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Ministers at War

Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet


Jonathan Schneer


London: Oneworld Publications, 2015

Hardcover. xxiii+323 p. ISBN 978-1780746135. £20


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



In the never-ending stream of new ‘Churchill books’, Professor Schneer has chosen a new angle of attack – not that the sometimes tempestuous relations between the wartime Prime Minister and his associates in the War Cabinet suffer from a lack of documentation in the vast existing literature. The rationale behind the book is that, incredibly enough, no specific monograph on the subject was available – but the study is not presented simply as a convenient presentation of well-known facts, since the author writes in the concluding paragraph of his Introduction: ‘I hope readers will discover in it novel aspects of a story they thought they knew well already’ [xix].

The titles of the first two chapters suggest that they are the two sides of the same coin. Chapter 1, ‘Challenging the Prime Minister’, takes up the oft-rehearsed story of Chamberlain’s fall over the Norway fiasco – the irony of course being that Churchill was closely associated with the ill-fated expedition, as once again First Lord of the Admiralty. The central question is of course: how could Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, reap the benefits of a failure in which he largely shared the blame with Chamberlain, the Prime Minister? The answer lies in their past – and the chapter cleverly starts with a reminder of Churchill’s poor record as it was perceived in the late 1930s. Simply, his weaknesses denounced in August 1939 (‘a Jeremiah, a crackpot and an extremist’ [41]) became an asset in May 1940: ‘the very qualities [in Churchill] they [the Chamberlain Conservatives] distrusted were the ones most needed when Britain went to war again’ [7]. The roles played by Cripps, Attlee, Sinclair, Lloyd George and above all Leo Amery from the Conservatives are once more clearly recalled, as are the figures in the final vote which still gave Chamberlain a majority (281 against 200) technically allowing him to stay. But then, he was in fact disowned by many in his own party, with 42 voting against the Government and 60 or so abstaining.

Chapter 2, ‘Finding a War Prime Minister’, begins with the sentence: ‘Winston Churchill’s seizure of power was not inevitable’ [25], and the next few pages explain why once more. The hesitations over picking Halifax if indeed Chamberlain did not decide to fight on are well treated, as is the fateful meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill at Number 10, described as ‘what may have been the most important meeting of three politicians in twentieth-century British history’ [32]. The ‘novel aspect’ is to be found when, Halifax having yielded ground before Churchill, the two men ‘had a cup of tea in the afternoon spring sunshine…in the garden behind No. 10’ [36]: I thought Churchill always said he left tea to his wife. A long paragraph is deservedly devoted to how the new Prime Minister ‘shaped his entire government’, introducing his own men (notably Beaverbrook), but with no spirit of revenge against the men of Munich: ‘Of thirty-six ministerial posts, he gave twenty-one to men who had served under Chamberlain’ [42].

Naturally, people on the Left, like Cripps, complained that Churchill had kept so many of the former appeasers, foremost among them Chamberlain and ‘his sombre legacy’ [49]: this is the object of Chapter 3, ‘Testing the War Cabinet’, which largely discusses how Churchill was gradually able to establish his authority over these men who often disliked each other – especially men of the same party (e.g. Bevin and Morrison) – ‘the fractious collection of men Churchill had chosen’[50], or ‘his government of ill-assorted colleagues’ [51], as Schneer calls them.

Inevitably, the author is then led to recapitulate the various options open to the new ministers as the situation in France was fast deteriorating. No new sources having come to light recently, it is difficult for him to tell us more on the views of the ministers in the central debate between Halifax (for negotiations with Hitler) and Churchill (against them) than, say, David Reynolds in his seminal article of 1985, or John Lukacs in his monograph, Five Days in London, May 1940(1) (acknowledged, after Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choice : Ten Decisions which shook the World, 1940-1941, as ‘the other great secondary source for these discussions’ in the Notes [274]).

Now, ‘these discussions’ were confined to the War Cabinet of five (including Churchill), sometimes extended to the whole Cabinet – but not to the junior ministers. The narrow circle in the Cabinet – and even more so in the War Cabinet – did not represent the whole spectrum of opinion: only the whole Government did that. ‘At its best Churchill’s coalition government brought together exceedingly right-wing Tories and strongly left-wing socialists, who united in a common purpose’, we are told [61]. But even that left out the extreme Libertarians on the Right and the Communist Party of Great Britain on the Left. So, arguably, in ‘The Months of Greatest Crisis’ [Chapter 4], however broad, Churchill’s government could not claim to cover every shade of political opinion. ‘Dunkirk’ [65-66] was of course a potent factor in uniting the population behind its leaders. Ernest Bevin [69-72] another in rallying the working classes.

When discussing Beaverbrook and his new Ministry of Aircraft Production, Schneer makes the interesting point that ‘Churchill had no long history with any of his other associates, and all his early close friends in the political world had died’ [74], but he seems to forget Sinclair, now minister for Air, who had been his second-in-command in the ‘Plugstreet’ trenches of 1916. Now, whereas Beaverbrook was an old crony, profoundly disliked by Clementine Churchill (and by Bevin), Bevin had been facing Churchill during the General Strike in 1926. And yet, Churchill is reported to have said ‘that if Britain had been invaded in 1940 and we had had to fall back north of the Thames, he would have ruled Britain with a triumvirate of himself, Beaverbrook and Ernest Bevin’ [77]: an interesting reflection on Churchill’s trust in and reliance on these two so widely different men. Meanwhile, we are reminded – though on ‘indirect evidence’ – that ‘Halifax appears still to have been pining for negotiation’ in July and even August, aided by R.A. Butler [81]. Chapter 4, therefore, insists on the contrast between Beaverbrook and Bevin on the one hand and Halifax and Butler on the other: the divisions in the Government were still there as the autumn approached. But Churchill was no angel, and he got rid of Halifax – thus reinforcing his grip on the War Cabinet.

In Chapter 5, ‘Shaping the War Cabinet’, we have a fascinating – and not reassuring – series of opinions of its members on some of their colleagues – including the Prime Minister. Two deaths from illness turned out to be providential: Chamberlain in London and Lord Lothian in Washington, who was succeeded by a reluctant Halifax as Ambassador. So Schneer is justified in writing that by the end of 1940 ‘almost all the leading appeasers were gone: Simon to the Lords, Hoare to Spain, Chamberlain to a premature grave, and finally Halifax, soon to Washington’ [92]. But, he adds in the last paragraph of the chapter, ‘even now the members of the War Cabinet did not love each other’ [93].

The same sad (and, one must say, exciting) story of friction is taken up in Chapter 6 ‘The War Cabinet at Work’, when we are told about some tempestuous meetings of the Cabinet in 1941, notably over aid to Russia [104-105], which leads Schneer to write that ‘jockeying for position, apple-polishing, toadying and the clash of personalities among ministers continued as always’ [106]. In an earlier passage, with full details, we had learnt how ‘almost everyone in the War Cabinet stayed close by the prime minister’s residence’ in Westminster or at a pinch Mayfair (in Bevin’s case) [63] – the implication being that this led to a stuffy atmosphere, favourable to intrigue.

Churchill’s high-handed treatment of criticism from his associates led to the crisis of early 1942, when his authority and judgement were questioned and challenged by Cripps – the object of Chapter 7, ‘Spearhead of the Left’. Many historians, however, would disagree with Schneer’s conclusion of his discussion of the factors leading to their confrontation: ‘For all these reasons, an eventual head-on collision between the two men seemed preordained’ [119] – nothing is ever ‘preordained’ in politics. Still, the treatment of the crisis and Churchill’s consumate skill in pulling all the strings to reshape his Government in a way which would reduce the danger of a rebellion is excellent. Usually, the largest number of details on all these incidents is to be found in the Official Biography – but Sir Martin Gilbert only devotes one page to the reconstruction of February 1942, unlike Schneer, who has over ten dense pages on it.

And this is not the last of it, as the next chapter is devoted to ‘Coping with Mr. Cripps’ – in what way, it is easy to guess. Schneer begins by recapitulating all the setbacks which Churchill had to face in the spring of 1942, after the fall of Singapore – the culminating point being the fall of Tobruk on 21 June, while Churchill was with President Roosevelt in the United States. ‘Meanwhile Stafford Cripps remained waiting in the wings’, we are told [147], as in a good tragedy. But here, of course, the tragedy was to be for Cripps – not for Churchill. Cripps managed to alienate the Commons by his rigid attitude to members’ habits and, combined with the success of the North Africa landings (for some reason, Schneer speaks of ‘French West Africa’ [142, 152], as if the landings had taken place at Dakar) and of course the triumph of El Alamein, this gave Churchill his opportunity to sack him from the War Cabinet in November – though he remained a harmless figure in the Cabinet. Cripps’s numerous enemies at Westminster, chief among them Attlee and Beaverbrook, did nothing to save him.

