Lectures at Sea (1): Churchill and the Myths of D-Day

Lectures at Sea (1): Churchill and the Myths of D-Day

“Churchill and the Myths of D-Day is excerpt­ed from a lec­ture on the 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege Round-Britain cruise. Hills­dale cruis­es with “lec­tures at sea” are an annu­al event, usu­al­ly occur­ring in May or June. For infor­ma­tion on the 2020 cruise to Jerusalem and Athens, click here.

I’m here to talk about Win­ston Churchill. I know this audi­ence knows who he was! Did you know a sur­vey of British school­child­ren reveals that one in five think he was a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter? And bet­ter than half think Sher­lock Holmes was a real person?

My book is about the non-fic­tion­al Churchill. It expos­es all the tall tales, exag­ger­a­tions, lies, myths, rumors and dis­tor­tions about him over the years. Nowa­days, the old adage that you don’t speak ill of the dead is obso­lete. Nowa­days, it seems impor­tant to decon­struct his­to­ry. Espe­cial­ly old-fash­ioned con­cepts like heroes.

The tool is the Inter­net. With­out stray­ing from your key­board, you can anony­mous­ly spout what­ev­er non­sense that occurs to you. The late Umber­to Eco, the Ital­ian writer and crit­ic, nice­ly described this phe­nom­e­non: “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, with­out harm­ing the community….It’s the inva­sion of the idiots.”

* * *

Churchill, who won a Nobel Prize, and did a few oth­er things, can­not reply. He lies at Bladon in Eng­lish earth, “which in his finest hour he held invi­o­late.” I think he’d love the con­tro­ver­sy he stirs on media he nev­er dreamed of. He once said the vision “of mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men who are my polit­i­cal oppo­nents being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me.”

My book has thir­ty-sev­en chap­ters. I won’t cov­er them all! A favorite Churchill fam­i­ly sto­ry involves a Yale com­mence­ment speak­er who told his audi­ence, Y is for youth, A for achieve­ment, L for loy­al­ty, E for enter­prise. He gave 20 min­utes on Youth. He was ten min­utes into Achieve­ment when a voice came from the audi­ence: “Thank God he didn’t go to the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Technology.”

Churchill and Jura? Who knows the con­nec­tion? (Nobody has come up with it yet!)

Our cruise around Britain relates to inter­est­ing Churchill myths. I’ll put this map up again in the Q&A. On it, I’ve labeled every place around the British Isles with a Churchill con­nec­tion. If any sug­gest a ques­tion, please ask. For exam­ple, what does Churchill have to do with the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides?

“Churchill Opposed D-Day”

Thurs­day 6 June marks the 75th anniver­sary of D-Day. We were oppo­site Nor­mandy just after leav­ing port. Big par­ty going on over there. Churchill, of course, was vital to D-Day. Yet he was charged with oppos­ing it—and the charges began dur­ing the war itself. He wrote in his memoirs:

In view of the many accounts which are extant and mul­ti­ply­ing of my sup­posed aver­sion [to the inva­sion], it may be con­ve­nient if I make it clear that from the very begin­ning I pro­vid­ed a great deal of the impulse and author­i­ty for cre­at­ing the immense appa­ra­tus and arma­da for the land­ing of armour on beach­es, with­out which it is now uni­ver­sal­ly recog­nised that all such major oper­a­tions would have been impossible.

No “Second Front” in 1942

What Churchill feared was the inva­sion being thrown back with loss­es. He’d seen that in the Gal­lipoli land­ings in World War I. He want­ed to be sure of suc­cess. On the eve of D-Day, he remained anx­ious. “Do you realise,” he asked his wife, “that by the time you wake up in the morn­ing, “20,000 men may have been killed?” For­tu­nate­ly not.

In real­i­ty, Churchill was demand­ing what he called “a lodg­ment on the con­ti­nent” before the Rus­sians or Amer­i­cans were in the war. As ear­ly as June 1940, a few weeks after Dunkirk, he was ask­ing about reland­ing on French beach­es. In 1941, after Hitler invad­ed Rus­sia and Japan attacked in the Pacif­ic, clam­or grew for a so-called Sec­ond Front. But in March 1942 the Amer­i­cans said they couldn’t pro­vide more 130,000 troops in the near future.

Dis­ap­point­ed but still anx­ious to pre­pare, Churchill pro­posed the “Mul­ber­ry Har­bours,” which he first thought of in 1917: float­ing piers. “They must float up and down with the tide,” he direct­ed. “Let me have the best solu­tion worked out. Don’t argue the mat­ter. The dif­fi­cul­ties will argue for them­selves.” The Mul­ber­ries proved indis­pens­able. A fine mod­el of Port Arromonch­es, used by British and Cana­di­an forces, is in the library at Chartwell.

