Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (1)

by Richard Langworth on 2 April 2017

FatefulFateful Questions, September 1943-April 1944, nineteenth of the projected twenty-three document volumes, is reviewed by historian Andrew Roberts in Commentary.

The volumes comprise “every important document of any kind that concerns Churchill, and the present volume is 2,752 pages long, representing an average of more than eleven pages per day.” 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.

Fateful Questions: Excerpts

Fastidiously compiled by the late Sir Martin Gilbert and edited by Dr. Larry Arnn, this volume offers a fresh contribution of documents crucial to our understanding of Churchill in World War II. It is a vast new contribution to Churchill scholarship.

Fateful Questions takes us from the Allied invasion of Italy to the first Big Three conference at Teheran; Russian successes on the Eastern Front; fraught arguments over tactics and strategy as the Allies begin closing in on Nazi Germany, and on to the eve of D-Day: the invasion of France in June 1944.

The majority of these documents have never before been seen in print. They illustrate the sheer volume and variety of subjects Churchill dealt with, leading Britain in the war while presiding of myriad mechanics of government.

In Fateful Questions, Churchill is called upon to alleviate, in the midst of war, a severe famine in Bengal, India. Almost simultaneously, he is confronted with Italy’s surrender, and the question of who will lead that nation after Mussolini. From America come constant requests, prods and proposals—and the growing realization that by comparison to the USA, Britain will soon play a greatly diminished role.

Militarily, Churchill has to consider siphoning resources from the Italian campaign to support the coming invasion of France. He must cope with belligerent notes from Stalin, often demanding the impossible; strained dialogue within the War Cabinet; difficulties in setting Big Three meetings; Parliamentary business; Japan and the Pacific; communications with the citizenry; appointments to fill; vacancies and losses; postwar planning—page after page, copiously footnoted by Hillsdale’s team of student associates and practiced historians.

Even now, in the digital age, Churchill’s workload in 1943-44 would be enormous for several persons, let alone one man pushing seventy. His output was extraordinary, his prescriptions understandable and wise. If he lost his temper on occasion, it is fully understandable. This is not to suggest—as the documents testify—that Churchill was right on every subject. But the average of his decisions was certainly not bad.

A sampling from Fateful Questions illustrates both the complexity of Churchill’s problems and their wide variety and the depths of detail into which he entered—and, in some cases, some rather astonishing facts which, until this book were confined to archives, or not known at all.


Churchill’s steady support of a national home for the Jews continued during World War II, and Fateful Questions contains many evidences. In 1942-44 Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne, was Resident Minister of State in Cairo, responsible for the Middle East, including Mandatory Palestine, and Africa. He was a lifetime friend of the Churchills. His assassination by Zionist extremists in November 1944 stunned Churchill. “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols, and our labours for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany,” he declared sadly, “many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.”

27 October 1943. Winston S. Churchill to Sir Edward BridgesPrime Minister’s Personal Minute C.41/3 (Churchill papers, 20/106)

It must be more than three months since the War Cabinet decided that a special committee should be set up to watch over the Jewish question and Palestine generally. How many times has this Committee met? At the present moment Lord Moyne is over here. I said at least a month ago that he should be invited to lay his views before this Committee. He has been made a member, but there has been no meeting. A meeting should be held this week, and Lord Moyne should have every opportunity of stating his full case, in which I am greatly interested. The matter might be discussed further at the Cabinet next week or the week after. Pray report to me the action that will be taken.


Destroyers for Bases 

In the Destroyers for Bases Agreement on 2 September 1940, fifty mothballed U.S. Navy destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy in exchange for land rights to build American bases on British possessions. No one maintained that this was a fair exchange, but Fateful Questions reveals that Churchill downplayed this issue: “When you have got a thing where you want it, it is a good thing to leave it where it is.” To President Roosevelt’s advisor, Harry Hopkins, he admitted that the value of the trade was unequal—but that, to Britain, American security overrode considerations of an equable “business deal.” This was astonishing admission, characteristic of Churchill, and his loyalty to an ally. 

14 October 1943. Winston S. Churchill to Harry HopkinsPrime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1614/3  (Churchill papers, 20/121)

Personal and Most Secret. I am most grateful for the comments which the President made at his Press conference but there are several other important allegations which we think should be answered. I therefore propose to publish from 10 Downing Street on my authority something like the [following]…Statement begins…..

