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Churchill and His Generals: The Tasks of Supreme Command

“Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding military calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war….His uneasy relationship with his generals stemmed, in large part, from his willingness to pick commanders who disagreed with him—and who often did so violently.”

Eliot A. Cohen

This paper was presented at the 1993 International Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., and has been updated in a few places to reflect developments and publications since. Dr. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

“Gathering of Eagles,”
North Africa, 8 June 1943, reviewing plans for future operations. Seated. Left to right: Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, General Brooke, Churchill, General Marshall, General Eisenhower. Standing behind, left to right: Air Chief Marshal Portal, Admiral Cunningham, General Alexander and (leaning forward) General Montgomery.

Eliot A. Cohen

This paper was presented at the 1993 International Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., and has been updated in a few places to reflect developments and publications since. Dr. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

G.R. Elton wrote: “There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill: whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.”1 Judged by Elton’s standards, many contemporary historians fail. For the last several decades, Churchill’s war leadership has come under increasingly severe attack, particularly in certain savage and perverse biographies during the early 1990s.

The spate of criticism represents merely one of several waves of postwar attacks on Churchill as warlord. The first surge of criticism came primarily from military authors, in particular Churchill’s own chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke. The publication of his diaries in the late 1950s shocked readers, who discovered in entries Brooke himself retrospectively described as “liverish” that all had not gone smoothly between WSC and his generals. A fresh round of controversy was spurred by publication of the unexpurgated diaries in 2001.

In his first published work, Brooke had withheld some of the more pointed criticisms of the Prime Minister, which he often wrote after late-night arguments with Churchill. If anything, his anger grew as the war went on. On 10 September 1944 he wrote in his diary (an entry not known until the 2001 version:

[Churchill] has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense. I find it hard to remain civil. And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of this world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no conception what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war! It is far better that the world should never know and never suspect the feet of clay on that 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 disliked a man simultaneously to the same extent.2

Others expressed themselves in language more temperate, but had, one suspects, no less severe opinions. Many of the field marshals and admirals of World War II came away nursing the bruises that inevitably came their way in dealing with Churchill. They deplored his excessive interest in what struck them as properly military detail; they feared his imagination and its restless probing for new courses of action. But perhaps they resented most of all his certainty of their fallibility.

Norman Brook, secretary of the Cabinet under Churchill, wrote to Hastings Ismay, the former secretary to the Chiefs of Staff, a revealing observation: “Churchill has said to me, in private conversation, that this was partly due to the extent to which the Generals had been discredited in the First War—which meant that, in the Second War, their successors could not pretend to be professionally infallible.”3 Or as Churchill himself wrote when deprecating the American proposal for appointing a single Supreme Allied Commander for the war in Northwest Europe,

This all looks very simple from a distance and appeals to the American sense of logic. However in practice it is found not sufficient for a Government to give a General a directive to beat the enemy and wait to see what happens. The matter is much more complicated. The General may well be below the level of his task, and has often been found so.4

One broad criticism of Churchill as warlord was that he meddled, incurably and unforgivably, in the professional affairs of his military advisers. A second wave of criticism comes from those who have pored over the documents at some distance from the actual events. Thus, David Reynolds writes of Britain’s “decision” to fight on in 1940 as “right policy, wrong reasons.” Writing of Churchill elsewhere as “a romantic militarist,” he deplores with mock pathos the fate of “young whippersnappers who have the temerity to read the documents and then ask awkward questions!”5

Other historians have less resort to humor. Churchill was “seldom consistent and was easily carried away.”6 Small wonder, then that “the conduct of war emerged, not from any one “grand plan” or strategy, but out of “a series of conflicting and changing views, misunderstandings, personal interests and confusions.”7 In the end, in this view, Churchill, “like all men, however great, was powerless to alter the great decisions of history.”8

For the new historians, it would seem that Churchill’s sins have to do less with bullying and meddling—few contemporary scholars are inclined to carry a brief for generals—than with lack of foresight or inability to stick to a plan. When Churchill was right, it was for the wrong reasons; if he changed his mind, and he did so frequently, it was a sign of febrile instability; if he described the strategic position of the Allies in compelling prose, it was a sham that covered up chaotic forces that he had neither the wisdom nor the fixity of purpose to master.

