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How Churchill Waged War

The Most Challenging Decisions of the Second World War


Allen Packwood


Barnsley: Frontline, 2018

Hardcover. xii + 271 p. ISBN 978-1473893894. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




It is now de rigueur for the author of any new book on Churchill to justify adding one more item to the already enormous corpus of publications on the Greatest Briton of All Time, and Allen Packwood readily complies with that requirement in his Introduction: ‘Having been lucky enough to work on Churchill papers for over twenty years, I wanted to follow the evidence, set the context, strip away the layers of hindsight and let the contemporary documents speak’ [xi].

It must be said that Packwood has an edge on other people writing on Churchill. As Director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University – where most of Churchill’s papers are now deposited – he has easy and constant access to the best and most copious primary sources on Churchill which one can think of. It would indeed have been a pity not to take advantage of this privileged position, with magnificent results. The footnotes (real foot-notes, as it should be – not clumsy end-notes) abound with ‘CAC this’ and ‘CAC that’: CAC standing for Churchill Archives Centre which, it must be recalled, is also the repository for other relevant people’s papers, like Leo Amery, Clement Attlee or Duff Cooper, among others.

The text proper begins with a question which is not often asked: ‘Why did Churchill choose to become Minister of Defence as well as Prime Minister?’ [sub-title of Chapter 1] – or at least not treated so extensively. ‘It was a decision that set the priorities and the style of his premiership’, Packwood concludes – adding ‘but it also posed challenges’ [20]: the challenges which are the object of the book’s sub-title.

The first and immediate challenge was of course the agony of France in May-June 1940 (Chapter 2), notably the impossible squaring of the circle over the best use of the Royal Air Force: to be engaged in French territory (‘It was clearly in the British interest to keep the French fighting for as long as possible’ [32]) or to be kept in reserve for the defence of the realm, as strongly advocated by Air Chief Marshal Dowding [33]? ‘The minutes of the final meetings of the Supreme War Council at Briare and Tours read like the scripts of a Shakespearean tragedy’, Packwood writes [35]. The third party was of course the United States – both Britain and France hoping for a last-minute intervention – and Packwood quotes from a most revealing letter which Churchill sent to Lord Lothian, then British Ambassador in Washington, after the fall of France, on 28 June: ‘Up till April they [the Americans] were so sure that the Allies would win that they did not think help necessary. Now they are so sure we shall lose that they do not think it possible’ [41]. The reader can only agree with the first sentence in the chapter’s concluding paragraph: ‘Few leaders in modern history can have been faced with such a baptism of fire’ [44].

Chapter 3 is devoted to what its sub-title calls Churchill’s ‘Middle Eastern strategy’. ‘Churchill was emphatically not a “Little Englander”. He was a child of the Empire and a child that had been schooled in the Mediterranean theatre’, Packwood reminds us [63]. Moreover, Churchill always took the long view, especially on the likely repercussions of British strategy among the Neutrals, as he explained in a minute on 30 April 1941: ‘Failure to win in Egypt might well determine the decisions of Turkey, Spain and Vichy and even “strike the United States the wrong way” ’ [71]. Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was not convinced: there were home defence, but also the threat in the Far East, to be considered. ‘Japan is unlikely to enter the war’, Churchill imprudently retorted [72] – and ‘the will of the Prime Minister prevailed. The Mediterranean was prioritised’ [73]. ‘The implications of Churchill’s decisions were profound’, Packwood concludes – anticipating the Singapore disaster of Chapter 5.

But before that we have a chapter on other implications – those of the entry of the Soviet Union and United States into the war in June and December 1941. ‘He had travelled a long way politically’, Packwood rightly points out when discussing Churchill’s enthusiasm for his new Soviet ally in June [82]. But then, of course, ‘his initial appeals to President Roosevelt seemed to fall on deaf ears’ [85], and ‘it all seemed so frustratingly slow’ [86], in spite of the Lend-Lease Act (11 March 1941) and the Atlantic Meeting of mid-August 1941. ‘Not a single American officer has shown the slightest keenness to be in the war on our side’, one of Churchill’s aides wrote at the time [92]. As Packwood puts it, ‘By his very act of traversing the Atlantic, Churchill had raised and now dashed expectations that the United States was about to enter the war’ [93]. In spite of his florid public utterances, in private, Churchill was ‘deeply perplexed to know how the deadlock [with the United States] is to be broken’, as he wrote to his son Randolph [98]. Interestingly, Packwood remarks that ‘the British immediately found themselves caught between the wishes of Washington and those of Moscow’ when the Soviets insisted that they should keep the territories which they invaded after 1939, the Baltic States, parts of Finland and eastern Poland – ‘in clear conflict with the Atlantic Charter’ [99]: the situation was to be reversed from the time of the Teheran Conference, when it seemed to Churchill that he had to face a common front between Roosevelt and Stalin [187]. Another consequence of the publication of the Atlantic Charter was of course its impact on Imperial politics, especially Indian claims to Independence – and here again the Churchill Archives prove invaluable, notably with an extract from the Amery Papers (Leo Amery was Secretary of State for India at the time):

We shall no doubt pay dearly in the end for all this fluffy flapdoodle. But if meanwhile under cover of it our two democratic dictators have really got down to business, we must be content to accept it as the price of victory [97].

