Churchill at War
Nearly half a century ago Winston Churchill rallied the people of Great Britain with words that have not lost the power to make the pulse quicken. If, in the eyes of his countrymen, he remains (as Isaiah Berlin has said) “a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time,” he is something of an American hero as well. This is so not only on account of Churchill’s sense of kinship with the United States, and his intimate dealings with this country over decades, but also because of the magnitude of the challenges he faced and the global scope of his concerns and conceptions, which render him a figure with whom Americans may feel they have more in common than do his fellow Englishmen. For the English politician of today, Churchill serves as a reminder of an epic past; for the American politician, he might prove a source of inspiration in dealing with the problems of the present.
For this reason it would be unfortunate if his elevation to our pantheon, merited though it is, were to deprive us of the benefits of a careful examination of his statecraft. This applies especially to Churchill’s war statesmanship, and in particular to his conduct of World War II. Over the last few years Congress has decided, and the executive branch agreed, that our defense machinery requires overhaul, and scores of critics, some fair and some malicious, argue that we do not know how to wage war. One cannot hope to remedy such difficulties as exist by slavishly imitating genius, but perhaps we may understand our own difficulties and dilemmas better if we study how the greatest war leader of the 20th century handled far greater ones.
The recent publication of the seventh volume of Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941-19451 aids in such an endeavor. As in his previous volumes, Gilbert here eschews analysis or interpretation, preferring instead to recount the story from the perspective of his subject and those around him. From a mass of state papers, diaries, and essential secondary works (the recently published official histories of British intelligence in World War II, for example), Gilbert has assembled a 1,400-page record of Churchill’s activities from Pearl Harbor to VE-Day. He tells us how the war looked to Churchill and how Churchill looked to those in close contact with him. Here and in the similarly constructed 1,300-page Volume VI (Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941), Gilbert provides a clear account of Churchill as war statesman. These volumes lack the coherence, elegance, and fullness of Churchill’s own six-volume memoirs of the war—memoirs which, by the way, still repay the time required to read them. Nonetheless, by submerging oneself in the mass of detail and anecdotes, narrative and reminiscence which Gilbert offers us, one can construct a picture not only of Churchill’s accomplishment but of how he achieved it.
Many readers, one suspects, will not make the effort. Exhausted, perhaps, by a perusal of Finest Hour, they may assume that Churchill made his signal contribution to victory in World War II through his speeches, and in particular those in the dark days of the summer and fall of 1940, and the winter and spring of 1941. Even a cursory look at accounts such as the Harold Nicolson diaries reveals what a difference that oratory made. When Churchill told the War Cabinet after the fall of France, “And I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender,” he characteristically, if falsely, credited many of those about him with his own courage and determination. Great Britain might easily have struck a compromise peace with Hitler after the calamitous campaigns of 1940 had Churchill not rekindled and brought to white heat the fires of resistance. As Finest Hour makes clear, many prominent Englishmen, particularly within his own party, viewed the continuation of the war with faint hearts, and his assumption of the Prime Ministership with distaste. On his first entry to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, Churchill received less applause than did Neville Chamberlain, the man who had probably done more than any other (save possibly Stanley Baldwin) to bring his country to this ruinous state of affairs. As the crisis waxed and then passed, however, no one, no matter how bitterly he had suspected or mistrusted Churchill, would deny his role in sustaining Britain’s spirits during the time of greatest threat and smallest strength.
In retrospect, this accomplishment has eclipsed all others. As time went on and in particular as the participants in World War II published their diaries (or edited versions of them), Churchill’s reputation as a war leader came under attack. Many of his own generals and admirals and their American counterparts accused him of having meddled unconscionably in military matters. They recounted his strategic obsessions—his insistent interest in Jupiter, a proposed invasion of northern Norway, for instance—and disparaged the stream of queries and complaints he directed at them. The publication in the 1950’s of the diaries of Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), head of the British army and later chairman of the British Chiefs of Staff, set the tone of asperity for accounts which followed. And yet one can maintain that just as his inspirational leadership in 1940 and 1941 provided the necessary condition for Anglo-American success in World War II, it was precisely the detailed work of Churchill’s strategy-making that ensured it. In fact, we should consider Churchill’s “micro-management,” as we might call it today, not as a blemish on his great record as a war leader but as one of its most important elements.
According to the commonly held view, favored by many military men and by a surprisingly large number of their civilian counterparts, a politician in wartime should set broad objectives and priorities, arid leave the devising of strategy to his military subordinates. War, in this view, is a matter for experts, men who have devoted their adult lives to preparation for it; civilian interference can only confuse things. This orthodoxy, which Churchill’s opponents threw at him during the war, which his critics have argued since, and in which many in government and outside it still believe today, is both false and dangerous. The only nations that have enforced this theory of civil-military relationships in wartime—Germany in World War I, most notably—have succumbed to a quasi-dictatorship of the generals first and to their enemies shortly thereafter.
