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The Life of Winston Churchill #5

The Un-regarded Prophet


by Paul Johnson


     Now began the hardest, harshest period of Churchill's life.
He was lucky to have a safe seat where he was active, was much
loved, and had many faithful friends. Otherwise he might have
been extinguished as a politician and become instead a
professional writer, for which he had reliable talents. He was
lucky to have an adoring (but wise and sometimes critical) wife
and a growing family of children who were his warmest supporters.
Lucky to have Chartwell, a burgeoning personal paradise where he
could lick his many, and often serious, wounds. Lucky to have his
art, doing more paintings in this decade (250 out of the 500 that
have survived) than in any other. Lucky, above all, that events
suddenly gave him a clear vision of what was happening in the
world, and what would happen unless he prevented it by his
amazing gifts and energies.
     The picture cleared early in 1933, when Adolf Hitler
captured power in Germany and immediately set about his own plan
to destroy Versailles and make Germany the strongest power in
Europe, and eventually the world. Churchill had read Mein Kampf
and believed it represented Hitler's plain intentions. So did
Hitler. "My programme from the first was to abolish the Treaty of
Versailles ... I have written it thousands of times. No human
being has ever declared or recorded what he wanted more often
than me." There was no British response to Hitler's arrival in
power. Churchill had al ready pointed out that the Germans had
been breaking the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, which
forbade the creation of a large army, for some time, by buying
heavy weapons from the Soviet Union. Hitler merely accelerated
the process. Few people had read Mein Kampf fewer still believed
it. In government circles Hitler was seen as a deluded adventurer
who would soon be discarded. The mood of the country was
highlighted by a provocative debate at the Oxford Union, in which
the undergraduates voted 275-153 for the motion "That this House
refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country."
Churchill called "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal ... a
very disquieting and disgusting symptom" His son, Randolph, now
grown up, noisy and attention seeking, often in ways which caused
his father acute embarrassment, made a much-publicized attempt to
tear the record of the debate out of the Union's book of minutes.
Later, Churchill himself calmed down and said, "When it comes to
the crunch [a word he invented in this sense] those young men
will fight just as their fathers did" - as indeed happened in
1939-45. The future Lord Longford, then a young man, provided a
vignette of Churchill in autumn 1935, entertaining young people
to lunch at Chartwell. He had spent the morning writing and
laying bricks (he told Baldwin he could do two hundred bricks and
two thousand words in a day) and was grumpy at first. "But as the
wine flowed his eloquence expanded and for three hours the small
company were treated to a harangue I have never heard equalled."
The theme was German rearmament, and "somewhere around four
o'clock, whiskey and sodas were called for and ... I was
emboldened to ask him, `If the Germans are already as strong as
you say, what could we do if they landed here? "That should not
prove an insoluble conundrum. We are here five able-bodied men.
The armoury at our disposal is not perhaps very modern, but none
of us would be without a weapon. We should sally forth. I should
venture to assume the responsibilities of command. If the worst
came to the worst, we should sell our lives dearly. Whatever the
outcome, I feel confident we should render a good account of
     Meanwhile, the odds were stacked against his policy: a
strong, rearmed Britain, ready and able to oppose a strong,
rearmed - and vengeful - Germany. He was deeply depressed about
India. He did not see himself as a reactionary longing for a past
that was gone, but as the prophet of a dangerous future. The
world, he said, was "entering a period when the struggle for
self-preservation is going to present itself with great
intenseness to thickly populated industrial countries." Britain
would soon be "fighting for its life," and the wealth derived
from India, the prestige, self-respect, and confidence provided
by the Raj, were essential for survival. But India was already
going; like China it faced a future of internal chaos,
warlordism, and disintegration: "Greedy appetites have already
been excited. Many itching fingers are stretching and scratching
at the vast pillage of a derelict empire."

