Churchill has nothing to hide

Paul Addison

  • Road to Victory: Winston Churchill 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert
    Heinemann, 1417 pp, £20.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 434 29186 2

The latest volume of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill biography is the fifth he has published since taking up the task in 1968. This time he accompanies Churchill on the long march from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour to VE Day. The book has all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors. It is a superbly researched chronicle, almost wholly devoid of explicit historical interpretation. It is more like a compilation of source materials, expertly edited with a linking narrative, than a contribution to the many debates that have raged for so long on the subject of Churchill and the Second World War.

Reading between the lines one may guess that in Gilbert’s view the evidence tells in favour of Churchill and against his critics. But since events are observed exclusively through the eyes of Churchill and his circle, we are back with the problem of the fly on the wheel of the coach. The fly believed that it made the wheel go round, and being a very communicative and literary fly, left millions of words to prove it. A number of trustworthy bluebottles, who were in the vicinity at the time, were happy to corroborate the fact as independent witnesses. The record, therefore, is plain and indisputable. But a detached historian would begin by taking a good look at the coach.

In defence of Martin Gilbert, it can be urged that biography and history are two different things. The whole duty of a biographer is to give us the life of a single person. A life cannot possibly include a history of the times: the two projects are bound to cancel one another out. By compiling the biographical record, day by day and hour by hour from a multitude of sources, Gilbert does succeed in bringing Churchill to life. Page by page the great man walks and talks and eats and drinks and wallows in his bath before us. Here is Churchill from the outside, as others saw him; and Churchill from the inside, struggling to feel and think his way into the possibilities of ever-changing situations. To read Gilbert is almost to re-live the life of Winston as he himself must have experienced it – and whatever criticisms have to be made on other grounds, that is a very remarkable achievement.

The Second World War, as conducted by the men at the top, is the best documented event of modern times. So much has been published that Gilbert, in spite of his access to the Churchill archive and immersion in the Public Record Office, has no great shocks or surprises up his sleeve. This is the first volume in which his footnotes reveal a considerable reliance upon sources already in print, such as the Alanbrooke and Cadogan diaries, Churchill’s own six volumes on the war, and the history of British intelligence by F.H. Hinsley. For evidence which has never seen the light of day before, Gilbert has drawn on the correspondence of the Churchill family, the papers and recollections of his staff, and stories sent in by people who responded to a request of his on Desert Island Discs.

In his letters to Clemmie, Churchill took her into his confidence about the conduct of the war with a candour born of respect for her judgment. But otherwise the new material is mainly revealing of family and personal matters, and goes to show Churchill’s capacity for the human touch. Though he worked his secretarial staff extremely hard, he seems to have been a considerate boss, and was certainly one of the most entertaining. ‘I got the best view of his behind that I have ever had,’ his secretary Marion Holmes confided to her diary. ‘He stepped out of bed still dictating and all too oblivious of his all-too-short bed jacket.’ It is also heartening to discover, from the recollections of soldiers and sailors, that he often spared the time to talk to lesser mortals, and never in a condescending way.

As a narrative of Churchill’s war leadership, Gilbert’s book has one curious feature. Even at a length of 1417 pages his account is quite selective and some of the omissions are puzzling. There is very little, for instance, about Churchill’s role as prime minister and head of the government. It is only to be expected that most of the book should concentrate on Churchill’s direction of grand strategy and his relations with Roosevelt and Stalin. But as prime minister Churchill had many other problems on his hands. His War Cabinet, with its various Cabinet committees, was in charge of an economy mobilised for total war. Subjects like the import programme, raw materials, transport, munitions, manpower, rationing and labour problems, were constantly on the agenda. Churchill’s interest in the war economy may have been intermittent, but he was by no means indifferent and maintained a personal team of economists and statisticians, headed by Lord Cherwell, to advise him on economic issues. Questions like rationing and the extent of government controls awoke in his breast a fear of creeping socialism. It would have been interesting to learn more of Churchill’s thinking in these areas, but Gilbert passes over them in silence until the very end, when a single flash of illumination lights up the scene. In April 1945 Churchill dined with financial experts who assured him that all would be well after the war owing to boom conditions and the liberalisation of world trade. But writing to Clemmie, Churchill expressed his doubts: ‘I keep on asking myself all sorts of awkward questions. How are we to balance our Budget? How are we to place our exports where they are wanted; and how are we to make up across the exchange for all our losses of foreign investments; and how are we to buy the balance of our food etc?’ How indeed!