The fundamental error comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of war, and above all from a failure to appreciate how thoroughly political it is. Those who adhere to this view believe that politics may determine why wars begin and the nature of the settlement at the end, but not the twists and turns of war itself. In fact, however, as Clausewitz observed over a century and a half ago, political considerations pervade all aspects of war. It follows from this that a statesman’s interventions in the conduct of operations are in principle always legitimate, even if in practice they may be highly unwise.
When Churchill, for example, decided, against the advice of the British Chiefs of Staff, to return a small expeditionary force to France after Dunkirk but before the French government had decided to capitulate, he did so for sound political reasons. He knew that England had to maintain its reputation in France and elsewhere for adhering to its alliances, for not abandoning friends in the struggle against Hitler. Such political considerations also motivated his decision to send forces to Greece in 1941, a move subsequently denounced by some of the same men who, at the time, endorsed it. Political considerations suffused many of Churchill’s decisions: who would command in different theaters of war; the timing of offensives; whether Operations should be undertaken which involved heavy loss of friendly civilian life. Thus he insisted on a careful review and limitation of the pre-Normandy bombing of French railroad centers because he feared the consequences if the Anglo-American forces were to inflict tens of thousands of unintended casualties on the populations they intended to rescue. In these and many other cases his was the more comprehensive, because the more political, point of view: as he wrote in his memoir of World War I, The World Crisis, “At the summit true politics and strategy are one.”
Moreover, it should be remembered that Churchill, like any war statesman, did not preside over an infallible or a united body of military opinion. To the very end of the war he often made military judgments well in advance of his professional advisers. In July . 1945, for example, he speculated that the atomic bomb might render unnecessary the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan, and that it promised to change the shape of postwar international relations, redressing the balance of European power which would otherwise tilt to the advantage of the USSR. Lord Alanbrooke reports in his published diary that he incorrectly dismissed these notions. The British Chiefs of Staff until quite late in the day failed to see the merits of Overlord, the culminating invasion of France; Churchill, though not without some profound reservations, viewed it as indispensable virtually from the time of the American entry into the war. On the other hand, he joined them in their adamant oposition to an invasion of France in 1943, a course of action pressed by the American Chiefs of Staff and which, it now appears, would probably have led to disaster.
As this last example suggests, there is no simply “professional”’ view of how any war should be fought, and of no war was this truer than the war of 1939-45. The American Chiefs of Staff disagreed with the British Chiefs of Staff; British (and American) admirals disagreed with British (and American) airmen; the airmen controlling the heavy-bombing forces disagreed with those charged with protecting convoys and hunting U-boats; commanders planning the invasion of France disagreed with those conducting the war in the Mediterranean. Their disputes pertained to every subject imaginable: priorities among theaters, timetables, organizational arrangements, operational concepts, appropriate weaponry, enemy potential and intentions. This does not mean that the men involved lacked expertise, only that extraordinary difficulties inhere in figuring out what will work in war and what will not. In war more than in most other human endeavors, those choices which in retrospect seem self-evidently correct or foolish are clouded in uncertainty at the time; the unfolding of events, so apparently inexorable to historians tracing decisions afterward, appears tentative and intangible to those present. Although war has a large scientific component, generalship is by no means a scientific pursuit, and leaders cannot hope to choose courses of action on the basis of a priori principles and rules of thumb.
What, then, was Churchill’s strategic vision? How did he think through the core strategic problems of the war? Let us begin with the first problem: war aims. Although Churchill’s opposition to Hitler knew no limits, he thought of victory not simply in terms of the overthrow and annihilation of the Nazi regime, but in terms of the peace that was to come. Insofar as his American counterparts did the same, they thought of the world organization which would turn into the UN. Churchill, although he supported the UN, did so with little confidence; his concern, particularly after 1942, was to shape the contours of a postwar Europe, and above all to confine the reach of an extended Soviet empire. He feared the consequences of a war-shattered Europe after the departure of the Americans (who certainly planned to leave within two years of the war’s end), in which the Soviet Union would be balanced only by an impoverished Britain. Understanding far better than many of his colleagues or his American counterparts that the limits of the advance of the liberating armies would determine the postwar political map, he pressed in 1944 for a number of operations—a push into Czechoslovakia and Austria, the occupation of Greece—that would leave Allied forces best disposed to help restore or establish representative governments. Only Stalin understood as well as Churchill the importance of these matters; their mutual comprehension made them wary but respectful of each other.
