Churchill's army: the wartime leader’s military track record examined

Winston Churchill, Britain’s iconic wartime prime minister, is inextricably linked with the victorious British Army of 1939 to 1945. Yet, argues Stephen Bull in his new book, hindsight, propaganda and the imperative of the defeat of Hitler and Imperial Japan have led to a tendency to oversimplify the image of Churchill the war leader, and ‘his’ army...

Here, writing for History Extra, the author of Churchill's Army: 1939–1945 The Men, Machines and Organisation, investigates Churchill’s military achievements…

According to a BBC poll of 2002, Sir Winston Churchill is the ‘Greatest Briton’. Apparently he stands very comfortably ahead of the likes of William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Queen Victoria and Henry V; and, in the public view at least, Winston is hugely more popular than Oliver Cromwell, who stands at 10th place. With Churchill gracing the new £5 note from September 2016 it is probable that a repeat of the vote would see Britain's wartime prime minister top the leaderboard again today – though what might happen to the relative positions of, say, David Bowie (29); Sir Cliff Richard (56); Robbie Williams (77); Irish-born Bono (86) or Sir William Wallace (48) is much more difficult to call.

While the 2002 poll exercise was more fun than academic, it underlines an important truth: the popular reputation of Churchill is second to none, and Winston's boast that history would treat him kindly, since he would write it, has proved far from idle.

The most significant part of the Churchillian image that we have inherited, and clearly still cherish, is his towering performance in the Second World War. More precisely, it’s the five years and two months separating his unelected, but perhaps unsurprising, elevation to the premiership on 10 May 1940, and the rather less predictable general election result announced on 26 July 1945 heralding his ejection. This half-decade was obviously much more than a “finest hour”, and was a crucial moment in world history, but was arguably quite untypical of his rollercoaster public life before that point. There was indeed nothing at all predictable about Churchill's success in the Second World War.

His track record in the First World War was perhaps more of a cause for worry than for optimism. For while he had had moments of inspiration, such as backing the idea of the 'Land Ship' [now called the tank] and other technologies, his strategic judgment proved questionable. Most importantly, his active support of the Gallipoli campaign led to a military cul-de-sac, and a disaster in which about 44,000 British, empire and French soldiers died. It also resulted in something of a public disgrace for Churchill himself: he was demoted within the coalition government and ultimately resigned a few months later, soon going to seek his private redemption as infantry battalion commander on the Western Front in 1916.

Churchill’s political rehabilitation was relatively swift, however: he rejoined government as minister of munitions in 1917 and became Secretary of State for War in 1919. But his interwar record also featured reverses: while serving as chancellor from 1924 to 1929 he oversaw the return to the ‘gold standard’ in 1925 [a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold]. As Churchill himself would later admit, this was the greatest mistake of his life; an error which, it has been argued, led to “dear money” and an exchange rate unfavourable to industry and contributed to the onset of economic depression and the General Strike. His face on the ‘plastic’ five pound note today would likely have amused John Maynard Keynes and others who argued against restoring currency to a prewar parity with gold. Churchill, the man who is now regarded as the personification of the ‘bulldog spirit’ of defiance clutching a Tommy gun and speaking of fighting on the beaches, was in other circumstances also fallible politician.


Winston Churchill wearing his medals at the Crystal Palace, 11 June 1938. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Similar ambiguity attends Churchill's specific relationship with ‘his’ army. Winston was associated with the military first and with politics only much later, since he had joined the Harrow School Rifle Corps as early as 1888, when he was just a teenager. He served as army officer or correspondent in several colonial wars including that in South Africa. Significantly however, unlike Hitler, Churchill was never ‘commander in chief’ and was not in a position to command merely by decree. Often Churchill's favourite techniques, such as conferences with chiefs of staff, personal vetting of the selection of generals and creation of bodies directly responsible to himself, were essentially ways to short-circuit established but ponderous methods and chains of command. From Churchill's perspective this was done to speed the wheels of war and overcome intransigence, but it could also lead to confusion and exhaustion. ‘Minutes’ from the prime minister and demands for ‘action this day’ electrified command, but when they flew thick and fast and one contradicted another and priority was lost.

