Fatal Flaws: Winston Churchill wasn’t Perfect. Surprise!
“I always feel that, paradoxically, it diminishes Churchill when he’s regarded as super-human.” —Paul Addison
We’ve now read umpteen articles on Churchill’s Fatal Flaws. Mostly of late, they cite imagined sins long disproven (poison gas, Bengal Famine, opposing self-determination, and racist war crimes). One wonders: do the writers ever do research?*
In rising crescendo since 2015 we’ve put up with a lot. Well, yes, some admit, the old boy saved civilization in 1940. But he made mistakes (duh!). Why, he even said things that would shock us in our modern enlightened age (an age of beheadings, massacres, drone strikes and gas attacks.)
Let us provide something his critics can really sink their teeth into. Here are 20 fairly serious Churchill errors which got him into trouble. They reliably prove that he was not super-human. Can we debate these, instead of the flapdoodle canards that bedizen our social and print media?
Flaws early on
1) 1904: Deserting his natural home, the Conservative Party, over Free Trade, only to be forced back to them later, being ever after regarded by both Liberals and Tories as a turncoat. (In many ways this was also admirable. He stuck to his principles. Politically, however, it sometimes put him at a disadvantage in pursuing those principles.)
2) 1915: Championing the Dardanelles and Gallipoli operations despite sloppy planning and worse execution by military commanders, without plenary authority to force a chance of success. He wrote: “…a supreme enterprise,” cast away, by pursuing “a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position” (1949). Of course he learned from that mistakes, which he didn’t repeat in WW2.
3) 1915: Relying too much on the mercurial, disloyal, hypocritical Admiral Fisher, who brought about his (temporary) political demise. Among WSC’s flaws, steadfast loyalty turned around and bit him at times.
4) 1920-21: The Black and Tans. Churchill did not create the paramilitary constabulary that wrecked violence in Ireland. But he defended them long after their activities were indefensible. (Scroll to “Ireland and the Jews” in “Defcon 1: The Battle for Churchill’s Memory.”)
5) 1921: Failing to press his demands for Kurdish and Jewish states while helping to draw up the borders of the modern Middle East. The flaws of those arrangements are with us yet. Of course so is the moderate Jordan he did manage to create: “The Emperor Abdullah is in Transjordania, where I put him one Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem.”
6) 1925: Restoring the Gold Standard without commensurate reforms in employment, tax and wage policies. “Everybody said that I was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was. And now I’m inclined to agree with them.” (1930).
Wilderness years, 1929-39
7) 1930s: Wasting political capital opposing the India Bill, which had thumping majorities in all parties. (Of course one can argue that devotion to principle is not among one’s flaws. He was right in his warnings about unresolved religious conflicts, and he made positive contributions to India’s military legacy. Click here and scroll to “Another stroke of the pen.”)
8) 1934: Trying to skewer Sir Samuel Hoare on an issue of Parliamentary Privilege (legal immunity) for illegally influencing India legislation, when Hoare’s Conservative friends could stack the deck to protect him despite his guilt.
9) 1935-37: Listening to the Foreign Office, which insisted he tone down his rhetoric and give Hitler the benefit of the doubt in his articles and books.
10) 1936: Muting his opposition to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, in the hope of gaining political office. Ambition is one of those flaws a good politician can’t do without, of course.
11) 1936: Standing up too long for Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis, long after the King had lost the right to support from anybody. (See also “Troublesome Toffs.”)
Second World War
12) 1940: Miscalculation in timing and troop allocations during the Norway campaign of April 1940, although some of this was owed to Cabinet dithering.
13) 1940: Placing too much faith in the French Army. Speaking of flaws, that was a big one.
14) 1940: Accepting leadership of the Conservative Party, instead of remaining a non-party leader at the head of the wartime coalition.
15) 1940: Confusing Blitzkrieg with the static warfare of World War I. Churchill expressed shock over “the utter failure to grapple with the German armour” (1949).
16) 1941-42: Underestimating Singapore’s defenses, as Christopher Bell has recently written. It wasn’t that Singapore’s guns faced the wrong way—they rotated 360 degrees. As Churchill wrote later: “It had never entered my head that no circle of detached forts of a permanent character protected the rear of the famous fortress…. I ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked.”
17) 1942: Sending HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore to act as a “vague menace” near Singapore, uncomprehending of how vulnerable they were. “The efficiency of the Japanese in air warfare was at this time greatly underestimated both by ourselves and by the Americans” (1948).
18) 1945: Believing he could trust Stalin’s Yalta promises of free elections in Poland, and other places. (To his credit, he realized this mistake quickly, and his defenders argue that by Yalta, it was too late to prevent communization of Eastern Europe.)
19) 1953: Believing that his brand of personal diplomacy would make a difference in Cold War relations after Stalin’s death.
20) 1956: Not interceding more forcefully to resolve the Anglo-American split during the Suez Crisis.
The urge to proclaim one’s virtue…
…by inventing straw men and false scenarios is insidious, and creeps into many unexpected places. Churchill’s flaws were, like his qualities, on a grand scale, though the latter overwhelmed the former. Of course the Dardanelles, the Black and Tans, the Gold Standard, any number of Second World War decisions from Norway to D-Day, are open to learned critique. But there’s a difference between presenting “a broad range of views” and inventing myths. And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
*The first draft of this article (2015) referred to a critical piece by Peter Harris in The National Interest. By today’s standards it seems almost mild.
3 thoughts on “Fatal Flaws: Winston Churchill wasn’t Perfect. Surprise!”
I recently got two new books about W.S.C. ” Churchill’s Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Giles Milton, on destruction of Hitler’s war machine, through spectacular acts of sabotage. A lesser known part of the war, but makes great inside information. Almost done reading it. “Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill”, still have to get started.
Concerning 13) he was not alone.
See the superb discussion of the same failure in the United States in the first chapters of the recent
When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance, by Michael S. Neiberg
I think this was a very useful listing. 90 years, most of it in the public eye at a highly placed decision level—- a pretty good score , even if accomplishments were modest—- when great, the scales are balanced way to one side