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The Churchill Documents

Volume 20: Normandy and Beyond, May-December 1944


Edited by Martin Gilbert and Larry P. Arnn


Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2018

Hardcover. xxii+ 2576 pages. ISBN 978-1941946220. $60


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




With the publication of this massive volume of outstanding interest, which almost takes us to the end of the Second World War, it is perhaps time to take stock and retrace the history of this extraordinary enterprise. If there ever was a long-haul publishing undertaking, it is what is commonly called Churchill’s ‘Official Biography’ – though technically there is nothing official about it except that it was initially sanctioned by Sir Winston himself and later supported by family and friends. Many present-day readers must in fact have been born after the first volume appeared, in 1966 – over fifty years ago, with still a number of years to go before the series is complete.

The genesis and development of the enterprise is neatly summarised on the site of the Hillsdale Project. In May 1960, Churchill (1874-1965) formally appointed his son Randolph (1911-1968) as his biographer after his death, giving him access to all his archives and papers in the meantime. Randolph immediately started to gather material, interviewing a number of important people while they were still alive and recruiting a team of assistants which included a young historian, Martin Gilbert (1936-2015), from October 1962. Churchill died in January 1965, and the first volume of the ‘Official Biography’, written by Randolph, appeared in 1966: Winston S. Churchill : Youth, 1874-1900, published by Heinemann in Britain and Houghton Mifflin in the United States.

What makes matters so complicated is that Randolph decided that each volume of the biography proper should be accompanied by collections of supporting documents which he called Companions. Thus Winston S. Churchill : Youth, 1874-1900 was complemented in 1967 by two Companions: Part one covering 1874-1896 and Part II 1896-1900. Before he died in June 1968, Randolph was able to put together the second volume, Winston S. Churchill : Young Statesman, 1901-1914 (1967) and its three Companions (1901-1907, 1907-1911, 1911-1914). Then, in October 1968, the continuation was entrusted to Martin Gilbert who assiduously produced six other volumes of biography (for a total of eight, completed in 1988 with Volume VIII, concluding on Churchill’s death in 1965) and eight other Companions – the latter stopping publication in 1982 with the volume treating the period up to September 1939. Thus the Biography proper was completed by 1988 while the Companions covering the crucial war years were left pending – in fact because the publishers considered that they were not an economic proposition. Martin Gilbert had of course accumulated the necessary documents and was in no way responsible for this sudden interruption of the project before it was taken to its natural conclusion.

The financial impasse was solved thanks to Wendy Reves (1916-2007), the wealthy widow of Churchill’s former literary agent Emery Reves (1904-1981), who donated funds which made it possible to re-launch the enterprise under a new name, with what would have been called the Companions to Volume VI (1939-1941). These Churchill War Papers, in three volumes, were published by Heinemann in Britain and Norton in the United States between 1993 and 2001. The Companions to volumes VII (1941-1945) and VIII (1945-1965) were still missing.

The latest development in this long and complicated story came with the involvement of Hillsdale College, Michigan. The College recruited Martin Gilbert (Sir Martin Gilbert since 1995) as a Fellow in 2002, and in 2004 it announced that it would reprint all the volumes which had appeared so far – text and Companions – and undertake the publication of the documents accompanying the last two volumes of text. The clumsy system of naming the document volumes Companions in several Parts (sometimes two, sometimes three) was to be rationalised in the process: all would be entitled The Churchill Documents, with a continuous numbering from 1 to 16 for the existing series, and a projected complete collection of 23. A steady flow of heavy tomes followed this most welcome take-over, until this year, when Volume 20 of The Churchill Documents (Documents 20 for short) appeared, taking us to the end of 1944. Sir Martin Gilbert died in 2015, and the editorship is now in the hands of the President of Hillsdale College, Professor Larry P. Arnn, who had worked with him on the Biography, though the title page continues to bear the two names – a tribute to Sir Martin Gilbert, who had gathered the bulk of the documents.

The big affair of the period covered by Documents 20 is of course ‘the world-famous battle of Normandy, the greatest and most decisive single battle of the whole war’, as Churchill called it with some exaggeration before the House of Commons on 28 September 1944 [1470], and readers will not be disappointed by the wealth of information given – the preparations, the operations, the difficult ‘break-out’ and the final race to the Franco-Belgian and Franco-German frontiers: the beginnings of the ‘North-West Europe Campaign’ as it came to be called. When reading the copious documents covering 6 June 1944 and the immediately surrounding days, one is struck by the diversity of the fronts with which Churchill, his aides and his War Cabinet, had to deal. And this not only from the military point of view – evidently a crucial preoccupation around that date – but also because of the all-important politico-diplomatic considerations which weighed on the British decision-makers with an eye on the post-war settlement.

