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Category: Reviews

Book, media, audio and video reviews by Richard M. Lang­worth

Brian Cox as Churchill: An Interview on Charlie Rose

Brian Cox as Churchill: An Interview on Charlie Rose

Bri­an Cox’s film “Churchill” con­tin­ues to receive a dai­ly gush of cred­u­lous reviews by the inno­cent that demon­strate the onward march of invin­ci­ble igno­rance. One batch of Google Alerts includ­ed a ringer: a Bal­ti­more Sun cor­re­spon­dent who cites some­thing Churchill didn’t do (fire-bomb­ing Dres­den) to explain how Sir Win­ston would han­dle today’s ter­ror­ists.

Andrew Roberts, a reli­able his­to­ri­an who always cuts through bunk, wrote the best review one can read of this film. On that basis I res­olute­ly declined to watch it. Why raise my blood pres­sure to relive the “per­verse fan­ta­sy” Mr. Roberts had to sit through?

Alas I can’t avoid receiv­ing emails ask­ing “what do you think” of the lat­est out­burst of pub­lic­i­ty. This includes inter­views with Mr. Cox him­self, which run far and wide, even in a mag­a­zine Churchill would have enjoyed, Cig­ar Afi­ciona­do

Cox on Rose

Take for exam­ple Mr. Cox’s appear­ance with Char­lie Rose, an inter­view­er I respect. And still do, despite his uncrit­i­cal accep­tance of a string of absur­di­ties. Mr. Cox man­aged to utter all of these in just twen­ty min­utes:

Winston’s grand­fa­ther was the “Earl of Marl­bor­ough.”

Lord Ran­dolph Churchill had syphilis and was “out of it” most of the time.

Jan Smuts cap­tured young Win­ston in South Africa.

Churchill knew King Edward VIII was a “no-hop­er” and there­fore want­ed “Bertie” (George VI).

WSC put Collins and Car­son in a room togeth­er and the result was Collins’ assas­si­na­tion.

Churchill was always ill.

He drank amaz­ing­ly: cham­pagne for break­fast, brandy for lunch, whisky and wine all day.

He slept only four hours in twen­ty-four.

Clemen­tine didn’t like the 1954 Suther­land paint­ing; WSC didn’t see it until the unveil­ing.

Mr. Cox cites oth­ers who have played Churchill. There was “Lar­ry” Olivi­er (best buds?). Also, “there’s an actor named Robert Hardy.” Nice. Robert Hardy‘s mul­ti­ple per­for­mances as Churchill set a stan­dard which has nev­er been equalled.


World War II Farrago

Off the cuff on World War II, Mr. Cox dis­plays the min­i­mal research he did before tak­ing on the role. He assert­ed that:

Churchill made the 1940 sug­ges­tion of com­mon Anglo-French cit­i­zen­ship.

He did not want D-Day (Oper­a­tion Over­lord) to hap­pen.

He pre­dict­ed trench war­fare after the inva­sion of France.

His demur­ring on D-Day is in the Eisen­how­er and Brooke diaries.

Churchill had an alter­na­tive plan to D-Day…

…which was to come through the under­bel­ly of France via Bor­deaux…

…to “ratch­et up” in Italy and come into Ger­many through the Alps…

…while com­ing down from “the Baltics, from Nor­way”…

…because Churchill was “real­ly afraid of amphibi­ous land­ings.”

The barest dab­bling in mul­ti­ple sources would inform Mr. Cox and his pro­duc­ers (and Mr. Rose) that Churchill’s alter­na­tives to D-Day were expressed in 1942 and 1943… That by the time of the actu­al inva­sion he had spent months help­ing to plan it… That his own plan­ning dat­ed back to 1941… To the “Mul­ber­ry Har­bor” scheme, which he first con­ceived of in 1917…  That the “under­bel­ly” he envi­sioned was Italy, not France… That the post-D-Day inva­sion of the South of France was a super­flu­ous sideshow which he opposed (and it accom­plished noth­ing)… That Churchill nev­er pro­posed invad­ing Ger­many through the Alps… That Churchill nev­er pro­posed an “inva­sion from Nor­way.” Wouldn’t that have involved the amphibi­ous land­ings he was “real­ly afraid of”? How afraid was he of the land­ings in North Africa, Sici­ly, Saler­no and Anzio?

