Winston Churchill, From Scapegoat to Hero
Part One: The Boer War to 1939.
History, especially military history, is ripe with myth and legend in regard to politics, battles and war leaders. Myths such as “Germany almost won the Second World War”, which is pure nonsense and a topic for another blog at a later date, or the myth that Winston Churchill alone won the War abound, especially in the post War era. Most of the Churchill myth was generated by his own six volume “History of the Second World War” which did little to dissuade readers such as myself from including him from our personal list of the ten greatest people in modern history. So why, considering that I hold him is such high esteem, would I suggest such a thing? Or better yet why, if I am correct, would he shape his historical account to reflect anything but the bare, and therefore true, facts? As I have been harping on about for quite some time, you need to consider the times when events took place, or in this case when he wrote his accounts. Many of the war leaders of that time were still alive, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then President of the United States; Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union; Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC; Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, DM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS to name but a few. Being the consummate politician it would behove Churchill to keep in mind the reputations of these powerful men and leaders of their nations; men whom Churchill would continue to interact with during the Cold War period. In perhaps guarding the good names of his fellow post War leaders he may have inadvertently left himself in a more positive light than he might have otherwise intended. Regardless of this being the case or not let’s look at the Winston Churchill of the 1938 to 1941 period and see what conclusions can be reached.
I have chosen these dates for the main reason that often we, who are influenced by British history, tend to view history from that perspective. As an example we tend to see the Second World War as being won by Britain and her allies, rather than looking at it in view of the deciding factors from 1942 to 1945 and the countries that were able to contribute the men and material to assure victory. This would place the “tipping of the scales factor” in the favour of the United States and the Soviet Union as to who actually won the Second World War. This is not to belittle Britain and her Empire and their contributions; however, victory over Germany, Italy and Imperial Japan would hardly have been possible without the Americans and Soviets. Again this is a topic onto itself and needs to be debated another time.
Up until the entrance of the United States into the War after the attack on Pearl Harbor (or “Harbour” for the correct English spelling), 7 December, 1941the only thing between Hitler and his complete dominance of the whole of Europe was the tenacity and defiance of the British people and their war-time leader Winston Churchill.
As a young man of twenty five years of age he was engaged as a reporter for the London Morning Post covering the Boer War, in 1899. An armoured train that he was a passenger on was derailed by a contingent of one the Boer commandos and because he was considered to have taken too great a role in the engagement he was taken prisoner. He was not a prisoner for very long before he managed to escape and lead the Boers on quite a chase before reaching safety in British held territory. The reward offered by the Boer government, for his capture, amounted to less than the cost of a bottle of Scotch; after all he was just a newspaper reporter, however the whole adventure was stuff of legend. Churchill always held the Boers and their armies, known as commandos, in the highest esteem and their lightening fast, hit and run tactics would leave a lasting impression on him, as we will see later.
During the Great War Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty which was a governmental appointment. During this time he devised a plan to basically take the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, out of the War in 1915 by “Forcing the Straights” in the Dardanelles. This turned out to be a British naval disaster as the Turks had the straights set with underwater mines and the passage well defended by shore batteries. A land operation at Gallipoli was also coordinated at this time and met with equal or greater disastrous results with horrendous losses by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The blame for this failure was set squarely on Churchill’s shoulders even though he was not alone in the planning of the action. Much as Chamberlain, in the early years leading up to the Second World War, Churchill became the scapegoat for the actions of those who were complicit in the “crime”. The generals involved in the fiasco, caused by their hesitation during the action and their lack of planning beforehand, were left almost blame free. Churchill was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty and took leave of the government and accepted an appointment as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. His service at the front was a significant factor in many of his attitudes toward waging war affecting his decisions concerning the German threat during the 1930s as we will discuss a little later.
It is interesting that as First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill supported the idea of using aircraft in the attack on the Dardanelles; planning to have aircraft launched from Arc Royal to bomb land based defences. This planned coordinated attack by naval, air and land forces never took place, however it is interesting that he saw the value of air support as early as 1915. While we are on the topic of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty it should be mentioned that he was also quite instrumental in the development of the tank. Both of these weapons, ship launched air support and army tanks, were to see wide spread use in the next great conflict of 1939/45.
During the inter-war years Churchill once again entered politics winning a seat in Parliament, placing him and Chamberlain in the same political arena. Chamberlain was met with applause when he took his seat in Parliament while Churchill was met with near silence in the House upon his arrival. The blame for the catastrophe of the Dardanelles had followed him like a spectre into his post war political career. It is interesting that both Churchill and Chamberlain held many of the same views at this time. Both men harboured a hatred of Communism and therefore the Soviet Union. This hatred, on the part of Churchill, would delay any diplomatic ties leading to an alliance with the Soviets and causing distrust between the two which would last well past the end of the Second World War. Stalin, fearing he had no potential ally in British, formed a non aggression pact with Hitler which resulted in the two nations attacking Poland later on in 1939 and dividing the Polish Nation between them.
Both Churchill and Chamberlain believed that the answer to any military aggression on the part of Germany could be dealt with by maintaining a very strong navy. With the use of a naval blockage along with air support (bombing) Germany would not be able to sustain any prolonged aggression, therefore a large and well armed army was not seen as necessary. One of the aspects of a naval blockade, that seems to have missed their consideration, is that large battleships make great targets for bombers.
Both men also remembered the horrors of the Great War, Churchill having experienced the War firsthand, and wanted to avoid the repeat of trench warfare. The idea of a blockade supported by extensive bombing seemed to be the logical and most sensible alternative. This belief of bombing the enemy into submission would lead the allies into a program of aggressive bombing against German cities during World War Two, led by Sir Arthur Harris, GCB, OBE, AFC. Sir Arthur Harris was known to the press as “Bomber Harris” and to the RAF as “Butcher Harris” for his aggressive campaign. It is questionable whether the bombing of German cities had the desired effect as the German bombing of London, as we know, only served to toughen the resolve of the British people; a nation already determined to hold out and win at all costs.
Not to get ahead of ourselves in this discussion we should back up a bit to the “era of appeasement” for which Neville Chamberlain was to become best known in the history books. Prior to the attack on Poland in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union there was the “gift” of Czechoslovakia in 1938 by Britain in an attempt to avoid what was soon to turn out to be the unavoidable. Czechoslovakia, at the time, was a well defended country with natural barriers, fortresses, a well disciplined army along with tanks and a formidable air force. It is interesting that one of the best light machine guns of the Second World War, the .303 Cal. British Bren Gun, was developed from the 7.9mm Czech ZB26 LMG. It has been argued, and I believe successfully, that had Czechoslovakia not been conceded to Hitler and allowed to resist the German invasion and the combined forces of Britain and France been employed on what would be a second front that the war could have been ended in 1938. While the British army was not large nor especially well armed, at the time, the combination of the Czechs on a German Eastern Front and the Anglo-Franco forces forming a combined force on their Western Front Hitler would have been forced to at least back off. Certainly Stalin would not have allied with Germany as he had already taken half of Poland the previous year and would have seen the democratic countries of what would have been a triple alliance against Germany as the lesser of two evils. Hitler had been riding a political and popularity high in Germany due mainly to his ability to gain territory for Germany without the need for another large war. If a humiliation such as would have occurred by his backing down or worse, for him, a military defeat may have ended his career then and there. Even if there had been a stalemate, which was the fear if any land based actions were undertaken, a soft landing on the coast of France to supply the front would have been a lot less costly than the hard landing provided by “Fortress Europe” on
We can speculate all we would like; the historical facts are that there was no military intervention by the British or the French. The French had a false sense of security behind their Maginot Line of “impregnable” fortresses and the British held onto the idea of the naval blockade scenario. I often wonder if the French or the British for that matter, upon seeing the news reels showing the empty fortresses of Czechoslovakia being viewed by their new German owners thought about the possibility of the Maginot Line suffering a similar fate.
Regardless of how the French viewed the possible fate of their own fortresses one thing was certain, that the British people cheered Chamberlain in the streets for his placation of Hitler. A lone voice of protest went almost unheard in the sea of enthusiasm over avoiding war at such a low cost, to the British at least. Winston Churchill was appalled, once again, at the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government and possibly even more appalled at the general public acceptance of these acts. It would seem that protest was about all that Churchill was offering, as no alternate action plan was ever brought forward. The reliance upon a naval blockade and the bombing of the enemy by the air force almost precludes that Germany would almost have to reach the coast before any blockade and bombing could take place. By this scenario it would seem that Churchill counted on Hitler to invade France, proving Chamberlain wrong and, putting him in a position of being the only person to have seen the truth. As I have mentioned before, Churchill was not the only person in all of Britain who was opposed to the Appeasement Policy, however, he was the only person to be openly against these acts. Had Hitler not invaded Poland in 1939, which resulted in Britain and France declaring war on Germany, Churchill may well have gone down in history as the most ignored man of his time.
In Part two we’ll take a look at Churchill from 1939 until the American entrance into the War in 1941.