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The Life of Winston Churchill #6

Supreme Power and Frustration


by Paul Johnson


     As prime minister and minister of defense, Churchill held
power "in ever growing measure," as he himself put it, from May
1940 to July 1945. Probably no statesman in British history had
held power for so long in so concentrated and extensive a form.
So the first question to ask is: Did Churchill personally save
Britain? Was his leadership essential to its survival and
eventual victory?
     The question is best answered by examining the factors and
virtues which operated in his favor - some determined by
objective events, others by his own genius and exertions. They
were tenfold. First, as a civilian leader, Churchill benefited
from a change of national opinion toward the relative
trustworthiness of politicians and service leaders - "frocks and
brass hats," to use the phrase of his youth. In the First World
War, reverence for brass hats and dislike of frocks made it
almost impossible for the government, even under Lloyd George at
his apotheosis, to conduct the war efficiently. As Churchill put
it: "The foolish doctrine was preached to the public through
innumerable agencies that generals and admirals must be right on
war matters and civilians of all kinds must be wrong - inculcated
billionfold by the newspapers under the crudest forms." Lloyd
George had the greatest difficulty in sacking any senior figure
in uniform and could never take the risk of sacking Haig, the
army supremo on the western front, much as he would have liked

     By World War II, the truth about the mistakes of the brass
hats in the earlier conflict had sunk so deeply into the national
consciousness that the position had been almost reversed. There
was no war hero until Montgomery made himself one late in the
conflict by his own victories. Churchill by contrast came to
power with the reputation of having been right throughout the
thirties, and was now proved right by the danger in which Britain
found herself. He never had to hesitate, except for genuine
reasons, before sacking a general, even a popular one like
Archibald Wavell, the British commander in Egypt. He felt his
authority and exercised it: he was seen walking up and down the
empty cabinet room once, after a major sacking, saying aloud, "I
want them all to feel my power." Churchill was overwhelmingly
admired, even loved, but also feared.

     Second, the concentration of power in Churchill's person,
with the backing of all parties, meant that there were never any
practical or constitutional obstacles to the right decisions
being taken. He always behaved with absolute propriety. He told
the king everything and listened to all he said: within months
George VI had swung right round in his favor and wrote, "I could
not possibly have a better Prime Minister." He also observed all
the cabinet procedural rules. Above all, he treated Parliament,
especially the House of Commons, with reverence and made it plain
he was merely its servant. These were not mere formulae. Insofar
as Churchill had a religion, it was the British constitution,
spirit and letter: Parliament was the church in which he
worshipped and whose decisions he obeyed. All this balanced and
sanctified the huge power he possessed and exercised. Unlike
Hitler, he operated from within a structure which represented,
and was seen and felt to represent, the nation. He was never a
dictator, and the awful example of Hitler was ever present before
him to prevent him from ever acting like one. This was
particularly important in his relations with his service chiefs,
such as General Alanbrooke, Admiral Cunningham, and Air Marshal
Portal. He and the cabinet took the decisions about the war. But
the way in which they were executed was left to the service
chiefs. Churchill might cajole and bully, storm and rant, but in
the end he always meticulously stuck to the rule and left the
responsible senior chiefs to take the decisions. This was the
opposite of Hitler's methods, and one principal reason why he
lost the war. In another key respect Churchill did the opposite
of Hitler: all his orders, without exception, were in writing and
were absolutely clear. When issued verbally they were immediately
confirmed in written form. All Hitler's orders were verbal and
transmitted by aides: "It is the Fuhrer's wish . . ." Churchill's
system of clear written orders, and his punctiliousness in
observing the demarcation lines between civilian and military
responsibility, is one reason the service chiefs were so loyal to
him and his leadership, and indeed revered him, however much his
working methods - especially his late hours might try their
patience and bodies.

     Third, Churchill was personally fortunate in that he took
over at a desperate time. The sheer power of the Nazi war
machine, against which he had warned, was now revealed. The
worst, as it were, had happened, was happening, or was about to
happen. He was able to say in perfect truth, just after he took
power (May 13, 1940), "I would say to the House, as I said to
those who have joined the government, 'I have nothing to offer
but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'" He added, in the same speech,
that his aim was quite simple and clear: "Victory at all costs,
victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard
the road may be; for without victory there is no survival." The
last words were of deadly significance, and felt to be so. For
Britain was not facing defeat in the sense that it had been
defeated in the American War of Independence. It was facing
extinction as a free country. Ordinary people were made to feel
that. On Churchill's orders, the national anthems of the Allies
were played on the BBC before the 9:00 p.m. news every Sunday.
There were seven of them, six already defeated, occupied, and
under the total control of the Gestapo. Soon, France joined the
losers. Churchill certainly did all in his power to save her,
paying five perilous visits to consult with her disintegrating,
scared, and defeatist government and service chiefs. He would
not, however - and rightly - go beyond a certain point. He was
prepared to offer France a union of the two states, a most
imaginative and adventurous idea, characteristic of his
fertility. He was not willing, however, to comply with their
request to send all of Britain's precious fighter squadrons to
France in a despairing effort to stem the Nazi blitzkrieg. That,
he said, would be "hurling snowballs into Hell." Instead, as
France lurched toward dishonorable surrender and puppet status
under Marshal Petain, Churchill concentrated on getting the
British Expeditionary Force safely back home. And he succeeded.
Nine-tenths were rescued from Dunkirk, and many Allied soldiers
with them, more than three hundred thousand in all, brought back
by an improvised armada of ships, great and small, including
pleasure cruisers and fishing boats, which gave picturesque color
and even romance to the story, a typically British tale of
snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Thus within a month of
taking office, amid the unmitigated catastrophe of France's fall,
Churchill was able to report a British victory - Dunkirk - and to
speak glowingly of "the Dunkirk spirit." It was in a sense a
bogus victory, for the troops had been forced to leave their
heavy equipment behind, and in many cases even their rifles,
which they had smashed before embarking. But Dunkirk nevertheless
gave a huge boost to British morale: now that Churchill was in
charge, the people felt that, far from plunging further down into
the abyss, the country was moving upward, if only an inch at a

