By Michael McMenamin
Winston’s brother Jack joined him at Harrow in the fall and the two boys shared a room. On 24 September, their mother wrote to Winston: “I hope you & Jack are settled and comfortable. Do write & tell me all about it, & what you find your room wants.” In fact, their room did not want for much as he advised her in a letter on one occasion: “The room is very beautiful. We purchased in London sufficiency of ornaments to make it look simply magnificent.” He later wrote that “The room is now very nice, in fact it is universally spoken of as the best room in the House.”
On 25 October, Lord Randolph advised his sons that their mother was “extremely ill yesterday and we were rather alarmed.” In fact, Lady Randolph was diagnosed on 12 October as having an enlarged ovary that was causing her a great deal of pain for which the treating physician had advised her to “rest and do nothing to bring on pain.” By 22 October, her condition had not improved and she was given morphine as “the absolute necessity of controlling the pain.” The problem did not clear up until early in December.
Winston’s second attempt to take the Sandhurst entrance exam took place on 29 November, and he changed tactics in dealing with his father’s expectations. In the middle of his first exam, he had sent his father a letter telling him how well he had done. He was wrong, of course, and his disappointed father had written to Winston’s grandmother, “If he fails again I shall think about putting him in business….” Before taking the exam a second time, Winston had the Headmaster J. E. C. Welldon write to Lord Randolph that “Winston is anxious that I should write to you about his prospect of success in the Examination which begins tomorrow. I do so gladly…I should say he has a very fair chance of passing now and is certain to pass in the summer if not now…of late, he has done all that could be asked of him.” Winston, of course, failed a second time, but Welldon’s letter had done the trick, since his father allowed him to take the exam a third time in the summer of 1893, which was the charm.
Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in France had written in his diary during the summer that Churchill “can hardly stop meddling in the larger questions of strategy and tactics.”
In that, if nothing else, Haig was accurate. Churchill had been appalled by the slaughter of Passchendaele, with its more than 300,000 casualties. Haig’s initial assault petered out after only two weeks of intense, often hand-to-hand combat, with just a half-mile advance to show for it. In contrast, Churchill had been heartened by the first British tank offensive of the war in late November at Cambrai where, within two weeks, the German trench lines had been breached (something Haig never accomplished at Ypres) at the cost of fewer than 10,000 casualties. Churchill wrote about this bitterly in 1927 in The World Crisis: “Accusing as I do without exception all the great ally offensives of 1915, 1916 and 1917, as needless and wrongly conceived operations of infinite cost, I am bound to reply to the question, What else could be done? And I answer it pointing to the Battle of Cambrai, ‘This could have been done.’”
This was not hindsight by Churchill. On 8 December, he presented a paper to the War Cabinet contrasting Cambrai with Passchendaele and urging the greater use of tanks “not only as a substitute for bombardment,” but also as “an indispensible adjunct to infantry.” At this point in the war, the British Army inexplicably still maintained tens of thousands of cavalrymen and their horses. Churchill’s paper to the War Cabinet suggested a repurposing of these units into mechanized warfare.
On 31 October, Churchill had shown the Conservative MP Leo Amery an early draft of his December paper to the War Cabinet. Amery, who was a friend not a fan of Churchill [see p. 12], wrote in his diary after reading the draft: “Whatever his defects may be, there is all the difference in the world between the tackling of a big problem like this by a man of real brain and imagination, and its handling by good second-rate men like…Haig, who still live in the intellectual trench in which they have been fighting.”
In mid-September, Churchill’s Aunt Leonie, eighty-three years old and the younger sister of his mother Jennie, wrote to him that she was “all puffed up with pride at your great achievements, yes puffed up like an old pouter pigeon,” to which Churchill replied, “It is a great pleasure to me to know you follow my toils.
An Enigma intercept on 20 October revealed a fatal weakness in Germany’s Afrika Corps: fuel stocks were low and, as a consequence, it “did not possess the operational freedom of movement which was absolutely essential in consideration of the fact that the British offensive can be expected to start any day.” Three days later, the offensive began and went well. Rommel’s successor General Stumme was killed on the first day, leading to Rommel’s return to Egypt to resume his old command. It did no good. Within three days, 1,500 German and Italian soldiers had been taken prisoner. On 27 October, Rommel attempted a counter-attack with all his available tanks but was stopped in his tracks by the RAF, which dropped eighty tons of bombs in less than three hours while he was assembling his tanks.
Pausing to regroup, the British launched a renewed attack on the morning of 2 November. By evening, Rommel reported to Berlin that his troops were exhausted and that “the gradual annihilation of the army must be faced.” By 4 November, the British army had broken through the German front lines, and Churchill received a report from General Alexander that the enemy was “in full retreat.”
Churchill was elated and decided “to ring the bells all over Britain for the first time this war.” He wrote on 4 November to Alexander, “Try to give me this moment to do this in the next few days. At least 20,000 prisoners would be necessary.” Two days later, Alexander replied, “Ring out the bells! Prisoners estimated at 20,000, tanks 350, guns 400, motor transport several thousand. Our advance mobile forces are south of Mersa Matruh. 8th Army is advancing.”
In the event, Churchill held off on the bells until after Operation Torch had commenced. Early on 8 November, American and British forces landed in North Africa at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca and faced fierce resistance from the Vichy French forces there. By the evening, it was clear the initial landing had succeeded. Part of the success was due to the French Admiral Darlan who was, fortuitously, in Algiers visiting his ill son. He sided with the Allies and ordered the Vichy French forces there to surrender.
That evening, Churchill was in a good mood, as recorded by one of his secretaries, Elizabeth Layton, who wrote that, after the night’s dictation had begun, “He began to bark, then quickly stopped himself and said ‘No, no; quite all right, quite all right. Tonight you may rejoice. Tonight there is icing on the cake.’”
The icing on the cake was to last through the rest of the autumn. On 19 November, the Russian encirclement of the German Army at Stalingrad commenced and three days later was completed. General von Paulus wanted to end the siege and break out of the circle, but Hitler forbade him to do so, eventually resulting in the destruction of his army. While German U-boats had sunk 721,000 tons of Allied shipping in November, the highest total in the war, things were about to change. German success had been due to British inability to break the code used by the Kriegsmarine to communicate with its submarines. By mid-December, the code was finally broken, and the tide began to turn.
Churchill is often accused of micromanaging the war effort when, in fact, he usually deferred to his generals. He was capable, however, of micromanaging whenever he came across a particularly pointless piece of bureaucratic excess. One such occasion was after he read in The Times on 21 November that the Ministry of Food had banned the exchange of rationed food. Churchill promptly wrote to the Food Minister Lord Woolton: “I hope it is not true that we are enforcing a whole set of vexatious regulations of this kind. It is absolutely contrary to logic and good sense that a person may not give away or exchange his rations with someone else who at the moment feels he has a greater need. It strikes at neighbourliness and friendship. I should be so sorry to see the great work you have done spoilt by these officials, whose interests are so deeply involved in magnifying their functions and numbers, to lead you to strike a false note. The matter must be brought before the Cabinet next week unless you can reassure me.”
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