As a ‘case study’, I picked out the Documents running from 30 May – a week before the actual landings (initially planned for 5 June, as we know) – to 11 June, the day before Churchill went to Normandy himself. Less than a fortnight, then – but with no fewer than 145 pages devoted to these momentous hours: over ten pages per day. What first struck me was how much the Documents expand the material which Sir Martin Gilbert was able to use in Volume VII. As a French academic who had already read a lot on the stormy relations between Churchill and de Gaulle in those days, I was astonished to see how much of Churchill’s time, as revealed in the long memos reproduced in full, was taken up by his awkward position between Roosevelt and de Gaulle – and Volume VII only gives the tip of the iceberg. A few instances of this enormous expansion of the sources thus made available to us in convenient form (that is, without having to travel to the National Archives at Kew or the Churchill Archives at Cambridge) will suffice: ‘At Churchill’s suggestion to the War Cabinet, de Gaulle was to be told about D-Day by Churchill personally, on June 4’ [+footnote, giving as the source ‘War Cabinet No.70 of 1944. 31 May 1944. Confidential Annex: Cabinet papers, 65/46’], we read in Volume VII, p. 786. The ‘Top Secret’ 31 May 1944 Confidential Annex is duly given on two pages [329-330] of Documents 20, with a fascinating discussion between Churchill and Eden, who disagreed with the reduced role offered to de Gaulle in the whole operation.

Then, the narrative of the War Cabinet meeting continues in Volume VII: ‘ “Otherwise”, Churchill explained to Roosevelt, “it may become a great insult to France” ’. [+footnote, giving as the source ‘Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram. T. 1174/4. Prime Minister to President, No. 688, Personal and Top Secret, 1 June 1944’. Churchill papers 20/165] (ibid.) The telegram is reproduced in full in Documents 20, with Churchill’s sentence about the ‘insult’ – but he has further arguments: Eisenhower is in favour, and ‘to leave a broadcast from France out of the series [projected on D-Day with King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina] would be to destroy the confusing effect we wish to establish by leaving one gap’ [345].

Page 786 of Volume VII ends with a quotation from – the footnote tells us – ‘Staff Conference, Chiefs of Staff Committee N°163 (Operations) of 1944, 18 May 1944: Cabinet papers, 79/84’. The lengthy ‘Top Secret’ minutes of this meeting are given on pages 184-189 of Documents 20. They are entitled ‘ “Overlord” Security: Communication of Information to the French’ – and they are of considerable interest for several reasons. First, they show that Churchill was not worried by de Gaulle’s behaviour as such, but by the Americans’ reaction:

The recent French decision to rename the French Committee of National Liberation the Provisional Government of France was not likely to be well received by the President or the State Department and might further complicate our relations with General de Gaulle [184].

This is confirmed by Lieutenant-General Bedell Smith:

The recent decision of the French Committee to assume the title of the Provisional Government of France would undoubtedly cause difficulties, particularly as the President had already instructed General Eisenhower that he would have no dealings with any French authority claiming to represent the Provisional Government of France,

with the Foreign Secretary concurring: ‘Mr Eden agreed that it was essential that we should keep in step with the Americans in our relations with the French authorities’ [185].

Secondly, they show the severe doubts of some participants as to the real value of the French Resistance fighters:

Sir Alan Brooke was strongly of opinion that General de Gaulle should not be invited to this country until after D Day […] We did not know to what extent the underground organisations in France were penetrated by the Germans and it would certainly be dangerous to pass any information regarding future operations to the so-called Army of the Interior

– to which Lieutenant-General Bedell Smith added ‘that the latest reports led the Supreme Commander to discount the value of the French underground organisations’ [185].

The unanimous opposition of the three British Chiefs of Staff was made clear shortly afterwards: ‘Sir Andrew Cunningham thought we should not invite General de Gaulle before D Day’ and ‘Sir Charles Portal agreed with these views’ [186].

Thirdly, the letters given as annexes to the minutes reveal how confused the Free French themselves were over their exact status and official designation. Whereas General Koenig, Commander-in-Chief of Free French Forces in Britain in 1944 did use the offensive phrase, ‘Provisional Government’, in a letter dated 16 May 1944 sent to SHAF [188], Pierre Viénot, the Free French Ambassador in Britain in 1943-1944, studiously avoided it in a letter dated 17 May 1944 sent to the Foreign Office [187] – a fact which Eden promptly noticed and pointed out to Churchill in another minute [189].

In the next following days and weeks, fear of the President’s reaction to any rapprochement with de Gaulle evidently influenced Churchill, who repeatedly proclaimed that given the choice he would always side with Roosevelt. Much has been made of the fact that we only have de Gaulle’s word for what Churchill is famously supposed to have told him on 4 June – and duly reproduced from the General’s War Memoirs in Documents 20: ‘…each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea. Each time I must choose between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt’ [374].