     Fourth, Churchill himself began to set a personal example of
furious and productive activity at Ten Downing Street. He was
sixty-five but he looked, seemed - was, indeed - the embodiment
of energy. He worked a sixteen-hour day. He sought to make
everyone else do likewise. In contrast to lethargic,
self-indulgent old Asquith ("the bridge-player at the Wharf," as
Churchill called him) or even Lloyd George, who had high tea
instead of a proper dinner to discus strategy and went to bed at
nine o'clock, Churchill began to wear his own form of
labor-saving uniform, a siren suit, easy to put on or take off,
in which he could nap if he wanted during long nighttime spells
at work. This added hugely to the fast-accumulating Churchill
legend: the public called it his "rompers." In fact, thanks to
Clemmie, some of these siren suits were of elaborate and costly
materials, velvet and silk as well as wool - for "best" parties
in the Number Ten bombproof dining room, and so on. Churchill had
always used clothes for personal propaganda and had a propensity
to collect unusual uniforms. Since 1913 he had been an elder
brother of Trinity House, a medieval institution which supervised
all lighthouses and port lights in the British Isles. Its uniform
had a distinctive nautical flavor and for court dress he always
wore it in preference to that of his Privy Council. General de
Gaulle, who had by now taken charge of France's resistance
forces, asked him what it was and received the mystifying reply,
"Je suis un frere aine de la Sainte Trinite." But the siren suit
was the everyday wartime wear and proved a masterstroke of
propaganda. In it the prime minister worked within days of taking
over, as the first brief and pointed memos and orders flowed out
under the famous headline: "Action This Day." So did the endless
series of brief, urgent queries: "Pray inform me on one
half-sheet of paper, why. . ." Answers had to be given, fast.
Churchill had teams of what he called "dictation secretaries." He
worked them very long hours. He was sometimes brusque or angry,
swore, forgot their names, even lost his temper. But he also
smiled, joked, dazzled them with uproarious charm and
whimsicalities. They all loved him and were proud to work with
him. They helped him to turn Number Ten into a dynamo, and its
reverberations gradually resounded through the entire
old-fashioned, lazy, obstructive, and cumbersome government
machine, until it began to hum, too. Churchill's sheer energy
and, not least, his ability to switch it off abruptly when not
needed were central keys to his life, and especially his wartime
leadership. But it must be admitted that he killed men who could
not keep up - Admiral Pound, for instance, and General Sir John
Dill just as Napoleon Bonaparte killed horses under him.

     The fifth factor was Churchill's oratory. It is a curious
fact that he switched it on to its full power just as Hitler
switched his off. Hitler had been, in his time, the greatest
rabble-rouser of the twentieth century. In his successful attempt
to destroy Versailles and make Germany a great power again -
incidentally ending unemployment - his oratory had been a vital
factor in making him the most popular leader in German history
(1933-39). But the Germans, while overwhelmingly behind the
campaign against Versailles, had no desire to see Hitler turn
Europe into a servile German empire, let alone lead them into a
world war. When Hitler marched into Prague in March 1939 it was
his first unpopular act. Until now he had ruled mainly by
consent. Thereafter it was by force and fear. Sensing his loss of
personal popularity, Hitler ceased to address the Reichstag or
make public speeches. By the time Churchill took charge, Hitler
had retreated into his various military headquarters, mostly
underground, rarely appearing and never speaking in public. He
became a troglodyte, while Churchill became a world figure
ubiquitous in newspapers and newsreels wherever Nazi censorship
had no control.
     The oratory had two interlocking audiences: the Commons and
the radio listener. Here a personal word is in order. I was
twelve when Churchill took power and had learned to caricature
him since the age of five (I could also do Mussolini, Stalin, and
Roosevelt). My father, having served four years in the trenches
and lost friends in the Dardanelles, was suspicious of Churchill.
In April 1940 I recall his saying, "There's talk of making that
fellow Churchill prime minister." But by early May events had
swung him round: "It looks as if we'll have to put Winston in
charge." By then the nation was calling him "Winston." My father
and I read in the newspaper together all his speeches in the late
spring and summer of 1940, and listened to all his regular
broadcasts. The combined effect was electrifying and
transforming. I can remember the tone of voice, the words, many
whole phrases to this day. There were two passages in particular.
After Dunkirk, and before the last phases in the already lost
battle on the Continent, he insisted (June 4): "We shall not flag
or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and
oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing
strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the
cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the
landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender."

     In the Commons, Churchill characteristically supplemented
the passage with a joking aside, sotto voce, "We shall fight with
pitchforks and broomsticks, it's about all we've bloody got."
     Jokes were never far away when Churchill spoke, even in the
gloomiest times. He was rather like Dr. Johnson's old friend from
Pembroke College: "I try to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness
keeps breaking in." Of course we did not know that bit about the
pitchforks. But the bit about never surrendering rang true. We
believed it, we meant it.
     After France capitulated, he struck again with memorable
words: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear
ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last
for a thousand years men will still say, 'This was their finest
hour.'" People believed this, too, and not only in Britain.
Somehow his words were broadcast in Europe, where men and women
listened to them at the peril of their lives, and they were
believed there, too. At this time, a young archaeology don from
Oxford, C. E. Stevens, thought of the V for victory sign. He
spent his holidays "pigging it," as he said, with French charcoal
burners, and believed they would like it, and so would others.
Its Morse code symbols, three dots and a dash, echoed the opening
notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The BBC spread the notion.
Churchill adopted it with alacrity and enthusiasm and gave the V
sign everywhere with one hand, clutching his huge cigar and
holding on to his outsize bowler with the other, as he toured the
troops and bombed cities. So the first true victory Britain won
in the war was the victory of oratory and symbolism. Churchill
was responsible for both.