This constant injection of postwar considerations into wartime planning may seem obvious to us today, having lived so long with a Europe still divided along the highwater marks reached by the advancing Allied armies. At the time, however, it contradicted the instincts of the English and American peoples (who had learned to admire “Uncle Joe” Stalin and the gallant Russian people); the soldiers (who saw their task as defeating the German enemy, not indulging in political maneuvers); and the diplomats (who believed, en masse, that the experience of war had transformed the Bolshevik state from a mortal foe into a merely difficult and suspicious partner). It revolted public opinion to see British troops occupying Greece in late 1944, engaging in hard street battles with Communist anti-Nazi guerrillas; it offended the deepest instincts of professional soldiers to sacrifice their men’s lives in order to forestall the troops of their Eastern ally. In time of war, all emotional and intellectual energies focus on “beating the enemy,” for nothing else can justify the suffering and cost which war entails. And even in time of peace we do not think strategically in this largest sense, worrying about the outcome of the peace following the war. Examine, for example, any official statement of NATO doctrine, or follow any private or semiofficial discussion of NATO strategy, and you will discover nothing on what sort of world the United States and its allies would wish to see should they succeed in rebuffing a Soviet attack.
The sheer fact that Churchill thought strategically, that he saw war policy in terms of large building blocks which together created a structure of victory, makes him remarkable. Very few people can or do think in this fashion. Most historians argue that no one actually shapes the outcome of a war by imposing a design upon it. Interestingly enough, this strange opinion resonates most strongly among the military men who actually implement strategy in wartime. Intimately familiar with the pressure of events, the myriad crises and forced decisions which plague commanders in peacetime and trebly so in war, many officers share the historian’s disdain for strategy. They know enough to know that no one can hope to draw up a blueprint for victory which will guide a general staff through the innumerable surprises and setbacks of a serious war.
Churchill knew enough of war to understand the force of this last objection to strategic planning as such. His art lay in his conception of strategy as a set of large but definable problems to be solved or campaigns to be fought. He viewed strategy-making as the piecing together of a kind of giant jigsaw puzzle, comprised of a couple of dozen pieces, some of which would have to be trimmed, others discarded, still others glued together in order to complete the full picture. Perhaps he best captured his conception in an essay on, of all things, painting, which he explicitly compared with the conduct of war:
It is the same kind of problem as unfolding a long, sustained, interlocked argument. It is a proposition which, whether of few or number-less parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception.2
At different points in the war, Churchill set forth his conception of basic strategy in lengthy memoranda to the Chiefs of Staff or to the Americans, but often, one suspects, for the sake of clarifying his own thoughts. These memoranda (particularly those written in late December 1941 as he sailed to his first wartime meeting with Roosevelt) set out, in broad terms, the strategy which the Allies actually followed. Each begins with a discussion of central factors to be faced or to be incorporated into an analysis, and continues with a discussion of the steppingstones to victory. It was with this large picture in mind that Churchill then focused his energies on particular problems.
Churchill brought to the making of strategy a sense not merely of purpose but of sequence, or, more accurately, timing. Indeed, the most striking characteristic of Churchill’s strategic thought was his acute awareness of time as a critical dimension of action in war. Each of the large portions of the war effort had its own peculiar rhythm: in each, time worked for Britain or against it, and in control of the timing lay mastery of strategic choice. Initially, of course, Churchill labored to buy time—all of his efforts in the summer and fall of 1940 were aimed at gaining time to reequip the British army. So too with the invasion of France, which he saw as a peril in 1943, as an imperative in 1944. For the most part, however, he sought not to delay but to spur things along, urging commanders to take advantage of opportunities arising from a flux of events that offered brief intervals in which to achieve large gains.
Thus, when it became apparent that Italy might desert Hitler, Churchill hounded and harassed Allied military commanders to take risks in order to arrive in force on the Italian mainland before the Germans could recover their balance and reverse Mussolini’s overthrow. Acutely conscious of democracy’s weaknesses as well as its great strengths, he warned the American Congress in a speech in May 1943:
War is full of mysteries and surprises. A false step, a wrong direction, an error in strategy, discord or lassitude among the Allies, might soon give the common enemy power to confront us with new and hideous facts. We have surmounted many serious dangers, but there is one grave danger which will go along with us till the end; that danger is the undue prolongation of the war. No one can tell what new complications and perils might arise in four or five more years of war. And it is in the dragging-out of the war at enormous expense, until the democracies are tired or bored or split, that the main hopes of Germany and Japan just now reside.
This sense of timing went beyond a feel for the tempo of the war overall. It included a fine sense for when to launch operations, open diplomatic initiatives, or convene the great summit meetings by which the Allies coordinated their efforts. Churchill played the central role in convening these bilateral and trilateral conferences. In each case he sensed when the moment had come for a time-consuming and potentially divisive gathering which, however, alone could give impetus and direction to the war.
The third element of Churchill’s strategic vision was his understanding of priorities, and above all of critical tasks, upon which the energies of the wartime administration must focus. Until December 1941 he set as his highest priority (aside from defense of the United Kingdom from invasion) the inveigling of the United States to participate in the war. To this end he wooed American guests not only with his charm but with his candor. While still First Lord of the Admiralty, before May 1940, he conducted a private correspondence with Franklin D. Roosevelt, a correspondence that blossomed after he became Prime Minister. His familiarity with the United States and its history (including, in particular, the Civil War) led him to value American entry into the war very highly indeed. At a time when his advisers gloomily contemplated disaster after disaster in the Far East, as well as setbacks in the Mediterranean, he declared that “The accession of the United States makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give certain victory.” The cultivation of the American alliance, and the effort to ensure that it would work properly in war, remained perhaps his chief concern throughout the years 1942-45.
