Detail from portrait by Douglas Chandor in US National Portrait Gallery
Finest Hour 185, Third Quarter 2019
By Paul H. Courtenay
Winston Churchill had a very early connection with military aviation. On being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he was keen to pursue the development of this new invention. He began to take flying lessons in 1912 and was immediately hooked. Although he had many hours’ instruction, he was not allowed to fly solo, so he never qualified as a pilot. He oversaw the official birth of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in 1914 before leaving the Admiralty in 1915. The RNAS was later merged on 1 April 1918 with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to create the Royal Air Force (RAF). After keeping the new service supplied with their technical needs as Minister of Munitions in 1917–18, Churchill cemented his close connection with the RAF as Secretary-of-State for Air in 1919–21. As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence from May 1940, he had a direct link to the RAF and its commanders during the critical period of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent need to achieve air superiority in many parts of the world and to take the battle to enemy territory.
The British Army has long had a tradition, particularly (but not exclusively) in cavalry and infantry regiments, of appointing a Colonel of the Regiment; he is not in the chain of command and is often a retired general who had spent his early career in the regiment concerned and now acts as a father figure while keeping an eye on its well-being. In 1941 Churchill himself was appointed Colonel of 4th Queen’s Own Hussars (his own original regiment). Some parts of the Army (specifically reserve units in the Territorial Army, or “TA”) also have an Honorary Colonel; this appointment is no more than a title with no duties whatsoever but acts as a way of maintaining good public relations by nominating a local worthy who will take an interest and pay occasional visits. Churchill held a number of these appointments, most importantly that of Hon. Colonel, 4th/5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment; he frequently wore its uniform when visiting wartime theatres. Read More >
1992–97. His career started in 1957, when he entered the Royal Air Force College Cranwell. Thereafter he served a tour as a flying instructor with the Fleet Air Arm, tours as a fighter pilot in the United Kingdom and overseas, posts in NATO, and headed the two RAF Commands in the UK before leading the service through the major military draw-downs at the end of the Cold War. Since retiring from the RAF, he has been a business consultant and a leader of many charities, including President of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. He has written on defence and associated matters for the UK National Defence Association and is a regular contributor to radio and television programmes.
Richard A. McConnell is Associate Professor of Tactics at the US Army Command and General Staff College.
Nigel Hamilton, War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey, D-Day to Yalta, 1943–1945, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019, $30.00. ISBN 978-0544876804
This Republic had its beginning…under the protection of certain unalienable political rights…these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. All of these rights spell security, and after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
Thus President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address introduced what he called the second bill of rights. These comments reflect key values that drove his vision for a new world order following the Second World War. FDR’s continued emphasis that Americans must care about social issues beyond their own borders laid the foundation for the United Nations. We are the beneficiaries of FDR’s views of enlightened self-interest.
This is the third and final installment of Nigel Hamilton’s biography of FDR during the war, and it is well worth the read. (See reviews of vol. I in FH 168 and vol. II in FH 176.) Hamilton crafts a gripping tale of how this visionary leader guided the world to final victory against the Axis as his health steadily got worse. FDR’s vision, eloquence, diplomacy, and charming ability to connect diverse perspectives is frankly hard to match in modern history. Hamilton deftly guides the reader through the momentous years of 1943 through 1945 encompassing incredible accomplishments in a context where the stakes could not have been higher while guiding a coalition of the barely willing. Read More >
W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).
Peter Dye, The Man Who Took the Rap: Sir Robert BrookePopham and the Fall of Singapore, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 410 pages, £43.50/$44.95. ISBN 978–1682473580
For Winston Churchill, the fall and surrender of Singapore to Japan in February 1942 was an emotional scar he would carry his entire life, much like Gallipoli. He called the fall of the “Gibraltar of the East” the “largest capitulation in British military history.” In retrospect, we know it ultimately signaled the end of Great Britain’s Asian Empire.
Historian Peter Dye has written the first biography of a key figure in the Singapore story—Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham. It was BrookePopham who took the ultimate blame for Churchill’s Singapore nightmare. The goal of this biography is to provide a more balanced view of Brooke-Popham’s life and his many contributions to the defence of the British Empire.
Early chapters reveal BrookePopham’s pioneering work to enhance British air power in the Royal Flying Corps before and during the First World War. A man of high intellect, he was hard-working and an excellent writer. Dye says Brooke-Popham found a keen sense of purpose when the RFC became the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918. Read More >
Katherine Carter is Projects Curator and Collections Manager at Chartwell.