Arn­hem and the Bat­tle of the Bulge stopped the war from “pro­pelling like it could have done,” added Mr. Cox. The impli­ca­tion is that Arn­hem and the Bulge might not have occurred had the Allies launched D-Day ear­li­er.

Fake History, Fake Detail

Mr. Rose presents five excerpts from the film, which, as Mr. Roberts not­ed, are as bad in detail as in broad his­to­ry: “Cox – Churchill wears white tie and tail­coat in the after­noon; Mont­gomery is giv­en a field-marshal’s uni­form when he was at the time a gen­er­al; Churchill wears workmen’s over­alls rather than his vel­vet siren-suits; Com­bined Chiefs of Staff top-secret plan­ning meet­ings are held in the open air on the lawns of coun­try hous­es.” Mr. Cox, although British, pro­nounces Clemen­tine like they do in Ari­zona.

To all this Mr. Rose con­tributes sev­er­al banal­i­ties and errors. It was cold at the Bat­tle of the Bulge. (Yes.) Roo­sevelt caught Churchill walk­ing naked in the halls of the White House. (No.) A two-front war could not begin until the Allies invad­ed France. (A two-front war had begun when they invad­ed North Africa in 1942.)

* * *

It is depress­ing and dis­heart­en­ing for any­one who knows the barest facts to hear his­to­ry told by actors, with real­i­ty turned on its head under guise of enter­tain­ment.

Invent­ed dia­logue and sce­nar­ios are of course nec­es­sary for dra­mat­ic effect. Robert Hardy’s scrupu­lous­ly accu­rate por­tray­al of Churchill’s “Wilder­ness Years” doesn’t devi­ate an iota from fact or believ­abil­i­ty. Yet it is at least as dra­mat­ic as this lat­est dose of Fake His­to­ry. The Churchill saga is high dra­ma on its own. Why embell­ish it with non­sense?

The film “Churchill” joins such recent lash-ups as “The Crown” and “Viceroy’s House,” which also had gush­ing reviews all over the media and inter­net. Like it or not, the web is where most peo­ple now get their news and views. They are get­ting a dread­ful dose of dis­tor­tion from enter­tain­ment cloaked as real­i­ty, and actors as his­to­ry teach­ers.

Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (2)

Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (2)

Fateful Questions

Fateful QuestionsFate­ful Ques­tions, Sep­tem­ber 1943-April 1944, nine­teenth of a pro­ject­ed twen­ty-three doc­u­ment vol­umes in the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, Win­ston S. Churchill, is reviewed by his­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts in Com­men­tary

These vol­umes com­prise “every impor­tant doc­u­ment of any kind that con­cerns Churchill.” The present vol­ume sets the size record. Fate­ful Ques­tions is 2,752 pages long, rep­re­sent­ing an aver­age of more than eleven pages per day. Yet at $60, it is a tremen­dous bar­gain. Order your copy from the Hills­dale Col­lege Book­store.

Here is an excerpt from my account, “Fresh His­to­ry,” which can be read in its entire­ty at the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.


Questions: Science

A crit­i­cism fre­quent­ly lev­eled at Churchill is that he was so fixed on defeat­ing Hitler that he nev­er looked ahead—to the prob­lems of the peace as well as the like­li­hood of a pow­er­ful, pros­e­ly­tiz­ing Sovi­et Union. Proof that Churchill rec­og­nized the Sovi­et dan­ger is well doc­u­ment­ed in this book; he also looked toward the years of peace, and the poten­tial of sci­ence for good or ill. (Pro­fes­sor A.V. Hill, who mar­ried a sis­ter of John May­nard Keynes, was Inde­pen­dent MP for Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty, 1940-45.)

