Fateful Questions: World War II Microcosm (2)

by Richard Langworth on 30 April 2017

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.



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: