Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Churchill as war leader: myths and realities

By Bruce Newsome

Churchill in uniform, 1895

While Churchill was a great orator and political strategist, he was not a great military strategist

Britain has just marked the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, which is anchored in his premiership during the Second World War. We should celebrate a great orator and statesman, but we should not myopically deny Churchill’s limitations as a war leader.

In fact, the celebration of Churchill, by a nostalgic society roiled by separatism and immigration, has been regressive, epitomized by the BBC’s rebroadcast of gushing historical inaccuracies from previous decades (such as the claim that Churchill was a scientist) and Boris Johnson’s self-serving claim that Churchill was brilliant for his articulation of policy rather than his bumbling execution of it, which sounds uncomfortably like the Tony Blair administration’s and the George W. Bush administration’s attempts to identify themselves with Churchill.

Churchill in uniform, 1895

Partly driving Churchill’s confidence in war was his divine perception of his own military skills, which, he believed, he had inherited from his illustrious ancestor - John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. His commission into the 4th Hussars owed more to wealth and his illustrious father’s political influence than aptitude (he failed the entrance into the Military College twice before passing, and was not a great horseman). He spent most of his four years on the Army's active list as a journalist, again through influence more than merit. This choice cut short his real military experience, so he never attended a staff course or a command course.

Yet he felt frustrated with lack of opportunities to prove his supposed divine skills, which he diverted into continuous political administration of defence from 1909 (at least on the Committee for Imperial Defence). This experience gave him wide knowledge of all the military departments, although he took less interest in the military than the politics. After stepping down from the Admiralty in October 1915, due to his administration of the disastrous interventions around the Dardanelles, he took command of a battalion in France, which was militarily undeserved, brief, and quiet. By June 1916 he was back in government.

From then on, he moved in and out of governments and parties, blaming others more than himself, before spending most of the 1930s largely outside of government, writing histories of himself and illustrious forebears. His knowledge and judgment decayed in the 1930s, under the influence of various pseudo-scientists. The Science Museum in London has an exhibition about Churchill’s supposed invention of everything from tanks to radar, but his contribution was to vote on committees that controlled some of the funding: to avoid the narrative fallacy, one should admit his votes for research into ray guns, aerial mines, and other ridiculous schemes.

Going into the Second World War, approaching seventy years of age, he distrusted the younger generation in general, its soldiers in particular, but had not yet proven any military genius himself.

He was one of the few Conservatives to have urged rearmament and opposed appeasement, but otherwise he was aligned with Neville Chamberlain’s deterrent strategy. Both men favored amphibious raids, naval blockade, and aerial bombardment over ground maneuver forces, which would have been needed to defend Europe from invasion and to liberate Europe from occupation.

Both Chamberlain and Churchill fancied that the British air force would deter any enemy in the air, the British navy would defeat any enemy at sea, and the French Army would defeat any enemy armies on the continent. The British Army’s role was limited to territorial defense and commando raids. Churchill was not committed to tanks. To help any French-led counter-offensive into Germany, in November 1939 Churchill issued requirements for 200-ton trench-excavating vehicles, setting off an expensive and useless program that continued into 1943.

Churchill in ruins of Coventry Cathedral

As soon as 19 September 1939, he raised an interest in interrupting Norwegian supplies of iron ore to Germany, the failure of which would perversely propel him into power. Shortly after executing the plan in April 1940, Chamberlain came under increasing criticism from journalists and backbenchers in Parliament, although many would have preferred Chamberlain to hang on or could not imagine a successor.

A final expedition to capture Narvik was still incomplete when the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries on 10 May. Chamberlain chose to resign that evening rather than take the chance of a vote of no confidence. Churchill avoided his share of the blame, helped by the delay in the inevitable end of his operation in Narvik, which was captured on 28 May, six days after the Chiefs of Staff had recommended evacuation.

Within Chamberlain’s party, four persons seemed candidates for the party’s leadership and hence the premiership: Lord Halifax (foreign secretary); R.A.B. Butler (under-secretary); Anthony Eden (Halifax’s predecessor); and Churchill. With Conservatives in a hurry for a replacement, but with few candidates and most of them unwilling (Halifax followed the convention that a Prime Minister could not be chosen from the unelected House of Lords), the party’s elite allowed (rather than voted) Churchill to replace Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The Conservative elite expected his tenure to be short, pending the next crisis.

Churchill formed a coalition with opposition parties (mainly the Labour Party), reduced the role of the legislature, and centralized military authorities under his own person. From 10 May 1940, Churchill served as Prime Minister, Leader of the House of Commons, and Defence Minister. Following Chamberlain’s terminal cancer, Churchill added leadership of the Party too.

Subsequently, the War Cabinet rarely met, usually to endorse whatever Churchill placed before it; Parliament was rarely in session, some of its members were away on war work or even military service, and the rest normatively voiced solidarity rather than criticism. In any case, Churchill was at his best in prepared speeches and the cut-and-thrust of prime minister’s questions, where his oratory belied his competencies behind the scenes. Parliamentary committees met less often than in peacetime, and mostly in secret sessions. Committee members could be critical of government, but the government often delayed or suspended its response, citing the urgency of its work. Outside of parliament, opposition was practically impossible to organize, given government censorship and other emergency powers.

No prime minister since the nineteenth century had enjoyed such powers. These might have been justified, if Churchill had been as brilliant as he believed, but his understanding was always more intuitive than analytical. Most prime ministers had concerned themselves with the politics and economics, and left the military to decide force acquisitions and employment. Yet Churchill involved himself in most military decisions down to the shipping of a tank battalion here, the acquisition of a machine-gun there.

The only uniformed personnel from whom Churchill continued to take military advice personally through the war were Pug Ismay as Military Assistant, Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and chair of the Chiefs of Staff, and Lord Mountbatten as Chief of Combined Operations, but none recalled him as generally accepting of their advice. Eventual victory and his own control of information would obscure the extent of military doubts about Churchill’s administration.

book cover

Churchill was part of the obfuscation. Churchill’s memoirs reproduced many of his own orders to others but few of their replies, giving the impression of a man single-handedly driving victory without criticism. In fact, public servants and politicians frequently led up to Churchill but were forced to revise or take the blame for his decisions. Noble or foolhardy subordinates wasted considerable resources persuading Churchill away from impetuous decisions and towards more careful analysis, but in the meantime Churchill might dismiss his critic and lead the government into serious error. Foreign allies and parliament were more successful at restraining Churchill, but their interventions were slow to develop.

Churchill spoke often of “grand strategy,” and insisted on his own intuition, but his strategies missed more often than they hit, including disastrous interventions in Norway (1940), Greece (1941) - which denuded forces in Italian North Africa and denied a total victory there before the Germans intervened, unnecessary diversion of resources to the Soviet Union, reinforcement of failure in Singapore (1941-1942), and invasion of Italy in 1943 (the longest and most mountainous route to Germany) in the ridiculous hope that it could win the war without invasions of northern Europe.

Most of the time, Churchill regarded aircraft as dominant platforms and was not routinely attentive to ground equipment, except as demonstrations of British productivity and exports to Allies. Even ahead of D-Day, he doubted that tanks would be of any use against artillery; he fancied that bombers would shock defenders to such an extent that they would not resist an invasion of France. In the end, the war was won by ground invasions, while his faith in strategic bombing proved strategically and ethically misplaced.

Churchill was more responsible than any other Briton for the direction of a war that ended later and more expensively than needed, leaving most of Europe under the heel of one of the two great autocracies that had started the war in the first place (the Soviet Union), and leaving Britain bankrupt and beholden to allied and imperial creditors.