Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (2)

Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (2)

Fateful Questions

Fateful QuestionsFate­ful 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.

Here is an excerpt from my account, “Fresh His­to­ry,” which can be read in its entire­ty at the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.


Questions: Science

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

Gen­er­al Georges, with Gen­er­al Lord Gort, who had received the Légion d’honneur (hence the large star and sash) with Churchill present. British Expe­di­tionary Force HQ, Arras, 8 Jan­u­ary 1940. Prof. Antoine Capet points us to a descrip­tion of this occa­sion: http://bit.ly/2p8r0Pn. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.

25 Octo­ber 1943. Gen­er­al Sir Alan Brooke: diary. (“War Diaries, Field Mar­shal Lord Alan­brooke,” page 56)

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.


Stal­in, Roo­sevelt, Churchill, Teheran, 1943. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.

3 April 1944. Win­ston S. Churchill to Gen­er­al Dwight D. Eisen­how­er (Churchill papers, 20/137)

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.

 12 Jan­u­ary 1944. Mary Soames: rec­ol­lec­tion. (‘Clemen­tine Churchill’, page 350)

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.

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