Thus we have two indictments, no less severe than those of the generals: Churchill failed as strategist because he did not devise a coherent strategy for the war. Perhaps no one can, some of these historians might argue; in that case, Churchill deserves removal from his pedestal because he misled his contemporaries and at least one succeeding generation into believing otherwise.

One may sympathize with Churchill’s critics. The generals suffered the indignities of working with a man who kept them up late while hounding them with questions of detail. Even less forgivable, one suspects, were such barbs as his remark about confronting, in his Chief of Imperial General Staff, “the dead hand of inanition,” or his observation, on watching the Chiefs of Staff file out of a meeting, “I have to wage modern war with ancient weapons.”9 Bearing the responsibilities they shouldered, knowing better than anyone the strains suffered by a force too often fighting at a disadvantage, no wonder they seethed with discontent.

The historians also have some excuse for their impatience. The stifling weight of pro-Churchill orthodoxy that dominated not only historiography but public opinion for decades after the Second World War provoked a natural reaction from a class naturally skeptical of political leaders. All the more irritating to many professional historians have been the contemporary political leaders who have declared their reverence for Churchill. Surely, some denizens of faculty clubs and senior common rooms must think that anyone acclaimed as a hero by Dan Quayle, Caspar Weinberger or Margaret Thatcher cannot deserve the uniquely glorious reputation of Winston Churchill!

What is Strategy?

The generals may have suffered from their excessive closeness to a man who made excruciating demands upon their energies, time, and patience. The dons may have let the temptations of donnish life, which rewards swipes at historical orthodoxy and deprecates the Great Man theory of history, get the better of them. But a deeper explanation for the antipathy of these two groups to Churchill lies, I suspect, in their picture of what it is to make strategy.

The generals have in mind a concept of civil-military relations to which we still, amazingly, pay lip service: a world in which civilians provide resources, set goals, and step out of the way to let professionals do their professional work. In such a view, a politician has no more business getting involved in strategy than a dental patient has in mixing the amalgam that goes into a cavity. Brooke’s exasperation speaks for more than one military leader:

After listening to the arguments put forward during the last two days I feel more like entering a lunatic asylum or nursing home than continuing with my present job. I am absolutely disgusted with politicians [sic] methods of waging war! Why will they imagine they are experts at a job they know nothing about! It is lamentable to listen to them!10

The anti-Churchill historians, on the other hand, either think that strategy cannot exist, or that when done properly it consists of pristine and unchangeable blueprints. Most of them see so much muddle and inconsistency that they find the idea of any fixed policy laughable; others scorn statesmen for failing to reduce the problems they confront to the neatness of a graduate term paper.

In the years after the first Iraq War, in which politicians (seemingly) left military matters in the hands of generals and won a stunning victory thereby, such views may have seemed more attractive than they might have in the early 1940s. In fact, both groups misgauge the real problem of formulating strategy, which Churchill himself described more aptly than anyone. It has become the fashion to scorn Churchill’s memoirs of the First and Second World Wars as a true account of his activities and their consequences.

Such caution is well taken, but Churchill’s writings in these volumes, and in his biography of Marlborough, have a second and more lasting merit as reflections on the nature of war statesmanship. War statesmanship, in Churchill’s view, focused at the apex of government an array of considerations and calculations that even those one rung down could not fully fathom—a view shared, interestingly enough, by none other than General Charles de Gaulle. War, Churchill wrote in The World Crisis, “knows no rigid divisions between…Allies, between Land, Sea and Air, between gaining victories and alliances, between supplies and fighting men, between propaganda and machinery, which is, in fact, simply the sum of all forces and pressures operative at a given period….”

Churchill’s profound sense of the uncertainties inherent in war suggests that he would have found the notion that one could have a blueprint for victory at any time before, say 1943, an absurdity, bred of unfamiliarity with war itself. Moreover, Churchill believed that the formulation of strategy in war did not consist merely in the drawing of state documents sketching out a comprehensive view of how the war would be won, but in a host of detailed activities which together amounted to a comprehensive picture.11

What were the practical consequences of the Churchillian approach to strategy?12 What exactly is it to make strategy in wartime? One set of activities, of course, has to do with the broad decisions of war: in the case of World War II, for example, when to launch the invasion of France, what weight to place on strategic bombing as a means of defeating Germany, or how much emphasis to put on aid to the Soviet Union.

But undergirding these high-level strategic decisions, on which historians traditionally lavish a great deal of attention, are other, less visible but no less important activities. They involve decision-making about matters of detail—important detail, but detail nonetheless. They may be illustrated by episodes from the war.

Continuous Auditing of Commanders

Perhaps the most important of these activities was a continuous audit of the military’s judgment. Churchill, as his generals often complained, kept a close eye on many matters of military detail. On 30 March 1941, for example, Churchill sent General Ismay a note regarding an exercise called VICTOR, which had occurred from 22 to 25 January of that year under the auspices of the then-commander of Home Forces, General Alan Brooke. Churchill’s query went as follows:

1. In the invasion exercise VICTOR, two armoured, one 
motorised and two infantry divisions were assumed to be landed by 
the enemy on the Norfolk coast in the teeth of heavy opposition.
 They fought their way ashore and were all assumed to be in action 
at the end of forty-eight hours.

2. I presume the details of this remarkable feat have been
 worked out by the Staff concerned. Let me see them. For instance,
 how many ships and transports carried these five Divisions? How 
many Armoured vehicles did they comprise? How many motor lor
ries, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many men, how
 many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first forty-eight
 hours, how many men and vehicles were assumed to have landed in
 the first twelve hours, what percentage of loss were they debited
 with? What happened to the transports and store-ships while the
 first forty-eight hours of fighting were going on? Had they completed
 emptying their cargoes, or were they still lying in shore off the
 beaches? What naval escort did they have? Was the landing at this
 point protected by superior enemy daylight Fighter formations?
 How many Fighter airplanes did the enemy have to employ, if so, to 
cover the landing places?

The purpose of Churchill’s query became clear in the third paragraph:

3. All this data would be most valuable for our future offensive operations. I should be very glad if the same officers would work out a scheme for our landing an exactly similar force on the French coast at the same extreme range of our Fighter protection and assuming that the Germans have naval superiority in the Channel….13

Clearly, Churchill feared that such exercises fed an assessment of enemy capabilities well beyond what was reasonable.

Brooke replied on April 7th, giving the figures noted by Churchill, including estimates of enemy loss rates (10% in crossing, 5-10% percent on landing), plus the assumption that the Germans would consume petrol and food found on British soil. Churchill responded a few weeks later, noting how much more difficult than this British landings in Greece had proven, and continuing to press his inquiries.14 He noted, for example, that on the last two days of the exercise the British were credited with 432 fighter sorties, and the Germans with 1500, although the Germans had farther to fly. He inquired about the amount of warning of an invasion that was assumed, and asked (without receiving an answer) why the Germans should have been assumed to capture large quantities of petrol on landing in Britain. Gamely enough, Brooke continued to reply, until the exchange petered out in mid-May.

