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"He Had No Use for Second Best" Print E-mail
Memoirs of Churchill's Private Secretary, 1940-1955

Sir John Colville, known as "Jock" (1915-1987), was an English civil servant who served three prime ministers: Chamberlain, Churchill and Attlee. He was assistant private secretary to Churchill in 1940-41 and 1943-45 and joint principal private secretary in 1951-55. His diaries, Fringes of Power, are a standard primary source. These remarks were delivered at the Pinafore Room, Savoy Hotel, London, on 22 May 1983 during the First Churchill Tour, conducted by the then-International Churchill Society.


My wife and I are most grateful for your kind invitation here to the Pinafore Room, which as you know is the meeting place of The Other Club. In fact, we only met last a fortnight ago. I should like to introduce the black cat, over on my left. If there should ever happen to be 13 people to dinner at the club (Winston didn't think 13 was the right number to sit down), the black cat is put at the end of the table to make 14. It doesn't often happen, but it was Sir Winston's own idea, and the cat is there all year round primarily for that reason.

In March 1941, Winston Churchill believed that winning the war was the first priority. He received a text from Lord Halifax, our Ambassador in Washington, of an after-dinner speech, which Halifax was proposing to make about war aims. Churchill's only comment on this long speech was sent by telegram: "It is pretty tough to reshape human society in an after-dinner speech." The same goes for me in a different context tonight. I know it's not expected of me to reshape human society, desirable as that might well be. But trying to give you an impression of Winston Churchill in 20 minutes or so is quite a tall order - especially if one considers that by the time it is completed, Martin Gilbert's official life of Churchill will run to eight million words.

Churchill was certainly the greatest Anglo-American who ever lived, unless you insist that George Washington was an Anglo- American. He had faults, of course. All human beings do. He sometimes pursued with vigour policies that with hindsight we can see to have been mistaken: Especially, I think, with regard to India.

But it is curious how often, equally with hindsight, we can see that policies savagely criticised at the time were in fact inspirations based on what now seems to have been prophetic wisdom. Gallipoli is an obvious example. Churchill's unavailing efforts to check the Bolshevik flood in 1919 is another. His opposition to the American plan for a landing on the south of France in August 1944 is a third. I believe that if Churchill's proposals had been accepted in 1944 the war would have ended sooner.

Tonight I'm going to try to select just a few of Churchill's characteristics, and to illustrate them. If anybody wants to ask me any questions about them or about the things I have no time to mention, I shall do my best to answer them.

First and foremost Churchill, though he was often petulant and certainly self-centered, and could be most unbelievably inconsiderate, had a deep and genuine humanity that won the affection of all who ever served with or under him. His anger could be like a raging torrent, but he never let the sun go down without making amends. On one occasion—I think it was 1940—he was very angry with me. I forget what I'd done, something that upset him, and he was furious and extremely ill tempered and very unpleasant all day. Then about two in the morning he rang the bell and said, "I want to send a telegram to the Presidenttake it down." I can't do shorthand; anyhow he always sent for a shorthand typist, so I suggested this to him. "No," he said, "it's very short, you take it down." I did so, and it was quite short. I handed it to him and he said, "What beautiful handwriting you've gotmuch better than any private secretary I've ever had."

Now that wasn't true, but it was his way of making amends after having been perfectly beastly all day. It was typically Churchillian. He was a man of contrasts: impatient, yet understanding; obstinate, yet open to conviction; fierce, but never vindictive. When he formed a view he held it firmly, but he knew the importance of flexibility. He once wrote, "The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose." That's as good an example as I can think of for flexibility.

He was faithful to old friendssometimes too faithful. He loved young people, and he always talked to them as if they were his contemporaries. I remember in the gunroom of the battleship King George V, Churchill spending an hour with the midshipmen, encouraging them to ask him every sort of question about the war and about politics. They quite forgot he was the Prime Minister, and it was really marvelous to listen to him. He did the same every year with the Harrow boys. He would go round to Harrow for the annual Churchill concert, when they sang the songs he loved, and afterwards he would talk to the boys who'd cluster around him, the senior boys. It was really rather remarkable to listen to him. They lost all shyness and he'd talk to them absolutely as an equal.

He frequently spoke of the kindnesses he had received when he was young, but he never spoke of the snubs and the setbacks, which he received—and there were many of them because he was an exceedingly unpopular young man. When he was at 10 Downing Street there was always laughter in the corridors, even in the darkest and most difficult times.

He loved animals, which I always think is a good sign in anybody. He had a succession of what I thought were perfectly revolting poodles. I'm sure Mr. Golding will remember Rufus—he was a horror. And then there were his favourite black swans on the lake at Chartwell. There were those huge goldfish in the pond out of doors that used to come when he tapped on the stones. There were the tropical fish in glass tanks inside, and always at least one cat about. His favourite was the "marmalade cat." (I called it a ginger cat but he always called it the marmalade cat.)

I remember one day in 1941, when things were going very badly. We'd had to evacuate Greece; Crete was falling; Lord Beaverbrook was being difficult; we'd lost several ships in the Mediterranean. I was alone at Chartwell with Churchill, in the cottage he'd built with his own handsthe big house had been closed up for the war. We were at lunch and Churchill was in a very sombre mood. He got hold of the marmalade cat and he put it on a chair on his right-hand side, and put me on his left-hand side. (The cat had precedence.) All through lunch he was really thinking about a very important speech he was going to have to make in the House of Commons the next day, and under his breath I could hear him almost rehearsing this speech. But in the top of his voice he was talking to the cat. He was saying, "Dear cat, it's so sad that in wartime I can't give you any cream and that sort." He didn't address a word to me throughout lunch. The cat was the only object of his conversation. He once said to his daughter Mary, as he was gently prodding a pig in the sty at the farm at Chartwell, "You know, dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, but pigs treat you as an equal."

