- Thursday, 30 October 2008
- Written by Harry Whittaker
‘The man’s mad. I suppose these figments of the imagination are telegraphed without consulting his military advisers.’ BEF Chief of Staff Pownall on Churchill
When Germany invaded Holland and Belgium on 10th May 1939 and put an end to the ‘Phoney War’ the French and British had more men on the ground and more (and better quality) tanks. But this did not deter the Germans: they were more militarily competent, efficient, and co-ordinated in their execution of modern warfare and they proceeded to wipe the floor with the Allies. During the ensuing debacle the great man himself crossed the channel to give orders, prompting Chief of Staff Pownall to make the comment which heads this chapter. Churchill seemed to think armies were like chess pieces that could be moved here and there at a whim, disengaging from the enemy with impunity and repositioning themselves in a more favourable position while the enemy patiently waited their turn to move.
Fortunately General Gort ignored Churchill’s orders, otherwise British casualties would have been higher and the evacuation from Dunkirk would have been less successful. In the end, about 250,000 British and over 100,000 French soldiers were rescued to fight another day. It had taken the German forces a mere month to see off the Allies in what is known as the Battle of France. The 51st Highland Division, the 1st Armoured Division was left behind, along with thousands of administrative and non combatant staff. The Highlanders, commanded by Major General Victor Fortune, were placed under French command and were later ordered to surrender. They obeyed with great reluctance only after General Fortune was given written orders to do so.
But Churchill had not yet grasped the magnitude of the Allied defeat. He once again overruled his generals and decided to start another BEF in France under the command of General Sir Alan Brooke. He ordered The 52nd Division, a lowland Scottish Territorial Division, and 1 Canadian Division which was in reserve in England, to embark for Cherbourg, sending Alan Brooke ahead to co-ordinate operations. Great military strategist? It is small wonder that Churchill had such a difficult time getting into Sandhurst – a latrine-cleaner in the Pioneer Corps would have more military acumen than him.
When Sir Alan Brooke arrived in France he confirmed what he already suspected: the French Army had collapsed and a second BEF was not an option. It is astonishing to think that these were the times that gained Churchill the reputation as a great man. His idiotic plan was scrapped and Brooke ordered all British personnel remaining in France to make for the nearest unoccupied ports where, in ‘Operation Ariel’, the remnants of 1st Armoured Division along with thousands more British and allied troops were rescued by the Royal Navy. It has to be said that the British Expeditionary Force was the junior partner in the Allied side, the French being in charge of operations, but it made little difference what forces Britain might have been able to muster, they would still have been defeated: the German Army was at that time the best in the world. The only senior British officer to come out of this debacle with any credit was General Gort, the unsung hero of the Battle of France, who disobeyed Churchill’s orders and plugged the gap between Belgium and the BEF, thus enabling much of the British forces to reach Dunkirk and be evacuated.
Of the 120,000 French troops evacuated by the Royal Navy, all but 4,000 opted under international law to return to their defeated country. Only 1,500 sailors decided to stay and be part the Free French Navy. It is easy to criticize those Frenchmen who opted for repatriation, but it must be remembered that they had wives and children in occupied France to worry about, and it was probably this rather than any lack of fighting spirit which influenced their decision.
The sinking of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July, 1940, was opposed by all three admirals involved. They believed that negotiation could have won the fleet over to the British side, but Churchill’s orders had to be obeyed and he was not prepared to do anything other than hand out ultimatums. A ‘great statesman’, as he was supposed be, would have done everything possible to persuade the French Fleet to join up with the Royal Navy. But Winston Churchill was out to demonstrate what a hard man he was, and so the British Navy reluctantly sunk the French ships, killing 1,297 naval personnel. This was the last tragic episode in the aftermath of the Battle of France.