30 Octo­ber 1943. Win­ston S. Churchill to Pro­fes­sor A. V. Hill. (Churchill papers, 20/94).

Dear Pro­fes­sor Hill, I am very glad to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to send through you my greet­ings and good wish­es to Indi­an men of sci­ence and espe­cial­ly to the six Indi­an Fel­lows of the Roy­al Soci­ety, of which I am hon­oured to be myself a Fel­low.

It is the great tragedy of our time that the fruits of sci­ence should by a mon­strous per­ver­sion have been turned on so vast a scale to evil ends. But that is no fault of sci­ence. Sci­ence has giv­en to this gen­er­a­tion the means of unlim­it­ed dis­as­ter or of unlim­it­ed progress. When this war is won we shall have avert­ed dis­as­ter. There will remain the greater task of direct­ing knowl­edge last­ing­ly towards the pur­pos­es of peace and human good. In this task the sci­en­tists of the world, unit­ed by the bond of a sin­gle pur­pose which over­rides all bounds of race and lan­guage, can play a lead­ing and inspir­ing part.


Questions: Recrimination vs. Magnanimity

Gen­er­al Georges, with Gen­er­al Lord Gort, who had received the Légion d’honneur (hence the large star and sash) with Churchill present. British Expe­di­tionary Force HQ, Arras, 8 Jan­u­ary 1940. Prof. Antoine Capet points us to a descrip­tion of this occa­sion: (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Churchill famous­ly deplored blam­ing British and French lead­ers for mis­takes in the years lead­ing up to the Sec­ond World War: “If we open a quar­rel between the past and the present,” he declared after France fell in June 1940,“we shall find that we have lost the future.” He made good that mag­nan­i­mous phi­los­o­phy on many occasions—as these excerpts sug­gest, con­cern­ing Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain and French Gen­er­al Georges. (Bren­dan Brack­en was Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion.)

4 Octo­ber 1945. Win­ston S. Churchill to Bren­dan Brack­en: Prime Minister’s Per­son­al Minute M.638/3  (Churchill papers, 20/104)

In the film “The Nazis Strike” I must ask that the sec­tion show­ing Mr. Chamberlain’s arrival at Hes­ton Air­field after Munich, and also the shot of his going fish­ing with a ref­er­ence to the “tired old man of Munich” should be cut out, oth­er­wise I could not be asso­ci­at­ed with the series. The sto­ry would run quite well from the sig­na­ture at Munich to the meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham where Mr. Cham­ber­lain made his dec­la­ra­tion that we would sup­port Poland, &c.


19 Octo­ber 1943. Win­ston S. Churchill to Alfred Duff Coop­er: excerpt.  (Churchill papers, 20/94)

Per­son­al and Secret: With regard to Gen­er­al Georges. In my opin­ion he is a very fine, hon­ourable French­man. For him I feel a sen­ti­ment of friend­ship which start­ed to grow when we made our tour of the Rhine front togeth­er a month before the War. I do not think he was to blame for the cat­a­stro­phe, except that he ought to have been very much stronger in demand­ing the retire­ment of Gamelin at the out­break of war. Much of his strength and ener­gy was expend­ed in oppos­ing Gamelin, but the inher­ent rot­ten­ness of the French fight­ing machine and Gov­ern­ment would have denied vic­to­ry to any Gen­er­al.

More­over, Georges is crip­pled from wounds received both in the late War and the assas­si­na­tion of King Alexan­der of Yugoslavia. I do not for­get, though this is a point which should not be men­tioned to the French, that when Petain and Wey­gand at Briand in May 1940 were clam­our­ing for our last reserves and resources, includ­ing the last Fight­er Squadrons, well know­ing that the bat­tle was lost and that they meant to give in, it was Georges who informed our Mil­i­tary Liai­son Offi­cer that the French Gov­ern­ment would ask for an armistice and that we should take our steps accord­ing­ly.


