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Declaring that the rapidly expanding German army threatens European peace, Winston Churchill addresses a Theydon Bois, Essex, gathering on August 27, 1938. (National Archives)

The most depressing time in Winston Churchill’s long life was the 1930s. It was a period during which he clearly saw the approaching Nazi danger and during which his speeches — in fact his greatest — warned a heedless polity of its reckless course. Then, after every strategic advantage enjoyed by France and Britain had been’squandered and thrown away,’ Churchill found himself as prime minister.

What separated Churchill from his contemporaries was his recognition from 1933 on that Nazi Germany represented a terrifying strategic and moral danger. It was in that dark combination, he believed, that the rights, traditions, and fundamental beliefs of Western civilization were already under assault. In July 1934, Churchill wrote in the Daily Mail:

I marvel at the complacency of ministers in the face of the frightful experiences through which we have all so newly passed. I look with wonder upon the thoughtless crowds disporting themselves in the summer sunshine, and upon this unheeding House of Commons, which seems to have no higher function than to cheer a Minister; [and all the while across the North Sea], a terrible process is astir. Germany is arming.

As a result of this understanding, there were two sides to the coin: his critique of the government’s rearmament policies and his articulation of alternatives to the British government’s course.

Yet one must understand that Churchill’s policy of rearmament and cooperation with those nations opposed to Nazi Germany did not necessarily aim at war. It is fair to take Churchill at his word. Above all, he wished to deter Hitler and his supporters from embarking on the kind of risky foreign policy that would unleash another terrible European war. If, however, Britain and her friends could not deter Nazi Germany — and that was the grim reality, given what we know today about Hitler and his regime — then at least the West could fight the next war with some prospect of success. Throughout his career, Churchill was a supporter of the Roman saying: ‘If you wish peace, then prepare for war.’ The 1930s certainly lived up to his fears of the consequences of not following such a path.

On rearmament, Churchill maintained a steady, and at times furious, barrage against what he viewed as the consistent failure of Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain to address Britain’s fundamental security needs. In April 1938, an exasperated backbencher interrupted Churchill during one of his speeches urging more air defense, crying, ‘How much is enough?’ Churchill replied that the question reminded him of the man who received a telegram from Brazil informing him: ‘Your mother-in-law dead; wire instructions.’ The man, Churchill indicated, immediately replied: ‘Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances.’

But Churchill was not an unregenerate defender of high defense budgets. He had played a major role in developing the infamous ten-year rule in the early 1920s, which required that military budget estimates be based on the assumption that Britain would not be in a major war in the next ten years. The result was the general rundown of Britain’s defense industries, as well as its military services. Still, one must judge Churchill’s advocacy of restraints on military expenditure in the 1920s by reference to the political and strategic context of the decade. Germany was then a republic and her military shackled by the Versailles Treaty. But when the international environment underwent a drastic turn for the worse in the early 1930s, he at least recognized that Britain must fundamentally change its defense policies.

So too did the government. The argument between those in power and Churchill was over the scale of rearmament. In November 1933, with the arrival of Hitler and massive German rearmament, the cabinet authorized the Defense Requirements Committee to examine Britain’s defenses. After eight months of interminable wrangling and arguments, the cabinet finally agreed on the sum of seventy-one million pounds over the next five years to repair the defense deficiencies — this at a time when Hitler had already issued blank checks to the German military. By this point, the pace of Nazi rearmament had already accelerated well beyond Britain’s. Churchill’s attacks on the government’s policies reflected his belief that the strategic dangers and general inadequacies in defense spending would fundamentally undermine Britain’s security. To a certain extent, the government’s initial response reflected its readings of the British electorate’s mood and the deep hostility to any idea of rearmament throughout virtually all of British society. One must note that up to September 1938 there was no alternative to the Conservative government’s position on defense — unless, of course, one accepted Labor’s position that no defense was the best defense. Kingsley Martin’s column in the New Statesman shortly after the Anschluss suggests the willful opposition to even minimal defense expenditures that the Left exhibited throughout the decade: ‘Today, if Mr. Chamberlain would come forward and tell us that his polity was really one not only of isolation but also of Little Englandism in which the Empire was to be given up because it could not be defended and in which military defense was to be abandoned because war would totally end civilization, we, for our part, would totally support him.’

Labor’s record of opposing every single defense bill through to the conscription bill of April 1939 suggests why Churchill remained so isolated, given his repeated urgings for major rearmament programs. Yet even on the Conservative side, there was enormous opposition to increased defense expenditures.

Churchill’s quarrels with the government came out most clearly in the arguments over allocation of resources to the Royal Air Force (RAF). Beginning in 1934 he articulated a series of warnings that the government was missing the growing threat from German air armament. In an eloquent and, in retrospect, all too accurate speech in November 1934, he warned: ‘To urge preparation of defense is not to assert the imminence of war. On the contrary, if war were imminent, preparations for defense would be too late.’ Prime Minister Baldwin replied by assuring the House of Commons, ‘His Majesty’s Government are determined in no condition to accept any position of inferiority with regard to what air force may be raised in Germany in the future.’ In fact, the government was doing little to force the pace of RAF rearmament — all the more extraordinary in view of the fact that earlier that same year Baldwin had uttered his claim that ‘the bomber will always get through.’

Baldwin’s statement began a period of obfuscation, dishonesty, and lying in the face of Churchill’s attacks — one in which the government still refused to provide reasonable levels of funding to the RAF. Serving RAF officers, meanwhile, kept Churchill well informed on both the state of their service and German efforts to build up the Luftwaffe. He did not focus on the technical details of air rearmament due to his belief that what was crucial was that the RAF receive increased funding. In the end, the government of Neville Chamberlain made the crucial decision in late 1937 that Britain could only afford the buildup of a fighter, as opposed to a bomber, force, but it reached that decision because fighters were cheaper, rather than based on any belief in the efficacy of air defense. Churchill’s constant hammering on the lack of preparedness in the air and the importance of air defense supported what buildup did occur and provided much of the narrow margin by which Fighter Command won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Churchill’s support for specific programs for the other services was less influential. Neither army nor naval officers proved quite so willing to tattle on the government’s sorry record of support. Although Churchill never expressed support for Basil Liddell Hart’s ahistorical strategic concept of ‘limited liability’ — a belief that Britain should not commit major military forces to the Continent in the case of a general war — the horrific casualty rates in France during World War I had scarred him, like his contemporaries. While recognizing that Britain would have to commit troops to the Continent in support of France in another war, he also saw that some things were better left unargued in the political and intellectual atmosphere of the 1930s. Thus, he did not argue so vehemently in favor of financial increases in the army’s budget to support the French. But Churchill’s larger understanding was that underfunding the overall defense budget would ensure a state of unpreparedness at the onset of hostilities that would have dark consequences on future battlefields. He was right.

The navy, largely due to the Washington Naval Treaties, seemed least threatened by a German buildup. Certainly in its own eyes it was ready to master the immediate threat. But it, too, would not be ready for the war in the North Atlantic in 1939. What Churchill failed to see were the intellectual and doctrinal weaknesses in the preparations of Britain’s military forces. The army’s culture and its lack of understanding of what had happened on the battlefield in the last war had already put the British out of the ground-war race even before German rearmament began in February 1933. Unfortunately, Churchill remained blind to the systemic weaknesses in the army, and that blindness prevented him from forcing that organization to come up to the mark even by the end of World War II.

The other great issue between Churchill and virtually everyone in power in Britain in the 1930s — and most in opposition — had to do with his fundamentally different Weltanschauung (worldview). His beliefs were similar to those of the great Greek historian Thucydides, who had suggested that his purpose in writing a history of the Peloponnesian War was so that ‘these words of mine [will be] judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it its) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.’

Throughout the interwar years, Churchill was hard at work on his great histories, The World Crisis and Marlborough, His Life and Times. By writing history during so much of the 1920s and ’30s, Churchill expanded his sense of the continuities and dangers of the past. The real world of human strife remained firmly in his understanding of the current world. One passage in Marlborough, among many, reflecting on the strategic framework within which the War of the Spanish Succession was fought, illustrates that brilliant combination of past and present in Churchill’s writing and his recognition that we must see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be:

It was a war of the circumference against the center. When we reflect upon the selfish aims, the jealousies and shortcomings of the allies, upon their many divergent interests, upon the difficulties of procuring common and timely agreement upon any single necessary measure, upon the weariness, moral and physical, which drags down all prolonged human effort…we cannot regard it as strange that Louis XIV should so long have sustained his motto, ‘Nec pluribus impar.’ Lying in his central station with complete control of the greatest nation of the world in one of its most remarkable ebullitions, with the power to plan far in advance, to strike now in this quarter, now in that, and above all with the certainty of complete obedience, it is little wonder how well and how long he fought. The marvel is that any force could have been found in that unequipped civilization of Europe to withstand, still less to subdue him.

