Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay are co-authors of Divided on D-Day: How Conflicts and Rivalries Jeopardized the Allied Victory at Normandy (Prometheus Books, 2017).
The commander sighed. “Well, there it is: it won’t work but you must bloody well make it.”1 With these words Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, instructed Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan in 1943 to begin preparing a cross-channel invasion plan. From the first day of the war, America’s leaders were determined to confront and defeat the German army speedily by invading northwestern Europe. But because the British had recently been decisively defeated by German forces at Dunkirk as well as in Norway and Greece, Churchill and the British armed forces chiefs of staff were much more cautious. They still remembered the slaughter of an entire generation on the Western Front during the First World War.
Britain’s war leaders also harbored grave doubts about the battle readiness of US soldiers, believed that American generals lacked combat experience, and were skeptical about America’s ability to increase the production of war materials rapidly.
125 Years ago
Spring 1893 • Age 18 “A Little Paternal Advice”
Winston spent the spring of 1893 “cramming” with Captain Walter James for the Sandhurst Entrance Examination scheduled for late June. Having twice failed the examination, Winston would have been expected to redouble his efforts, especially after Captain James had written to Lord Randolph in early March to say that Winston “means well but he is distinctly inclined to be inattentive and to think too much of his own abilities” and was “too much inclined up to the present to teach his instructors instead of endeavouring to learn from them.”
True to form, Winston did not meet those expectations in the seven weeks following that letter. On 29 April, Captain James once more wrote to Lord Randolph that, while he had no definite complaints to make, “I do not think his work is going on very satisfactorily.” James told Lord Randolph that he had spoken to Winston about this and suggested that he give his son “a little paternal advice and point out, what I have done, the absolute necessity of single-minded devotion to the immediate object before him.” Read More >
In giving up his government post to go out to the horrific battlefields of Flanders and ‘take some active part in beating the Germans’, Churchill demonstrated again the courage he’d displayed in those battlefields of the North West Frontier and Sudan. And he certainly experienced the horrors and dangers of the trenches first hand.
He wrote to Clemmie of ‘[f]ilth and rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water and muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifle & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead’ (Churchill to Clementine, 23 November 1915).
More action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. In this last youthful military adventure, Churchill set off and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899. He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers, when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. The following month, having spent his twenty-fifth birthday imprisoned, Churchill made a dramatic escape by climbing over a wall, riding a freight train, hiding in a coal mine and eventually boarding a train into Portuguese East Africa. He made his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. His brother Jack was wounded and became one of the first patients to be treated by their mother, Lady Randolph, on the hospital ship she had organised. But Churchill’s luck held. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was hailed a hero.
‘Here life itself, life at its best and healthiest, awaits the caprice of the bullet … Existence is never so sweet as when it is at hazard.’
Churchill, 4 February 1900 (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
Above all, in his management of the WWII, Churchill made things happen. He scribbled memoranda and despatched these with amazing frequency to his commanders in the field and stamped his red ‘Action this Day’ labels on documents, urging a speedy resolution. He demanded commitment and action alike from his colleagues and staff – just as he did from himself – and his constant prodding resulted in hundreds of different ideas and initiatives being pursued at any one time. Churchill famously employed the ‘Action This Day’ red stickers in response to a missive from four of his overworked code-breakers (including Alan Turing) in October 1941. When the under-resourced code-breakers at Bletchley Park asked for more help, Churchill wrote ‘Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done’. Throughout his life, Churchill made things happen. He was relentlessly driven and focussed; a workaholic, determined to fulfil his own destiny and to protect his country – and he did all he could to ensure all those round him followed him and made things happen too.
‘I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen I like to make them happen.’
Churchill, undated; as Richard Langworth explains in his Churchill: In His Own Words, Arthur Ponsonby quoted this phrase of Churchill’s in a letter to Eddie Marsh, explaining that Churchill said this ‘many years ago’.
The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
While ‘the man of action’ perhaps more accurately describes Churchill in time of battle, demanding action from others and of himself, he was always a restless man, fearful of inaction. In his quieter years, he was always determined to keep himself busy (perhaps to keep the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay). Although his favourite pastime was painting, he continued to travel, ride and swim, as well as write books during his ‘wilderness years’ – he only gave up playing polo when he was fifty-two – and was riding into his sixties and seventies. Even when elderly, after the WWII, he continued to travel (to the US, to give lectures and speeches, to Europe for holidays). Despite having suffered heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia, he was far more active – and physically resilient – than most his age.
‘I am writing in one of the Keepers’ Lodges to wh I have returned after stalking & where I am waiting for the Prince of Wales. Quite the best day’s sport I have had in this country – 4 good stags & home early!’
Churchill in a letter to Clementine, from Balmoral Castle, 20 September 1913, from Soames, Speaking for Themselves
On his return to London from India, Churchill – keen to get into politics – made a speech at a political meeting in Bradford. But he also desperately wanted to join Kitchener’s army in the Sudan: he saw action in the field – and writing about it – as a way to gain further attention. Persistent as ever, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. In August 1898 he set off on his next adventure – travelling up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
‘There is no doubt the charge was an awful gamble and that no normal precautions were possible. The issue as far as I was concerned had to be left to Fortune or to God – or to whatever may decide these things. I am content and shall not complain.’