     But Churchill, pulling out all the stops of his ceaseless
rhetoric, failed to rouse the nation, Parliament, or his own
party to fight for India. The debate was over giving India an
autonomous central government, as well as provincial governments,
versus self-government for the provinces only (which Churchill
supported). He called the 1935 India Bill, which in effect gave
it Home Rule, "a monstrous monument of shame built by pygmies,"
and he fought it clause by clause. But he never persuaded more
than 89 to vote against it, and it passed by the enormous
majority of 264. Nor did he have any success, as yet, in alerting
public opinion to the dangers of Germany. Keynes had convinced
most opinion formers that Versailles was an unjust, destructive,
and vicious treaty, "a Carthaginian peace." So Hitler was quite
right to seek to undo it. Clifford Allen called it "that wicked
treaty" and applauded Hitler: "I am convinced he genuinely
desires peace." Archbishop Temple of York said Hitler had made "a
great contribution to the secure establishment of peace." Lord
Lothian even used the treaty to justify Hitler's persecution of
the Jews, which was "largely the reflex of the external
persecution to which Germans have been subjected since the war."
     It was the only period in British history when pacifism
became not merely fashionable but the creed of the majority. In
June 1933, at the East Fulham by-election, the Labour candidate
received a message from the party leader, George Lansbury: "I
would close every recruiting station, disband the army and disarm
the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of
war and say to the world, 'Do your worst.'" This was one of six
by-elections fought in 1933-34 which registered huge swings in
favor of the pacifist candidates. The dominant pacifist wing of
the clergy founded a Peace Pledge Union to collect "signatures
for peace." A "peace ballot" asked the nation to sign up for a
motion repudiating national rearmament and instead to leave
everything to the League of Nations. It was adopted by 87
percent of the 10 million votes cast.
     At the government level there was no pacifism as such, but
folly. One thing Churchill believed in was the French army. He
went to its maneuvers and tried to encourage its generals to
stand firm against Hitler. But they pointed out that British
official policy held the French army was too big. Sir John Simon,
the foreign secretary, told the House that nothing was more
likely to provoke a future war than "a well-armed France" facing
a disarmed Germany. The same afternoon Hitler's Enabling Bill
passed, giving him absolute power to do anything he pleased for
an indefinite future. Anthony Eden, for the government, said it
was British policy to get the French army cut from 694,000 to
400,000. Churchill protested strongly. Eden rebuked him for
opposing measures "to secure for Europe that period of
appeasement which is needed." The Daily Telegraph noted: "The
House was enraged and in an ugly mood - towards Mr Churchill."
     This was the first sign that he had sacrificed the position
of popularity he had so painfully acquired in the twenties by
good behavior and was now regarded as a nuisance and a
troublemaker. The mood was partly one of disgust with war and
horror of a "return to the trenches," and partly fear, especially
of war in the air.
     Here, Churchill did not help his own cause. In his anxiety
to alert people to the danger of Hitler, he voiced the expert
consensus that aerial warfare would be devastating. He was well
informed, too. In addition to Professor Lindemann, the government
allowed him to consult Major Desmond Morton, a specialist in
military and economic intelligence. Churchill told the House on
November 28,1934, that up to forty thousand Londoners alone would
be killed or injured in the first week of war. Baldwin echoed
him: "The man in the street ought to realise there is no power on
earth to prevent him [in war] being bombed. The bomber will
always get through." General Fuller, the leading expert writer on
war, warned that London would become "one vast raving Bedlam,"
with "the government swept away in an avalanche of terror."
Left-wing intellectuals like Bertrand Russell stepped up the tale
of horror: "Fifty gas-bombers, using Lewisite, can poison all

     To add to Churchill's difficulties, the one issue on which
public opinion was roused-the Italian conquest of Abyssinia-had
the effect of working against British interests by driving Italy
into Hitler's arms. Churchill did not care much about the
Abyssinian issue, though he opposed the act of aggression in
principle, nor did he see Italy (as Anthony Eden did) as a major
threat to peace, more dangerous than Hitler. It was one of
Churchill's skills that he could distinguish between levels of
power and threat, at any rate in Europe. He thought it was
important to keep Italy on Britain's side, as it had been in the
Great War, and so keep the Mediterranean firmly under the control
of the Royal Navy and the imperial lifeline to India safe. The
fuss the government made over Abyssinia, getting the League to
impose sanctions (which, of course, did not work), had no effect
other than to turn Mussolini into a bitter enemy. He and Hitler
signed "the Pact of Steel" and began to coordinate war plans. The
Italians had a large fleet and air force, and Churchill realized
it would now be necessary to keep half the British fleet in the
Mediterranean. He also noted, "The Germans and Italians have 800
bombers between them. We have 47"
     On top of it all came the abdication crisis. By 1935
Churchill's campaign to alert the nation was making progress. His
speeches were growing more passionate and telling as the danger
increased, and more and more influential people were saying to
him in public, or more likely in private, that they agreed with
him. After a speech on April 23, 1936, giving details of German
arms expenditure and Britain's inadequate response, even his old
enemy Margot Asquith wrote to him: "I must congratulate you on
your wonderful speech."
     She had been lunching with Duff Cooper, soon to become first
lord of the Admiralty, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, and
other notables: "All were full of praise. It relieved the general
depression of all of us, and is terribly true. We are at the
parting of the ways between war and peace." Churchill was also
building up a little group of able MPs in the Commons, such as
Harold Macmillan and his old parliamentary private secretary,
Robert Boothby. Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden, both in the
government, were now with him.