     Sixth, however, came his sense of the importance of airpower
and his speed in grasping the opportunities it offered. Under his
rule as secretary of state for war and air, just after the First
World War, the RAF had been the world's largest air force. It had
been grievously neglected in the twenties and early thirties but
the level of research and development had been high-Lindemann had
explained to him the importance of Robert Watson-Watt in radar
and Frank Whittle in advanced jet engines - and by the beginning
of the war Britain was producing better aircraft than Germany. By
the time Churchill took power, production was equal to Germany's
in numbers. He made Beaverbrook his minister for aircraft
production and told him to go flat out. By the end of the year
British production of war aircraft, both fighters and bombers,
had overtaken German in both quantity and quality. So had the
output of trained aircrews. Meanwhile, radar stations were
spreading all over southern England. For the first time in the
war, British technological superiority was established, and
Churchill and Beaverbrook put all available resources behind
maintaining and lengthening their lead.

     The result was that when Hitler and Goring, head of the
Luftwaffe, unleashed large-scale air attacks on Britain at the
end of June, using air bases in northwest France and Belgium, the
RAF was ready and eager. The Luftwaffe's first object was to
destroy the RAF's southern airfields. Had this been accomplished
there is no doubt that a seaborne invasion would have been
launched with a good prospect of establishing a bridgehead in
Kent or Sussex. After that the outlook for Britain's survival
would have been bleak. But the RAF successfully defended its
airfields and inflicted very heavy casualties on the German
formations, in a ratio of three to one. Moreover, the German
aircrews were mostly killed or captured whereas British crews
parachuted to safety. Throughout July and August the advantage
moved steadily to Britain, and more aircraft and crews were added
each week to lengthen the odds against Germany. By midSeptember,
the Battle of Britain was won. The sign of defeat was the German
decision to switch to night bombing raids on British cities.
These caused misery and some loss of civilian life, but the move
from hard to soft targets was strategically very welcoming and
encouraging for Churchill. As early as August 20 he scented
victory and was able to report to the Commons in a speech which
contained the memorable tribute to the RAF fighter pilots: "Never
in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so
     Moreover, by now he was able to envisage that the air
offered Britain her one big opportunity to move over to the
offensive. He wrote to Lord Beaverbrook (July 8,1940):

     When I look round to see how we can win the war I see that
     there is only one sure path. We have no Continental army
     which can defeat the enemy military power - the blockade is
     broken and Hitler has Asia and probably Africa to draw from.
     Should he be repulsed here or not try invasion, he will
     recoil eastward, and we have nothing to stop him. But there
     is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down,
     and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack
     by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi

     Churchill knew of course of plans to make an atomic bomb. In
the meantime, the Lancaster bomber was being created to carry
five tons of bombs apiece in thousand-strong raids. The Battle of
Britain had in effect made a Nazi invasion impossible. At the
same time, Churchill was gearing up to begin the Battle of
Germany, which was waged with growing force over the next four
and a half years. It was at this point that he adopted the RAF,
got himself made an air commodore, and wore this uniform on
public and official occasions more often than any other. Like the
siren suit, it was rich in symbolism.

     Seventh, though Britain was not in a position to attack
Hitler on the Continent, Churchill ensured that powerful blows
were struck against his ally Mussolini. The moment it became
clear that an invasion of Britain was unlikely (Hitler postponed
the invasion indefinitely on September 17,1940), every available
aircraft and tank was sent to the Middle East. Before long, the
results came flowing in. Italy's ramshackle empire in East Africa
was overrun, and Italian troops surrendered in entire units,
often without firing a shot. The British position in Iraq was
secured against an Arab uprising, and from that point there was
no serious threat to Britain's oil supplies in the Persian Gulf,
whereas Hitler was soon driven to manufacturing an inferior form
of gasoline known as ersatz, one of many German words eagerly
adopted by the British (blitz was another) as a subtle sign that
they were capable of swallowing the enemy: Churchill encouraged
the trend-kaput became a favorite term of his, and kamerad, the
German cry of surrender. Britain had already seized France's
principal warships or put them out of action. Now the two French
protectorates in the Middle East, Syria and the Lebanon, which
had opted for Vichy, were occupied.
     This impressed Turkey, which began to lean toward Britain, a
process reinforced by Churchill, who sent Eden (now foreign
secretary) out to the area for a visit. "What shall I tell
Turkey?" he asked. Churchill replied: "Warn her Christmas is

     Eighth, Wavell was encouraged to "go for Musso," as
Churchill put it, and eventually did. In January 1941 the Italian
Libyan force collapsed and countless prisoners were taken, though
Wavell did not pursue the fleeing Italians and take the capital
Tripoli, being slow and cautious, characteristics Churchill did
not like and which eventually led to his replacement. More to his
taste was Admiral Cunningham, who had, he said, "the Nelson
Touch." In November 1940 Cunningham's seaplanes sank a third of
the Italian fleet in harbor at Taranto, and in March 1941 he won
the largest fleet action in European waters at the battle of Cape
Matapan. Churchill's reaction was characteristic: "How lucky we
are the Italians came in!" These victories made welcome headlines
at home and were reinforced by the fact that ships that had taken
tanks to Cairo were filled going home by over one hundred
thousand Italian prisoners of war. They were promptly put to work
on farms where they showed themselves industrious and grateful
that they were still alive. They proved mighty popular as visible
symbols that Britain would win battles as well as suffer defeats.
"Friendly Wops," as Churchill put it, "are good for morale." He
began to think of the Mediterranean coast as "the soft underbelly
of Europe" and planned to attack it as the easiest way to the
Nazi vitals.

