The conventional narrative of the Second World War tends to assume that from the moment he succeeded Chamberlain in May 1940 and rallied the nation with his heroic defiance when Britain stood alone against the Nazi threat, through to the eventual victory of the Allies five years later, Churchill’s ascendancy within Britain was unquestioned.
It is true that he never faced a serious parliamentary challenge nor, even in the darkest days of 1941–42, any plausible rival who might have displaced him, as Lloyd George supplanted Asquith in the middle of the First War. Nevertheless there was a good deal more grumbling, and more unrest in many parts of the country, than is generally remembered in the warm myth of national unity. During the period of electoral truce between the major parties the coalition government lost ten by-elections to a variety of mainly left-leaning Independents: a little-noticed undercurrent of dissent that accurately presaged Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, which so shocked observers who assumed that the electorate would naturally, as in 1918, register its gratitude to the great war leader.
If there was one man who not only anticipated this historic upset but, by his persistent criticism of Churchill’s leadership, contributed to it more than any other, it was the left-wing Labour MP Aneurin “Nye” Bevan. These days Bevan is remembered primarily as the architect of the National Health Service and, on the left, as the socialist hero to whose mantle Labour leaders still lay claim, even when they have long rejected socialism as Bevan understood it. Read More >
John Kelly, Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940, New York: Scribner’s, 2015, 370 pages, $30.
Churchill, at his disingenuous best, wrote in his war memoirs that “the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda.”
Roy Jenkins, in his 2001 biography Churchill, called this “the most breathtakingly bland piece of misinformation to appear in all those six volumes” because, over a three-day period from 26 through 28 May, there were what Jenkins termed “nine tense meetings of the War Cabinet” on that very subject.
John Kelly has written a compelling narrative about the events leading up to the decision by Britain’s War Cabinet on 28 May 1940 not to take even preliminary steps to ascertain Hitler’s terms for peace. Read More >
Richard M. Langworth, Churchill and the Avoidable War: Could World War II have been Prevented? Moultonborough, NH: Dragonwyck, 2015, 122 pages, $7.95.
The origin of Mr. Langworth’s book is Churchill’s 1945 labeling of the Second World War as “The Unnecessary War.” Churchill proceeded to offer two “ifs,” one having to do with the United States and the other with the League of Nations. It should be noted that of the four ubiquitous conjunctions, “and” is decidedly dull, “or” involves choice, “but” is often a weasel word (“I believe in absolute free speech, but this is too much,” meaning you do not believe in absolute free speech), and “if” is a reality re-constructor (“If pigs had wings”). “If” presumes to improve on God’s creation of the world, as well as to challenge our reliance on the factual and the mundane. It is a product of, and tribute to, the imagination. And it is, of course, at the heart of counterfactual history. “Much virtue in ‘if,’” says the Bard.
Langworth lines up, like balls on a pool table, the key junctures when events could have taken a different course. The writing is compelling, the documentation rich, the arguments persuasive. Other biographers and historians have, to be sure, dealt with these flashpoints, but only in the setting of a narrative that encompasses numerous other issues. The virtue of this approach is to focus entirely on several isolated incidents and trace their common theme. The power of Langworth’s handling of the theme is that he avoids dogmatic folly. He repeatedly invokes a necessary skepticism: “We will never know,” “We do not know,” “We know now” what was not known “at the time.” Read More >
In the first volume of his Second World War memoirs, Winston Churchill published the following account based on a German report:
At 01.30 on October 14, 1939, H.M.S. Royal Oak, lying at anchor in Scapa Flow, was torpedoed by U.47 (Lieutenant Prien). The operation had been carefully planned by Admiral Doenitz himself, the Flag Officer (Submarines). Prien left Kiel on October 8…course N.N.W., Scapa Flow….The boat crept steadily closer to Holm Sound, the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. Unfortunate it was [for the British] that these channels had not been completely blocked. A narrow passage lay open between two sunken ships. With great skill Prien steered through the swirling waters….Then suddenly the whole bay opened out. Kirk Sound was passed. They were in. There under the land to the north could be seen the great shadow of a battleship lying on the water, with the great mast rising above it like a piece of filigree on a black cloth. Near, nearer—all tubes clear—no alarm, no sound but the lap of the water, the low hiss of air pressure and the sharp click of a tube lever. Los! [Fire!]—five seconds—ten seconds—twenty seconds. Then came a shattering explosion, and a great pillar of water rose in the darkness. Prien waited some minutes to fire another salvo. Tubes ready. Fire! The torpedoes hit amidships, and there followed a series of crashing explosions. H.M.S. Royal Oak sank, with the loss of 786 officers and men…. U.47 crept quietly away back through the gap.1 Read More >
Charles L. Mee, Jr., The Deal: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin Remake the World, New World City, 2014, 348 pages, $2.99 on Kindle. ASIN B00HO6ZEHC
In 1975 Charles L. Mee published Meeting at Potsdam. His account of the July 1945 summit between the victorious “Big Three” Allied leaders became a standard popular history of the subject, one frequently reprinted for new audiences. Last year, on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the conference, a book by Mee on the same subject but with a different title was released by Kindle. Has Mee revisited his work?
