Remember Churchill the man, not the legend: Churchill as military leader

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Winston Churchill with the Chiefs of Staff at a luncheon at 10 Downing Street, 7 May 1945. Seated are: Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham. Standing are: Major General L C Hollis (Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and General Sir Hastings Ismay (Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence).
Winston Churchill with the Chiefs of Staff at a luncheon at 10 Downing Street, 7 May 1945. Seated are: Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham. Standing are: Major General L C Hollis (Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and General Sir Hastings Ismay (Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence).

Alastair continues his examination of the best sources to understand Churchill the man over Churchill the public myth. This week he looks at Churchill’s reputation as a boorish war leader with a penchant for expeditions over expediency. Is it justified? 

The Persian Flaw

So much of Winston Churchill’s legend is dominated by the Second World War that most people know the story as a simple narrative of the right man, at the right time, doing the right thing. The reality is intrepidly more difficult for those who refuse to see Churchill as a man of extraordinary gifts rivalled by intransigent Persian flaws.

Max Hastings, in his remarkable book Finest Years: Churchill as Warlordconcludes that Churchill was an imperfect occupant of 10 Downing Street but he was the only man to lead Britain at a time of war. What he adds, and what is crucial to developing a rounded view of Churchill, is that he was great because of, and not in spite of his, mistakes which made him keenly aware of the human cost of war.

“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels”

Andrew Marr in his book A History of Modern Britain suggests that modern world history began in the summer of 1940 when the newly appointed prime minister decided to fight on against the Nazis. The five years of the Second World War changed the world and the first 18 months changed history. Yet as Hastings argues in that contrary to the mythologising about the summer of 1940, Churchill’s perspective was at odds with the Monarchy, senior Conservative politicians and British public opinion.

They cannot be faulted for this view. Churchill’s reputation by 1940 was notorious; a conceited maverick of backbench ranking who had spent the previous 40 years being progressively further demoted in ministerial rank. Churchill’s on the ground meddling with police operations during the Sidney Street siege in 1911; his decision as Home Secretary to send in soldiers against protesters during the 1910 Tonypandy Riots and again in Glasgow in 1919; his disastrous involvement in the Dardanelles campaign as First Lord of the Admiralty; his sanctioning the use of tear gas on Kurdish tribesmen in Iraq in 1919 as Secretary of State for War, his creation of the ‘Black and Tans’ in the Irish War of Independence; his disastrous decision to return Britain to the gold standard as Chancellor in 1925 and his opposition to Indian independence throughout the 1930s placed him at odds with the British establishment and public opinion.

Arrogant temerity and a sincere belief in himself is a trait which has always haunted Churchill’s public image. Nevertheless, the point of considering Churchill’s foibles is not to diminish him. To appreciate Churchill’s weaknesses is understand how his successes are all the more special because they were informed by deep character flaws that had produced a less than idyllic political track record. As John Lukacs eloquently charts, it was his maverick reputation and outsider status which served him best in May 1940 when he had to connive and cajole to secure support for war with Hitler in the face of overwhelming political and public opposition.

Churchill’s great achievement by the age of 65 years was to maintain the bombast of his youth but learn the lessons of arrogance that had caused so much folly in his early career. In his official account of the war, he said:

Thus, then, on the night of the 10th of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State. … During these last crowded days of the political crisis my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m. I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.

Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

Yet, he was also far from confident, telling General Ismay (chief military assistant and the principal link between Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff) on the 10th of May:

“Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”

Churchill was not without error, but he deserves more credit for muzzling his youthful hubris that defined him well into middle age that had left his reputation mired in controversy right up to 1939. Despite the sense of confidence that he documented in his official account (most likely due to a sense of posterity), it was at odds with his inner doubts and general irascibility. Here the error between arrogance by bombast and arrogance by stress as simple rudeness can be found.

His wife of 57 years, Clementine Churchill, was a stalwart, centred force in his life and a steadying hand. Their private correspondence, beautifully compiled by their daughter Mary Soames in the book Speaking for Themselves, is particularly revealing as to how ‘Clemmie’ encouraged and implored her husband to reign in his more boorish tendencies. In one such letter, dated 27 June 1940, she tells him:

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner.