     Ninth, Churchill was always on the lookout for allies, large
or small. That was why when Mussolini, desperate for a victory,
invaded Greece in October 1940 and was soundly thrashed, calling
desperately to Hitler for help, Churchill was in favor of sending
troops to Greece, which he did in March 1941. The majority
opinion was against him, the Germans invaded in April, and in due
course both Greece and Crete were lost. In the long run, however,
Churchill was proved right. By this time, thanks to possession of
the Nazi encryption machine Enigma and the British decoding
center at Bletchley, he was getting regular intercepts of
top-level Nazi messages. This was the most closely guarded secret
of the war, and it says a lot for the precautions Churchill
personally took, and his own discretion, that the Nazis never
suspected their codes were broken and continued to use them to
the end. The excerpts persuaded Churchill that Hitler intended to
invade Russia in May. By coming to the aid of Italy in Greece,
Hitler was forced to postpone the invasion till the second half
of June 1941, which in practice made it impossible for him to
take Moscow and Leningrad before the winter set in. So the attack
on Russia, instead of being a blitzkrieg, became a hard slog.
Moreover, his attack on Crete with his prize paratrooper forces
proved so costly that he banned their use in the Russian
campaign, a serious handicap as it turned out. Primed by the
intercepts, Churchill warned Stalin that he was about to be
invaded. Stalin took no notice, suspecting a "capitalist trick"
to drag him into the war. When it occurred, Churchill was
delighted, and at once reversed his quarter century of hostility
to the Soviet Union. "And why not, after all," he joked. "If
Hitler invaded Hell, at least I would ensure that in the House of
Commons I made a favourable reference to the Devil." So Russia
was warmly welcomed by Churchill as "our new and great ally."
When Hitler failed to demolish the Red Army, as most experts
expected, Churchill's opinion rose. On October 29 he made a
rousing speech to the boys of his old school, Harrow:

     Do not let us speak of darker days. Let us rather speak of
     sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great
     days the greatest days our country has ever lived. And we
     must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us
     according to our stations, to play a part in making these
     days memorable in the history of our race.

     A month later Japan attacked Britain and America. Hitler
then made his biggest mistake: quite needlessly he declared war
on the United States. Churchill had been strikingly successful in
getting Roosevelt to send war supplies in growing quantities and
on "lendlease," for Britain's dollar resources were now
exhausted. In a broadcast to America, on February 9, 1941, he had
said, "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." But he
knew this was overoptimistic: Britain alone was not capable of
crushing Germany. Now the odds had been changed completely. As he
put it, "An eventual Allied victory is odds-on." However, he
clinched matters by persuading Roosevelt and his advisers that
priority should be given to defeating Germany first. This was
perhaps the most important act of persuasion in Churchill's
entire career, and it proved to be absolutely correct.

     Indeed, and this is the tenth point, Churchill had an
uncanny gift for getting priorities right. For a statesman in
time ofwar it is the finest possible virtue. "Jock" Colville, his
personal secretary, said, "Churchill's greatest intellectual gift
was for picking on essentials and concentrating on them." But
these essentials were always directed toward the destruction of
the enemy. General "Pug" Ismay, his closest military adviser,
noted, "He is not a gambler but never shrinks from taking a
calculated risk if the situation so demands. His whole heart and
soul are in the battle, and he is an apostle of the offensive."
He made it clear in his memos that no commander would ever be
penalized for an excess of zeal toward the enemy. This was a huge
comfort and safeguard for aggressive generals and encouraged the
spirit of adventure.

     These ten points are essential to answering the question:
did Churchill save Britain? The answer must be yes. No one else
could have done it. This was what was felt at the time by the
great majority of the British people, and it has been since
confirmed by the facts and documents at our disposal. By the end
of 1940 Britain was secure. By the end of 1941 she was clearly on
the winning side. Churchill had done it by his personal
leadership, courage, resolution, ingenuity, and grasp, and by his
huge and infectious confidence. But it must not be thought that
he was just a kind of implacable machine making war. He never
lost his humanity. His jokes continued and were repeated in
ever-widening circles like stones dropped in a pool, until they
became the common currency of wartime Britain. People learned to
imitate his speech mannerisms. He was referred to on the bus as
"Winnie." Brendan Bracken described how, driving round Hyde Park
Corner with Churchill, they came across a man fighting with his
wife. The man recognized Churchill, stopped, and took off his
hat: "It's the Guv'nor - are you well, sir?"
     Churchill also punctuated his grim, endless pursuit of the
war by curious acts of kindness. On the evening of May 10, 1940,
having just taken office, and while forming his cabinet, he found
time to offer asylum to the elderly kaiser, once a friend and now
in danger of being made Hitler's propaganda puppet. He was always
and thoughtfully generous to former political opponents. By the
time of the Battle of Britain, Chamberlain (whom he had insisted
on keeping in the government and treating with respect) was ill
with terminal cancer. On the day of one of the biggest RAF
victories, Churchill telephoned the stricken man to tell him of
the number of Nazi aircraft shot down. There is also a record of
his taking old Baldwin to lunch and cheering him up. When
Beaverbrook, as minister of aircraft production, commandeered
everyone's iron gates to be melted down, he specially confirmed
that Baldwin's gates at Bewdley, his country house, were not to
be spared. Churchill found time to cancel the order. He hardly
ever cherished a grudge or a grievance or nursed enmity in his
heart. He remembered to thank people for their help, too. Before
America entered the war, Churchill made a thrilling broadcast on
April 27, 1941, which I remember vividly, saying how important
American help was, and that it was being provided "in increasing
measure." He ended by quoting Arthur Clough's lines:

     For while the tired waves, vainly breaking, 
     Seem here no   painful inch to gain, 
     Far back through creeks and inlets making 
     Comes, silent, flooding in, the main. 