     Then the abdication came out of the blue to mesmerize and
inflame the nation, to direct attention totally from the external
threat, and to show Churchill at his worst. Baldwin said of
Churchill, privately, at this time: "When Winston was born lots
of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts-imagination,
eloquence, industry, ability - and then came a fairy who said 'No
one person has a right to so many gifts,' picked him up and gave
him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was
denied judgment and wisdom. And that is why while we delight to
listen to him in this House we do not take his advice."
     This verdict was certainly borne out by Churchill's quixotic
support for the worthless Edward VIII in his bid to marry the
twice-divorced Wallis Simpson and still keep his crown. Churchill
had, as it were, fallen for Edward, a handsome, slim, fragile
figure, when he had helped, as home secretary, to install the
future king as Prince of Wales at Carnarvon Castle and read out,
in a resonant voice, all his many titles of chivalry. He brought
out Churchill's childish sense of loyalty and toy-soldier
mentality. He went to the support of Edward in the dubious
company of Lord Beaverbrook, and much to Clemmie's disgust. As
usual he was profuse in offering ingenious solutions for the
crisis. But Baldwin, who thought Edward would make a bad
constitutional monarch anyway and preferred his brother the Duke
of York (the future George VI), outmaneuvered Churchill on every
point. In any case, the king preferred abdication to a real
battle. As Beaverbrook said to Churchill, "Our cock won't fight,
so it's no dice." But when the abdication was more or less
inevitable, and MPs were anxious to get it over with and turn to
other, pressing matters, Churchill made the error of judgment of
a speech urging delay. To his obvious dismay, the House reacted
with almost unanimous fury.
     There were cries of "Drop it" and "Twister," and he was
first shouted down by MPs, then ruled out of order by the
Speaker. He shouted in fury at Baldwin, "You won't be satisfied
until you've broken him, will you," then marched out of the
chamber. A few minutes later, almost in tears, he said to another
MP: "My political career is finished." Boothby, whom Churchill
had not warned of what he intended to do, believed he was drunk
after a heavy embassy lunch - the only time when he addressed the
House intoxicated - and wrote him a furious letter: "You have
reduced the number of your personal supporters to the minimum
possible ... about seven, in all. What happened this afternoon
makes me feel that it is almost impossible for those who are more
devoted to you personally, to follow you blindly (as they would
like to do) in politics. Because they cannot be sure where the
Hell they will be landed next." The scene, Lord Winterton wrote,
was "one of the angriest manifestations I have ever heard
directed against any man in the House of Commons." The Spectator
summed up the prevailing opinion: "The reputation which he was
beginning to shake off of a wayward genius unserviceable in
council has settled firmly on his shoulders again."
     Without the fall from grace of Churchill in the abdication
crisis of 1936, it is possible that the Czech crisis in 1938
might have taken a different turn. Here are two big questions
that Churchill asked at the time. The first: if Britain and
France had resisted Hitler over Czechoslovakia, would the German
generals have overthrown him? Their chief of staff, Field Marshal
Ludwig Beck, said to a politician about to visit Britain, "Bring
me back certain proof that England will fight if Czechoslovakia
is attacked and I will put an end to this regime." But such proof
was not forthcoming, and anyway Beck was a cowardly boaster who
was soon pushed out without a fight. Baldwin had now retired and
Neville Chamberlain, his successor, was even more opposed to war.
He actually said in public of Czechoslovakia, the state created
by Britain and France at Versailles, along with a "big" Poland
and Yugoslavia, to balance German power in Central Europe, "It is
a far away country, of which we know nothing." This raises the
second question: would the Allies have been better advised to
fight over Czechoslovakia in autumn 1938 than over Poland in
     Churchill was quite clear at the time that the answer was
yes. The British were now rearming, and Churchill was told that
by the end of the year Britain's production of military aircraft