He was of course famous for his eloquence and the quickness of his wit. Of his eloquence I have no need to remind you. But I did have the good fortune to listen to almost all his 1940 speeches in the House of Commons at the time he delivered them. I have to admit that when he dictated these great speeches he always dictated straight onto the typewriter. He used to correct them in red ink or blue ink, and then they would be typed out in a special way [WSC called it "Speech Form"-Ed.], sort of like the Psalms—the way he liked to read them out in the House of Commons. He always insisted that the original be thrown into the wastepaper basket, and this was more than I could bear. One day I just stole one of these speeches out of the basket. It happened to be the one in which he said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Although my conscience did not let me take out the last few pages I took the first 12, and those words were on one of the last few. However, I have the rest of the speech. My conscience pricked me and years later after the war I confessed what I'd done. I said I'd give it back, for the archives. Winston looked at me across the table—I was lunching with him alone at Hyde Park Gateand he said, "I do believe you are one of the wise virgins." And of course I was, because that speech is unique. Nobody else has got it or any other speech of that kind.

Those speeches stirred men's souls with the fire of great poetry. They were poetry. I think in that connection it is appropriate to quote the words spoken by another very great English Prime Minister, the Younger Pitt: "Eloquence is like the flame; it requires fuel to feed it, motion to excite it, and it brightens as it burns." There's nobody to whom that can be more appropriately applied than Winston Churchill.

There are, of course, countless examples of his wit. A lot of them, I must say, are entirely apocryphal. Yet I will just mention two. 

On one occasion, which I think I did put in my book [The Churchillians in UK; Winston Churchill and his Inner Circle in USA.-Ed.] was the night before Hitler invaded Russia. I was at Chequers with Churchill and I was walking with him up and down the croquet lawn, trying hopefully but unsuccessfully to get him to sign some dreadfully dreary documents, which he wouldn't look at. He'd been reading the Ultra signals—we called them "Boniface" but the Admiralty called them Ultra—the decrypts of the German Air Force code. He said, "It is quite evident now, and there is no doubt about it, that that man is going to invade the Soviet Union." So I, for want of anything better to say, said, "Well, that's going to be difficult for you, because after all you were the person who tried to raise an army against the Bolsheviks in 1919, and are well known as the leading anti-Communist in the western world. Won't it be very difficult for you to say something in support of them?"

"My dear boy," he said, "if Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons!" That was his immediate response. The other one I always liked, and I did happen to hear it, was in the House of Commons, when a rather nice Labour former cabinet minister called Wilfred Paling was so incensed by something Churchill said in one of his speeches that he shouted across the floor of the House: "DIRTY DOG!". Churchill paused and said, "The Rt. Hon Member should remember what dirty dogs do to palings." That was I think very quick!

Sometimes Churchill seemed to me to have the characteristics of the Old Testament prophets—Isaiah perhaps, but certainly never Jeremiah. He occasionally had an uncanny prescience about the future. In 1925, 20 years before it happened, he wrote about nuclear weapons and pilotless aircraft. And I had the most uncanny experience myself.

I think it was in 1953. I went up to his bedroom one morning to talk about something, and he was shaving. He said to me, "Today is the 24th of January." I said yes, and he said, "It's the day my father died." I said something suitable, and he went on, "It's the day I shall die, too."

There wasn't any comment I could make. I just said yes and went on with whatever it was he wanted me for. But I remembered it—it stuck in my memory. Well, 12 or 13 years later, I think it was on the 10th of January 1965, they rang me up from Hyde Park Gate to say that he'd had a stroke—a big, final stroke — and that the doctor said there was no chance of his surviving. My wife will bear me out, as she was in the room—I said, "He won't die until the 24th." This was on the 10th. Ten minutes later they rang up from Sandringham, because the Queen's private secretary didn't want to bother Hyde Park Gate in case things were happening. They thought that I might know something, since I was executer and trustee. The private secretary said, "Do you know the latest about Sir Winston?" I said yes, I'd heard from Number Ten, and again I said that he wouldn't die until the 24th. Martin Charteris who was the secretary remembers to this day that I said that.

Churchill lay in a coma for 14 days and on the 24th of January he died. I can't explain it—it may be coincidence. But it is, I think, the oddest single experience I've ever had in my life.

As I'm speaking to a largely American audience, I should like to say something about Churchill's love of and very close relationship with the United States. First let me say that here again he had the gift of prophecy. In 1938 he broadcast to a still largely isolationist America this question: "Can peace, goodwill and confidence be built upon submission to wrongdoing backed by force?" Of course he was thinking of Hitler—but today the United States and the United Kingdom are one in asking that very same question in relation to the Soviet Union. Last year we had strong American support in replying to the same question asked by an arrogant South American dictatorship in the South Atlantic.

Years ago there was published a very popular and highly amusing satire on English history called 1066 And All That. I sometimes wish an entertaining American satirist—and you've got a great many in your country—would write a book entitled 1776 And All That. It would have been a particularly useful exercise in the early 1940s, for it was the American obsession with colonialism, which in the later stages of the war almost led to a breakdown of our close friendship and alliance, though it never fatally affected the personal relationship of Churchill and Roosevelt.

At the end of 1943, after the Teheran Conference, and of course still more at Yalta 14 months later, Churchill sadly noted that the State Department and even the President himself were becoming obsessed with the idea that Britain's principal war objective was the maintenance and perhaps even the extension of the British Empire. This was, I honestly think, an historic prejudice, dating from "1776 And All That." Because we didn't really think that at all, and certainly Churchill didn't, although he had a blind spot, I'll admit, about India.

The most remarkable ambitions were ascribed to us in Washingtonthat we wanted to "take over Greece," and things like that, even by friends such as Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS. These ideas were not believed by the American chiefs of staff, who were entirely sensible over the whole thing. The British Empire was in any case sure to be dissolved. I think we all realized that. But it had to be done peacefully—and peacefully it indeed was dissolved.