     And not by eastern windows only, 
     When daylight comes, comes in the light, 
     In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly, 
     But westward, look, the land is bright!

     This quote had a tremendous impact on the listeners. Before
dinner, he telephoned Violet Bonham Carter (nee Asquith), who had
read him the poem thirty-five years before. He asked, "Did you
hear my broadcast?" "Of course I did, Winston. Everyone listens
when you speak." He reminded her of her reading him the lines so
many years before: "And now I have read them to the nation. Thank
     By the end of 1941 Churchill was confident that the war
would be won. But there were heavy blows to bear. In some ways
the first half of 1942 was the worst period of the war for him,
for any disasters due to mistakes could no longer be blamed on
anyone else. He blamed himself bitterly for underestimating the
power and malevolence of Japan, for allowing two capital ships,
Prince of Wales and Repulse, to be sent to sea without air cover,
both being sunk with almost all hands, and for the fall of
Singapore. There were disastrous reverses in North Africa, where
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps proved, for their
numbers, the most successful German army of the entire war. Worst
of all there were heavy sinkings of Allied supply ships in the
North Atlantic, for which Churchill could not provide the
explanation. The truth, we now know, was that Enigma intercepts
had been providing information about the positions of U-boats,
making them easier to sink, but early in 1942 a change in Nazi
coding made this intelligence unavailable for several months,
until the Bletchley code breakers caught up.
     The concentration of bad news in 1942 led to the most
serious challenge Churchill faced in the entire war. Though often
criticized by individual MPs, including one heavyweight, Aneurin
Bevan-"a squalid nuisance," as Churchill described him-he always
won the rare debates by enormous majorities or without a vote.
However, early in July, the news that Rommel was only ninety
miles from Cairo led to a vote of censure proposed by Sir John
Wardlaw-Milne, who was described by Harold Nicolson as "an
imposing man with a calm manner which gives an impression of
solidity." Hitting hard at Churchill personally, Milne demanded
the prime minister be stripped of his position as minister of
defense and that it be handed over to "a dominating figure to run
the war," and "a generalissimo to command all the armed forces."
Who was this to be? Milne announced: "the Duke of Gloucester."
This man was the booby younger brother of the king, notorious for
his large body and tiny brain. The House shrieked and bellowed
with laughter. Churchill was saved-it was the best stroke of pure
luck he enjoyed in the war, and remained a delightful national
joke for months.
     Shortly after the tide turned again. Churchill got himself a
winning general in Africa in the shape of Bernard Montgomery, who
(like Nelson) also possessed a gift for turning himself into a
national hero. He beat Rommel at the decisive battle of El
Alamein in November 1942, and this prepared the way for Allied
landings in North Africa, which ultimately brought the surrender
of three hundred thousand Germans and Italians in Tunisia - the
biggest "bag" of the war. Soon thereafter the Russians won the
battle of Stalingrad, with the surrender of Hitler's entire Sixth
Army. The decoded intercepts were renewed, with a consequent
sinking of U-boats, freeing the way for enormous numbers of
American supplies and troops to reach Britain, preparing for a
landing on the Continent.
     By the end of 1942 Churchill, who had been thinking about
postwar geopolitics ever since the Battle of Britain had been
won, was actively working to create a world capable of containing
the power of the Soviet Union. He did this, to the best of his
ability, through the summit system, a form of negotiation he
loved-the top men face-to-face, surrounded by their staff and
experts (he often traveled with eighty people). In 1943 Captain
Pim, who ran his map room, calculated that Churchill had already
traveled 100,000 miles since the beginning of the war and had
spent thirty-three days at sea and fourteen days and three hours
in the air, often exposed to real danger. He had to work his
aging body hard. He hated having injections, though he joked
about them, telling one nurse, "You can use my fingers or the
lobe of my ear, and of course I have an almost infinite expanse
of arse." His health was on the whole remarkably good,
considering his workload, but he suffered from three strokes or
heart attacks, bouts of pneumonia, and other ailments. His
doctor, Moran, was (after his patient's death) criticized by the
Churchill family and other doctors for writing a book, "Winston
Churchill: The Struggle for Survival," describing in detail the
threats to his life arising from health problems. But historians
think he was quite right to do so: it is a vital part of the
story. Moran did a first-class job in keeping Churchill alive,
helped by the prime minister's fundamentally strong constitution,
amazing powers of recuperation, and will to live. Churchill was
indispensable, and those around him did not dare to think of who
could take over if he died. The assumption was Eden-an appalling
prospect to those familiar with his overanxiety bordering on

     Churchill's great strength was his power of relaxation.
Sometimes he painted, discovering in the process of one summit
Morocco, and above all Marrakech, where the superb Mamounia Hotel
was much to his taste. He loved having his womenfolk with
himClemmie and his daughters, Diana, Sarah, and Mary. Sarah had
made an unfortunate marriage to a stand-up comic, Vic Oliver,
whom Churchill detested, even after he faded from the scene
during the war. At a conference in Cairo, Churchill was
recounting his worries to the resident minister of the
Mediterranean, Harold Macmillan, who told him, "You are lucky.
Things are going well, really. Look at Musso." The Italian
dictator was nearing the end of his power.
     Everything was going wrong. His foreign minister, Count
Ciano, who had married Musso's daughter, had been accused of
treason and shot. Churchill reflected on Mussolini's plight and
then said, "Well, at least he had the pleasure of murdering his