One of the outstanding virtues of Documents 20 is that it gives abundant proof that this is indeed what Churchill really thought – whether or not he said so to de Gaulle in so many words. Whereas, of necessity, Volume VII only gives a brief summary of the conclusions of the War Cabinet meeting of 7 June [798], Documents 20 devotes over six pages [412-418] to ‘Top Secret – War Cabinet Meeting No.73 of 1944. 7 June 1944. Confidential Annex: Cabinet papers, 65/46’ whose one and only topic is the attitude to adopt with de Gaulle and the Free French in the areas in the process of being liberated. And the minutes contain a long paragraph in which ‘[t]he Prime Minister reviewed the course of relations with General de Gaulle over recent years’ – the review leading to his conclusion: ‘he regarded it as fundamental that in our anxiety to conciliate the General we should take no risks whatever of straining our cordial relations with the President’ [415].

Then we also have the final sentence of § 6 in the ‘Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1215/4. Personal and Top Secret’, of 8 June to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: ‘I have repeatedly told de Gaulle and he acknowledged it without irritation that failing an agreement, I stand with you’ [429]. Later, Churchill also wrote to the Australian Minister for External Affairs (‘Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1218/4’): ‘As far as I am concerned, I will never consent to quarrel with the President of the United States on account of the antics of General de Gaulle’ [429]. On the same day, replying to a note on the Free French from his Foreign Secretary (Prime Minister’s Personal Minute M. 696/4.  8 June 1944’), he repeated his position:

I cannot believe that the President will agree to be associated with any proclamation by the French Committee of National Liberation which appears to recognise it as ‘the Provisional Government of the French Republic’. Clearly I cannot agree without his permission nor could I agree to my name and influence being used to procure from him a change of attitude which may bring about serious deterioration in our vital relations with the United States [434].

Next day, he used the same arguments in a ‘Top Secret’ minute to both the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Prime Minister’s Personal Minute M. 700/4. 9 June 1944’):

I must know what the President wishes in the matter. I cannot do this behind his back. If he cares more for keeping de Gaulle out of the picture than for getting a guarantee, for what it is worth, from the FCNL, I shall be content. But without his assent we really cannot go forward [444].

And on the eve of leaving for Normandy, he wrote to Brendan Bracken, his close friend and Minister of Information (‘Prime Minister’s Personal Minute M. 709/4. 11 June 1944’), telling him to warn the press against taking de Gaulle’s words at face value and concluding: ‘You should also make it clear that no breach will occur between the President and me on account of anything that de Gaulle may do’ [465].

This small sample (30 May-11 June) of the vast amount of documents contained in the volume amply confirms that de Gaulle correctly assessed Churchill’s choice whatever the words the Prime Minister used to convey his meaning on 4 June. It also amply confirms that Churchill was largely isolated in his obdurate pro-Roosevelt and anti-de Gaulle position – the three Chiefs of Staff were indeed on his side, but he had to face the scepticism and even sometimes the implicit criticism of senior War Cabinet figures: Eden, Attlee, Bevin (as reported in ‘Top Secret – War Cabinet Meeting No.73 of 1944. 7 June 1944. Confidential Annex: Cabinet papers, 65/46’ [413-415, 416, 417] – to quote only those who figure in our sample.

What Documents 20 also magnificently demonstrates is that even in the weeks around 6 June, Churchill devoted a lot a time to the other enormous military and diplomatic problems which assailed him. The Belgian leaders in London had to be reassured that he did not put their country ‘in an apparently lower category of Allies than the Netherlands and Norway’ (‘Memorandum’, 2 June 1944) [355]. Likewise, Churchill had to do his best to reassure the leader of the ‘London Poles’, as the Soviets now called them, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, that the Western Allies would not abandon the Poles to their fate (‘Winston S. Churchill and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk: notes of a conversation. 31 May 1944) [331-334]. Thinking of the future as well as the present, Churchill also found the time to discuss relations with Salazar (‘Prime Minister’s Personal Minute M. 694/4. 7 June 1944’) [412], and the other Iberian dictator, Franco, who was the object of his sustained attention, first in the House of Commons and later in correspondence with President Roosevelt. On 24 May, Churchill had had but praise for Franco’s policy of non-intervention in the Commons and he declared that Britain would do nothing to remove him after the war (which as we know was indeed the case under the Labour Government): ‘Internal problems in Spain are a matter for the Spaniards themselves. It is not for us – that is, the Government – to meddle in such affairs’ [251]. This raised highbrows in the anti-Fascist American press, and Churchill had to explain his position to Roosevelt. He justified his toleration of the Iberian dictators by the special situation of the United Kingdom and its Mediterranean interests : ‘I do not care about Franco but I do not wish to have the Iberian Peninsula hostile to the British after the war’, with a decisive intellectual argument: ‘I do not know whether there is more freedom in Stalin’s Russia than in Franco’s Spain’. (‘Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1192/4. Personal and Top Secret’, of 4 June to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) [365]. His preoccupation over the future restoration of freedom in Greece also led to correspondence with the British Ambassador in that country on 5 June [379-380] and with Roosevelt on 11 June: ‘The Russians are ready to let us take the lead in the Greek business, which means that EAM and all its malice can be controlled by the national forces in Greece’. (‘Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1259/4. Secret, Personal and Private’, of 11 June to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) [459].