Some may now think, as Churchill did, that the process was a little too rapid. Indeed, the anarchy that prevails in parts of Africa today, consequent on the abdication of our authority and the suspension of the laws we brought with us to these countries, tells its own sad tale. But toward the end of the war, what upset Churchill was the growing conviction, in Washington and particularly in the State Department from 1944 onwards, that the most powerful and trustworthy American ally of the future was the Soviet Union; and the belief—not too much concealed—that the road to peace and prosperity was cooperation with Russia.

Now this was something that pained Churchill more, I think, than anything else. At Yalta, when the American delegation discussed with the Russians the future of Hong Kong without even telling usand after all it was a British colonyChurchill realized that this curious fantasy, unchecked by a dying President no longer in full command either of himself or his government, was a formidable menace to the western world. He came back from Yalta. I didn't go with him, but I met him at the airport and asked, "How did it go?" He said, "It's a tragedy. And it's a tragedy because my dear friend President Roosevelt is a dying man."

I tell you that story, and don't think I'm telling it in any anti-American way, because I just think it shows how misunderstandings can arise on a totally false basis of belief. It was fantasy—although it certainly never affected Churchill's deep affection for America, or his belief in the destiny of what he called "The Great Republic." He told me again and again that he believed the future to be held in the hands of the United States. And that, as Lend-Lease and Marshall Aid proved, the generosity of their spirit if not always the wisdom of their government was the main hope of mankind in the future. 
Churchill and His Generals: The Tasks of Supreme Command Print E-mail
"Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding military calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war....His uneasy relationship with his generals stemmed, in large part, from his willingness to pick commanders who disagreed with him—and who often did so violently."

Eliot A. Cohen

This paper was presented at the 1993 International Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., and has been updated in a few places to reflect developments and publications since. Dr. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

"Gathering of Eagles,"
North Africa, 8 June 1943, reviewing plans for future operations. Seated. Left to right: Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, General Brooke, Churchill, General Marshall, General Eisenhower. Standing behind, left to right: Air Chief Marshal Portal, Admiral Cunningham, General Alexander and (leaning forward) General Montgomery.

Eliot A. Cohen

This paper was presented at the 1993 International Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., and has been updated in a few places to reflect developments and publications since. Dr. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

G.R. Elton wrote: "There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill: whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man."1 Judged by Elton's standards, many contemporary historians fail. For the last several decades, Churchill's war leadership has come under increasingly severe attack, particularly in certain savage and perverse biographies during the early 1990s.

The spate of criticism represents merely one of several waves of postwar attacks on Churchill as warlord. The first surge of criticism came primarily from military authors, in particular Churchill's own chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke. The publication of his diaries in the late 1950s shocked readers, who discovered in entries Brooke himself retrospectively described as "liverish" that all had not gone smoothly between WSC and his generals. A fresh round of controversy was spurred by publication of the unexpurgated diaries in 2001.

In his first published work, Brooke had withheld some of the more pointed criticisms of the Prime Minister, which he often wrote after late-night arguments with Churchill. If anything, his anger grew as the war went on. On 10 September 1944 he wrote in his diary (an entry not known until the 2001 version:

[Churchill] has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense. I find it hard to remain civil. And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of this world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no conception what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war! It is far better that the world should never know and never suspect the feet of clay on that otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again....Never have I admired and disliked a man simultaneously to the same extent.2

Others expressed themselves in language more temperate, but had, one suspects, no less severe opinions. Many of the field marshals and admirals of World War II came away nursing the bruises that inevitably came their way in dealing with Churchill. They deplored his excessive interest in what struck them as properly military detail; they feared his imagination and its restless probing for new courses of action. But perhaps they resented most of all his certainty of their fallibility.

Norman Brook, secretary of the Cabinet under Churchill, wrote to Hastings Ismay, the former secretary to the Chiefs of Staff, a revealing observation: "Churchill has said to me, in private conversation, that this was partly due to the extent to which the Generals had been discredited in the First War—which meant that, in the Second War, their successors could not pretend to be professionally infallible."3 Or as Churchill himself wrote when deprecating the American proposal for appointing a single Supreme Allied Commander for the war in Northwest Europe,

This all looks very simple from a distance and appeals to the American sense of logic. However in practice it is found not sufficient for a Government to give a General a directive to beat the enemy and wait to see what happens. The matter is much more complicated. The General may well be below the level of his task, and has often been found so.4

One broad criticism of Churchill as warlord was that he meddled, incurably and unforgivably, in the professional affairs of his military advisers. A second wave of criticism comes from those who have pored over the documents at some distance from the actual events. Thus, David Reynolds writes of Britain's "decision" to fight on in 1940 as "right policy, wrong reasons." Writing of Churchill elsewhere as "a romantic militarist," he deplores with mock pathos the fate of "young whippersnappers who have the temerity to read the documents and then ask awkward questions!"5

Other historians have less resort to humor. Churchill was "seldom consistent and was easily carried away."6 Small wonder, then that "the conduct of war emerged, not from any one "grand plan" or strategy, but out of "a series of conflicting and changing views, misunderstandings, personal interests and confusions."7 In the end, in this view, Churchill, "like all men, however great, was powerless to alter the great decisions of history."8

For the new historians, it would seem that Churchill's sins have to do less with bullying and meddling—few contemporary scholars are inclined to carry a brief for generals—than with lack of foresight or inability to stick to a plan. When Churchill was right, it was for the wrong reasons; if he changed his mind, and he did so frequently, it was a sign of febrile instability; if he described the strategic position of the Allies in compelling prose, it was a sham that covered up chaotic forces that he had neither the wisdom nor the fixity of purpose to master.

Thus we have two indictments, no less severe than those of the generals: Churchill failed as strategist because he did not devise a coherent strategy for the war. Perhaps no one can, some of these historians might argue; in that case, Churchill deserves removal from his pedestal because he misled his contemporaries and at least one succeeding generation into believing otherwise.

