A martial nation needs Churchill to inspire us

A brilliant new biography sheds fresh light on the wartime leader and refutes a renewed claim that the whole conflict was unnecessary

Daniel Johnson

Winston Churchill on board HMS “Prince of Wales” during his journey to meet Roosevelt for the Atlantic Conference

From Boadicea’s chariot to Britannia’s trident, the British have always been fond of martial metaphors. That is not the same as a “national obsession” with “war-worship”, which David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges, writing recently in The Times, blamed for “leading us to Brexit and the mess we are in”. She claims that our constant references to the Second World War and “the casual elision of evil bastards back then with earnest bureaucrats today” have “been poisonous to relations with Europe”. As evidence for this, Ms Foges cites the former German ambassador, Peter Ammon, who said that back in Berlin they could not believe that the British saw Germany as dominant in the EU, adding that “if you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the war, how it stood against dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but it does not solve any problem of today”.

For my own part, I find it revealing that someone so close to the prime minister who accidentally precipitated Brexit is still so naive about Germany’s role in the EU that she accepts such an artful gambit at face value. Mr Ammon knows perfectly well that his country’s political and economic (but not military) dominance in Europe is taken for granted by the elites of every one of the EU’s 28 member states, including his own. To admit as much in public would be a faux pas for a postwar German diplomat, but not for a British one: Sir Paul Lever, ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2003, has written an entire book on the subject with the self-explanatory title Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way. Sir Paul isn’t anti-German; he merely seeks to explain how the EU works. Only last month it emerged that Brussels broke its own rules by installing Martin Selmayr as Secretary-General of the European Commission. Will he now be removed from office? Of course not: Dr Selmayr is perhaps the most ardent living exponent of the ideology of European federalism, which has been an article of faith for every German chancellor since Adenauer and is now largely enshrined in EU law. Many Continental Europeans accept this fait accompli as the natural order of things. As far as they are concerned, Berlin rules OK.

What, though, about the war, and the part played in it by Britain — what Ambassador Ammon called “a nice story”? Is it really no more than that? Are we deluding ourselves with our habit of “war-wallowing”, to which Ms Foges cheerfully pleads guilty? Have we, in fact, constructed our entire national identity on the basis of a convenient untruth, a necessary fiction — or even a deliberate lie?

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of a new book by Peter Hitchens: The Phoney Victory: The World War II Delusion (IB Tauris, £17.99). Dedicated to his father, a Royal Navy commander, this white-hot polemic is intended to expose those who unnecessarily plunged the British people into a catastrophic war for which they were unprepared and for which they paid the price: a pyrrhic victory that bankrupted the economy, reduced a global empire to an American satellite and sacrificed much that had made Britain great.

It is not an entirely original perspective: revisionist historians have been challenging the “finest hour” narrative ever since the war, and Hitchens acknowledges his debt to, among others, A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War — a notoriously perverse and discredited work which sought to prove that Hitler was a traditional statesman who had not caused the war. Where Hitchens is on well-trodden ground, he is often persuasive — even if he allows hindsight to tip the scales a little too much. On the question of whether Hitler ever seriously intended to invade Britain, for example, he makes a good case to suggest that, even before their defeat in the Battle of Britain, the Germans soon realised that the problems of logistics and geography were insuperable, quite apart from their failure to establish superiority in air and naval power. At the time, however, this wasn’t so obvious on the English side of the Channel, and Hitchens goes too far when he claims, on the basis of remarks reported by Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville, that the Prime Minister never believed in a German invasion, but used the threat as a scare tactic to stiffen resistance. One quotation from a single source is insufficient to discount the mass of evidence that the threat was taken seriously, not least the hugely expensive efforts made to repel an invasion throughout the summer of 1940. True, Colville’s account shows that Churchill gradually learned from Ultra decrypts that the threat was receding, but that was because the Germans had expected British morale to collapse and Churchill to be replaced by a Pétain figure who would sue for peace. Without Churchill’s epic oratory, which was only one aspect of his supreme mastery of the art of prosecuting war, such a collapse might well have happened — and Hitchens concedes that Churchill’s refusal to sue for peace with Hitler, as some of his Cabinet colleagues demanded, was of crucial importance. Churchill grasped the fact that Hitler was not a conventional political leader, but a genocidal megalomaniac who must be defeated if Western civilisation was to survive.