For his part, Packwood is very much in the line of Jonathan Rose’s The Literary Churchill : Author, Reader, Actor when he concludes: ‘The Charter was as much a piece of theatre as diplomacy, and, if not its author, Churchill was certainly its impresario’ [102]. And the chapter ends with a superbly concise phrase: ‘His heart yearned to bring the Americans into the conflict; his head knew that he had to keep the Soviets there’ [103].

The theme of Chapter 5 is summed up in its sub-title: ‘How did Churchill survive the fall of Singapore?’, and not unexpectedly the Churchill Archives are immediately put to good use – this time by drawing on the Kelly Papers (Dennis Kelly was a member of the ‘Syndicate’ – the team of historians and research assistants who greatly helped Churchill in the writing of his books after 1945). Even though Packwood warns the reader against attaching absolute credit to distant memories, he cannot resist quoting from a letter which Kelly sent to Sir Martin Gilbert when he was researching his mammoth ‘Official Biography’. According to Kelly, when he asked Churchill ‘What were the biggest mistakes in the Second World War?’, Churchill immediately answered ‘Losing Singapore and letting the Russians into Europe’ [105]. Whether or not the fall of Singapore was one of the two biggest mistakes of the war in Churchill’s eyes, it is undeniable that ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’, as he put it in The Second World War, was also a personal disaster for him in 1942 and remained a festering sore for the rest of his life. Discussing Churchill’s own responsibility – going back to the so-called Ten-Years Rule which he enforced when Chancellor of the Exchequer in the latter half of the 1920s – Packwood does not fail to remind the reader that, unlike other theatres of war like Western Europe, the Mediterranean (including North Africa), the Middle East and India, ‘he could not visualise the terrain’ in Malaya and Singapore ‘since he had never travelled east of India’ [110]. The reasons why he survived are twofold. The obvious one is that there was no real credible alternative as Prime Minister in 1942 – Cripps included – but, Packwood adds, ‘the episode [of quelling the incipient Commons ‘rebellion’] is illustrative of a different side of Churchill, and one that is often overlooked, namely that of the tactical politician’ [128].

Chapter 6 takes us to a different battlefield, also in 1942: Egypt and North Africa – and a different controversy, this time between Churchill’s supporters and the Auchinleck camp, which includes Packwood’s predecessor as Keeper of the Churchill Archives, Correlli Barnett [137]: ‘Supporters of Auchinleck have long argued that he was badly treated by Churchill, both at the time of his dismissal, and later, when Churchill came to write his version of events’, Packwood writes, again pointing to correspondence now in the Churchill Archives Centre. The central factor, if we follow him (and we have every reason to do so), is that ‘Churchill could not afford to be defeated in the Middle East’ [146]. Now, Auchinleck did not seem to be able to deliver the decisive victory that Churchill so much wanted. Though Churchill ‘recognised that Auchinleck had ability’, ‘he felt him to be too cautious’. Moreover, ‘Churchill believed in the importance of morale’ as opposed to sheer military might, and Packwood has an excellent quotation to illustrate this: ‘On 8 May 1942, when discussing Auchinleck’s refusal to take the offensive, he [Churchill] had told the War Cabinet, “battles were not won by arithmetical calculations of the strength of the opposing forces” ’ [155].

Continuing with his series of questions in the sub-titles of his chapters, Packwood then asks ‘Why did Churchill embrace Unconditional Surrender?’ with the questioning continuing in the first few pages of Chapter 7:

What role did Churchill play in its [that of Unconditional Surrender] development, why was it proclaimed at Casablanca, and how did it impact on Churchill’s war leadership? Was it a masterstroke of Allied policy making or a millstone around Anglo-American necks that would constrain future action? [158]

Using the Archives again, Packwood cites the opinion of Lord Hankey: ‘a useful make-weight to the colourless communique’ [166]: hardly a ‘masterstroke’ for the former Cabinet Secretary, who also pointed out that after the sixteen major wars fought by Britain between 1588 and 1919 ‘in practically every case except the Treaty of Versailles the peace treaty was negotiated’ [171] – and Versailles could hardly be taken as an example of a successful settlement. With the benefit of hindsight, in 1949, Lord Hankey gave weight to the ‘millstone’ theory:

The only nation that gained any advantage from the policy of Unconditional Surrender was Russia, who, owing to the lengthening of the war, was able to overrun Eastern Europe and there to impose her own political system. [173]

But then, of course, whether Unconditional Surrender ‘significantly prolonged the war’ remains a moot point [180]. Packwood points out however that with hindsight, in 1948, Churchill did see Unconditional Surrender as a negative decision – but for a different reason, purely dictated by international morals, as expressed in his curious The Dream: ‘Great people forget sufferings, but not humiliations’ [180] – an obvious lesson which Churchill had learnt from Versailles.