     One aspect of his life Churchill had to neglect during the
war was Chartwell. The Nazis knew all about it, and its system of
three lakes made it an easy target to identify, night or day. So
he was able to visit it only twelve times during the six years of
the war, a painful loss. Of course he had Chequers, the beautiful
house given to the nation for the relaxation of the prime
minister in Lloyd George's day. Churchill used it especially for
top-level military conferences and receiving American envoys like
Harry Hopkins and W. Averell Harriman. He had there an excellent
cook and a fine cellar and installed a cinema in the Elizabethan
gallery. He liked action movies, such as Stagecoach and Destry
Rides Again, also a favorite of Lord Beaverbrook, who saw it
scores of times.
     One prize movie Churchill hated was "Citizen Kane." He
walked out halfway through in disgust. He also improved the art
collection, adding a mouse to a painting of a lion then believed
to be by Rubens: "A lion without a mouse? I'll change that. Pray,
bring me my paints." Talk at Chequers went on late into the
night. Jock Colville said, "No one comes to Chequers to make up
for lost sleep." But Chequers, too, was regarded as vulnerable to
Nazi raiders on nights with a full moon. So he got hold of Ronald
Tree, a Tory MP who owned Ditchley, a spacious and beautiful
golden stone house in Oxfordshire. Could he and his staff use it
on the dangerous weekends? Tree, half American (his money came
from the Marshall Field's department store fortune), with his
wife from Virginia, was glad to help. The Churchill circus
settled there for a total of fifteen weekends up to March 1942,
when the danger from raiders ended. The food was even better than
at Chequers, though Churchill once remarked of a sweet course,
pushing the plate away, "This pudding has no theme." It was there
also that he objected to a secretary's saddling him with the
typescript of a dictated memo which included a sentence ending
with a preposition. It was a grammatical solecism he hated, and
he barked, "Up with this I will not put." He slept in bedroom
number one, which has a magnificent four-poster. The house is now
a conference center, and I have slept in this bed myself, in
Churchillian comfort.

     In the second half of the war, confident in its outcome,
Churchill was chiefly preoccupied with keeping as close as
possible to the United States while steering it in the direction
he wanted to go. He was conscious of the huge superiority of
American power but hoped by his ingenuity, powers of argument,
and skillful use of his prestige-as when he addressed both houses
of Congress-to "punch above my weight," a phrase he coined. He
gloried in the "special relationship," telling the Commons:

     The British Empire and the United States have to be somewhat
     mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and
     general advantage. For my own part, looking to the future, I
     do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not
     stop it if I wished. No one can stop it. Like the
     Mississippi, it keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it
     roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, to broader
     lands and better days.

     In his dealings with Roosevelt, Churchill had two
     FDR was an anti-imperialist, opposed strongly to Churchill's
evident wish to keep colonies ("I have not become the King's
First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the
British Empire," he said in November 1942). He often suspected
Churchill of being guided by imperialist motives when all he
wanted was to win the war. But generally, if FDR was over-
suspicious of Churchill, he was undersuspicious of Stalin. He
had no direct experience of Bolshevism, as Churchill had, and did
not hate Communism with every fiber of his being, as Churchill
did. In meetings with Stalin, especially at Yalta in January
1945, he blocked Churchill's attempts to coordinate Anglo-U.S.
policy in advance: he did not wish, said Averell Harriman, to
"feed Soviet suspicions that the British and Americans could be
operating in concert." Churchill sadly accepted this. As the Red
Army began to push the Nazis back in Eastern Europe, he noted:

     It is beyond the power of this country to prevent all sorts
     of things crashing at the present time. The responsibility
     lies with the United States and my desire is to give them
     all the support in my power. If they do not feel able to do
     anything, then we must let matters take their course.

     There were, however, many points on which Britain, under
Churchill's leadership, was in a position to influence and even
determine events. Where did he succeed, and where did he fail?
When was he right and when wrong? He got the Americans to agree
to a joint landing in Africa (Operation Torch), which succeeded
and led to the surrender of all Axis forces there, as already
noted. This was Churchill's doing and led him in turn to the
successful invasions of Sicily and Italy, and the Italian
decision to make peace and join the Allies. Compare this, though,
with Churchill's decision to "roll up Italy," as he put it. He
put his old Harrovian friend Field Marshal Alexander, the general
he liked most, in charge. But Italy was defended inch by inch by
the Germans under Field Marshal Kesselring, the ablest Nazi
general of all, and it proved a long and costly campaign.
Probably the resources could have been better used elsewhere.
Then there was the massive bomber assault of Germany. This was
very much Churchill's campaign, and speaking as one who lived
through the war in England, I can testify that it was the most
popular of all Churchill's initiations. It was one reason his
popularity remained high even when things were going badly wrong
in other parts of the war, for virtually every day BBC radio was
able to announce heavy raids on Germany the previous night. The
British public rejoiced at these raids, the heavier the better.
Churchill never repudiated the bombing campaign, even after the
war, whilst it was heavily criticized on both strategic and
humanitarian grounds. But he did not dwell on it either, or
stress his personal responsibility for initiating and continuing
it. The head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal "Bomber" Harris, was
made the hero (or villain) of the assault.

