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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - Stopping Hitler in 1938: When Churchill Got It Right
CHAPTER TWO - Britain Alone and Churchill’s Fatal Error
CHAPTER THREE - Getting to Know One Another
CHAPTER FOUR - Churchill and the War’s Wrong Turn
CHAPTER FIVE - Waiting for Winston
CHAPTER SIX - Churchill Finally Has to Give In
CHAPTER SEVEN - Churchill and America at War
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1. Churchill, Winston, Sir, 1874-1965—Military leadership. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Great
Britain. 3. Great Britain—Politics and government—1936-1945. 4. Great Britain—Foreign relations—1936-1945. I. Title.
OF THE MAKING of many books there is no end, and the sheer volume of books on a struggle as titanic and world-changing as the Second World War is on a scale epic enough in size to match the importance of the years that they describe.
Consequently in writing on Winston Churchill—about whom whole libraries full of books have been composed—I have had to be more than selective, otherwise this work too would have run into many volumes. Frequently, therefore, I have taken just a paragraph, or sometimes a few pages, or even a whole chapter, to narrate what other authors have written whole volumes on, often in minute detail.
As a result, this book has left out more than it has left in, and so what you have is not a simple chronological account but a story with a purpose, an argument, a tale that has a moral to it.
I would have loved to include far more about the war in the Pacific, as that is a topic naturally of huge interest to Americans, and was, for the United States, a very considerable part of the war indeed. In many of the wartime discussions, the issues of Europe and the Pacific were closely interwoven, including in terms of supplies and logistics. Not only that but, for example, Roosevelt disagreed strongly with Churchill over the prime minister’s quixotic defense of the Indian Empire, the Raj, which Roosevelt rightly saw as an institution whose time should long since have gone—and, indeed, it did go in 1947, since the postwar Labour government fully agreed with the president on such issues.
I should also add that southern and eastern Asia, major additions to the narrative of this book, are beyond your author’s sphere of knowledge, which is not the case with either Europe or the Middle East. I can write with understanding about, for instance, the Ljubljana Gap in the Adriatic, an area of much strategic dispute between Churchill and the Americans, not only because I have studied the region academically but because I have also been there personally, not to mention to the beaches of Normandy where D-day was fought, or to various Middle Eastern deserts where battles have been fought not just in the 1940s but for millennia. Of the Burma Road or the Andaman Islands, or of such places famous in US history as Corregidor or the Coral Sea, I am sadly unfamiliar.
So this book, while not short, is by nature selective. But I think it tells a fascinating tale, one that shaped the world we live in today; even well into the twenty-first century we remain as much as ever in the world created by the way in which the Second World War was fought and won, and by the decisions that giants such as Winston Churchill in particular made.
Churchill would himself start each of his wartime volumes with a theme of the work. Perhaps we can do the same here, and in the same style:
HOW WINSTON CHURCHILL WAS RIGHT OVER MUNICH
UNDERSTOOD THE REAL ISSUES ABOUT HITLER
REALIZED WAR WAS ABOUT ACTUALLY FIGHTING YOUR ENEMY
SAVED BRITAIN FROM DEFEAT FROM THE NAZIS IN 1940
KNEW THAT VICTORY WOULD ONLY COME WITH AMERICAN HELP
GAVE THE BRITISH THE MORALE TO HANG ON UNTIL THEN
AND PROVED FOREVER HIS SHEER GENIUS
NEVERTHELESS MADE SOME BIG STRATEGIC BLUNDERS IN 1941
REJOICED WHEN AMERICA FINALLY ENTERED THE WAR
YET TRAGICALLY FAILED TO UNDERSTAND
HOW TRULY POWERFUL ON AN UNPRECEDENTED SCALE
AND HOW TRANSFORMATIVE AMERICA WOULD BE
SO KEPT TO THE OLD WAR-WINNING WAYS OF
HIS GREAT ANCESTORS AND BRITONS BEFORE HIM
AND IN SO DOING
DELAYED THE US MILITARY PLANS THAT WOULD
IN ALL LIKELIHOOD HAVE WON THE WAR YEARS EARLIER
AND SAVED MILLIONS OF LIVES IN THE PROCESS
INCLUDING THOSE OF COUNTLESS JEWS
AS CHURCHILL FINALLY SAW
WOULD HAVE PREVENTED STALIN FROM BEING
THE REAL WINNER OF THE WAR IN EUROPE
BECAUSE VICTORY THERE HAD BEEN DELAYED
AND BY SO DOING
SHOWED HIS TRAGIC FLAWS
That, to use the Churchillian way of stating it, is the moral of this book!
Setting the Scene
IT WAS DECEMBER 1941. News from North Africa was bad. “Strategic withdrawals,” otherwise known as military defeats, were the order of the day. It was more than likely that Moscow would also fall, and the USSR, Britain’s only ally of any significance, would disintegrate, leaving Hitler an empire stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean. The British were hanging on, but by a thread.
So when a Welsh physician turned in excitement to his teenage daughter and said, “Now we will win the war!” people would have had good cause to believe him sadly deluded.
But the Welshman, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who had written a book during the London Blitz, Why Does God Allow War?, was right when he told his daughter, my mother, the good news. For the war was now won—the United States had finally decided to enter in on Britain’s side, and the United Kingdom was no longer in danger of defeat. Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States was an answer to all Britain’s hopes and dreams since Churchill had become prime minister in May 1940, and a vindication for those who saw the war as a struggle between freedom and tyranny. The most powerful democracy in the world was engaged at last. Victory was still a long way off—not until May 1945 in Europe and later still in the Pacific—but eventual victory was now certain.
There are many myths about the Second World War. One of these is that Churchill was the victor, the man who won it for freedom, democracy, and liberty from tyranny. But as we shall see, this is nowhere near the case, courageous and daring as Churchill most certainly was.
For the truth is otherwise—the real winners of World War II were the United States and the Soviet Union, the two postwar superpowers, and, as is obvious, only the first of these two nations was a democracy. The two major fronts of the war were the Americans against the Japanese in the Pacific, and the Russians against the Germans in Europe, on the Eastern Front. While Ike, Montgomery, and the sixty or so divisions under their command in Western Europe were fighting the Germans, four hundred divisions were engaged in a vicious, Darwinian struggle between Hitler’s Reich on the one hand and Stalin’s Soviet Union on the other. Compared to that struggle, and the large-scale barbarity and carelessness for human life with which it was fought, even D-day and the Battle of the Bulge were, in comparison, small potatoes.
So while this book is going to concentrate on Churchill heavily, and the decisions that he made, we do need first to set Churchill in the wider context of the Second World War itself, since we in the West are still, decades later, prone to believe convenient myths, as opposed to what really happened during the war; fans of Churchill, like myself, sadly being among the worst offenders.
A few statistics (courtesy of Norman Davies’s definitive book Europe at War) show this beyond question.
Between 1939 and 1945 around 144,000 British servicemen lost their lives in the European part of the conflict. Between 1941 and 1945, a shorter period, 143,000 Americans similarly died. However, Soviet deaths numbered eleven million, which is just under forty times as many fatalities as the British and American losses combined.
Churchill was rightly proud of the wonderful British victory at El Alamein in 1942, the final turning of the tide against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and a victory that caused Churchill to order the ringing of bells across Britain. It was a much-needed boost to sagging British morale, and has been rightly remembered by people in the United Kingdom ever since, especially as it was probably the last major battle won by Britain without US aid during the rest of the war.
But the total death toll for El Alamein was 4,650. Take another Allied campaign we all know in the West: Market Garden, the failure to capture Arnhem, the famous “Bridge Too Far” in the book and film of the same name. There total deaths were 16,000, a toll almost four times as high.
Take by contrast some of the battles between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front.
The battle of Kursk, in 1943—which we will see later on as possibly the most important in the whole war in Europe—saw 325,000 deaths, or, to put it another way, just over twenty times as many fatalities as Market Garden, and seventy times as many as the battle of El Alamein, an encounter far more famous in the West than the infinitely more important and considerably more bloodthirsty battle of Kursk, just a few months later.
We have now heard of the siege of Stalingrad, perhaps because of the recent well-received movie Enemy at the Gates, which does actually manage to give a good account, for a Hollywood production, of the chaos and terror that the siege of Stalingrad must have engendered among its participants. It is reckoned that in the siege alone some 973,000 people died (and possibly more than that).
Contrast that to the 132,000 deaths in Operation Overlord in 1944, or the 38,000 deaths during the Battle of the Bulge. Now, 132,000 Allied losses on the beaches of Normandy is a lot of people, and we do not need to have watched Saving Private Ryan to know the bravery and heroism of those who stormed the beaches and who gave their lives to create a bridgehead in France that would take the liberation of Western Europe one stage further. But the total mortalities come to just under an eighth of the figure at Stalingrad. This gives us a very different perspective altogether. To put it another way, of the 3,500,000 German soldiers who were killed in battle, only 15 percent were killed at the hands of American troops. I was engrossed by the superb TV series Band of Brothers, but Soviet troops killed well over five times as many Germans as their brave American equivalents did (taking into account those Germans killed by British and other Allied forces).
At their peak, the Americans were producing a new tank every five minutes. Only one other country came anything close to this staggering level of logistical production, and that was the Soviet Union, mobilized to the very fullest possible capacity because of the totalitarian nature of the regime. Norman Davies’s Europe at War, Richard Overy’s exhaustive Why the Allies Won, and more detailed studies, such as Rodric Braithwaite’s exciting Moscow 1941, show this very clearly. We tend to think of wars being won on the field of battle, and it is certainly true that logistical history, describing tank production, aircraft statistics, and the like, is nowhere near as good a read as tales of bravery on the battlefield.
