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By Ellis Goodman
I have just finished reading Max Hastings’s acclaimed book on Winston Churchill – “Winston’s War: 1940 to 1945. There have been so many books about Churchill, his life, and his World-War II leadership of Great Britain that one would have thought it would be difficult to find new material. However, Max Hastings’s book focuses on Churchill as perceived by his Cabinet members, Military and political leaders, secretaries, and even his doctor, during the dark days of the Second World War.
Since I was a small boy during that conflict, I have some very clear memories and perceptions created from my knowledge, readings, and studies of the period. If Max Hastings is to be believed (and I think his book is an honest and direct account), many of my perceptions of Churchill and his times are wrong. There is no doubt that Winton Churchill was one of the towering political personalities of the 20th Century. His political vision, strength, optimism, leadership, and oratory undoubtedly saved Britain from defeat by Nazi Germany. Time and again, he roused the people to overcome adversity and prepared them for a long but determined battle to protect the freedom of the British Isles, and ultimately to liberate Europe from the grip of the Nazis.
However, I learned from this book some uncomfortable but perhaps not unexpected misconceptions. For instance, the RAF won the Battle of Britain and inflicted sufficient damage on the Luftwaffe to convince Hitler to abandon the daylight bombing of the RAF airfields and turn his attention to London and other population centers. This was a grave mistake, but the wholesale destruction of the Luftwaffe by the RAF that I and the public were told during and after the War did not take place. Instead of the RAF taking out 4 enemy aircraft for every 1 British plane, the ratio was more like 1.3 to 1.0. And in fact, if Hitler had maintained his wholesale bombing of British airfields, he might have destroyed so many RAF planes that a substantial defense could not have been maintained.
The book also describes the poor performance of the British Army for the first few years of the War. They were outmaneuvered, outfought, and out led in every confrontation with the German Werchmart until after D-Day in June 1944. What was even more disturbing was to read of incompetent British Generals, who Churchill replaced in an endless stream, and how easily British troops surrendered – (perhaps the ultimate defeat of the War was their surrender to the Japanese in Singapore).
Churchill made his own mistakes not only in some of his military appointments, but in his encouragement to bold action by prodding his weak Generals to pursue unnecessary, costly and ultimately unsuccessful assaults on the enemy in Norway, Greece, Crete, and other Greek Islands.
I also learned that the “special relationship” between the UK and US and Churchill and Roosevelt was far less close than I had thought. Churchill used every bit of his charm and persuasion that he could muster to bring the US into the War, but ultimately it was the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, followed by the declaration of War by Germany on US that finally prodded the US in linking up with Britain and the British Commonwealth in fighting the Nazis and liberating Europe. Even though the US supported the British with supplies of all sorts of war materials in the dark days from 1939 through 1941 through their “Lend-Lease” programs, this was on far from generous terms. In fact, the US government and Congress extracted every possible cent that they could from the British until the United Kingdom was bankrupt and had no more to offer.
Although it appears Churchill admired Roosevelt and in the early years of the War had a good personal relationship based upon mutual admiration and respect and their not dissimilar backgrounds, as time progressed, this relationship soured. Churchill found Roosevelt to be bland and unimaginative, and Roosevelt ultimately tired of Churchill’s endless “pushiness” and arm-twisting demands. Churchill had some success however, in persuading Roosevelt to open a Second Front by invading North Africa in 1942, and subsequently Sicily and Italy, and putting off the major cross channel D-Day invasion until June 1944. An earlier attempt, which is what the US was pursuing, would probably have been disastrous.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt was giving full credit to the Russians, who had taken the brunt of the massive German Army assault at a cost of millions of Russian lives, but eventually turned the War around by defeating vast German armies, killing millions of German soldiers and capturing millions more. This weakened Hitler’s ability to defend Western Europe when the invasion finally took place. Churchill did not trust Stalin and felt that Roosevelt was too willing to accede to Russian demands of territory and countries (Poland) in Eastern Europe. He also was concerned that Roosevelt and Stalin were doing deals behind his back. Roosevelt, for his part, felt that Churchill’s post-War strategy was to maintain Britain’s imperialist past, her Colonies and Commonwealth.
Finally, I learned that from 1943 onwards Churchill had to agree and concede to American military and political strategy, to bring an end to the War in which Britain could only play a minor part. This was not helped by the general contempt that the US military chiefs had for their British counterparts, who they found to be arrogant, inept, and out of touch – all of which was probably true.
This book paints a very different picture to the images that I grew up with. It has made me think that, notwithstanding the obvious necessity in wartime to maintain morale, paint a rosy picture, and feed the public with less than accurate statistics, it is difficult to identify truth as history can be rewritten at any time.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com