     In fact, on February 14, 1942, Harris was directed by the
war cabinet that his primary object was the destruction of the
morale of German civilians. Churchill wrote this order. The first
big raid in accordance with it was on Lubeck on March 28, 1942,
the city "burning like kindling," according to the official
report. The first thousand-bomber British raid followed on May
30. Churchill was enthusiastic, for at this date the news was bad
and bombing was all he had to show. Altogether, bombing used up 7
percent of Britain's total manpower and maybe as much as a
quarter of the country's total war production. It killed six
hundred thousand German civilians and reduced but could not
prevent the expansion of German war production into the second
half of 1944. By the end of 1944 bombing was effectively putting
the German war economy out of action, but at that point Nazi
survival was being decided on the ground anyway. The nearest
Harris and Churchill (helped by U.S. air power) came to a
strategic victory was on Hamburg, by far the best-protected
German city, from July 24 to August 3, 1943. They used the
"window" foil device, which confused German radar. On
the night of July 27-28, the RAF created temperatures of 800 to
1,000 degrees centigrade over the city, producing colossal
firestorm winds. Transport systems of all kinds were destroyed,
as were 214,350 homes out of 414,500, and 4,301 out of 9,592
factories. Eight square miles of the city were burned out
entirely, and in one night alone up to 37.65 percent of the total
population then living in the city were killed. Albert Speer, the
war production minister, told Hitler that if another six cities
were similarly attacked he could not keep production going. But
Britain did not have the resources to repeat raids on this scale
in quick succession. The losses in bombers and aircrews were
heavy because of Hitler's concentration of fighter squadrons and
air defenses to defend his cities. On the other hand, without the
British bombing these assets would otherwise have gone to the
eastern front. As a result the Germans lost the air war there: by
mid-1943, their air superiority had disappeared, and this was a
key factor in their losing the ground war, too. These facts tend
to be forgotten by those who assert that it was Russia which
really defeated Nazi Germany. Without Churchill's bombing
campaign, the eastern front would have become a stalemate.

     In attacking Germany, Churchill was never held back by
humanitarian motives. The destruction of Dresden on the night of
February 13-14, 1945, when between 25,000 and 40,000 men, women,
and children were killed, was authorized by him personally. The
origin of this atrocity was the desire of Churchill and Roosevelt
at Yalta in January to prove to Stalin that they were doing their
best to help the Russian effort on the eastern front. The
Russians had particularly asked for Dresden, a communications
center, to be wiped out. When Harris queried the order, it was
confirmed direct from Yalta by Churchill and Air Chief Marshal
Portal. Would Churchill have used the atomic bomb against
Germany, had it been available in time? Undoubtedly. The British
nuclear weapons project had begun seriously in March 1940, before
he took over supreme command. But he accelerated it in June, when
the Military Application of Uranium Detonation Committee (or
Maud, as it was called, whimsically, after a Kentish governess)
was joined by the French team, which brought with them the
world's entire stock of heavy water, 185 kilograms in twenty-six
canisters. In the autumn of 1940 Churchill sent a team to
Washington headed by Sir Henry Tizard and Sir John Cockcroft,
Britain's two leading military scientists, taking with them all
Britain's nuclear secrets in a celebrated "black box." At that
time Britain was ahead of any other nation in the quest for a
nuclear bomb, and moving faster. Churchill was asked to authorize 
production plans for a separation plant by December 1940. In July 
1941 he got the Maud Report, "Use of Uranium for a Bomb," which 
told him the weapon could be ready by 1943. When America joined 
the war, Churchill decided that the risk of Nazi raids against a 
British A-plant was such that it was safer, with the scientific 
work now complete, for the industrial and engineering work to be 
done in America. In fact it proved much more difficult, lengthy, 
and costly than Maud had anticipated. So the first A-bombs were 
essentially American. If an all-British bomb had been made in time, 
Churchill would have commanded its use against Germany.

     Perhaps his greatest contribution to the successful outcome
of the war, at this stage, was his insistence on the right timing
for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwest Europe.
This was necessary for the defeat of Germany, and Churchill made
sure it worked and was achieved with minimum loss of life for so
immense and hazardous an operation. He argued that an opposed
airsea landing against formidable defenses manned by large,
prepared German forces was perhaps the most difficult military
undertaking of all. With the costly failure of Gallipoli always
in his mind, he insisted that D-day should not take place until
overwhelming strength was established and there was a near
certitude of success. The Russians had asked for the second front
to be opened in 1942. The Americans were willing to risk it in
1943. The "dress rehearsal" at Dieppe in 1942, where Allied
losses were unexpectedly high, had shown what hazards lay ahead.
Churchill's conditions could not be met until the early summer of
1944. Even so, Overlord might have failed or proved extremely
costly had not a highly successful deception plan persuading the
Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the real
invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais area-another idea of
Churchill's-prevented a massive German counterattack in the early
stages. Thanks to Churchill, and his memories of the Dardanelles,
Overlord was a dramatic success. He wished to be present on the
first day to enjoy his triumph. It was the last major occasion on
which his desire to participate in military action manifested
itself. All those concerned in the operation were horrified.
Indeed, the desire was foolish in the extreme, a grotesque
exhibition of the childish side of his nature. But he persisted,
despite unanimous opposition from the service chiefs, the
cabinet, his own staff, and the White House. In the end it was
only the opposition of King George VI, who said that if his prime
minister risked his life he must do so himself, which scotched
the plan.

     The delay occasioned by Churchill's ensuring the invasion
succeeded necessarily meant the Western forces were behind the
Russians in pushing into the heart of the Nazi empire. This had
grave political consequences. Churchill sought to mitigate them
by demanding a full-speed drive to Berlin by the Anglo-American
forces. This was supported by Montgomery, the army group
commander, who was sure it was possible and would end the war in
autumn 1944, with the West in Berlin first. But Eisenhower, the
supreme commander, thought it was risky and insisted on a "broad
front" advance, which meant that the war continued into the
spring of 1945, and that the Russians got to Berlin first-and
Prague, Budapest, Vienna, too. In his last weeks of life, FDR,
despite Churchill's pleas, did nothing to encourage Eisenhower to
press on rapidly. Montgomery wrote sadly: "The Americans could
not understand that it was of little avail to win the war
strategically if we lost it politically." That was exactly
Churchill's view.

