Master and Commander

Churchill and Sea Power by Christopher M Bell exonerates the wartime Prime Minister of his alleged military mistakes

Conrad Black

 Churchill: Strategic brilliance

Professor Bell has written a very well argued defence of Winston Churchill against those who rebelled against his immense post-World War II prestige and imputed to him excessive meddling and repeated strategic errors in naval operations, throughout his career. In the debacle of Gallipoli in 1915-16 (44,000 Allied dead, almost 100,000 wounded, and more than 200,000 afflicted by serious illnesses due to unsanitary conditions), Churchill was clearly guilty of underestimating the Turks and of misjudging the feasibility of silencing the shore batteries along the Dardanelles. But he was not responsible for the disconnected and tardy landings that the Turks resisted fiercely and successfully, or for the resulting fiasco. He did reluctantly approve the escalation to a land invasion, to save the project, but cannot be blamed for its abject failure after he was effectively fired as First Lord. Churchill did a masterly job of historical revisionism, but he may have been correct that, conducted differently, Gallipoli could have cracked open the war and shortened the endless hecatomb of the Western Front.

The charges of stinginess to the Navy as Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1924-29, including the great fortress and naval base of Singapore, are unfair and are authoritatively debunked in this book. Britain was under no naval threat in the Twenties and maintained a fleet as large as that of the United States and much larger than any other power, and Churchill gave the Admiralty a perfectly adequate budget. He enforced the ten-year rule that it could be assumed that no conflict with a major power would occur in that time. He left government with the Conservatives in 1929, and there was no such conflict until 1939. He was not responsible for, and vocally criticised, the complacency of his successors. 

The Norwegian campaign of 1940, when he was back as First Lord of the Admiralty, was not well executed and he and the Cabinet and naval staff changed it several times in mid-course, but the dithering that delayed its start was not Churchill’s doing. Once it became a project of assistance to Norway after it had been invaded by Germany, there was no chance of defeating the German Army anyway and the Allies did well to get out with as minor losses as they did. The charge against Churchill of meddling is accurate, but over-stated—others did too—and it is not clear that his meddling made a late, undermanned, and ill-starred action less likely to succeed.

The attempt to blame Churchill for the destruction of Force Z (the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse) in December 1941 and the charge that Churchill, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, was largely to blame for the fall of Singapore, are also unjust. If he had ordered Admiral Phillips not to take Force Z near the enemy without air cover, he would have been accused of micro-management; the admiral was insane to undertake the action he did, but that is not the Prime Minister’s responsibility. Nor did Churchill have anything to be ashamed of personally in the fall of Singapore. It was not his job to design its fortifications when he was the Chancellor, and as Prime Minister he had supplied the city with a large and well-equipped garrison.

The charge that he mismanaged the Battle of the Atlantic has more merit, and here Winston Churchill has been treated fairly gently by historians. His professions of extreme concern in his memoirs about the submarine threat, and the swift victory once he had persuaded President Roosevelt to intervene personally with his own senior officers to ensure that there was air cover for convoys over the whole Atlantic and heavier surface escorts, have deflected this criticism. As Christopher Bell (professor of history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia) points out, he could have reduced merchant sinkings considerably if he had overruled “Bomber” Harris and other advocates of the strategic bombing of Germany earlier, and transferred more bombers to Coastal Command. He is not blameless here, but being a few months late in forcing the issue with his own air staff and successfully imploring his ally, because of his aggressive instincts and preference for the offensive, is not a major blot on such a brilliant record as war leader.

Of greater concern, and barely touched by the author because of the narrow definition of his sea power brief, are some of Churchill’s less defensible general strategic views. He gave some support to the idea of sending Anglo-French troops to help the Finns against the Russians in 1940, and wanted to send battleships into the Baltic Sea to disrupt German commerce there. Both steps would have been catastrophic. He thought that sending Force Z to Singapore might impress the Japanese, just weeks before they launched an offensive across the Pacific that sank seven Allied capital ships, including the two he sent. They dominated the western and central Pacific for six months until the American victories at Coral Sea and Midway and Roosevelt’s big naval build-up turned the tables back to Western advantage. 

There are also Churchill’s preoccupations with pinprick amphibious activities and his proposed invasions of Rhodes, Norway and Sumatra; all referred to, but not commented on critically. All were absurd distractions, and the first two were raised to defer the cross-Channel landings, which the whole British high command feared, and which Roosevelt had to dragoon Stalin to assist him in demanding at the Tehran Conference. But these were matters of grand strategy, where Winston Churchill was often uneven. 

In the precise use of sea power, his judgment was often better than that of the admirals, as in his early championship of air power and of atomic weapons. And before the US had entered the war, he also ordered his admirals to stop asking the US in staff talks to move its Pacific battle fleet from Pearl Harbor to Singapore.

This book brings out Churchill’s famous expressive talents, clear even in mundane memos, though some of his more eccentric orders, such as that the battleship King George V, if necessary, be allowed to run out of fuel and be towed back to port from the sinking of the Bismarck (with the commander of the Home Fleet aboard), are omitted. The narrative is solid but workman-like-the drama of these events, from the Battle of Britain to D-Day, is never amplified at all. But it is authoritative and rigorous, and a good read for naval history buffs.  

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