Questions: The Second Front

The great­est Anglo-Amer­i­can-Sovi­et strat­e­gy ques­tions were over how much to throt­tle back the cam­paign in Italy (which had begun in Sep­tem­ber 1943) in sup­port of “Oper­a­tion Over­lord,” the inva­sion of France, which all three allies agreed was the most direct route to Berlin and must go for­ward in 1944. Though this sub­ject dom­i­nates our vol­ume, these doc­u­ments frame the debate. Among oth­er things, they  illus­trate that Churchill was not the only British leader who fumed over lost oppor­tu­ni­ties in Italy.

25 Octo­ber 1943. Gen­er­al Sir Alan Brooke: diary. (“War Diaries, Field Mar­shal Lord Alan­brooke,” page 56)

It is becom­ing more and more evi­dent that our oper­a­tions in Italy are com­ing to a stand­still and that owing to lack of resources we shall not only come to a stand­still, but also find our­selves in a very dan­ger­ous posi­tion unless the Rus­sians go on from one suc­cess to anoth­er. Our build up in Italy is much slow­er than the Ger­man, and far slow­er than I had expect­ed. We shall have an almighty row with the Amer­i­cans who have put us in this posi­tion with their insis­tence to aban­don the Mediter­ranean oper­a­tions for the very prob­lem­at­i­cal cross Chan­nel oper­a­tions. We are now begin­ning to see the full beau­ty of the Mar­shall strat­e­gy! It is quite heart­break­ing when we see what we might have done this year if our strat­e­gy had not been dis­tort­ed by the Amer­i­cans.


26 Octo­ber 1943. Lord Moran: diary. (“Win­ston Churchill, the Strug­gle for Sur­vival,” pages 130–31)

The PM is already begin­ning to have his own doubts and hesitations….His face was glum, his jaw set, mis­giv­ings filled his mind. “Stal­in seems obsessed by this bloody Sec­ond Front,” he mut­tered angri­ly. “I can be obsti­nate too.” He jumped out of bed and began pac­ing up and down. “Damn the fel­low,” he said under his breath. And then he rang for a sec­re­tary. When he began dic­tat­ing a telegram to the For­eign Sec­re­tary I got up to leave the room. “No, Charles, don’t go. This,” grum­bled the PM, “is what comes of a lawyer’s agree­ment to attack on a fixed date with­out regard to the ever-chang­ing for­tunes of war.”

Alex’s [Field Mar­shal Alexan­der] fears had upset the PM. His mind was now made up. He turned to the sec­re­tary, who held her pen­cil ready. “I will not allow the great and fruit­ful cam­paign in Italy to be cast away and end in a fright­ful dis­as­ter, for the sake of cross­ing the Chan­nel in May. The bat­tle must be nour­ished and fought out until it is won. Molo­tov must be warned,” the PM con­tin­ued strid­ing to the door and back, “that the assur­ances I gave to Stal­in about ‘Over­lord’ in May are sub­ject to the exi­gen­cies of the bat­tle in Italy. Eisen­how­er and Alex must have what they need to win the bat­tle, no mat­ter what effect is pro­duced on sub­se­quent oper­a­tions. Stal­in ought to be told blunt­ly that ‘Over­lord’ might have to be post­poned.”


29 Octo­ber 1943. Win­ston S. Churchill to Antho­ny Eden. Prime Minister’s Per­son­al Telegram T.1764/3 (Churchill papers, 20/122)

Most Imme­di­ate. Most Secret and Per­son­al. There is of course no ques­tion of aban­don­ing “Over­lord” which will remain our prin­ci­pal oper­a­tion for 1944. The reten­tion of land­ing-craft in the Mediter­ranean in order not to lose the bat­tle of Rome may cause a slight delay, per­haps till July, as the small­er class of land­ing-craft can­not cross the Bay of Bis­cay in the win­ter months and would have to make the pas­sage in the Spring. The delay would how­ev­er mean that the blow when struck would be with some­what heav­ier forces, and also that the full bomb­ing effort on Ger­many would not be damped down so soon. We are also ready at any time to push across and prof­it by a Ger­man col­lapse. These argu­ments may be of use to you in dis­cus­sion.


