it was, however, the C-in-C provoked amazement among senior soldiers by changing his mind. When Dill and Eden arrived in Cairo in mid-February on a second visit, they found Wavell ready to support a Greek commitment. On the nineteenth, the general said: “We have a difficult choice, but I think we are more likely to be playing the enemy’s game by remaining inactive than by taking action in the Balkans.” Now, it was Churchill’s turn to wobble. “Do not consider yourself obligated to a Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will only be another Norwegian fiasco,” he signalled Eden on February 20. Dill, however, said thatthey believed there was “a reasonable chance of resisting a German advance.” Eden said to Wavell: “It is a soldier’s business. It is for you to say.” Wavell responded: “War is an option of difficulties. We go.” On the twenty-fourth, Churchill told his men in Cairo: “While being under no illusions, we all send you the order ‘Full Steam Ahead.’”
The Greek commitment represented one of Anthony Eden’s first tests as foreign secretary, the role to which he had been translated in December, on the departure of Lord Halifax to become British ambassador in Washington. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, Eden—still only forty-four in 1941—displayed a highly strung temperament, petulance and lack of steel, which inspired scant confidence. An infantry officer in the First World War, endowed with famous charm and physical glamour, he established his credentials as an antiappeaser by resigning from Chamberlain’s government in 1938. Throughout the war, as afterwards, he cherished a passionate ambition to succeed Churchill in office, which the prime minister himself encouraged. Churchill valued Eden’s intelligence and loyalty, but the soldiers thought him incorrigibly “wet,” with affectations of manner which they identified with those of homosexuals. Sir James Grigg, permanent under-secretary at the War Office, and later secretary for war, dismissed Eden as “a poor feeble little pansy,” though it should be noted that Grigg seldom thought well of anyone. In a world in which talent is rarely, if ever, sufficient to meet the challenges of government, it remains hard to identify a better candidate for the wartime foreign secretaryship. Eden often stood up to Churchill in a fashion which deserves respect. But his reports to Downing Street from the Mediterranean in 1940–41 reflected erratic judgement and a tendency towards vacillation.
Dill, head of the army, remained deeply unhappy about sending troops to Greece. But in the Middle East theatre, Wavell’s was the decisive voice. Many historians have expressed bewilderment that this intelligent soldier should have committed himself to a policy which promised disaster. Yet it does not seem hard to explain Wavell’s behaviour. For months, the Middle East C-in-C had been harassed and pricked by the prime minister, who deplored his alleged pusillanimity. As early as August 1940, when Wavell visited London, Eden described the general’s dismay at Churchill’s impatience with him: “Found Wavell waiting for me at 9am235. He was clearly upset at last night’s proceedings and said he thought he should have made it plain that if the Prime Minister could not approve his dispositions and had not confidence in him he should appoint someone else.” Though this early spat was patched up, the two men never established a rapport. All through the autumn of 1940, bad-tempered signals flew to and fro between Downing Street and Cairo, provoked by the prime minister’s impatience with Wavell’s caution, and his C-in-C’s exasperation with Churchill’s indifference to military realities, as he himself perceived them.
Again and again Churchill pressed Wavell, and indeed all his generals, to overcome their fears of the enemy, to display the fighting spirit which he prized above all things, and which alone, he believed, would enable Britain to survive. Even after the Libyan battlefield successes of recent months, the C-in-C in Cairo would have been less than human had he not been galled by Churchill’s goading. In 1939 Poland had been left to face defeat alone, for it lay beyond the reach of a British or French army. In 1940 many Frenchmen and Belgians believed themselves betrayed by their Anglo-Saxon ally. In 1941, Britain’s prime minister almost daily urged the peoples of the free world to join hands to contest mastery with the Nazis. Was a British army now to stand ingloriously idle, and watch Greece succumb?
At a War Cabinet meeting in London on March 7, attended by Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, Churchill’s enthusiasm for the Greek commitment caused him, as so often, to talk roughshod over inconvenient material realities. He asserted, for instance: “We should soon have strong air forces in Greece.” On the contrary, the RAF’s feeble contingent—barely a hundred aircraft strong—was drastically outnumbered by the 1,350 planes of the Axis. Tokenism dominated the subsequent campaign. The British bombed Sofia’s rail yards, in an attempt to hamper German supply movements to Yugoslavia. Yet this night attack was carried out by just six Wellingtons, a force insufficient to convincingly disrupt an exercise on the Aldershot ranges. The nine squadrons committed by the RAF chiefly comprised obsolete and discredited aircraft, Gladiator biplane fighters and Blenheim light bombers. After achieving some early successes against the Italians, faced with modern German fighters such types could contribute nothing. Their destruction also entailed the loss of precious pilots. From January onwards, as the Luftwaffe ranged increasingly assertively over the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy was obliged to operate almost without air cover—and paid the price. By April 14, the RAF in Greece had just forty-six serviceable planes.
