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Authors: Sir Martin Gilbert

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Winston Churchill's War Leadership

BOOK: Winston Churchill's War Leadership
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The problem is not winning the war,
but persuading people to let you win it.

—Winston S. Churchill


In February 2002 I was asked to speak in the White House about Churchill’s war leadership. I was invited into the Oval Office, where I showed the President the bust of Churchill that had recently been presented to him by the British Embassy in Washington, and to which he had given pride of place. As the twenty-first century began, a President of the United States was embarking on two military expeditions, the first against Afghanistan and the second against Iraq—not unlike the British punitive expeditions a century earlier, in which Churchill had taken part.

In the second of those early-twenty-first-century expeditions, the one against Iraq, a British Prime Minister joined the United States with commitment and conviction. The Anglo-American war effort against Iraq involved every aspect of war leadership in a small conflict, even though it will be at least a decade before the real stories of that leadership will begin to emerge through the archives of the conflict: the true nature of the Anglo-American link, the Secret Intelligence dimension, the actual relationship between the leaders and their Ministers and advisers, and the precise pattern of decision-making and execution of orders.

These are important matters for recent history, but they are minor compared with the leadership aspects of the Second World War. Unlike the Iraqi adversary in 2003, the German enemy sixty years earlier was able to sustain a ferocious aerial bombardment for more than two years, to sustain a devastating submarine offensive for three years, and to fight tenaciously in the field for more than five years. In addition, Germany was able to acquire, after two years of victorious fighting, a remorseless ally: Japan.

War leadership during the Second World War required intensive concentration and decision-making over a lengthy period, filled with dangers and uncertainties on a scale that has not been repeated since then, even in Korea and Vietnam, harsh and prolonged though those conflicts were. In that regard, Churchill’s war leadership can have no parallel, unless the world plunges back into a disaster of epic proportions, in which an added dimension could well be the nuclear one.

Leadership against global terrorism requires qualities of a different order, which even now are being formulated and put into practice. In the hope that there may still be some aspects of Churchill’s war leadership that can be of service in the present conflict, this book is dedicated to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.



When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, he had been a Member of Parliament for almost forty years. For more than twenty-five of those years he had held high ministerial office, with responsibilities that covered many spheres of national policy and international affairs. Central to the strength of his war leadership was this experience. Churchill could draw upon knowledge acquired in the many fierce political battles and tough international negotiations in which he had been a central and often successful participant. “My knowledge, which has been bought, not taught,” was how he expressed it in the House of Commons during a stormy interwar debate on defence.

Churchill’s knowledge had often been bought at the price of unpopularity and failure. But, above all, it was the experience of dealing, both as a Cabinet Minister from 1905 and as a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence from 1909, with a wide range of national and world issues, and also of persuading a frequently hostile House of Commons to accept the logic and argument of government policy. That experience served as an essential underpinning—and strengthening—of his leadership in the Second World War. For a decade before the First World War, four Prime Ministers—Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Lloyd George and Baldwin—each entrusted Churchill with contentious issues, having a high regard for his negotiating and persuasive skills. The experience he gained was considerable. In 1911 he had been a pioneer of industrial conciliation and arbitration at a time of intense labour unrest. In 1913 he had led the search for an amelioration of Anglo-German naval rivalry. In 1914 his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty (the post he was to hold again on the outbreak of war in 1939) included both the air defence of London and the protection of the Royal Navy and merchant shipping from German naval attack. In 1917 he was put in charge of munitions production in Britain at a time of the greatest need and strain. In 1919 he devised, as a matter of urgency, a system of demobilization that calmed the severe tensions of a disaffected soldiery. In the early 1920s he had been at the centre of resolving the demands of Irish Catholics for Home Rule and of the first—and effectively the last—border delineation dispute between Southern Ireland and Ulster. At the same time, he had undertaken the complicated task of carrying out Britain’s promise to the Jews of a National Home in Palestine after the First World War.

This experience of dealing at the centre with Britain’s major national needs, during more than three decades, gave Churchill a precious boon from the first days of his premiership. It also provided him with many specific pointers to war direction. A quarter of a century before he became Prime Minister, he had seen the perils that accompanied the evolution of war policy when there was no central direction. He had been a member of the War Council in 1914, when the Prime Minister, Asquith, had been unable to exercise effective control over the two Service departments—the army and the navy. To redress this problem, on becoming Prime Minister in May 1940, Churchill created the post, hitherto unknown in Britain, of Minister of Defence. Although the new Ministry had no departmental structure as such, it did have a secretariat, headed by General Hastings Ismay, who served, with his small staff, as a direct conduit between the Prime Minister and the Chiefs of Staff—the respective heads of the army, navy and air force. This structure enabled Churchill to put forward his suggestions directly, and with the utmost directness, to those who would have to accept or reject, modify and implement them.

The organization of his wartime premiership was a central feature of Churchill’s war leadership. That organization took several months to perfect, but from his first days as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence he worked to establish it, and to create in the immediate ambit of 10 Downing Street an organization that would give the nation strong and effective leadership. At its core was the close relationship between Churchill and the three Chiefs of Staff. Their frequent meetings, often daily, enabled him to discuss with them the many crises of the war, to tackle the many emergencies, and to decide on an acceptable common strategy. Working under the Chiefs of Staff, and in close association with Churchill through the Ministry of Defence, were two other essential instruments of military planning: the Joint Planning Staff (known as the “Joint Planners”) and the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Other essential elements of the organizational side of Churchill’s war leadership evolved as the need arose, among them the Production Council, the Import Executive, the Tank Parliament, the Combined Raw Materials Board (an Anglo-America venture), the Anglo-American Shipping Adjustment Board, and the Battle of the Atlantic Committee of the War Cabinet. And always to hand was the apparatus of Intelligence gathering, assessment and distribution, controlled by the Secret Intelligence Services headed by Colonel (later General) Stewart Menzies, with whom Churchill was in daily communication. In his Minutes to Menzies, Churchill made whatever comments he felt were needed on the nature, implications and circulation of Intelligence material.

This organizational structure gave Churchill a method of war leadership whereby the highest possible accumulation of professional knowledge was at his disposal. He was not a dictatorial leader, although he could be emphatic in his requests and suggestions. If the Chiefs of Staff opposed any initiative he proposed, it was abandoned. He had no power to overrule their collective will. But on most occasions there was no such stark dichotomy. He and they were searching for the same outcome—the means, first, to avert defeat; then to contain and, finally, to defeat Germany—and in this search they were in frequent agreement.

One of the members of Churchill’s Private Office, John Peck, later recalled: “I have the clearest possible recollection of General Ismay talking to me about a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff Committee at which they got completely stuck and admitted that they just did not know what was the right course to pursue; so on a purely military matter, they had come to Churchill, civilian, for his advice. He introduced some further facts into the equation that had escaped their notice and the solution became obvious.”

A crucial aspect of Churchill’s war leadership was his private secretariat, the Private Office at 10 Downing Street. Members of his Private Office accompanied him wherever he went, whether in Britain or overseas, and were available to help smooth his path during every working hour, often until late into the night. At its centre were his Private Secretaries: civil servants, mostly in their thirties, who remained at his side on a rota system throughout the week and the weekend. They were privy to his innermost thoughts (although not, ironically, to the decrypted Enigma messages on which so many of those thoughts hinged). They knew how to interpret his briefest of instructions, some of which were scarcely more than a grunt or a nod of the head. They knew how to find documents and to circulate them. They kept his desk diary with its myriad appointments. They also ensured that whatever the Prime Minister needed—a document to study, a file to scrutinize, a colleague to question, a journey to be organized, a foreign dignitary to be received—all was ready at the right time and in the right place. Given the scale of Churchill’s travel in Britain and overseas, and his notorious unpunctuality and indecision in little things, this streamlined operation was impressive. In a private letter to General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Clementine Churchill referred to her husband’s “chronic unpunctuality” and “habit of changing his mind (in little things) every minute!” For example, his Private Secretariat was caused endless vexation as to whether he would receive some important visitor at 10 Downing Street, at No. 10 Annexe a hundred yards away, or in the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons.

Churchill could also show uncertainty regarding the large decisions, rehearsing them in his mind and hesitating for long periods before settling on a course of action. One such instance was the difficult decision, which he supported, to send British troops to Greece to take part in the defence of that country against a possible German attack, thus weakening the British forces that were then defending Egypt. In the end, he asked for every member of his War Cabinet to vote on this matter. The unanimous vote was in favour of showing Greece that she was not to be abandoned by her ally, despite the hopelessness of the situation, given German military superiority.

The names of most of the members of Churchill’s Private Office are little known to history. Only one, John Colville—who started as the Junior Private Secretary in 1940—subsequently made his mark, one of great importance to history, because he kept a detailed diary (quite against the rules) of those days when he was on duty. Neither the first Principal Private Secretary, Eric Seal, nor Seal’s successor John Martin, nor the other members of the Private Office—John Peck, Christopher Dodds and Leslie Rowan—kept anything more than a few jottings and private letters. The whole team constituted, collectively, the support system on which Churchill depended and from whom he obtained first-class service, ensuring the smooth running of the prime ministerial enterprise at its centre. The members of his Private Office sustained him without publicity or fanfare, but with a professionalism and a devotion that helped to make his leadership both smooth and effective.