Stal­in, Roo­sevelt, Churchill, Teheran, 1943. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

30 Novem­ber 1943. Win­ston S. Churchill and Josef Stal­in: notes of a con­ver­sa­tion, Sovi­et Embassy, Teheran (Cab­i­net papers, 120/113)

Most Secret. The Prime Min­is­ter said that he was half Amer­i­can and he had a great affec­tion for the Amer­i­can peo­ple. What he was going to say was not to be under­stood as any­thing dis­parag­ing of the Amer­i­cans and he would be per­fect­ly loy­al towards them, but there were things which it was bet­ter to say between two per­sons.

We had a pre­pon­der­ance of troops over the Amer­i­cans in the Mediter­ranean. There were three to four times more British troops than Amer­i­can there. That is why he was anx­ious that the troops in the Mediter­ranean should not be ham­strung if it could be avoid­ed, and he want­ed to use them all the time. In Italy there were some 13 to 14 divi­sions of which 9 or 10 were British. There were two armies, the 5th Anglo-Amer­i­can Army, and the 8th Army, which was entire­ly British. The choice had been rep­re­sent­ed as keep­ing to the date of “Over­lord” or press­ing on with the oper­a­tions in the Mediter­ranean. But that was not the whole sto­ry.


The Amer­i­cans want­ed him to attack, to under­take an amphibi­ous oper­a­tion in the Bay of Ben­gal against the Japan­ese in March. He was not keen about it. If we had in the Mediter­ranean the land­ing craft need­ed for the Bay of Ben­gal, we would have enough to do all we want­ed in the Mediter­ranean and still be able to keep to an ear­ly date for “Over­lord.”

It was not a choice between the Mediter­ranean and the date of “Over­lord,” but between the Bay of Ben­gal and the date of “Over­lord.” He thought we would have all we want­ed in the way of land­ing craft. How­ev­er, the Amer­i­cans had pinned us down to a date for “Over­lord” and oper­a­tions in the Mediter­ranean had suf­fered in the last two months. Our army was some­what dis­heart­ened by the removal of the 7 divi­sions. We had sent home our 3 divi­sions and the Amer­i­cans were send­ing theirs, all in prepa­ra­tion for “Over­lord.” That was the rea­son for not tak­ing full advan­tage with the Ital­ian col­lapse. But it also proved the earnest­ness of our prepa­ra­tions for “Over­lord.”


Questions: Bombing Civilians

Churchill’s ques­tion­ing of Allied “car­pet bomb­ing” is well estab­lished in this vol­ume. Churchill was con­cerned over bomb­ing civil­ians in the forth­com­ing inva­sion of France. Here he voic­es his wor­ries to the Supreme Com­man­der; in the event, Eisen­how­er con­vinced him that cer­tain French casu­al­ties would have to be expect­ed.

3 April 1944. Win­ston S. Churchill to Gen­er­al Dwight D. Eisen­how­er (Churchill papers, 20/137)

Top Secret. Per­son­al and Pri­vate. My dear Gen­er­al, The Cab­i­net today took rather a grave and on the whole an adverse view of the pro­pos­al to bomb so many French rail­way cen­tres, in view of the fact that scores of thou­sands of French civil­ians, men, women, and chil­dren, would lose their lives or be injured. Con­sid­er­ing that they are all our friends, this might be held to be an act of very great sever­i­ty, bring­ing much hatred on the Allied Air Forces. It was decid­ed that the Defence Com­mit­tee should con­sid­er the mat­ter dur­ing this week, and that there­after the For­eign Office should address the State Depart­ment and I should myself send a per­son­al telegram to the Pres­i­dent.