What is the significance of this episode? It is noteworthy, first, that the commander in charge of the exercise, Brooke, stood up to Churchill and not only did not suffer by it, but ultimately gained promotion to the post of Chief of Imperial General Staff and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

But more important is Churchill’s observation that “It is of course quite reasonable for assumptions of this character to be made as a foundation for a military exercise. It would be indeed a darkening counsel to make them the foundation of serious military thought.” At this very time, the Chiefs of Staff were debating the dispatch of armored vehicles to the Middle East. Churchill was arguing—contrary to several of his military advisers (including the then-CIGS, Sir John Dill)—that the risks of invasion were sufficiently low to make the TIGER convoy worth the attempt. TIGER went through, losing only one ship to a mine and delivering some 250 tanks to the hard-pressed forces in the Middle East.

By no means did Churchill always have it right. But he often caught his military staff when they had it wrong. Sir Alan Cunningham, who succeeded Sir Dudley Pound as First Sea Lord, has established a reputation as a critic and victim of Churchill, but without Brooke’s bile.15 But the record shows on more than one occasion that his military judgment was no less defective.

In the spring of 1944, for example, Cunningham beat back a Royal Navy plan for a postwar force based on the premise (in the words of the naval staff’s paper, “The Empire’s Postwar Fleet”) that “the basis of the strength of the Fleet is the battleship….This war has proved the necessity of battleships and no scientific development is in sight which might render them obsolete.”16 Throughout the war Churchill deplored the navy’s obsession with a battleship fleet, even after the entrance of the United States into the war and the destruction of most of the heavy units of the German Navy.

In a similar vein, Churchill regarded the products of the superb British Intelligence system with a combination of interest and skepticism rare in political leaders. When the Joint Intelligence Committee suggested in September 1944 that Germany would collapse by December, Churchill disagreed vigorously and, as it transpired, correctly.17 The Intelligence professionals of the JIC had, by this point in the war, access to outstanding information, and had had the experience of five years of war in which to sharpen their judgment. They were proven wrong, as had been their operational colleagues.

This is not to say that Churchill’s military judgment was invariably or even frequently superior to that of his subordinates, although on occasion it clearly was. Rather, Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding their calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war. When his military advisers could not come up with plausible answers to these harassing and inconvenient questions, they usually revised their views; when they could, Churchill revised his. In both cases, British strategy benefited.

Selecting and Delegating

Of all the responsibilities that come the way of statesmen at war, the most important may be the selection of those who direct the armies and fleets. Few cares rest heavier on the war statesman, and few present greater difficulties. In the case of deciding on a major operation, a war statesmen can consult his own right reason and reams of planning and intelligence material; he has the benefit of advice prepared by large staffs, and he can turn to a variety of experts for their views. The task of picking generals is far more difficult. The commander who excelled at one level of war leadership may prove incompetent at another, and rarely can one find out except by experience. A prime minister (or, for that matter, a president) may find his ability to seek counsel limited by the cliques in which generals often gather, and their tendency to shelter one another from the wrath of disappointed superiors. Moreover, in wartime the cost of firing a general is high, for they become popular figures upon whom public hopes and fears are built.18

Churchill’s uneasy relationship with his generals stemmed, in large part, from his willingness to pick commanders who disagreed with him—and who often did so violently. The two most forceful members of the Chiefs of Staff, Brooke and Cunningham, were evidence of that. If he dispensed with Dill, he did so with the silent approval of key officers, who shared his judgment that Dill did not have the spirit to fight the war through to victory. As Ismay and others privately admitted, however, Dill was a spent man by 1941, hardly up to the demanding chore of coping with Churchill.19 “The one thing that was necessary and indeed that Winston preferred, was someone to stand up to him, instead of which Jack Dill merely looked, and was, bitterly hurt.”

