Peter Hitchens says Winston WASN’T the superman we think
WE DIDN’T WIN THE WAR
IN the first extract last week from his provocative new book, Peter Hitchens challenged everything we know about the Second World War – and came to the startling conclusion that we did not win the conflict. Here, in the final extract, he turns his fire on the actions of wartime leader Winston Churchill – and reveals he was not the military genius the public believe him to be...
SIR Winston Churchill was the towering figure of the Second World War. He was the one who did most to shape our idea of what actually took place in those terrible years of conflict. He is one of the main reasons why we like to think it was a ‘Good War’. The passion and parables of his war are nowadays better known than those of the Bible. Instead of the triumphal ride into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the betrayal at Gethsemane, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we have a modern substitute: Winston the outcast prophet in the wilderness, living on cigars and champagne rather than locusts and wild honey, but slighted, exiled and prophetic all the same.
As a child, I studied many patriotic accounts of the war, my favourite being a cartoon strip produced by the boys’ weekly The Eagle, called The Happy Warrior. This cast Churchill as a sort of superhero who was somehow always right amid an unending succession of disasters that mysteriously ended in a final triumph. It would be many years before I understood how wrong this treasured picture was, and I still find it painful to acknowledge.
So do millions of others. For to treat Churchill justly is to portray him as a fallible human being. Beyond doubt, he saved Britain and probably the world when he rightly refused to parley with Hitler in 1940. Nothing can take this away from him. But Winston Churchill was no superman and could make severe errors.
His vanity and self-deception – themes running through his conduct of the war – came at a very high price. But such thoughts are dangerous. They shred the legend to which we all wish to cling.
Take, for example, his voyage home across the Atlantic on board HMS Prince of Wales after his first meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941. The summit at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, which the British hoped might draw the Americans into the war, had been a hurtful failure. Its disappointing outcome was revealed to the public while Churchill was still on his way home across the stormy, U-boat-infested Atlantic, in one of the world’s most recognisable ships of war.
Churchill, however, gloried in the possibility of an encounter with the enemy. Showing off as always, despite the danger, he persuaded a rightly nervous Captain John Leach to divert his precious, irreplaceable vessel and to steam not once but twice at speed straight through the middle of an eastbound convoy.
One eyewitness recalled the Prime Minister ‘upon our bridge… waving his hand in the air, making a V with the forefingers of his right hand… cheering as madly as any of the men who were cheering him’.
This is uncomfortably reminiscent of Siegfried Sassoon’s sour verse The General, in which two Great War soldiers concur that their commanding officer is a cheery old card, as they slog up to Arras with rifle and pack. But Sassoon ends the verse by noting that the jovial officer ‘did for them both’ in the attack he then sent them into. WINSTON Churchill certainly did for hundreds of his shipmates aboard Prince of Wales very soon after he arrived home. He sent the ship and those aboard into mortal peril, and completely against the advice of experts. By ordering them on a futile mission to Singapore, he brought about the loss of two great ships, the deaths of hundreds, and the long and arduous captivity of hundreds more.
The mission’s combination of sad reality, defeat and military folly, and of boyish Churchillian posturing, is striking. And this contrast between the heroic story and the often dismal fact is at the heart of the myth of the ‘Good War’. Our humiliation by the Japanese in Singapore, thanks to poor preparations and complacency, destroyed our reputation for invincibility in the Far East and so in the end cost us the entire Empire.
Singapore was far from being Churchill’s only misjudgment.
He risked the safety of the indispensable Atlantic convoys by diverting aircraft to the cruel and militarily ineffective bombing of German civilians.
His preoccupation with fighting in and around the Mediterranean deprived the Atlantic Fleet of ships and men and badly weakened the Navy’s ability to fight U-boats. Many of us to this day are angered and upset to learn that Churchill’s war leadership was often fiercely contested by professional fighting men and excoriated in secret sessions of Parliament.
We would so much rather believe that he was indeed the spotless hero and military genius that we had been brought up to believe in. For, if any part of the legend is in doubt, then the whole secular faith that is built upon it is in danger too. ONE of the most bitter accounts of Churchillian bombast and error is to be found in the book Someone Had Blundered, Bernard Ash’s account of the last weeks of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, the elderly but speedy battlecruiser that accompanied her to Singapore and then on to the bottom of the China Sea. Both were sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10, 1941, off the coast of Malaya, just four months after Churchill had waved so jovially from the bridge of Prince of Wales.
Churchill’s fanciful belief was that the presence of great ships in eastern waters would act as a deterrent to Japan. The idea was naval nonsense. For Japan, overwhelmingly superior to Britain in the area, in land, naval and air power, the decision only gave them more targets. Meanwhile, as General Arthur Percival battled for more men, tanks and planes in the summer of 1941, in the hope of reinforcing Malaya against a Japanese assault he had foreseen in detail, he was simply told there were none available. This was not true.