But then, Beaverbrook proved to be equally troublesome – and equally reduced to powerlessness – as explained in Chapter 9, ‘The Cat that walked alone’. But apart from Beaverbrook himself, who could really see him as Churchill’s political murderer and successor as Prime Minister? Schneer does not really answer that question. We are reminded that he was an ‘intriguer first, last and always’ and that ‘No one except Churchill trusted him’ [157] – but all politicians prosper on intrigue, and few trust their colleagues, as amply shown elsewhere in the book: Churchill himself is appropriately described as a ‘veteran of the unforgiving world of rough politics’ [235]. This is probably the weakest chapter of the book, as Schneer is reduced to speculation and supposition, trying to find out what went on in the mind of the elusive press lord – which one will not and cannot ever know. Amateurs of history of the What If? type will be delighted when reading: ‘One or the other of them [Cripps and Beaverbrook] might have become prime minister, however, if he had played his cards differently, or if Churchill had, or if the war situation had continued to deteriorate’ [177]. Yet most readers will remain unconvinced, though the reasoning is clever: Beaverbrook enthusiastically rode the wave of the ‘Second Front’, which was tantamount to challenging Churchill, whose lukewarm approach to it, to say the least, was well known. But then the Tobruk disaster ruined Beaverbrook’s calculations, position and ambitions – such as they were – since it was now obvious that nobody would back a diversion of resources to help the Russians when Egypt and beyond it, India, were under threat. Schneer has an excellent quotation from Beaverbrook himself: ‘On the morning of June 21st [1942] the Second Front was a near certainty. By the evening the odds were 100 to 1 against’. And Schneer rightly continues: ‘As a result, the odds against his becoming prime minister approached the same ratio’ [174].

Chapter 10 deals with another threat, this time from outside the Cabinet, or even the Government: ‘The impact of Professor Beveridge’. Here again, Schneer faces an uphill task, since the subject has been extensively examined in major studies by Paul Addison and Jose Harris – to name only two specialists of the question (their books figure in the Bibliography). All the familiar quotations are there, with Churchill describing Beveridge as ‘an awful windbag and a dreamer’ [183] and his plan as ‘airy visions of Utopia and Eldorado’ [186] while Beveridge suggested that it would take the country ‘half-way to Moscow’ and argued gleefully that it ‘may bring down the Government’ [191. The main point in the chapter is that unlike previous rows in Cabinet, this one was clearly on Labour v. Conservatives lines.

Ironically, it was the ‘Cocky Cockney’ of Chapter 11 [‘The “Cocky Cockney” and the debate over postwar Britain’], Herbert Morrison, who, having played a major part in placating the irate Labour backbenchers during the Commons debates on the Beveridge Report in February 1943, now took the lead in the Right / Left confrontation over postwar welfare, including the management of the economy as a precondition to full employment – thus setting the Labour Party on a collision course with Churchill, who would have none of this. ‘The choice will be between control and chaos’, he proclaimed before his London electors in May 1943 [205], when getting rid of the controls as early as possible after the war was Churchill’s declared objective. Interestingly, the invidious task of trying to silence Morrison fell, not to Churchill or one of the Conservatives, but to his old enemy in the Labour Party, Bevin, who had a master card: the block vote of his TGWU, and used it to deny him the coveted job of Treasurer of the party, as a stepping-stone to the leaderhip. Schneer accepts that Morrison ‘never directly challenged his [Churchill’s] position as prime minister’. More subtly, he suggests – relying on excellent sources – that Morrison played a leading role in accelerating the ‘tide’ that ‘Winston Churchill could not stem’: that of social reform [212].