Cita Stelzer, Working with Winston: The Unsung Women behind Britain’s Greatest Statesman, Pegasus, 2019, 400 pages, $28.95/£20. ISBN 978–1643130194
One room at Chartwell holds a crucial part of the secret of Churchill’s phenomenal political and literary output. Yet few people have had the chance to look inside. Thankfully this is about to change. From spring 2020, the Secretaries’ Office will become part of the visitor route, and for the first time the National Trust will be able to tell the stories of the loyal secretaries who helped the lion roar. Cita Stelzer’s new book Working with Winston, therefore, could not have arrived at a better time. I knew it would be a vital tool in helping to tell the stories of these remarkable individuals, largely women, but also for the mirror that their histories hold up to the everyday life of the man himself, and how they in turn dedicated their lives to Churchill.
The opening of Stelzer’s book immediately stresses their importance, outlining how the term “secretary” must be considered within its contemporary context and how the breadth and complexity of the tasks the “secretaries” managed would warrant a much more senior title today. Stelzer also acknowledges the qualities which were common across all of those who were able to handle both the pace and the pressure of the role: their intelligence, confidence, shrewdness, and perhaps most importantly, their loyalty. It is then that we meet each of them one by one.
Stelzer’s account weaves together personal statements from the individuals themselves, complemented by contemporaries’ recollections and subsequent historiography. By approaching the subject matter in this way, she creates a wonderfully rich picture of each of the protagonists, as well as understanding the relationships between them and with the Churchills themselves. The result is a remarkable blend of everyday life for these remarkable people, through to bearing witness to some of the most extraordinary events in twentieth century history. (I should add that I refrain from collectivising the group as women owing to the presence of one gentleman amongst their ranks.) Read More >
In My Early Life, Churchill wrote a misleadingly benign account of his fatally-ill father’s departure on a round-the-world tour. He received by messenger, Winston wrote, “the college adjutant’s order to proceed at once to London. My father was setting out the next day on a journey round the world….We drove to the station the next morning—my mother, my younger brother, and I. In spite of the great beard, which he had grown during his South African journey four years before, his face looked terribly haggard and worn with mental pain. He patted me on the knee in a gesture which however simple was perfectly informing. There followed his long journey round the world. I never saw him again, except as a swiftly-fading shadow.”
The disagreement between Winston and his father as to whether he would go into the Infantry, as his father insisted, or the Cavalry, as Winston wanted, was never resolved before his father’s death in January 1895. They exchanged letters on the subject during Lord Randolph’s global journey, but to no result. Winston optimistically wrote his mother on 10 July that he hoped to “pass high” his Sandhurst exams “…as I shall take the opportunity of writing a long letter to Papa on the subject of Cavalry. I have been piling up material for some time and I have a most formidable lot of arguments.”
In the event, Winston did write such a letter, but it did not impress his father, who replied: “I do not enter into your lengthy letter…in which you enlarge on your preference for the Cavalry over the 60th Rifles. I could never sanction such a change….So that you had better put that out of your head altogether at any rate during my lifetime during which you will be dependent on me. So much for that subject.” Read More >
Paul F. Anderson is founder of the Disney History Institute, which focuses on Walt Disney’s creative legacy, and has worked and consulted for the Disney family and company on numerous historical projects.
Following the Second World War, the claim was made by Walt Disney and Alexander P. de Seversky that the film Victory Through Air Power (1943), based on the book of the same name, was viewed by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference. This viewing, the claim continues, helped to increase the support the two leaders gave to strategic air power in defeating the Axis. The story has been repeated by Disney historians ever since. But is it true?
In April 1942 the book Victory Through Air Power by Major Alexander P. de Seversky was published with little fanfare, but within a month it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. By August it had reached number one—so popular it prompted a paperback reissue, practically unheard of at the time. Interest continued at a fever pitch, and it was condensed for publication in Reader’s Digest and serialized in newspapers. By fall, Gallup’s Audience Research Institute estimated five million people had read the book in one form or another.