Throwing babies into a fire
‘What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none.’ Captain Philip Mumford
In the years leading up to WWII the Jews had been viciously persecuted not only in Nazi Germany, but in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Romania. It is to the everlasting shame of Britain, America and the other so-called civilized countries of the West that little was done to help the victims of this vile victimization, but as if that wasn’t bad enough Churchill decided to go one better. He rounded up all the Germans living in Britain, most of them being German Jews who had fled from this persecution, and persecuted them again by throwing them in prison. Some were deported to Canada, where they were again imprisoned and others were imprisoned on the Isle of Man in the Mooragh detention camp. They started a newspaper called the Mooragh Times in which to voice their grievances but the authorities closed it down.
Meanwhile the Battle of France was quickly followed by the Battle of Britain which was a conflict between fighter planes. While Germany’s army was superior to Britain’s the opposite was true of their air forces. The Spitfire and Hurricane were technically superior and more manoeuvrable than the Messerschmitt 110 and, because they were fighting in home skies, could stay in the air longer than the Messerschmitt 109. The British also had the advantage of radar which meant they could not be taken by surprise. The Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain which was inevitably followed by the Blitz on Britain and the bombing raids on Germany.
The front line was everywhere during WWII. A mother and child asleep at home were just as likely to be killed by enemy action as a soldier in battle. The Blitz ended in May 1941, not because Hitler wished it to, but because he wanted to concentrate on his ‘Lebensraum’ (living space) plan, which meant clearing the ‘Untermenschen’ (sub-humans) out of Russia to provide territory for the expansion of his Aryan super-race. The Blitz killed 43,000 civilians and wounded about 140,000, along with the obvious destruction of property involved. During one raid on Coventry Churchill knew in advance when the raid would take place, but refused to send fighters to intercept the Luftwaffe’s bombers, his explanation being that he didn’t want to put the Germans wise to the fact that Britain had cracked the Enigma Code. So he let the Luftwaffe rain death and destruction on the citizens of Coventry when he had an opportunity to get fighters in the air to hack them out of the sky. It is more likely that he sacrificed the citizens of Coventry in the hope that it would lure America into the war. Three months earlier he had expressed great irritation because the Germans had not bombed Coventry, explaining to Charles De Gaulle: ‘You see, the bombing of Oxford, Coventry and Canterbury will cause such a wave of indignation that the United States will come into the war!’
But the German civilians suffered much worse, British and American bombing raids continuing with ever increasing intensity throughout the war. Almost as many civilians perished (40,000) in a single raid on Hamburg as were killed in Britain throughout the Blitz, and their deaths were horrific: firestorms generated temperatures of 1,000 degrees Centigrade, sucking air into the flames at 150 mph, and of course sucking men, women and children into the flames as well; it was like being hurled alive into a huge crematorium. Throwing babies on to the fire or throwing fire onto the babies – the Second World War brought forth some of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
Winston did not like General Wavell. For one thing, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East was obviously several rungs higher up the ladder of intelligence than his greatly overrated Prime Minister; for another, he had the guts to say ‘No’ to the great man, and that was unforgivable.
When the Italian forces drove the British forces out of British Somaliland in 1940 Churchill demanded that the officer in command there, Lt. General Alfred Godwin-Austin, be sacked immediately for incompetence (the pot calling the kettle black). Wavell refused, explaining to the angry Churchill that a general who could conduct an orderly retreat while outnumbered 5 to 1, sustaining only 250 casualties while inflicting 2,000 on the enemy, was in fact highly competent.
Shortly afterwards Wavell demonstrated that he himself was a highly competent general by his plan ‘Operation Compass’, executed on the ground by General Richard O’Connor. The Italians, who had occupied Libya, were driven Hundreds of miles west along the North African coast all the way to Tripoli by an army half the size, but much better organized. 110,000 prisoners were taken, including a couple of dozen generals and one admiral, along with hundreds of tanks and guns. Simultaneously the Italians in East Africa were defeated and Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia were freed from Italian occupation. It was a feat of planning and operation worthy of the highest praise, but all Churchill could do was whinge and whine about the high ratio of service/logistic personnel to actual combatants. He was too thick too understand that in modern warfare the infantry, artillerymen and tank crews could only operate efficiently if they were adequately supplied with transport, food, ammunition, communications and all the other requisites of a well-oiled military machine; it was the lack of this that had contributed greatly to the collapse of Mussolini’s army.