“Complaints are made about the bases lent by Britain to the United States in the West Indies in 1940 in return for the fifty destroyers. These fifty destroyers, although very old, were most helpful at that critical time to us who were fighting alone against Germany and Italy, but no human being could pretend that the destroyers were in any way an equivalent for the immense strategic advantages conceded in seven islands vital to the United States. I never defended the transaction as a business deal. I proclaimed to Parliament, and still proclaim, that the safety of the United States is involved in these bases, and that the military security of the United States must be considered a prime British interest….”


Famine in Bengal

Since publication of a book on the 1943-44 Bengal famine a few years ago—and a chorus of condemnations from those who read little else—Churchill and his War Cabinet have been accused near-genocidal behavior over aid to the victims. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, and Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, are frequently represented as Churchill’s critics. Before he died, Sir Martin Gilbert told me that the relevant documents, which he had exhaustively compiled, would be revealed in the appropriate document volume. They would, he said, completely exonerate Churchill.

That time has now come with publication of Fateful Questions. Reading it, no one could consider that Churchill and his Cabinet, in the midst of a war for survival, did not do everything they could for the plight of the starving, and for the Indian people in general. Only a few excerpts are possible here. They barely scratch the surface.

8 October 1943. Winston S. Churchill to the War Cabinet. (Churchill papers, 23/11), 10 Downing Street


  1. Your first duty is the defence of India from Japanese menace and invasion. Owing to the favourable turn which the affairs of The King-Emperor have taken this duty can best be discharged by ensuring that India is a safe and fertile base from which the British and American offensive can be launched in 1944. Peace, order and a high condition of war-time well-being among the masses of the people constitute the essential foundation of the forward thrust against the enemy.
  2. The material and cultural conditions of the many peoples of India will naturally engage your earnest attention. The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages. But besides this the prevention of the hoarding of grain for a better market and the fair distribution of foodstuffs between town and country are of the utmost consequence. The contrast between wealth and poverty in India, the incidence of corrective taxation and the relations prevailing between land-owner and tenant or labourer, or between factory-owner and employee, require searching re-examination.
  3. Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good. No form of democratic Government can flourish in India while so many millions are by their birth excluded from those fundamental rights of equality between man and man, upon which all healthy human societies must stand…. [emphasis mine]

12 October 1943. House of Commons: Oral Answers


Secretary of State for India (Mr. Amery): At the beginning of the year His Majesty’s Government provided the necessary shipping for substantial imports of grain to India in order to meet prospects of serious shortage which were subsequently relieved by an excellent spring harvest in Northern India. Since the recrudescence of the shortage in an acute form we have made every effort to provide shipping, and considerable quantities of food grains are now arriving or are due to arrive before the end of the year. We have also been able to help in the supply of milk food for children. The problem so far as help from here is concerned is entirely one of shipping, and has to be judged in the light of all the other urgent needs of the United Nations.

Canadian & Australian Aid

4 November 1943. Winston S. Churchill to William Mackenzie King (Prime Minister, Canada). PM’s Personal Telegram T.1842/3 (Churchill papers, 20/123)

  1. I have seen the telegrams exchanged by you and the Viceroy offering 100,000 tons of wheat to India and I gratefully acknowledge the spirit which prompts Canada to make this generous gesture.
  2. Your offer is contingent however on shipment from the Pacific Coast which I regret is impossible. The only ships available to us on the Pacific Coast are the Canadian new buildings which you place at our disposal. These are already proving inadequate to fulfil our existing high priority commitments from that area which include important timber requirements for aeroplane manufacture in the United Kingdom and quantities of nitrate from Chile to the Middle East which we return for foodstuffs for our Forces and for export to neighbouring territories, including Ceylon.
  3. Even if you could make the wheat available in Eastern Canada, I should still be faced with a serious shipping question. If our strategic plans are not to suffer undue interference we must continue to scrutinise all demands for shipping with the utmost rigour. India’s need for imported wheat must be met from the nearest source, i.e. from Australia. Wheat from Canada would take at least two months to reach India whereas it could be carried from Australia in 3 to 4 weeks. Thus apart from the delay in arrival, the cost of shipping is more than doubled by shipment from Canada instead of from Australia. In existing circumstance this uneconomical use of shipping would be indefensible….

11 November 1943. Winston S. Churchill to Mackenzie King. PM’s Personal Telegram T.1942/3 (Churchill papers, 20/124)

…The War Cabinet has again considered the question of further shipments of Australian wheat and has decided to ship up to another 100,000 tons, part of which will arrive earlier than the proposed cargo from Canada….