There is no objective test by which the moral benefits of attempting to aid Greece can be measured against the cost of subjecting yet another British army to defeat. The official historians of wartime intelligence have highlighted one misjudgement in the spring of 1941: Churchill and his generals failed to perceive236, because Ultra signal intercepts did not tell them, that Hitler’s fundamental purpose in the Balkans was not offensive, but defensive. He sought to protect the Romanian oil fields and secure his southern flank before attacking Russia. It is unlikely, however, even had this been recognised in London, that it would have caused Churchill to opt for inaction. Throughout its history, Britain has repeatedly sought to ignore the importance of mass on the battlefield, dispatching inadequate forces to assert moral or strategic principles. This was the course which Churchill adopted in March 1941. It has been suggested that Wavell should have resigned, rather than send troops to Greece. But field commanders have no business to make such gestures. Wavell did his utmost to support his nation’s purposes, though he knew that, as commander-in-chief, he would bear responsibility for what must follow. On April 7, when he bade farewell to Dill as the CIGS left Cairo for London with Eden, he said, “I hope, Jack237, you will preside at my court martial.”
The outcome was as swift as it was inevitable. The Germans crushed Yugoslav resistance during two days’ fighting in Macedonia on April 6–7, then embarked upon a series of dramatic outflanking operations against the Greeks. The Greek army was exhausted and demoralised, following its winter campaign against the Italians. Its initial achievement in pushing forward into Albania, which had so impressed the British, represented the only effort of which it was capable. Within days, sixty-two thousand British, Australian and New Zealand troops in Greece found themselves retreating southwards in disarray, harried at every turn by the Luftwaffe. An April 6 air raid on Piraeus blew up a British ammunition ship, wrecking the port. The RAF’s little fighter force was ruthlessly destroyed.
Worse, even before the Germans occupied Greece, the Afrika Korps attacked in Libya. On April 3, the British evacuated Benghazi, then found themselves retreating eastwards pell-mell back down the coast road, along which they had advanced in triumph two months earlier. By April 11, when Rommel reached the limit of his supply chain, he had driven the British back almost to the start line of their Compass offensive. It was fortunate that Hitler had dispatched to Libya too small a force and inadequate logistical support to convert British withdrawal into outright disaster. So much was wrong with the leadership, training, weapons and tactics of Wavell’s desert army that it is questionable whether it could have repulsed the Afrika Korps even in the absence of the Greek diversion. Inevitably, however, Greece was deemed responsible for defeat in Libya.
The desert fiasco brought out both the worst and best in Churchill. He offered absurd tactical suggestions. He chafed at the navy’s failure to bombard Tripoli, Rommel’s supply base—an intolerable risk beneath the German air threat. On land, he urged foolishly: “General Wavell should regain unit ascendancy238 over the enemy and destroy his small raiding parties, instead of our own being harassed and hunted by them. Enemy patrols must be attacked on every occasion, and our own patrols should be used with audacity. Small British parties in armoured cars, or mounted on motor-cycles, or, if occasion offers, infantry, should not hesitate to attack individual tanks with bombs and bombards, as is planned for the defence of Britain.” By contrast, the prime minister was at his best in overruling objections from the Chiefs of Staff, and accepting the huge risk of dispatching a convoy, code-named Operation Tiger, direct through the Mediterranean to Egypt, instead of by the much safer but longer Cape route, with reinforcements of tanks.
Dill returned from Cairo steeped in gloom. John Kennedy, the director of military operations (DMO), sought to revive his spirits, but the CIGS dismissed reassuring words about the outlook. “I think it is desperate239. I am terribly tired.” The next day Kennedy noted, “CIGS is miserable240 & feels he has wrecked the Empire.” That evening, Kennedy, at dinner with a friend, discussed possible evacuation of the entire Middle East. “On balance it was doubtful if we gained more than we lost by staying there. Prestige and effect on Americans perhaps the biggest arguments for staying.” Like most senior soldiers, Kennedy was appalled by events in Greece, and by Britain’s role in the debacle: “Chiefs of staff overawed & influenced241 enormously by Winston’s overpowering personality … I hate my title now, for I suppose outsiders think I really ‘direct’ oper[atio]ns & am partly responsible for the foolish & disastrous strategy which our armies are following.” The self-confidence of Britain’s senior soldiers was drained by successive battlefield defeats. They felt themselves incapable of opposing Churchill, but likewise unable to support many of his decisions with conviction. They saw themselves bearing responsibility for losing the war, while offering no alternative proposals for winning it. Left to their own devices, the generals would have accepted battle only on the most favourable terms. The prime minister, however, believed that operational passivity must spell doom for his hopes both of preventing the British people from succumbing to inertia and persuading the Americans to belligerence.
Following the suicide of the Greek prime minister, Alexander Korizis, on April 18, the will of his nation’s leadership collapsed. In London, Robert Menzies wrote after a War Cabinet on April 24, 1941: “I am afraid of a disaster242, and understand less than ever why Dill and Wavell advised that the Greek adventure had military merits. Of the moral merits I have no doubt. Better Dunkirk than Poland or Czechoslovakia.” Menzies added two days later: “War cabinet. Winston says ‘We will lose only 5000 men in Greece.’ We will in fact lose at least 15000. W is a great man, but he is more addicted to wishful thinking every day.”
Towards the end of April, a young soldier on leave in Lancashire who was visiting housewife Nella Last got up and left the living room as the family tuned to a broadcast by the prime minister. Mrs. Last said: “Aren’t you going to listen to Winston Churchill?”243Her guest demurred, as she recorded in her diary: “An ugly twist came to his mouth and he said ‘No, I’ll leave that for all those who like dope.’ I said, ‘Jack, you’re liverish, pull yourself together. We believe in Churchill—one must believe in someone.’ He said darkly, ‘Well, everyone is not so struck.’” Mrs. Last, like the overwhelming majority of British people, yearned to sustain her faith in the prime minister. Yet it seemed hard to do so, on such an evening as this: “Did I sense a weariness and … foggy bewilderment as to the future in Winston’s speech—or was it all in my tired head, I wonder? Anyway, I got no inspiration—no little banner to carry. Instead I felt I got a glimpse of a horror and carnage that we have not yet thought of … More and more do I think it is the ‘end of the world’—of the old world, anyway.” The poor woman acknowledged that she was unhappy and frightened. “Its funny how sick one can get, and not able to eat—just through … fear.” Harold Nicolson, parliamentary under-secretary at the Ministry of Information, wrote: “All that the country really wants244 is some assurance of how victory is to be achieved. They are bored by talks about the righteousness of our cause and our eventual triumph. What they want are facts indicating how we are to beat the Germans. I have no idea at all how we are to give them those facts.”
In Greece, the retreating army was much moved by the manner of its parting from the stricken people: “We were nearly the last British troops they would see and the Germans might be at our heels,” wrote Lt. Col. R. P. Waller of his artillery unit’s withdrawal through Athens, “yet cheering, clapping crowds lined the streets and pressed about our cars … Girls and men leapt on the running boards to kiss or shake hands with the grimy, weary gunners. They threw flowers to us and ran beside us crying ‘Come back—You must come back again—Goodbye—Good luck.’” The Germans took the Greek capital on April 27. They had secured the country with a mere 5,000 casualties. The British lost 12,000 men, 9,000 of these becoming prisoners. The rest of Wavell’s expeditionary force was fortunate to escape to Crete from the ports of the Peloponnese.
Dill broadcast his gloom beyond the War Office. “He himself took a depressed view245 of our prospect in Libya, Syria and even Ira[q],” Lord Hankey recorded after a conversation with the CIGS, “and said that the German armoured forces are superior to ours both in numbers and efficiency—even in the actual Tanks. He was evidently very anxious about invasion, and seemed to fear that Winston would insist on denuding this country of essential defensive forces. He asked what a CIGS could do if he thought the PM was endangering the safety of the country.” In such a case he should resign, said Hankey, an increasingly malevolent critic of the prime minister. Dill mused aloud: “But can one resign in war?” It is extraordinary that the head of Britain’s army allowed himself to voice such defeatist sentiments at such a moment in the nation’s fortunes, even to a member of the government, such as Hankey was. Yet it would be another six months before Churchill ventured to sack Dill. The general’s limitations reflected a chronic shortage of plausible warrior chieftains at the summit of Britain’s forces. It was not that Dill was a stupid man—far from it. Rather, he displayed an excess of rationality, allied to an absence of fire, which deeply irked the prime minister.
On May 20, three weeks after Greece was occupied, Gen. Kurt Student’s Luftwaffe paratroops began landing on Crete—to face slaughter at the hands of forty thousand British defenders commanded by Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg. Thanks to Ultra, the entire German plan, and even its timings, was known to the British. On the first day, the battle appeared a disaster for the Germans. New Zealand infantrymen, perhaps the finest Allied fighting soldiers of the Second World War, dominated the struggle to hold the island’s key airfields. But that evening, a fatal mistake was made. Defenders withdrew from Máleme airfield to reorganise for a counterattack the next day. On the afternoon of May 21, a fresh battalion of German mountain troops crash-landed at Máleme in Junkers transports. Once they secured the airfield, reinforcements poured in. Freyberg’s force began to withdraw eastwards. The Royal Navy inflicted heavy loss on the German amphibious landings, but itself suffered gravely. “We hold our breath246 over Crete,” wrote Vere Hodgson on May 25. “I feel Churchill is doing the same. He did not seem to mind evacuation of Greece, but he will take the loss of Crete very hard.”
As the Germans strengthened their grip on the island and Freyberg received Wavell’s consent to evacuate, the Luftwaffe pounded the British fleet. Two battleships, an aircraft carrier and many lesser vessels were damaged, four cruisers and six destroyers sunk. Crete became the costliest single British naval campaign of the Second World War. On shore, the defenders lost 2,000 men killed and 12,000 taken prisoner. Some 18,000 were rescued and carried to Egypt by the navy. Freyberg persuaded Churchill to assert in his postwar memoirs that the campaign had cost the Germans 15,000 casualties. The true figure, well known by that time, was 6,000, including 2,000 dead. Some 17,500 German invaders had defeated a British force more than twice as numerous. By June 1, it was all over.
Strategically, the fall of Crete was a much less serious matter for the British than would have been the loss of Malta. Admiral Cunningham believed that, if the island had been held, the British would have paid a heavy price for continuing to supply it, in the face of overwhelming German air superiority. It was Hitler’s mistake to allow Student to deploy his parachute division against Freyberg’s garrison, rather than commit the Fallschirmjäger against Malta, Britain’s key Mediterranean island, which the Germans could probably have taken. But Churchill had promised the British people, and the world, that Crete would be staunchly defended. Its loss was a heavy blow to his authority, and even more to his faith in the fighting power of the British Army. Thoughtful civilians, too, perceived the limitations of their own forces. “The difference between the capability247 of the B[ritish] Army when dealing with the Italians and with the Germans is surely too plain to be missed,” Elizabeth Belsey, a Communist living in Huntingdonshire who was deeply cynical about her nation’s rulers, wrote to her army officer husband. “One can detect here and there, especially in Churchill’s speeches, hints that Britain realises the stickiness of her position.”