Things were looking bad for Hitler’s ally and although he was not interested in N. Africa he reinforced the Italians with what was to become known as the Afrika Korps, the first units of which arrived in February, 1941. The commander of this Korps was Erwin Rommel, the legendary ‘Desert Fox’. Although he was officially under the overall command of General Batico, Commander-in-Chief of Axis forces in North Africa, Rommel did his own thing.
Almost all of XIII Corps, which had carried out Operation Compass, was shipped off for urgent duties elsewhere and Wavell was left with inexperienced replacements and a large proportion of his tanks, guns and transport equipment in need of repair. The British were aware of the German reinforcements but all of the generals, including Wavell, were sure that Rommel would not be ready to begin active operations before May or June, which would allow plenty of time for the British and Commonwealth forces to reorganize themselves. Likewise Berlin was not interested in Rommel’s North Africa campaign and more or less told him to go away and not bother them – to take limited actions with a view to taking Tobruk in the autumn. Both his enemies and his own side greatly underestimated Erwin Rommel.
He was not a man to waste time. Rommel returned to Africa on March 24th, having been given the cold shoulder by Berlin, and went into action the next day. He attacked and took El Aghelia, then a week later took Mersa el Brega, then on April 2nd he was in Agadabia. In just 10 days the British had been driven back 50 miles. The following evening he took the port of Benghazi. Rommel’s success continued, much to the annoyance of Berlin, where he was only expected to ‘go through the motions’ of helping the Italians. Nor did it please the British, who were thrown into headlong retreat. Wavell counter-attacked on 15th May, regaining some ground, but was driven back again two days later. By June the British had been driven back to the border of Egypt, but this was not through any shortcomings on Wavell’s part. He was also dealing with problems in Greece, Crete, Syria and Iraq while the resources at his disposal were totally inadequate.
Wavell wanted, correctly, to build up superiority in tanks and air forces and to train troops in co-operating with tanks in desert warfare, which would have taken about three months, before taking on Rommel. But Churchill was adamant that an attack must be made immediately. Reluctantly Wavell launched ‘Operation Battleaxe’. Battleaxe inevitably failed and Wavell, a very competent, dedicated and highly respected officer, was replaced, being blamed for yet another failure that was due entirely to Churchill’s irresponsible demand for premature action.
Any fool can learn from his mistakes, but Churchill was not just any fool – he was an exceptional one! He could not grasp the basics of modern warfare; not only could he not understand that every soldier, sailor and airman fighting on the front line needs to be backed up by adequate logistics, he also failed to realise that they had to be trained and fully briefed before any large scale operation. Throw soldiers at an important military objective without thorough preparation and you throw their lives away to no avail. But then, what did he care about soldiers’ lives?
And so this dangerous dilettante continued to make the same mistakes. The next general to fall victim to Churchill’s folly was General Sir Claude Auchinleck, who took over as Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 4th July 1941. As Germany had invaded Russia only twelve days earlier it was obvious that all its military resources would be concentrated on the Eastern Front, thus allowing the British ample time to build up the Eighth Army and train officers and men for combined operations in Desert warfare. This was Auchinleck’s view and everyone concerned agreed with him, everyone except Churchill. Churchill overruled his Chiefs of Staff and ordered Auchinleck to launch an offensive against Rommel as soon as possible. This was to be called Operation Crusader.
Another focus of Churchill’s meddling in North Africa was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Middle East. Churchill decided, in his ignorance, that the RAF personnel were too numerous and cut the number destined for Egypt. This led to a quarrel with Tedder, whom he would have sacked but for the fact that if he had done so his Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, would have resigned.
Operation Crusader was a partial success; Rommel’s forces, outnumbered and with no renewable supplies of men, fuel and equipment, were forced to retreat and Tobruk was recaptured. This did not satisfy Churchill, he was expecting much better. But at least the picture had improved from the British point of view, or so they thought. They were in for a shock. In January 1942 Rommel received some much needed tanks and armoured cars, along with a large supply of fuel; he wasted no time in going back into action. His Panzer Army went into attack on January 21st and four days later had advanced seventy miles, crushing 1st Armoured Division and capturing ninety-six tanks and numerous guns and other vehicles. By 4th February he had retaken the important port of Benghazi. The complacent British and Commonwealth forces were thrown into panic and confusion.