One may sympathize with Churchill's critics. The generals suffered the indignities of working with a man who kept them up late while hounding them with questions of detail. Even less forgivable, one suspects, were such barbs as his remark about confronting, in his Chief of Imperial General Staff, "the dead hand of inanition," or his observation, on watching the Chiefs of Staff file out of a meeting, "I have to wage modern war with ancient weapons."9 Bearing the responsibilities they shouldered, knowing better than anyone the strains suffered by a force too often fighting at a disadvantage, no wonder they seethed with discontent.

The historians also have some excuse for their impatience. The stifling weight of pro-Churchill orthodoxy that dominated not only historiography but public opinion for decades after the Second World War provoked a natural reaction from a class naturally skeptical of political leaders. All the more irritating to many professional historians have been the contemporary political leaders who have declared their reverence for Churchill. Surely, some denizens of faculty clubs and senior common rooms must think that anyone acclaimed as a hero by Dan Quayle, Caspar Weinberger or Margaret Thatcher cannot deserve the uniquely glorious reputation of Winston Churchill!

What is Strategy?

The generals may have suffered from their excessive closeness to a man who made excruciating demands upon their energies, time, and patience. The dons may have let the temptations of donnish life, which rewards swipes at historical orthodoxy and deprecates the Great Man theory of history, get the better of them. But a deeper explanation for the antipathy of these two groups to Churchill lies, I suspect, in their picture of what it is to make strategy.

The generals have in mind a concept of civil-military relations to which we still, amazingly, pay lip service: a world in which civilians provide resources, set goals, and step out of the way to let professionals do their professional work. In such a view, a politician has no more business getting involved in strategy than a dental patient has in mixing the amalgam that goes into a cavity. Brooke's exasperation speaks for more than one military leader:

After listening to the arguments put forward during the last two days I feel more like entering a lunatic asylum or nursing home than continuing with my present job. I am absolutely disgusted with politicians [sic] methods of waging war! Why will they imagine they are experts at a job they know nothing about! It is lamentable to listen to them!10

The anti-Churchill historians, on the other hand, either think that strategy cannot exist, or that when done properly it consists of pristine and unchangeable blueprints. Most of them see so much muddle and inconsistency that they find the idea of any fixed policy laughable; others scorn statesmen for failing to reduce the problems they confront to the neatness of a graduate term paper.

In the years after the first Iraq War, in which politicians (seemingly) left military matters in the hands of generals and won a stunning victory thereby, such views may have seemed more attractive than they might have in the early 1940s. In fact, both groups misgauge the real problem of formulating strategy, which Churchill himself described more aptly than anyone. It has become the fashion to scorn Churchill's memoirs of the First and Second World Wars as a true account of his activities and their consequences.

Such caution is well taken, but Churchill's writings in these volumes, and in his biography of Marlborough, have a second and more lasting merit as reflections on the nature of war statesmanship. War statesmanship, in Churchill's view, focused at the apex of government an array of considerations and calculations that even those one rung down could not fully fathom—a view shared, interestingly enough, by none other than General Charles de Gaulle. War, Churchill wrote in The World Crisis, "knows no rigid divisions between...Allies, between Land, Sea and Air, between gaining victories and alliances, between supplies and fighting men, between propaganda and machinery, which is, in fact, simply the sum of all forces and pressures operative at a given period...."

Churchill's profound sense of the uncertainties inherent in war suggests that he would have found the notion that one could have a blueprint for victory at any time before, say 1943, an absurdity, bred of unfamiliarity with war itself. Moreover, Churchill believed that the formulation of strategy in war did not consist merely in the drawing of state documents sketching out a comprehensive view of how the war would be won, but in a host of detailed activities which together amounted to a comprehensive picture.11

What were the practical consequences of the Churchillian approach to strategy?12 What exactly is it to make strategy in wartime? One set of activities, of course, has to do with the broad decisions of war: in the case of World War II, for example, when to launch the invasion of France, what weight to place on strategic bombing as a means of defeating Germany, or how much emphasis to put on aid to the Soviet Union.

But undergirding these high-level strategic decisions, on which historians traditionally lavish a great deal of attention, are other, less visible but no less important activities. They involve decision-making about matters of detail—important detail, but detail nonetheless. They may be illustrated by episodes from the war.

Continuous Auditing of Commanders

Perhaps the most important of these activities was a continuous audit of the military's judgment. Churchill, as his generals often complained, kept a close eye on many matters of military detail. On 30 March 1941, for example, Churchill sent General Ismay a note regarding an exercise called VICTOR, which had occurred from 22 to 25 January of that year under the auspices of the then-commander of Home Forces, General Alan Brooke. Churchill's query went as follows:

1. In the invasion exercise VICTOR, two armoured, one 
motorised and two infantry divisions were assumed to be landed by 
the enemy on the Norfolk coast in the teeth of heavy opposition.
 They fought their way ashore and were all assumed to be in action 
at the end of forty-eight hours.

2. I presume the details of this remarkable feat have been
 worked out by the Staff concerned. Let me see them. For instance,
 how many ships and transports carried these five Divisions? How 
many Armoured vehicles did they comprise? How many motor lor
ries, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many men, how
 many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first forty-eight
 hours, how many men and vehicles were assumed to have landed in
 the first twelve hours, what percentage of loss were they debited
 with? What happened to the transports and store-ships while the
 first forty-eight hours of fighting were going on? Had they completed
 emptying their cargoes, or were they still lying in shore off the
 beaches? What naval escort did they have? Was the landing at this
 point protected by superior enemy daylight Fighter formations?
 How many Fighter airplanes did the enemy have to employ, if so, to 
cover the landing places?

The purpose of Churchill's query became clear in the third paragraph:

3. All this data would be most valuable for our future offensive operations. I should be very glad if the same officers would work out a scheme for our landing an exactly similar force on the French coast at the same extreme range of our Fighter protection and assuming that the Germans have naval superiority in the Channel....13

Clearly, Churchill feared that such exercises fed an assessment of enemy capabilities well beyond what was reasonable.

