Crocodiles: Churchill’s Animal Analogies

Crocodiles: Churchill’s Animal Analogies

“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 Jour­neyhe 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….

Bolshevik crocodiles

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 [1917]. 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.”

German crocodiles

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.”

Incidentally

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.

Further reading

The Bren­dan Bes­tiary: Churchill Ani­mal Friends and Analo­gies” (2019)

The Churchill Project, “Were ‘Soft Under­bel­ly’ and ‘Fortress Europe’ Churchill Phras­es?” (2016).

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