Peter Hitchens says Win­ston WASN’T the su­per­man we think

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By PETER HITCHENS


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 mail­ 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

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