Brooke replied on April 7th, giving the figures noted by Churchill, including estimates of enemy loss rates (10% in crossing, 5-10% percent on landing), plus the assumption that the Germans would consume petrol and food found on British soil. Churchill responded a few weeks later, noting how much more difficult than this British landings in Greece had proven, and continuing to press his inquiries.14 He noted, for example, that on the last two days of the exercise the British were credited with 432 fighter sorties, and the Germans with 1500, although the Germans had farther to fly. He inquired about the amount of warning of an invasion that was assumed, and asked (without receiving an answer) why the Germans should have been assumed to capture large quantities of petrol on landing in Britain. Gamely enough, Brooke continued to reply, until the exchange petered out in mid-May.

What is the significance of this episode? It is noteworthy, first, that the commander in charge of the exercise, Brooke, stood up to Churchill and not only did not suffer by it, but ultimately gained promotion to the post of Chief of Imperial General Staff and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

But more important is Churchill's observation that "It is of course quite reasonable for assumptions of this character to be made as a foundation for a military exercise. It would be indeed a darkening counsel to make them the foundation of serious military thought." At this very time, the Chiefs of Staff were debating the dispatch of armored vehicles to the Middle East. Churchill was arguing—contrary to several of his military advisers (including the then-CIGS, Sir John Dill)—that the risks of invasion were sufficiently low to make the TIGER convoy worth the attempt. TIGER went through, losing only one ship to a mine and delivering some 250 tanks to the hard-pressed forces in the Middle East.

By no means did Churchill always have it right. But he often caught his military staff when they had it wrong. Sir Alan Cunningham, who succeeded Sir Dudley Pound as First Sea Lord, has established a reputation as a critic and victim of Churchill, but without Brooke's bile.15 But the record shows on more than one occasion that his military judgment was no less defective.

In the spring of 1944, for example, Cunningham beat back a Royal Navy plan for a postwar force based on the premise (in the words of the naval staff's paper, "The Empire's Postwar Fleet") that "the basis of the strength of the Fleet is the battleship....This war has proved the necessity of battleships and no scientific development is in sight which might render them obsolete."16 Throughout the war Churchill deplored the navy's obsession with a battleship fleet, even after the entrance of the United States into the war and the destruction of most of the heavy units of the German Navy.

In a similar vein, Churchill regarded the products of the superb British Intelligence system with a combination of interest and skepticism rare in political leaders. When the Joint Intelligence Committee suggested in September 1944 that Germany would collapse by December, Churchill disagreed vigorously and, as it transpired, correctly.17 The Intelligence professionals of the JIC had, by this point in the war, access to outstanding information, and had had the experience of five years of war in which to sharpen their judgment. They were proven wrong, as had been their operational colleagues.

This is not to say that Churchill's military judgment was invariably or even frequently superior to that of his subordinates, although on occasion it clearly was. Rather, Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding their calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war. When his military advisers could not come up with plausible answers to these harassing and inconvenient questions, they usually revised their views; when they could, Churchill revised his. In both cases, British strategy benefited.

Selecting and Delegating

Of all the responsibilities that come the way of statesmen at war, the most important may be the selection of those who direct the armies and fleets. Few cares rest heavier on the war statesman, and few present greater difficulties. In the case of deciding on a major operation, a war statesmen can consult his own right reason and reams of planning and intelligence material; he has the benefit of advice prepared by large staffs, and he can turn to a variety of experts for their views. The task of picking generals is far more difficult. The commander who excelled at one level of war leadership may prove incompetent at another, and rarely can one find out except by experience. A prime minister (or, for that matter, a president) may find his ability to seek counsel limited by the cliques in which generals often gather, and their tendency to shelter one another from the wrath of disappointed superiors. Moreover, in wartime the cost of firing a general is high, for they become popular figures upon whom public hopes and fears are built.18

Churchill's uneasy relationship with his generals stemmed, in large part, from his willingness to pick commanders who disagreed with him—and who often did so violently. The two most forceful members of the Chiefs of Staff, Brooke and Cunningham, were evidence of that. If he dispensed with Dill, he did so with the silent approval of key officers, who shared his judgment that Dill did not have the spirit to fight the war through to victory. As Ismay and others privately admitted, however, Dill was a spent man by 1941, hardly up to the demanding chore of coping with Churchill.19 "The one thing that was necessary and indeed that Winston preferred, was someone to stand up to him, instead of which Jack Dill merely looked, and was, bitterly hurt."

If Churchill were to make a rude remark about the courage of the British Army, Ismay later recalled, the wise course was to laugh it off or to refer Churchill to his own writings. "Dill, on the other hand, was cut to the quick that anyone should insult his beloved Army and vowed he would never serve with him again, which of course was silly."20

It was not enough, of course, to pick good leaders; as a war leader, Churchill found himself compelled to prod them as well—an activity that occasioned more than a little resentment on their part. Indeed, in a private letter to General Claude Auchinleck shortly before he assumed command in the Middle East in June 1941, Dill warned of this, saying that "the Commander will always be subject to great and often undue pressure from his Government."21 Clearly, Churchill viewed one of his most important responsibilities the goading of his commanders into action. Churchill's impatience with Auchinleck and Wavell, in particular, has become easier to understand now that we know how much of the enemy picture Churchill understood because of ULTRA, the British decrypts of German coded communications.22

The permeation of all war, even total war, by political concerns, should come as no surprise to the contemporary student of military history, who has usually been fed on a diet of Clausewitz and his disciples. But it is sometimes forgotten just how deep and pervasive political considerations in war are. Take, for example, the question of the employment of air power in advance of the Normandy invasion.

