Kevin Ruane is author of Churchill and the Bomb (2016) and teaches history at Canterbury Christ Church Univeristy.
David Cohen, Churchill and Attlee: the Unlikely Allies Who Won the War, Biteback Publishing, 2018, 356 pages, £22. ISBN: 978–1785903175
As a cursory internet search will confirm, the popular perception of the Winston Churchill-Clement Attlee relationship is largely shaped by two purportedly Churchillian remarks. The first—the wording alters marginally depending on where one looks— goes thus: “An empty taxi drew up outside Number 10 Downing Street and out stepped Mr Attlee.” The second has Churchill dismissing Attlee “as a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” From these quotes, it is reasonable to infer that Churchill regarded Attlee, the Labour Party leader (1935–55) and his deputy as Prime Minister during the Second World War, as a vacuous non-entity. There is, though, a problem with such an inference: Churchill did not actually utter the remarks upon which it rests. Indeed, when apprised of the barbs he was supposed to have shot in Attlee’s direction, Churchill became angry and upset.
Popular perceptions are quick to set but slow to shift. In 2002, the BBC commissioned a public television poll to determine the “Greatest Britons” of all time. Churchill came top. Attlee did not even make the top 100. In contrast, David Cohen reminds us in his new book Churchill and Attlee that in 2004 British historians were polled on the most successful UK Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Attlee came first, Churchill second. Historians, then, as opposed to the public, have never lost sight of Attlee and his importance.
Timothy Riley is Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum
On Tuesday, 10 April 1945, the Allied Forces and Winston Churchill had every reason to be confident that the end of the war was near. It was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. It marked the day the American Ninth Army captured Hanover, the day Soviet forces entered central Vienna, and it was the day the 8th Air Force set a new single-day record by destroying 245 Luftwaffe aircraft. The road to Berlin was open and ultimate victory at hand.
Churchill’s spirits were high. The day before, the confident Prime Minister told the War Cabinet he hoped the victory celebration, when it ultimately arrived, should be called “VE Day.”1
10 April was also the day the London Gazette, the venerable journal of record of the British Government, published the news that “Junior Commander Mary Spencer Churchill of the Auxiliary Territorial Service” was awarded the MBE. Churchill’s youngest daughter would become a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of her military service.2
Alexander, Churchill, and Montgomery in North Africa
Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018
By Bradley Tolppanen
Bradley Tolppanen is author of Churchill in North America, 1929 (2014).
In the summer of 1942, after two years of fighting in the desert, British fortunes in North Africa reached their lowest ebb. Rommel and his German-Italian army inflicted a severe defeat on the Eighth Army at Gazala in May, captured Tobruk in June, and forced the British into a tumultuous retreat from Mersa Matruh deep into Egypt later that same month. With smoke billowing over Alexandria as the British burned their papers in the expectation of Rommel’s imminent arrival, the Afrikakorps reached the Alamein line. Under Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Middle East Commander-in-Chief who had sacked Neil Ritchie and taken personal command of the Eighth Army, the British halted the Axis advance in stiff fighting through the first week of July. Poorly coordinated counter-attacks through July, however, failed to dislodge Rommel. In a stalemate, the two exhausted armies paused to resupply, and both “settled down in acute discomfort plagued by flies, heat, desert sores, and all-pervading sand as they dug, wired, and mined their respective front lines.”1
As fighting petered out at Alamein, Prime Minister Winston Churchill grew increasingly concerned. He had watched the disastrous events of the summer unfold from both Washington, where he was in conference with the American president, and on his return to London. The surrender of Tobruk, which had withstood a siege in 1941, had been a particular blow. Now, with Rommel sixty miles from Alexandria, Churchill was little disposed to brook excuses. He would later exclaim, “Rommel, Rommel, Rommel, Rommel, what else matters but beating him?”2
In 1915, Kermit Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was appointed an honorary captain in the British Army. Roosevelt served under General Allenby in Palestine, saw active service in Mesopotamia with the Royal Field Artillery, and was awarded the Military Cross. In 1916, Roosevelt transferred to the US Army’s First Division and commanded an artillery battery from 1917 to 1918. When the Second World War began, Roosevelt once again sought to serve in the British military.
Fred Glueckstein is author of Churchill and Colonist II (2015) and a regular contributor to Finest Hour
When Kermit Roosevelt first arrived in London in the fall of 1939, it was believed that he would accept a position in the ministry of shipping, since he had been vice president until 1938 of the United States Lines and a friend of Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Like his celebrated father, however, Roosevelt, expressed a preference for action. In October, Roosevelt saw Churchill at the Admiralty and asked for his assistance in obtaining a regular commission in the British Army. With Churchill’s help, Roosevelt was commissioned as a major in the Middlesex Regiment, where he trained as a machine gun expert.
