Stuart Jeffries

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Though he was responsible for two shameful military fiascos, Churchill was still the wartime leader we needed

Lord Woolton put it best: ‘Few people have succeeded in obtaining such a public demand for their promotion as the result of the failure of an enterprise.’ By that, the Tory grandee meant that in the spring of 1940 Winston Churchill managed to use Britain’s grotesque military cock-up in Norway, for which he was responsible, to supplant Neville Chamberlain.

Churchill sidelined Chamberlain’s most likely successor, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax. He overcame Tory backbench distrust. He even got Labour on side, though its leaders had long considered him the class enemy incarnate.

What Churchill pulled off, shifting blame for his Norwegian shambles on to his boss in order to replace him, and getting his foes to bend the knee, was a piece of brazen opportunism so virtuosic it would have made Machiavelli blush. Or applaud.

Few Britons today could place Narvik on a map. But, in the spring of 1940, this tiny Norwegian coastal settlement became significant for exporting the iron ore for which the rival British and German war machines were insatiable. For a few days, its name seemed to promise to those gathering around their crystal sets that Hitler would soon reap the Britannic whirlwind. The phoney war was over.

Instead, at Narvik and its environs, Britain got its comeuppance. Our military unreadiness was not entirely due to Chamberlain’s misjudgment in Munich, nor his later misplaced focus on the economic blockade of Germany; but also to Churchill’s fondness for unleashing the dogs of war even when the dogs were toothless and their handlers inept (truths made more unpalatable when one realises that 45 per cent of British public expenditure at the time went on defence).

It was thanks to Churchill’s miscalculations as first lord of the Admiralty that British troops were outmanoeuvred, outfought and out-thought. The Navy placed mines too close to the coast off Narvik to destroy incoming German ships.

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