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.
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:
…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.
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
“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.