would be faster than Germany's. On March 21, 1938, the chiefs of
staff presented Chamberlain with a paper, "The Military
Implication of German Aggression against Czechoslovakia," which
told a terrible story of delays and bottlenecks in the British
rearmament program, while admitting it was now gathering pace.
The prime minister took from this ambivalent paper the points
which backed his view that he must give way to Hitler. Churchill
saw the paper and drew the opposite conclusion. His case was
this: French morale was beginning to sag and it was vital it
should not sag further. It had coordinated its army plans in
conjunction with the Poles, Yugoslavs, and above all the Czechs.
Germany's claim to the Czech Sudetenland, the essence of the
crisis, was designed not to rectify the injustice of Versailles
but to knock the Czechs out of the military equation. The
Sudetenland included all the elaborate frontier defenses. Without
it, Hitler would be able to walk into the rest of the country
without a fight-exactly what happened in March 1939. When Hitler
occupied Austria in 1938, he not only released four German
divisions for service against France but took over six Austrian
ones for retraining under the Nazi flag. The Czech business
repeated this switch in the military arithmetic on a much bigger
scale. Before the Munich surrender in September 1938, the Czechs
had forty divisions believed to be the best equipped in Europe.
After the swallowing of Prague, the Germans took over the
equipment to form forty divisions of their own. So instead of
having forty against them they had forty on their side; this
switch was equivalent to the entire French army. The Germans also
got possession of the Skoda armaments works, one of the largest
in the world. Perhaps equally important, there can be no doubt
that the French army would have fought with more confidence and
effect in 1939 than it did in 1940. All in all, Churchill was
right in believing the Munich surrender was of huge military
benefit to Hitler.
     His speech of October 5, 1938, denouncing Munich was one of
his most powerful, and possibly his saddest. What he had to say,
he began, was "unpopular and unwelcome." Britain had "sustained a
total and unmitigated defeat, and France has suffered even more
than we have." The utmost Chamberlain had been able to give for
Czechoslovakia "has been that the German dictator, instead of
snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have
them served to him course by course." The Czechs would have got
better terms by themselves: "Now all is over, silent, mournful,
abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She
has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western
democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has
always been an obedient servant." Now that her frontier
fortresses were lost "there was nothing to stop the will of the
Conqueror." He prophesied that, within months, "the Czechs will
be engulfed in the Nazi regime." Churchill added there would be
grievous consequences for Britain, for the desertion of the
Czechs was the culmination of "five years of eager search for the
time of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of
British power, five years of neglect of our air defences." The
people were "in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude
which has befallen Great Britain and France ... All the countries
of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can
with the triumphant Nazi Power." Hitler would absorb these
regions but "sooner or later he will begin to look westward."
     This disaster was "only the beginning of the reckoning. This
is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which
will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery
of moral health and martial vigour, we arise and take our stand
for freedom as in the olden time." This speech rallied the hard
core of his supporters, but they were not many. Only thirteen
were prepared to vote against the government. So they all agreed
to abstain on the motion to approve Munich - thirty of them. For
the first time in nearly forty years, his entire political
career, Churchill lost his optimism completely. "I am now greatly
distressed," he wrote to a Canadian friend, "and for the time
being staggered by the situation. Hitherto the peace-loving
powers have been definitely stronger than the Dictators, but next
year we must expect a different balance."

