Raymond Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware.
Larry P. Arnn and Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents, Volume 21, The Shadows of Victory: January–July 1945, Hillsdale College Press, 2018, 2149 pages, $60. ISBN 978–0916308391
Churchill entitled the final volume of his war memoirs Triumph and Tragedy. The final volume of the Churchill War Papers underscores that dual theme. The astounding war effort that, under his leadership, the British people produced made victory possible. Without the British decision in May-June 1940 to fight on—a decision Churchill both organized and embodied—it is all too easy to imagine the war ending in a very different way, leading to a very different world. But, as this volume opens, victory had become certain. As that victory came in sight, however, so did the enormous cost. The Britain that would celebrate victory would be a very different country from the one that went reluctantly to war in 1939—much poorer and much reduced in power. In Corelli Barnett’s striking words, Britain ended the war “a warrior satellite of the United States.” It was also a country on the brink of epochal change. Looming ahead was the end of the coalition, a general election (the first since 1935 and involving an entire new cohort of voters), and the need to adjust to a new global configuration in which the United States and the Soviet Union would dominate, the British Empire would unravel and British society undergo the most dramatic, far-reaching revolution in its long history. Not all of this is reflected equally in the 2000 pages of documents in this volume, but all of it is there.
As 1945 opened, the British had exhausted the most basic of resources for fighting a war: manpower. The truly remarkable feat described in David Egerton’s Britain’s War Machine (2011), involving the most rigorous mobilization and deployment of every available man and woman, rested on the smallest demographic base of any of the war’s major combatants. That effort, managed largely by the Labour members of Churchill’s government, involved, among other things, creating a network of welfare and support services that helped pave the way for the Labour landslide of 1945. Yet, by the winter of 1944–45, it was not enough. Despite a systematic use of women to supplement Britain’s diminishing number of men, the British war effort had passed its peak. The British Army was melting away for lack of replacements. In far-off Burma (not much mentioned in this volume) General Bill Slim’s “British XIV Army was only some 13% ethnically British. Over two thirds of Slim’s troops were Indian and African units outnumbered British.
As with manpower, so with weight in the alliance: more and more, the Americans made the important decisions, and the British, no matter how cogently argued Churchill’s minutes and letters putting their case, had no choice but to follow along. The question, for instance, of postwar international air routes (which first surfaces in the preceding volume) is little studied. When it is followed in the documents, it is plain that the Americans did not even bother to disguise the fact that the issue was going to be settled on their terms—which might be not unfairly described as making the skies friendly for Pan American. Roosevelt’s replies to Churchill’s letters—doubtless drafted by officials—were never less than polite, but totally unyielding.
American dominance becomes even clearer when one considers alliance strategy. The preceding volume detailed Churchill’s fight to keep the British-dominated Italian campaign from being gutted by American insistence on “Anvil,” the invasion of Southern France, which, by the time it finally took place in mid-August 1944, was largely irrelevant strategically. Churchill never allowed his deep anger at the casual undermining of the Italian campaign by the Americans to show fully in his memoirs. In private, however, he told the British chiefs of Staff that the American Joint Chiefs were “the stupidest strategic team ever seen.” As the current volume opens, another episode began to unfold in which a British-run campaign was threatened with derailment by the Americans.
South East Asia Command (SEAC) was a Cinderella among theaters: at the bottom of the priority list for everything, forever planning amphibious operations that were invariably then cancelled for lack of resources due to the primacy of the European theater. But in January 1945, a great victory was at last taking shape in central Burma. Slim’s XIV Army has smashed a Japanese army in the complex Imphal-Kohima battle in spring 1944. Now it was driving into Burma, intent on engaging and destroying the large Japanese force there, retaking Mandalay, and then driving south to retake Rangoon. Vital to Slim’s campaign was the American-built Douglas DC-3, the “Dakota” to the British, which made air resupply possible, eliminating logistic constraints that would otherwise have crippled XIV Army. But most of the Dakota squadrons in the theater were USAAF, not RAF. They were in SEAC primarily to support the American trans-Himalayan airlift to China as well as the American Northern Combat Area Command (NCAC), whose handful of American-trained, equipped, and financed Chinese divisions were slowly pushing back the outnumbered Japanese forces in far northern Burma. NCAC’s object was to build a new road from India to link with the old Burma Road, allowing a flood of American aid to reach Nationalist China’s poorly equipped armies.