Yet, next to the relations with de Gaulle, it was those with Tito which most occupied the Prime Minister’s time. From 3 to 11 June, no less than fourteen documents of various length deal with them. In both cases, the central question was the same: what role would there be for the leaders of the Resistance in their respective countries after the Germans had gone? In Tito’s case, the problem was made even more complex since there were other serious contenders for the leadership. The dilemma is excellently explained in a telegram to the (British) Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean:

1. I do not care how you arrange it, but if Vis were taken and Tito killed or captured, it would be a great disaster which you alone have the Forces to prevent. […] 4. I am still supporting Tito, but as he has come to our sphere of protection on an island [Vis] on which he has no more right to live than King Peter or the Ban of Croatia, it seems that here is the place to try and knock together these Yugoslavian heads and try to get the unity of the country against the Huns, which is our overall objective. (‘Winston S. Churchill to General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1230/4. Personal and Top Secret. 9 June 1944’) [439].

Documents 20 also contains material of a more personal nature, like what Churchill had in mind for the Duke of Windsor after the war: among several possibilities suggested by his entourage, he preferred ‘Ambassadorial or Pro-Consular jobs abroad’ (30 May 1944) [327]. On 6 June, Roosevelt wrote to tell him that after hearing that he liked the script which they produced he had sent him two electric typewriters ‘as a gift from me and as a symbol of the strong bond between the people of America and Great Britain’. A footnote tells us that Churchill found the time to send a message of thanks on 16 June, but that his secretarial staff did not like them as ‘one would never be able to type at more than a quarter of one’s normal speed first because the spacing becomes very uneven with any speed at all, and secondly because all the stops and signs are totally different’. To make things worse, a typist continued, considering that Churchill could not bear the clatter of typewriters, ‘the machine is of course of the ‘Noisy’ variety and would therefore be useless for dictation straight on to the machine’ [394].

The copious footnoting continues to meet the very high standards set by Sir Martin Gilbert, as does the special map section at the end and the most detailed Index. We also have several useful Appendices: a list of ministerial appointments, May-December 1944; a copious glossary of Code Names and one of Abbreviations (where one will find the EAM mentioned in the telegram of 11 June) plus eighteen pages of correspondence outside the dates covered by the volume between Churchill or his aides and the publisher G. Harrap & Co which throw light on the letters exchanged between June and October 1944 reproduced in Documents 20 [2447-2464]. Volume VII did mention [949-950] the aborted project – which had led to a contract with Harrap’s in 1938 – of a book entitled Europe since the Russian Revolution but like the brief allusions by Peter Clarke (Mr Churchill's Profession : Statesman, Orator, Writer. Bloomsbury, 2012 [193]) and Jonathan Rose (The Literary Churchill : Author, Reader, Actor. Yale University Press, 2015 [396]) it said nothing of the difficulties with which Churchill had to grapple to extricate himself from his obligations, now made painfully clear by the material reproduced. Here again Documents 20 superbly complements the information given in Volume VII and other scholarly works. For such important additions to our knowledge, Documents 20 will be found essential to anyone writing on Churchill during that crucial period, of course, but also to anyone in search of first-class sources on the Second World War as seen from the Allied side. One cannot wait until Volume 21 appears, completing the coverage of the war years.

A review without any trace of criticism would be highly suspect: in this instance the only negative comment will bear on the type of paper used, which is different from that of previous Hillsdale Press volumes. Its opacity is perfect in spite of its thinness, but it has an unfortunate tendency to wrinkle under the fingers when one turns the pages, and some of the sheets on my copy were slightly crumpled in the printing or binding process.

But this is only a technical consideration, and from the editorial point of view one can only end on a note of congratulations to Professor Arnn and his team – no doubt Sir Martin Gilbert would be proud to see their exemplary continuation of his meticulous approach to the great undertaking of his lifetime. Evidently, all History Departments and University Libraries should hasten to buy Documents 20 – they might even take advantage of their order to consider acquiring the whole set (8 vol. of Biography + 20 vol. of Documents), since Hillsdale College Press offers special reduced rates for the complete series. In any case, at $60, Documents 20 is a bargain when one bears in mind that many much thinner hardcover scholarly monographs are now priced in the £80-90 range. Unreservedly recommended.


☞  Illustrated version on The Churchill Project (Hillsdale College, Michigan) site :



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