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Concentrating on sideshows

It is becoming difficult to say anything new about Churchill as a war leader.

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940-45 Max Hastings

HarperPress, pp.576, 25

It is becoming difficult to say anything new about Churchill as a war leader. The basic facts about the conduct of allied strategy have been known for many years. Diaries and memoirs, and the occasional loose anecdote, still dribble into the public domain, adding spice but nothing fundamental to our knowledge. What remains is analysis and opinion, and even that is a crowded field.

Max Hastings’ Churchill as Warlord, 1940-45 covers, within a narrower chronological frame, the same ground as Carlo d’Este’s recent book, Warlord: Churchill at War, 1874-1945. Hastings’ views are a good deal more balanced than d’Este’s, as well as being better researched and argued. But the essential point made by both authors is the same. Churchill’s role in enabling Britain to survive as a belligerent between the fall of France and the entry of Russia and the United States into the war, was indispensable and would probably have been beyond any one else. But his conduct of strategy was erratic, prejudiced and misguided.

The main issue, about which argument has ebbed to and fro since 1940, is Churchill’s unwillingness to confront the German army directly by invading western Europe across the Channel. He preferred sideshows which offered spectacle and movement but could never be decisive: North Africa, Dieppe, the Balkans and the Aegean, Italy, Sumatra, and the great number of strategically trivial adventures promoted by the Special Operations Executive. These strategic judgments, as Churchill’s enemies pointed out, were of a piece with those which had inspired the most disastrous sideshow of all, namely the Gallipoli campaign which had almost destroyed his career during the first world war.


In fact, as Max Hastings argues, Churchill’s obduracy on this point was not entirely misguided. It saved the Allies from an ill-conceived and premature attempt to invade France in 1943, which would certainly have ended in disaster. North Africa and Italy may have been sideshows, but until 1944 they were the only places where Anglo-American armies had any prospect of fighting with success. Unfortunately, Churchill persisted with his resistance to the cross-Channel invasion long after his strategic case had vanished. His attempts to defer Overlord and divert resources elsewhere continued well into 1944, causing much friction with the Americans and seriously undermining his influence at a time when they had the trained manpower and equipment in place to impose their view.

Churchill’s constant advocacy of small- scale enterprises and action on marginal fronts was attributed by Stalin to his anti-communism, by the Americans to his imperialism, and by more sympathetic commentators to the profligate waste of life which he had witnessed in the trenches of France and Belgium in the first world war. The last explanation perhaps comes closest to the truth. But Churchill’s instinct was more fundamental than the experience of a single war. ‘Throughout its history,’ says Hastings, ‘Britain has repeatedly sought to ignore the importance of mass on the battlefield.’

‘Throughout its history’ may be putting it a bit high, but Hastings’ insight is certainly borne out by all of its modern history. England has been a warlike power for most of its history, but it has not been a military power since the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when continental nations were beginning to deploy vast conscript armies, England held back for a variety of reasons: prominent among them were its relatively small population, its island position, and a liberal constitution which made it difficult to tolerate or pay for large bodies of armed men at the disposal of the state. For much of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Britain frittered away its land forces in sideshows of truly Churchillian pointlessness, a policy which Pitt’s opponents derided as ‘breaking windows with guineas’. Even the Peninsular War, which probably still ranks as Britain’s most successful military campaign against a major enemy, began as a sideshow.

Britain created large armies from a small professional core in both world wars of the 20th century. But they never became a really effective fighting force. Its history left it without a military tradition analogous to its great naval tradition. Its liberal traditions ruled out coercion on the scale which would have been required to create one. English public opinion envied the scale and ferocity of Soviet resistance to Hitler, but it had no idea of the ubiquitous execution squads and the ruthless indifference to casualties which had been necessary to achieve it.

Max Hastings’ views about the British army in the second world war are well known, and are pungently repeated here. Its ranks were filled with ‘many men willing to do their duty, but few who sought to become heroes.’ Its leaders, with a handful of exceptions, were risk-averse blockheads, devoid of imagination or initiative. Hastings’ brutal dismissal of Wavell, Auchinleck, Alexander, Richie and Freyburg makes entertaining reading. Even Montgomery, the most successful British general of the war, was ‘egoistic and crass’, defects which made him a liability in an international army calling for high levels of diplomacy in its senior commanders. Brooke was an outstanding chief of staff and an essential foil to Churchill, but Hastings thinks that his caution would have let him down if he had been allowed a major command in the field.

This is a rich and rewarding book, the fruit of many years of reflection on the conduct of war. It is enlivened by countless insights on matters great and small, and by a spare, trenchant style which holds the reader’s attention throughout its 600 pages.

Reputations are shredded with gusto, even if not always with justice. Many will be surprised by Hastings’ low opinion of Marshall and King, the leading figures among the US chiefs of staff, who come over as unimaginative and petty. Even Roosevelt is portrayed as naive, duplicitous and fundamentally anti-British. Many of these judgments serve to give dramatic emphasis to what is perhaps the main theme of this book. For all his mistakes, Churchill had a moral stature, a generosity of spirit and a largeness of vision unique among his leading contemporaries, qualities which were acknowledged even by those who disagreed with him. They enabled him to exercise an influence, particularly in 1942 and 1943, out of all proportion to the military and economic weight of his country. Even his misjudgments were pressed with a force of personality and a rhetorical skill which forced his allies and his chiefs of staff to think beyond the routine, and to work harder to justify their views. ‘No man’, wrote Isaiah Berlin, ‘has ever loved life more vehemently and infused so much of it into every one and every thing that he has touched.’


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