The book’s popularity was in large part due to timing. It was the early stages of the war for the United States, and the country had faced many setbacks. The book offered bold solutions, a self-help manual for a frustrated public on how to win the war. The “secret” was long-range air power. Read More >
Portal with Secretary of State for Air Sir Archibald Sinclair (seated upper row center) July 1944
Finest Hour 185, Third Quarter 2019
By Rich Milburn
Wing Commander Rich Milburn is an RAF officer and current instructor at the Air War College in Alabama. His doctoral dissertation will examine Portal’s leadership of the RAF during the Second World War. He is grateful to Dr. James Tucci of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies for helpful comments, while acknowledging any errors to be entirely his own.
In his seminal article Is Strategy an Illusion? Richard Betts opined: “strategy is a series of relationships.”1 Effective relationships, like strategy, are built and conducted over significant periods of time. Winston Churchill certainly believed this; he considered that stability in the American and British Chiefs of Staff (COS) during the Second World War provided “an inestimable advantage for all.”2 Following the appointment of General Sir Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in early 1941, the lone replacement on the British COS Committee for the remainder of the war was due to the death of First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound in 1943.
The longest-serving of all the military chiefs during the war was Sir Charles “Peter” Portal, leader of the Royal Air Force for more than five years. Nevertheless, Portal remains largely unknown, even within his former service. Study of him has been extremely limited because he was uncontroversial and kept no wartime diaries. Yet Portal’s detailed organizational knowledge, his patient and logical disposition, and his grand strategic outlook enabled him to forge a remarkably important relationship with Prime Minister Churchill that proved crucial to the British war effort.
Lancaster Bomber being escorted by a Hawker Hurricane
Finest Hour 185, Third Quarter 2019
By Roddy Mackenzie
Roddy MacKenzie is a retired Canadian lawyer and son of a Bomber Command pilot. This article is based on his 29 January 2019 address to the Churchill Society of British Columbia.
“The real cause of Germany’s defeat was the failure of the German Air Force.”—Hitler1
Winston Churchill was involved from the beginning. During the First World War, Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Churchill Minister of Munitions in July 1917. Churchill was exceptionally effective. His many responsibilities included overseeing the supply of the new Royal Air Force following its creation on 1 April 1918. By 1919, Churchill was both Secretary of State for War and Air. He concocted with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard (the “Father of the RAF”) “methods of using bombers to control large areas of sparsely populated territory” through “force substitution.”2 This was important, because the two men viewed air power as possessing both offensive and defensive capabilities. This belief was used to overcome pressure from the British Army and Royal Navy to disband the RAF as a separate service. The United States had no Churchill-Trenchard equivalent at the end of the First World War, and so America’s Army and Navy succeeded in preventing the creation of a separate US Air Force until 1947. Churchill’s enthusiasm made the RAF for many years the largest air force in the world. Further, his encouragement of the British air construction industry helped save Britain in the Second World War.
Winston Churchill as Minister of Munitions at Beardmore’s Gun Works Glasgow, 8 October 1918
Finest Hour 185, Third Quarter 2019
By John H. Maurer
John H. Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Distinguished Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Winston Churchill was an air power enthusiast. He saw early on that aircraft were transforming the international balance of power and the strategic environment. Command of the air would become a requirement to provide for the security of Great Britain and its empire, just as naval mastery had been in earlier times. As First Lord of the Admiralty before and at the outbreak of the Great War, he championed the development of Britain’s air strength. During the war, Churchill led the Ministry of Munitions, presiding over the manufacture of aircraft and weapons for the Royal Air Force (RAF). After the war, he served as Air Minister. Churchill would write: “Thus it happens to have fallen to my lot to have witnessed, and to some extent shaped in its initial phases, the whole of this tremendous new arm, undoubtedly destined to revolutionize war by land and sea.”1 In the intensely competitive international environment of the period between the wars and during the second great Armageddon, Churchill would bring this extensive experience of leadership to bear in building up Britain’s air strength. He wanted Britain to lead in the science, technology, and practice of aerial warfare, to stand as the world’s leading air power.
Churchill was so much the enthusiast for air power that he sought to learn how to fly. Although his wife Clementine disapproved of this endeavor, Churchill persisted in pursuit of his wings. Much to his disappointment, he did not possess the aptitude to be a pilot. Still, he seized upon opportunities to go up in the air. He came much too close to death in flying accidents on several occasions. On one occasion during the First World War, while flying over the English Channel, his aircraft lost power, and it seemed as if he would crash into the water. The aircraft engine restarted, and Churchill avoided death. Soon after this episode, he described this near-death experience to the British press magnate Sir George Riddell, who recorded their conversation in his diary: Read More >
Air Commodore Andrew Lambert is a retired RAF officer who flew Phantoms and Tornado fighters. He commanded operations in Northern Iraq, the Falklands, and Bosnia.