One integral part of the Private Office were the secretary-typists—a lynchpin of the whole vast operation. At their apex was a woman whose photograph at Churchill’s side almost never appeared in the press. Her name was Kathleen Hill. She had been his residential secretary since 1936. Once, at the end of the war, when a newspaper published a photograph of Churchill which included her walking next to him, she was described in the caption as “an unknown woman.” Her contribution to Churchill’s war leadership was silent, unnoticed and essential.

The method used by Churchill and Mrs. Hill, and by his two other principal typists, Elizabeth Layton and Marian Holmes, was simple and effective. They would sit “still as a mouse” (in Mrs. Hill’s words) wherever Churchill was, whether in Downing Street, at his country retreat at Chequers, travelling by car, on trains, on board ship, even on planes, with a notepad at the ready or with a silent typewriter (specially designed by Remington), paper in place, to take down whatever he might say whenever he might say it. He might be reading a newspaper and be prompted by something he read to dictate a Minute to a Cabinet Minister. He might be reading a clutch of diplomatic telegrams from ambassadors overseas, or top-secret signals from commanders-in-chief on land, sea or air, and have a thought, a point of criticism, a note of praise, a request for information, or a suggestion for action. As he began to speak, often in a difficult mumble, the typist on duty would immediately take down his words and transcribe them. So good was this trio of Mrs. Hill, Miss Layton and Miss Holmes that, after one or another of them had taken down his words on the silent typewriter as he spoke them, all that remained was to hand him the sheet of paper for his signature. They were masters of their craft. A fourth member of this team was Churchill’s shorthand writer Patrick Kinna. It was he who had been present when Churchill, walking naked in his bedroom at the White House after a bath, giving dictation, was interrupted by President Roosevelt, who entered the room. Churchill, “never being lost for words,” as Kinna recalled, said, “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you.”

There can hardly have been a single day of the war when Churchill did not dictate to one or other of his devoted secretarial staff. At the outset of his premiership, he decided that every instruction, suggestion, proposal or criticism emanating from him—and all the answers he received—should be in writing. He remembered too many occasions during the First World War when a policy agreed upon at one meeting was challenged at the next but there was no written record to show what the first decision had been or what arguments had been put forward and by whom, either for it or against. He was determined that no such muddles and uncertainties would exist under his war leadership. “Let it be clearly understood,” he minuted on 19 July 1940, to General Ismay, as well as to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, and the Chief of the Imperial Staff, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, “that all directions emanating from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards confirmed in writing, and that I do not accept any responsibility for matters relating to national defence, on which I am alleged to have given directions, unless they are given in writing.” This Minute was shown to all members of Churchill’s Private Office and implemented.

In March 1918, during the First World War crisis when German forces drove back the Anglo-French defenders and confusion and doubt reigned among the British war leadership, Churchill wrote to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George: “Ponder—and then act” (Churchill underlined the word
). The equivalent instruction in the Second World War, often given a dozen times or more each day, was “Action This Day.” It would accompany a written Minute—the basic method of communication between the Prime Minister and those he needed to consult—sent from Churchill to Ismay for the Chiefs of Staff or direct from Churchill to the Cabinet Minister responsible. For urgent Minutes, Churchill’s Private Office stuck on a brightly coloured label with “Action This Day” printed on it. The combination of intense thought and consultation, followed by a clear instruction for action, enabled the war machinery to advance. Every time Churchill minuted his thoughts, concerns and instructions, that machinery moved one step forward.

The Private Office devised a system whereby Churchill could have everything he needed at his fingertips. That system revolved around the Prime Minister’s traditional locked boxes that went with him—or were brought to him by messenger—wherever he might be: at 10 Downing Street; at Chequers; at his most frequented base, the above-ground secret wartime “Number Ten Annexe” (one floor above the underground Cabinet War Rooms); in the Cabinet War Rooms themselves whenever they were used during an air raid; and during travels throughout Britain and overseas. Churchill devised the arrangement of the boxes himself, a system, John Peck commented, “peculiarly Winston’s own, and it was in a sense the nerve centre of his war effort.” Inside the box, the first set of folders was marked “Top of the Box” and contained those items, covering every aspect of the war effort, considered by the Private Office to be particularly urgent. The next set of folders was labelled “Foreign Office Telegrams”: Churchill liked to follow closely what the ambassadors were sending and what they were being sent. Then came “Service Telegrams,” the exchanges between the three Service Ministers and the principal commanders in the field. Next were “Periodical Returns.” As Peck explained: “He was keenly interested in the development of new equipment. He was also much concerned about the necessity for speed and punctuality in delivery despite bombing, breakdown and other causes of delay.” These Periodical Returns included monthly, weekly and even—where Churchill considered them necessary—daily reports on production, technical developments, manpower, training, tank and aircraft strengths, and much else. They enabled Churchill to make sure, as Peck expressed it, “that there were no disasters due to lack of zeal or direction in the back rooms.”

BOOK: Winston Churchill's War Leadership
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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