Nor in 1943…

With a French land­ing impos­si­ble in 1942, the Anglo-Amer­i­cans opt­ed for North Africa. Mean­while, the Amer­i­cans promised to get 27 divi­sions to Eng­land for the Sec­ond Front by Spring 1943. Actu­al­ly, count­ing North Africa and the Atlantic, there were already three fronts. But U.S. troop lev­els fell short. “We had been prepar­ing for 1.1 mil­lion men,” Churchill wrote Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt. FDR replied that he had no wish to give up on 1943, but the troops and land­ing craft were still insufficient.

So the Allies invad­ed Sici­ly in July 1943 and Italy prop­er in Sep­tem­ber. The inva­sion of France (now named Oper­a­tion Over­lord) was post­poned until 1944. But the Amer­i­can chiefs were reluc­tant to divert materiel to the Ital­ian cam­paign. Churchill’s Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff, Gen­er­al (lat­er Field Mar­shal) Alan Brooke wrote: “It is becom­ing more and more evi­dent that our oper­a­tions in Italy are com­ing to a stand­still.” Stal­in, Churchill com­plained, was “obsessed by this bloody Sec­ond Front. Damn the fel­low.” Italy, he declared, must be fought until victory.

When Rome fell two days before D-Day, sev­en crack divi­sions were imme­di­ate­ly pulled out of Italy for Oper­a­tion Dra­goon, a sup­ple­men­tal inva­sion of south­ern France, in August. Churchill viewed this as a point­less sideshow. In Italy the Allies advanced north­ward, but it was slow going, and fight­ing con­tin­ued until April 1945.

Though dis­ap­point­ed over Italy, Churchill con­tin­ued to sup­port Over­lord. He missed nothing—even the fake Army under Gen­er­al Pat­ton, which con­vinced the Ger­mans the main inva­sion would come 200+ miles north of Nor­mandy. Meet­ing reg­u­lar­ly with Eisen­how­er, he cov­ered every aspect of the land­ings. He even enlist­ed the Lon­don Fire Brigade, which pro­vid­ed pumps for the Mul­ber­ry Harbors.

D-Day myths and misinformation

Giv­en all this, it was aston­ish­ing to read in 2016 the same old accu­sa­tions. On 12-13 August 1943, Churchill was with Roo­sevelt at Hyde Park. There, accord­ing to Com­man­der-in-Chief, by Nigel Hamil­ton, Roo­sevelt threat­ened to with­hold U.S. atom bomb secrets from Britain unless Churchill sup­port­ed invad­ing France in 1944. Accord­ing to Hamil­ton, Churchill was so out­raged that he woke up in the night ‘unable to sleep and hard­ly able to breathe.’”

No evi­dence was offered for this oth­er than Churchill’s quote, which had noth­ing to do with FDR. “It was so hot,” Churchill wrote, “that I got up one night because I was unable to sleep and hard­ly to breathe, and went out­side to sit on a bluff over­look­ing the Hud­son Riv­er.” Thus Hamilton’s the­sis col­laps­es on its face—another myth with no basis in reality.

He took what the war gave him

Churchill in war man­i­fest­ed two traits: eag­n­er­ness and flex­i­bil­i­ty. War is most­ly chance, he said. “You have to run risks. There are no cer­tain­ties n war. There is a precipice on either side of you—a precipice of cau­tion and a precipice of over-daring.”

Dis­ap­point­ed by the slow build-up for Over­lord, he saw oppor­tu­ni­ty in Italy—though he cer­tain­ly did not, as some insist, pro­pose invad­ing Ger­many over the Alps. Franklin Roo­sevelt, with good rea­son, resist­ed Churchill’s more fan­ci­ful pro­pos­als far­ther east. “Win­ston has 100 new ideas a day,” FDR cracked, and three of them are good.” I think the bal­ance was bet­ter than that—but FDR was not entire­ly wrong. Legit­i­mate crit­i­cism has its place. But not fairy tales.

Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt decid­ed against invad­ing France in 1943 when he real­ized that the forces to assure suc­cess were insuf­fi­cient. Churchill too real­ized that cir­cum­stances had changed, and when Mediter­ranean oppor­tu­ni­ties arose he pur­sued them. Both lead­ers want­ed to win the war quick­ly. Churchill chal­lenged the assump­tion that Nor­mandy was the only way to wear down the ene­my. But he worked as hard as any­one to ensure its success.

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