The prime minister was driven to offer threadbare explanations for the Mediterranean disaster, telling the House of Commons on June 10, “A very great number of the guns which might have usefully been employed in Crete have been, and are being, mounted in merchant vessels to beat off the attacks of the Focke Wulf and Heinkel aircraft, whose depredations have been notably lessened thereby.” But then he tired of his own equivocations, saying: “Defeat is bitter. There is no use in trying to explain defeat. People do not like defeat, and they do not like the explanations, however elaborate or plausible, which are given to them. For defeat there is only one answer. The only answer to defeat is victory. If a government in time of war gives the impression that it cannot in the long run procure victory, who cares for explanations? It ought to go.”
Churchill believed, surely rightly, that Crete could have been held. Yet Freyberg had been his personal choice to lead its defence. The New Zealander, like Gort awarded a World War I Victoria Cross, was the sort of hero he loved. Freyberg was a fine and brave man, but on Crete he showed himself unfit for command responsibility. Many of his troops were fugitives from Greece. The British Army never had the skill, which the Germans later displayed, for welding “odds and sods” into effective impromptu battle groups. In April 1940, for instance, the survivors of German navy destroyers sunk at Narvik were immediately conscripted to join Wehrmacht troops contesting possession of the port with the British. Compare and contrast the attitude of RAF ground personnel in Greece in 1941 and later on other battlefields: they flatly rejected suggestions that they should take up rifles and join the struggle, saying that this was not their job. Almost all chose to accept captivity rather than undertake unfamiliar duties as warriors.
A shortage of wireless sets crippled British communications, and Freyberg’s understanding of the battle. There was little transport to move troops, and the Luftwaffe wrought havoc on such roads as existed. All these factors contributed to defeat, but the ultimate verdict remained inescapable: once again, a British army had been outfought, in a battle conducted on terms which should have favoured it. The New Zealanders’ contribution was outstanding, but other units performed poorly. During the evacuation, much of Freyberg’s force degenerated into a rabble.
Churchill, a few months later248, claimed to regret the Greek commitment, which he described to Colville as the only error of judgement his government had made. Wavell should have garrisoned Crete, he said, and advised the Athens government to make the best terms with Germany that it could. But this was a view expressed while Britain was still struggling for survival. In the longer run of history, the nobility of his purpose in Greece commands respect. As Robert Menzies and others perceived, British passivity in the face of the destruction of Greek freedom would have created a sorry impression upon the world, and especially the United States. Nonetheless, events in the Mediterranean dismayed every enemy of Nazism. A Bucharest Jew, Mikhail Sebastian, wrote: “Once more Germany gives the impression249 of an invincible, demonic, overwhelming force. The general feeling is one of bewilderment and impotence.”
A German war correspondent, Kurt Pauli, approached some British prisoners near Corinth and struck a posture of chivalrous condescension. “You’ve lost the game,”250 he said. Not so, the POWs replied defiantly: “We’ve still got Winston Churchill.” Was this enough, however? Alan Brooke wrote later of “the utter darkness251 of those early days of calamities when no single ray of hope could pierce the depth of gloom.” It was astonishing that the prime minister maintained his exuberance. Robert Menzies wrote: “The PM in conversation will steep himself252 (and you) in gloom on some grim aspect of the war … only to proceed to fight his way out while he is pacing the floor with the light of battle in his eyes. In every conversation he inevitably reaches a point where he positively enjoys the war: ‘Bliss in that age was it to be alive.’ (He says) ‘Why do people regard a period like this as years lost out of our lives when beyond question it is the most interesting period of them? Why do we regard history as of the past and forget we are making it?’”
The near Middle East was only one among many theatres from which bad tidings crowded in upon Britain’s prime minister. On April 30, Iraqi troops attacked the RAF’s Habbaniya air base, outside Baghdad, prompting Churchill and Eden to conclude that they must seize Iraq to preempt a German takeover. The Luftwaffe’s blitz on Britain continued relentlessly, and had by now killed more than thirty thousand civilians. On May 10, the demented deputy führer, Rudolf Hess, parachuted into Scotland on a personal peace mission, which perversely served Nazi propaganda interests better than British. Bewildered people, especially in Moscow and Washington, supposed that some parley between Britain and Germany must indeed be imminent. Fears persisted that Spain would join the Axis. Although foreign exchange was desperately short, the government somehow found the huge sum of $10 million to bribe Spanish generals to keep their country out of the war. The payments, arranged through Franco’s banker Juan March, were made into Swiss accounts. There is no evidence that this largesse influenced Spanish policy, but it represented an earnest of British anxiety about Franco’s neutrality.
On May 20, Germans began to appear in Vichy French Syria, causing Churchill to decree, once more against Wavell’s opposition: “We must go in.” British, Australian and Free French troops were soon fighting a bitter little campaign against the Vichyites, who resisted. Churchill observed crossly253 that it was a pity they had not displayed the same determination against the Germans in 1940. Pétain’s troops were finally overcome. Britain’s seizure of Iraq and Syria attracted little popular enthusiasm at the time, and has not attracted much interest or applause from historians since. Yet these two initiatives reflected Churchill’s boldness at its best. British action removed dangerous instability on Wavell’s eastern flank. The diversion of troops caused much hand-wringing in Cairo, but represented strategic wisdom. If the Germans had been successful in their tentative efforts to rouse the Arab world against Britain, its predicament in the Middle East would have worsened dramatically. The most authoritative modern German historians of the war, the authors of the monumental Potsdam Institute series, consider British successes in Syria, Iraq and Abyssinia more important to the 1941 strategic pattern than defeat on Crete. Churchill, they say, “was right when he asserted254 that on the whole, the situation in the Mediterranean and the Middle East was far more favourable to Britain than it had been a year earlier.” Yet it did not seem so at the time, to the sorely tried British people.