If Churchill were to make a rude remark about the courage of the British Army, Ismay later recalled, the wise course was to laugh it off or to refer Churchill to his own writings. “Dill, on the other hand, was cut to the quick that anyone should insult his beloved Army and vowed he would never serve with him again, which of course was silly.”20

It was not enough, of course, to pick good leaders; as a war leader, Churchill found himself compelled to prod them as well—an activity that occasioned more than a little resentment on their part. Indeed, in a private letter to General Claude Auchinleck shortly before he assumed command in the Middle East in June 1941, Dill warned of this, saying that “the Commander will always be subject to great and often undue pressure from his Government.”21 Clearly, Churchill viewed one of his most important responsibilities the goading of his commanders into action. Churchill’s impatience with Auchinleck and Wavell, in particular, has become easier to understand now that we know how much of the enemy picture Churchill understood because of ULTRA, the British decrypts of German coded communications.22

The permeation of all war, even total war, by political concerns, should come as no surprise to the contemporary student of military history, who has usually been fed on a diet of Clausewitz and his disciples. But it is sometimes forgotten just how deep and pervasive political considerations in war are. Take, for example, the question of the employment of air power in advance of the Normandy invasion.

As is well known, operational experts and commanders split over the most effective use of air power. Some favored the employment of tactical air power to sever the rail and road lines leading to the area of the proposed beachhead, while others proposed a systematic attack on the French rail network, leading to its ultimate collapse. This seemingly technical military issue had, however, political ramifications, because any attack (but particularly one targeted against French marshalling yards) promised to yield French civilian casualties. Churchill therefore intervened in the bombing dilute to secure a promise that French civilian casualties would be held to a bare minimum. “You are piling up an awful load of hatred,” Churchill wrote to Air Chief Marshal Tedder. He insisted that French civilian casualties be under 10,000 killed, and reports were submitted throughout May that listed the number of French civilians killed and (callously enough) “Credit Balance Remaining.”23

The Churchillian Model of Supreme Command

In The World Crisis Churchill wrote: “At the summit, true strategy and politics are one.” The civil-military relationship and the formulation of strategy are inextricably intertwined. A study of Churchill’s tenure in high command of Britain during the Second World War suggests that the formulation of strategy is a matter more complex than the laying out of blueprints.

In the world of affairs, as any close observer of government or business knows, conception or vision make up at best a small percentage of what a leader does—the implementation of that vision requires unremitting effort. The debate about the wisdom of Churchill’s judgments (for example, his desire to see large amphibious operations in the East Indies)24 is largely beside the point. His activity as a strategist emerges in the totality of his efforts to shape Britain’s war policies, and to mold the peace that would follow the war.

The Churchillian model of civil-military relations is one of what one might call an uneven dialogue—an unsparing (if often affectionate) interaction with military subordinates about their activities. It flies in the face of the contemporary conventional wisdom, particularly in the United States, about how politicians should deal with their military advisers.25 In fact, however, Churchill’s pattern of relationships with his Generals resembles that of other great democratic war statesmen, including Lincoln, Clemenceau and Ben Gurion, each of whom drove their generals to distraction by their supposed meddling in military matters.

All four of these statesmen, Clausewitzians by instinct if not by education, recognized the indissolubility of political and military affairs, and refused to recognize any bounds to their authority in military activities. In the end, all four provided exceptional leadership in war not because their judgment was always superior to that of their military subordinates, but because they wove the many threads of operations and politics into a whole. And none of these leaders regarded any sphere of military policy as beyond the scope of his legitimate inspection.

The penalties for a failure to understand strategy as an all-encompassing task in war can be severe. The wretched history of the Vietnam War, in which civilian leaders never came to grips with the core of their strategic dilemma, illustrates as much. President Johnson, in particular, left strategy for the South Vietnamese part of the war in the hands of General William Westmoreland, an upright and limited general utterly unsuited for the kind of conflict in which he found himself. He did not find himself called to account for his operational choices, nor did his strategy of attrition receive any serious review for almost three years of bloody fighting. At the same time, the President and his civilian advisers ran an air war in isolation from their military advisers, on the basis of a weekly luncheon meeting from which men in uniform were excluded until halfway through the war.

