Late-War Churchill

The Visit of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill To Caen, Normandy, 1944

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the successful outcome of the war, at this stage, was his insistence on the right timing for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwest Europe. This was necessary for the defeat of Germany, and Churchill made sure it worked and was achieved with minimum loss of life for so immense and hazardous an operation. He argued that an opposed air-sea landing against formidable defenses manned by large, prepared German forces was perhaps the most difficult military undertaking of all. With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in his mind, he insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success. The Russians had asked for the second front to be opened in 1942. The Americans were willing to risk it in 1943. The “dress rehearsal” at Dieppe in 1942, where Allied losses were unexpectedly high, had shown what hazards lay ahead. Churchill’s conditions could not be met until the early summer of 1944. Even so, Overlord might have failed or proved extremely costly had not a highly successful deception plan persuading the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the real invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais area—another idea of Churchill’s—prevented a massive German counterattack in the early stages. Thanks to Churchill, and his memories of the Dardanelles, Overlord was a dramatic success. He wished to be present on the first day to enjoy his triumph. It was the last major occasion on which his desire to participate in military action manifested itself. All those concerned in the operation were horrified. Indeed, the desire was foolish in the extreme, a grotesque exhibition of the childish side of his nature. But he persisted, despite unanimous opposition from the service chiefs, the cabinet, his own staff, and the White House. In the end it was only the opposition of King George VI, who said that if his prime minister risked his life he must do so himself, which scotched the plan.

The delay occasioned by Churchill’s ensuring the invasion succeeded necessarily meant the Western forces were behind the Russians in pushing into the heart of the Nazi empire. This had grave political consequences. Churchill sought to mitigate them by demanding a full-speed drive to Berlin by the Anglo-American forces. This was supported by Montgomery, the army group commander, who was sure it was possible and would end the war in autumn 1944, with the West in Berlin first. But Eisenhower, the supreme commander, thought it was risky and insisted on a “broad front” advance, which meant that the war continued into the spring of 1945, and that the Russians got to Berlin first—and Prague, Budapest, Vienna, too. In his last weeks of life, FDR, despite Churchill’s pleas, did nothing to encourage Eisenhower to press on rapidly. Montgomery wrote sadly: “The Americans could not understand that it was of little avail to win the war strategically if we lost it politically.” That was exactly Churchill’s view.

But if he was unable to stop Stalin from turning much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans into Soviet satellites, he did snatch one brand from the burning—Greece. He used British troops, against much well-meaning advice, to intervene decisively in the civil war raging there between Communist guerrillas and forces loyal to the Crown. The politics were complex and made it difficult to decide whom to back among the contending loyalist leaders. Eventually Churchill decided in favor of the republican, anti-Communist general Nikolaos Plastiras. He joked, “The evidence shows we must back Plaster-arse. Let us hope his feet are not of clay.” “Tommy” Lascelles, King George VI’s secretary, remarked, “I would rather have said that than written Gray’s Elegy.”

Churchill also saved Persia by negotiating a highly satisfactory deal with the Russians, which enabled the British eventually to reduce their influence to a minimum. He kept a tight grip on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Of course, by saving Greece, he also enabled Turkey to stay beyond the reach of the triumphant Soviet forces. What is more, by picking a first-class general and backing him with adequate forces, Churchill also made a major contribution to victory in the Far East. Field Marshal William Slim was, next to Montgomery, the ablest of the British generals produced by the war. His Fourteenth Army was often called “the Forgotten Army,” in contrast to Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army. But it was not forgotten by Churchill. With his encouragement and support it conducted a hard and skillful campaign in Burma, ending in complete victory, which did a great deal to restore British prestige so cruelly damaged by the Singapore disaster. Indeed within four years Britain was able to get back Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Of course the restoration of Britain’s power in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East could not be permanent. But for most of a generation, and in some cases longer, Britain was able to enjoy the economic advantages brought by her investments in Gulf oil, Malay rubber and tin, and the mercantile wealth of Hong Kong. For this, Churchill’s energy, foresight, and ability to seize on the essentials deserve much of the credit.

As the war drew to a close in the early months of 1945, Churchill visibly held back his efforts. His aggressiveness declined. He enjoyed his brief and successful intervention in Greece. But destruction now sickened him. He sent a memo to Harris to slacken off the attack on German cities as opposed to strategic targets, “otherwise,” as he put it, “what will lie between the white snows of Russia and white cliffs of Dover? ” Much of his imaginative energy was spent in trying to get the sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. “No lover,” he said, “ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” The death of FDR, however painful to Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman, brisk, decisive, much better informed on strategy, proved infinitely easier to deal with. When Churchill was tired, he talked, often off the point. He refused to read his papers. Colville noted on April 26: “The PM’s box is in a ghastly state. He does little work and talks far too long, as he did . . . before his Greek adventures refreshed him.” The businesslike and monosyllabic Clement Attlee, his deputy premier, sent him a sharp memo of complaint. Churchill is credited with many jokes about the Labour Party leader. “Yes, he is a modest man. But then he has so much to be modest about.” “An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out.” Sometimes they were mean and savage: “Attler, Hitlee.” One of Attlee’s staff used to whistle, a habit Churchill could not bear. His antipathy to whistling is curiously apt, for Hitler was an expert and enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of The Merry Widow, his favorite operetta. It seems expert whistling by music lovers was a feature of pre-1914 Vienna: Gustav Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were whistler maestros.

Tired as he was, Churchill treated the surrender of Germany with suitable rhetoric and champagne popping. He drank a bottle of his prize 1928 vintage Pol Roger. He was relieved by Hitler’s suicide. He had not relished the prospective task of hanging him. As Beaverbrook said, “He is never vindictive.” His saying had always been—it is one of his best obiter dicta—“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill.” Magnanimity came naturally to this generous, jovial old man (he was seventy at the end of the war). Lord Longford, the British minister for postwar Germany, showed notable compassion for the German people. Churchill came up to him at a Buckingham Palace garden party and said, slowly, “I am glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of the Germans.”

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