Finest Hour 179, Winter 2018
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years ago
Winter 1893 • Age 18
“Distinctly Inclined to Be Inattentive”
Winter was not kind to Winston, but, as usual, he had no one but himself to blame. It began on 10 January during his holiday at the estate of his aunt Lady Wimborne. While being chased by his younger brother Jack and a cousin, Winston was cornered on a long bridge across a ravine some thirty feet below. There were a number of pine trees around whose tops reached the level of the bridge. Winston climbed over the railing. As he later wrote in My Early Life, “Would it not be possible to leap on to one of [the trees] and slip down the pole-like stem, breaking off each tier of branches as one descended until the fall was broken? To plunge or not to plunge, that was the question! In a second, I had plunged, throwing out my arms to embrace the summit of the fir tree. The argument was correct; the data were absolutely wrong. It was three days before I regained consciousness.”
It was a long fall onto hard ground and, in addition to a ruptured kidney, he had also broken his thigh, although the latter injury was not discovered until 1963 when an x-ray was taken aft er he had a fall in Monte Carlo.
Ten days later, Winston received the news that he again had failed the entrance exam to Sandhurst, even though he had improved his score. Lord Randolph, aft er consultation with Harrow’s headmaster, decided to send Winston to a “crammer,” Captain W. H. James, whose sole purpose was to prepare students for the Sandhurst entrance exam. As Churchill wrote in My Early Life, “It was said that no one who was not a congenital idiot could avoid passing thence into the Army.”
A 7 March 1893 letter to Lord Randolph from Captain James illustrates the problems encountered in cramming Winston: “I had to speak to him the other day about his casual manner. I think the boy means well but he is distinctly inclined to be inattentive and to think too much of his own abilities….”
100 Years ago
Winter 1918 • Age 43
“Their Generals Are Better Than Ours”
As winter began, Churchill was apprehensive about the ability of Allied forces to withstand Germany’s forthcoming offensive now that its peace with the Bolsheviks would enable it to shift millions of men to the Western Front. On 19 January he wrote a letter to Lloyd George expressing his concern that the Government was not adequately preparing for such an attack: “I don’t think we are doing enough for our army. Really, I must make that point to you. We are not raising its strength as we ought…. The imminent danger is on the western front: & the crisis will come before June. A defeat here will be fatal….The Germans are a terrible foe, & their generals are better than ours. Ponder & then act.”
In Paris in late February, Churchill speculated to Sir Francis Bertie, the British Ambassador to France and the uncle of his sister-in-law Gwendeline, what he thought the terms of a negotiated peace with Germany might be. As Bertie wrote in his diary: “Winston’s views are peculiar. At one moment he said that the war ought not to continue a day beyond what might be necessary to free Belgium and to obtain for France, not necessarily the whole of Alsace Lorraine, but such part of it as would not enable her to feel and say that she had been deserted by England….”
That Churchill was prepared to be magnanimous in victory is not surprising, but three weeks later he rejected any thought of peace negotiations with Germany any time soon in a letter to Lord Wimborne who had asked him “to use your influence in the direction of sane accommodation.” Churchill replied that the prosecution of the war “will certainly continue on a great scale; for we are reinforced by America & Germany by the capture of Russia. The Germans are in no mood for reason and I should greatly fear any settlement with them unless & until they have been definitely worsted. At present they think they have won.”
Meanwhile, in a paper circulated to the Cabinet on 5 March, Churchill set out his vision of how to win the war without using the calamitous trench warfare tactics both sides had employed thus far. He proposed using tanks and airplanes rather than full frontal assaults against barbed wire and machine guns. This, he wrote, would be “essentially different in its composition and method of warfare from any that have yet been employed on either side….the resources are available, the knowledge is available, the time is available, the result is certain: nothing is lacking except the will.”
Churchill, of course, was not in the War Cabinet and his paper went far beyond the brief of the Minister of Munitions. One member of the War Cabinet, First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Eric Geddes, was impressed. He wrote to Churchill on 6 March that he was “most interested in reading your inspiring paper…I hope it will bring great thoughts to the minds of those who dictate our tactics.”
Sir Douglas Haig, for one, was not convinced. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force continued to believe in the efficacy of infantry and artillery to succeed. So did the German General Staff. Churchill was in France on 21 March when the Germans began the most successful offensive of the war to date, sending the Allied armies reeling in retreat back across the Marne and the Somme. Churchill’s fears expressed on 19 January were well founded. Even though they knew the offensive was coming, the Allies were not prepared to repel it.
75 Years ago
Winter 1943 • Age 68
“His Immense Vigour”
Churchill spent Christmas at Chequers with his family, where he was informed on Christmas Day that Admiral Darlan, the High Commissioner in French North Africa, had been assassinated by a French student in Algiers. The Americans had been the ones who pushed to work with Darlan to persuade the Vichy French forces opposing the Allied landings in North Africa to cease their resistance. Churchill, nevertheless, had come under criticism at home for dealing with a Nazi collaborator who had continued to enforce Nazi laws against the Jews in French North Africa. The assassination was, therefore, politically convenient, and evidence suggests that MI6 was complicit.
Beginning in early January, Churchill began a series of long air journeys lasting nearly a month, which culminated upon his return to England in a diagnosis of pneumonia that kept him bed-ridden for most of the month. On 12 January, Churchill flew to Casablanca, where he met two days later with President Roosevelt, both men having brought with them their Chiefs of Staff. The meetings took place over the next eight days, and major decisions were made, including an emphasis on the Mediterranean theatre, thereby postponing until 1944 a cross-channel invasion of Europe. Once Tunisia had fallen, it was agreed that Sicily would be the next target, preparatory to an invasion of the Italian mainland. On 23 January, Montgomery’s Eighth Army entered Tripoli, and the next day Churchill and FDR made a fivehour journey by motorcar to Marrakech for the sole reason of Churchill showing FDR the sunset over the Atlas mountains. When FDR left the next day, Churchill stayed behind to paint the scene, the only painting he did during the war.
On 27 January, Churchill flew to Cairo where he met with the head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for the Middle East and decided to send an SOE mission to Josef Tito, the Communist leader in Yugoslavia. On 30 January, Churchill flew from Cairo to Adana, Turkey, where he met the Turkish president and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the neutral leader to accept British and American aid. From Adana, he flew on 31 January to Cyprus, where he visited the next morning his old regiment the Fourth Hussars. On 2 February, he flew back to Cairo to receive the welcome news that the German Army had been surrounded at Stalingrad. The next morning he made a six-hour flight from Cairo to Tripoli to meet and inspect the successful Eighth Army that had defeated the Afrika Korps. “Your feats will gleam and glow,” he told them, “long after we who are gathered here will have passed away.”
After a picnic lunch, an inspection of the New Zealand Division and dinner with General Montgomery, Churchill flew early on 5 February in a five-hour flight to Algiers, where he insisted the new French administration under General Giraud repeal the Vichy laws against Algerian Jews that Admiral Darlan had enforced. He attempted to leave Algiers for England at midnight, but mechanical trouble grounded the aircraft and he spent all of 6 February in Algiers until the aircraft had been repaired. There followed an eightand-a-half-hour flight to England, arriving at 11:00 p.m., and an hour-long train ride to London, where in the early hours of 7 February he was met at the train station by thirteen of his Cabinet Ministers.
Churchill was exhausted by his travels. Pneumonia followed and, by 20 February, his fever had reached a temperature of 102. On 3 March, Churchill had recovered enough to travel to Chequers, accompanied by a nurse, to resume work. The nurse later recalled “his immense vigour and enthusiasm” and “his determination to get over his illness as quickly as possible.”