Even as he evaluated the world of the 1930s, Churchill held an historical and fundamentally pessimistic view of what the German threat meant to Britain. This influence thoroughly informed his views on foreign and defense policy. Those who determined Britain’s response in the late 1930s did not agree. Over them, as over Churchill, hung the shadows of the Loos, the Somme, and Paschendaele. But where Churchill aimed at meeting the challenge by backing up a strong foreign policy with major rearmament programs, they chose another tack. Admittedly, British politicians and strategists confronted complex problems. Britain’s economic position had weakened considerably compared to 1914, she faced a major threat to her interests in the Far East, and even the Italians were a significant challenge in the Mediterranean.
A stern-faced Churchill and British Foreign Minister Lord Halifax walk to Parliament several weeks after Germany’s annexation of Austria. The British government had already concluded that, according to Halifax, ‘Czechoslovakia is not worth the bones of a single British grenadier.’ (National Archives)

Underlying the government’s policy was an unreasonable belief that international affairs had changed in fundamental ways since 1914. Strategic interests did not matter, military power would not play a significant part in the equation again, and above all, war was something that no reasonable statesman would ever consider. Appeasement, as practiced by the British governments of the late 1930s, represented an odd combination of naivet, optimistic assessments, and a belief in the supremacy of morality in international affairs. Neville Henderson, ambassador to Berlin, best caught this mixture in a cable he sent to the foreign minister, Lord Halifax, in May 1938 as the political struggle over the future of Czechoslovakia’s predominantly German Sudetenland began heating up:

Yet even when I try to imagine that which I feel in my heart to be inevitable and evolutional is neither, and when I think in terms of British interests only, regardless of right or wrong, I still feel that however repugnant, dangerous, and troublesome the result may be or may seem likely to be, the truest British interest is to come down on the side of the highest moral principles. And the only lastingly right moral principle is self-determination. The British Empire is built upon it and we cannot deny it without incalculable prejudice to something which is of infinitely greater importance to the world than apprehensions of the German menace.

Three months later, as the Czech crisis was exploding, Henderson wrote Halifax: ‘Personally I just sit and pray for one thing, namely that Lord Runciman [head of a diplomatic mission to Czechoslovakia] will live up to the role of the impartial British liberal statesman. I cannot believe that he will allow himself to be influenced by ancient history or even arguments about strategic frontiers and economics in preference to high moral principles.’

As the great twentieth-century historian of Eastern Europe Louis Namier has pointed out, the 1,250 pages of published documents on British foreign policy dealing with the Czech crisis over the summer of 1938 contain not a single reference to the strategic and military impact of abandoning Czechoslovakia without a fight and the consequences that such an action would have on the European military balance of power in succeeding years. Since the opening up of the British cabinet documents in the early 1970s, we know that this crucial question does not appear in cabinet discussions until September 16, 1938, when Oliver Stanley, president of the Board of Trade, asked what the results of a surrender of Czechoslovakia might be.

In fact, Chamberlain and his supporters in the cabinet were not afraid of losing a war to Germany in 1938. As Halifax told the cabinet in mid-September 1938, he ‘had no doubt that if we were involved in war now, we should win it after a long time.’ Halifax then, however, continued on to add what lay at the heart of the appeasers’ objection to a hard policy toward Germany — an approach that might result in war. He ‘could not feel that we were justified in embarking on an action which could result in such untold suffering.’ Consequently, the result was a consistent ‘best case’ analysis of German intentions, goals, and behavior — a state of mind that all too often slipped over into the intellectual dishonesty exhibited in an entry in the diary of Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the London Times, that he was engaged in a constant battle to take out everything in the paper that might hurt German sensibilities.

Moreover, reinforcing the thrust of British policy throughout the late 1930s was a military ‘worst casing’ of the strategic situation. In some instances, such as Chamberlain’s charge to the chiefs of staff for a European evaluation done in reaction to the Anschluss, the government deliberately loaded the dice to encourage gloomy assessments of the strategic situation. But the chiefs of staff hardly needed encouragement in 1938 to paint a dark picture of British and Allied prospects should war occur. In the March 1938 appreciation, they commented:

We conclude that no pressure that we and our possible allies can bring to bear, either by sea, on land or in the air could prevent Germany from invading and overrunning Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat of the Czechoslovakian army….In the world situation today it seems to us…Italy and Japan would seize the opportunity to further their own ends and that in consequence the problem we have to envisage is not that of a limited European war only, but of a World War. On this situation we reported as follows some four months only: — ‘Without overlooking the assistance we should hope to obtain from France and possibly other allies, we cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade and vital interests against Germany, Italy, and Japan simultaneously.’

A careful reading of the military and strategic evidence, however, indicates that the military situation in 1938 was far more favorable to the Allies than what they were to face in 1939. Even a substantial number of Germany’s senior military leaders felt the same.

Churchill remained opposed to the government’s and the military’s assessments for realistic reasons. He understood the nature of the Nazi regime and recognized that it represented an enormous ideological threat, although he phrased his understanding more in terms of good and evil than in terms of ideology. Consequently, he understood what his contemporaries refused to see: There was no chance of reaching a long-term accommodation with Hitler or the Nazis. Any agreement could only result in undermining Britain’s values, traditions, and moral position. On the military side, he evaluated the strategic balance more favorably than did the chiefs of staff. In the end it was a good thing that Churchill remained out of office during the 1930s. There is no doubt that he sought office during this period. He was particularly upset that he failed to get the position of minister for the coordination of defense in 1936. Baldwin appointed the little-known and unsuited Sir Thomas Inskip to that position, an appointment Churchill accurately described as the most astonishing since Caligula had appointed his horse consul of Rome. The larger issue, however, in view of the political realities and limitations of the 1930s (and not in view of what we know about the results) is the question of what Churchill could have achieved that the governments of the time did not. As a member of the government in 1937 and 1938 — given political attitudes within the cabinet, particularly after Chamberlain became prime minister — Churchill would have had little room to maneuver in trying to expand defense spending. Moreover, as a member of the government, Churchill would have had to carry the opprobrium of defending the government’s defense expenditures in public.

Much of the argument over defense in the late 1930s rested on the capability of the British economy to support a sustained program of rearmament. British governments displayed extraordinary concern throughout the period about the country’s financial position — a reasonable attitude, considering the 1931 financial panic and continuing difficulties over Britain’s balance of payments. Chamberlain warned the cabinet in spring 1937, shortly before he became prime minister, that he

could not accept the question at issue [the services’ request for increased defense spending] as being a purely military matter. Other considerations entered into it. The country was being asked to maintain a larger navy than had been the case for very many years; a great air force, which was a new arm altogether; and, in addition, an army for use on the Continent — as well as the facilities for producing munitions which would be required not only for our forces but also for our allies.

Chamberlain’s path as both chancellor of the Exchequer and prime minister represented a consistent effort to minimize British defense expenditures, at least through March 1939. Certainly, the political consensus through much of the period agreed with his economic and diplomatic analysis. It is worth noting, however, that there were elements even within the Treasury that believed that Britain could have supported higher levels of rearmament.

Admittedly, even as prime minister Churchill would have found it difficult to push much beyond Chamberlain’s armament programs — at least until late summer 1938 — given the attitudes within the Conservative Party, not to mention the country as a whole. In fact, either a strong rearmament policy or an adventurous foreign policy — or the two in combination — might well have fractured the British polity and made the kind of unity demanded by a great world war impossible. Up till September 1938, Chamberlain’s foreign policy was defensible in terms of British popular attitudes. However, the prime minister stepped off into disaster when he refused to recognize that Hitler’s behavior in the summer and fall of 1938 had revealed the darker aims and goals of the Nazi regime.

But having come face to face with Nazi intransigence and truculence in the period before the Munich conference, Chamberlain had crumbled. The eventual result was the tragic and disastrous surrender of Czechoslovakia at the end of September 1938. Throughout that summer and fall, Churchill saw the terrible strategic and military consequences of the government’s course. He could badger the ministers, but he could not change the policy. The greatest speech of his career came in his chilling depiction in early October 1938 of what the Western powers had abandoned to the Nazis at Munich. A few short paragraphs provide all the reader needs to know about Churchill’s separation from the perceived wisdom of the British nation at large — a gulf the furious reception that most of the House of Commons gave to his dire warnings further underlines:

All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with France, under whose guidance and policy she has been actuated for so long….Every position has been undermined and abandoned on specious and plausible excuses.

I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week, the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth….They should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged and that the terrible words have for the time been spoken against the Western Democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ And do not suppose that this is the end. This is the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup….

The collapse of the Munich agreement with Hitler’s seizure of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939 restored Churchill’s political position after the darkness of a wilderness that had lasted almost a decade. What was particularly disastrous for Britain’s prospects in the coming war was the fact that Chamberlain had done virtually nothing to accelerate British military preparations between September 1938 and March 1939. Outside of construction of a few escort vessels and extension of contracts for fighter production from 1941 into ’42, his government refused to address any of the substantial weaknesses that had appeared during the mobilization occasioned by the Czech crisis. In the end, there had been no speeding up the rearmament effort. Despite the shock of Hitler’s occupation of Prague in March 1939, Chamberlain still refused to bring Churchill into the cabinet. One suspects that the prime minister had two reasons: a fear of Churchill’s dominating personality and a belief that Churchill’s inclusion in the cabinet would represent to many in and outside of Germany that Britain regarded war as inevitable. After March 1939, Chamberlain and Halifax were more interested in deterring Germany and cutting her off diplomatically than in creating a viable military coalition to defeat the Nazis. Their failure to approach the Soviet Union and the distribution of guarantees to the states of Eastern Europe, none of which France and Britain had the slightest hope of supporting with military force, suggest an unwillingness to face the hard realities of a fast-approaching war. From what we now know of Soviet policy, there was no chance that the West and the Soviets might have reached an accommodation, especially after the Germans recognized that they could make a deal with the Soviets. But the guarantees throughout Eastern Europe were strategic madness.

Churchill welcomed the government’s change of direction but was soon appalled by its attitudes toward Russia. He also recognized the necessity for a stand in Eastern Europe. But, again, the lack of realism in much of Chamberlain’s policy — at least what Churchill knew of the government’s policies — could not have pleased him. His cutting comment on the guarantee to Poland in his memoirs suggests the degree of his differences:

And now, when every one of these aids and advantages has been squandered and thrown away, Great Britain advances, leading France by the hand, to guarantee the integrity of Poland — to that very Poland which with hyena appetite had only six months before joined in the pillage and destruction of the Czechoslovak state. There was sense in fighting for Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the German army could put barely a dozen trained divisions on the Western Front, when the French with nearly sixty or seventy divisions could most certainly have rolled forward across the Rhine or into the Ruhr. But this had all been judged unreasonable, rash, below the level of modern intellectual thought or morality. Yet now at last the two Western Democracies declared themselves ready to stake their lives upon the territorial integrity of Poland. History which we are told is mainly the record of crimes, follies and miseries of mankind, may be scoured and ransacked to find a parallel to this sudden and complete reversal of five or six years’ policy of easy going placatory appeasement, and its transformation almost overnight into a readiness to accept an obviously imminent war on far worse conditions and on the greatest scale.

What is apparent in the course of British policy in 1939 is that two major assessments of Germany — the political and the military — had undergone substantial change since Munich. On the political level, the government had revised its picture of the Nazi regime and of Hitler in particular. Churchill agreed fully with the change in political assessment, although unlike the government, he recognized that war was inevitable.

But on the strategic side, the British military downgraded its estimates of Germany’s military and economic ability to meet the demands of another great world war, while they were increasing their estimates of their own potential. Two factors explain the change. First, British strategic intelligence, even as the Czech crisis lurched to its end in September 1938, had picked up how badly prepared militarily and economically the Germans had been to meet war in fall 1938. Throughout the winter of 1938-39, a flood of intelligence confirmed that Germany’s situation had been dangerously weak in the fall. The second factor was that after the German occupation of Prague, the firestorm of political anger in Britain forced the government to begin a massive program of rearmament to meet the Nazi threat. The prospects of that program lifted much of the British military’s forebodings as to the situation. It should not have.

Over the summer of 1939, the Chamberlain government continued making crucial decisions on the basis of general ignorance of strategic factors. Its record thus far had not been stellar; it did not improve in the last months before war. Here is where one suspects that Churchill might have contributed much to these desperate prewar debates, the unfortunate outcomes of which resulted in Nazi Germany’s escape from its strategic vulnerabilities in the first seven months of the war. Churchill’s unrivaled ability to strip faulty reasoning from the body of argument and to plunge through to the heart of the matter might well have pushed the Western powers on a more realistic course.

One of the crucial arguments in the summer of 1939 revolved around the Italian problem: Should Britain and France appease Benito Mussolini or, if war broke out, encourage him to enter the conflict at Germany’s side? For one of the few times in the 1930s, the Chamberlain government got the issue right. The prime minister himself argued in a meeting of the Foreign Policy Committee that there were important advantages in having the Italians on Germany’s side during any war. Nevertheless,in the end the British chiefs of staff talked the government out of one of the few sensible strategic courses that it had considered during the 1930s. The military’s arguments rested on entirely specious grounds — that Italy might ‘be in a position to hit us more effectively at the outset than we can hit her….’

The difference that Churchill might have made in the debate over Italy is suggested by his participation, as first lord of the Admiralty, in the debates after the start of war. In early October 1939, there arose a question as to whether the Allies should mine the Norwegian leads, or coastal waters, to prevent transshipment of Swedish ore through neutral waters to Germany. Not surprisingly, Churchill backed this course. In December the chiefs of staff raised objections because they wished to persuade the Scandinavians to allow a major movement of Allied forces across Norway and Sweden to support the Finns. Churchill’s devastating one-page reply to such nonsense underlines why his leadership, with its extraordinary grasp and understanding, was so essential to British victory in World War II:

The self-contained minor operation of stopping the ore from Narvik and Oxelsund [namely the mining of the Norwegian leads] must not be tried because it would jeopardize the larger plan. The larger plan [getting Norway and Sweden to invite the Allies in] must not be attempted unless Norway and Sweden cooperate. Not only must they not resist militarily or adopt a purely passive attitude, but must actively cooperate….But is there any prospect of Sweden and Norway actually cooperating with us of their own free will to bring about a series of operations which as is well set out in their [chiefs of staff] paper will a) ruin the trade of their ironfield and the shipping which carries it; b) involve them in a war with Germany; c) expose the whole southern part of both countries to German invasion and occupation? Left to themselves they will certainly refuse, and, if pressed diplomatically, they will protest loudly to the world. Thus, the minor operation is knocked out for the sake of the bigger, and the bigger is declared only practicable upon conditions that will not occur.

A combination of Halifax’s opposition to strong actions against neutral powers and the chiefs of staffs’ prestige thwarted Churchill’s support for the mining operation in the winter. Eventually, immediately before Germany’s April 9, 1940, invasion of Scandinavia, the operation went forward. Consequently, the British provided the Germans with an excuse for their aggression while gaining little military advantage because the mining came so late.

It was in his ability to recognize the heart of the argument that Churchill was to be such a great war leader. Much of the nonsense that characterized arguments put forward by the government’s military advisers in the late 1930s never passed muster under Churchill’s alert and penetrating gaze during the war. In 1938 this would have made little difference, even had Churchill been in the cabinet; Chamberlain and his supporters had made up their mind on the basis of the political assessment that the men in Berlin were reasonable individuals.In summer 1939, however, Churchill might have made some considerable difference in a cabinet more open to strategic or military direction. Lord Ismay best summed up Churchill’s abilities as a strategist in a letter that he wrote to the new theater commander in the Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck:

The idea that he [Churchill] was rude, arrogant, and self-seeking was entirely wrong. He was none of those things. He was certainly frank in speech and writing, but he expected others to be equally frank with him. To a young brigadier from Middle East Headquarters who had asked him if he could speak freely, he replied: ‘Of course. We are not here to pay each other compliments.’…He had a considerable respect for the trained military mind, but refused to subscribe to the idea that generals were infallible or had any monopoly on the military art. He was not a gambler, but never shrank from taking a calculated risk if the situation so demanded….

Another one of Churchill’s military advisers characterized the change from Chamberlain to Churchill in the following terms: ‘The days of mere ‘coordination’ were out for good and all….We were now going to get direction, leadership with a snap in it.’ Churchill himself accurately remarked that the strategic decision-making system under his predecessors had represented ‘the maximum of study and the minimum of action. It was all very well to say that everything had been thought of. The crux of the matter was — had anything been done?’

Over the summer of 1939, Churchill waited for the war that he knew was coming. As he told an American audience in a sarcastic speech broadcast from Britain:

Holiday time, ladies and gentlemen! Holiday time, my friends across the Atlantic! Holiday time, when the summer calls the toilers of all countries for an all too brief spell from the offices and mills….

Let me look back — let me see. How did we spend our summer holidays twenty-five years ago? Why those were the very days when the German advance guards were breaking into Belgium and trampling down its people….

But perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps our memory deceives us. Dr. Geobbels and his Propaganda Ministry have their own version of what happened twenty-five years ago. To hear them talk, you would suppose that it was Belgium that invaded Germany! There they were, these peaceful Prussians, gathering in their harvests, when this wicked Belgium — set on by England and the Jews — fell upon them….

But to come back to the hush I said was hanging over Europe. What kind of hush is it? Alas! it is the hush of suspense, and in many lands it is the hush of fear. Listen! No, listen carefully; I think I hear something — yes, there it is quite clear. Don’t you hear it? It is the tramp of armies crunching the gravel of the parade-grounds, splashing through rain soaked fields, the tramp of two million German soldiers and more than a million Italians — ‘going on maneuvers’ — yes, only on maneuvers! Of course it’s only maneuvers — just like last year. After all, the dictators must train their soldiers. They could scarcely do less in common prudence, when the Danes, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Albanians — and of course the Jews — may leap out upon them at any moment to rob them of their living space, and make them sign another paper to say who began it.

Churchill’s time soon came. But Chamberlain waited until the actual outbreak of war with Germany’s invasion of Poland and the declaration of war by Britain before he allowed Churchill to re-enter the charmed circle of decision makers in the cabinet. On September 3 he was named first lord of the Admiralty. By this point, Churchill’s reputation was such that, given the accuracy of his predictions and warnings, not even the failure of the Norwegian campaign — which was not his greatest moment — could prevent him from assuming the leadership of his nation in the dark days of May 1940.

How to evaluate the years in the wilderness? Churchill, indeed, waged a lonely crusade against the revealed wisdom of most of Britain’s literate society. His position on the outside allowed him to express his opinions with a freedom that would not have been possible within the cabinet. Moreover, through to the Czech crisis, there was little chance that the British government could have pursued a stronger course in either foreign policy or in rearmament, given national attitudes, without the considerable danger of splitting the nation.

Where British policy sorely missed Churchill’s wisdom was in the post-Munich period. Through March 1939, the government refused any speedup in its rearmament programs. The year between Munich and the outbreak of war was one that Britain largely wasted and of which the Germans took full advantage. Moreover, Churchill’s absence from strategic debates after March 1939 drove British and French strategy toward a supine unwillingness to undertake any military action, despite the considerable weaknesses still plaguing the German military and economy. As a result, Germany escaped its predicament, and in the May 1940 campaign in the West completely overturned the European balance of power, at least for the short run. But Churchill’s prestige, gained in his lonely battles of the 1930s, provided him the persona to persuade the British people to stand alone after the fall of France.

Churchill’s prewar efforts, then, had gone for naught — his own people had not listened. Might his course have prevented war? That, of course, is one of the great imponderables of the 1930s. The evidence available certainly suggests that nothing could have avoided war except abject surrender. But the course that Churchill advocated carried with it a real level of military and strategic preparation that might at least have enabled the West to win the conflict at less cost, whatever the nature or the timing of the war that broke out.

As for that lonely fight against the tide of public opinion, the intellectual elite, and the masters of his own party, perhaps only the words of seventeenth-century poet John Milton capture the courage and tenacity of Churchill’s struggle against those who knew better:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov’d
Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d
His Loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him
To swerve from truth, or change his
constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth
he pass’d,
Long way through hostile scorn, which
he sustain’d
Superior, nor of violence fear’d aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn’d.


This article was written by Williamson Murray and originally published in the Winter 2001 edition of MHQ.

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