- Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945
- Knopf, 576 pp.
Defeat into Victory
On Wednesday, July 10, 1940, 120 German warplanes attacked a convoy of British merchant ships in the English Channel between Dover and Dungeness. The attack was far from a routine military operation. It was the first engagement of the Battle of Britain, the most pivotal air campaign of World War II. With the 70th anniversary of this epic duel at hand, it is time to probe the legend and the significance of the Battle of Britain.
In the weeks following the opening round over the Channel, the German Luftwaffe attacks escalated in intensity. A maximum effort was set for August 13, the day Hitler had marked to land paratroopers and other combat units onto British soil. Codenamed “Adler Tag,” or Eagle Day, this red letter event was marked by air battles alone. Dogfights between Royal Air Force Spitfires and German Me-109s filled the English skies with silvery vapor trails and the acrid black smoke of stricken planes plunging to their doom. Aerial battles and endless bombing raids continued until the threat of Nazi invasion passed by the end of October. Despite superior numbers of aircraft and a reserve of veteran air crews, the Germans failed to secure air superiority over the southern coast of England. Nor had they cracked the morale of the British people through incessant bombing of London and other cities. Why?
Max Hastings, a distinguished journalist and historian, provides perceptive insight into these German failures in a magnificent study of the man who beat them. Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 is military history at its best. Hastings shows how the British, under Winston Churchill’s inspiring leadership, secured an impressive victory over Hitler’s Luftwaffe, gaining a vital moment for the forces of Democracy to rally against Nazi tyranny.
Triumph in the Battle of Britain, however, came at a price that cannot be measured in the number of aircraft and pilots lost by the Royal Air Force. Partly as a result of the public relations effort aimed at winning support from the United States, Churchill used the myth of Britain’s “Finest Hour” to cover up profound weaknesses and shortcomings in the British war effort. Not content to “muddle through,” much less to negotiate with Hitler, Churchill sought to compensate for Britain’s beleaguered position by launching bold offensive efforts that ended, almost entirely, in disaster.
The next two years of the war for Churchill were a harrowing march through what his wife, Clementine called the “valley of humiliation.” Defeats in Greece, in the Battle of Crete and in North Africa in 1941 were followed by the Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942. That same month, the daring “Channel Dash” by German warships under siege in Cherbourg to their home naval bases stung British pride to its core. Great Britain, the nation of Marlborough, Churchill’s warrior ancestor, and Lord Nelson was losing the war on land and sea.
Although all these defeats were recounted by Churchill in his memoirs of the Second World War, there is much in Hastings’ account that will surprise even those familiar with the great British leader’s handling of the war. The difficulties which Churchill had in securing American military assistance, the erosion of support among the British people as the war progressed and his inability to produce a battle-winning strategy brought the embattled prime minister to a hair’s breadth of losing control of Parliament. The tide of war turned in November 1942 with the desert victory at El Alamein and Operation Torch, the successful Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria, but as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, it had been a “near run thing.”
Shockingly, even Churchill’s eloquent and heartfelt speeches were turned against him. As casualty lists soared and British units recoiled in defeat before the advance of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the Labour Party politician, Aneurin Bevin, savaged Churchill in the House of Commons.
“The prime minister wins debate after debate and looses battle after battle,” Bevin declared scornfully. “The country is beginning to say that he fights debates like a war and the war like a debate.”
Other left-wing pundits compared Churchill’s apparently inept leadership with the Soviet war effort under the redoubtable dictator, Joseph Stalin. Ignoring the fact that Stalin’s craven Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939 had paved the way to the Nazi victories in Poland and Western Europe and that Soviet war losses numbered in millions of dead, wounded and captured, many Britons (and not a few Americans) wondered why Churchill refused to throw his remaining troops across the English Channel to help save the Russians.
The left-wing mantra of “Second Front Now” obscured the fact that Churchill had already provided critical support to the Soviet Union in its hour of need, as Hitler’s legions closed in on Moscow in the autumn of 1941. Even the normally astute Hastings misses this point with his assessment that Churchill’s North African operations were “of negligible importance alongside Stalin’s War.”
