“Crocodiles” is excerpted from an article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original text and endnotes, please click here.
Crocodiles and that ilk
My colleague and friend, the historian Andrew Roberts, asks how often Churchill described the Soviets as crocodiles. The answer is: a lot—but not just the Soviets. A search of Churchill’s canon produces an interesting review of a literary technique: animal analogies. Piers Brendon’s charming and comprehensive Churchill’s Bestiary (2018) is a particularly good source.
Churchill was generally an animal lover, but nursed a serious dislike for certain species. He wrote about the Nile crocodile after touring Kenya as Undersecretary for the Colonies in 1907. In his travelogue, My African Journey, he sheepishly admits his dislike, while demonstrating his flair for narrative:
I avow, with what regrets may be necessary, an active hatred of these brutes and a desire to kill them. It was a tempting shot, for the ruffian lay sleeping in the sun-blaze, his mouth wide open and his fat and scaly flanks exposed…. The crocodile gave one leap of mortal agony or surprise and disappeared in the waters. But then it was my turn to be astonished…. At the sound of the shot the whole of this bank of the river, over the extent of at least a quarter of a mile, sprang into hideous life, and my companions and I saw hundreds and hundreds of crocodiles, of all sorts and sizes, rushing madly into the Nile….
After the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin’s assault on liberty, Churchill revived his images of saurian predators. In The Aftermath, his account of the decade after the Great War, he wrote of Lenin’s misleading assurances of moderation:
[The Bolshevik] crocodiles with master minds entered upon their responsibilities upon November 8 . Many tears and guttural purrings were employed in inditing the decree of peace.… But the Petrograd wireless stirred the ether in vain. The crocodiles listened attentively for the response; but there was only silence.
In 1920, Commissar Lev Kamenev came to London, trying to negotiate a trade agreement. Young and self-assured, he also romanced Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan. After sculpting him, writes David Stafford,
Clare rushed off to a lunch with her cousin Winston. Here she listened, starry-eyed, while he expounded on Bolshevism. Nobody hated it more than he, and he would like to shoot every one he saw. But, he added with a grin, Bolsheviks were like crocodiles: sometimes they became simply too expensive to hunt.
…Just like his youthful desire to kill the “ruffians” on the Nile. In 1926 the Soviet labor leader Mikhail Tomsky addressed a British trades union conference. Churchill declared: “We do not want this new-laid crocodile egg from Moscow put upon our breakfast table.”
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill’s crocodiles took on Nazi form. Speaking to Parliament in January 1940, he registered regret at the neutrality of Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium: “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” The historian A.L. Rowse wrote: “In the struggle with Nazi Germany the existence of the nation was at stake: if one is in mortal combat with a tiger, and a crocodile or great bear comes to one’s aid, is it sense to reject it?”
Remembering his original crocodiles In June 1941, Churchill told reporters that “the Soviet Government resembles a crocodile, which bites whether you beat it or pat it. Once Stalin was on-side, he tried his best to pat it. In August 1942, giving Stalin the unwelcome news of no “second front,” he tried to placate him with his southern strategy:
To illustrate my point I had meanwhile drawn a picture of a crocodile, and explained to Stalin with the help of this picture how it was our intention to attack the soft belly of the crocodile as we attacked his hard snout. And Stalin, whose interest was now at a high pitch, said, “May God prosper this undertaking.”
Often thereafter Churchill used the term “soft underbelly” to describe the invasion of Italy—which, as General Mark Clark quipped, proved to be “one tough gut.”
The Soviets again
As Allied fortunes improved, Churchill reverted to his old image of Bolshevik saurians. Russia, he told a dinner party in 1943, “is like an immoral crocodile waiting in the depths for whatever prey may come his way.” Next he quipped to Field Marshal Alan Brooke: “Trying to maintain good relations with a communist is like wooing a crocodile. You do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or to beat it over the head. When it opens its mouth you cannot tell whether it is trying to smile or preparing to eat you up.” In April 1944, Molotov complained that Britain’s Special Operations Executive was secretly backing Romania’s pro-German Antonescu. “Bolsheviks are crocodiles,” roared Churchill. “But they were crocodiles,” Martin Gilbert added, “who had to be fed: in the previous eight months Britain had convoyed 191 ships to Russia’s northern ports, with more than a million tons of war stores, including aviation fuel.”
The war ended and he was out of office, but his view of the Soviets remained. “He called them ‘realist lizards,’ all belonging to the crocodile family,” wrote Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. “He said they would be as pleasant with you as they could be, although prepared to destroy you. That sentiment meant nothing to them—morals meant nothing. They were hard realists, out for themselves and for no one else and would be governed only in that way.”
The hard-used crocodile did have one favorable reference from the Prime Minister. Major General Sir Percy Hobart engineered a secret weapon that proved devastating to German resistance. A tank-like flame-thrower, it blasted flammable liquid with a range of 150 yards.
“I am very glad that the Churchill Crocodile Flame Thrower has justified your hopes,” wrote Churchill in 1944. Here at least was one saurian which earned his approval.
The Churchill Project, “Were ‘Soft Underbelly’ and ‘Fortress Europe’ Churchill Phrases?” (2016).