But without the equipment, no soldier, sailor, or pilot can ever win anything. As Richard Overy demonstrates, the fact that by the end of the war, the Allies could replicate all their tank losses, whereas the Germans were not merely unable to do the same but were also running out of fuel and still having to use horses (which needed increasingly nonexistent fodder to stay alive), shows that however boring statistical history might be in comparison, factories are every bit as vital for winning modern technological warfare as generals and soldiers on the ground.
(Much of this also applies to the war in the Pacific, with which most American readers of this book are doubtless very familiar. I will deal with the conflict against Japan in parts of this book, as it is vital to gaining a proper perspective of the whole struggle. I do have to admit, however, that my knowledge of Europe is far greater than that of Asia, and correspondingly of the war in those places as well. My coverage will therefore be more political than technical/strategic, which I hope that Asia specialists among my readers will forgive.)
We are all rightly and regularly reminded of the six million entirely innocent Jews butchered in the Shoah, or Holocaust. We should certainly never forget them, and twenty-first-century Europe is massively the poorer culturally, artistically, and in countless other ways for its drastically reduced Jewish population, the fundamental immorality of the killing quite apart.
But how many of us know that twenty-seven million Russians were also killed (civilians as well as military) during the same time period? That is four and a half times as many Russian deaths as Jewish if taken literally, although there must be some double counting in those statistics somewhere. Either way, though, the number of Russians killed exceeds that of Jewish deaths by a considerable margin. To the Nazis, Slavs were as much Untermenschen, or inferior human beings, as Jews; and as Laurence Rees’s book and TV series, War of the Century, reminds us, German troops, or the Wehrmacht, as well as the SS, did not hesitate to massacre Russians wholesale with the same deliberate zeal and callousness with which they put Jews into concentration camps and killed them there.
Here though we come to one of the key myths of the Second World War.
Here too we come to an area where I disagree strongly with those “revisionists” who seek to criticize Churchill, especially for his conduct during the war. As will be apparent, I am no apologist for Churchill, or for many of his wartime mistakes. But the reason why this book is called Winston Churchill: The Flawed Genius of World War II is that, perhaps for the first time, you can read an account of not just why he was wrong—as the revisionists have done, the distinguished British historian John Charmley included—but also where he was right.
This is therefore an unashamedly postrevisionist book, and in that light I am so grateful to my publishers for giving the book a title that is both accurate and helpful. Early lives tend, alas, to be hagiographies of a hero with no faults, and, in the case of Churchill, a genuine hero who set the tone for what followed by his own monumental History of the Second World War, which for millions of people around the world became the definitive account, all the more so because Roosevelt died before the war ended and thus left no memoirs, and Stalin, almost by definition, was a Soviet dictator who kept truth ruthlessly suppressed, as did his successors right through until the Gorbachev era of openness in the 1980s. For many today, therefore, as well as for the immediate postwar generation of grateful survivors, Churchill’s version is the story of what happened and why.
It was not until the 1960s that Britain became more liberal in what it allowed historians to see, with a rule introduced that would make public all but the most secret intelligence archives thirty years after the original documents were written. In the case of World War II, however, the British government of the day in fact permitted all declassified documents out early, to the great joy of historians everywhere.
Churchill of course had no idea that this would happen when he penned his six-volume history back in the 1940s and 1950s, so he equally had no inkling that his very selective quotations, all of which put him in the most favorable light possible, would ever be available in their original form to future generations, who could then read them to check the veracity of what he was writing. Now we can do this, and thanks to Cambridge historian David Reynolds’s book In Command of History, based upon the Churchill archives in that city, we can now tell very precisely indeed how Churchill doctored the wartime story for publication, and which documents he quoted only selectively or studiously ignored.
Needless to say, when historians did see the real originals, from the early 1970s onwards, they realized how selective Churchill had been. So we then had a new generation of writers who put Churchill in a very different light, not always to his advantage. Unfortunately, while some, most notably John Charmley, were scholarly, others, such as Alan Clark, one of Margaret Thatcher’s more notorious and louche ministers, were sensationalist, arguing, for example, that Britain should have done a deal with Hitler in 1940 rather than continue the conflict. There was also a strong anti-American tone in these books, regretting the fact that the war made the United States the overwhelmingly predominant global power, as if Britain could have continued some kind of parity or even superiority, as was the case pre-1914.
Unfortunately for getting an objective overview of Churchill, the sheer immorality of Clark’s suggestion of a deal with Hitler, and the utter fantasy that Britain could somehow have kept its empire and maintained parity with the United States (the latter case being made even by serious historians) blinded people to Churchill’s very real flaws. Since those who criticized him were often people with unacceptable views, the Churchillian version of events remained unchallenged.