On May 23, a Friday, the battle cruiser Hood blew up during a brief engagement with the Bismarck west of Iceland. The days that followed, with the German battleship loose in the North Atlantic, were terrible ones for the prime minister. His despondency lifted only on the twenty-seventh, when, as he addressed the House of Commons, he received news that the Bismarck had been sunk. But convoy losses remained appalling. American assistance fell far short of British hopes, and Churchill not infrequently vented his bitterness at the ruthlessness of the financial terms extracted by Washington for supplies. “As far as I can make out,”255 he wrote to Chancellor Kingsley Wood, “we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.”
The Middle East remained Britain’s chief battleground. Despite success in securing the eastern flank in Syria and seizing control of Iraq, Churchill’s confidence in his C-in-C, never high, was ebbing fast. “He said some very harsh things about Wavell256, whose excessive caution and inclination to pessimism he finds very antipathetic.” For a few weeks, confidence flickered about a fresh offensive, Battleaxe. Admiral Cunningham was told that if this succeeded, and Wavell’s forces reached Tripoli, the next step would be a landing in Sicily. Such fantasies were swiftly crushed. On June 17, it was learned in London that Battleaxe had failed with the loss of a hundred priceless tanks. Churchill was exasperated to hear that Wavell wanted to evacuate Tobruk. This was militarily rational, for the port’s logistic value was small, yet seemed politically intolerable. In April Churchill had described Wavell in a broadcast as “that fine commander whom we cheered257 in good days and will back through bad.” Now, on June 20, he sacked the Middle East C-in-C, exchanging him with Sir Claude Auchinleck, C-in-C India, whose seizure of Iraq had been executed with impressive efficiency. Wavell was given the Delhi command only because Churchill feared that to consign him to oblivion would play poorly with the public, to whom the general had been represented as a hero.
Clementine Churchill once wrote contemptuously to her husband about the deposed Middle East C-in-C: “I understand he has a great deal258 of personal charm. This is pleasant in civilized times but not much use in total War …” Too many of the British Army’s senior officers were agreeable men who lacked the killer instinct indispensable to victory. Wavell’s best biographer, Ronald Lewin259, has observed that he seemed destined for greatness in any field save that of high command in battle. It might more brutally be suggested that there was less to Wavell than his enigmatic persona led admirers to suppose. He once said to Pownall, “My trouble is that I am not really interested in war.”260 This was a surprisingly common limitation among Britain’s senior soldiers. It goes far to explain why Winston Churchill was much better suited to his own role than were some of his generals to theirs.
2. The War Machine
IT IS SOMETIMES suggested that in the Second World War there was none of the mistrust and indeed hostility between generals and politicians, “brass” and “frocks,” which characterised the British high command in the 1914–18 conflict. This is untrue. Ironside, when he was CIGS in 1939, remarked contemptuously to a staff officer as he set out for a War Cabinet meeting, “Now I’m going to waste a morning261 educating these old gentlemen on their job.” Though Churchill was not then prime minister, he was categorised among the despised “old gentlemen.”
Lt. Gen. Henry Pownall wrote of Churchill’s Cabinet, “They are a pretty fair lot of gangsters262 some of them—Bevin, Morrison and above all Beaverbrook who has got one of the nastiest faces I ever saw on any man.” John Kennedy wrote later in the war: “It is a bad feature of the present situation263, that there is such a rift between the politicians and the services. Winston certainly does not keep his team pulling happily in harness together. It is very wrong of him to keep abusing the services—the cry is taken up by other politicians & it is bad for the Service advisers to be made to feel ashamed of their uniforms.”
Yet the evidence of events suggests that the prime minister’s criticisms of his soldiers were well merited. The shortcomings of the wartime British Army will be addressed below. Here, it will only be remarked that Churchill’s machinery for directing the war effort was much more impressive than the means for implementing its decisions on the battlefield. The War Cabinet was Britain’s principal policy-making body, regularly attended by the Chiefs of Staff as well as by its own eight members—in 1941 Churchill, Attlee, Eden, Bevin, Wood, Beaverbrook, Greenwood and Sir John Anderson. Some four hundred committees and subcommittees, of varying membership and importance, devolved from it. Service business was addressed by the Chiefs at their own gatherings, usually in Churchill’s absence. Of 391 Chiefs of Staff meetings in 1941, Churchill presided at only 23, whereas he chaired 97 of 111 meetings of the War Cabinet. He also conducted 60 out of 69 meetings of its Defence Committee’s operational group, and 12 out of 13 meetings of its supply group.
Formalities were always maintained, with the prime minister addressing ministers and commanders by their titles rather than names. On Churchill’s bad days, his subordinates were appalled by his intemperance and irrationality. But on his good ones—and what an astonishing number of these there were!—his deportment went far to render a war of national survival endurable for those conducting it. “When he is in the right mood264, no entertainment can surpass a meeting with him,” wrote a general. “The other day he presided over a meeting on supply of equipment to allies and possible allies. He bustled in and said ‘well, I suppose it is the old story—too many little pigs and not enough teats on the old sow.’”
