Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
Review by Raymond Callahan
Larry P. Arnn and Martin Gilbert, eds., The Churchill Documents, Volume 19, Fateful Questions: September 1943 to April 1944, Hillsdale College Press, 2017, 2752, $60.
The latest volume of the Churchill War Papers gives us a day-to-day picture of the prime minister at a crucial moment for him, and for Britain. In September 1943, Britain was still, in terms of forces engaged, the dominant partner in the Anglo-American alliance. Churchill (and Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff) had imposed a Mediterranean focus on alliance strategy, pushing the cross channel assault (which both dreaded) back until 1944. And that strategy had yielded the hoped-for results. Italy had been knocked out of the war; the Mediterranean was again open to traffic, easing the strain (which had reached crisis proportions) on allied shipping resources. The prospect of conquering most of peninsular Italy, bringing southern and eastern Germany, as well as the Reich’s Balkan satellites, within range of allied heavy bombers, beckoned. So did opportunities further east such as seizing Italian islands in the Aegean, seen as a preliminary to rallying Turkey to the allied cause, feeding the insurrections already burgeoning in Greece and Yugoslavia and perhaps causing the defections of Germany’s nervous Balkan allies. It was a heady moment. Seven months later these dreams lay in ruins. The Italian campaign had stagnated in the face of daunting terrain and a determined, wellconducted German defense. Churchill’s attempt to jump start it (Operation Shingle, the Anzio landing)—its mounting the result of an heroic effort by a man who had just come back from death’s door due to pneumonia—had itself stalled, the victim of lackluster American generalship. The attempt to seize Aegean islands, Churchill’s special project in September 1943, had ended in the last significant victory the Wehrmacht won over Britain. Turkey remained stubbornly neutral. The Balkan satellites remained in Germany’s orbit. Above all Britain and its leader, despite still fielding more troops, very clearly were now the junior partners in the Grand Alliance.
Why this happened is clear enough: British mobilization had peaked while America’s was still expanding. Britain was heavily dependant on American production and American finance—and the Americans had a different version of both how to fight the war, and what the postwar world should look like. George C. Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff, had always wanted to mount a cross-channel attack, aiming to drive straight to Berlin (what the late Russell Weigly labeled “the strategy of US Grant”—come to grips with the main strength of the enemy and pound his army to bits). FDR, whose vision of the future did not include a British Empire, wanted to strengthen his relations with Russia, seeing those relations as crucial to the postwar world order that he envisioned. The standard view is that all this became evident at Tehran, where Stalin’s insistence on Overlord, and FDR’s cultivation of the Russian leader, left Churchill odd man out, while also revealing dramatically the shifting balance in the Anglo-American alliance. This disappointment was an important contribution to the exhaustion and depression that led to the prime minister’s physical collapse shortly afterwards. The documents certainly illuminate this long recognized, intensely dramatic turning point. But they illuminate as well an earlier, and much less closely examined pivotal episode—the Aegean campaign that followed Italy’s collapse.
Italy had become master of the Greek Dodecanese islands as a result of its successful assault on the Ottoman Empire in 1911. In the early autumn of 1943, the islands were garrisoned by badly demoralized Italian units. Only on Rhodes (and Crete) were the Germans present in force. Churchill saw an opportunity: he had long hoped to bring Turkey into the war, thus opening a direct supply line to Russia and forcing further dispersion of force and attrition on the Germans, who had to retain control of the raw materials they drew from the Balkans. During the war it was an article of faith with many American military planners and political figures that Churchill wanted to launch a Balkan campaign in pursuit of British “imperial interests,” although none of the prime minister’s American critics ever quite specified what those interests were. Refuted multiple times, beginning with Churchill himself and the official history of British grand strategy in the 1950s, whatever life is left in this myth ought to be finally extinguished by the documents in this volume. Churchill’s objectives were precisely what he said at the time they were: contributing to the general erosion of German strength prior to the cross-channel assault. If he had a hidden agenda, it was not planting the British flag in the Balkans but a desire to put off as long as possible the assault on Western Europe and to see that, when it finally occurred, it did so in the most favorable circumstances—against a much weakened Wehrmacht. Neither Churchill nor Brooke nor any other British policymaker, military or civilian, ever forgot the dreadful casualties on the Western Front. The Americans—whose First World War combat deaths were but some 53,000—never really understood the power and depth of the British aversion to repeating the Somme experience (Brooke moreover did not think either his army or Marshall’s yet had the combat and command skills needed for a cross- channel assault and the ensuing campaign—an assessment that now seems quite shrewd).
