Wednesday, November 30, 2005

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War.


David Reynolds has written In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. (Random House.)

The following are extracts from a review by Henrik Bering at Hoover Institution: Policy Review, December 2005.

Of particular interest is the stuff Churchill left out, which, not surprisingly, tends to show him in a less than flattering light. Thus, missing from Their Finest Hour are cabinet discussions at the time of Dunkirk about a negotiated peace using Mussolini as a go-between. Pressured by his foreign minister, Lord Halifax, Churchill at one point seemed to be willing to consider conceding Malta or Gibraltar or some African colonies if an accommodation with Hitler could be reached. This, of course, does not quite square with our image of him as the bedrock of anti-Nazi fortitude.

Despite his public stance of imperturbability, privately Churchill was less than certain of the outcome. At one point he worried aloud to General Ismay that they “probably would be dead in three months time.” But he also realized that Britain was in a very poor bargaining position and that even the hint of using Mussolini would be terrible for morale. “One cannot easily make a bargain at the last gasp. Once we started the friendly mediation of the Duce, we should destroy our power for fighting on.” The whole idea was quickly dropped. But we should not let this glimpse of a less confident Churchill diminish him, Reynolds cautions. Instead of “the almost blindly pugnacious bulldog of popular stereotype,” we should see him as a normal human being, subject to normal fears. What mattered was that he was capable of overcoming his private doubts to project utter confidence...

Churchill’s weaknesses as a commander-in-chief are well known. Always an admirer of military dash — he had been a cavalry officer, after all — Churchill had little patience for humdrum but rather necessary things like logistics...

There are occasional problems of emphasis in the later volumes, giving them a somewhat parochial perspective, and sometimes amounting to an outright distortion of the historical record. In volume four, The Hinge of Fate, Reynolds notes, Churchill depicted the battles of Midway and El Alamein as the hinges of the war while giving Stalingrad short shrift (a mere four pages). Alamein was certainly important for the Brits — “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat,” Churchill wrote — but its significance does tend to pale in comparison with Stalingrad. According to figures supplied by Reynolds, half a million Russians died in Stalingrad, and the Red Army killed 150,000 Germans and captured 91,000. At El Alamein the British 8th Army lost 13,500 men and took 30,000 Germans prisoner. The neglect of Stalingrad is no doubt explained by the Cold War — The Hinge of Fate was published at the time of the Korean War — which understandably was not the moment to be praising the Russians.

On the vital topic of Overlord, the allied invasion of France, Churchill particularly wanted to prove that he had not been opposed to it, as certain factions in the United States alleged. But, says Reynolds, he did not make a particularly good job of it. Though he had always paid lip service to Overlord as the keystone of Anglo-American cooperation, he saw as a fatal error the 1943 failure to exploit the Italian collapse by grabbing the Aegean islands and persuading Turkey to enter the war. Churchill’s problem with Overlord was not that he doubted the Allies could land in France; he worried what might occur between days 30 and 60 after the landings.

Accordingly, he forwarded to Stalin a telegram he had received from Eisenhower’s headquarters. Three-fourths of the telegram, composed by General Harold Alexander, contained an exceedingly gloomy assessment of the Italian situatuion following German reinforcements, making a cross-Channel invasion impracticable. But Churchill deliberately omitted a fourth section, written by Eisenhower himself, containing a much more optimistic view of the future and of Overlord’s chances. In what Reynolds considers “one of the most blatant distortions of the memoirs,” Churchill included in Closing the Ring the pessimistic portion of the cable, but again excluded Ike’s more optimistic view.

Having been forced to commit to Overlord, Churchill had at least arranged for it not to have a British commander. In a draft version that did not appear in the final work, he wrote: “I had the fear that if a bloody and disastrous repulse were encountered, far bigger than the first day on the Somme in 1916, there might be an outcry in the United States, it would be said that another result would have attended the appointment of an American general.”

...One of Churchill’s aims in Triumph and Tragedy was to pin the responsibility for Yalta and its aftermath on the Americans — though letting Roosevelt off easy on the grounds that the president had been dying at Yalta. And on the final race toward Berlin he blamed the U.S. generals for thinking in purely military terms and for ceding Berlin to the Soviets. But he could not criticize Eisenhower too directly, since Ike was now in the White House and Churchill did not want to damage the special relationship. Thus the line “Berlin, Prague and Vienna were needlessly yielded to the Soviets: Here may be discerned the tragedy of our triumph” ended up on the cutting room floor. But that was how he felt.

Trying to reduce tensions with the new Soviet leadership made him go easy on Stalin and shift blame for Soviet behavior onto shadowy “men behind him” and to the marshals. This is of course nonsense; Stalin had always been calling the shots in Moscow.


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