The Chiefs of Staff met every day save Sunday at 10:30 a.m., in a room beneath the Home Office connected to the Cabinet War Rooms. Sessions customarily continued until one p.m. In the afternoons, the Chiefs worked in their own offices, to which they returned after dinner unless a further evening meeting had been summoned, as happened at moments of crisis, of which there were many. Every Monday evening, the Chiefs attended War Cabinet meetings. The 1914–18 conflict precipitated the beginnings of a historic shift in the balance of decision making from commanders in the field towards the prime minister and his service chiefs in London. In the Second World War, this became much more pronounced. Generals at the head of armies, and admirals at sea, remained responsible for winning battles. But modern communications empowered those at the summit of national affairs to influence the conduct of operations in remote theatres, for good or ill, in a fashion impossible in earlier ages. Alan Brooke wrote later: “It is a strange thing265 what a vast part the COS [committee] takes in the running of the war and how little it is known or its functions appreciated! The average man in the street has never heard of it.”
For any minister or service chief successfully to influence the prime minister, it was essential that he should be capable of sustaining himself in argument. Churchill considered that unless commanders had the stomach to fight him, they were unlikely to fight the enemy. Few found it easy to do this. Adm. Sir Dudley Pound, the first sea lord, was one of many senior officers who cherished ambivalent attitudes towards Churchill: “At times you could kiss his feet266, at others you feel you could kill him.” Pound was a capable organiser whose tenure as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff until March 1942 was crippled, first by a reluctance to assert his own will against that of the prime minister and, later, by worsening health. Capt. Stephen Roskill, the official historian267 of the wartime Royal Navy, believed that Pound was never a big enough man for his role. The admiral had doubts about his own capacities, and once asked Cunningham whether he should resign his post. Churchill bears substantial blame for allowing Pound to keep his job when his failing body, as well as inadequate strength of character, had become plain. It was fortunate for the Royal Navy that the admiral had some able and energetic subordinates.
Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Mediterranean C-in-C who succeeded Pound when he became mortally stricken, was frustrated by his own inarticulacy: “I … have to confess to an inherent difficulty268 in expressing myself in verbal discussion, which I have never got over except on certain occasions when I am really roused … I felt rather like a spider sitting in the middle of a web vibrating with activity.” Soon after Cunningham took up his post at the Admiralty, one Saturday afternoon the telephone rang at his Hampshire home. The prime minister wanted to talk on the scrambler. Cunningham explained that he possessed no scrambler. Churchill said impatiently that a device would be installed immediately. The admiral and his wife were kept awake until engineers finished their task at one a.m., when a call was duly put through to Downing Street. The prime minister was by then asleep. Cunningham, considerably cross, was told that the emergency had passed.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, who assumed direction of the RAF in October 1940, was widely considered the cleverest of the Chiefs of Staff. “Peter” Portal displayed notable diplomatic gifts, especially later, in dealing with the Americans. Like many senior airmen, his principal preoccupation was with the interests of his own service, and above all its bomber offensive. His personality lacked the bright colours, his conduct the anecdotage which enabled a man to shine at dinner tables or in the historiography of the war, but Ismay’s key subordinate Brig. Leslie Hollis paid tribute to Portal’s incisive mind and infectious calm: “I never saw him ruffled,”269 said Hollis, “even under vicious and uninformed attacks on the Air Force. He would sit surveying the critic coldly from beneath his heavy-lidded eyes, never raising his voice or losing his temper, but replying to rhetoric with facts.” The army was envious of the skill with which Portal exercised his influence upon the prime minister, often more successfully than the CIGS. Gen. Sir John Dill was liked and respected by his colleagues, but by the summer of 1941 he was deeply scarred by the failures of his service. His fires were flickering, his self-confidence had ebbed. Chiefs of Staff’s meetings throughout 1941–42 were pervaded by consciousness of the army’s inability to deliver victories, and of the prime minister’s consequent disaffection towards its leaders.
Maj. Gen. Hastings “Pug” Ismay, throughout Churchill’s premiership his chief of staff as minister of defence and personal representative on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was sometimes criticised as a courtier, too acquiescent to his master’s whims. John Kennedy, for instance, disliked Ismay: “I am thankful I have so little to do with him,”270 he said. On another occasion he noted, “Ismay is such a devotee of PM’s271 that he is a danger. He said the other evening in the club ‘if the PM came in & said he’d like to wipe his boots on me, I’d lie down & let him do it. He is such a great man everything should be done for him.’ This is a dangerous attribute for a man who has such an influence on military advice.”
Yet this was a minority view. Most people—ministers, commanders and officials alike—respected Ismay’s tact and discretion. He perceived his role as that of representing the prime minister’s wishes to the service chiefs, and vice versa, rather than himself acting as a prime mover. He never offered strategic advice, because he believed, surely rightly, that this would usurp the Chiefs’ functions. He was a superb diplomat, who presided over a small staff of which the principal members were Hollis, who had served as a Royal Marine officer aboard a cruiser at the 1916 Battle of Jutland, and the brilliant, austere, bespectacled Col. Ian Jacob, a field marshal’s son. Whatever mistakes were made by the British high command, however acute became the personal tensions between the prime minister and his generals, admirals and air marshals, throughout Churchill’s war premiership the highest standards of coordination, staff discipline and exchange of information prevailed between Downing Street and the service ministries.