Other challenges, of course, faced the British high command. One of Churchill’s greatest contributions to the success of British arms lay in his ability to define a military campaign and focus the government’s attention on it. It was he who coined the terms “Battle of Britain” and “Battle of the Atlantic” in 1940 and 1941, respectively. More than ringing phrases, these terms drew a circle around varied military activities which did not lie in the province of any one theater commander or any single service. In each case, Churchill would convene a special committee, which he chaired, to bring together every part of the government with responsibility for the task at hand, to sort out priorities and tasks, and to define critical problems. The specially created committees to deal with D-Day sped up the development and production of the specialized equipment (from mobile harbors to amphibious tanks) needed for the assault on Fortress Europe. The Crossbow Committee monitored the development of the German revenge weapons—the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 missile—and supported the various countermeasures (air defense, bombing of launch sites, and deception plans) devised to contain the threat. Perhaps most successful of all was the Battle of the Atlantic Committee, which gave unparalleled coherence to the British air and naval campaign to secure the Atlantic sea lanes.
Throughout the war Churchill kept in mind the constant importance of what would later be called the Home Front. He continually pestered ministers and bureaucrats not to impose greater rigors on the population than were absolutely necessary—exploding in anger, for example, at a rule that would have made it illegal to trade ration coupons. Knowing that men are ruled by words, he paid attention to them—renaming the Local Defense Volunteers the Home Guard or calling communal soup kitchens British Restaurants.
More importantly, he periodically explained to the British people and to Parliament how the war was going, and what to make of it. We know well the ringing perorations of some of these speeches; we often forget the remarkably clear and detailed discussions which preceded them. In open and secret session Churchill discussed at great length how the war had gone; he concealed no defeats, he minimized no reverses. Although invariably reticent about future operations, he discussed the past in detail, and trends of production and mobilization with remarkable openness. Despite his concern for security, he realized the importance of keeping as many people as possible “in the picture,” as the wartime phrase had it, and went to great lengths to do so.
Five elements, then—a long-range view of war aims; a sense of the unity of war which transcended its many parts; a constant emphasis on the time factor; an ability to define critical tasks and battles; a determination to keep as many people as possible informed in some detail about the course of the war—formed the core of Churchill’s strategic approach. They may not seem remarkably original; we should bear in mind, however, the difficulty of following this vision during six years of terrific emotional and physical strain. When we think of the hardships of war we usually think of the sufferings of troops in the field, and rarely consider the pressures concentrated on the commander and statesman at home. Yet even a casual examination of the records and diaries of the time reveals just how grim those burdens were—the crushing sense of responsibility for success and failure, and above all for the loss of human life on a staggering scale; the twelve-hour (or longer) days and seven-day work weeks lived out in poorly ventilated underground bunkers. Small wonder that many officers at the center yearned for service at the front, where they could at least do things rather than bear the debilitating sense of responsibility without the ability to act directly. Small wonder, too, that illness and sheer exhaustion took a toll of the Chiefs of Staff and their assistants. And no doubt the pressures of serving a leader who frequently worked into the small hours of the morning wore down his military subordinates even further.
This raises the question of Churchill’s relationship with his primary military subordinates, the Chiefs of Staff. As the Alanbrooke diaries in particular make clear, it remained ambivalent throughout the war. Although the Chiefs understood in a vague sense that Churchill alone could energize the government and maintain the morale of the people, they clearly resented the fountain of ideas, pet projects, and inquiries which he poured upon their heads. These could take a brutal form. Churchill, acutely concious of Britain’s manpower shortage, once began a grilling of Alanbrooke on the subject of the Middle East in the following fashion: “Pray explain, CIGS [Chief of the Imperial General Staff], how is it that in the Middle East 750,000 men always turn up for their pay and rations, but when it comes to fighting only 100,000 turn up? Explain to us exactly how the remaining 650,000 are occupied.” When he met opposition by the Chiefs to a pet plan he would demand to know their objections in the minutest detail—and often infuriated them by repeating these inquisitions after they had thought the matter resolved. He often uttered mordant remarks on their advice and outlook (“The negative in our counsels is as ten is to one”; “You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum total of their fears!”) and ensured they would hear them.
Yet for all his bullying and badgering, Churchill kept well in hand his urge to override the judgment of the Chiefs of Staff. Very rarely if ever would he order them to undertake operations to which they objected strongly; and in a host of ways he made it clear to them that open, indeed violent, argument with him in no way lost them his favor—in large measure, just the reverse. In the course of the war Churchill fired a number of senior officers, but never because of a disagreement. Rather, he dismissed those who had failed in the field, or who found it impossible adequately to communicate their problems and intentions to the home government.