The argu­ment for con­cen­tra­tion on these par­tic­u­lar tar­gets is very nice­ly bal­anced on mil­i­tary grounds. I myself have not heard the argu­ments which have led to the present pro­pos­al. The advan­tage to ene­my pro­pa­gan­da seem to me to be very great, espe­cial­ly as this would not be in the heat of bat­tle but a long time before. Would it not also be nec­es­sary to con­sult Gen­er­al de Gaulle and the French Nation­al Com­mit­tee of Lib­er­a­tion? There were many oth­er argu­ments that were men­tioned, and I thought I ought to let you know at this stage how the pro­pos­al was viewed.


Questions in the House

Despite his bur­dens, Churchill rou­tine­ly faced Ques­tions in the House of Com­mons. He did so with rel­ish and skill. From many ques­tions and answers, this exchange on “Basic Eng­lish” pro­vides an exam­ple.

Willie Gal­lach­er, a fre­quent crit­ic, was Com­mu­nist MP for West Fife, Scot­land. Hen­ry Wed­der­burn, Con­ser­v­a­tive MP for Ren­frew, was jib­ing Churchill over one of his invent­ed words, “triphib­ian,” refer­ring to British prowess on land, on sea and in the air. The Prime Min­is­ter respond­ed with one of his favorite archa­ic words, “pur­blind”….

4 Novem­ber 1943. House of Com­mons: Ques­tions

Sir Leonard Lyle asked the Prime Min­is­ter when the Com­mit­tee of Min­is­ters set up to study and report upon Basic Eng­lish are expect­ed to reach their con­clu­sion?

The Prime Min­is­ter: I hope to receive the rec­om­men­da­tions of this Com­mit­tee before very long.

Sir Lonard Lyle: When we do get this Report will the BBC be asked to adopt it, or will they still con­tin­ue to use Basic BBC?

The Prime Min­is­ter: Basic Eng­lish is not intend­ed for use among Eng­lish-speak­ing peo­ple but to enable a much larg­er body of peo­ple who do not have the good for­tune to know the Eng­lish lan­guage to par­tic­i­pate more eas­i­ly in our soci­ety.

Mr. Gal­lach­er: Will the right hon. Gen­tle­man con­sid­er intro­duc­ing Basic Scot­tish?

Mr. Wed­der­burn: Does Basic Eng­lish include the word “triphibi­ous”?

The Prime Min­is­ter: I have tried to explain that peo­ple are quite pur­blind who dis­cuss this mat­ter as if Basic Eng­lish were a sub­sti­tute for the Eng­lish lan­guage.


Questions: Will he die when it’s over?

Lit­tle escaped the wide net of Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, who assem­bled a vir­tu­al day-by-day record of Churchill’s life. From here the Hills­dale team has assem­bled them in read­able form, attach­ing a host of foot­notes and cross ref­er­ences. Occa­sion­al­ly we include pub­lished rec­ol­lec­tions. Here is one by Lady Diana Coop­er: a star­tling and grim pre­dic­tion she heard from Clemen­tine Churchill. For­tu­itous­ly, in this case, Clemen­tine was wrong.

 12 Jan­u­ary 1944. Mary Soames: rec­ol­lec­tion. (‘Clemen­tine Churchill’, page 350)

Diana Coop­er recount­ed a “curi­ous calm and sad con­ver­sa­tion” with Clemen­tine, after a din­ner in Mar­rakesh:

“I was talk­ing about post­war days and pro­posed that instead of a grate­ful coun­try build­ing Win­ston anoth­er Blenheim, they should give him an endowed manor house with acres for a farm and gar­dens to build and paint in. Clem­mie very calm­ly said: “I nev­er think of after the war. You see, I think Win­ston will die when it’s over.”