On the civil side, the prime minister was served by a remarkable group of officials. Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges preserved an enthusiasm for cerebral diversions, even amid the blitz. He presided over self-consciously intellectual debates in the Downing Street staff mess at supper, such as one in pursuance of the theme “Is there any evil except in intent?”272 Bridges had the additional merit of being as passionately committed as the prime minister was to victory at any cost, and in June 1940 he rejected out of hand proposals to establish skeleton Whitehall departments in Canada, against the eventuality of German occupation of Britain.
The Downing Street staff understood, as some outsiders did not, that while the prime minister’s regime might be unusual, it was remarkably disciplined. Minutes were typed and circulated within an hour or two of meetings taking place, even after midnight. The private secretaries—for most of the war Leslie Rowan, John Martin, Tony Bevir and John Colville—worked in shifts through the day and much of the night. “The chief difficulty is understanding what he says,”273 wrote Martin in his early days of service, “and great skill is required in interpreting inarticulate grunts or single words thrown out without explanation. I think he is consciously odd in these ways.” Colville, as a young patrician—he was the grandson of Lord Crewe—who had also attended Harrow, Churchill’s old school, basked in paternalistic indulgence from his master. His social self-assurance, indeed conceit, enabled him to gossip among potentates at the prime minister’s dinner table without awe, though his role was only that of a humble official. As a diarist, Colville fulfilled a priceless historical function as chronicler of the prime minister’s domestic routine.
Churchill’s personal followers inspired mistrust outside the “secret circle,” and sometimes inside it also. There was frequent criticism of his willingness to indulge old friends and family connections in significant posts. Later in the war, his son-in-law Duncan Sandys made himself deeply unpopular as a junior army minister. Alan Brooke swore that he would resign if, as was rumoured likely though it never became a reality, Sandys was promoted to become secretary for war. It was often asserted that Beaverbrook, Cherwell and Brendan Bracken were unsuitable intimates for the prime minister, just as important Americans resented Harry Hopkins’s relationship with Roosevelt. Yet in judging Churchill’s chosen associates, the only relevant issue is whether acolytes—the so-called cronies—improperly influenced his decisions.
Beaverbrook was the most wilful and intrusive. Whether in or out of office, he occupied an astonishing amount of the prime minister’s time and attention. Churchill never appeared to notice Beaverbrook’s physical cowardice, unusual in any member of his circle, and widely remarked by colleagues during the blitz, when as often as possible he retired to the country, and on long wartime journeys abroad. The press baron exercised notable power as minister of aircraft production in 1940, then as minister of supply in 1941. He remained thereafter one of the few civilians to whose views Churchill listened. Beaverbrook made much mischief about personalities. His contempt embraced the entire wartime Commons. “In truth it is only a sham of a parliament,”274 he wrote to Hoare in Madrid in May 1941. “The Front Bench is part of the sham. There Attlee and Greenwood, a sparrow and a jackdaw, are perched on either side of the glittering bird of paradise.” It is easy to identify issues on which Beaverbrook urged the prime minister to do the wrong thing, of which more will be said later. It is much harder to discover a case in which his imprecations were successful.
Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s familiar for a decade before the war, enjoyed ready access, much resented by rivals. But his influence was deemed greater than it was, because the garrulous Bracken boasted so much about it. Fellow ministers and officials were sometimes shocked by the familiarity with which he addressed the prime minister as “Winston.” He and Beaverbrook were dubbed the “knights of the bath” in recognition of the implausible rendezvous they sometimes shared with Churchill. Nonetheless, this clever, elusive Irishman, his bespectacled features surmounted by what looked like a wig of red steel wool, provided Churchill with a useful source of intelligence and gossip about domestic affairs and served as a successful minister of information from July 1941 to 1945. Forty in 1941, Bracken had high intelligence and a remarkable capacity for private kindness. As a pocket press baron himself, owner of the Economist and chairman of the Financial News, he thoroughly understood the demands of the media. He frequently intervened to improve journalists’ access to the services, and to curb the prime minister’s rage when newspapers were deemed to have exceeded the bounds of reasonable criticism. He exercised no influence on strategy, and was seldom present when it was discussed.
Professor Frederick Lindemann, the prime minister’s personal scientific adviser who became Lord Cherwell in June 1941, was the most widely disliked of Churchill’s intimates. His cleverness was not in doubt, but his intellectual arrogance and taste for vendettas bred many enemies. Fifty-five in 1941, Cherwell had inherited a fortune gained from waterworks in Germany. He enjoyed flaunting his wealth before less fortunate scientific colleagues, often arriving for Oxford meetings in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. His habit of crossing roads looking straight ahead, indifferent to oncoming traffic, reflected his approach to issues of state and war. A bachelor and vegetarian, of strongly right-wing and indeed racist convictions, he was an unself-conscious eccentric. When three of his Cabinet Office staff insisted on being transferred to the merchant navy to play a more active part in the war, he was alarmed by the secrets which they would take with them to sea. He told them: “If you see that you are about to be captured275, you must kill yourselves immediately!”