Despite his willingness to belabor the Chiefs in the privacy of his war council, outside of it he lent them the strongest support—backing them so fiercely that throughout most of the war the Americans had no sense of the disputes which raged among them. Andrew Cunningham, the First Sea Lord after 1942, recalled that “Anything which might affect the running of the war, even in the slightest degree, was referred to them [the Chiefs of Staff] for an opinion; . . . anyone criticizing the Chiefs of Staff, no matter how high his position, was likely to find the Prime Minister’s heavy guns turned against him.” Nor were his internal relationships with them simply confrontational. The Chiefs often came as his weekend guests to Chequers, the Camp David of the British Prime Minister; and together with the sarcasm and harassment went a rare intimacy and confidence. At one point he said to Anthony Eden, in reference to a trans-Atlantic flight Eden would shortly take with the Chiefs, “I don’t know what I should do if I lost you all. I’d have to cut my throat. It isn’t just love, though there is much of that in it, but that you are my war machine. . . . I simply couldn’t replace you.” Such remarks also reached the Chiefs’ ears.
Churchill dealt with the Chiefs primarily but not exclusively. On occasion he violated the chain of command, speaking directly with commanders in the field—a breach of protocol which occasionally drove them to the brink of resignation, although it often had good results. Shortly after Montgomery had accepted command of the Normandy landings, for example, Churchill quizzed him on the suitability of the plan for the invasion: Montgomery spoke up, and partly as a result of this some of the basic arrangements for the landings were changed.
Always suspicious of the military bureaucracy (in a moment of exasperation he proposed the creation of “a Sacred Legion of about 1,000 staff officers [who would] set an example to the troops in leading some particularly desperate attack”), Churchill searched out and nourished odd organizations and individuals who did not quite fit the mold. He heard of an unorthodox major in the Royal Engineers named Millis Jefferis who had sabotaged German rail lines in Norway. Forcing his promotion over the objections of senior army officers (who grumbled that Jefferis was 150th on the list), Churchill removed him from army control and set him up in an independent research establishment under the Minister of Defense. “Churchill’s Toy Shop,” as it was known, subsequently concocted such ingenious devices as the limpet mine and the PIAT, the main hand-held anti-tank weapon used by the British army at the end of the war. Churchill took a similar interest in the creation of the Commandos and other special-operations forces such as the SAS, or Special Air Service, which remains to this day perhaps the most adept of the West’s special-operations forces.
This interest—some might call it interference—extended to the careers of odd or obnoxious commanders. In late 1940 Churchill insisted that the army recall to active duty Major General Percy Hobart (then serving as a corporal in the Home Guard), one of the pioneers of armored warfare who had been retired against his will because of what his superiors termed “impatience, hot temper, and intolerance.” Here too Churchill forced the issue, remarking to Field Marshall Dill, then CIGS, “It isn’t only the good boys who help to win wars. It is the sneaks and the stinkers as well.” Hobart went on to command the 79th Division, whose specialized tanks (the “funnies,” as more conventional armored commanders called them) made the British landings on D-Day a relatively smooth affair.
Churchill’s fascination with ingenious devices and stratagems occasionally had larger consequences. He paid close attention to the development of the elaborate technology of electronic warfare which played so large a role in protecting Great Britain in 1940-41, and lent his efforts to the development of the deception operations which accompanied Allied operations in 1943 and 1944. His interest in these matters, however, went beyond gadgets, individuals, and ruses which conventional organizations might not produce without special prodding. On a number of occasions he created substantial organizations outside the normal military sphere: in addition to the Commandos and the SAS, we should note the Special Operations Executive, created to “set Europe ablaze.” SOE, whose mandate was to develop resistance networks and foster sabotage and guerrilla operations in occupied Europe, soon rivaled the Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) in size and activity. In this and other cases Churchill sought to develop unconventional forces and agencies not in place of regular forces but as necessary complements to them.
This insistence upon developing unconventional means and organizations stemmed in part from Churchill’s understanding of the nature of warfare, and the variety of ways in which a country must wage it. It also grew from his awareness of the limits on British strength. The British isles went on a war footing more quickly than either the United States or Germany; by 1942 the economy and society had reached a plateau of mobilization. Short of materiel and foreign exchange, short of manpower, fearing the consequences of another blood bath such as the British had suffered in World War I, and confronting an entrenched enemy, Churchill and his advisers sought desperately to avoid a frontal collision with German land power. They did this in a variety of ways—by emphasizing the bomber offensive (which took its toll of British lives, some 50,000 of them), resistance movements, and operations along the periphery of German power, particularly the Mediterranean. Herein lay the great dispute with the American planners, who insisted from the beginning on a frontal assault against France. Churchill, to his credit, accepted the necessity of such an operation, much though he feared it, early in the war; by late 1943 he and the Chiefs of Staff were irrevocably committed to it—although they could not convince their American counterparts of this fact.