As is well known, operational experts and commanders split over the most effective use of air power. Some favored the employment of tactical air power to sever the rail and road lines leading to the area of the proposed beachhead, while others proposed a systematic attack on the French rail network, leading to its ultimate collapse. This seemingly technical military issue had, however, political ramifications, because any attack (but particularly one targeted against French marshalling yards) promised to yield French civilian casualties. Churchill therefore intervened in the bombing dilute to secure a promise that French civilian casualties would be held to a bare minimum. "You are piling up an awful load of hatred," Churchill wrote to Air Chief Marshal Tedder. He insisted that French civilian casualties be under 10,000 killed, and reports were submitted throughout May that listed the number of French civilians killed and (callously enough) "Credit Balance Remaining."23

The Churchillian Model of Supreme Command

In The World Crisis Churchill wrote: "At the summit, true strategy and politics are one." The civil-military relationship and the formulation of strategy are inextricably intertwined. A study of Churchill's tenure in high command of Britain during the Second World War suggests that the formulation of strategy is a matter more complex than the laying out of blueprints.

In the world of affairs, as any close observer of government or business knows, conception or vision make up at best a small percentage of what a leader does—the implementation of that vision requires unremitting effort. The debate about the wisdom of Churchill's judgments (for example, his desire to see large amphibious operations in the East Indies)24 is largely beside the point. His activity as a strategist emerges in the totality of his efforts to shape Britain's war policies, and to mold the peace that would follow the war.

The Churchillian model of civil-military relations is one of what one might call an uneven dialogue—an unsparing (if often affectionate) interaction with military subordinates about their activities. It flies in the face of the contemporary conventional wisdom, particularly in the United States, about how politicians should deal with their military advisers.25 In fact, however, Churchill's pattern of relationships with his Generals resembles that of other great democratic war statesmen, including Lincoln, Clemenceau and Ben Gurion, each of whom drove their generals to distraction by their supposed meddling in military matters.

All four of these statesmen, Clausewitzians by instinct if not by education, recognized the indissolubility of political and military affairs, and refused to recognize any bounds to their authority in military activities. In the end, all four provided exceptional leadership in war not because their judgment was always superior to that of their military subordinates, but because they wove the many threads of operations and politics into a whole. And none of these leaders regarded any sphere of military policy as beyond the scope of his legitimate inspection.

The penalties for a failure to understand strategy as an all-encompassing task in war can be severe. The wretched history of the Vietnam War, in which civilian leaders never came to grips with the core of their strategic dilemma, illustrates as much. President Johnson, in particular, left strategy for the South Vietnamese part of the war in the hands of General William Westmoreland, an upright and limited general utterly unsuited for the kind of conflict in which he found himself. He did not find himself called to account for his operational choices, nor did his strategy of attrition receive any serious review for almost three years of bloody fighting. At the same time, the President and his civilian advisers ran an air war in isolation from their military advisers, on the basis of a weekly luncheon meeting from which men in uniform were excluded until halfway through the war.

A Churchillian leader fighting the Vietnam War would have had little patience, one suspects, with the smooth but ineffectual Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler. He would, no doubt, have convened all of his military advisers (and not just one), to badger them constantly about the progress of the war, and about the intelligence with which the theatre commander was pursuing it. The arguments might have been unpleasant, but at least they would have taken place. Perhaps no strategy would have made the war a winnable one, but surely some strategic judgment would have been better than none. Nor can strategy simply be left to the generals, as they so often wish.

Here, perhaps, contemporary observers of foreign policy and civil-military relations have indeed forgotten the lessons of the First World War: that generals can get it wrong. In America's successful 1990-91 war in the Persian Gulf, politicians abdicated their responsibility to shape a war's conclusion, leaving matters in the hands of a volatile theater commander and a politically adept but reflexively cautious Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, the war ended with virtually no thought for what a postwar Iraq would look like, and before the destruction of those elements of the enemy's army most essential to the maintenance of his regime. The Gulf War offers evidence as well of the frequent diversity of military views—for example, the split before the war between Army and Air Force generals over the efficacy of a strategy heavily reliant on air attack. If politicians heir only authoritative strategic estimates, the chances are that
other views have been suppressed, not that they do not exist.

The Churchillian way of high command rests on an uneven dialogue between civilian leader and military chiefs (not, let it be noted, a single generalissimo). It is not comfortable for the military, who suffer the torments of perpetual interrogation; nor easy for the civilians, who must absorb vast quantities of technical, tactical and operational information and make sense of it. But in the end, it is difficult to quarrel with the results.


1.. G. R. Elton, Political History: Principles and Practice (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 71.

2. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. Alanbrooke Papers, 5/9, entry of 10 September 1944.

3. Liddell Hart Centre, Ismay Papers, 1/14/8, Norman Brook to Hastings Ismay, 27 January 1959.

4. Prime Minister's Personal Minute D185/3, 14 October 1943.

5. David Reynolds, "1940: The Worst and Finest Hour," in Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 255.

6. Martin Kitchen, "Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union during the Second World War," Historical Journal 30:2 (June 1987): 435.

7. Sheila Lawlor, "Greece, March 1941: The Politics of British Military Intervention," Historical Journal 25:4 (December 1982): 933.

8. Kitchen, op. cit.

9. Bernard Fergusson, ed., The Business of War: The War Narrative of Major General Sir John Kennedy (New York: Morrow, 1958), 60.

10. Alanbrooke Diary, 5/8, 29 November 1943

11. I have discussed Churchill's view of strategy in "Churchill at War," Commentary 83:5 (May 1987): 40-49.

12. Ibid.

13. Prime Minister's Personal Minute D136/1PREM 3/496/4.

14. Ibid.

15. This in part on the strength of Churchill's memoirs: admirals and generals, no less than prime ministers, have benefited from well-written recollections of their service in government.

16. Premier Papers, PREM 3/322/5/6.

17. See the discussion in John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, volume V, August 1943-September 1944 (London: HMSO, 1955), 398-403.

18. See a fascinating discussion of this topic by Charles de Gaulle, The Edge of the Sword, Gerard Hopkins, trans. (London: Faber & Faber, 1932), 103.

19. See, for example, Ismay's comment on Dill's 6 May 1941 memorandum arguing against sending tanks to the Middle East. Letter to John Connell, 13 September 1941, Ismay Papers/IV/Con/4/6a.