When the scientist’s judgement was mistaken, his obstinacy did considerable harm. He campaigned obsessively for aerial mines as a defence against air attack, wasting significant design and production effort. His advocacy of “area bombing” was founded on a misreading of data, and caused him to injure the Royal Navy’s cause in the Battle of the Atlantic. Because Churchill trusted Cherwell, “the Prof’s” errors were disproportionately damaging. The prime minister sometimes abused Cherwell’s statistics to advance rash theses of his own. Ian Jacob described him as a “licensed gadfly.” On balance, however, Cherwell’s contribution to Churchill’s governance was positive. It enabled him to support with evidence arguments on a vast range of issues.
Among lesser figures, the booming Maj. Desmond Morton was an able intelligence officer who provided important information to Churchill in his prewar wilderness years, and exercised considerable influence at Downing Street in 1940. Thereafter, however, Morton became marginalised, with a significant voice only on French matters. Charles Wilson, the prime minister’s physician who became Lord Moran in 1943, inspired the postwar anger of Churchill’s staff by publishing intimate diaries of his experiences. Jock Colville wrote contemptuously of the self-regarding doctor: “Moran was seldom, if ever276, present when history was made; but he was quite often invited to dinner afterwards.” This was to address a gerbil with an elephant gun. Moran was never a policy maker, nor did he even wield influence. It seems enough that he served Churchill well in his medical capacity, and proved an acceptable companion on the prime minister’s historic journeys.
The “cronies” were viewed by Churchill’s critics as charlatans. Yet each had real merits, above all brains. There were no fools in the prime minister’s entourage, though steadiness of judgement was less assured. None of his chosen associates was a conformist. All were loners who walked by themselves, however readily they embraced social intercourse as a tool of influence. In Whitehall and at Westminster, less gifted men, both in and out of uniform, denounced the false prophets who supposedly led the prime minister astray. Yet most of Churchill’s wilder schemes derived from his own supremely fertile imagination, not from mischief-makers in his inner circle. “He always retained unswerving independence of thought,”277 wrote Jock Colville. “He approached a problem as he himself saw it and of all the men I have ever known he was the least liable to be swayed by the views of even his most intimate counsellors.” In the same fashion, Churchill formed his own judgements of men, favourable or otherwise, and was deeply resistant to the influence of others in adjusting them.
Many misunderstandings of Churchill’s conduct of governance by his contemporaries, including some close to the seat of power, derived from the promiscuity of his conversation. Every day, whether in the company of generals, ministers, visitors or personal staff, he gave vent to impulsive and intemperate judgements on people and plans. These sometimes amused, but often alarmed and appalled, even those with long experience of him. Yet his intimates, above all the officers of the War Cabinet Secretariat, knew that nothing Churchill said was intended as a basis for action, unless subsequently confirmed in writing. They knew that he often spoke merely as a means of helping himself to formulate ideas. It has been remarked that he had an undisciplined mind, the source of a cornucopia of ideas, some brilliant, others absurd. Ismay called him “a child of nature.” Yet the most notable aspect of the machine for the direction of Britain’s war was that it was better ordered than that of any other belligerent, notably including those of Germany and later the United States. A cynic might suggest that Churchill created a system to protect himself from his own excesses. In remarkable degree, this was successful.
The late spring of 1941 found the British no nearer than they had been six months earlier to perceiving a path to victory. When Gen. Raymond Lee returned to London after a trip to Washington in April, he wrote, “The people strike me278 … as being much more solemn than they were in January.” Churchill’s enthusiasm for special forces and raiding operations derived from his awareness of the need to strive constantly to sustain a semblance of momentum. A story was told to a general by his brother which achieved wide circulation in the War Office. As a boy, the narrator had been a guest at a game shoot at Blenheim Palace, where Churchill attempted an absurdly long shot at a hare. The boy asked him why he had wasted a cartridge. “Young man,”279 replied Churchill blithely, “I wished that hare to understand it was taking part in these proceedings.” The same spirit, addressed to matters of vastly greater import, impelled Churchill in the spring and summer of 1941. The War Office deemed it futile to hold Tobruk after Rommel had bypassed it in April. Only Churchill’s insistence prompted deployment there of an Australian garrison, which was soon more numerous than the German force encircling it. But in that season of defeats, the saga of Australia’s infantrymen—the “diggers”—withstanding the “siege of Tobruk” was elevated by British propaganda into a serviceable legend.
Military theatre had its limitations, however. Churchill had a grossly exaggerated belief in the power of boldness alone to overcome material and numerical deficiencies. “War,280” he wrote, “consists of fighting, gnawing and tearing, and … the weaker or more frail gets life clawed out of him by this method. Manoeuvre is a mere embellishment, very agreeable when it comes off … Fighting is the key to victory.” Yet the events of 1940–41 showed, and subsequent experience confirmed, that British forces could defeat those of the Wehrmacht only when they were substantially stronger. If Hitler had dispatched to North Africa even a further two or three divisions from his vast order of battle, it is likely that Britain would have been driven from Egypt in 1941. Many senior soldiers thought this outcome likely, though they underrated Rommel’s logistics problems. “I suppose you realise that we shall lose the Middle East,”281 Dill said to Kennedy on June 21. Kennedy, in his turn, incurred Churchill’s ire merely by mentioning that contingency in his presence. The British were spared from disaster in the Mediterranean in 1941 because Hitler’s strategic priorities lay elsewhere. On June 22, Germany invaded Russia.