Churchill’s decision to engage the German Army, first in Greece in the spring of 1941 and then with offensive strikes against Rommel in Libya later that year, cost Hitler his last real chance to win the war. Churchill denied Hitler the use of the two ace cards that had enabled him to triumph in the Blitzkreig campaigns of 1940. Hitler succeeded in the West because the Luftwaffe secured complete air supremacy and because his commanders were able to deploy all of their mechanized Panzer divisions against the hapless, shell-shocked Allied ground troops.
This was not the case when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Despite impressive initial victories, the Luftwaffe never secured more than temporary air supremacy over the vast Russian front. More seriously, Hitler’s generals lacked a strategic reserve of troops and tanks that they could dispatch to threatened sectors or use to consolidate a breakthrough. From the first days of Barbarossa, the Germans were compelled to switch units from one danger point to another, leaving gaps in their battle line that the Russians were quick to exploit. The Luftwaffe squadrons and Panzer divisions, so desperately needed by the Germans as they tried to capture Moscow before the onset of winter, were engaged against the British in Churchill’s “negligible” North African campaign.
Britain paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for Churchill’s offensive strategy in 1941-42. Overstretched everywhere, the British were unable to win anywhere. Sir Alan Brooke, the leader of Churchill’s military staff, expressed the anger felt by many British generals and admirals at the prime minister’s cavalier disregard of their more cautious recommendations: “Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster again and again.”
Churchill’s willingness to take Britain to the brink of defeat on behalf of the Allied cause elicited scant regard from the Soviet Union and the United States. Russian ingratitude requires little comment here. The U.S. Government’s response to Britain’s plight, on the other hand, bore little relation to the widespread belief in Anglo-American solidarity. Hastings’ analysis of Churchill’s unflagging efforts to create a grand Anglo-American coalition presents a fascinating case study of the ultimate “wartime marriage.”
The wooing in this diplomatic courtship was almost entirely on Churchill’s part. The series of strategic summits, beginning with the sanctimonious singing of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the Atlantic Charter meeting on board H.M.S. Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, were marked by strained cordiality. There were plenty of smiles, most notably on the beaming face of President Franklin Roosevelt, when press corps photographers were allowed in. Hard bargaining and little sentimentality characterized the closed-door negotiations.
Hastings contends that a feeling of mutual respect was fostered between Churchill and Roosevelt. But it took skillful negotiation by Churchill and major concessions from the British to secure American help. In the end, it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s egregious blunder in declaring war on the U.S. after Japan launched its war in the Pacific that set the seal on the successful U.S-British alliance.
Next to defeating Hitler in the Battle of Britain, Churchill’s charm offensive to win U.S. support was his greatest triumph. Hastings writes that it came with a hidden price tag that led Britain’s post-war economic malaise. “Churchill’s nation,” Hastings writes, “was now mortgaged to the hilt to the United States.”
Initially, the U.S. provided equipment and supplies to the British strictly on a “cash and carry” basis. The passing of the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941, which triggered a vast expansion of American military aid, required the British to sell their over-seas assets and transfer gold reserves to the U.S. Treasury before any planes and tanks would be delivered. No such stipulation was enforced by the U.S. on the Soviet Union when Lend-Lease equipment was dispatched to the Russian Front.
Given Britain’s military weakness and the steady erosion of its status as a world power, it was no wonder that Churchill relied so heavily on the diplomatic clout that victory in the Battle of Britain provided him. The French have a proverb that states, “The British always win the last battle.” Churchill was determined that World War II should end the same way, but often his only weapons were the mystique of the “Finest Hour” and his magnificent command of the English language.
Max Hastings’ Winston’s War is a book worthy of its protagonist. While never white-washing the many character flaws of Britain’s last lion, Hastings leaves no doubt as to Churchill’s greatness and humanity. Hastings shows that Churchill’s pledge on May 13, 1940 to dedicate his “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” to achieve Allied victory was one instance when a politician was as good as his words.