Unfortunately, something besides the simple imbalance in numbers motivated Churchill to look for the unconventional solution; a deep sense of the inadequacy of British land power played a role as well. Painful though it was (and may still be) to admit it, through the first half of the war, the British armed forces and commanders, with rare exceptions, seemed incapable of coping with their German enemies. A long stretch of defeats, evacuations, and calamities undermined popular and governmental faith in the ability of British armies to handle the Wehrmacht. This period culminated in the cumulative disasters of the first half of 1942. During this time British armies in the Western Desert crumbled before the attacks of the Afrika Korps; the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau boldly sailed up the Channel in broad daylight; a British army at Singapore surrendered to half as many Japanese troops shortly after Japanese airplanes had sunk two of the Royal Navy’s finest battleships. The summer before, moreover, a careful intelligence review had revealed that only one out of three British bombers attacking Germany by night came within five miles of the targets. And although British war industry produced some remarkable weapons, it also produced more than its share of inferior ones: British tanks, in particular, fell far behind those of the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans, and the same held true in other important areas. Ironically, the good and constantly improving British intelligence made matters gloomier. Even when radio intercepts provided advance warnings of the enemy’s operations, and gave a clear picture of his weaknesses, British commanders seemed incapable of stopping the enemy advance. Indeed, the accuracy of British intelligence only exacerbated Churchill’s mounting frustration with his field commanders who seemed unable to exploit enemy deficiencies.
Matters reached their nadir in the spring of 1942—and it is at this point, as much as in 1940, that Churchill demonstrated his greatest powers of leadership. A long series of setbacks had undermined the faith even of those most knowledgeable about Britain’s long-term prospects. Alan-brooke wrote in his diary in March, “During the last fortnight I have had for the first time since the war started a growing conviction that we are going to lose this war unless we control it very differently and fight it with more determination. . . . There are times when I wish to God I had not been placed at the helm of a ship that seems to be heading inevitably for the rocks. . . .” Churchill’s rivals made an effort to restructure the government by proposing a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, a vote defeated by crushing proportions after Churchill delivered one of the very best speeches of his career.
Even at this dark moment—unrelieved by the magic of defiance which had characterized Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain—Churchill maintained his sense of proportion, realizing that the entry of the United States ultimately guaranteed victory. In an odd sense Churchill, so often damned for his volatility, served his most useful function in the balance he provided to the government and the military commanders. Optimistic when they despaired, admonitory when they celebrated, audacious when they favored caution, he usually proved to have the sounder instincts. At times Churchill pushed the military to undertake operations which it considered marginally beyond its abilities—the invasions of Iraq and Syria in 1941, where the Germans were quietly developing alliances, are a case in point. Yet he also occasionally acted as a more conservative force in the war councils. As Gilbert records, throughout the first half of 1944 he understood far better than his colleagues that the war would probably not end until early or mid-1945. Although not opposed to the taking of risks, Churchill insisted on reinforcing such major efforts as the invasion of Europe; indeed, at one point he found himself in the odd position of arguing with the Americans for the reinforcement of the central thrust into France.
Churchill’s working methods, though peculiarly his own, offer instruction as well. For the most part historians have dwelled only on his habit of working in bed until noon, his invariable afternoon nap, his large dinners preceded by weak whiskey-and-water and washed down with champagne and brandy, followed by a movie and then conferences and dictation until the small hours of the morning. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs, who rose early, found this an exhausting schedule to keep up with, and it probably had something to do with the chronic irritation they felt in dealing with the Prime Minister. But interesting as such details are, they miss certain essential points that help explain why Churchill was, in fact, an extremely effective manager.
First and foremost Churchill had an extraordinary appetite for work. He read constantly, sifting through masses of state papers, intelligence reports, cables, and newspapers—an expert skimmer, as one of his secretaries noted. Churchill drew his knowledge not only from papers but from people, and this accounts for some of the strangeness of his coterie of associates. One in particular, Professor Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), a noted Oxford scientist, attracted the particular ire of the Chiefs of Staff. Yet “the Prof.,” as he was known, served valuable functions. First, he provided Churchill, who took an abiding interest in technology but had no background in science, with a clear explanation of the fundamental physical principles upon which many military matters involving weaponry depended. Secondly, the Prof, ran a small statistical office which prepared accurate and comprehensible charts and tables for the Prime Minister, enabling him to retain a good picture of those aspects of the war (especially the Battle of the Atlantic) which could only be measured and judged in this way, rather than by the movement of battle lines. Having no interest but Churchill’s to serve, the Prof, assembled data which often served the Prime Minister better than the more tendentious presentations prepared by the various departments of government. Finally, the Prof, provided an independent source of analysis, occasionally misguided but nonetheless useful in assessing certain military problems. To his credit, Lindemann first suspected in 1941 that Bomber Command had far less success in hitting its targets than it claimed, thereby initiating the series of reforms and changes in personnel which would lead to the far more capable force of 1942-45.