My Darling Winston — I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders & if they are bungled — except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Speaker, you can sack anyone & everyone — Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote:— ‘On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme’ — I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love as well as admire and respect you —

Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality — (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful


Clementine was acutely aware that Churchill’s public image, despite his ascendancy to the premiership, had nowhere near rehabilitated enough for him to forget domestic politics and basic manners as he became focussed on the machinations of the war. After Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister on May 10, he favoured the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax as his successor. There is some debate as to how it was expressed, but Halifax wavered on the position and Chamberlain recommended Churchill to King George VI. As Robert Rhodes James highlightsGeorge would have preferred to appoint Lord Halifax, in no small due to Churchill’s maverick status and his previous support for his brother, Edward VIII, during the Abdication Crisis of 1936.  After the King’s initial dismay he and Churchill developed “the closest personal relationship in modern British history between a monarch and a Prime Minister”.

There were no open arms for Churchill’s appointment, largely because he was remembered as the architect of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The disaster is Churchill’s most contested blunder is the subject of a considerable number of revisionist works on his legacy, notably Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked by Nigel Knight. As First Lord of the Admiralty the failed 1915 invasion of Turkey, while Churchill’s sole responsibility, nevertheless meant he was blamed for the deaths of an estimated 27,000 French and 115,000 British and dominion troops for the rest of his life. Churchill was demoted as a consequence of the fiasco before finally resigning from the government altogether in November 1915. He joined the British Army as a lieutenant colonel, commanding the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front (while still a Member of Parliament).

Most claim that Churchill’s callousness and his predilection to storm ahead in the face of contrary professional advice is a character trait that left him unapologetic for strategic disasters both before and during the Second World War. Yet, whether from a desire to clear his name or through guilt, Churchill’s decision to fight on the front line of the trenches suggests that the horrendous loss of life at Gallipoli had an impact on his life, one that resulted in him risking it and coming under fire on more than one occasion.

What is of historical record, particularly from the diaries of his doctor, Charles McMoran Wilson (later Lord Moran), is that Churchill suffered bouts of melancholia, what he dubbed his ‘Black Dog’. If there is not a direct causal link that the Dardanelles caused an episode, there are grounds to infer that it did from the fact that he wrote a ‘Dear John’ letter to his wife as early as July 1915 before he resigned from the government to join the Western Front:

“Do not grieve for me too much. Death is only an incident, and not the most important that happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you, my darling one, I have been happy and you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be.”

20 years later and the cost of Gallipoli was evidently on Churchill’s mind and was responsible for saving hundreds of thousands in the Second World War. Both Churchill and Field Marshal Alan Brooke, his Chief of the Imperial General Staff, fiercely resisted American calls to invade France in 1942. Mindful of the heavy infantry casualties incurred during the First World War (in which both had served and seen the mass slaughter and fearing another Somme or Dardanelles), both argued that the Allies did not have the resources or manpower to stage an amphibious and air attack on France. They favoured a less direct attack on the more powerful German war machine and patience before a direct invasion. The result of their protests was Operation Torch and the invasion of French North Africa, a springboard from which to launch later into Italy, what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of Europe.

Churchill’s sense of responsibility for human life and his reluctance to waste it, and to defend it, is an oft-overlooked characteristic of his leadership. Churchill told Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, that he planned to accompany the HMS Belfast with the Normandy landings in 1944. Eisenhower, who relayed the story, objected and Churchill rebuffed him: “You have the operational command of all forces, but you are not responsible administratively for the makeup of the crews.” Churchill said he would simply sign on as a member of His Majesty’s ship and there was nothing Eisenhower could do about it. It took an intervention from King George VI before he backed down, who said to Churchill that if he went it was his duty to go as well.

Considering Churchill’s life as a series of victorious vignettes removes the crucial detail that his successful leadership was informed more by the errors in his life. For all the novelty of an elder statesman taking the reigns of Britain’s war machine, there were actually decades of experience behind him. When his country needed him most his great feat was to put aside a lifetime of conceit and to draw on every sinew, thread and memory to ensure decision-making was a combination of industrious imagination and an appreciation that it was human lives being deployed in his name. This was the difference between Hitler and Churchill, and ultimately why the latter had to impose his will and the former could, above all else, inspire people him to follow.

Take for example the pervasive accusations that Churchill was a bully and a wild card during the war. This perception has taken on a life of its own, promulgated by film and television portrayals, notably and most recently by Michael Gambon in Churchill’s Secret (2016), Albert Finney in the Gathering Storm (2002) and Brendan Gleeson in its sequel, Into the Storm (2009). The aspect of Churchill’s personality has been seized upon by acolytes and critics alike but is more universally known as his ‘bulldog’ spirit.