Churchill’s realization that the balance of power in the alliance had shifted decisively came not at Tehran but in the Aegean. Ironically it came in large part as a result of something he had earlier done. When Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa) was being planned the previous year, the British had accepted the Americans’ preferred command model, a supreme allied commander. To further sweeten his allies, Churchill had agreed to an American holding the position. This became the model for subsequent Mediterranean operations. Moreover as the war moved to the central Mediterranean, Middle East Command was progressively stripped of military assets in its favor. Although Dwight Eisenhower’s staff (and most of his troops) were British, the deciding vote on the use of those forces lay now with a Marshall protégé, backed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, where American views increasingly carried the day. As one follows the story in the documents, both Churchill’s trademark tenacity and determination and his increasing frustration at the denial of resources for the Aegean are on abundant display. (Churchill complicated his quest for troops to assault the key island of Rhodes by refusing to consider the veteran, well-commanded, but equipment poor 10th Indian Infantry Division, available in the Middle East, for an assault role—follow up and garrison duties were all that, in his view, the Indian Army was good for.) The moment when the prime minister had to face the fact that he was no longer an equal partner came over the fate of Leros, Cos, and Rhodes. The shock this administered and the scar it left explain the seemingly disproportionate amount of space the Aegean campaign later received in his memoirs.
Reading through this huge collection also underlines once again the remarkable efficiency of the quite small “handling machine” headed by Hastings “Pug” Ismay that serviced and supported the Minister of Defence. What was lacking in 1914–15, a deficiency that contributed strongly to the Dardanelles-Gallipoli debacle, was staff support that saw to the orderly transaction of business following up on Churchill’s numerous initiatives, seeing that those ideas were carefully studied and evaluated, and that there was coordinated department action on those that survived this vetting process. This was what he had to hand the second time around. When considering Winston Churchill’s success in 1940–45, that now almost forgotten trio—Ismay along with Leslie Hollis and Ian Jacob— who ran Churchill’s Defence Office, often working ninety-hour weeks, deserve remembrance as well.
Finally, sprinkled throughout the volume, as if to relieve the intensity of the political and military episodes, are some curiosities. Before the Quadrant Conference at Quebec in September 1943, Churchill had been captivated by Brigadier Orde Wingate’s controversial ideas for reconquering Burma (an American more than a British priority, as it would restore an overland supply line to China). The result was that Wingate’s unproven (and, as it turned out, largely unworkable) concept became central to Anglo-American plans for the 1943–44 campaign in Burma. Now a Churchill protégé, Wingate returned to India after Quadrant to train his “Special Force” and shape his plans. There, characteristically impulsive (and typically lacking in judgment), he quenched his thirst one day by drinking the water in a flower vase. While this might have been mere eccentricity in the US or the UK, it was suicidal in India and Wingate was soon in hospital with a case of typhoid. The volume includes letters from Wingate’s pregnant wife to Clementine and Winston, begging for their help in seeing that her husband took enough leave to recover properly. (Wingate didn’t—some things were beyond even prime ministerial power.)
Browsing one’s way through this vast collection (weighty in every sense of the word), provides a very granular sense of what it was like to manage Britain’s enormously complicated war—and what a unique individual it took to do so.
Raymond Callahan is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Delaware.