Churchill was instead convoying tanks and aircraft to Stalin. In total, as the danger to Malaya grew more and more obvious, Britain supplied 676 fighters and 446 tanks to Russia, which, in fact, had plenty of tanks of its own by the end of 1941.
On February 15, 1942, British and Australian forces surrendered at Singapore and 85,000 men went into ghastly captivity, in what was the greatest single defeat of British arms in history.
It caused a permanent collapse in British power and reputation in the East from which we could not after-
wards recover. Within a few years, India was independent and soon after that, the rest of the Empire. Australia and New Zealand, from that moment, grew closer to the USA and further from Britain. In contrast, Churchill willingly committed scarce land and sea forces to the defence of Britain’s position in Egypt. But it is very difficult to explain why Churchill saw this as so vital. The Suez Canal was closed for most of the war anyway. The German threat to the oilfields of Iraq and Iran came through the USSR, not Egypt. Yet, in August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, a third of Britain’s existing tank strength was ordered to Egypt. This astonishing fact suggests that Churchill never took seriously the threat of a German invasion of Britain, though he made great use of the alleged danger for moralebuilding purposes.
One distinguished historian of the war, AJP Taylor, argued that this decision to reinforce Egypt entangled Britain in the Mediterranean for no good reason. No doubt the Suez Canal was an artery of the Empire in peacetime, but after Italy entered the war in the summer of 1940, the Mediterranean would be closed to British shipping for the next three years.
Churchill’s diversion of naval forces to the Mediterranean brought us close to losing the Battle of the Atlantic in spring 1943 – indeed, Churchill would later admit that the narrowly balanced struggle against the U-boats was the one part of the war which had genuinely caused him to lose sleep.
But it was Churchill who sent men, money and material away from that crucial conflict to embark on ill-planned adventures, including the bombing of German cities
Britain’s next intervention – in Greece – was also begun for reasons of prestige, not necessity. It was supposed to hearten the remaining free nations of the world. Instead it turned into a miniature Dunkirk, with headlong evacuations from both Greece and Crete, costing valuable warships that could not be spared.
It failed both militarily and in its aim of putting heart into the free nations. In a further important criticism of Churchill’s priorities, Taylor argues it was German air power, and Britain’s lack of it, that destroyed British forces in Crete. He says: ‘Three squadrons of fighters would have saved Crete but none were available because of the obsession with strategic bombers.’
This obsession was encouraged by Churchill’s chief scientific adviser and close friend, the German-born Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, an unlikely companion to the cigar-smoking, champagne-quaffing Prime Minister. Lindemann was a teetotal, nonsmoking vegetarian with no known sexual relations with anyone, who lived on the whites of eggs, Port Salut cheese and olive oil.
But Lindemann was also a ruthless man and a ferocious Whitehall warrior, terrifying in committees. It was Lindemann who wrote the now-famous ‘de-housing’ minute, which greatly impressed Churchill. In it he argued that bombing all the major towns of Germany could destroy 50 per cent of houses.
Sir Henry Tizard, one of the Gov- ernment’s most senior and experienced scientists, argued Lindemann’s estimate was five times too high. A post-war bombing survey revealed Lindemann’s estimate was, in fact, ten times too high. The survey also showed that bombing civilians had been remarkably ineffective against the German war effort, whereas accurate bombing of fuel and armaments plants – when tried – was immensely effective. This story, not well known, undermines the shallow, nonsensical cult of Winston Churchill as the infallible Great Leader, a cult to which, surely, an adult country no longer needs to cling.
Every thinking person needs, nearly 80 years later, to examine the myths which surround Churchill’s bombing strategy. The general response of perfectly nice, gentle and well-brought-up Britons is to say illogical things about the Blitz.
They will say, correctly, that Germans deliberately killed many British civilians in their own homes. They will rightly excoriate the cruelty of the raid on Coventry, horrible and inexcusable. But they will often be unaware that the carnage of Coventry was small compared with what the RAF would later do to German cities of similar size.
They will justly condemn Germany’s bombing of British cities as an uncivilised form of warfare. And they will then absurdly and irrationally use this as an excuse or justification for Britain doing almost exactly the same thing.
If it was uncivilised for the Germans to do it, it was uncivilised for us to do it. Many also believe that the Dresden firestorm, which according to the most reliable estimate left 25,000 dead, was more or less unique, a single episode of overzealous action in a generally restrained campaign.
They do not know that there is, in fact, a long and distressing catalogue of German cities where British bombers deliberately destroyed human life on a frightening scale.
