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©2021 Jim Werbaneth


December 31, 2021

By Jim Werbaneth


Winston Churchill was the most important figure of World War II, both for his wartime role as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and as a foundational figure in the writing of the war’s history.  He remains generally accepted as one of the greatest Britons of the last thousand years, though the railroad engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel won a BBC poll for the top in 2000.  Churchill’s importance is founded on two cornerstones.  The first is his role as prime minister from May 1940, and the invasion of France and the Low Countries, to his electoral defeat in the summer of 1945.  As a politician and leader, he was widely credited with rallying his country to victory, and even helping to save it in the dark days of the Battle of Britain and the danger of invasion.  The second is in his post-war role as a vital historical voice of World War II history, through his six-volume memoirs of the period.  Yet in both, there is a combination of achievements and deep flaws.

Churchill as historian benefits from his credibility, as the most senior leader of the conflict to survive and write his memoirs.  Franklin Roosevelt died of a stroke on the cusp of victory in Europe, and lacking the literary aspirations and probably talent of Theodore Roosevelt, a central historian himself on the War of 1812, it is doubtful that FDR could have written memoirs with the completeness, clarity and literary quality of Churchill’s.  Josef Stalin lived until 1953, but his adult writings were largely confined to Marxist-Leninist theory.  As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes, the younger Stalin had poetic aspirations, but was sidetracked into a career of thuggery for the cause of revolution.  On the Axis side, Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was killed by partisans, and Tojo was hanged by the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.  His Emperor, implicated in Japanese aggression and determined to be a post-war, non-divine head of state, perhaps wisely remained silent.  Thus Churchill is left as the chief surviving national leader to have a voice and be willing to use it.  Ultimately, he was unique in being both a primary actor of World War II, and equally key in its historiography.

In the latter, his place was enhanced because he was already an established writer, going back to The River War, about Kitchener’s campaign against the Mahdi in Sudan, and then additional historical works such as his History of the English-Speaking Peoples.  He was no stranger to writing for an audience, while simultaneously forging a career as a politician.  There is no doubt too that Churchill was a master of the English language, both in spoken and written form, demonstrating verge, wit, humor and at times an acid tongue and pen.

Yet throughout his career, Churchill was not without detractors or distrust.  He appointment as prime minister upon the failure of Neville Chamberlain and his government was hardly one for unanimous applause, as Lord Halifax, more willing to compromise with Germany to negotiate a peace, was also a strong contender for the office.  Five years later British voters, seeing Churchill as a good war leader whom they did not want to see leading the peace, voting him out in favor of Labour and Clement Atlee.  As Piers Brendon asserts, it was a conscious choice of reconstruction and social programs over empire, housing and the National Health Service over India.  Additionally, as First Lord of the Admiralty in the Asquith government in World War I, Churchill was the prime mover of the disastrous Gallipoli operation.  While others, especially the army and navy commanders Hamilton and Roebeck respectively, bore responsibility for onsite mistakes, Churchill remained a magnet for blame for much of his life.

Churchill is sometimes credited as saying, after World War II, that history would be kind to him.  Naval historian and simulations designer Jack W. Greene has stated to me personally that based on this, he can never fully trust Churchill’s memoirs, and in this he does have a point.  Verifiably too, Churchill is guilty of sins of omission that skew the history badly.  Today, following the revelations of F.W. Winterbotham in The Ultra Secret in 1974, it is common knowledge that Ultra intercepts of German cypher-protected communications were critical to victory in Europe.  Churchill was central to keeping this secret for almost thirty years.  One might argue that it was for operational purposes, to hide the capabilities of Allied wartime and post-war intelligence gathering.  At the same time, Churchill’s silence obscures his decision to allow a devastating German bombing raid to penetrate to the city of Coventry, rather than intercept it and endanger British Enigma decryption.  Had Sir Winston admitted that the he was responsible for Coventry as well as Gallipoli, it is certain that his reputation would have suffered badly.

