Fatal Flaws: Winston Churchill wasn’t Perfect. Surprise!

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!

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. Richard
    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

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