Churchill, then, emerges as the decisive war leader; and hence it is on Churchill that Hitchens turns his guns. Apart from his brief moment of glory in the summer of 1940, Churchill is depicted throughout The Phoney Victory as a vain, arrogant and self-deluding old man, whose judgment was usually wrong, who ignored expert advice but then evaded responsibility for his mistakes, and who for much of the time was fighting the last war. Much of the blame for what Hitchens sees as the mythology of the war is laid at Churchill’s door: the exaggeration of American generosity and British military success at the expense of the Russians, who broke the Nazi war machine virtually single-handed. Hitchens cannot blame British unpreparedness on Churchill, but he does blame him for failing to use resources wisely once they became available, for example by prioritising the war in the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the expense of the Battle of the Atlantic. He blames Churchill for the what he sees as the humiliation of the Atlantic Charter, in which he claims Roosevelt forced the British to agree to principles that meant the end of their Empire. Hitchens also holds Churchill responsible for the humiliation of the British by the Japanese in the Far East, and for the bombing of German civilians, which he regards as a crime — and, worse, a mistake.

Churchill has never lacked for critics, including some fine historians — Maurice Cowling, Corelli Barnett, John Charmley, among others — but of course he has his champions too. For many years one of the most eminent Churchillians has been Andrew Roberts. He has now produced a full-scale biography that builds on the prodigious work of the late Martin Gilbert, the official biographer, but also uses material that has only recently become available. Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, £30) is a stupendous achievement: lucid, erudite, intelligent, but also inspiring. Roberts catches the imperishable grandeur of Churchill’s life as no other historian has done. Roberts does full justice to Churchill’s superhuman range of activity — he wrote more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined, travelled hundreds of thousands of air and sea miles in wartime keeping the Allies together, in constant danger of being shot down or torpedoed, and smoked half a million cigars (though he seldom inhaled).

Armed with this evidence, it is possible to refute at least some of the claims made by Hitchens. His critique of the Anglo-American Special Relationship, which remains one of Churchill’s most enduring legacies, is almost wholly misconceived and clearly fuelled by his hostility to more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States has never been a disinterested party to its alliance with Britain, but what makes the relationship “special” is precisely that it transcends in depth and breadth the normal calculus of power politics. Hitchens argues that the “Atlantic Charter” (as the joint communiqué issued by the British and American governments after the Churchill-Roosevelt summit at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, was dubbed by the Daily Herald) amounted to “a time bomb, possibly an accidental one, which would blow up under what was left of the British empire”. But far from being a blueprint for dismantling the British Empire, the Atlantic Charter documents the transition from an imperial to a civilisational mindset. The text agreed by Churchill and Roosevelt on board the Prince of Wales sets out their global priorities after the putative Axis defeat. It is true that Stalin — who was never party to the Charter — would later trample underfoot several of the “common principles”: no territorial aggrandisement, no territorial changes without the consent of those affected, and, thirdly, the restoration of sovereign rights and self-government. This third principle also stated: “They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Roberts finds Churchill’s readiness to agree to this “astonishing”, adding “such was the imperative of establishing common purpose with the United States”. Hitchens points out that Gandhi, a bitter enemy of the British Empire, was quick to seize on this principle in a letter to Roosevelt. But he omits to mention that it was not Churchill’s coalition that decided to give India self-government, but Attlee’s Labour government. In August 1941, that decision lay far in the future. If Churchill had won the 1945 election, it is far from certain that he would have persisted in his pre-war determination to keep India in the empire; but he would almost certainly have taken longer to withdraw, perhaps thereby avoiding the bloodshed that accompanied Partition.

Far more urgent at the time of the Charter than the question of self-determination was the defeat of Germany. It is true that Roosevelt had no intention of declaring war. Hitchens claims that such a declaration had been “Churchill’s great hope and the reason for his journey”, but Roberts makes clear that Churchill had no such expectation. At this, their first meeting, it was hardly likely that either leader would offer more than verbal commitments. What Churchill did get was a clear statement from Roosevelt that their new vision of Western civilisation was predicated on “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny”. This mattered hugely, not only to Churchill, but to its intended target: Adolf Hitler.

For in Berlin the impact of the Atlantic Charter was greater even than in London or Washington. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Hitler that warned that he would hold the Jews responsible if the European conflict were to become a “world war” (by which he meant the involvement of the United States). On August 19, 1941, just after reports of the Churchill-Roosevelt summit and the Atlantic Charter had reached the Nazi headquarters on the Russian front, Goebbels recorded a meeting with Hitler: “The Führer is convinced that his prophecy in the Reichstag, that should Jewry succeed once again in provoking a world war, this would end in their annihilation, is being confirmed. It is coming true in these weeks and months with a certainty that is almost uncanny. In the East the Jews are paying the price, in Germany they have already paid in part and will have to pay still more in the future.” Some historians believe that August 1941 was the moment when Hitler resolved to move beyond the massacres by Einsatzgruppen behind the advancing German armies into the systematic genocide of the European Jews. He did not bother to wait until his declaration of war on the United States after Pearl Harbor.