Churchill in a letter to his mother, Lady Randolph, 17 September 1898
By the time Churchill was facing another World War, in 1939, he understood more readily that while risks had to be taken, a balance needed to be struck between caution and ‘over-daring’. As Prime Minister during WWII, he walked the narrow road between the ‘precipices’ on either side; he needed nerves of steel to keep Britain and the Allies on the path to victory.
‘Winston Churchill has emerged from the first five weeks of the war as the most inspiring figure in Great Britain … He has been condemned as a Russophobe and a Teutophobe, as an irresponsible genius, but even his old critics now seem to agree that he will make a great wartime leader.’
James Reston, New York Times, 8 October 1939
Initially rather dubious about flying (he first went up in a plane out of a sense of duty), Churchill soon became passionate about it. He took instruction from Commander Spenser Grey, Lieutenant Jack Snedden and Richard Bell Davies (who was later to win the Victorian Cross at the Dardanelles) and made practice flights at the Royal Naval Flying School, Eastchurch Aerodrome in Kent. He was keen to get his pilot’s licence and needed to notch up the necessary hours.
Away from the field of battle, Churchill’s risk-taking continued unabated. By January 1910, he was Home Secretary (his exploits in the war zones of the British Empire having succeeded in getting him into ‘the game of politics’) – and managed to engineer himself into the centre of the action.
‘The vastly publicized affair fortified Churchill’s … reputation for being far from a calm and judicious Home Secretary. He was perceived more as a trigger-happy boy scout, or at best a junior officer, who wished to behave in the streets of London as though he was still with the Malakand Field Force or on the armoured train in Natal.’
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
When Churchill sailed to India with his regiment, the Queen’s Hussars, in 1896, polo – and winning regimental polo cups – seemed to be the only action he was likely to see. Eager to make his mark, he took matters into his own hands and persuaded the Daily Telegraph to take him on as a war correspondent. In 1897, he travelled to the North West frontier of India and Pakistan to join the Malakand Field Force fighting against the Afghan tribes in 1897, under the command of Sir Bindon Blood. It took him a total of five uncomfortable weeks (by ship and by train), with the promise of nothing more than a role as ‘correspondent’, to get to the front.
‘Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.’
Churchill, My Early Life
Churchill knew that the fastest way to political advancement lay in active service – ‘the glittering gateway to distinction’. He bemoaned the fact that the world was growing so ‘sensible and pacific’. There weren’t any battles close to home – as yet – so he had to look further afield to find action. For the moment, though, there was action to be found on a far-distant island – Cuba – and, through his mother’s contacts, Churchill managed to wangle a commission as a war correspondent for the Daily Graphic. Off he went, spirits high, to see some action. In late 1895, he and a friend Reginald Barnes were given leave to travel to Cuba, to observe the military campaign by the Spanish government troops against Cuban guerrilla rebels. Churchill spent some of his twenty-first birthday under fire when the column he was travelling with was attacked. Despite only being in Cuba for sixteen days, he was recommended for the Spanish Cross of the Order of Military Merit.
‘Luckily … there were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes in the Soudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, ’put up a show’ some day.’
Churchill, My Early Life
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. While at Sandhurst, Churchill had learnt to play polo. Now that he was an officer with the Queen’s Own Hussars, he played regularly at the Hurlingham and Ranelagh Clubs in London. It was here that he demonstrated his talent with horse and polo stick and he soon became a skilled player. Churchill continued to play polo until his fifties, despite having a weak right shoulder (injured in a fall when disembarking from the ship in India) and having to wear it strapped to prevent it ‘going out’. (He could never play tennis because of this, even though Clementine was a very good player and they had a hard court installed at Chartwell; it was later turned into a croquet lawn.) Click here to see the draft constitution of the ‘Fourth Hussars Polo Club’ (Churchill’s name appears sixth under ‘Members’).
‘For men like Churchill, polo was war; it was like a miniature battlefield. Bloodshed and injury to horse and rider was common and the faint of heart need not apply … Courage and audacity on the polo field translate into savvy and audacity on the battlefield.’
Carlo D’Este, Churchill and Polo
Churchill later claimed, in that embarking on a military career ‘was entirely due to my collection of soldiers’, although the influence of Blenheim and his ancestor’s glories on the battlefield, as well as Churchill’s determination to follow his father into politics (for which he regarded the army as a great training ground), probably also played key roles. His toy soldier collection, based on the toy army he played with at Blenheim, was set up as an infantry division and he and his brother Jack, even in their teens, played out famous battles, with Jack’s soldiers playing the enemy.
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Timeline PhotosPrime Minister Winston Churchill, President Harry Truman and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin shake hands after the meeting during the Potsdam Conference, on this day in 1945. Code-named TERMINAL, this was the final ‘Big Three’ meeting of the war.
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.