“We should do everything possible…”

14 February 1944. War Cabinet: Conclusions. (War Cabinet papers, 65/41) 10 Downing Street


The Prime Minister informed the War Cabinet that…there had been a further communication from the Viceroy urging in the strongest terms the seriousness of the situation as he foresaw it….he was most anxious that we should do everything possible to ease the Viceroy’s position. No doubt the Viceroy felt that if this corner could be turned, the position next year would be better….

The Minister of War Transport said that it would be out of the question for him to find shipping to maintain the import of wheat to India at a monthly rate of 50,000 tons for an additional two months. The best that he could do was represented by the proposed import of Iraqi barley. If, when the final figures of the rice crop were available, the Government of India’s anticipation of an acute shortage proved to be justified he would then have tonnage in a position to carry to India about 25,000 tons a month. But even this help would be at the expense of cutting the United Kingdom import programme in 1944 below 24 million tons, this being the latest estimate in the light of increasing operational requirements. In the circumstances it was clearly quite impossible to provide shipping to meet the full demand of 1½ million tons made by the Government of India.

24 April 1944. War Cabinet: Conclusions. (Cabinet papers, 65/42) 10 Downing Street

Secret. The War Cabinet had before them a Memorandum by the Secretary of State for India (WP (44) 216) reviewing the latest position as regards the Indian food grain situation. The result was a net worsening of 550,000 tons and the Viceroy, in addition to the 200,000 tons already promised, now required 724,000 tons of wheat if the minimum needs of the civil population were to be met and the Army were also to receive their requirements.

The Secretary of State for India said that the position had been worsened by unseasonable weather, and by the disaster at Bombay, in which 45,000 tons of badly-needed foodstuffs and 11 ships had been lost. He was satisfied that everything possible had been done by the Authorities in India to meet the situation. Given the threat to operations which any breakdown in India’s economic life involved, he felt that we should now apprise the United States of the seriousness of the position. It must be for the War Cabinet to decide how far we should ask for their actual assistance….

The Prime Minister said that it was clear that His Majesty’s Government could only provide further relief for the Indian situation at the cost of incurring grave difficulties in other directions. At the same time, there was a strong obligation on us to replace the grain which had perished in the Bombay explosion. He was sceptical as to any help being forthcoming from America, save at the cost of operations of the United Kingdom import programme. At the same time his sympathy was great for the sufferings of the people of India.

Appeal to Roosevelt

29 April 1944. Winston S. Churchill to President Franklin Delano RooseveltPM’s Personal Telegram T.996/4. (Churchill papers, 20/163)

No.665. I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India and its possible reactions on our joint operations. Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died. This year there is a good crop of rice, but we are faced with an acute shortage of wheat, aggravated by unprecedented storms which have inflicted serious damage on the Indian spring crops. India’s shortage cannot be overcome by any possible surplus of rice even if such a surplus could be extracted from the peasants. Our recent losses in the Bombay explosion have accentuated the problem.

Wavell is exceedingly anxious about our position and has given me the gravest warnings. His present estimate is that he will require imports of about one million tons this year if he is to hold the situation, and to meet the needs of the United States and British and Indian troops and of the civil population especially in the great cities. I have just heard from Mountbatten that he considers the situation so serious that, unless arrangements are made promptly to import wheat requirements, he will be compelled to release military cargo space of SEAC in favour of wheat and formally to advise Stillwell that it will also be necessary for him to arrange to curtail American military demands for this purpose.

By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.

I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia without reducing the assistance you are now providing for us, who are at a positive minimum if war efficiency is to be maintained. We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships. I have resisted for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but I believe that, with this recent misfortune to the wheat harvest and in the light of Mountbatten’s representations, I am no longer justified in not asking for your help. Wavell is doing all he can by special measures in India. If, however, he should find it possible to revise his estimate of his needs, I would let you know immediately.

Without Churchill…

Fateful Questions, in these documents and others included, has put paid to the outrageous allegations that Churchill, full of racist hatred for the people of India, was responsible for exacerbating the Bengal famine in 1943-44.

The historian Arthur Herman noted two facts which Churchill’s critics have thus far studiously ignored.  (1) Had the famine occurred in peacetime, without a war for survival, it would have been dealt with competently, as famines had been dealt with before by the British Raj. (2) Without Churchill, the Bengal famine would have been worse.

















Share this post...Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: