August 2, 2015

Finest Hour 168, Spring 2015

Page 07

By Jonathan Schneer

Lord Beaverbrook | Courtesy of the Yousuf Karsh EstateWinston Churchill formed his War Cabinet in May 1940. To begin with, it had five members, including himself. Over the course of the war he enlarged it to suit circumstances, but never to more than eight members at one time. Only two members remained constant: Churchill himself and Labour Party leader Clement Attlee. Three others served for most of the war: Anthony Eden, a Conservative; the great trade unionist Ernest Bevin; and a non-party man with Conservative inclinations, Sir John Anderson. Herbert Morrison, a Labour man, served for nearly three years. Others who served for shorter periods included most notably the former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and also Lord Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook, and Sir  Stafford Cripps.

Led by Winston Churchill, these men, and some others, steered Britain through the greatest crisis in her modern history. Churchill’s War Cabinet has been deservedly celebrated ever since.  But the story is more complicated than is often thought. Obviously the War Cabinet warred against the Nazis, but its members sometimes warred against each other. This has been mentioned by historians but generally downplayed. I hope to give it proper emphasis.

Churchill’s War Cabinet saved Britain and helped save the world from Nazi horror. But the War Cabinet was not a smooth functioning machine. Its members were hard men with great talent and capacity for work, also with great ambitions and great egos. Often they clashed. Moreover, if today we cannot imagine Britain during the Second World War without Churchill as Prime Minister, people could imagine it then.

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Team of Rivals

Churchill’s team included men whose politics conflicted starkly. Labour believed in nationalizing the means of production, distribution and exchange. British Conservatives believed Government should, usually, keep hands off the economy. Churchill himself was instinctively a man of the right. Yet he was determined to keep his disparate team together. By and large he did.

Britain and her Empire stood alone against the Nazis from June 1940, when France surrendered, until June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia. During that period War Cabinet Ministers largely suppressed their differences. They began to argue, however, once Russia and American entered the fray and Britain seemed unlikely to lose the war. Then jealousies, enmities, and strains, always present but usually papered over, grew apparent. Ideological conflict grew fierce.  Churchill strove to contain it. In 1945 Labour pulled out of his Coalition anyway. Churchill called a General Election as soon as Germany surrendered, with the war against Japan still raging. It proved to be one of the worst-tempered elections of twentieth-century British history, as long pent-up frustrations finally burst.

Until then, however, the men of the War Cabinet had sat around a table every Monday afternoon at 5:30, and every Wednesday and Thursday at noon, hammering out policy on the most pressing issues raised by the war. If necessary they met more than three times a week, even three times a day. Sometimes they debated matters of life and death. Reading the minutes of those meetings reveals a War Cabinet of confident men absolutely focused on saving the country.

Yet there were always divisions within the group, even aside from the ideological ones. Conservative Ministers were all more or less wealthy; some were aristocratic. Labour Ministers came from mixed backgrounds: Attlee was middle class; Cripps the son of a lord; Morrison the son of a south London policeman; Bevin the illegitimate son of a charwoman and the only War Cabinet member to have worked as a manual laborer. Occasionally one perceives class-consciousness dividing the group. Here is Anthony Eden recalling Morrison in Cabinet: “He was a good rifleman. The kind of man you promote to lance corporal one week and he may lose his stripes the next, but he will be back up again soon. Cockneys make the best soldiers.”1

Churchill had assembled a “Team of Rivals,” as Doris Kearns Goodwin termed Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet during the American Civil War. Churchill’s men were constantly carping, backbiting, maneuvering for position. Lord Beaverbrook employed flattery. During one Cabinet meeting he passed a note to First Lord of the Admiralty A.V. Alexander, a Labourite: “I will do all I can to help you. I believe you will do the job better than anybody else.”2 He wrote insinuatingly to Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour: “Can we make a platform for you where I can stand at your side? I am sure you can do so if you determine to build it.”3 With Churchill, he laid on the flattery with a trowel: “I send this letter of gratitude and devotion to the leader of the nation, the savior of our people and the symbol of resistance in the free world.”4 Churchill enjoyed but never trusted Beaverbrook. By the time the war finished practically nobody did. In 1945 Attlee cautioned newly elected Labour Members: “I warn you that if you talk to him no good will come of it. Beware of flattery.”5

Perhaps any group of strong individuals will jockey for position. But the intensity of discord and dislike within a War Cabinet celebrated for the opposite is striking. Beaverbrook despised Attlee, who returned the favor. In the end he rowed so bitterly with Bevin that the latter threatened to sue him. He dismissed the imposing John Anderson as “Il Pomposo.” He called the religious Halifax “a sort of Jesus in long boots.”6 This sort of thing was not limited to Beaverbrook. Everyone made fun of the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, who had a drinking problem. Eden disdained Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer. “The little man will not be missed,” he wrote, after Wood died suddenly.7 Bevin detested Morrison. At the War Cabinet, Eden sat between the two. He found it “rather uncomfortable,” because whenever Morrison spoke Bevin provided a sotto voce accompaniment of jibes and taunts.8

Riding Herd

H ow did Churchill keep his ill-assorted team in good temper? He could be solicitous. “I was sorry to see that you looked very tired the other night at the Cabinet…. I hope you will not hesitate to take a…well-earned holiday,” he wrote to a Cabinet Minister recently recovered from the flu.9 He could be encouraging. “Your speech was magnificent. Most vigorous & giving sense of strength & resource,” he wrote another time.10 When members of the team disagreed, he worked to conciliate them. Once Anthony Eden declared he would not attend a celebration of the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution: “it is promoted under Communist influence.” “But in Russia that is comparable to the King’s Birthday,” argued Stafford Cripps, who had recently returned from a stint as Britain’s ambassador to Russia. “You mean the Czar’s Deathday,” snapped Herbert Morrison. Churchill intervened calmingly: “Why not have a meeting sometime in November (no specific Russian date) to celebrate the Russian resistance?” With this compromise the meeting concluded.11

When Churchill thought a colleague was barking up the wrong tree he could use humor to change his mind. In July 1940 the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, recommended that Britons follow a more balanced diet. Churchill wrote him: “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay.…The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.”12

Sometimes Churchill backed down. For example, in June 1942 the Nazis slaughtered 1,300 innocent Czech civilians and burned to the ground two villages in reprisal for the assassination of a leading Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich. The War Cabinet met to discuss a response. Churchill advocated using the next moonlit night to “wipe out” three German villages. Bevin agreed: “Germany responds to brute force & nothing else.” Even more bloodthirsty, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, advocated bombing highly populated towns. Then Attlee introduced a moral consideration: “Doubt if it is useful to enter into competition in frightfulness with Germans.” Morrison supported him: if the RAF purposefully bombed German civilians a cycle of frightfulness would ensue; then “Public w[ould]d say ‘why did you draw this down onto us?’” The Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair, introduced a practical consideration. Bombing civilians would represent a “Diversion of effort fr[om] military objective.” Anderson agreed: “It costs us something & them nothing,” meaning that if Britain bombed defenseless places she would lose an opportunity to bomb important military objectives. Anthony Eden too opposed the action: “waste of a moonlight night. Bigger diversion than I had thought.” So it was three for bombing German civilians, five opposed. Churchill argued, “My instinct is all the other way,” but “I submit (unwillingly) to the view of Cabinet against.”13

The Trouble with Winston

S o a solicitous, supportive, humorous, and democratic Prime Minister kept his fractious War Cabinet on an even keel. It sounds too good to be true, and often it was. He could act the tyrant in Cabinet: like “a rogue elephant,” wrote one colleague.14 He loved the sound of his own voice. “Cabinet in evening when Winston spoke to us at tremendous length of all aspects of military situation,” Eden complained in his diary.15 He was a poor chairman, rarely reading notes prepared for him prior to War Cabinet meetings. Attlee took him up on this, and on his tendency to pontificate. “Often half an hour or more is wasted explaining what could have been grasped by two or three minutes reading of the document. Not infrequently a phrase catches your eye which gives rise to a disquisition on an interesting point only slightly connected with the subject matter. The result is long delays and unnecessarily long Cabinets.”16 And none of Churchill’s colleagues were shrinking violets.  “I think you will wish to withdraw your minute. I do not accept any of the findings in the third paragraph,” Alexander wrote him.17 “He’s a bully and it’s necessary to deal brutally with him,” Woolton recorded in his diary.18

It is not surprising, then, that some of his colleagues concluded they could run the War Cabinet better than he. Eden, whom Churchill designated his heir apparent in the autumn of 1942, dreamt of the succession—but loyally refrained from undermining the Prime Minister during the war. Woolton toyed with the idea of mounting a challenge to Churchill, but never took action. Lord Beaverbrook seriously considered overthrowing Churchill. He took preliminary steps, but never a decisive one. Stafford Cripps came closest to mounting a direct attempt at overthrow. Churchill faced and beat it.

The Iceman Cometh

Stafford Cripps had a mind like a calculating machine, astonishing capacity for work and organization, the ability to inspire devotion among his followers, and deep love of his country. Labour party leaders feared him because he was both effective and extremely left-wing. Before the war he had advocated a Popular Front including Communists as well as Liberals and Conservatives to confront fascism. The Labour Party leaders would have nothing to do with Communists. When Cripps would not back down, they expelled him.

Cripps was personally peculiar. He stuck to a vegetarian diet for health reasons—but also because he disapproved of gluttony. He was a militant Christian socialist. For many reasons he did not appeal to Churchill, But the Prime Minister recognized his abilities and his patriotism. When the war began he sent Cripps to Russia as British ambassador. Soon, however, Cripps wanted to return home, where he thought he could make a greater contribution to the war effort.

Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. No one imagined the Soviets could stand up to a Blitzkrieg, but they did. In Britain people felt immense gratitude, and the left-wing Cripps reaped the benefit. “Someday Sir Stafford will return from Moscow,” wrote one journalist. “He will have a great following. His sense of power, never modest, will be developed fully. He will be dressed up in the garb of leadership—and he will find somewhere to go.”19

Cripps returned to Britain in January 1942. Churchill had to prick his bubble. He invited him to lunch. “Well Stafford, how have you returned? Friend or foe?” Cripps replied: “A friendly critic or a critical friend.”20 Churchill offered him a post in the Cabinet—but not in the War Cabinet. Cripps turned it down as beneath his dignity and ability. Then he gave a press conference about Russia so interesting that “the journalists almost forgot to take notes.”21 He gave an address on the BBC about the Russians heroically coping with horrific conditions. A well-informed and well-connected listener wrote afterwards: “The trouble in the past has been that there has been no one to replace Winston. Now Cripps is the man!”22

Cripps’s popularity soared. Simultaneously, Churchill’s momentarily faltered—for at this moment came news of the fall of Singapore, where the Japanese captured 130,000 British and imperial British soldiers. That night Woolton wrote in his diary that Churchill was “heading for a downfall.”23 The chairman of the parliamentary Conservative party caucus, the 1922 Committee, approached him. “They are wondering how long Churchill will last,” Woolton wrote. The chairman “came to see whether I had any views about succeeding him. The Party wouldn’t mind having me if I would take it on.…”24

Churchill moved swiftly during this crisis. He fired the remaining prewar advocates of appeasement. He dumped dead wood from his government, regardless of party. He knew he must recognize Cripps and did so in a brilliant way. He appeared to concede ground, bringing him into the War Cabinet after all, appointing him Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House. It was enough to stop Cripps attempting a cou. But Churchill offered Cripps a poisoned chalice—only Cripps did not recognize it.

Goodbye, Stafford Cripps

T he Leader of the House interprets Government policy to House Members and House opinion to the Government. But Cripps then belonged to no party, so he had no natural claque of men who would automatically support him. He was entirely unsuited for the job Churchill had given him.

In his first speech to the House as its leader, Cripps condemned dog racing, horse racing, and boxing matches; also “personal extravagance together with every other form of wastage small or large.”25 Everyone knew he was a Puritan, so no one accused him of hypocrisy. But Herbert Morrison, who knew what his Cockney constituents loved, told Cripps he was politically tone deaf. The Conservative party Chief Whip said he was “amazed” by Cripps’s speech. A Liberal fixer said: “if he goes on this way he will not be popular for very long.” Cripps had managed to alienate leaders of all three parties—on day one.26

The air had begun leaking from Cripps’s balloon. It all rushed out some months later. The Government had arranged a two-day debate on India. MPs began leaving the Chamber at lunchtime, even though the Prime Minister was speaking. Cripps was appalled: “I do not think that we can conduct our proceedings here with the dignity and the weight with which we should conduct them unless Members are prepared to pay greater attention to their duties.” The House rose up to defend its honor. Conservatives, Liberals, Labourites peppered him with hostile questions.27 At the War Cabinet the next day Churchill took Cripps to task.

Churchill: Why encourage criticism?
Cripps:  Didn’t. Regretted lost opportunity [for House Members] to express support [of India policy].
Churchill: Silent support is perhaps best. House of Commons in very good mood—better to have left them alone.
Cripps:  General effect was bad.
Churchill: Disagreed.
Cripps: They might wait—at least until PM had finished his speech.
Churchill: Didn’t worry me.28

Cripps’s stock nosedived. He decided to resign. Churchill did not want that—yet.  He thought Cripps meant to force another political crisis and bring down his government. He wanted Cripps out of the War Cabinet where he was a rival, but inside the Cabinet as Minister of Air Production, where he could do important work. He instructed Eden to tell this to Cripps. Cripps told Eden: “we should all get on better without Winston.”29 But Churchill outmaneuvered Cripps. The Allies had just mounted “Operation Torch,” the invasion of Northwest Africa. Churchill told Cripps it would be unpatriotic to resign and perhaps force a crisis in the middle of so important a maneuver. Naively Cripps agreed. Think about it: if Operation Torch went badly then everyone in the Government would resign, perhaps even Churchill. If it went well the Government would be popular and Cripps would resign alone. When Operation Torch succeeded and Cripps resigned, nobody noticed. They were too busy celebrating.

Jonathan Schneer is Professor of History at Georgia Tech. His book Ministers at War is reviewed on page 38.


1. Interview with Anthony Eden, 25 September 1968, Morrison Papers, 6/1, London School of Economics.

2.  Undated note, “Max” to Alexander, Alexander Papers, AVAR 5/5, Churchill Archives Centre.

3. Beaverbrook to Bevin, 22 November 1941, Bevin Papers, 3/1, Churchill Archives Centre.

4. Beaverbrook to Churchill, 26 February 1942, Churchill Papers, CHAR 20/52, Churchill Archives Centre.

5. Quoted by A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (New York, 1972), p. 466.

6. Ibid., p. 327.

7. Eden diary, 21 September 1943, Avon Papers, University of Birmingham.

8. Bernard Donoughue and G.A. Jones, Herbert Morrison (London, 1973), p. 314.

9. Churchill to Alexander, 24 October 1942, Alexander Papers, 5/6.

10. Churchill to Alexander, 2 June 1941, Alexander Papers, 5/6.

11. War Cabinet Minutes, 5 October 1942, CAB 195/1, National Archives.

12. Churchill to Woolton, 14 July 1940, Churchill Papers, CHAR 20/2A.

13. War Cabinet Minutes, 15 June 1942, UK, CAB 195/1.

14. Hankey to Samuel Hoare, 12 May 1940, Hankey Papers, 4/32, Churchill Archives Centre.

15. Eden diary, 13 April 1941.

16. Attlee to Churchill, 19 January 1945, Churchill Papers, CHUR 2/4.

17. Alexander to Churchill, 29 July 1940, Alexander Papers, AVAR 5/4.

18. Woolton diary, 25 March 1943, Woolton Papers, MS Woolton 3, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

19. Reynolds News, 20 July 1941.

20. Peter Clarke, The Cripps Version (London, 2002), p. 259.

21. Henry Sylvester to Lloyd George, 26 January 1942, Lloyd George Papers, LG/G/24/1, House of Lords Records Office.

22. Ibid., 9 February 1942.

23. Woolton Diary, 15 February 1942, Woolton 2.

24. Woolton Diary, 13 July 1942, Woolton 2.

25. Hansard, 25 February 1942.

26. Sinclair to Lloyd George, 26 and 27 February 1942, Lloyd George Papers, LG/G/24.

27. Hansard, 7 and 8 September 1942.

28. War Cabinet Minutes, 9 September 1942, CAB 195/1.

29. Eden Diary, 1 October 1942.

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