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Sixty years ago, Allied political leaders and military commanders at the highest strategic levels fretfully considered the question of when the war in Europe would end and what that end would look like. Guessing would not be useful, and hopes could not be blind. The coming of the end of the war needed to be a matter of educated assessment, flexible planning and unprecedented coordination within government and the armed services.

Fortunately, Winston Spencer Churchill proved to be a master at meeting all of those demands. Britain’s prime minister had an uncanny ability to anticipate the course of events and to encourage or admonish as necessary. Above all, Churchill clearly foresaw the end of war in Europe. He showed such sound judgment, in fact, that one could say his predictions make a handsome bookend to his other, long-recognized predictions in the 1930s about the coming of the war. First as min-ister of defense and later as prime minister and a key member of a multinational coalition, Churchill masterfully managed the situation and never lost his faith in the war’s eventual outcome. He was also brilliantly adept at preparing his nation and its allies for the problems that they would face when peace finally did return.

During the dark days of 1939 and 1940 victory seemed a remote possibility to even the most patriotic Britain. Despite the numerous setbacks in Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France, however, Churchill’s resolve never waivered. On July 3, 1940, he grimly informed Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky, My general strategy at present is to last out the next three months. Even while trying to cobble together an adequate defense after the debacle in France and then becoming enmeshed in the Battle of Britain, the prime minister continued to develop a strategy for winning a long war.

The fall of France in June 1940 had been a severe blow. The despair felt by many as the Germans and their allies seemed to be effortlessly winning incredible victories is easy to understand. Much of Europe was under Axis domination, America was neutral, the Soviet Union was allied — however tenuously — with Hitler, and a badly battered Britain stood alone as waves of German aircraft began to blacken the skies over England. United States Ambassador to the Court of Saint James Joseph Kennedy sent increasingly dire reports to Washington on the future course of the war. Many educated observers of military and political affairs in Europe, America and even Britain shared his views. Churchill, however, remained resolute.

Part of his belief in Britain’s survival may have come from his conviction that the Soviet Union, not Britain, would be next on Adolf Hitler’s list of intended victims. Armed with Ultra intelligence and his own reading of events, the prime minister was certain that Hitler was more interested in Josef Stalin’s immediate destruction than his own. Despite his personal loathing of the Communist regime, on April 3, 1941, Churchill directed Sir Stafford Cripps, his ambassador in Moscow, to personally deliver a note to Stalin that explained the threat. Stalin and his henchmen, who Churchill described as the most completely outwitted bunglers of the Second World War, ignored the warnings. On June 22, 140 German divisions crashed into Soviet territory. Incredibly, Stalin acted with shock and surprise to the invasion and virtually disappeared for 10 days before returning to his duties and taking measures to repulse the Axis forces.

Despite the early setbacks, unlike numerous others, Churchill never considered the cause lost. There is hardly a suggestion in the hundreds of memoranda, speeches and recorded private remarks of the prime minister during the period that he doubted the ultimate outcome. On the contrary, he expected a British victory. Just before the Nazis struck the Soviet Union, Churchill confided to an aide that British policy would be to fight on, and to aid the Russian armies as long as they were capable of resisting. With Hitler’s one-time partner now fighting for its life against the Fhrer and his minions, Churchill would proclaim to dinner guests at the end of August 1941, We cannot now be defeated. But, he added with prescience, The war might drag on for another four or five years.

His outlook improved even more with the United States’ entry into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His telephone conversation with Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after receiving news of the attack was short but significant. After giving the prime minister a brief account of what he knew, the president simply said, We are all in the same boat now. Although still unsure of the extent of the damage, the attack and its meaning was clear to both leaders. So we had won after all! Churchill wrote later. He cabled the Australian prime minister five days after Pearl Harbor that accession of the United States as a full war partner…makes the end certain.

With America’s entry into the war, the eventual invasion of the Continent and subsequent end to the war in Europe became a much greater possibility. Ever hopeful of America’s eventual involvement, Churchill had already been clarifying for himself and his anticipated partners how Allied strategy must work over time to build toward the right moment to invade. With the Americans now fully committed, those strategic plans began to develop more rapidly.

Untouched by war and naively confident in their abilities, many Americans, among them Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, supported an invasion of the Continent as early as possible. Leading a country that was already stretched to the limit and trying to recover from earlier defeats, Churchill held out for a later invasion date that would allow the Americans sufficient time to build the weapons and mobilize the manpower necessary for a costly campaign in Western Europe.

While the Americans pressed for an invasion in 1942, Churchill demurred. He recognized the initial weakness of the anti-Fascist alliance and advocated pursuing means to strike back at Hitler while still building and strengthening the forces needed for an all-out invasion of the Continent. Replying to a strategy paper by his chiefs of staff prepared in the month of Pearl Harbor, Churchill noted that they were recommending aerial bombing for beating the Axis but there must be two to four years of that before Germany could be invaded. They might hope for an invasion in 1943, he told them, but the date could well slide into 1944.

In the meantime, the Allied position was not good. Throughout the first half of 1942 Allied forces continued to meet with a series of bloody reverses. In the East, German columns advanced relentlessly, and in North Africa Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was making quick work of British forces. In the Far East, Singapore fell and, as if to highlight the difficulty of any eventual cross-Channel attack, in August a combined British and Canadian raiding force was slaughtered on the beaches of Dieppe, France. While the news from the Pacific eventually improved — Churchill was delighted by the American victory at Midway that June, telling President Roosevelt that the battle very decidedly altered the balance of the naval war — the news in the Atlantic remained poor. Operating in wolf packs, German submarines were sinking Allied merchant vessels with impunity and threatening the vital lifeline between the United States and Britain upon which any future invasion of Europe depended.

Still, the prime minister remained resolute. Toward the end of the year news from the battlefronts improved. By fall the German advances in the East had by and large come to a halt as the Sixth Army was mired in a brutal battle in Stalingrad; U.S. Marines were still holding on to Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field; the U.S. Eighth Air Force had launched its first attacks in occupied Europe and the Allied strategic bombing campaign was picking up in intensity; and, after brutal inter-Allied debates, a U.S. and British invasion force was en route to landing beaches in French North Africa. Finally, in November Egypt was saved as General Bernard Law Montgomery at the head of a resurgent Eighth Army defeated Rommel at El Alamein. In a November 1942 London speech celebrating Montgomery’s victory and other positive developments, the prime minister amused his audience with wordplay: Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

The military situation had sufficiently rebounded by 1943 that long-range planning for the war’s end could proceed with greater haste. Not all of the planning, however, could be focused on the demands of the war. In Promises about Post-War Conditions, the prime minister set down his ideas about domestic issues. During these busy days, Churchill wrote in 1943, I thought it right, now that our ultimate victory appeared certain, to dwell upon what would descend upon us at the same time as victory. His memorandum, War — Transition — Peace, revealed his views on what he believed his nation would encounter following the euphoria of victory. The major difficulties he foresaw were employment — especially for ex-servicemen — demobilization, food, export trade resumption and turnover of war industries to peacetime production.

Churchill also pondered foreign affairs problems in 1943 from the perspective of the coming of the end of the war. Just after the conference at Casablanca in January, and against the express wishes of his Cabinet and Foreign Office, he did not return to England directly, but made a stop in Turkey to continue his avid courtship of that neutral power. In Adana he dictated a little-known document, Morning Thoughts: Note on Post-War Security, or Strategem C/6. It was transmitted to London on February 1, 1943, and from there on to the White House. The C/6 memorandum outlined salient features of postwar Europe. Churchill expected the unconditional surrender of Germany and Italy to the three great powers: Great Britain, the United States and the USSR. With victory would come the disarmament of the defeated, but not their destruction; peace would not be punitive. A world organization would be created by the united nations, though smaller regional blocs might coexist within it. No one could be sure of Soviet intentions and, though a part of the new organization, they might also be more imperialistic; Istanbul ought to warm a little to Moscow now as a co-belligerent and even consider a mutual campaign to drive the Axis from the Balkans. Ultimately, Churchill argued, Turkey would enjoy a place at the peace table only if it accepted a role in the fighting.

In two days of meetings in Adana, Churchill told his Turkish counterparts something else that he was considering: Because the Americans and British were openly agreed to emphasize the war on Germany, peace would come first to Europe, and then, afterward, It might take one or two years to finish up the Far East after Hitler was beaten. This was a reasonable estimate, especially given the challenge of knowing when and how strongly the USSR would fight Japan; for the present the two maintained neutrality. It is likely that the Adana conference is the first record of Churchill publicly estimating the length of the interval to be expected between peace in Germany and peace in Japan. He often recurred to this estimate. Only on July 26, 1945, did he dare to write that in the Pacific results may come much quicker than we have hitherto been entitled to expect.

The Adana conference did not push Turkey into war as Churchill had hoped, but it did show his confidence in the ultimate victory and the need to prepare for it. Waiting on the ground in his aircraft during one leg of the return flight, the prime minister learned that an air crash had killed several of his Casablanca co-conferees. He reflected with his military secretary, Colonel Ian Jacob, on the dangers of wartime flying, and then said wryly: It would be a pity to have to go out in the middle of such an interesting drama without seeing the end. But it wouldn’t be a bad moment to leave. It is a straight run in now, and even the Cabinet could manage it!
Mobbed by well-wishers, Churchill makes his way to the House of Commons on May 8–V-E Day. Despite his tremendous wartime accomplishments, a British public anxious to return to peacetime would vote the prime minister out of office two months later. (National Archives)

If 1943 held much promise, it was not the year in which Churchill expected the war’s conclusion. His rhetoric and his many papers show conviction on ultimate victory but no inkling that it would be soon. Some senior military figures, on the other hand, were clearly becoming too optimistic. In January the British chiefs of staff formally presented their report on The Conduct of the War in 1943. The high level report included the assertion that Operations in the European theater will be conducted with the object of defeating Germany in 1943 with the maximum forces that can be brought to bear upon her by the United Nations. In the following weeks, the Red Army made gains in the Ukraine, the Tunisian campaign took pro-Allied turns and the United States sank two dozen Japanese ships off New Guinea.

On March 21, 1943, the prime minister felt confident enough to offer his countrymen his first, and only, full address about postwar domestic aims. While outlining his hoped-for vision, he also admonished his listeners that peace was not yet in the offing. A good many people…have jumped to the conclusion that the war will soon be over and that we shall soon all be able to get back to the politics and party fights of peace-time, he said. I am not able to share these sanguine hopes, and my earnest advice to you is to concentrate even more zealously upon the war.

The war was beginning to go the Allies’ way by the end of 1943. The Soviets had survived the German invasion and were now advancing westward; Sicily was invaded and won for the Allies; the American effort was great and growing; the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign was ever stronger while the horrid German vengeance weapons were not yet firing across the Channel. It was two years to the day after Pearl Harbor that Churchill put the question to a set of dinner companions: When would Germany quit fighting? Two of the highest British military authorities, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke and his predecessor in that post, John Dill, believed the end would come in March 1944. Both men optimistically hoped that such an early victory would eliminate the need to conduct the potentially costly cross-Channel invasion. For his part, General Marshall agreed that March was a possibility but if not, then the American chief of staff believed the end would come by November 1944. Churchill’s view, if expressed, is not recorded. But he spoke later, on January 5, 1944, at a dinner party including the exiled Czechoslovakian president Edvard Benes. Like Churchill’s generals, Benes was confident that the end would come any day after May 1. Churchill disagreed and said that he believed Hitler would still be in power in September 1944. He polled his guests. Lord William Beaverbrook and two others agreed with the prime minister. Those believing the end would come sooner included Benes, his minister Jaromir Smutny and Maj. Gen. Leslie Hollis.

Even the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was optimistic. Prior to the invasion of France, scheduled for June 1944, he made a £5 bet with Bernard Montgomery that we would end the war in Europe by the end of 1944. He later reported this to Churchill, adding that he had no reason to hedge his bet. The prime minister only smiled and replied, My dear General, I pray you are right.

The success of Operation Overlord in June 1944 gave the Allies great confidence. Not unreasonably, even observers with acute anxieties on its eve could become cocky in the weeks after the initial landings in France. Churchill was steadier. Just before Overlord he had warned leaders of the Dominion nations that while we are making the most intense efforts to compel an early victory, he could give no guarantee that Overlord would bring about a speedy end to the struggle.

Faced with determined German resistance in Normandy, by the end of June 1944, Churchill wrote that the Allied divisions then operating in France would not be enough to crush German defenses, nor should the enemy’s psychological collapse…be reckoned upon.

Five weeks after D-Day, the defense minister noted that planning by British chiefs of staff assumed that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was right and that Germany would be defeated in the remainder of 1944. In fact, Churchill persisted, if the Germans tried, they should be able to carry on well into next year.

There was a similar exchange two months later, on September 8. Allied advances eastward had been impressive, and the JIC still predicted German collapse within the year. Churchill declared to his chiefs of staff that they would be wrong to accept that. He pointed to the Germans’ ongoing defense of certain French ports, the strength of the Siegfried Line, the potential for Wehrmacht troops to move in from Italy, and the fortifying and consolidating effect of a stand on the frontier of the native soil…. It was therefore at least as likely that Hitler will be fighting on the 1st of January [1945] as that he will collapse before then. If he does collapse before then, the reasons will be political rather than purely military.

This angered Alan Brooke, who was thinking ahead to the necessary transfers of troops to the Pacific. Brooke attributed their argument to Churchill’s mild illness at the time, and Brooke’s diary entry of September 8 frothed about how Churchill may be finished as he can no longer keep a grip of things, and is beginning to realize it. This was untrue and unfair. Brooke himself had erred several times in predicting the end of the war.

Minutes of the War Cabinet for October 17 show the prime minister asserting that the war might last until the end of February 1945. Ten days later he cautiously told the House of Commons, We believe that we are in the last lap, but this is a race in which failure to exert the fullest effort to the end may postpone that end to periods almost unendurable to those who have the race in their hands…. The last day of the month, however, found him more daring; he gave the House of Commons a rather exact forecast, amid its discussion of when the electorate should next vote. Churchill told them the German war could end in the spring; he mentioned March, April and May of 1945. British elections should come about two months later.

Ministers, no less than military subordinates, dealt with Churchill about questions of war’s end. Their plans for home affairs and foreign matters depended heavily upon Churchill’s decisions, but when pressing for they details could be rebuffed. On September 9, when a Cabinet Demobilization Committee had already been deliberating for a year, one civil servant was told by Churchill that such matters should be deferred until the breaking of the German home army and until more could be known about the new demands of the Pacific. The sharpest message in this vein went to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who, despite his heroism against appeasement in the 1930s, sometimes had suffered rough handling, or negligence, from his boss. In January 1945 Eden was trying to prepare for the pending Crimea conference, and sought to more sharply define the premier’s views on the future of Germany. This subject had often been discussed, with Allies and privately. What Eden got on this occasion was the personal end of a Personal Minute: It is a mistake to try to write out on little pieces of paper what the vast emotions of an outraged and quivering world will be either immediately after the struggle is over or when the inevitable cold fit follows the hot….There is therefore wisdom in reserving one’s decisions….

The cause for this deferral may lie in preoccupations with 1945, which was not beginning well. The new year came with the Battle of the Bulge, a renewal of U-boat war, German V-rocket attacks and the combat debut of jet aircraft. January found Churchill thinking war would end in six or eight months more, according to a Minute of January 4. The Foreign Ministry’s Alexander Cadogan confirmed in his own diary a few days later: P.M. foresees at least 6 or 7 months more of war. I think he is optimistic.

While sometimes prevaricating by a few months, Churchill’s voice appears to be the clearest among British leaders who were forecasting. Consider that Alan Brooke, the former optimist, pessimistically recorded in February that he could see no indications of Germany cracking up and it is quite impossible to estimate how long it may last. A diary entry of April 10 retained those ambiguities. Only by April 20 was he sure victory was pending. Encouraged by the Soviet movements on the Berlin-Dresden front, the general felt we shall still have several more weeks in front of us, before we finish off the war.

Concerned by the prospect of Axis resistance in Austria, Czechoslovakia or other countries, Brooke balanced that against a hope: On the other hand, Hitler’s suicide might well bring the end on rapidly. That suicide occurred 10 days later.

Victory in Europe Day was approaching on the April airs. This imminence was felt in ways small and large. On April 14, Churchill instructed the Board of Trade to emphasize civilian clothing production by a shift of 20 percent from military uniforms. On April 29, as the Battle of Berlin raged and the Fhrer prepared to end his life, the prime minister sent a telegram to Anthony Eden, in San Francisco, where the foreign minister was expected to be a further four weeks in work on the world organization. The message summoned him home: It seems to me most likely that electioneering will begin the moment after the end of the German war, and you will probably find it in full swing before you return.

It was. On July 5, Britain held its first election for a leader since the fighting in Europe had come to an end on May 7. Three weeks later, as Churchill was meeting with Stalin and Harry S. Truman — who had become president following Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945 — the prime minister received word that he had been defeated by Clement Atlee, his deputy prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, in a landslide. His very wartime success ensured that when victory finally came, the British public would search for someone whom they did not view as a war leader and who would quickly return them to a peacetime economy. It was a defeat that most, including Churchill, had never expected.

Churchill’s sixth sense in military matters was guided by long experience with wars and politics. It was also shaped by consistent study of both open and secret intelligence. Then it was disciplined by his capacity for concentration. Finally, it was tested in its conclusions by regular debate with professional diplomats and military men. Well before 1939, Winston S. Churchill had foreseen the coming of war and spoken out for preparedness when it could make a difference. What has gone little noted is that amid World War II he grasped the timing of its conclusion. He spoke or wrote of this as often as seemed required — to inspire, to orient and to manage expectations. This special understanding was immensely valuable in the pursuit of victory, both for his country and the Allied nations.

This article was written by Christopher C. Harmon and originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!