Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (1)

Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (1)

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.

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