Historians and pundits, revisionist or otherwise, may give their verdicts, but it is the public consciousness that evokes and perpetuates an idea or vision of a famous person. Say ‘Napoleon’ to people and ‘too short’ will undoubtedly be the first thing that follows (despite his height being nominal for the age). Say ‘William Wallace’ and you’ll have Mel Gibson’s blue streaked warrior poet described to you (accounts on Wallace are sketchy, but he never sired the future King of France). The list goes on. Reductive zeitgeist is the final resting place for all historical souls of note and it is seldom ever correct.

Churchill, however, should suffer no such fate in terms of his personality, but certainly not in regard to his military record. Take the war diaries of that Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, kept between 1939 and 1945. They were originally intended for his wife, Benita, bearing the request that “on no account must the contents of this book be published.” They were later edited and added to by Brooke in the 1950s. Yet, the first abridged volume was published in 1957 in reaction to his feelings that Churchill gave less credit than was owed to him and other generals in his The Second World War series.

The diaries were heavily censored at the time of their publication, both to avoid offending the Allies and because of the Official Secrets Act. When they were published in one complete volume in 2002, it was to great celebration because of their candour that delighted both fans and critics of Churchill. Both camps seized upon the most saccharine elements and both quoted passages in isolation to further their argument that Churchill was arrogant. Arguably the most famous passage is:

“And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war!”

Despite the unequivocal tone, which is not unique in the course of the diaries, Brooke is not sparse in praise for the prime minister:

“It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again…Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being.”

If there appear to be differing interpretations as to whether Brooke thought Churchill a masterful strategist or an amateur maverick ignorantly playing with soldiers, it must be remembered that his and others’ diaries were often a vent over the course of a five-year war.

In regard to proving or disproving whether Churchill was a bully and wildcard, all accounts will offer something to whatever side want to make a case. Morale ebbed and flowed, battles were won and lost, and all the generals, secretaries, valets and ministers who worked for Churchill felt the good days, the bad days, stresses and sweetness of victory in different ways. They were human; their accounts reflect this and the reader should not expect consistency.

Brooke, for all his criticism of Churchill, admitted that he possessed a:

“Genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision – he is quite the most difficult man to work with that I have ever struck but I should not have missed the chance of working with him for anything on earth!”.

Yet, what must be remembered, as Andrew Roberts notes in his Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, is that Churchill appointed people who disagreed with him, often possessing a remarkable degree of self-awareness about his own bullish tendencies. Churchill even acknowledged in his six-volume history of the Second World War that on the Chiefs of Staff Committee it was only Brooke who was able to stand up to him:

“When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes – stiff-necked Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal with than that!”

In his memoirs, General Hastings Ismay, chief military assistant to Churchill,  recalled how after one fierce clash Churchill told him that he did not think he could continue to work any longer with Brooke because: “He hates me. I can see hatred looking from his eyes.” Brooke later responded to Ismay: “Hate him? I don’t hate him. I love him. But the first time I tell him that I agree with him when I don’t will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him.” When Churchill was told this he murmured, “Dear Brookie.”

For all the ambiguity, hokey sentimentality and brute insight, the partnership between Brooke and Churchill was a very successful one that led Britain to victory in 1945. In his book Armageddon: The battle for Germany 1944–45, Max Hastings argued that their partnership “created the most efficient machine for the higher direction of the war possessed by any combatant nation, even if its judgments were sometimes flawed and its ability to enforce its wishes increasingly constrained.” It’s apt then that in literature as in war the two work to balance each other.

The only way Hastings can make this conclusion, the only way future historians and students of events can make their own determination is from the many first-hand accounts that exist to give us some insight into the character of the men who lead the military machine.

To know this we must appreciate Brooke’s diaries, and all other wartime military and political memoirs and diaries, as multi-faceted accounts that cannot be taken as snapshots for a conclusion, but rather as personal stories that unfolded over five years of inconsistent victory and failure. They must be taken in their entirety for every day of every year, every victory and every loss: only then will they hold any true meaning to history.


Next week, Alastair will be making the case for recognising the true from the apocryphal stories about Churchill, arguing that doing so allows for a greater appreciation of the man.  

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About Alastair Stewart 228 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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