     Then slowly, but with gathering speed, opinion swung against
Munich, Chamberlain, and the whole appeasement policy. It was
Hitler's actions rather than Churchill's oratory which did it. In
January 1939 Hitler took the decision to build an immense fleet
of battleships, 3 battle cruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, and no
less than 249 submarines. So far as Britain was concerned this
was a declaration of war. On March 15 he invaded the remains of
Czechoslovakia and annexed them, exactly as Churchill had said. A
week later he began to threaten Poland. In April, Mussolini,
satisfied that democracy was dead and that "the age of force had
arrived," invaded and annexed Albania. In Spain, the military
chiefs led by Franco and assisted by Hitler and Mussolini
defeated the republican government. Britain and France guaranteed
Poland against invasion, and Chamberlain made feeble attempts to
draw Russia into a defensive alliance against Hitler. But Hitler
easily trumped that and sent his agents to Moscow to sign a pact
with Stalin, under which Poland was to be divided between Nazis
and Communists, and Russia given a free hand to annex the Baltic
states. This was August 1939 The Nazi invasion of Poland followed
inevitably on September 1, and Britain and France declared war
two days later. Within a month Poland had been swallowed up by
the two totalitarian powers.
     Since July enormous and puzzling posters had appeared on
prominent London sites, asking in giant letters, "What Price
Churchill." The man responsible, an advertising agent, later
said, "I wanted to get people thinking about the reinstatement of
Churchill." In fact it happened swiftly once war was declared.
Churchill was invited to accept his old post of first lord of the
Admiralty, and he did, together with a seat in a war cabinet of
six. He wrote: "A very strong sense of calm came over me, after
the intense passions and excitements of the last few days. I felt
a serenity oś mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted
detachment from human and personal affairs." This was remarkable
considering the problems facing him. The year before he had
sustained another disaster on the New York Stock Exchange,
putting him deeply into debt and forcing him to offer Chartwell
up for sale. He was saved by a large and generous interest-free
loan from Sir Henry Strakosh, who paid over 18,162.1.10 to
Churchill's stockbroker. At the Admiralty he faced countless
problems produced by neglect and inertia over many years and by
Chamberlain's folly - the Anglo-German Naval Treaty, which Hitler
had ignored when it suited him, but which Britain had
scrupulously observed, and the agreement Chamberlain had signed
with De Valera making the "Treaty ports" no longer available to
Britain's anti-U-boat forces.
     Despite rumors by his enemies that he was "looking old" and
"past it," Churchill worked fanatically hard-out on inspections
most days, "Naval Conference" from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m., then
dictating late into the night. On September 24 he recorded:
"During the last three weeks I have not had a minute to think of
anything but my task. They are the longest three weeks I have
ever lived." Clemmie wrote: "Winston works night and day. He is
well, thank God, and gets tired only if he does not get his 8
hours' sleep - he does not need it at a stretch, but if he does
not get that amount in the 24 he gets weary." One of his staff,
Kathleen Hill, testified, "When Winston was at the Admiralty the
place was buzzing with atmosphere, with electricity. When he was
away on tour it was dead, dead, dead." On September 26 he made
his first big speech since returning to office. It was a notable
success. Harold Nicolson, the parliamentary diarist, recorded:
"His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from
deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer
boyishness-one could feel the spirits of the House rising with
every word." Five days later he gave an equally successful
broadcast to the nation-the first time he used the radio to stir
the public. From the blue came a private letter from Franklin D.
Roosevelt, offering friendship.
     Churchill seized eagerly on it to open up a correspondence
with the American president which produced over a thousand
letters in the next six years and was of incalculable value in
bringing Britain and the United States closer, and in
transforming U.S. factories and shipyards into workshops for the
anti-Nazi crusade.
     Hard as Churchill worked, however, he had little power in
the general conduct of the war, which languished in inactivity-it
was known as "the Phony War" - leaving the initiative to Hitler.
In April 1940 the Nazis struck at Denmark and Norway, in May at
Holland and Belgium. None put up a fight. The British
intervention in Norway was a failure, despite Churchill's
efforts. The army proved no good at combined operations, the RAF
could not operate so far from its bases, and the Germans
controlled the air. German naval losses were heavy: three
cruisers and ten destroyers lost, two heavy cruisers and a pocket
battleship put out of action. This had the effect later in the
summer of helping to dissuade Hitler from a direct invasion of
England. On the other hand, in the long term it meant virtually
the whole of the western coast of Europe was available for U-boat
     It was soon clear that the Norwegian campaign was a
disaster, and on May 7-8 the Commons held an impromptu inquest,
what became known in history as "the Norway debate." It has been
recognized as the most important held in Parliament in the
twentieth century. Churchill's speech was the only one made for
the government which showed conviction, hope, and resolution for
the future. He scrupulously refrained from criticizing his
colleagues, especially Chamberlain, even by implication. But it
was clear that he was the only minister making sense. Chamberlain
was attacked from all sides, one senior Tory quoting Cromwell:
"You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart,
I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."
Lloyd George said it was the most dramatic climax of a speech he
had ever heard. In the vote, the government majority fell from
its usual 213 to 81. Many Tories voted against it and there were
still more abstentions. Chamberlain decided to resign. It now
became obvious there would have to be an all-party coalition.
Labour made it clear that it would accept only Halifax or
Churchill as leader. Churchill, for once, kept his mouth shut and
let others do the talking. King George VI, a conventional man
brought up to regard Churchill as a menace, favored Halifax, the
establishment candidate. But Halifax ruled himself out: he could
not, he said, run a crisis government from the House of Lords. By
6:00 p.m. on Friday, May 1o, Churchill got the job he had worked
for. Twelve hours earlier the Germans had begun the decisive
campaign against France. Early reports were bad as Churchill was
forming his cabinet. He did not get to bed till 3:00 a.m. But his
courage was high. He recorded:

     I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had
     authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as
     if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life
     had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
     Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from
     ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the past six
     years had been so numerous, so detailed and were now so
     terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could
     not be reproached either for making the war or with want of
     preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it
     all and I was sure I would not fail. Therefore, although
     impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need
     for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

To be continued

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