Though one would hardly guess it from Gilbert’s account, there were critical moments at which Churchill had to intervene in domestic affairs to preserve his authority as prime minister. He was the head of a very complex administration in which a fine balance had to be kept between parties and personalities. Much depended on the skill with which he handled turbulent characters like Beaverbrook, Bevin, Dalton or Cripps. For most of 1942 Churchill was under threat from Sir Stafford Cripps, who made little secret of his aspirations to the premiership. If Rommel had defeated Montgomery at Alamein, Cripps would have resigned on the issue of the direction of the war and Churchill might conceivably have fallen. The Churchill-Cripps rivalry dominated politics for several months, but Gilbert makes no mention of it. At best he deals perfunctorily with the politics of the coalition, and major Cabinet reshuffles are compressed into a sentence or two.

One of Churchill’s war aims was to preserve the British Empire, a theme reduced by Gilbert to the faintest of scribbles in the margin. On several occasions Churchill vetoed or sabotaged attempts to accelerate constitutional change in India, but none of them rates a mention. There is no reference to his appointment of Wavell as Viceroy in 1943, or to the quarrels that ensued between them. The impact on Churchill of the fall of Singapore, and his consequent determination to restore the authority of the white man in the Far East, are never properly explained. Nor is there much of Churchill’s twists and turns on the Palestine question, and his alienation, after the assassination of Lord Moyne by the Stern Gang, from the Zionist cause.

As a biographer should, Gilbert has a profound interest in the personality of his subject. Since Churchill is already one of the most celebrated characters outside the realm of fiction, there might seem nothing to add, but to be famous is not necessarily to be understood. Some people romanticise Churchill as the epitome of genius, humanity and statesmanlike wisdom, while others believe he was a warmongering reactionary fuelled by alcohol. Impressions of Churchill tend to be simpler than the man. The Churchill of Gilbert’s pages is a creature of almost infinite diversity: brilliantly perceptive and woefully mistaken, high principled and cynically realistic, the most open-minded and the most prejudiced of men, a conservative pessimist whose cheerfulness kept breaking through.

It is always interesting to speculate about motivation. The psychologist Anthony Storr put forward the theory that Churchill was a depressive engaged in a hyperactive struggle to ward off the blues, and the evidence bears this out. Until reading Gilbert I had never quite realised before what a mania Churchill had for travel in wartime. Roosevelt and Stalin were always reluctant to leave their respective countries, and only did so to attend conferences of the great powers. But Churchill could hardly wait to get on a boat or a plane for a Cook’s Tour of the battlefields, or meetings with exotic foreign potentates. Three of his four Christmases as prime minister were spent overseas. He made so many flights around the Mediterranean that Bob Hope wisecracked: ‘That Churchill – he gets around, doesn’t he? He’s been to Casablanca more than Bogart.’

No less restless was Churchill’s conduct of the war. He was notorious for his impatience with the Chiefs of Staff when they resisted his plans for taking the offensive. Commanders in the field risked his ire by refusing to attack before they were ready. The pattern is abundantly confirmed by Gilbert’s thorough and meticulous account of Churchill’s military leadership. It is particularly interesting to see how Churchill’s sense of frustration transferred itself, during the last two years of the war, from the British generals, who were under his direction, to American generals who were not. But he battled on in the shrinking British sphere. At the age of 70, after two heart attacks and an almost fatal attack of pneumonia, he would sit up into the small hours composing demands for action. When the Greek Communists threatened law and order in Athens in December 1944, he sent off a telegram at 4 a.m. to General Scobie, the British commander on the spot: ‘Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.’ It was bad luck for Churchill that of all his wartime telegrams, this chilling message was the only one that was leaked to the press.

Churchill’s war was not the stuff of which Ealing comedies were made. He organised the machinery of carnage with a gut conviction of the necessity of slaughter and destruction. From 1942 he relentlessly prosecuted the strategy of bombing and incinerating German civilians in their homes. Yet it would be humbug to suggest that Churchill was a lone militarist fighting a uniquely bloodthirsty war. On the contrary, he was carrying out a democratic mandate. The pacifism of the Thirties had vanished in a puff of smoke, overwhelmed by tribal passions and anti-fascist jingoism. As Bomber Command took off for Germany, left-wing intellectuals were campaigning for hundreds of thousands of Allied troops to be flung ashore in France to establish a Second Front. In this respect Michael Foot was more gung-ho than Churchill, who feared a massacre on the beaches.

One quality that did distinguish Churchill from many other figures in British public life was a brooding consciousness of the war as another stage in the descent of the 20th century into barbarism. The world, he remarked on one occasion, ‘is now too beastly to live in. People act so revoltingly that they don’t deserve to survive.’ At Chequers, watching a film of the bombing of German towns, Churchill suddenly sat bolt upright and exclaimed: ‘Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’ At the Yalta conference in February 1945, he said goodnight to his daughter Sarah with the words: ‘Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the World.’