There is little doubt much of this bombing was done to appease Josef Stalin, who jeered at Churchill for failing to open a second front and fight Hitler’s armies in Europe. Bombing Germany at least reassured him that we were doing something. When Churchill promised plentiful bombing at a meeting with Stalin, the Soviet leader joined in to demand that homes as well as factories must be destroyed.
In the end, the bombing offensive would prove hugely costly in human life and national treasure. Brave and capable young men, and vastly expensive technology, were hurled into the flames with little material
Humiliation by the Japanese destroyed our reputation for invincibility Most of the bombing of German cities was done to appease Stalin
effect. In 1942, for example, the RAF killed 4,900 Germans – two Germans for every expensive bomber (and its valuable, hardto-train crew) lost. Much of the 37,192 tons of bombs dropped on Germany that year missed their targets completely. During the whole RAF bombing offensive, aircrews suffered a 44 per cent casualty rate. This was comparable to the butchery of the worst battles of the Great War.
The only solid argument that these attacks advanced the war effort is that they diverted aircraft and artillery from the Eastern Front to the defence of the German homeland. This is perfectly true. But a more effective bomber offensive against true military and economic targets, especially fuel plants, would have done the same, and been more use in winning the war. Such an offensive did eventually happen very late in the war, and did huge and rapid damage to the German war effort.
The bombing campaign also forced Britain to divert scarce and costly resources from the build-up of its D-Day army and from the Battle of the Atlantic.
The military high command of the Allies did not view the night bombing of Germany as being particularly important. What was it for? The Americans could not understand its purpose. There is little doubt that the air war was chosen mainly as a substitute for a second front, for political and propaganda reasons – but not for military ones. A moral justification remains elusive.
The easiest way to bypass this problem is to state, correctly but ultimately irrelevantly, that the Germans behaved far worse. But does German frightfulness excuse bad things done by us? I am not sure which moral rule-book backs up this belief.
As the years pass, a real justification becomes harder to find, yet the bombing is still strongly defended.
Shocking as this is, there is an even more worrying postscript. Those who would defend the bombing of German civilians generally subscribe wholly to Churchill-worship and the veneration of the Battle of Britain as the supreme moment of the Finest Hour.
Such people would I think agree that the invention of radar and its deployment in the ‘Chain Home’ defensive system on the eve of war was an unmixed blessing which possibly saved this country.
But if Churchill had been in power a few years earlier, there would have been no radar, because his favourite, Frederick Lindemann, would have stopped its development.
The ‘Tizard Committee’ (officially the Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defence) began meeting in secret in January 1935. Tizard kept it small and concentrated, and picked its members with great care.
They decided quickly that radar was the one thing to back. And they began the concentrated, brilliant, exhausting work on it (and on persuading the Armed Forces that it was what they needed), which would put Britain significantly ahead in its development at a vital moment in world history.
And yet, Lindemann had become involved – and very nearly wrecked it, demanding priority for his own (crackpot) schemes. The Civil Service managed to sideline Lindemann, and so radar was saved. But if Churchill had been in power then, radar might never have been developed in time. Just thinking about the possibility that we might so easily have entered the war with no radar sends a shiver down my spine. WHEN we contemplate this great saga, perhaps the greatest event in human history since the fall of the Roman Empire, we cannot be unmoved. My own parents’ lives were thrown into turmoil by the war, and overshadowed until their deaths by its memories and consequences.
My generation must also be profoundly moved by it. But we have had more time to think, and our responsibility is for the future.
Novelist Olivia Manning, who lived through some of the bitterest experiences of that war, concluded her series of brilliant autobiographical novels on the war with these words of sympathy and hope for the surviving characters: ‘Like the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy, they had now to tidy up the ruins of war and in their hearts bury the noble dead.’ We who came after are now those stray figures left on the stage. Until we understand the true nature of that great tragedy, which we seem unwilling to do, I do not think that we can ever, in our hearts, bury the noble dead. Worse by far, we may be tempted again into wars that may utterly ruin us, because we have been beguiled into thinking that these wars are good.
I never knew until I was old just how hard-bought peace had been. I never understood until I was old just how much my own parents had paid for it, and how thankless I and many of my generation had been.
It is with their memory in mind that I conclude this unhappy story. Peace, precarious peace, depends now more than ever on our casting off these fantasies of chivalry and benevolence, and ceasing to hide the savage truth from ourselves.
Abridged extract from The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by Peter Hitchens, published by I.B. Tauris, priced £17.99. Offer price £14.39 (20 per cent discount) until September 23. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640 – p&p is free on orders over £15.
SHOOTING FROM THE HIP: Winston Churchill, with trademark cigar, holds a Tommy gun in July 1940. Above: British soldiers surrender in Singapore in 1942