DESPATCH BOX: FINEST HOUR 136, AUTUMN 2007
Thank you for your appraisal of Montgomery’s book Ten Chapters, which I think I will give to the Library at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the home at one time of both Gentleman Cadet Churchill and Gentleman Cadet Montgomery. (“Gentleman Cadet” went out with the 1945 Labour government.) Montgomery is buried in a village near here. The Churchill Centre obviously does a great job. I find much of the presentday nit-picking criticism of Churchill very irritating. I was only a schoolboy in the war, but you have a very special view of Winston Churchill if you had listened to one of his speeches sitting under the dining room table while the German bombers flew overhead. -ANTHONY CLAYTON, FARNHAM, SURREY
HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE
Reviewing Nicholson’s Hostages to Fortune, Robert Courts argues that “to have withdrawn Britain’s most powerful assets” [Prince of Wales and Repulse) from Southeast Asia after the Japanese onslaught would have sent the wrong signals. Perhaps. But an even better question/comment would be to ask how British leaders who had seen what air power could do to naval vessels at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir (the summer 1940 British attack on the interned French fleet) and at Taranto (in November 1940, British torpedo planes sank three Italian battleships) could send the two British warships into the war zone without waiting for the aircraft carrier Indomitable to complete repairs being made in Ceylon. The blame properly falls primarily on Admiral Tom Phillips, but also on the Admiralty and Churchill himself.
But then not very many had come to realize that air power had changed their world. In the program for the 1941 Army-Navy football game, was a photo captioned: “A bow-on view of the USS Arizona as she plows into a huge swell. It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts, no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.” Technically true. The British did it with torpedoes, a month or so later. – PROF. WARREN F. KIMBALL, JOHN ISLAND, S.C.
Professor Kimball is correct that, to any student of air power, it was clear by 1941 that battleships were horribly vulnerable. I do not dispute that, nor that Churchill, in sending the ships, should have been aware of this. But I take issue with Nicholson’s claim that Churchill was primarily to blame for the loss off Prince of Wales and Repulse. He was responsible for sending them to Singapore, but there his responsibility ends—unless you buy Nicholson’s tenuous evidential thread hanging on what he calls the “prodding telegram. ” The ships’ despatch to Singapore did not make their loss inevitable. The decision to go to sea, the direction, the change of destination, the decision to go without air power, and the failure to break radio silence to call for it, were all operational decisions, with little or nothing to do with Churchill.
HMS Indomitable was to have been part of Force Z. Unfortunately, she ran aground on 3 November and simply would not have been repaired in any time frame that would have made a deterrent even potentially effective. As Alexander recalled after the war, “unfortunately the carrier was stranded on a reef…and it was too late to go back on the promise made to Australia and New Zealand.”
The harvest of the “locust years” was being reaped. Churchill was in an impossible position, and had to do something, equipped with too little, too late. He cannot however be held to blame for the failure to supply Singapore with a fully-equipped naval force—1930 cutbacks prevented that. It can sensibly be argued that the “deterrent” idea was flawed—and it might have been—but for those in charge in 1941 they could not afford to do nothing, and did not have the benefit of hindsight. —RAC
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
I came to a roaring halt at FH 132, page 45, directing me to the website posting of Sir Martin Gilbert’s 1985 Lecture on “Churchill’s London.” In it he mentions a “low building near the Hyde Park Serpentine”: the former City of London magazine, which Churchill rushed soldiers to guard when when war threatened with Germany, an action which helped convince Asquith to name this “man of action” First Lord of the Admiralty.
Here, at what we called the “Arsenal,” on 9 April 1947, I proposed marriage to my glamourous “Buckeye” girlfriend of just eight days’ acquaintanceship, and was accepted. I was on my first leave out of Burma, having left England in 1938. My leave being just five months, and certain that Dona was “the one,” I decided time was not on my side if I wished to turn a friendship into something more permanent. Hyde Park, the Serpentine and the “Arsenal” mean a great deal to us, as it meant to Churchill. We celebrated our sixtieth anniversary on May 3rd.- ROBERT DALES, SANTA FE, N.M.
I’m enrolled in a history class and part of the final is to find “dirt” on famous people in history. It’s a 2000+ word paper so I need as much “dirt” as you might be aware of. Maybe he kicked cats when he was a kid? The biggest thing is that I need to be able to reference the “dirt” credibly. – A STUDENT CORRESPONDENT
This elicited various comments, some wry, many to the effect of: how sad that an educator would dote on the trivial and ignore the meaningful, in what seems to be an attempt to level all historical figures to one common denominator. Even more incredible was the age of the writer. When asked to reveal the school, and whether high school, college or university, he replied: “It’s a university but I’ll keep the name out, as I don’t need any nasty emails going to the instructor.”
Classes led by a teacher who assigns this type of “research” will never motivate students to appreciate history. Churchillians love history for its rich and vivid accounts of the world of our ancestors, and others unknown to us. In looking for “dirt,” the student will miss many of Churchill’s inspiring words. He’ll be looking for what others say about WSC, instead of what he himself said, searching for the inconsequential instead of seeking to understand. We regret an opportunity lost for him, and of course for his teacher, —THE EDITORS
CHURCHILL AND INDIA
“The Gandhi Factor,” by Larry Arnn is an interesting if myopic view of Churchill’s attitude toward India. Arnn’s assertion that
Britain “had come to exercise sovereignty there” is just a euphemism for a calculated colonial land grab. The statement, “because of [Britain’s] action over many decades the population of India had greatly increased” sounds like something out of George Bush’s mouth, where “friendly fire” is an expression to cover up shooting your own troops. Under British misrule, education was decimated, to the extent that the illiteracy rate went through the roof. This led to the general impoverishment of the Indian people.
Poor subsistence farmers tend to have larger families to handle the land. They have large families because they are poor, not the other way round. The great increase in the Indian population under British rule can be seen as a direct measure of British mismanagement. It was not the positive thing the article implies. – GERALD L. HARRISON, [email protected]
What is myopic is fastening onto a flyspeck point in a 1999 article whose purpose was to contrast Churchill and Gandhi—both nominees, back then, during the “Person of the Century” hoopla. Larry Arnn was pointing out that May 1940 was fairly late for a man like Gandhi to be saying, “I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.” Churchill never made as bad a mistake as that!
We have no idea whether India’s overpopulation was caused by cultural or religious practices or by evil British who made life so unbearable that Indians were forced to have huge families. But today India is the largest democracy in the world, with a future as bright as any. William Manchester’s observation (The Last Lion, vol. 1, 856 n.) is apposite: “During the early 1950s, when this writer was living in Delhi as a foreign correspondent, social scientists began a comprehensive poll of Indian villages to determine how many natives knew British rule had ended in 1947. The survey was aborted when it was discovered that a majority didn’t know the British had even arrived.”
Here is a more important datum: By 1820, medical progress in a pipsqueak country off the coast of Europe created a decisive demographic. Suddenly, thanks to a precipitous decline in infant mortality, a small island had the surplus manpower to settle an empire (the labeling of which as a “colonial land grab” is simply generational chauvinism, because in those days nearly every seafaring country was engaged in colonial land grabs).
More significantly, the little island provided the administrative and business climate in the West Indies, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. (Africa too, but sadly it mainly didn’t take there.) Fortunately for the world, this demographic transformation occurred in a country that even then had a long-established system of law, property rights and personal freedom. Imagine what the planet would look like today if the first country to conquer infant mortality had been, say, Russia or Germany….
Mr. Bush, though often deserving skewering, is hardly relevant, but surely you know that the term “friendly fire” has been around a lot longer than he has. War is hell, which is probably the reason we in countries settled by colonial land grabbers try so hard to resist it. —RML
THE NEW FINEST HOUR
I just received Finest Hour 135 and read with considerable interest that one of my major beefs about FH is finally being corrected and the magazine will increase the use of literary and scholarly articles, moving the social activities to the Chartwell Bulletin. Congratulations, this is long overdue. – CURT ZOLLER, MISSION VTEJO, CALIF.
We heard from a number of readers who echoed Curt’s praise. We are grateful to you all. Kind words are always hard to come by. —THE EDITORS
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