Hitler’s diabolical reaction surely vindicates Churchill’s determination to transform the European war into a battle for the survival of civilisation, in which practically any means to ensure victory were legitimate. Hitchens insists that Britain by this time was no longer in danger of invasion, but a dishonourable defeat was still a real possibility. If Churchill had not moved heaven and earth to bring a reluctant Roosevelt into the war, dragging America behind him, he would have betrayed the Jewish people, who were now in mortal peril and whose cause he had championed ever since the Balfour Declaration. The same obligation applied, in his eyes, to all the other peoples groaning under Nazi occupation. What else could or should he have done than to make every possible sacrifice to defeat Hitler?

One sacrifice that did not cost the Prime Minister too many sleepless nights was that of his own scruples about responding to the “total war” of which Goebbels boasted in kind. Hitchens condemns Churchill for ordering the indiscriminate bombing of German cities, but that too was an imperative rather than a choice. To have heeded George Bell’s moral objections to the killing of civilians — perfectly proper for a bishop, but not for a war leader — would have met with incomprehension and even anger among the British public. The debate has raged ever since, dominated by hindsight: bombing did incalculable damage to the Nazi war machine, but did not break the Germans’ resistance, any more than the Luftwaffe destroyed British morale with their V-weapons.

What we can say with confidence is that without the devastation of their cities, Germans might not have turned against Nazi ideology so swiftly after 1945 — in contrast to the previous generation, who had returned to militarism with a vengeance after 1918. Churchill wasn’t a prophet, although he had predicted in 1924, long before it became a scientific possibility, that “humanity has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination” with “a bomb no bigger than an orange.” Even he could not know that the decisive role of air power would only come when nuclear weapons were used against Japan.

The warship in which Churchill sailed to meet Roosevelt was HMS Prince of Wales, then the Royal Navy’s most modern battleship. Hitchens devotes much of his indictment to the war at sea, arguing that the Navy had been starved of resources between the wars and was ill-equipped to fight the all-important Battle of the Atlantic against the Nazi U-boat fleet. He regales the reader with touching stories from his days at boarding school, when he and his friends built plastic models of warships. One was the destroyer Cossack, celebrated for violating Norwegian neutrality early in 1940 in a dramatic rescue of 300 British prisoners from the South Atlantic incarcerated on the German freighter Altmark. As the vessel was boarded, captives in the hold below cried out in English. Cutlass-wielding sailors responded: “The Navy’s here!” Hitchens insists he was duped by a heroic myth. Yet maybe the romanticism of his youth was nearer to the truth than the cynicism of the angry old man.

It is the same story with the sinking of HMS Hood, one of the most notorious naval disasters in history. Hitchens describes this great battlecruiser as “a whited sepulchre”, presumably meaning that she was a death trap for her crew of more than 1,400. This is a rare lapse by Hitchens. St Matthew’s Gospel makes clear that the phrase means “hypocrites”. How can a ship be hypocritical? The mighty Hood, as she was known, was for 20 years between the wars the largest capital ship afloat; she was also, by common consent, the most beautiful. She was constantly in demand to “fly the flag” across the globe; when war came it was too late to modernise her. She was built after Jutland and her design had supposedly incorporated the lessons of that greatest of modern sea battles, in which three British battlecruisers were sunk because their horizontal armour-plating below deck could not withstand shells plunging vertically from great distances. During the action, Admiral Beatty (the dashing commander of the battlecruiser squadron and one of the younger officers promoted by Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty) had remarked: “There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Hood, like all battlecruisers, was built for speed rather than safety, but her armour was regarded by naval experts as adequate to protect her magazines. Churchill was a great advocate of battlecruisers — he had despatched two of them to the Falklands in 1914 to destroy a squadron of German cruisers under Graf von Spee, in what proved to be the only decisive naval victory of the war — but he was not their creator. As First Lord, his legacy to the Royal Navy had been the Queen Elizabeth class of four fast battleships which, together with the similar Revenge class also laid down during his tenure at the Admiralty, were still the backbone of the fleet in the Second World War.

These ships, well-protected and repeatedly updated, proved reliable. That Hood was more vulnerable was not Churchill’s fault: he had discussed in detail the fatal flaws exposed at Jutland in his account of the Great War, The World Crisis. His return to the Admiralty in 1939 — prompting the famous signal “Winston’s back!” — came far too late to remedy the flawed design of a 20-year-old ship. Indeed, Hood saw action against the French fleet at Mers el Kebir without mishap; the Navy’s sins of omission, if that is what they were, only came to light when she came under fire from a far more modern fast battleship: Bismarck. Churchill sent Hood and Prince of Wales to stop Bismarck because they were the only ships available capable of catching her. His faith in the fast battleship was vindicated by the sincerest form of flattery: imitation by the enemy.

