Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill as Strategist in World War Two

Documents from the Archive

  • Duncan Sandys to Winston Churchill, 3 September 1939, CHAR 1/355/40–43.
  • Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 3 September 1939, CHAR 9/135A/113-124.
  • Edouard Benes to Winston Churchill, 4 September 1939, CHAR 2/381/5.
  • Winston Churchill, ‘The urgency of chartering neutral tonnage’ memorandum, 16 October 1939, CHAR 19/4/9.
  • Winston Churchill to Admiral Forbes, 9 April 1940, CHAR 19/2B/191.
  • Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill, 24 April 1940, CHAR 19/2B/196.
  • Kathleen Hill to Percy Cudlipp, 27 April 1940, CHAR 2/393/98-101.
  • Lord Davies to Winston Churchill, 2 May 1940, CHAR 2/393/109.
  • Winston Churchill to Sir Samuel Hoare, 23 September 1940, CHAR 20/14.
  • Winston Churchill to Lord Trenchard, 26 September 1940, CHAR 20/2A/59.
  • Winston Churchill to Charles de Gaulle, 10 October 1940, CHAR 20/14.
  • Winston Churchill to General Jan Smuts, 12 December 1941, CHAR 20/46/90.
  • Winston Churchill to Harry Hopkins, 9 April 1943, CHAR 20/109/100.
  • Winston Churchill to General Ismay, 6 August 1943, CHAR 20/104/2.
  • Winston Churchill to General Harold Alexander, 10 February 1944, CHAR 20/156/97–98.
  • Winston Churchill to General Franco, 20 December 1944, CHAR 20/138B/227–232.
  • Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 18 January 1945, CHAR 9/167/87-95.

Further Reading

  • Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries 1939–1945, edited by A. Danchev and D. Todman (London: Phoenix, 2002)

  • Christopher Bell, ‘The “Singapore Strategy” and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty, and the Dispatch of Force Z’, English Historical Review, 116 (2001), pp. 604–34

  • A. Danchev, ‘Great Britain: The Indirect Strategy’, in D. Reynolds, W. Kimball and A. Chubarian (eds.), Allies at War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994)

  • B. Farrell, The Basis and Making of British Grand Strategy, 1940–1942 (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1998)

  • B. Farrell, The Defence and Fall of Singapore, 1940–1942 (Stroud: Tempus, 2005)

  • A. Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006)

  • W. Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941–1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)

  • A. Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (London: Allen Lane, 2008)

  • A. Stewart, Empire Lost: Britain, the Dominions and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2008)

  • M. Stoler, Allies in War: Britain and America against the Axis Powers, 1940–1945 (London: Hodder, 2005)

  • D. Stone, Summits: The Meetings that Shaped World War II and the Postwar World (Washington, DC: Potomac, 2006)

Churchill’s reputation as war leader is less secure in strategy and policy than in politics and polemic, and notably in the United States where Britain’s wartime strategy is frequently criticized. He had a difficult hand to play, not least because of the views of the United States and the Soviet Union, but sought to advance national interests and to protect the Empire, and did so with much greater success than could have been anticipated in 1941, let alone 1940. [ 1 ]

Churchill’s reputation hinges largely on World War Two but, as such, it is curiously bifurcated. Essentially two views of Churchill as war leader are offered. The first presents him as the key figure who rallied domestic opinion and kept Britain determined in the dark days of defeat and isolation in 1940–41. This is the Churchill of resolve and fortitude, the Churchill of great and defiant speeches, a man who was both national symbol and the force of national resolve. [ 2 ] Indeed, Churchill’s conviction that the struggle was a great moral cause had been there from the outset. Having just entered the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he held until he became Prime Minister, Churchill told the House of Commons on 3 September 1939:

This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war for domination or imperial aggrandisement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of its sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.

Great words but not strategy, of course. Strategy, understood as the pursuit of policy, although rarely as readily divisible as that phrase might suggest, is a field in which Churchill’s reputation is more mixed. This is the second view, and one that is surveyed in this essay. In doing so, Churchill has to be located in terms of the politics of conflict – both the domestic and international politics of particular conjunctures during World War Two and the politics arising from interpretations of Britain’s supposedly inherent strategic culture, politics shaped by competing ‘lessons’ drawn from World War One. Although proud of his ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, a general whose fame rested on direct engagement with the French main battle army during the War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century (and on whom Winston wrote a three-volume study), Churchill favoured a more navalist account of British strategic culture, one that looked back to the ‘blue water policy’ of eighteenth-century Tories and opposition Whigs. Aside from securing naval mastery and pursuing transoceanic operations against French and Spanish colonies, this strategy rested on directing amphibious operations against vulnerable European targets and, thus, on avoiding conflict with the French main battle army. The Duke of Wellington’s operations in Iberia in 1808–13 proved a key instance, while, looking toward the field of operations in World War Two, so did Sir Ralph Abercromby’s invasion of French-held Egypt in 1801.

Churchill was certainly part of that strategic culture. He favoured an indirect or peripheral strategy in both world wars, alternating in both between the Baltic/Scandinavia and the eastern Mediterranean. As First Lord of the Admiralty in the opening stages of both wars, the indirect approach played a key role in Churchill’s strategic vision. This approach seemed to make best use of the Royal Navy, and gave it an active role that was more significant than sea-denial and economic blockade.

Most of the discussion of Churchill as strategist focuses, understandably, on his years as Prime Minister, 1940–45. However, it is also worth devoting attention to his period as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939–40. This role was important in itself, firstly, because at sea Britain played a more significant role in the Anglo-French coalition than on land; secondly, because Churchill had established strategic views, having been First Lord before in the early stages of World War One; and, thirdly, because he retained a navalist interest and commitment throughout World War Two.

However, both as First Lord and as Prime Minister, Churchill revealed serious flaws as a strategist that repay consideration. In many senses, these were flaws in execution, because the policy pursued was consistent. Churchill was determined to preserve national greatness, a greatness that for him included the Empire as a central force, and also to destroy Germany. In 1939, with the fate of war in the opening balance, he presented the struggle as a moral one. In 1940, with defeat apparent to many foreign commentators, he pressed to fight on. In early 1941, with defeat still apparent, he again pressed to fight on. In 1945, with victory imminent, he underlined the need for total victory. On 18 January 1945, Churchill told the Commons:

I am clear that nothing should induce us to abandon the principle of unconditional surrender, or to enter into any form of negotiation with Germany or Japan, under whatever guise such suggestions may present themselves, until the act of unconditional surrender had been formally executed.

Indeed, Josef Goebbels recorded that, on his visit to Hitler on 11 March 1945, the latter had argued that, due to what he saw as Churchill’s determination to exterminate Germany and refusal to ally against the Soviets, and President Roosevelt’s wish that the Europeans destroy themselves through war, it was necessary for Germany to fight sufficiently well to lead Stalin to seek a separate peace.

As First Lord, in 1939–40, however, Churchill repeated his strategic failure of 1914–15. The largest and most powerful navy in the world, at a stage when it was only opposed by Germany, could not be used with strategic effect to influence, let alone direct, the course and politics of the war. Germany was not intimidated into responding to British wishes. This represented a major failure for navalism, a failure that was difficult for Churchill to accept precisely because he understood the importance of the Royal Navy to British greatness.

This failure was also more specific in that particular plans and operations were misconceived or misguided. The war began with Britain and France unable to have any impact on the war in Poland, which rapidly fell to German attack. Churchill’s desire to act was understandable, but also unwise. He advocated the dispatch of a fleet to the Baltic specially prepared to resist air attack, but this rash idea, which would have exposed the fleet to air attack in confined waters, was thwarted by his naval advisers. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy fought a real, not a ‘phoney’, war. It was energetic against German surface raiders, notably the Graf Spee, and U-boats.

When the Royal Navy did act in strength, it did so with less success than anticipated. On 9 April 1940, Denmark and Norway fell victims to a surprise German attack. The failure of the poorly directed Royal Navy to prevent the initial German landings in Norway or, subsequently that day, to disrupt them, was a serious problem, and was part of a more general failure of British naval management. On 9 April the British were initially convinced that the Germans were planning to sail into the Atlantic, and made dispositions accordingly. Moreover, a Luftwaffe attack ended moves by the Royal Navy on invasion day, although British submarines had an impact on the German surface fleet. The possibility of naval action was displayed on 10 and 13 April when British warships sailed into Ofotfjord to wreck the German squadron that had attacked and occupied Narvik. This success simply highlighted the failure on 9 April. More generally, the Royal Navy had been shown to be unable to cope effectively with German air power, and a doctrine of reliance on anti-aircraft fire had been revealed as inadequate. The navy also took hard knocks from the German surface warships, especially when covering the forces returning from Narvik. Sunk with heavy casualties on 7 June, the Glorious was the only British carrier ever lost to battleships.

Norway, however, was not to be a second Gallipoli. Instead, Churchill’s reputation as a resolute opponent of Hitler, his ability to convey determination, his war experience and the impression that he could do the job, helped ensure that he succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on 10 May; rather as David Lloyd George had replaced Herbert Asquith in 1916. Lloyd George saw himself as a possible Prime Minister in 1940, ‘when Winston is bust’, but in the autumn of 1939 he had pressed for a compromise peace and in 1940 he supported war as a means to a compromise settlement with Germany. In May 1940, Churchill also became Minister of Defence, and thus gained complete political control over running the war. Churchill’s appointment was not entirely unprecedented. In 1936, Sir Thomas Inskip was appointed Minister for Coordination of Defence, and he was followed by Lord Chatfield in January 1939. However, they were minor figures who were appointed to mute the growing demand for Churchill to be given a central defence role. The power and authority he obtained as Minister of Defence were much greater.

British strategy in 1914, and again in 1939, assumed that the French would bear the brunt of the land war on the Western Front, while Britain contributed in the air and by sea. The Fall of France in June 1940 was a massive shock and totally overthrew British strategy. It meant that Churchill had to create a mass army, which would take years. This need increased his reluctance to risk crossing the Channel. Moreover, not only would it be necessary to find new allies as a substitute for France, but there would also need to be a reconfiguration of British strategy to match the assumptions of the new allies.

Having tried and failed to keep France in the war, Churchill was forced to focus on the defence of Britain. Churchill was fully aware of the risk, including ‘heavy barge concentrations at the invasion ports’. [ 3 ] Again, reality scarcely matched his rhetoric or, indeed, the drive the latter represented. On 4 June 1940, Churchill told the Commons, ‘we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’; but, if the first two had failed, it is difficult to see how resistance at his subsequent stages could have succeeded.

Nevertheless, alongside optimism, a key characteristic of Churchill’s strategy was a determination to attack. Driving the Vichy French from their possessions was regarded as a crucial way to win the global struggle for power. In September 1940, Churchill wrote to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Ambassador to Spain, explaining his support for the French attempt to gain Dakar, the capital of the French colony of Senegal (the leading French colony in West Africa), presenting a classic account of the strategy of the indirect approach to attacking an opponent. He observed that if Charles de Gaulle was to establish himself in Dakar and become ‘master of Western and Central Africa’, ‘Morocco may automatically follow’. [ 4 ]

In the event, due to firm resistance, the expedition failed. Churchill was very upset, and for his wife Clementine, looking back on the war, it was ‘the progressive and sickening disappointment’ she remembered most, ‘a classic example of Hope deferred making the Heart sick’. [ 5 ] Fortunately, the port of Duala, and with it the French colony of Cameroon, fell to the Free French in October 1940, news Churchill greeted by promising de Gaulle, ‘We shall stand resolutely together’. [ 6 ]

Italy’s entry into the war on Germany’s side on 10 June 1940 provided a clear opportunity to link attack to imperial interests, notably protecting the key British colony of Egypt and, more particularly, the Suez Canal, the vital axis of British imperial power. The defeat of the Italian invading force in December 1940 owed much to Churchill’s decision to send to Egypt tanks that were a key part of Britain’s strategic reserve. In October 1940, Churchill wrote, ‘It should be possible to provide by the end of July [1941] a striking force for amphibious warfare of six divisions, of which two should be armoured.’ [ 7 ] This reflected his determination to strike at the Axis where possible, but also his confidence that a German invasion of Britain would not come.

Churchill’s move had been prefigured in 1758–9 when William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, sent forces to conquer the French colony of Canada despite the risk of a French invasion of England that was, indeed, to be thwarted by the Royal Navy in 1759. In October 1940, Churchill wrote the foreword to an edition of The War Speeches of William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister 1783–1801 and 1804–6) pressing the case for ‘our determination to fight on, as Pitt and his successors fought on, till we in our turn achieve our Waterloo’. [ 8 ]

Chamberlain’s cancer opened the way for Churchill to become leader of the Conservative Party in October 1940. In his speech of 9 October accepting the leadership, Churchill offered an account of his broadest concerns: ‘I have always faithfully served two public causes which I think stand supreme – the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain and her Empire and the historical continuity of our Island life.’ [ 9 ] Churchill was strong enough politically to send his major Conservative political rival, the Earl of Halifax, as ambassador to Washington.

Churchill’s interventionism was less successful when forces were sent to Greece in April 1941 in a failed attempt to help resist German invasion. The dispatch of forces there greatly weakened the British in North Africa. Churchill, who had backed the policy for political reasons, in order to show that Britain was supporting all opposition to the Axis, swiftly recognized it as an error. Criticism of him increased that May when the British defence of Crete against German invasion proved a major failure.