Intriguingly, some of the traits of Hitler's military leadership are also to be found in Churchill. For example, sleep during the day left an energetic 66-year-old Winston fresher longer but also kept his aides at, or beyond, full stretch. In his diaries, Winston's assistant private secretary, Jock Colville, attests to both to late nights and an atmosphere of rush and urgency. Like Hitler, Churchill obsessed about pet schemes, involving, for example, Turkey and Norway, and needed to be pulled back to core strategies. And, as with Hitler, Churchill was sometimes diverted into minutiae: specific examples included army badges and the headgear and buttons of his old regiments, the 4th Queen's Own Hussars and the Oxfordshire Hussars.

Again like Hitler, Churchill also had a penchant for ‘monster’ weapons: super heavy artillery and tanks and huge trench-digging machines. On more than one occasion he demanded a specific weapon be obtained quickly or in vast numbers, when more sober estimates urged limited commitment or development of something different and better. This was especially true of tanks early in the war, and of arms for the Home Guard, for whom various short-range ambush weapons were ordered in 1940 but many of which did not appear until 1941 or 1942, when they saw little productive use since there was in the end no German invasion. Churchill's interventions regarding the balance of the ‘teeth’ and ‘tail’ of the army, its fighting and supporting arms, remain particularly controversial.

Churchill was also heavily implicated in some of the worst episodes to befall the British Army during the Second World War. In the case of the Norwegian campaign in 1940 he agitated for the deployment of forces and pursued a policy that could have led to conflict with the Soviet Union as well as Germany. He was very lucky that the results of failure in Norway and Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of British and French forces, did not lead to his return to “the wilderness”. Rather, during the so-called ‘Norway Debate’ of 7 May [a debate between MPs on Britain's failed campaign against German forces in Norway], blame fell largely at Chamberlain's door – a highly fortuitous turn of events for Churchill that paved the way to his own premiership. Indeed, the debate turned into a vote of confidence, forced by Labour, on Chamberlain. He won with a reduced majority and, with his credibility badly damaged, resigned two days later and was replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill.


Londoners line Downing Street in the hope of getting a glimpse of the departing British prime minister Neville Chamberlain after his resignation, 9 May 1940. (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The army's biggest loss, in the Malaya campaign and fall of Singapore in 1942, may not have been directly or solely attributable to Churchill, but the judgment that the best weapons and troops be reserved for North Africa and the defence of the UK necessarily had consequences elsewhere. The then chief of staff, Sir John Dill, was just one of several who thought Egypt less of a priority. In the event, victory in North Africa took almost three years to achieve, and its impact on the German war machine, though real and ultimately of some significance, was slow and indirect.

Yet we should not allow the enthusiastic failings, trivial meddlings or even a few significant disasters to blind us to the bigger picture of Churchill's achievement, nor his really important influences upon the British Army. Arguably the most crucial of these were a consequence of the central tenets of his strategy, to which his best advisors held and supported him in moments of crisis. The key points were arguably just two: Britain should seek to fight alongside America, and, after retreat from Dunkirk, no new ‘Western Front’ should emerge until the time was right. The first objective ensured that, given time, British armies were not outnumbered and gained alternate, almost inexhaustible, sources of supply; the second kept casualties to a sustainable level. Though there were hard-fought battles and very difficult times, such as the struggle for Normandy, British army morale never came close to collapse, and there was nothing of the magnitude of loss represented by the Somme or Third Ypres.

Ultimately far fewer British soldiers died in the Second World War than the First. This was all the more remarkable when other powers suffered so badly in the Second World War, especially Germany and the Soviet Union, and Britain had been at war rather longer than most. Britain's struggle with Germany lasted more than two years longer than that of America. The Soviet Union had acted in concert with Hitler in 1939, then absorbed truly catastrophic losses from mid-1941 to May 1945, civil and military deaths combined being estimated conservatively at more than 20 million. At the same time Churchill neatly sidestepped the possible consequences of the court of public opinion until after Germany was defeated. He was all too well aware that British casualties on the scale of the First World War could have caused very serious problems for government. Chamberlain's fate after Norway was a warning of how volatile political and civil opinion might be in the face of setback.