There was a three month respite before Rommel made another, somewhat inconclusive attack on 26th May. The British counter-attacked on 5th June, but were defeated with the loss of about 200 tanks. Rommel attacked again, on 11th June and the next day gave the British an utter pasting; they lost 260 tanks. The Germans went on to capture Tobruk and drive the British back into Egypt. Rommel was now confronting the Eighth Army at Mersah Mutrah, 170 mile into Egypt. Auchinleck took personal command; he knew how dangerous the situation now was. If Rommel destroyed the Eighth Army he would control the Middle East and the Persian oilfields, and that could lose Britain the war. The imminent Battle of Mersah Mutrah could not be a last stand; the Eighth Army could not be destroyed in one of Churchill’s ‘fight to the last man’ scenarios. If the British could not achieve victory at Mersah Mutrah then it was vital that they make an orderly retreat and reconsolidate their forces.
Rommel’s offence continued and the British forces were driven back to El Alamein, where the defensive line prepared by Auchinleck held fast. This remarkable performance by Rommel, driving the British and Commonwealth forces into a 1,000 mile retreat, earned him promotion to Field Marshal. It earned Auchinlek the sack. Nevertheless, Auchinleck had fought well at the first battle of El Alamein, choosing a position that, if defended by adequate troops, armour and artillery, would be extremely difficult to overrun. Using his troops and artillery to the best possible advantage, and armed with vital information from British Intelligence about Rommel’s movements, Auchinleck repelled the Germans and halted their spectacular run of victories. But it was now Rommel who was in trouble; he had outreached himself and was now at the end of a very long supply line, running out of fuel, and with little hope of receiving any more help from Berlin.
Auchinleck and his Chief of Staff, Major General Dorman-Smith drew up plans for an offensive from El Alamein which were sent to London, and later used to great effect at the second battle of El Alamein, and at Alam Halfa. Meanwhile, Churchill arrived in Egypt on August 3rd and replaced Auchinleck with General Sir Harold Alexander as new Commander-in-Chief Middle East and Montgomery took over as Commander of the Eighth Army.
The main reason why Auchinleck was sacked was because he said he could not start an offensive before September; Churchill wanted action much sooner. But he was wrong if he thought he could hustle Alexander or Montgomery into premature action. Montgomery adamantly refused to budge until he was fully reinforced and re-supplied. His offensive did not begin until the night of October 23rd, but, although he didn’t bother to publicize the fact, it was not his plan of attack; it was Auchinleck’s. Of course Rommel was defeated, it could hardly be otherwise. Not only was he outnumbered in ever department, but many of his troops were sick, his ammunition and fuel were in short supply and Montgomery had the benefit of massive air superiority. As if this wasn’t enough, thanks to the breaking of the Enigma code Montgomery knew Rommel’s plans and was informed of all communications between Rommel, his officers, and Berlin. With all these advantages Field Marshal Mickey Mouse could have beaten Rommel.
El Alamein was trumpeted as a great victory but, and this is no disrespect to the brave officers and men who fought and died there, it was only a minor battle in the great WWII scheme of things; compared with Kursk it was hardly even a skirmish. But it gained Montgomery a knighthood while Auchinleck wasn’t even given credit for the fact that it was his battle plan. ‘Monty’ did not publicize the fact that he had used Auchinleck’s battle plans because, like Churchill, he was a vain and arrogant glory-seeker who stabbed his fellow officers in the back and chose to work with officers who would not outshine him. Furthermore, he also resembled Churchill inasmuch as that he was not nearly as good a soldier as he thought he was.