20. Ibid.

21. Letter of 26 June 1941, cited in J.R.M. Butler, Grand Strategy, volume II, September 1939-June 1941 (London: HMSO, 1957), pp. 530-1.

22. See Philip Warner, "Auchinleck," in John Keegan, ed., Churchill's Generals (New York: Grove Weidenfeld 1991), 138.

23. Walt W. Rostow, Pre-Invasion Bombing Strategy: General Eisenhower's Decision of March 25, 1944 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

24. Premier Papers, PREM 3/334/4.

25. See, for example The Washington Post on ex-President Bush's receipt of the Marshal
 Medal, 2 
October 1993, B-1.
"Winston has Gone Mad": Churchill, the British Admiralty, and the Rise of Japanese Naval Power Print E-mail

By Dr. John Maurer, Chair, Strategy and Policy Department, Naval War College


Winston Churchill served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative government during the late 1920s. His goal as Chancellor was to renew Britain's power in the world by reviving the British economy. His economic policies brought him into conflict with the leaders of Britain's Royal Navy, who wanted to undertake an expensive buildup of British naval strength to balance against the rising power of Japan. In this article, John Maurer examines how Churchill sought to manage and reconcile the risks facing Britain in the economic sphere, in domestic politics, and in the international strategic environment. The article forms part of a larger study on which I have been working about Churchill and the decline of British power.

I. Introduction
II. Hedging against Japan's Rising Power
III. Churchill and Japan
IV. Britain's Defense Dilemma
V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In the aftermath of World War I, Great Britain faced a serious strategic challenge in the emergence of imperial Japan as a rival naval power. The rapid growth in the strength of the Japanese Navy threatened the security and interests of Britain's empire in Asia. At the center of British strategic decision making about how to respond to Japan's naval challenge was Winston Churchill. As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the late 1920s, Churchill reviewed the spending requests of government departments, set priorities among competing requirements for scarce resources, sought revenue to pay for expenditures, put together a budget that reconciled income with outlays, helped to manage the country's economic life, and defended the administration's stewardship of the economy in the hurly-burly politics of the public arena. Determined to take an active role in directing Britain's grand strategy, Churchill assessed the price tag and risk of alternative strategies for hedging against Japan's rising power. Churchill downplayed the likelihood of war with Japan. In an oft quoted letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill wrote: 'why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.'1 Instead of an impending clash between Britain and Japan, Churchill foresaw a 'long peace, such as follows in the wake of great wars.'2 Of course, in a tragic irony of History, Churchill's words would later come back to haunt him, fated as he was to serve as Britain's prime minister when Japan attacked the British Empire in December 1941.

Churchill's views put him at odds with the Royal Navy's civilian and uniformed leadership, who urged that Britain guard against a looming menace from Japan. In particular, Japan's construction of a new generation of powerfully armed cruisers alarmed British naval planners. The Royal Navy wanted to counter Japan's growing strength at sea by acquiring its own force of the latest generation of cruisers, as well as build up oil fuel supplies and develop bases to support naval operations in the Pacific. These programs, entailing major increases in naval spending, came at an inopportune time when Churchill, along with the British government and people, confronted some harsh economic realities. Britain's economy suffered from anemic growth and high unemployment during the 1920s. Churchill hoped to revive the British economy and, along the way, his own political fortunes. In an attempt to stimulate economic growth by cutting taxes while at the same time balancing the government's budget, Churchill sought to restrain defense spending. Churchill's policy stance brought him into a bruising, drawn-out, interdepartmental struggle with the navy. The late Roy Jenkins viewed Churchill's row with the Admiralty as the 'most dangerous of the disputes' that confronted him as Chancellor,3 as the Navy's leadership, fired up by the forceful First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, threatened resignation en masse to protest against proposed cuts in warship construction. After one encounter with the Chancellor over the budget, an exasperated Admiral Beatty complained: 'That extraordinary fellow Winston has gone mad, economically mad, and no sacrifice is too great to achieve what in his short-sightedness is the panacea for all evils, to take 1/- off the Income Tax. Nobody outside a lunatic asylum expects a shilling off the Income Tax this Budget.'4 A political associate of Churchill would later criticize him, saying that he was a 'very bad Chancellor of the Exchequer ... . His whole objective was to reduce the income tax by a shilling ... . His passion to get the income tax down ... . was the basis for our weakness in the 1930s. Churchill disarmed the country between 1925 and 1930 [sic] as nobody has ever disarmed this country before.'5

"Former Naval Persons" Print E-mail

The Rt Hon Sir Winston Spencer Churchill Society of British Columbia
Annual Banquet
Friday 13th June 2008

by Admiral The Lord Boyce GCB, OBE, DL

President, members of the WSC Society of British Columbia, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Very many thanks for your kind and generous introduction.

May I start by saying many thanks for the superb dinner we have enjoyed this evening; I am sure everyone would want to join me in congratulating the team here at the Vancouver Club for looking after us so well.

And may I go on to say many thanks for the marvellous welcome Fleur and I have had. It really could not have been friendlier and it certainly brings back happy memories to me of the couple of times I have previously visited Canada - although not to Vancouver, so this is a most pleasant experience. And I know it is already making an indelible impression on Fleur who is on her first visit to your beautiful country.

Ladies & Gentlemen, when I was kindly asked to come and speak at your Society's Annual Banquet, I do not think I fully appreciated what I had agreed to undertake – but that became very clear when I received a copy of the 'Heroic Memory'. My heart sank as my eyes ran down the list of my illustrious predecessors, all of whom seem to have had some personal knowledge of Winston Churchill to judge by their excellent renditions – which made my heart sink even lower as I read them, for I make absolutely no claim to be a Churchill scholar, nor have I any personal connections with him, nor any forebears who had. So to say that I am daunted as I stand before this knowledgeable gathering is putting it mildly. I hope, at the end of my contribution his evening, you are not minded to recall with a rueful sigh WSC's words on being asked by a young MP whether or how he might have put more fire into his speech. WSC: "What you should have done was put the speech in the fire".