What has surely made a real difference is twofold, and this is important in terms of the background to this book.
First, since Gorbachev liberalized the USSR in the 1980s, we have been able to find out what really happened on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945 (and somewhat before, such as in 1938). This has challenged the Churchill version as well as the complete Western myopia on the overwhelming contribution that the Soviets made to Allied victory, and against Germany in particular. The casualties I quoted at the beginning of this introduction tell it all, and do so, for the first time, in proper perspective. As I said some pages back, the reality is that the Americans won against the Japanese and the Soviets against the Germans, and all else were really sideshows in comparison to those two titanic struggles. To the ultimate victory, Churchill’s brave stand against Hitler was pivotal in 1940 and 1941, when Britain was at its direst hour of peril, but after that the big victories and the final ending were all down not to Britain but to the United States and the USSR, not coincidentally the two postwar superpowers.
Second, the works of pioneer historians such as the late Robert Rhodes James, whose 1970 Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939 showed that you do not have to denigrate Churchill in 1940 to show that up until that date, he had, to say the very least of it, an erratic and deeply checkered career. Those who regarded him up until 1940 as a dangerous and unreliable buccaneer had a good point. They had plenty of evidence to back their hypothesis.
But just because he was an egotistical adventurer until 1940 does not take away from his transformative ability to rescue Britain from Nazi conquest in 1940-41.
In other words, as this book will tell, he was both flawed and a genius in equal measure at the same time. A university contemporary has gained enormous academic coverage of his “new perspective” on the theologically involved subject of Second Temple Judaism and its ramifications for how we perceive the New Testament. What you are about to read is, I trust, a sympathetic but not uncritical new perspective on Churchill in the Second World War, and in his relations with the United States in particular.
So, with the critical background now laid, let us get on with the story.
Stopping Hitler in 1938: When Churchill Got It Right
THE PAPERBACK VERSION of the official biography of Winston Churchill, by Martin Gilbert, has the right title for its fifth volume: The Wilderness Years. From 1931 to 1939, Churchill’s party was in office but he was not.
The notion of the prophet in the wilderness, the lone voice of truth, crying out the dangers of Hitler and the Third Reich is a very romantic one, and it is the view of Churchill that prevails in the popular imagination, and with excellent cause. Churchill was right about Hitler and the Nazi menace, and had he been listened to, instead of being ignored as some kind of extinct volcano, as was the case, life would have been mightily different indeed, and all for the better.
However, as we will see throughout this book, things were not that simple, as they never are.
Historiography—the study of the writing of history—is like all such disciplines often something tediously boring and read only by specialists. Since, despite being a professional historian myself, I tend to empathize with such a view, I will avoid as much as possible what is often a fairly arcane and obscure debate, in order to concentrate on the real story. But in the case of Winston Churchill, so great and towering a figure of the twentieth century, our subject has attracted so much controversy over the years that we cannot avoid the debate about how he has been seen by historians in the forty-plus years since his death in 1965.
Churchill was himself an historian—his epic multivolume life of his illustrious ancestor, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, one of the most successful and outstanding military commanders Britain has ever produced, forms one of the best historical biographies ever written, even despite the natural bias of the author, since there was no prouder a descendant of Marlborough than Winston Churchill himself.
So when it came to describing the story of World War II, Churchill immediately realized the importance of history itself. He more than most statesmen was aware how vital it was to be seen by historians to be right, and for your own version of events to be seen as the only one possible. All politicians, not to mention those in all spheres of life, writing their autobiography do this. But as Churchill added, history would be on his side because he was the person who would write the history.
For this, lesser lights, your own author included, have profound cause to be thankful. Churchill kept as many documents as possible, every one with an eye to the history books he would write once the war was over. In fact, even as early as the First World War he was already doing this—as a former prime minister, Arthur Balfour, once quipped, Churchill was writing a book about himself and calling it The World Crisis. Few people have written as many volumes of autobiography as Churchill, and he did so unhesitatingly from his early twenties, with his exploits on colonial battlefields, onwards.
Therefore for many of us, our view of the buildup to World War II, and of the events during it, including the wartime origins of the subsequent Cold War, are all formed by Winston Churchill’s own magnum opus, his majestic six-volume work, The Second World War. The fact that he gave it such a title is in itself significant. What appears to be an objective history of the war—rather like the countless official histories that military historians produced in both Britain and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s—is in essence nothing of the kind. It is, in reality, Churchill’s war memoirs, not so much an overall picture of the war but about his own, completely vital and pivotal role within it, as the man who was right about Hitler in the 1930s, to his amazing years in command of the United Kingdom as prime minister and minister of defense from 1940 to 1945.