ACTION THIS DAY: FINEST HOUR 152, AUTUMN 2011
BY MICHAEL MCMENAMIN
125-100-75-50 YEARS AGO
125 Years Ago
Autumn 1886 • Age 11
“I always was your darling”
Now that Lord Randolph was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston embarked upon his own revenue enhancement program to supplement the money he received from his parents: he sold his father’s autographs to his fellow students. On 19 October he thanked his father for sending “the autographs and stamps.” On the same day, he decided to increase his product line by writing his mother, “I want some of your autographs.”
But Winston could not persuade his mother to come to a play at the end of the term, since Jennie had apparently scheduled a dinner party on the day of the play. (See “Churchill and the Theatre,” page 40.) Winston told her this just would not do, and helpfully explained how she should rearrange her schedule. Consider as you read this the level of writing and advocacy he had already reached at age 11:
I hope you will not think my demand unreasonable or exorbitant, but nevertheless I shall make it all the same. Now you know that you cannot be watching a juvenile Amateur Play in the borough of Brighton, and at the same time be conducting a dinner party at 2 Connaught Place London. If you go up to town in time for the dinner party you will not be able to see the Plays, but simply distribute the prizes and go.
Now you know I was always your darling and you can’t find it in your heart to give me a denial. I want you to put off the dinner party and take rooms in Brighton and go back on Monday morning….This petition I hope you will grant.
Alas, there is no evidence that Winston’s petition was granted.
100 Years Ago
Autumn 1911 • Age 36
“Donʼt go into Battle to be safe”
The specter of a forthcoming war with Germany loomed over Britain, as it would twenty-five years later. Home Secretary Churchill’s unsolicited advice to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty Reginald McKenna, on a variety of strategic naval issues, had its intended effect when, in late September 1911, Asquith decided Churchill and McKenna should trade positions. McKenna was not pleased, but Asquith considered Churchill a better choice to lead the Admiralty.
The changes were announced on 24 October and Churchill lost no time in putting his stamp on the Navy. On 28 October he prepared a thoughtful memorandum on the need for a naval war staff and proper training for officers in strategic planning. Then he made sure that he would have officers who would implement his vision. A month later, on 29 November, Churchill replaced the entire Board of Admiralty.
Since October, Churchill had been receiving the advice of his friend, the outspoken former First Sea Lord, Sir John “Jacky” Fisher. Their friendship had begun in 1907 when Fisher was still First Sea Lord, and the old admiral eagerly agreed to help. Randolph Churchill’s companion volume to this period contains twelve letters from Fisher to WSC within a month. When Churchill replaced his admirals Fisher wrote: “So glad to hear from you this morning that your ‘Coup d’état’ arrives today! I now feel happy and content and relapse with relief into obscurity.”
Obscurity was not Fisher’s destiny. On 3 December he wrote: “I trespass again on your patience for a few minutes before your New Board is constituted so that I may be free of any charge of endeavouring to influence you behind the backs of your new colleagues—my friends. Now…for those two Slugs you have…as Controller and Director of Naval Ordnance who want you to perpetuate Battleships of the Tortoise type all armour and no speed…” Later Fisher added:
I absolutely disagree with your two effete experts. They woke me at 4 am with a start! A nightmare! The British Fleet were Spithead Forts, splendid armour but they couldn’t move! The first desideratum of all is Speed! Your fools don’t see it—they are always running about to see where they can put on a little more armour! to make it safer! You don’t go into Battle to be safe! No, you go into Battle to hit the other fellow in the eye first so that he can’t see you!….Why? Because you want to fight when you like, where you like and how you like! And that only comes from speed—Big Speed—30 knots.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Lord Fisher. The Spectator wrote: “We are afraid of Mr. Churchill because he is weak and rhetorical….his moods are not to be depended upon. We cannot detect in his career any principles or even any consistent outlook upon public affairs. His ear is always to the ground; he is the true demagogue, sworn to give the people what they want, or rather, and that is infinitely worse, what he fancies they want. No doubt he will give the people an adequate Navy if they insist upon it. We wish we could think that the Navy would be adequate, whether they insisted or not.”
75 Years Ago
Autumn 1936 • Age 61
“No length we would not go to”
Churchill continued to warn that it was Europe’s last chance to build a collective security system to protect itself from the growing arms of Germany. Next year, he said, would be too late. For a speech in Paris on 24 September he sent a copy of his first draft to Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, asking for comments. The reply, from Dawson’s deputy, illustrated the gulf between Churchill and the British establishment over Nazi Germany. The Times was “against premature abandonment of the hope, supported by many authoritative pronouncements on the German side, that Germany is prepared to reach a general understanding and settlement with the British empire.”
By that time, in fact, Hitler had already determined to wage war in Europe and had structured his economy accordingly. The only “understanding” he ever contemplated was for Great Britain to acknowledge Germany’s hegemony over Europe. In his Paris speech, Churchill explained why Britain would never agree to such an arrangement:
How could we bear, nursed as we have been in a free atmosphere, to be gagged and muzzled; to have spies, eavesdroppers and delators at every corner; to have even private conversation caught up and used against us by the Secret Police and all their agents and creatures; to be arrested and interned without trial; or to be tried by political or Party courts for crimes hitherto unknown to civil law…. Why, I say that rather than submit to such oppression, there is no length we would not go to.
Stanley Baldwin’s government didn’t have a clue to what Hitler really had in mind. When defense coordinator Sir Thomas Inskip told Parliament that he would need emergency powers, practically putting Britain on a war footing, if they were to be ready for war by June 1937, Sir Samuel Hoare objected, saying it was “necessary to assume for a long time that we should be unprepared.” The next day, Churchill replied:
All I can say is that unless there is a front against potential aggression there will be no settlement. All the nations of Europe will just be driven helter-skelter across the diplomatic chessboard until the limits of retreat are exhausted, and then out of desperation, perhaps in some most unlikely quarter, the explosion of war will take place, probably under conditions not very favourable to those who have been engaged in this long retreat.
The deplorable state to which Baldwin’s government had allowed Britain’s armed forces to deteriorate was the subject of a two-day defense debate on 11-12 November. Churchill pointed out that in regular army maneuvers, most important new weapons had to be represented by flags and discs:
The army lacks almost every weapon which is required for the latest form of modern war. Where are the anti-tank guns, where are the short distance wire- less sets, where are the field anti-aircraft guns against armoured aeroplanes?….I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government’s own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency. I say that unless the house resolves to find out the truth for itself it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.
Baldwin effectively replied that the reason his government had not rearmed in 1933-35 was that they would have lost an election had they done so—a piece of unaccustomed frankness that was stark in its revelations.
On 18 November, Germany and Italy recognized General Franco’s regime as the legitimate government of Spain. On 24 November, Germany and Japan signed an agreement to make “common cause” against communism.
50 Years Ago
Autumn 1961 • Age 86
“Conscience of the human race”
Churchill sent a telegram on 27 September to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on Ben-Gurion’s 75th birthday. He received a kind reply:
I was deeply moved to receive your greeting on the occasion of my birthday and rejoiced to see that you still remember such trifles….I hold you in esteem and affection, not only—not even mainly—because of your unfailing friendship to our people and your pro- found sympathy with its resurgence in our ancient homeland. Your greatness transcends all national boundaries. I happened to be in London, from the beginning of May till September 1940, and I heard the historic speeches in which you gave utterance to the iron determination of your people and your- self to fight to the end against the Nazi foe. I saw you then not only as the symbol of your people and its greatness, but as the voice of the invincible and uncompromising conscience of the human race at a time of danger to the dignity of man, created in the image of God. It was not only the liberties and the honour of your own people that you saved…..Your words and your deeds are indelibly engraved in the annals of humanity. Happy the people that has produced such a son.
On 1 November, Sir Winston and Lady Churchill attended the “coming-out” dance of their granddaughter Celia Sandys, where the new Chubby Checker rock ‘n’ roll song “The Twist” was played. Churchill was observed tapping his foot in time with the music.
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