A Churchillian leader fighting the Vietnam War would have had little patience, one suspects, with the smooth but ineffectual Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler. He would, no doubt, have convened all of his military advisers (and not just one), to badger them constantly about the progress of the war, and about the intelligence with which the theatre commander was pursuing it. The arguments might have been unpleasant, but at least they would have taken place. Perhaps no strategy would have made the war a winnable one, but surely some strategic judgment would have been better than none. Nor can strategy simply be left to the generals, as they so often wish.

Here, perhaps, contemporary observers of foreign policy and civil-military relations have indeed forgotten the lessons of the First World War: that generals can get it wrong. In America’s successful 1990-91 war in the Persian Gulf, politicians abdicated their responsibility to shape a war’s conclusion, leaving matters in the hands of a volatile theater commander and a politically adept but reflexively cautious Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, the war ended with virtually no thought for what a postwar Iraq would look like, and before the destruction of those elements of the enemy’s army most essential to the maintenance of his regime. The Gulf War offers evidence as well of the frequent diversity of military views—for example, the split before the war between Army and Air Force generals over the efficacy of a strategy heavily reliant on air attack. If politicians heir only authoritative strategic estimates, the chances are that
other views have been suppressed, not that they do not exist.

The Churchillian way of high command rests on an uneven dialogue between civilian leader and military chiefs (not, let it be noted, a single generalissimo). It is not comfortable for the military, who suffer the torments of perpetual interrogation; nor easy for the civilians, who must absorb vast quantities of technical, tactical and operational information and make sense of it. But in the end, it is difficult to quarrel with the results.


1.. G. R. Elton, Political History: Principles and Practice (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 71.

2. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. Alanbrooke Papers, 5/9, entry of 10 September 1944.

3. Liddell Hart Centre, Ismay Papers, 1/14/8, Norman Brook to Hastings Ismay, 27 January 1959.

4. Prime Minister’s Personal Minute D185/3, 14 October 1943.

5. David Reynolds, “1940: The Worst and Finest Hour,” in Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 255.

6. Martin Kitchen, “Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union during the Second World War,” Historical Journal 30:2 (June 1987): 435.

7. Sheila Lawlor, “Greece, March 1941: The Politics of British Military Intervention,” Historical Journal 25:4 (December 1982): 933.

8. Kitchen, op. cit.

9. Bernard Fergusson, ed., The Business of War: The War Narrative of Major General Sir John Kennedy (New York: Morrow, 1958), 60.

10. Alanbrooke Diary, 5/8, 29 November 1943

11. I have discussed Churchill’s view of strategy in “Churchill at War,” Commentary 83:5 (May 1987): 40-49.

12. Ibid.

13. Prime Minister’s Personal Minute D136/1PREM 3/496/4.

14. Ibid.

15. This in part on the strength of Churchill’s memoirs: admirals and generals, no less than prime ministers, have benefited from well-written recollections of their service in government.

16. Premier Papers, PREM 3/322/5/6.

17. See the discussion in John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, volume V, August 1943-September 1944 (London: HMSO, 1955), 398-403.

18. See a fascinating discussion of this topic by Charles de Gaulle, The Edge of the Sword, Gerard Hopkins, trans. (London: Faber & Faber, 1932), 103.

19. See, for example, Ismay’s comment on Dill’s 6 May 1941 memorandum arguing against sending tanks to the Middle East. Letter to John Connell, 13 September 1941, Ismay Papers/IV/Con/4/6a.

20. Ibid.

21. Letter of 26 June 1941, cited in J.R.M. Butler, Grand Strategy, volume II, September 1939-June 1941 (London: HMSO, 1957), pp. 530-1.

22. See Philip Warner, “Auchinleck,” in John Keegan, ed., Churchill’s Generals (New York: Grove Weidenfeld 1991), 138.

23. Walt W. Rostow, Pre-Invasion Bombing Strategy: General Eisenhower’s Decision of March 25, 1944 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

24. Premier Papers, PREM 3/334/4.

25. See, for example The Washington Post on ex-President Bush’s receipt of the Marshal
 Medal, 2 
October 1993, B-1.

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