The last part, entitled ‘Sundering the War Cabinet’, starts with Chapter 12, ‘Churchill on the downslope’, which argues that Churchill’s position reached its apex ‘on December 7, 1941, when he learned that America would enter the war against the Axis Powers’. ‘But’, he continues, ‘an apex must be followed by a descent’[215]. The rest of the paragraph in fact sums up the whole thesis of the book:

With national survival no longer at stake, Churchill had to deal with parliamentary critics and rebellions. They were inconsequential at first but increasingly threatening, or at least conceivably threatening. He had to fend off potential rivals for the leadership. His fierce concentration lapsed as well, and he experienced physical illness, the ‘black dog’ of depression, and occasional bouts of lassitude and lachrymose self-pity. There still would be triumphs, and not small ones. He did not know he was on the downslope, nor did anyone else. At times, he, and they, must have thought the direction remained upward. But in fact, Winston Churchill was destined to plumb the depths in July 1945, only two months after Germany surrendered’. [215-216]

Perhaps not everybody would agree with the choice of words in the last sentence (at least he was not disowned by his own ‘friends’, like his father), but one must recognise that as a concise summary of Churchill’s political standing from 1940 to 1945, this would be hard to improve on. In his writings, Churchill often alluded to Fortune and the Fates in his writings – and one sees them playing with the poor mortal that he was after his popular triumph during the VE-Day celebrations: ‘Churchill could be forgiven for thinking he would win any British election’, Schneer justifiably concludes [225]. And during the General Election campaign ‘the crowds gathered in their thousands. It seemed almost like a royal progress’ [240].

All readers will already know the rest of the story, naturally. The famous phrase about the ‘blessing in disguise’ is of course there [247]. More interesting – because probably less well known – is the last-minute attempt by Morrison to dislodge Attlee from the Labour leadership, with Cripps’s support, after the results were proclaimed, which made his old enemy Bevin go ‘blue in the face’ [249]. Also interesting is the plus ça change… aspect of forming a government which Schneer underlines: Attlee ‘began the same process that Churchill had undertaken almost [? – May 1940 to July 1945 = over] five years earlier: conferring with friends and allies, drawing up lists, balancing egos and talents, calling able men into office, fulfilling the dreams of some, disappointing others’ [249].

The final ‘Coda’ is well summed up by the metaphor of Churchill as juggler, which Schneer very effectively pursues:

For five years he successfully juggled a team of extraordinarily capable, ambitious and ideologically disparate men. He did not do it perfectly. Master juggler though he was, he could not always keep them all spinning in the air at once. Some of his War Cabinet ministers fell to earth with a bump. But, for the most part, they, too, understood their country’s dangerous situation and the need for compromise, the need for maintaining the Grand Coalition. Despite this general understanding, could only Churchill have successfully juggled this group? The answer must be yes. It is impossible to imagine the puritanical Stafford Cripps or the unscrupulous Beaverbrook keeping all the balls spinning for long, and no other War Cabinet minister seriously considered trying. [253]

A large part of that ‘Coda’ is usefully devoted to the story of what happened next to all these former wartime ministers – some like Eden only dying in the late 1970s. ‘I cannot believe I can ever know anything like it again’, Eden had written in his diary on 27 July 1945, while Attlee was drawing up his lists – and Schneer aptly ends his narrative by adding ‘None of them could, or would’ [263].

A comprehensive Bibliography of Churchill books and articles is of course an impossible task as an appendix to any book. Schneer seems to have wisely kept to the list of books actually consulted (no articles are included). It would have been more readable if he had separated memoirs and biographies (which make up most of the list) from general histories of the period. Still, the strong point remains the list of Unpublished Sources – a very useful tool for anyone undertaking research on wartime Britain.

The proof-reading must have been extremely careful, as no typo was detected – a rare achievement these days. Simply, Schneer and his editors should have checked their French genders: bête and éminence are feminine – hence bête noire (not bête noir [218, 236]) and éminence grise (not eminence gris [256]).

The book is a pleasure to read – with no jargon or abstruse passages to mar the rigour of the reasoning. And there is no doubt that the contract is satisfactorily fulfilled: indeed, ‘readers will discover in it novel aspects of a story they thought they knew well already’ – if not always in the realm of facts, at least in their often insightful interpretation. Unreservedly recommended for all University Libraries – the clarity of exposition being an excellent example for undergraduates to follow in their essays.


(1) Reynolds, David. ‘Churchill and the British “decision” to fight on in 1940 : Right policy, wrong reasons’. In  Langhorne, Richard T.A. [Editor]. Diplomacy and Intelligence during the Second World War : Essays in Honour of F.H. Hinsley. Cambridge : University Press, 1985 : 147-167 (Reprinted in Reynolds, David. From World War to Cold War : Churchill, Roosevelt, and the international History of the 1940s. Oxford : University Press, 2006 : 75-98).

Lukacs, John. Five Days in London, May 1940. Yale University Press, 1999  (Reprint. London : Folio Society, 2011).


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