Hitchens reserves his bitterest criticism of Churchill for the decision later in 1941 to send Force Z — consisting of Prince of Wales accompanied by the battlecruiser Repulse — to the Far East, to defend Singapore and deter Japanese aggression. Churchill, he claims, “did for hundreds of his shipmates aboard Prince of Wales . . . by ordering them all into a futile suicide mission”. Citing at length a book published in 1960, Hitchens omits to tell his readers that (to quote Roberts) “modern scholarship has largely absolved the Prime Minister of responsiblity for the disaster”.

Crucially, it was not Churchill’s decision, but that of Admiral Tom Phillips, to leave port without air cover in order to attack the Japanese landing sites on the Malayan coast. Not only did Phillips fail in his mission, but Force Z was spotted by the Japanese and came under attack, first from submarines, then 96 bombers and torpedo planes. Prince of Wales was hit by five torpedoes, Repulse by four. The battlecruiser sank quickly (“such a beautiful ship”, one of the Japanese pilots later recalled), but not — as Hitchens claims — because her decks were too lightly armoured. It was Prince of Wales that was given the coup de grace by a high-level bomb. With hindsight, we can see that no warship could have survived such an onslaught. The catastrophe was perhaps even more of a shock than Pearl Harbor, where the US Pacific Fleet had been taken by surprise and destroyed at anchor. At the Japanese naval headquarters in Tokyo, according to John Toland’s authoritative work The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, “senior officers found it difficult to accept that battleships in the open sea could have been sunk by planes. It meant the end of their concept of naval warfare.” Later in the war, the tables were turned when the two largest battleships ever built, Musashi and Yamato, were sunk by American aircraft at Leyte Gulf and Okinawa respectively; Tirpitz, the sister ship of Bismarck, was sunk in a Norwegian fjord after many air attacks. But the fate of Force Z was unprecedented. Churchill told the House of Commons: “In my whole experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful as the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse.”

Hitchens holds Churchill personally and solely responsible. He argues that Churchill overruled the Admiralty because of his outdated, romantic imperialism: he thought sending a naval force to Singapore would “overawe the primitive locals, as if we still lived in the Victorian era”. Yet Churchill was surely right to do all in his power to head off the impending threat, not only to south-east Asia, but to India and Australia. If the British and Americans had co-ordinated their efforts at deterrence sooner, before Prime Minister Tojo and his war party had prevailed on the Emperor Hirohito to unleash war, the presence of Force Z at Singapore might have been a valuable factor.

Hitchens also blames Churchill for imposing naval economies in the 1920s as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but in fact Repulse, like many other capital ships, was largely reconstructed between the wars and Prince of Wales was a new, state of the art battleship, nicknamed “HMS Unsinkable”. The real problem, which was hardly Churchill’s doing, were the restrictions laid down by the Washington naval treaty, which resulted in only two new British battleships coming into service between the wars.

What all critiques of Churchill as a war leader tend to ignore are his unique qualifications for the job. This was a bona fide hero who endured trench warfare and insisted on first hand experience of the sacrifices he demanded of civilians and the services; a military genius who pioneered amphibious landings, the tank and the aircraft carrier; an enthusiast for science who kept abreast of research and its applications; a historian who spent years learning the lessons of past conflicts. Churchill had no peer as a political leader in war on land, at sea and in the air. Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin and Mao, Tito and De Gaulle: none could match Churchill’s mastery of strategy, tactics and technology. Roosevelt with his fireside chats had a comparable ability to rally his people, but his disabilities forced him to remain aloof; by temperament he remained a prisoner of his patrician class. Only Churchill could, as Roberts remarks, “think beyond the Establishment’s way of waging war”. He quotes Hitler’s mocking jibe in November 1938, when only one major figure in Britain stood against appeasement: “Has the Almighty perhaps handed the key to Democracy to such people as Churchill?” Roberts comments: “The answer was yes.”

Today, as the British people languish in gloom and perplexity for lack of leadership, the thought of Churchill should act as a tonic — even an inspiration. We should never apologise for recalling him to mind. This autumn we commemorate not only the centenary of our victory over one tyranny in the First World War, but also the 80th anniversary of Munich, when we failed to confront another. Yet humiliation breeds resistance. The Commons debate that followed, on October 5, was the moment when the lion began to roar: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

Ambassador Ammon had it wrong: what happened next was not “a nice story” (Peter Hitchens is right about that), but reflecting on its meaning for our time is relevant to the problem that faces us today. Salzburg was not another Munich and the EU is not a tyranny. But the British people do not deserve to be punished or humiliated merely because we seek to preserve our independence as a nation state. Churchill, as Andrew Roberts shows, was the greatest advocate of what he called “United Europe”, but he was quite clear that Britain could never be an integral part of any kind of federation: “We are not seeking in the European movement . . . to usurp the functions of government.” That is, unfortunately, precisely what the EU has been doing now for many decades. Two years ago British voted for the Churchillian vision: “profoundly blended” with Europe, but aloof from the structures of the EU. It is now for the government to honour that people’s vote. We must take our stand for freedom again.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"