She said this so objec­tive­ly that I could not bring myself to say the usu­al “What non­sense!” but tried some­thing about it was no use rely­ing on death; peo­ple lived to nine­ty or might eas­i­ly, in our lives, die that day…. But she seemed quite cer­tain and quite resigned to his not sur­viv­ing long into peace. “You see, he’s sev­en­ty and I’m six­ty and we’re putting all we have into this war, and it will take all we have.”  It was touch­ing and noble.



Critique Down Under: Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Critique Down Under: Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Par­tic­u­lar­ly on the Fall of Sin­ga­pore (see ear­li­er post), a new cri­tique of Churchill miss­es the for­est for the trees and fails on the facts. Real­ly, Churchill made lots of mis­takes worth con­tem­plat­ing. But these aren’t among them.

Churchill with anoth­er fig­ure whose virtues out­weighed his fail­ures, Pres­i­dent Tru­man, 1952. (AP and Sun Coast Dai­ly)

The arti­cle appeared in south­west Australia’s Sun Coast Dai­ly on April 26th. Not exact­ly The Times, and if you don’t sub­scribe to Google Alerts you missed it. For the fun of shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel, how­ev­er, it’s worth a few min­utes of your time.


Critique 1: Self-Interest

“Churchill had a long and var­ied career in pol­i­tics, man­ag­ing to swap par­ties as his career needs required.” 

Churchill swapped par­ties in 1904 over prin­ci­ple (Free Trade), risk­ing rather than enhanc­ing his career. (He lucked out when his new par­ty won the next elec­tion.) He switched again in the 1920s after that par­ty fell out from under him, which didn’t help his career much either (he was out of Par­lia­ment for over two years). For­tu­nate­ly for him, a Con­ser­v­a­tive prime min­is­ter offered him a job. It seemed like the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you?

Critique 2: Military Catastrophes

“He man­aged while in gov­ern­ment to pro­duce two mil­i­tary cat­a­stro­phes: first the awful Dar­d­anelles cam­paign of the First World War cost him his job, then in the Sec­ond World War he mas­ter-mind­ed the awful Nor­we­gian cam­paign which cost Cham­ber­lain his job and cat­a­pult­ed Churchill into the PM’s office.”

Churchill did not con­ceive of either oper­a­tion and to say he “pro­duced” them is a “ter­mi­no­log­i­cal inex­ac­ti­tude.” While it is true that he loy­al­ly tried to advance them, the fail­ures were the work of many. On the Dar­d­anelles, he lat­er admit­ted “try­ing to car­ry out a major and car­di­nal oper­a­tion of war from a sub­or­di­nate posi­tion. Men are ill-advised to try such ven­tures. This les­son had sunk into my nature.” For an emi­nent­ly bal­anced account of the fol­lies of the Dar­d­anelles, I rec­om­mend Christo­pher M. Bell’s Churchill and the Dar­d­anelles.

Critique 3: Cheesy on Defense

“While it’s true he did speak out for rear­ma­ment late in the 1930s, read­ers may not realise that while trea­sur­er in con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments between the wars he presided over an aus­ter­i­ty pro­gram includ­ing a huge decline in mil­i­tary spend­ing, leav­ing the navy, for exam­ple, run­ning a string of most­ly clapped-out First World War era bat­tle­ships.”

The state of the Roy­al Navy in 1939 can hard­ly be blamed on some­one who’d been out of office for the pre­vi­ous ten years. But in the 1920s, you couldn’t find a mem­ber of any Tory or Labour gov­ern­ment in favor of spend­ing mon­ey on arma­ments. Yet Churchill, when times had changed, was among the lead­ing sup­port­ers of the government’s deci­sion to renew cap­i­tal war­ship pro­duc­tion in 1936.

Critique 4: Singapore

“Churchill, the mil­i­tary genius and aus­ter­i­ty mer­chant, left Sin­ga­pore incom­plete­ly and poor­ly defend­ed. He sent two bat­tle­ships, com­plete­ly lack­ing air cov­er, to deal with the Japan­ese threat. Both were sunk by Japan­ese planes while steam­ing away from the Japan­ese land­ings in Malaya.” 

In 1924-25, Churchill ques­tioned the deci­sion to defend Sin­ga­pore by shore based guns, and rec­om­mend­ed sub­marines and air pow­er. Grant­ed, he was main­ly try­ing to avoid heavy defense expen­di­tures at a time when no one fore­saw the need for them. (The guns fired, inef­fec­tu­al­ly, at land-based attack­ers in 1941.)

In Octo­ber 1941, before Japan attacked, Churchill sent the two war­ships to Sin­ga­pore, hop­ing they would serve as a deter­rent. When the deter­rent failed, his first impulse was to send them to join the rem­nants of the U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet at Pearl Har­bor. He should have. But it was Vice Admi­ral Tom Phillips, not Churchill, who opt­ed to sor­tie from Sin­ga­pore with­out air cov­er, hop­ing to dis­rupt Japan­ese land­ings, and he was sail­ing toward them, not away from them. Yet through­out the war, very few cap­i­tal ships were sunk by air pow­er alone, except when caught in har­bor.

The his­to­ri­ans Robin Brod­hurst and Christo­pher Bell explain these lit­tle-known cor­rec­tions to pop­u­lar belief short­ly on the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project web­site, which I will link when pub­lished.

Critique 5: Unions

“Churchill noto­ri­ous­ly urged the gov­ern­ment to machine-gun strik­ing union­ists in the 1926 Gen­er­al Strike.”

While hos­tile to social­ism, Churchill warm­ly accept­ed trade unions. For him, wrote the his­to­ri­an Chris Wrigley, “they were ele­ments of Vic­to­ri­an indi­vid­u­al­ism.” In deal­ing with unions, includ­ing over the Gen­er­al Strike, his impulse was first to win the argu­ment, then to address their griev­ances. There is no evi­dence what­so­ev­er that he urged the gun­ning-down of strik­ers.

Critique 6: India

“Churchill was also deeply racist, regard­ing the idea of Indi­an inde­pen­dence and Gand­hi with deep hor­ror.”

What Churchill regard­ed with “deep hor­ror” in India was more Brah­min dom­i­na­tion than Indi­ans gov­ern­ing them­selves, which they were large­ly doing long before the Raj end­ed. When the India Bill passed in 1935 he encougraged Gand­hi, who replied: “’I have got a good rec­ol­lec­tion of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colo­nial Office and some­how or oth­er since then I have held the opin­ion that I can always rely on his sym­pa­thy and good­will.”

Some racist. See “Churchill and Racism: Think a Lit­tle Deep­er” and “Wel­come Mr. Gandhi—Winston Churchill.”

Critique 7: He “ran the show”

“Dur­ing the war he presided over a nation­al all-par­ty gov­ern­ment which meant in effect that he ran the show. Once an elec­tion was held in 1945 the British peo­ple dumped him and the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly.”

It is the ten­den­cy in both nation­al and par­ty gov­ern­ments for the prime min­is­ter to “run the show.” Giv­en what he learned from the Dar­d­anelles (see #2 above), what else would we expect of him in 1940?

I must admit this is the first time I’ve heard Churchill crit­i­cized for pre­sid­ing over a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. It was a coali­tion because all three par­ties and Mr. Cham­ber­lain agreed in May 1940 that a coali­tion was the only way to fight Hitler. Churchill was the only can­di­date both avail­able and will­ing, whom all three par­ties would agree to sup­port.

Win­ston Churchill was on the polit­i­cal scene over half a cen­tu­ry, and his mis­takes like his virtues were on a grand scale. But the lat­ter con­sid­er­ably out­weighed the for­mer. Would-be crit­ics need to do bet­ter research before pro­claim­ing his feet of clay.