Despite what some of his military advisers thought, Churchill was not simply subject to the influence of the Prof, or anyone else. He would use such men to force debate and controversy and thus get at the root of a problem; to the end, however, he formed his own judgments. Moreover, to obtain expertise he would often reach down into the bureaucracy—this was particularly true in the case of the electronics war in the air. R.V. Jones, then a twenty-eight-year-old scientist working for the Royal Air Force, describes his first encounter with Churchill, who had summoned him to a special committee meeting on the threat of German precision navigation systems:
From our encounter, I of course felt the elation of a young man at being noticed by any Prime Minister, but somehow it was much more. It was the same whenever we met in the war—I had the feeling of being recharged by contact with a source of living power. Here was strength, resolution, humor, readiness to listen, to ask the searching question and, when convinced, to act. He was rarely complimentary at the time, handsome though his compliments could be afterward, for he had been brought up in sterner days. In 1940 it was compliment enough to be called in by him at the crisis; but to stand up to his questioning attack and then to convince him was the greatest exhilaration of all.
From information proceeded action. Churchill wrote (or more precisely, dictated) at a pace that exhausted the stenographers, and he did so day in and day out. One has only to examine the mass of memoranda and minutes appended to his World War II memoirs (and they are but a fraction of the total) to see the range of his knowledge and attention to the running of the war. He was both a “big picture” and a detail man, and never lost sight of the importance of either.
Those minutes and queries reveal other attributes of Churchill as strategist as well. At the very beginning of his tenure as Prime Minister he passed word that no official account was to be taken of any instruction that came from him unless it appeared in writing. His staff filed and tracked these papers with great care, with the result that his exhortations or questions usually bore fruit, and no decisions depended on the fallible operation of human memory. This stream of paper acted, as one of his aides put it, like the beacon of a great lighthouse, suddenly illuminating one and then the other corner of the great war effort—and the concentration of mind produced by the sudden appearance of the spotlight sped up or corrected many difficulties. In October 1941 the cryptographers of Bletchley Park, who were responsible for breaking the German codes, had suffered for some time from deficient administrative support. In desperation they appealed directly to the Prime Minister, who wrote on the next day:
Action this Day
Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.
Thereafter, the “geese who laid the golden eggs but never cackled,” as Churchill called them, received the material and clerical aid they required.
This particular episode contains a number of points of interest. First, it indicates the high importance Churchill assigned to intelligence: an avid reader of decrypts, Churchill more than most wartime leaders understood the value of intelligence. He knew that intelligence cannot enable one to predict the future (the usual, and futile, hope of most politicians) but that it can give a good picture of the enemy’s world view and his difficulties and opportunities. Secondly, it suggests the efficiency of the machine that Churchill had created around him. Any leader—in business, government, or the university—can demand instant information or action; rare, however, is the leader who can get it. The staff around Churchill worked with unusual harmony and efficiency. Interestingly enough, most had no prior connection with Churchill; indeed, as Sir John Colville reveals in his extremely interesting diary, for the most part they had served the Chamberlain government loyally and viewed Churchill with considerable mistrust.3 Not only did Churchill win them over, he welded them into a machine which enabled his intellect and energy to do their proper work. As Churchill himself was both an insider and a maverick, so too he managed to make a group of civil servants and professional soldiers into a force that could operate within the establishment and yet transcend it.
The result blended system and anarchy in a peculiarly effective way. As the Americans ruefully discovered in their conferences with the British from 1941 through 1943, the British had a far more efficient staff machinery, and presented a far more united front than they could muster. This was in no small part because of Churchill’s working methods. Churchill exercised his imagination and impatience, his heterodoxy and biting humor, but in the end he worked within an organizational framework. Genius rarely accepts such limits; he did.
Few politicians in democracies have the aptitudes and abilities required to lead their nations in war. General E.L. Spears, a British liaison officer with the French in World War I, described French politicians in 1917 as follows:
The men to whom the people were used to look for guidance found themselves just like other men, small, puzzled, bewildered, facing a catacylsm their minds could not grasp. Ministers had a little the aspect of marionettes presented without the familiar surroundings of footlights and wings. Their usual animators, well-drilled civil servants, were powerless to actuate them on a stage for which neither experience nor training had equipped them. . . . They seem very inconsequent, very well-meaning, dealing with the war as they would have dealt with unexpected, tiresome, or alarming happenings in their own lives. . . . They talked, consulted, dined, and traveled, worried, but in spite of everything had their moments of relaxation; in fact they more or less lived through the experience of a man whose business is facing a long-drawn-out crisis, which may with luck, skill, and determination be surmounted, but which often gives little hope of ending otherwise than in failure and bankruptcy.4
Churchill’s mastery of the art of supreme command had a number of roots. He had witnessed a good bit of combat at first hand. As a young man he had seen fighting in India, the Sudan, and South Africa; after his departure from the government in 1916 he served with distinction as an infantryman on the Western Front. Throughout his tenure in office he always strove to observe combat directly (in Antwerp in 1914, for example, or on D-Day, when only an order from the King kept him from the beaches). This experience, coupled with an ability to conjure up vivid pictures in the mind of the sights and sounds of battle, oriented him to the central fact of war—combat. His colleagues sometimes mocked this fascination with battle; his subordinates feared for his safety. But in truth his sense of what war at the sharp end looks like helped shape his decisions in committee and conference.
Churchill also brought to bear on the conduct of war a vast experience of high-level administration. In the thirty years before World War II he had served as the civilian head of the Royal Navy, as Minister of Munitions, and as head of the Air and War Departments: he knew how to run large organizations. Moreover, he had participated in the making of strategy in World War I, and in particular had supplied the driving spirit behind the Dardanelles campaign. The failure of that brilliantly conceived but miserably executed operation—for which he unfairly received most of the blame—haunted him throughout the interwar period. In The World Crisis, his combined autobiography and history of World War I, the reader can watch him meditate on the lessons of that debacle. Remarkably, for a man of his age and personality, he drew the correct lessons from that misadventure and applied them: he understood that he had failed to develop the adequate support for a strategic stroke that would probably have shortened the war. His insistence in World War II on developing strategic consensus among the Chiefs of Staff and the political elite more generally grew from those bitter experiences in 1915.
It must be conceded, in addition, that Churchill enjoyed leading a nation at war, and delighted in grappling with the myriad challenges of supreme command. By no means bloodthirsty (he stomped angrily out of the room when Stalin half-jokingly suggested the execution of some 50,000 German officers after the eventual Allied victory), he did have the ruthlessness required of a war lord. In the dilemmas and perplexities of strategy he found problems which summoned forth the prodigious energies of his mind. He had also trained his intellect in peacetime to deal with these problems through his writings as a historian. His early writings on Britain’s colonial wars; his four-volume biography of his distinguished ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough; The World Crisis; and innumerable essays written for the press or private circulation dealt with the full range of military problems.
In the face of this extraordinary record one may ask, what relevance does it have for us today? A Churchill is not merely a rarity, but a phenomenon; no politician could hope to become such through study or self-conscious imitation, and indeed our times and world position can hardly produce his like. Nonetheless, reflection on his war leadership may inform our own thoughts on strategy and higher defense organization. Indeed, his experience has particular relevance for a country which finds itself both immensely powerful and overstretched, at a time when our central defense organization has come under searching criticism and faces imminent overhaul.
One lesson concerns the very nature of strategy. We often think of strategy as an abstract exercise, an effort of intellect rather than a day-to-day activity. Churchill’s integration of the grand scheme and the grind of management gives us a more complex view, revealing perhaps how difficult it really is to operate in a strategic fashion. Moreover, his experience shows us that our usual concept of the division of labor in strategy—in which politicians set objectives and military men devise the operations to meet them—is profoundly flawed. The British war machine harnessed soldiers and statesmen together, in staffs and committees, across the full field of strategic decision. Even American politicians, who at this time made a great effort to “leave war to the professionals,” found themselves compelled to intervene in the details of military decision-making—Roosevelt, for example, ordered the invasion of North Africa in 1942 against the advice of General Marshall and Admiral King.
The frictions which such civil-military fusion at the center must engender are obvious: a careful reading of the Alanbrooke diaries brings them out in depressing completeness. Nonetheless, the nature of war is such that, willy-nilly, this interweaving of civil and military authority must occur. Churchill understood this fundamental fact and proceeded from it. We, on the other hand, have failed to grapple with it, accepting in peacetime the comfortable fiction that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as strengthened and invigorated by the latest set of reforms, will conceive and implement strategy in any future war. We run thereby the very great risk of having civilian leaders every bit as astonished and befuddled at their tasks, as devoid of an organizational trellis to support them, as those French and English politicians whom General Spears witnessed in 1917.
Other lessons and insights await those who dip into Churchill’s own writings, the Gilbert biography, and the memoirs of those who worked with him. Such an endeavor, lightened and enhanced by the glorious English which he wrote and spoke, will not only lead us to see him as an epic figure, it will also open us to the wisdom of the greatest democratic war leader of his century, and perhaps of any. Churchill was neither infallible in his judgments nor invariably prudent in his actions, but one need not succumb to hagiography to learn from his wisdom and example. We will not see his like again, but his legacy is a living one.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 1,417 pp., $40.00.
2 Painting as a Pastime (1950). This pamphlet—a scant 32 pages—has a far wider range, and offers far more insight into Churchill's mind and methods, than one might guess from its title.
3 The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1945 (Norton, 1985).
4 Prelude to Victory (1939). Churchill once remarked to John Colville that to understand the history of World War I one needed only to read this book and its predecessor, Liaison 1914.