Overlord: The invasion of Normandy
Montgomery pursued Rommel at a snail’s pace and it was not until May 1942 that the North Africa Campaign finally came to an end. But that was not all that was about to end; Winston Churchill’s roll on centre stage in the drama of World War Two was all but over. America had now entered the war, and Uncle Sam would take no lip from Churchill or anyone else.
Another man who would not allow the Prime Minister to bully him was Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, so it is not surprising that, in 1943, when the post of First Sea Lord had to be filled Churchill tried to block Cunningham, the natural successor to the recently deceased incumbent, from the job. He offered the job to Admiral Bruce Fraser, but neither Fraser nor any other Admiral would play into his hands by accepting, so Cunningham got the job. Cunningham would not allow Churchill to squander men and ships on any hair-brained schemes.
While tough fighting was going on in Sicily and Italy plans were being made for ‘Overlord’ – the invasion of Normandy. Churchill wanted Sir Alan Brooke to be Supreme Allied Commander but the Americans, not unreasonably, decided that as ultimately they would be supplying most of the men and materiel an American, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, would fill that post. Montgomery got the job of ground forces commander. D –Day was set for June 1944 and the allies had to work like Trojans to build landing craft, train men and get together all the weapons, aircraft and equipment necessary for what would be the biggest combined allied operation of the war; it was becoming increasingly obvious that if the Allies did not establish themselves on the continent soon the unstoppable Russian army would sweep Hitler’s hordes all the way into the English Channel.
Overlord began on the night of June 5th-6th 1941. Montgomery’s main task was to reach certain objectives and engage German armoured divisions and destroy them while the Americans broke out from their positions. He held press conferences boasting that his master plan was going well, which was hardly the case: the Germans lost 75 tanks, the British 353. He made claims that were proved to be false then tried to cover them up and it is only the fact that he had been hyped-up as a hero by the British that saved him from the sack: it would have been too much of an embarrassment. But the writing was on the wall for the Germans. They fought bravely on two fronts against overwhelming odds, but by 5th May 1945 Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was over.
All the stories related here about Winston Churchill are straightforward facts, not in any way distorted or exaggerated. So why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has he acquired the reputation as a great military/naval strategist and a great statesman; the man who won the war, the saviour of his country, when he was no such thing?
Any Prime Minister who serves his term during wartime gets the credit if the country is victorious, but Churchill had more than that going for him. He had plenty of influential friends in high places who praised him because he was ‘one of their own’. He was also his own public relations agent; he wrote his History of the Second World War, which was of course entirely his own version of events, and he was held in such reverence by the establishment that any criticism of him was strangled at birth. But things are changing at last. Three recent publications: Blood, Sweat and Arrogance, by Gordon Corrigan, Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker, and Lloyd George and Churchill, by Richard Toye, have given much more honest appraisals of his character.
Churchill’s Britain was the Britain of dukes and earls, of rich and powerful businessmen and influential press barons. For the rest of us he had nothing but contempt. The working class riff-raff were there for one purpose – to serve him and his kind by toiling in factory and farm to keep the rich in luxury, and to die in the field of battle to defend the great British Empire. For that reason they had to be fed and housed to a degree that would serve that purpose, but if they ever showed dissent he was ready and willing to bring out the tanks and the military to grind them into submission. He loved war, despite all the human suffering it caused. His interference and vindictiveness during the conduct of the war caused the deaths of thousands of British and Allied servicemen and the failure of several military and naval operations. It cost us several ships and could have lost us the war. He was at best an incompetent, arrogant, elitist, self-obsessed egomaniac constantly seeking self glorification.
WWII was won, at horrendous cost to themselves, by the Russians on the Eastern Front; that was where the cruel, hard gaze of Hitler’s fascism was focussed, and that is where at least three quarters of the Nazi forces were destroyed. Even if the Allies had never invaded Normandy, Hitler would still have been defeated; when he took the insane step of invading Russia he sealed his own fate.
Nor was it Churchill who won the war on the Western Front. It was the thousands of working-class American, Commonwealth and British servicemen who fought and died to rid the world of Hitler’s unspeakably evil regime who gave us victory in the West, and not the cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling boastful little man in the bowler hat.