Document created: 15 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1974
Wing Commander R. A. Mason
In his collection of writings Letters and Social Aims, published in 1876, Emerson wrote: “What anecdotes of any man do we wish to hear and read? Only the best. Certainly not those in which he was degraded to the level of dulness or vice, but those in which he rose above all competition by obeying a light that shone to him alone.” Such lofty interpretations of the literary inclinations of his fellowmen are not shared by R. W. Thompson, who, in his book Generalissimo Churchill, * attempts, in the words of the dust jacket, to show how Britain’s World War II leader “as a Prime Minister . . . was poor, as a Minister of Defence, a faulty and dangerous strategist, and as a Commander in Chief a near disaster, imposing intolerable burdens upon his Chiefs of Staff, the Planning Staffs, and on his commanders in the field.” When this, his 39th book, was published in England last November, Mr. Thompson told a local press reporter: “My books have never been in the best selling lists; I do not write for money or the mass public—my main concern is to tell it like it is.”
He added, “I don’t rate very highly most of the books on Churchill. They are all too intimidated by him.” Mr. Thompson is certainly not intimidated by his subject nor daunted by its enormous scope. In three parts the author traces first “The Long Apprenticeship” of the British Prime Minister up to his appointment in May 1940, then the activities of the “War Lord” up to the entry of the U.S.A. into the war, and finally the declining impact as Churchill—allegedly—mishandles his “Choice of Options” until the end of the war.
In the 100th anniversary year of Churchill’s birth and a generation after his wartime leadership, it is timely that his contributions to Allied victory should be assessed without either adulation or denigration. Mr. Thompson has already published one book on Churchill, The Yankee Marlborough, and has established a reputation for iconoclasm in his treatment of Britain’s victor at EI Alamein in Montgomery, the Field Marshal. It is doubly disappointing, therefore, that his latest offering has very little to commend it either to the serious student or to the history buff.
Mr. Thompson first recounts the well-documented vagaries in Churchill’s earlier career, particularly stressing the enthusiasm with which the politician seized opportunities to play the soldier in India, Cuba, South Africa, and Flanders. Before the end of the first chapter, however, there occurs the first intimation that the author’s analyses may be based on rather more than traditional evidence:
Churchill’s tragedy was in his mixed blood. Had he been wholly an Englishman in the sense that Charles De Gaulle was a Frenchman, he might have won the peace and found a new and noble role for his country as the cornerstone of a new Europe. Instead he wanted to reconcile the irreconcilable in himself and achieve a union of the English-speaking peoples, uniting the U.S.A. and Britain.
This hypothesis recurs several times later in the book and is, according to the author, the basic reason why Churchill failed to keep the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. from dictating the later strategy of the war and the structure of the peace in 1945.
Mr. Thompson argues that Churchill should rather have marshaled the power of the British Commonwealth: with Canada to develop the atomic weapon; with the forces of India, South Africa, and Australia to reduce Britain’s dependence on the power of the U.S.A. If British independence (or intransigence?) should have prompted General Marshall to support Admiral King’s Pacific preferences, then,
Such a course would have left Britain in Supreme Command of all Allied forces in the Atlantic theatre. Provided such forces were concentrated upon the right places: provided Churchill could have been restrained from attempting too much, the “Great Amphibian” might have come into its own.
Such an argument can be resisted in several ways. Without presenting a detailed case, one could ask, What about divided loyalties in South Africa, political instability in India, antipodean nervousness in Australia? Churchill’s problems in controlling Commonwealth troops in North Africa in 1942 indicate the pitfalls to be found in co-ordinating the freely volunteered forces of independent countries. Where were the necessary landing craft for European adventures to come from, if not from American shipyards? Where, in the Commonwealth, was an industrial base capable of waging world war to be found?
There is, however, a more acceptable way of refuting Mr. Thompson’s rather extravagant assertions. Earlier this year another book was published in England on Churchill’s part in World War II. On page 154 of Churchill as Warlord (published by B. T. Batsford Ltd., London), Mr. Ronald Lewin quietly explains why, in the development of tube alloys, Britain had no choice other than to seek the cooperation of the U.S.A.:
In the Spring of 1942 Sir John Anderson made an estimate of the requirements if Britain were to act independently and a gaseous diffusion and heavy water plant were to be erected in the United Kingdom. The conclusion was that within 5 years it would be possible to produce one kilogram of Uranium 235 per day, at the tolerable cost of some 50 million pounds. But this implied a peak labour force of about 20,000 men, half a million tons of steel and an extra supply of half a million kilowatts of electricity. Britain’s resources of manpower and material were already stretched to the limit, and it can hardly be doubted that, if the question had ever arisen, Churchill and his Cabinet would have been compelled to abandon a speculative proposition which, in any case could not be expected to pay dividends before the defeat of Germany.