By January 1945 the American road to China was open, largely due to XIV Army’s victories. Washington now wanted to shift all American effort, and the Americanized Chinese force in Burma, back to China where the last Japanese offensive of the war was knifing through the ill-found Chinese forces. Such a transfer would take USAAF Dakota squadrons away from XIV Army at its moment of maximum need. At first Churchill found it hard to believe that the Americans would do this unilaterally: “…it would be an unsoldierly act on the part of the Americans to leave British air-supplied columns to their fate…without at least discussing it with us,” he told the British Chiefs of Staff on New Year’s Day 1945. As it became clear that that was exactly what the Americans were going to do, Churchill told his chiefs on 28 February, “do your utmost to prevent the Americans spoiling our campaign in Burma as they have already spoiled the one in Italy.” Then, as Slim’s battle reached a climax and the Americans, heedless of XIV Army’s needs, continued to shift assets to China, the prime minister exploded. All his frustration with increasing American dominance and their sidelining of British campaigns was packed into perhaps the bluntest message he sent to the US high command during the war. Addressed on 30 March to General George Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, rather than to the ailing and fading FDR, it began: “As General Marshall will remember…we greatly disliked the prospect of a…large scale campaign in the jungles of Burma….” Churchill then went on to lay out the reason why the British had nonetheless conducted one (“the United States…attached the greatest importance…to the opening of the Burma Road”) and ended by making it a matter of Marshall’s sense of military honor: “I appeal to General Marshall’s sense of what is right and fair between us….” Churchill won; the Dakotas remained in Burma; Slim’s army rolled on to its great victory. But the whole episode shows that the reality of the Anglo-America “special relationship” by 1945 had actually become one of an emerging superpower and a subordinate ally whose strength was fast ebbing.
But if relations with the Americans were sometimes fraught, those with Stalin were sliding remorselessly towards confrontation. Churchill had long realized that, if the Soviets survived the German onslaught and were able to force the Wehrmacht into retreat, the future of Poland would be settled by Moscow. By 1943 that future was taking shape, and the previous volumes of War Papers have tracked the prime minister’s attempt to broker enough of a Russo-Polish understanding to save an independent existence for Poland, an effort that became increasingly desperate in 1944. This volume illuminates the final act—and Churchill’s disillusionment with Stalin that rapidly followed. By the time the Big Three met—at Stalin’s insistence—at Yalta’s collection of verminous, decaying Tsarist-era palaces in February 1945, Churchill was reduced to trying for a token presence of Polish Government-in-Exile representatives in the puppet regime the Russians had installed in Poland. Churchill fought much harder than FDR for the Poles and, momentarily, convinced himself that the empty Russian “concessions” were real. But disillusionment, as the documents make plain, was swift. By the time Churchill left Downing Street, a mere two months after total victory in Europe, the lineaments of the approaching Cold War were plain to see.
During the height of that Cold War, “Yalta” became weaponized—mostly in American domestic politics. Roosevelt, it was charged, had given Eastern Europe to Stalin, with Churchill’s acquiescence. In fact, as is now widely recognized and the documents underscore, neither FDR nor Churchill had any choice in the matter. The Americans, of course, wanted Russian participation in the war against Japan, which was then expected to last for at least a year beyond the end of the European war. Above all, however, Russia’s position, following the loss of some twenty-seven million soldiers and civilians and being in physical possession—with several hundred combat-hardened divisions—of the defensive glacis they were determined to maintain on their western border, simply could not be gainsaid. The documents make clear how hard Churchill worked to save something of Polish autonomy—and, at the same time to preserve at least a working relationship with Moscow. He may have had a moment of excessive optimism in February 1945, but, after all, what other choice was open to him?
In the 1970s I conducted several long interviews with Lieutenant General Sir Ian Jacob, one of the trio of highly competent staff officers who were the core of Churchill’s Defence Office. At one of our meetings, I asked him what he thought Churchill’s greatest wartime mistake had been. After a long pause, Sir Ian said “he pushed us too hard,” adding that the intensity of Britain’s war effort made postwar recovery very difficult. He was of course right about the cost—bankruptcy and the loss of global power. But as Churchill had recognized from the beginning, the threat from the Third Reich was existential: “without victory there is no survival.” There was no way to meet that threat except total commitment. And, for such a war (described so aptly by Jan Morris as “the noblest of all their adventures, the most Pyrrhic of their victories”) the British could not have found, as this huge documentary series illustrates, a more appropriate leader than Winston Churchill.
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