In July 1934, just a year after Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power, Winston Churchill declared that Germany had created a rudimentary air force, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler already possessed some 400 military aircraft, with an aircraft industry capable of producing 100 more each month. Churchill argued that the German air force was already approximately two-thirds the strength of the RAF’s Home Defence Force.
Churchill also emphasised England’s extreme geographical vulnerability to air attack. While Berlin was some 600 miles away, London was just 100 miles from potential enemy bases. As he said in the House, in words that would come to haunt him in 1940: “With our enormous Metropolis here, the greatest target in the world,…a valuable fat cow tied up to attract the beasts of prey…we are in a position…in which no other country in the world is at the present time.”1
The Chancellor, Sir John Simon, had myopically asserted that a strong economy was “the fourth arm of defence,” leaving Britain unprepared for war in 1938. While the Munich accord did at least give Britain breathing space for rearmament, Chamberlain’s message of “peace in our time” was seen as a message of weakness, not strength.
Amongst the most successful pre-war rearmament measures, however, was the “shadow factory” scheme. Several leading motor manufacturers provided redundant capacity for aeroengine/airframe production with the ability to switch production on demand. By April 1940, Britain was already producing more fighters per month than Germany.
The Sopwith Tabloid, upon which Churchill‘s model was based, pictured in 1915
Finest Hour 185, Third Quarter 2019
By Fred Glueckstein
Fred Glueckstein is a regular contributor to Finest Hour and author of Churchill and Colonist II (2015).
October 1913 On the 29th Mr. Winston Churchill, flying with the late Captain Lushington, R.M.A., took control of the aeroplane himself during the greater part of an hour’s flight, thus becoming the first Cabinet Minister of any nation to pilot an aeroplane.1
The most successful British fighter of the First World War, the Camel was built by the Sopwith Aviation Company. The highly maneuverable Sopwith Camel was a biplane, a fixed-wing aircraft with two main wings stacked one above the other. It proved far superior to all German types of dogfighters until the introduction of the Fokker D. VII in 1918. Altogether, Sopwith built 5,490 Camels. The plane’s top speed was 118 miles (189 kilometers) per hour, and it had a ceiling of 24,000 feet (7,300 meters). The Camel was credited with 1,294 enemy aircraft destructions.
During the First World War, Sopwith designed and built other fighters, including the Tabloid. Originally a two-seat plane, single-seat variants of the Tabloid went into production in 1914, and thirty-six fighters eventually entered service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In addition to being a fighter, the Tabloid was also used as a bomber and was the first to bomb German air sheds in Cologne and Dusseldorf in October 1914.
LONDON—I read with great interest Fred Glueckstein’s excellent article “Watching Winston: Churchill and His Personal Bodyguards” in FH 183. Inspector Walter Thompson was my great uncle, and he left me 700 pages of his secret notes as well as his literary estate when he died. He was a fascinating character and would enchant us every weekend with stories of his time as a Special Branch Officer. I used Walter’s papers to write Beside the Bulldog for Apollo Publishing in 2003. This book contains less than 1% of Walter’s fantastic life with Churchill; for instance, there were thirteen assassination attempts on Churchill’s life during Walter’s service—some of these facts have still not been made public. More recently, I have written Walter’s compelling story into a TV drama series and hope to find a production company to take on the script.—Linda Stoker (Smith)
This issue completes a triptych that we started two years ago about Winston Churchill’s relationship with the armed forces. We began with the Royal Navy, the “senior service,” in 2017 and continued with the British Army last year. Now we examine Churchill’s association with the Royal Air Force, and we are honored to have Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon introduce this issue.
Churchill was one of the first major office holders in any nation to recognize the importance of air power. As First Lord of the Admiralty before the First World War, he routinely inspected the Fleet for which he was responsible and to this end had an airplane custom built for his use. Fred Glueckstein tells the little-known story of the “Sopwith Churchill.”
Between the two world wars, Churchill worked in and out of office to preserve the RAF, define its mission, and strengthen its capabilities. John Maurer explains how Churchill’s support helped to ensure the RAF was in place and prepared to face Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.