     But if he was unable to stop Stalin from turning much of
Eastern Europe and the Balkans into Soviet satellites, he did
snatch one brand from the burning-Greece. He used British troops,
against much well-meaning advice, to intervene decisively in the
civil war raging there between Communist guerrillas and forces
loyal to the Crown. The politics were complex and made it
difficult to decide whom to back among the contending loyalist
leaders. Eventually Churchill decided in favor of the republican,
anti-Communist general Nikolaos Plastiras. He joked, "The
evidence shows we must back Plaster-arse. Let us hope his feet
are not of clay." "Tommy" Lascelles, King George VI's secretary,
remarked, "I would rather have said that than written Gray's

     Churchill also saved Persia by negotiating a highly
satisfactory deal with the Russians, which enabled the British
eventually to reduce their influence to a minimum. He kept a
tight grip on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Of course, by
saving Greece, he also enabled Turkey to stay beyond the reach of
the triumphant Soviet forces. What is more, by picking a
first-class general and backing him with adequate forces,
Churchill also made a major contribution to victory in the Far
East. Field Marshal William Slim was, next to Montgomery, the
ablest of the British generals produced by the war. His
Fourteenth Army was often called "the Forgotten Army," in
contrast to Montgomery's famous Eighth Army. But it was not
forgotten by Churchill. With his encouragement and support it
conducted a hard and skillful campaign in Burma, ending in
complete victory, which did a great deal to restore British
prestige so cruelly damaged by the Singapore disaster. Indeed
within four years Britain was able to get back Singapore,
Malaya, and Hong Kong. Of course the restoration of Britain's
power in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East could not
be permanent. But for most of a generation, and in some cases
longer, Britain was able to enjoy the economic advantages brought
by her investments in Gulf oil, Malay rubber and tin, and the
mercantile wealth of Hong Kong. For this, Churchill's energy,
foresight, and ability to seize on the essentials deserve much of
the credit.

     As the war drew to a close in the early months of 1945,
Churchill visibly held back his efforts. His aggressiveness
declined. He enjoyed his brief and successful intervention in
Greece. But destruction now sickened him. He sent a memo to
Harris to slacken off the attack on German cities as opposed to
strategic targets; "otherwise," as he put it, "what will lie
between the white snows of Russia and white cliffs of Dover?"
Much of his imaginative energy was spent in trying to get the
sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. "No lover," he said,
"ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of
President Roosevelt." The death of FDR, however painful to
Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman,
brisk, decisive, much better informed on strategy, proved
infinitely easier to deal with. When Churchill was tired, he
talked, often off the point. He refused to read his papers.
Colville noted on April 26: "The PM's box is in a ghastly
state. He does little work and talks far too long, as he did ...
before his Greek adventures refreshed him." The businesslike and
monosyllabic Clement Attlee, his deputy premier, sent him a sharp
memo of complaint. Churchill is credited with many jokes about
the Labour Party leader. "Yes, he is a modest man. But then he
has so much to be modest about." "An empty taxi drew up outside
the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out." Sometimes they
were mean and savage: "Attler, Hitlee." One of Attlee's staff
used to whistle, a habit Churchill could not bear. His antipathy
to whistling is curiously apt, for Hitler was an expert and
enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of "The Merry
Widow," his favorite operetta. It seems expert whistling by music
lovers was a feature of pre-1914 Vienna: Gustav Mahler and
Ludwig Wittgenstein were whistler maestros.
     Tired as he was, Churchill treated the surrender of Germany
with suitable rhetoric and champagne popping. He drank a bottle
of his prize 1928 vintage Pol Roger. He was relieved by Hitler's
suicide. He had not relished the prospective task of hanging him.
As Beaverbrook said, "He is never vindictive." His saying had
always been - it is one of his best obiter dicta--"In war,
resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In
peace, goodwill." Magnanimity came naturally to this generous,
jovial old man (he was seventy at the end of the war). Lord
Longford, the British minister for postwar Germany, showed
notable compassion for the German people. Churchill came up to
him at a Buckingham Palace garden party and said, slowly, "I am
glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of the
     Churchill wanted to carry on the coalition until Japan
surrendered. But the Labour Party refused. So he formed a Tory
government, had Parliament (which was now ten years old)
dissolved, and reluctantly began an election campaign. He hit
hard, or rather fairly hard, for him. The prevailing wisdom was
that he hit too hard, and that his anti-Labour speeches,
inspired, it was said, by Lord Beaverbrook, did the Tory cause
terrible harm. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one
took much notice of opinion polls in those days. In fact Gallup
had been predicting a Labour victory for some time by the huge
margin of 10 percent: a landslide. Churchill had a good case.
After all, if his advice had been taken in the 1930s, the war
might have been avoided altogether. By contrast, Labour had
opposed rearming Britain right up to the declaration of war.
Attlee himself had told the Commons on December 21, 1933, "We are
unalterably opposed to anything in the nature of rearmament."
Churchill was right to remind voters of these things. There was
nothing personal in his criticism. Before the Labour ministers
left his government, he gave a party for them and offered a
toast. With tears running down his cheeks, he said, "The light of
history will shine on all your helmets." The evidence shows that
Churchill's speeches reduced the Labour lead to 8.5 percent by
polling day. There was a delay between polling and the
announcement of the results to allow the voters of the overseas
forces to be counted. Few, it is thought, voted against
Churchill. The vote was against the Tory Party, or rather against
the upper classes, the officer class who spoke in clipped
accents, wore cavalry breeches, and drank port after dinner. The
result was due to be announced on July 26. The night before,
Churchill recorded, he was awoken by a presentiment of disaster:
"a sharp stab of almost physical pain." The next day came the
news: Labour had won nearly 400 seats, the Conservatives were
reduced to 210 seats, and Churchill was out. As he put it:

     On the night of 10 May 1940, at the outset of the mighty
     Battle of Britain, I acquired the chief power in the State,
     which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five
     years and three months of world war, at the end of which
     time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or
     being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the
     British electorate from all further conduct of their

     Mrs. Churchill's comment was: "Perhaps it is a blessing in
disguise." To which Churchill replied: "It appears to be very
effectively disguised."


To be continued  

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