In fact, one of Churchill’s greatest achievements must surely have been the securing and retention of American support from the very beginning of his administration.
But in Mr. Thompson’s first chapter there is generally no indication that the book as a whole is going to be a disappointment. Although he adds nothing to a knowledge of Churchill’s character already vividly illustrated by Alanbrooke, Ismay, Hopkins, Eisenhower, Moran, and many others, he does distil with precision the salient points made by most previous commentators. In two paragraphs he captures the superlative contradictions of his subject:
From the outset Churchill was utterly ruthless, quixotic, uncertain of temper, driving all who worked for him and with him to the limits of their endurance. His demands were incessant and imperious, covering almost every field of human endeavour. He ignored the limitations of industry and the limitations upon the movement of armies, navies and air forces, and therefore upon strategy and tactics imposed by logistics. Technology and the proliferation of weapons, and the manifold and ever growing needs of troops, had changed the nature of warfare and its tempo. Churchill accepted no limitations until he had to, and then with bad grace. Constantly he extended the bounds of the possible.
Ideas poured from his mind in a ceaseless flow and demanded the immediate attention of dedicated men even when, as was often true, the ideas were impossible. It seems that no rational or reasonable man could have done the job, and Churchill was rarely reasonable or rational. His egocentricity was total, his energy boundless. He was a man with a dimension denied to ordinary men.
Churchill was, Mr. Thompson agrees, aptly named by Liddell Hart the “great animator of war.”
In his second part, “War Lord,” the objectivity of Mr. Thompson’s first chapter begins to fade as he focuses largely on the North African campaign to illustrate the extent and effect of Churchill’s “interference” with his commanders. In passing, however, he refers to Air Chief Marshal Dowding being “pushed into retirement. Probably his dogged intervention to save his fighters from being squandered in the final phase of the Battle of France had angered Churchill.” In fact, Dowding’s retirement had been mooted on several occasions since February 1937, and on 5th July 1940 Air Chief Marshal Newall, Chief of the Air Staff, had asked him to continue as AOC in C Fighter Command “until the end of October.” Churchill denied to Dowding’s face that he was aware of his retirement, and indeed it may well be that the key to the cold dismissal of the victor of the Battle of Britain lies in his frequently frosty relations with his Service colleagues rather than in the rancour of the Prime Minister.
Hereafter Mr. Thompson searches for evidence to substantiate his theory that Churchill’s ambition was to be a “super general,” to dictate not only “the strategy of the nations” but “the tactics of the commanders in the field.” Unfortunately he first alleges that the Churchill of 1940 was the same man as when “as First Lord [of the Admiralty] in 1914-15 he had longed to seize Bordeaux with his left and to assault the Dardanelles with his right.” One assumes that the French would have opposed the left-hand seizure at least as bitterly as did the Turks the right!
There is no doubt that Churchill’s attitude towards Generals Wavell and Auchinleck left much to be desired. Wavell, the Prime Minister could never understand; from Auchinleck he expected too much too quickly. Wavell’s case has been argued with strength and clarity by his biographer John Connell, who first labeled Churchill the “supergeneral,” while the desert campaigns have been succinctly described by Corelli Barnet in his Desert Generals. Mr. Thompson draws heavily on both authors to allege that victories and reputations were denied or sacrificed simply to feed Mr. Churchill’s egocentricity. His arguments are certainly strong, but they are neither clear nor succinct. In fact, in the central chapters of the book he steadily loses credibility as a selector of fact, a supporter of chronology, and an analyst of perception.
The author interprets the controversial events of the desert campaigns without exception to the detriment of Churchill. He also holds the Prime Minister responsible for the Greek disaster of 1941 while overlooking the concurrence of Dill, his Chief of Staff, and of Wavell, his theatre general. John Connell’s restitution of Wavell’s professional reputation is selectively paraphrased, but the reader’s understanding of either tactical decisions or clash of personalities is hampered by Mr. Thompson’s habit of sometimes repeating or even contradicting himself. Thus, on page 98 Major General Kennedy, Director of Military Operations, is quoted in a passage dealing with events of August 1940, while the same passage is quoted again, at length, on page 121 during the account of the Greek tragedy. On page 92 one reads that “Churchill refused to understand administration and the limitations imposed by logistics and transport” but on page 97 that “he knew all about the inevitable growth of the tail of an army, of the enormous problems of transport and maintenance of growing armies of machines.” Nor is clarity of sequence enhanced by the appearance, in the chapters concentrating on North Africa, of occasional outbursts against the bombing offensive “will o’ the wisp” and the machinations of F. E. Lindeman to the detriment of the “good guy,” Henry Tizard.
Mr. Thompson’s attack leads him to ignore the facts in North Africa of poor British troop disposition, inefficient and ineffective leadership, bad judgment in the selection of field commanders, and repeated failure to analyze and deal with Rommel’s recipe for success. As he accuses Churchill of jealousy—and worse—in relieving Auchinleck from command of the 8th Army, he ignores evidence such as the comments of Air Marshal Tedder, who held General Auchinleck personally in high regard. The desert air commander wrote to the Chief of the Air Staff on 25th July 1942, less than a month before Auchinleck was fired:
I wish he [Auchinleck] was a better judge of character and more ruthless in judging people solely by results. I also wish he had the ability to inspire the army here. I’m afraid he hasn’t. . . . You may feel that most of this is quite outside my province. It is. I only write it because I feel the whole situation is grave, and so far I see no move towards improvement.
The partiality of the narrative is fortunately both punctuated and, through implication, contradicted by occasional shrewd bedrock observations of forces which did, in fact, impel the Prime Minister:
In those first two years the Middle East was virtually the only battle ground, the only place where British troops fought the German and Italian enemy. It was his consciousness of weakness and of American potential strength that made Churchill harass his generals in the Middle East, and to demand impossible victories, to insist upon premature attacks. Every setback in the field seemed to expose his weakness and his dire need.
Why, one wonders, should Mr. Thompson spend so much time imputing other, less desirable, motives to Churchill?
In Part Three of the history Mr. Thompson covers the events of the war subsequent to the entry of the United States, developing the progressive theme of excessive tactical interference and adding the strategic condemnation, already referred to, of subservience in the Atlantic partnership.
British enthusiasm at the formal entry of the U.S.A. into the war was immediately tempered by the disasters of South East Asia. Surprisingly, Mr. Thompson spends little time on Churchill’s share in the responsibility for the loss of two battleships and the base of Singapore, which together constitute the biggest British defeat of the war. Yet Churchill had overruled his military advisers on two points: his decision to give Egypt priority over reinforcement of Singapore and his decision to send a naval “deterrent” force through the Malacca Straits. The former First Sea Lord, his Chief of Naval Staff, and his task force commander paid very dearly, not for failing to estimate Japanese power and intentions, as alleged by Mr. Thompson, but for failing to comprehend fully both Japanese motivation and the antishipping potential of unhindered air power.
Only in his last chapter does Mr. Thompson take leave of the desert, even though 2 ½ years of Churchill’s leadership remain to be analyzed. His predilections have led him to make statements such as: “Unlike Churchill and Rommel, he [Auchinleck] could not focus his entire attention on the Western Desert.” or “The frustrated Generalissimo-Prime Minister nursed his rancour, and since he had failed to be in at the kill he denied the kill.” or “I believe . . . simply [that] Churchill felt at a disadvantage with men of the stature and integrity of Auchinleck and was always uncomfortable with such men.” This last comment is not only perhaps the best example of Mr. Thompson’s pejorative imputations but also, by implication, a massive slur on the characters of many men on both sides of the Atlantic with whom Churchill worked forcefully and successfully.
In his last chapter the author reflects upon the broader issues of strategy and in particular reverts to the inhibiting influence of Churchill’s ancestry first mentioned at the beginning of his narrative. Although Anglo-American relations are covered spasmodically throughout the book, they are generally viewed from the pyramids rather than from London or Washington. Regrettably, Mr. Thompson does not seem to have read any of Michael Howard’s studies of grand strategy: either The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War, Grand Strategy (Volume IV, U.K. official history), or The Continental Commitment. Had he done so, he might not have generalized so glibly about American “smash and grab strategy” or “how absolutely divorced from political considerations were American military attitudes and strategies.” He might have explained why the TORCH landings were “probably a potential threat to Russian aims”; and before criticizing Churchill for not drawing more fully on the resources of the Commonwealth, he might have commented on the Ogdensburg discussions of August 1940 between Australian Premier Mackenzie King and President Roosevelt, from which developed the arrangements for Hemisphere Defence, without British participation.
Mr. Thompson is very familiar with earlier records, for example Bryant’s edition of the Alanbrooke diaries; yet he still overlooks Major General Brooke’s first conversation with Churchill, on the evening of 14th June 1940. Brooke withstood half an hour’s verbal pressure—including insinuations of “cold feet”—to change his tactical dispositions in France, and later he commented: “Without sufficient knowledge of conditions prevailing on that front at that time, he was endeavoring to force a commander to carry out his wishes against that commander’s better judgment. With all his wonderful qualities, interference of this nature was one of his weaknesses. . . . The strength of his powers of persuasion had to be experienced to realise the strength that was required to counter it.” It is odd that Mr. Thompson, with all his insights, does not recognise in Churchill the familiar characteristics of the powerful man who will ride roughshod over, and even despise, those who will not face up to him and, conversely, will eventually accept and respect a logical opposition equally forcefully argued. Major General Brooke became Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, despite his initial and frequently repeated opposition to his chief.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Thompson constructed his hypothesis—excessive interference, personal motivation, and the influence of lineage—and then set out to seek evidence to substantiate it. Consequently, he has not probed the strengths and weaknesses of his subject with any degree of objectivity, despite occasional redeeming summaries. Nor, because of his selectivity and inconsistencies, is his criticism of Churchill convincing. Overall, Generalissimo Churchill does not match the quality of his earlier books. Fortunately, his contribution has been overtaken, at least in Britain and hopefully soon in the U.S.A., by the work of Mr. Lewin. In his Churchill as Warlord, Mr. Lewin really does synthesize extensive primary and secondary sources to produce a clear, concise, and objective assessment of the war leader which is in every way superior to Generalissimo Churchill. All the major issues are clinically analyzed: aid to France, North Africa, the Bomber Offensive, U-boat war, relations with Stalin, Anglo-American planning, weapons development, South East Asia, Allied leadership and strategy in Europe, etc.
Yet even when further books have been written and when all secrets have been disclosed, it may still be easier to assess Churchill in two paragraphs, as Mr. Thompson does in his first chapter, than attempt to dissect him in volumes. On August 18th 1943 at Quebec, the Prime Minister’s dispassionate and often critical personal physician committed two paragraphs to his diary after reflecting on his patient’s declining influence on President Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins:
For that matter, it is not only the President and Marshall who are uneasy about the P.M.’s judgment. Brooke is worried by his inability to finish one subject before taking up another, by the darting processes of his mind and by the general instability of his judgment. But are his critics measuring the Prime Minister by the right yard-stick? His claim to a place in history does not rest on his strategy. His gifts are of a rarer kind.
What his critics are apt to forget is that you cannot measure inspiration. That is why it is not easy to bring home to the military hierarchy the list of assets which easily tilt the balance in his favour: the strength of will that has bent all manner of men to his purpose; the extraordinary tenacity—the Americans call it obstinacy—with which he clings for months, and if need be for years, to his own plans; the terrific force of personality that can brush aside all doubts and hesitations and sweep away inertia, refusing to listen when weaker men begin to whine about difficulties; above all else, the superb confidence he exuded in 1940. When the Prime Minister set out to inspire the country with his will to win he made up his mind that it must begin in his own bedroom. I have been with him there at all hours, I have seen him take a lot of punishment, and not once did he look like a loser. Not once did he give me the feeling that he was in any way worried or anxious as to the outcome of the fight. Gradually I have come to think of him as invincible.
The one who “obeys a light that shines to him alone” may well rise above all competition, but Emerson should perhaps have added that he can be a most difficult man to work for.
* R. W. Thompson, Generalissimo Churchill (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973, $8.95), 252 pages.
Royal Air Force Brampton
Wing Commander R. A. Mason, RAF (M.A., St. Andrews University; M.A., London University) is on the staff of the Air Officer Commanding in Chief, RAF Training Command, Brampton (Huntingdonshire), England. He has served in the Education Branch of the RAF since 1956, lectured at several British universities, and had articles and reviews published on both sides of the Atlantic. He was RAF Exchange Officer to the Department of History, USAF Academy, 1969-71. Wing Commander Mason is a graduate of the USAF Air War College and the RAF Staff College. His next assignment will be as Command Education Officer, RAF Support Command.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor