Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By David Freeman, July 2017
A professional army officer by training, Winston Churchill became forever linked with the Royal Navy as a result of his service as First Lord of the Admiralty in the early months of both world wars. This service Churchill himself immortalized in his many Second World War messages to President Roosevelt, where the Prime Minister referred to himself as a “Former Naval Person.”
When the guns of August sounded in 1914, Churchill had already been on the job at the Admiralty for three years. During the pre-war years, he had to contend with what was known as the “New Navalism,” which W. Mark Hamilton shows was a commitment to the principles of Alfred Thayer Mahan: developing and maintaining powerful modern navies. But Churchill also found time to improve the pay and working conditions of the common sailor, as Matthew S. Seligmann shows.
When the First World War began, Churchill was all for action. Not content to sit behind a desk in London, he went to Belgium in the opening weeks of the war and wound up organizing Antwerp’s defenses. Barry Gough explains the heavy criticism that followed. Undaunted, Churchill cast around for offensive operations off Germany’s northwest coast. Stephen McLaughlin demonstrates how this effort ultimately led to a campaign much further afield at the Dardanelles. With respect to that climacteric, Christopher M. Bell has carefully studied the historical record and finds that Churchill did run so far ahead of his professional advisers as his critics found it politically expedient to claim.
Churchill famously returned to the Admiralty at the start of the Second World War in September 1939. Eric Grove reconsiders this second stint as First Lord and finds a mixed record of success and failure crowned with ironic results, because above all it showed that there was still one man of action in Whitehall.
As Prime Minister, Churchill continued to deal with the leaders of the Royal Navy. Bradley P. Tolppanen surveys the field from the stolid Sir Dudley Pound to the charismatic Lord Louis Mountbatten. The most exciting naval action of this time may well have been the sinking of the Bismarck, which Fred Glueckstein looks at in technical detail.
Finally, in more relaxed times, Churchill often took up nautical themes in his art. Timothy Riley paints the picture for us. And Michael McMenamin shows that the editors of the Morning Post did not mean it as a compliment one hundred years ago when they sneered that Churchill was an “unsinkable politician,” but they were far more prescient than they could ever have imagined.