Churchill also had some very positive impacts on the army at levels below that of grand strategy. Obviously he helped maintain powers of resistance by sheer power of oratory: he delivered good news very well and bad news magnificently; a quality that appears to have particularly endeared him to the British people. He also spoke directly to both troops and civilians on as many occasions as possible, and this involved not only broadcasting, but travelling around the world in a Liberator aircraft, remaining in London during the Blitz, visiting the Italian front and Normandy. Such was the industry, even impetuosity, of his leadership that on occasion he had to be dissuaded by both his minders and King George VI from thrusting himself forward into danger. The examples set by all his surviving children in joining the various armed forces also reinforced his calls to military service, and helped ensure his pleas for action and sacrifice appeared honest and genuine, and were not regarded as cant.

While Churchill’s detailed interventions regarding specific tanks and guns may have been unhelpful, even counter-productive on occasion, the fact that he championed the importance of categories of weapons and equipment was not insignificant. Indeed, his role in encouraging the initial development of the tank in the First World War had showed his imagination at its best. Less well known, but arguably even more noteworthy, were Churchill's calls for aggression and support of unconventional methods of warfare. Though his personal visions for commandos and paratroops and his understanding of their purpose in battle was vague at the outset, he would set in train changes that eventually had marked impacts on not only the British Army, but the US army and many Allied forces. For example, arguably the modern concept of ‘special forces’ owes more to Winston Churchill than to any other individual, for while he developed none of the tactics personally it was he who made possible and encouraged the activities of men such as David Stirling [founder of Britain's elite Special Air Service] and Orde Wingate [a British general who helped to revolutionise the way war could be fought in the jungle] and made sure that even in time of shortage and crisis, resources were made available.


Orde Wingate. From ‘The War Illustrated’ Volume 7 edited by Sir John Hammerton. [The Amalgamated Press Ltd, London, 1943-44]. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Again in the field of ‘combined operations’ Churchill intervened personally, often to the chagrin of generals and admirals, and started an important strand of development. Raiding the enemy coast required the development of landing craft and other equipment, plus the active cooperation of army, navy, and air force. These were exactly the things that would make seaborne invasions, and eventually D-Day itself, practicable. Winston's constant clamouring for action and specific operations was not always useful, but the concomitant focus of activity and resources certainly was. Army, navy and air force were encouraged, sometimes forced, into collaborations, and vital developments brought forward when they were really needed. If the small picture was muddied by Churchill, the bigger one ultimately benefitted.

Moreover, in certain instances Winston's posturing over tiny operations and worrying of detail was not always misplaced. Rather, it contributed in a roundabout way to his key objectives of not challenging the German army head on prematurely, and of garnering credit with Allies and potential allies. This was certainly true of his championing of both the RAF and the commandos, for in both cases raids on mainland Europe not only inflicted damage but lent the impression that, while the British army was not in France en masse, Britain was fighting the enemy energetically and vociferously. Wasting time and playing for time were not necessarily one and the same thing, and might support morale when there were few successes to celebrate.

In the case of the commandos in particular, pinprick raids at Britain's darkest hour may appear folly in retrospect, but they were important at the time. They showed both America and beaten friends on the continent that Britain was serious in continuing the war, and particularly in late 1941 and 1942 took the sting out of Stalin's goadings to create a ‘Second Front’ before Winston was ready. Not for nothing were communiques sketched out in advance before raids had actually taken place, and even relatively small ventures were accompanied by war reporters. By 1943 Sicily and Italy were real ‘second fronts’ of sorts and the Special Force could cease to be ‘hit and run’ formation and be recast instead as a spear point or surprise element in amphibious and airborne landing on the battlefield.

Perhaps it is still far too soon to judge the man who was arguably the “greatest Briton”. But it is not too early to highlight an intimate, if often contradictory, relationship with an army that changed so much, and made such an important contribution during the Second World War.

Stephen Bull is the author of Churchill's Army: 1939–1945 The Men, Machines and Organisation (Bloomsbury).

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