I suppose, however, I have got something going for me in that I have, in a small way, followed in some of Churchill's footsteps.

I have been a member of the Admiralty Board, and presided over the Navy Board (the Executive Arm of the former) as First Sea Lord, sitting in the same chair as he would have used as First Lord of the Admiralty in the historic Admiralty Board Room in Whitehall; and like him, no doubt, admired the famous 300 year old Grinling Gibbons carvings around the fireplace; and been distracted by musing over what sort of decisions may have been driven by the great wind indicator as our predecessors sat in that same room in the C18th and C19th in the days of sail. Incidentally we no longer have a First Lord as such, as the Admiralty Board is now presided over by the Secretary of State for Defence – as he does over the Army and Air Force Boards.

Then I go on to reflect that, like me, Churchill was an Elder Brother of Trinity House - an honour he assumed in 1913 when he was First Lord for the first time.

Trinity House is an ancient fraternity which obtained its charter from King Henry V111 in 1514 - primarily "to act for the relief, increase and augmentation of the shipping of this realm of England" – and today is still the lead authority for safe navigation around the shores of England, responsible for all light houses and buoyage; and is also a leading world authority in this area. WSC was enormously proud of his Elder Brother uniform and greatly enjoyed wearing it on ceremonial occasions and, indeed, wore it when he accompanied the Naval Division (which he had been largely responsible for forming) when it went to try to relieve Antwerp in the First World War. And you will also have seen him wearing his Trinity House cap in the famous picture sitting down talking to Franklin D. Roosevelt on board HMS Prince of Wales in 1941 – a picture caught in the life-size sculpture of them in the same pose that can be found in Bond Street in London.

He was proud too to wear his Royal Yacht Squadron cap that one sees in many pictures with his double-breasted naval looking coat because he was, as I am, an honorary member of the Squadron.

Churchill At The Time: A Retrospective Print E-mail
by Alistair Cooke, KBE

Keynote Speech, Churchill Society International Conference, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, 27 August 1988. From Proceedings of the International Churchill Society, 1988-1989 (published 1990).

Copyright © 1988 the Estate of Alistair Cooke


I think it is a happy thing that you are holding this anniversary meeting in New Hampshire, where, as you all know, Winston Churchill spent the last fifty years of his life.

I refer, of course, to the eminent novelist whose fame was so considerable that when the young Winston Spencer Churchill decided to publish a book, he wrote to Winston Churchill in New Hampshire saying he did not wish to trade on his fame or mislead the reading public. Thus the young, unknown, English author would henceforth publish his books under the byline, "Winston S. Churchill."

No doubt most of you knew that, but I thought it would interest the few who-out of praiseworthy but mistaken devotion-today, I'm told, made a pilgrimage to Cornish, New Hampshire, which was where Winston Churchill lived and died.

I must say I'm glad that Richard Langworth gave a boost to my credentials because a lot of you must have wondered what I'm doing here. When I look through the list of all the very eminent scholars and Churchillians who have spoken to you; and when I think that since the 1960s there have been over two hundred books on Winston Churchill, all of which you've devoured, I feel almost as intimidated as Churchill did himself when he appeared as the guest of honor at the American Association for the Advancement of Science at M.I.T., on March 22nd, 1949. (It requires no great feat of memory to recall the date, since it happened to be the day my daughter was born.)


He looked out at an audience of Nobel Prize winners, the cream of scientific expertise from universities in North America and Europe. And he "confessed" that they not only intimidated but frightened him. "I myself never had the privilege of going to a University. I simply-er-had to pick up-ah-a few things as I went along." Then he spent the next two hours instructing them in the future of science and all its applications in war and peace.

I can only say my main credential is that I was alive and sentient and interested in life, and politics, for the last forty to fifty years of Churchill's life. I also have a Churchill library, modest but substantial, which includes one treasure that (my vanity hopes) nobody here possesses. It is a physically beautiful book, an edition of Churchill's My Early Life. What makes it unique, I think, is that opposite the title page, in the scrawl of a very old lady, it says: "Inscribed by Clementine Churchill and presented to Alistair Cooke, whose broadcasts gave so much pleasure to the author."

What I should like to do is to retrace Churchill's reputation, his public reputation-not from the view of historians or insiders, but as it appeared at the time to the ordinary people who lived through those years. I hope this will serve to correct or to modify the picture that we have formed of Churchill from television documentaries, and especially from the new, insidious form of docu-drama. It's true also, I think, of many recent biographies, that suffer from the innate curse of the biographical form: which is to pretend that the subject was at the focal center of the world or of his country, and that all the life of the time swirled around him.

Winston Churchill & Eamon De Valera: A Thirty Year “Relationship” Print E-mail


By David Freeman


Abstract: The 2008 International Churchill Conference in Boston had as its theme “Churchill and Ireland,” and numerous papers have been published in Finest Hour 142-145 under the rubric “Churchill Proceedings,” which are downloadable by registered users of this website.

One of the most important omissions from the printed pages was the following paper by Finest Hour contributing editor David Freeman, who delivered the original in person. The paper in its present form was substantially enlarged for a forthcoming book, The Churchills and Ireland: Connections and Controversies from the 1660s to the 1960s (Irish Academic Press). It is based on Dr. Freeman’s presentation at a conference of the same name in Belfast in June 2009 sponsored by the University of Ulster. Copyright © David Freeman, 2010.


Winston Churchill enjoyed a good joke. According to Dennis Kelly, one of Churchill’s former literary assistants, the following was one of his boss’s favorite stories, one that ‘he used to adore telling’: ‘British bomber over Berlin, caught in the searchlights, flak coming up, one engine on fire, rear-gunner wounded, Irish pilot mutters, “Thank God Dev kept us out of this bloody war.”’i

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