Churchill’s hesitations over re-entry into Europe, the Normandy Landings and D-Day have given rise to many publications and a recent bad film – and they form the subject of Chapter 8, which for once does not make much use of the Churchill Archives: most of the sources are from The National Archives (ex-Public Record Office). Packwood rightly dismisses the thesis which informs that bad film [189], though he concedes that Churchill had sometimes been ambiguous [199], and he has very interesting remarks on Churchill’s reservations about the preliminary bombings of French targets – now of course a growing subject for academic publications:

It is interesting to contrast Churchill’s attitude [in the spring of 1944] with his decision to sink the French fleet at Oran in the summer of 1940. Then he had been unflinching in his resolve and quick in taking the crucial decision, even though it was a calculated act taking place outside the ‘hot blood of battle’. It suggests that context was everything. In 1940, British defeat was a real possibility. […] In the spring of 1944, victory was a possibility. […] For Churchill…it was vital to win the hearts and minds of the French: to maximise their help against the Germans, but also to help strengthen post-war ties, countering Soviet and American influence. [194]

Another fascinating passage in the same chapter is the long list of problems which Churchill had to face – and if possible solve – in April 1944, ranging from apparently trifling questions like ‘the decision to expand the Heathrow runway’ (plus ça change…) to ‘the famine in India’ and ‘Russian demands in Romania, Finland and Poland’ [188].

The fate of Poland of course also remained a festering sore for Churchill after the war, and Chapter 9 discusses the contrast between his success over Greece – which was not a given – and his failure over Poland in the last months of the conflict. Packwood excellently sums up the situation there as it appeared at Yalta – and congealed into the de facto post-war settlement: ‘Roosevelt would describe Poland as a distant problem, whereas to Churchill it would remain a matter of honour, and crucially to Stalin a matter of security’ [217]. Churchill of course could not do anything about geography: making relatively distant Greece, ‘where the Soviet Union had no forces or immediate aims’ [231], a Sister Socialist Republic might have been the icing on the cake for the Soviets: but controlling the government of neighbouring Poland, as a buffer State, was vital in their eyes – as Churchill eventually realised.

The final chapter describes another struggle – that of the 1945 General Election – with a sub-title that says it all: ‘Why did Churchill fight the 1945 election so aggressively?’ First, ‘his overriding aim was to find a way of staying in office’ [245]: ‘Churchill felt an obligation to finish what he had started and believed that he was best placed to deliver’, and also ‘one suspects that for Churchill there was a world of difference between dying in harness at the height of his powers like Nelson, or fading away impotently like Napoleon. It was not in his nature to give up’ [242]. Much has already been written on his notorious ‘Gestapo’ speech of 4 June 1945 on the BBC, including the embarrassed reactions of well-wishers, notably in his family (for instance his daughter Sarah [249]) – but the Amery Papers at the Churchill Archives add to that vast corpus, with the Conservative Leo Amery writing after listening to it:

Winston jumped straight off his pedestal as world statesman to deliver a fantastical exaggerated onslaught on Socialism which, while cheering a good many of our supporters, will put off a lot of those who might otherwise have voted on the main international issue. [247].

Packwood also reminds us that ‘thereafter, Churchill did not let up’, with two equally aggressive speeches on 13 and 21 June [248], and he ascribes this to several factors: a return to his old anti-Socialism, his recent experience of Communist penetration – or attempted penetration – ‘in Albania, Greece, Italy, Poland and Yugoslavia’ [252], his hatred of ‘controls’ in peacetime and in fact, his basic conservatism, founded on a rejection of ‘this brave-new-world business’ [253]. Fundamentally, if we forget ideological preoccupations, ‘he fought aggressively because he was a fighter’ [254] – as good an explanation as any.

In the Conclusion, Packwood sums up Churchill’s approach as it now appears to him: ‘One battle at the time. This was how Winston waged war’. It worked well in the initial phases of the war, when Britain was ‘Alone’ – but his internal position deteriorated as victory approached:

It was far easier to keep the country focused and united when it was directly thereatened, not least because his conservative vision of the future often conflicted with that of the Labour Party, the White House and the Kremlin. [259]

But Packwood’s real assessment of Churchill as war leader is to be found on the last page of his Introduction:

The figure that emerges is more political, often more conflicted, less omniscient, more consultative though not always more considerate, inevitably more human and in my view much more interesting than the icon. [xii]

Since Packwood always carefully provides background and context, referring to Churchill’s prewar life and action whenever necessary, the book will interest a far wider public beyond the strict Second World War ‘buffs’. Unreservedly recommended as a University Library acquisition for post-graduate students in Twentieth-Century British History, British Studies and War Studies.


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