At the grimmest times there were moments of light relief as Churchill, in the twinkling of an eye, switched from statesmanship to farce. While he was staying at the White House in December 1941, Roosevelt entered his bedroom to discover him pacing up and down stark naked, dictating to his secretary, Patrick Kinna. Churchill said: ‘You see Mr President, I have nothing to hide from you.’ On learning in October 1944 that the future of King Zog of Albania was in serious doubt, Churchill sent a note to Eden: ‘Another King gone down the drain!’ A banquet in the desert with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia got off to a disappointing start when the King announced that he was unable to allow smoking or the drinking of alcohol in his presence. But Churchill pointed out that he was the host. ‘I said that if it was his religion that made him say such things, my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and intervals between them.’ The King gave way: a sidelight on Anglo-Saudi relations in times past.

The most important theme of the book is Churchill’s role, as a warrior-statesman, in the rise and fall of the Grand Alliance of Britain, Russia and the United States. Scholars around the world will scrutinise Gilbert’s passages on the Teheran and Yalta Conferences, the ‘special relationship’ with Roosevelt, the Anglo-Soviet alliance, the arguments between the Allies over the Second Front, the Polish question, and the repatriation of prisoners of war to the Soviet Union.

Gilbert is highly sensitive to these issues and treats them with the greatest care. He lays out the evidence for Churchill’s role as fully and patiently as can be. Yet this is where the technique of allowing the documents to speak for themselves begins to wear thin. A biography of Churchill is inseparable from the historical controversies that swarm around his head and some evaluation is called for. But his biographer does not define or probe the problems. If he addresses them at all, he does so in such a coded, indirect fashion that I for one do not know what he really thinks.

The Second World War gave rise to the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States. Pearl Harbour made Churchill and Roosevelt into bosom companions, and the bridge across the Atlantic created an Anglo-American establishment of élite social character. It looked like the perfect alliance, and up to a point it was, but historians now are inclined to believe that it went into decline in the latter stages of the war as conflicts arose between the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana. This makes Churchill’s position all the most interesting to define. He was a strong British imperialist, defying Roosevelt over India and the Far East, but equally strong in his desire for an Anglo-American world order. The do-it-yourself reader, confronted by Gilbert’s evidence, must draw his own conclusions. It would seem that in the first flush of the Anglo-American alliance, Churchill believed in the reality of the special relationship, but came to doubt it as the realisation dawned that Roosevelt intended to pursue a course of strict national interest in the post-war world. Accordingly, Churchill decided that Britain must deal independently with the Soviet Union. When Roosevelt died, Churchill’s first reaction was to order a plane to attend the funeral. But on second thoughts, the inveterate traveller stayed at home.

Western propagandists of the Cold War have done their best to represent Churchill as a patron saint of the cause, but intelligent right-wingers know very well that the facts are an embarrassment. In military terms, Churchill was a wholehearted champion of the Anglo-Soviet alliance. Gilbert’s evidence underlines the fact that Churchill’s aim in 1942 and 1943 was to assist the Russians by all the means in his power. Hence the Arctic convoys and his agitated demands for the launching of operation ‘Jupiter’, a plan for the invasion of Norway vetoed by the Chiefs of Staff. Though Churchill preferred to delay a cross-Channel invasion, and proceed by way of an attack on the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, there was no hidden agenda for containing the Russians in the Balkans. If there had been, why send arms to Tito and his Communist partisans?

It was not until the D-Day landings had been successfully accomplished that Churchill’s anti-Communism came to the fore, and he began to dream up strategies for pipping the Russians to the post in Berlin and Vienna. But even then his fears of Soviet expansion were offset by the belief that he might be able to negotiate a lasting settlement with Stalin. Churchill had no illusions about the brutality of Stalin and the Soviet system. But in January 1944 he remarked: ‘If only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all. We get on like a house on fire.’ The suspicion arises that Churchill either misunderstood Stalin, or was grossly deceived by him. It is a great pity that Gilbert, who must have thought more deeply about the question than most, leaves it open.

The test-case was Poland and it was obvious to Stalin that Churchill was prepared to go a long way down the road to appeasement at Poland’s expense. At Yalta, in February 1945, a compromise was reached whereby Stalin appeared to guarantee free and democratic elections in an independent Poland in return for the sacrifice of Polish territory to Russia. But the small print was highly ambiguous. Stalin promised that all democratic and anti-Nazi parties should be allowed to participate in elections, but who was to define what this meant? Was Churchill seeking a genuinely independent Poland, or begging Stalin to provide a facade for Soviet domination?

One day, perhaps Martin Gilbert will throw off the burdens of the chronicler and give us the insights of the historian. But nothing should detract from the scale of his achievement as the Churchill biography begins to draw to a close. Having conducted Churchill all the way from the outbreak of war in 1914 to VE Day, Gilbert has won a great and lasting victory of his own.