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All Behind You, Winston

Churchill’s great coalition 1940-45

 

Roger Hermiston

Aurum, 7 April 2016

Churchill has inspired (and written) much literature. Most of the focus has been on his qualities as a wartime leader, and international statesman. Roger Hermiston’s  book take a step back to look at how Churchill ascended to power, how he used it to assemble a political coalition, and how his team governed Britain in some of its darkest hours.

 

Gallipoli was, of course, one of Churchill’s own darkest hours – a pet project that ended in abject failure. Hermiston notes that one Major Clement Atlee was the last man but one to be evacuated from Suvla Bay, yet refused to pin the blame for the catastrophe on Churchill. Also of interest is the description of Churchill’s relationship with Bevin, a man he came to rely for presenting the caring face of the coalition. The shift from peace to wartime economy is set out in some detail; when the Government announced the setting up of the Land Defence Volunteers (the forerunner of the Home Guard), a quarter of a million men volunteered within the next 24 hours. An undercurrent throughout the book is Britain’s at times fractious relationship with France, and certainly with the ungrateful de Gaulle. Hermiston chronicles the idea in mid-1940 to unite the British and French nations. Sacre bleu!

 

Another undercurrent, occasionally inspired, usually noxious, is Beaverbrook (the Beaver) – the man who put the  freak into ‘control freak’.

 

The tensions in Churchill’s wartime life are set out unsparingly, and as the Battle of the Atlantic squeezed the nation’s stomach, Churchill’s negotiation with the US gathers pace. Hermiston reminds us that at this stage of the war the US did not want to ally themselves with what was perceived to be a lost cause.

 

Pressures on Churchill meant he was, somewhat understandably, difficult to work with: Hermiston provides plenty of examples. He also had his fair share of mistakes and the book sets out how the decision to send HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales to the aid of Singapore in 1940, without any air support, was Churchill’s alone. (They were sunk in short order by the Japanese Air Force). He also had his blind spots: Lord Louis Montbatten being a prime example. Churchill swallowed whole the account that Mountbatten (the officer i/c the planning) gave of the catastrophe that was the Dieppe raid. In Mountbatten’s view it was a total success (a loss of 2700 out of 5000 men).

 

Another interesting chapter relates the initiation of atomic research in the UK, and the difficult decisions Churchill and his Cabinet faced in assessing whether to share their knowledge with the Americans. In fact the episode underlined Churchill’s appetite for secrecy and secret warfare – he kept the knowledge of the UK’s atomic programme to a very limited number of his war cabinet.

 

In the last third of the book it is interesting to observe when the UK government started to plan for peace. This began to open the political divisions which had been so well healed by the pressures of war. Despite the fact that the Allies had liberated his country and (reluctantly) appointed him as its leader, de Gaulle continued to behave as a petulant schoolboy.  Hermiston reports: “Towards the end of a tense luncheon meeting the Prime Minster told him angrily, ‘get this quite clear, every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea we will choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt’. “

 

As 1945 starts, the evidence that the Nazis had been conducting genocide on an industrial scale was near incontrovertible: Hermiston sets out the political debate that led the UK and the rest of the Allies to doing very little about it – other to decide to set up in due course what came to be known as the Nuremberg War Trial.

 

The final chapters set out how Churchill and his colleagues were comprehensively duped by Stalin, and how therefore Europe came to be divided in a way that blighted the region for decades, and blights the region to this day.

 

The book is very competently written, although I expect many readers will already know a fair amount of it its content. Hermiston is fortunate that the generation of men he describes were very avid autobiographers, and therefore at times the book reads a little like a synthesis of those biographies. Perhaps with this wealth there was little need for original research.  But by the book’s end the reader will be in no doubt that Churchill did an amazing job in holding together and directing the nation during one of its most difficult eras. That he had, as a by-product, lost his political sensitivity, contributed in no small measure to the pathos of his subsequent electoral defeat.

 

Niggles?

 

He calls RAF Detling a bomber base (in mid 1940), when I thought at that time it was the home of Spitfires.

 

Hermiston repeats the nostrum that Churchill was a ‘skilled bricklayer’,  a common notion. But I gather that his bricklaying was so poor that after he had spent an hour or two building part of a garden wall, one of his gardeners would spend an hour of darkness knocking it down and rebuilding it!

 

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