The answer is no. Mee’s The Deal is simply Meeting at Potsdam in a new format. Apart from the title, everything in the original text has been imported intact into the electronic version, with no effort to correct, modify, or update Mee’s original work. The only difference in the new format is the addition of Wikipedia links embedded within the text, which provide a useful way for readers to learn more about the principals and some of the other subjects that the author mentions in the text. Yet this alone is poor compensation for the deficiencies it contains. For all of the strengths that The Deal inherits from Mee’s original book, it is now burdened with an even greater share of weaknesses. Read More >
Kaarel Piirimäe, Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Baltic Question: Allied Relations during the Second World War, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, xvi + 276 pages, $90.
This book’s cover accurately labels the Baltic nations “a neglected corner of wartime Europe.” But Josef Stalin never neglected them, occupying Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania without ceremony in June 1940. He had waited while fighting the Winter War with Finland in the hope that the three states would Sovietize themselves— which they did not. The swift fall of France that spring only fed Stalin’s suspicions that some sort of Anglo-German entente was afoot, prompting his move.
What could the little Baltic states do? Caught between the Soviet Union and Germany, they had no political leverage and even less military strength. All they really had was their own sense of cultural and (to a somewhat exaggerated degree) historic nationalism. As with Finland, the West reflexively empathized and sympathized (though much less noisily)—and did nothing. Whether the West could have done anything effective is what this book is about.
The stage was set for the entire war by the initial reactions of Britain and the United States: reactions too minor to be called policy. The personal involvement of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt showed equal indifference. Soviet concerns and reactions were far more important to the two leaders than awkward promises of self-determination made in the Atlantic Charter. Read More >
Professor David Patterson holds the Hillel A. Feinberg Chair in Holocaust Studies in the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas.
Malcolm MacDonald, the son of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. As Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1939, he produced the controversial White Paper restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Sir Winston Churchill was known for his foresight. Just as he saw the gathering storm over Europe long before the Second World War broke out, so he understood early on the singularity of what we now call the Holocaust, Shoah, Churban, Final Solution, Judenvernichtung, or simply, in Paul Celan’s words, “that which happened.”1 In his radio broadcast of 24 August 1941, just two months after the Einsatzgruppen killing units began the systematic murder of the Jewish people, Churchill announced that Jews in “whole districts are being exterminated,” adding, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.”2
Well before the Nazis were gassing and burning Jews in the six extermination camps a year later, Churchill understood that what was to be called the Holocaust was something more than mass murder, something more than the annihilation of a people.3 Unlike most others, he had some sense of just what the Nazis set out to exterminate in their total extermination of the Jews, from Tromsø to Tunis, namely, the millennial teaching and testimony that the Jewish people represent by their very presence in the world.
Churchill’s insight into this aspect of the nameless crime can be seen in his view of the Zionists’ effort to seek a haven for the Jews in the Land of the Covenant. When as First Lord of the Admiralty he first met with Zionist leader Chaim Read More >
Winston Churchill visited Leeds on 16 May 1942 at the height of the Second World War. Jane Brechner, the great-granddaughter of Lord Mayor, Hyman Morris, provided the accompanying family photos of her great-grandfather accompanying Churchill during his visit.
We shall go forward together. The road upwards is stony. There are upon our journey dark and dangerous valleys through which we have to make and fight our way. But it is sure and certain that if we persevere – and we shall persevere – we shall come through these dark and dangerous valleys into a sunlight broader and more genial and more lasting than mankind has ever known. Winston Churchill, Leeds, 16 May 1942
On this occasion of his visit Churchill ChurchillChusssaid in part, “In the height of the second great war, it is a great pleasure to come to Leeds and bring to the citizens a word of thanks and encouragement in all the work they are doing to promote the common cause of many nations and in many lands. That cause appeals to the hearts of all those in the human race who are not already gripped by tyranny or who have not already been seduced to its insidious voice. That cause is shared by all the millions of our cousins across the Atlantic who are preparing night and day to have their will and rights respected. It appeals to the patient millions of China, who have suffered long from cruel aggression and still fight with faithful stubbornness. It appeals to the noble manhood of Russia, now at full grips with the murderous enemy, striking blow for blow.”
Victory in Europe (VE) Day, on 8 May 1945, officially celebrated the end of the WWII in Europe.
Following Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945, Admiral Dönitz, who’d been President of the Third Reich for only a week, authorised General Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of German forces to the Allies on 7 May 1945, in the presence of senior officers from Britain, America, Soviet Russia and France. (The Soviets insisted on a second ceremony in Berlin on 8 May, which is why Russia still celebrates VE Day on 9 May).
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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.