Historians commonly represent Winston Churchill’s relationship with Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig as antagonistic. Churchill was one of the British government’s most outspoken proponents of an “eastern” strategy during the First World War, urging operations against the junior members of the Central Powers. Haig’s own views on strategy, on the other hand, were resolutely orthodox. A committed “westerner,” the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) believed that victory could only be achieved through offensives against the main force of the German army in France, and he was suspicious at best of any diversion of resources and manpower to subsidiary theaters.
Churchill and Haig’s disagreements over such fundamental issues made the two men obvious opponents in wartime debates as well as the controversies that persisted long after the war had ended. According to one historian, Churchill’s postwar publications “set many of the terms for the debates which would rage around Haig’s reputation for the rest of the twentieth century.”1 Churchill played a key role in perpetuating the misleading image of Haig as an inept “butcher” who sacrificed a generation of Britons in futile offensives like the Somme and Passchendaele.
Winston Churchill was a professionally trained army officer. It would have been surprising if he had started out as anything else. From boyhood, he was fascinated by military history and deeply proud of his descent from one of Britain’s greatest generals, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Identifying these traits in his son, Lord Randolph Churchill steered him in the direction of the army. The rest is history.
Major General P. A. E. Nanson, the present Commandant of The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, begins this issue for us reflecting on the impact his institution had on Gentleman Cadet Winston Churchill. Douglas Russell then surveys Churchill’s army career in peace and war—a period that lasted nearly thirty years and was not without danger.
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 >
General David Petreaus (Ret) at the 34th International Churchill Conference
The 2017 Winston S. Churchill Leadership Award was presented to General David Petraeus at the Thirty-fourth International Churchill Conference. In presenting the award, International Churchill Society Chairman Laurence Geller stated that the general perfectly exemplified Churchillian Leadership. 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).
Here you can listen to Churchill’s recordings of many of his key speeches made over his long career. Some of these recordings are contemporary (recorded at the time), others were made by Churchill after the war, in 1949 at Chartwell, and issued by Decca in 1964
‘The printed page is not the correct medium for them, of course. To feel the shiver down one’s spine at Churchill’s words, only recordings will do. They alone can convey the growls, the strange pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, the sudden leonine roars, the cigar-and-brandy toned voice.’
Andrew Roberts, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership
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’.
Churchill had a great gift with words. His speeches clearly demonstrate that. But he was also a prolific writer of books and articles; in his lifetime, he published more than forty books in sixty volumes, as well as hundreds of articles. The total now stands at fifty-one individual works (eleven posthumous) in eighty volumes (twenty-one posthumous). During his lifetime, he was a celebrated – and very well-paid – journalist and a very successful author. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the written and spoken word. How did someone who purportedly wasn’t much of a student at school, manage to become so well known, so widely read and so highly regarded as a writer? For ‘trivia’ about Churchill’s literary life, see this article in Finest Hour. For a full list of all Churchill’s books, and a brief description of each, see the same site here. A comprehensive selection of Churchill’s books – first editions, quality second-hand – as well as books about Churchill, visit Chartwell Booksellers, the independent bookstore in New York, the only physical bookshop devoted to his writings.
Churchill’s speech-making didn’t always go well. Even great speakers ‘dry up’. Although he had a phenomenal memory (he’d won a prize at school for reciting great reams of poetry), learning speeches by heart clearly wasn’t enough. Even though he meticulously rehearsed them beforehand, there was always the possibility of forgetting his lines. In the spring of 1904, making a speech in the House of Commons, he’d been speaking for forty-five minutes when – without notes to hand – he forgot his words. He struggled for ‘the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life’, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, humiliated. So even great speakers can find public speaking difficult and stressful. After this confidence-shattering experience, Churchill nearly always prepared full notes – and had them to hand – to prevent this happening again. And thanks to this, the Churchill Archives Centre contains lots of Churchill’s speeches notes. (No wonder ‘presentation skills’ experts encourage the use of those small cards with speaking notes or handy PowerPoint slides as prompts…)
Churchill’s first public speech was an impromptu one, when – in his last term at Sandhurst and on a visit to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square – he called for makeshift barriers between the sexes, erected to prevent prostitutes from mingling with theatre-goers in the bar, to be pulled down (an unlikely cause for a nineteen-year-old young man): ‘Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!’
‘He is a remarkable fellow – perhaps the finest orator in America, with a gigantic C. J. [Charles James] Fox head – & a mind that has influenced my thought in more than one important direction.’
Churchill, writing about Bourke Cockran in a letter to Clementine, 30 May 1909, in Soames, Speaking for Themselves
Although he always regarded his first political speech as one he gave at a picnic of the Primrose League (a Conservative organisation) in July 1897 (aged twenty two and still a serving officer on leave from his regiment in India), his true maiden speech in the House of Commons was on 18 February 1901.
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
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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.