- Brian Lavery
- ARRSE Rating
- 5 Mushroom Heads
Churchill was not only the best potential British Prime Minister available in 1940; he was the only credible one. Apart from his energy, oratory and leadership, Churchill had something that none of his rivals could offer: a unique understanding of land, sea and air warfare, derived from his own experience. This allowed him correctly to assess the needs of all three Services at a time when resources were severely stretched. In response to the criticism that there was no single Minister in overall charge of the prosecution of the war, Churchill created and took on the additional portfolio of Minister of Defence. No Defence Minister has ever faced such daunting challenges and, although he made some mistakes, no-one else has ever managed to balance the needs of the Services, the State and its survival so successfully.
The book is divided into four parts:
Part I, Preparing for War, covers Churchill's service in the Cavalry, his time as a war correspondent in the Anglo-Boer War and his first appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty, during which time he founded the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914 and confronted the German U-boat menace.
Part II, The Fortunes of War, covers Churchill's fall, scapegoated for the failure of the Gallipoli expedition. For seven months he commanded an Infantry battalion on the Western Front. However he returned to Government in 1917; initially as Minister of Munitions. This background in administration and logistics was invaluable preparation for the challenges of World War II.
Part III, Peace and War, covers the inter-war period. Churchill, nominated Secretary of State for War and Air in January 1919, attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and oversaw the birth of the RAF. There is an examination of his military innovations, including the armoured car, the tank and the use of aircraft. Churchill had to fight for the RAF's survival; there were influential people – in the Army and Navy, as well as politicians – who opposed the creation of the new Service, as they opposed his reforms to the Army; for example, the switch from horses to tanks. Churchill won; the RAF was saved and the Tank Corps (later the Royal Tank Regiment) came into being. The wartime coalition, in which Churchill had served as a Liberal, ended in 1922. In 1924 the Liberal Party decided to support a short-lived minority Labour Government, which Churchill passionately opposed. He broke with the Liberals and became Conservative MP for Epping. The Conservatives soon returned to power. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appointed Churchill Chancellor of the Exchequer. He oversaw the UK's return to the Gold Standard; this resulted in deflation, unemployment and a miners' strike leading to the 1926 General Strike. His reputation damaged, Churchill remained out of office from 1929 to 1939, when he was recalled to the Admiralty. His decade on the back benches was not wasted: a swarm of books and articles flowed from his pen. He became one of the best-paid British authors of the day. Among other works, Churchill produced his monumental Life of Marlborough and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He continued to study and write about military matters. His innovative ideas sometimes received a more favourable reception abroad, including by future enemies, than they did in the UK. This Part concludes with an examination of Churchill as First Lord in 1939-40 and of the Navy at war.
Part IV, Finest Hour and After, is in many respects the most exciting, covering as it does “The Finest Hour” of 1940; Churchill as war leader; the war on land; the war at sea; air power in operation; air support and combined operations. The American historian Williamson Murray is cited:
The military performance of Britain in the Second World War provides any number of important points. In many respects it was truly outstanding. Its mobilisation and resource allocation were the best of any combatant in the war; its conduct of strategy and its ability to co-operate with allies in an effective fashion were also excellent. Inter-service cooperation, particularly in combined operations, made major contributions to the winning of the war, and the conduct of intelligence and incorporation of both technical and “Ultra” information into the war effort was outstanding.
With the possible exception of intelligence, Churchill deeply influenced all these activities. Churchill's first-hand military knowledge was another vital factor; Murray makes clear that Churchill's predecessors failed because they “lacked a depth of knowledge on military and strategic matters”. Lavery does not however gloss over Churchill's deficiencies. Some of his ideas were misguided. He was not interested in, and did not understand, national finance or economics. He was not a successful or distinguished peacetime Minister or Prime Minister. He was not able to defend or restore the British Empire (could anyone else have done so?) but he was definitely “the right man, in the right place, at the right time” in 1940.
Metellus Cimber II