However, despite his vulnerabilities as an historical voice, Churchill the historical actor was a central figure of World War II, leading his country from its worst crisis to its victory over Nazi Germany; Japan’s surrender would be on Atlee’s watch.  While elements of the British elite, including Halifax, doubted Britain’s ability to survive and win, Churchill’s rhetoric demonstrated a determination to win, while admitting the dangers and difficulties.  He mustered strong leadership skills as a speaker and decision-maker when Britain needed them the most. 

He could also be ruthless as on personnel matters, as when he sacked Sir John Dill as chief of the defense staff after Japan entered the war, leaving him in Washington as the British representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff.  It proved to be a good decision, as Sir Alan Brooke proved a very credible replacement.  In addition, Dill performed remarkably in his new job, with a combination of good grace and diplomacy, so much so that when he died in Washington the Americans buried him in Arlington, and made Dill the only foreigner to be honored there with an equestrian statue.  Therefore Churchill’s demotion of Dill improved the British war effort at the time, and enhanced the nuts and bolts of coalition warfare.

Connected with this, Churchill was keenly aware that as its finances and manpower declined with the strains of a world war, Britain was losing global power, and its role as the primary foe of the Axis.  In the west, he saw American power grow as Britain’s declined precipitously.  While decidedly unhappy, at times even resentful, of this, he did not deny reality. 

When it came to the other major Ally, the Soviet Union, Churchill was a strong anti-Communist.  But he was realistic enough to support it, early and strongly, when it was invaded by the Axis on 22 June 1941.  Famously, when confronted with this conflict of values, Churchill said that if Hitler invaded hell, he would find something nice to say about the devil in the House of Commons.  While he never wavered from his aversion to Communism, as exhibited by his Iron Curtain speech after the war in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill was able to focus on the greater, more immediate danger, and embrace a wartime alliance with a hated enemy, against a common foe.

As a strategist, Churchill was a flawed figure, one capable of driving the professional soldiers and naval officers to distraction.  To use a more modern term, he was a victim of the “good idea fairy,” which seems to have bitten him the first time at Gallipoli.  In the Second World War, his persistence in striking the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe helped lead to unproductive stalemate in Italy, including a bloody, protracted campaign at Casino, and another at Anzio.  Strategically, this strained relations with the Americans, who saw continued emphasis on the Mediterranean, a traditional British area of concern, to be a misplaced effort to safeguard British imperial interests at the expense of taking the war to the Nazis, through northwest Europe.

Perhaps still haunted by Gallipoli, Churchill at times exhibited a strong reluctance to mount a direct amphibious assault on France.  Americans at times saw this as a lack of enthusiasm for attacking the Germans, and the Soviets, who were suffering massive casualties on the Eastern Front, demanded the opening of a second front in France, not Africa or Italy.  British reluctance to invade France before 1944 was based on sound understanding of the difficulties of amphibious warfare and the shipping and manpower needed to make a large operation work, but Churchill’s and Brooke’s shift toward the Mediterranean undercut their arguments. 

Churchill could still afflict his country and the Allies with silly schemes too.  Early in the war, he proposed that the Royal Navy penetrate the Baltic, effectively a German lake, in the face of Luftwaffe airpower and submarines.  This would have necessitated the refit of British warships with scarce steel, and then endangered them in an area of German strength, for no benefits that could not be gained by a more distant blockade.

Another ill-conceived measure was to send the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore in 1941, to deter Japanese aggression.  Two dreadnoughts without significant air cover were totally inadequate to accomplish this, and served only as targets for Japanese torpedo bombers to sink.  Which they did.

Finally, Churchill was over enamored of a proposal to aid the recovery of Burma by invading the Andaman Islands.  This was definitely a bad idea, as amphibious shipping was in short supply due to operations in the Mediterranean, and the need to stockpile it for the much more critical Normandy invasion.  Invading the Andamans might have been good in concept, but in practice would have endangered the Allies’ ability to go into Normandy.

Winston Churchill was certainly a central figure of World War II, and probably the most important, both as an actor and as a founder of its history.  He had his flaws, yes; but one would hardly grasp from reading his words.  History has been kind to him, on merits, but also because he did end up writing it.