Relations with the military leadership were put under strain, not least due to disputes over how best to balance between commitments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. In the dire circumstances of 1940–41, choices had to be made as Britain could not simultaneously face three enemies – two actual (Germany and Italy) and one apparently imminent (Japan). Obsessed with Egypt and complacent about the Japanese threat to Singapore, and thus the Indian Ocean and the route to Australia, Churchill pressed the case for advancing against the Italians in North Africa. Field Marshal Sir John Dill and the War Office took the opposite view, which was behind a serious clash in May 1941. An angry Dill wrote to Churchill on 15 May 1941:

I am sure that you, better than anyone else, must realise how difficult it is for a soldier to advise against a bold offensive plan. One lays oneself open to charges of defeatism, of inertia, or even of ‘cold feet’. Human nature being what it is, there is a natural tendency to acquiesce in an offensive plan of doubtful merit rather than to face such charges. It takes a lot of moral courage not to be afraid of being thought afraid. Be this as it may, the responsible military advisers, both in this country and in France, under-rated the Germans … My only concern in this particular problem is that we should not repeat our previous mistake of under-rating the enemy. [ 10 ]

At the same time, the German hope that the British people would realize their plight, overthrow Churchill and make peace proved a serious misreading of British politics and public opinion. The German bombing offensive had led, British Intelligence reports suggested, to signs ‘of increasing hatred of Germany’ as well as demands for ‘numerous’ reprisals. [ 11 ] Hitting back was a theme of Churchill’s strategy, in the shape of a bombing offensive designed to show that Britain was not dependent on the less direct means of blockading Germany, supporting resistance in lands conquered by her, and attacking Italy and Vichy France.

Moreover, from the summer of 1941, strategy was shaped by the Allies and their apparent requirements. As in World War One, there was the question of how best to keep Russia/the Soviet Union in the war. Appeasing Stalin’s demands for a Second Front in Western Europe was a constant factor. This issue was accentuated after American entry into the war in December 1941 as the Americans pressed for an early invasion of France across the English Channel. The resulting strategic debates with the Americans in 1942 proved contentious but eventually ended in a compromise with the decision to mount an American-dominated invasion of French North Africa in late 1942, Operation Torch.

Meanwhile, military failure in 1942 brought fresh criticisms of Churchill in Britain, again affecting the context for strategic debate. The fall of Singapore to Japan in February was a great humiliation. The British loss, with 33,000 prisoners, of Tobruk in Libya in June to the Afrika Korps under Rommel led to a censure motion in the House of Commons on 1 July. Churchill easily survived this mishandled attack, winning a division in the Commons by 475 to 25 votes, but the attack reflected widespread political concern about military failure and his leadership. At the same time, the controversy revealed that parliamentary critics of the government held differing views, lacked coordination and found it difficult to voice criticism without causing offence and risking appearing unpatriotic.

Victory at El Alamein in Egypt on 23 October–4 November 1942 turned the tide for Britain, both militarily, in the then key area of British engagement, and politically. The key role of conflict in the political framing of strategy was seen in Churchill’s ability, thanks to El Alamein, to ensure that the growing political crisis of the autumn did not become as serious as that in July. The autumn had seen widespread criticism, and intrigues by Stafford Cripps, the left-wing Lord Privy Seal, who wanted to replace him. Cripps proposed the formation of a War Planning Directorate, which was intended as a body to circumvent Churchill. There was also a public call for Churchill’s resignation from the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, although he was more prominent as a speaker than a politician. After El Alamein, Churchill was able to demote Cripps and his political position was far less vulnerable.

Churchill announced on 10 November 1942 that recent successes signified not ‘the beginning of the end’, but ‘the end of the beginning’. Indeed, at the Casablanca conference, held from 14 to 24 January 1943, Churchill was pushed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt into supporting the demand for unconditional surrender. Churchill, instead, had sought a way to ease Italy out of the war. From late 1942, the Allies could move over to the offensive, not as a series of counterattacks, but as part of a planned attempt to regain Axis conquests, and then to take the war to the Axis states themselves. Thanks to success at El Alamein, Britain was able to complement the Torch invasion of French North Africa on 8 November by advancing on Tunisia across Libya.

The shift to the offensive highlighted questions of prioritization and therefore strategic choice. In particular, Churchill sought to thwart the Soviet Union and to preserve the British Empire. He was able to persuade the United States to keep going in the Mediterranean, invading first Sicily and then mainland Italy in 1943, despite the effects of these efforts on the resources available for any cross-Channel attack that year.

Churchill was anxious not only to invade Italy, [ 12 ] but also to use the Mediterranean as a staging point for amphibious operations into the Balkans. To the Americans, who had been persuaded to persevere in a ‘Germany First’ rather than a ‘Japan First’ policy, this was a distraction from defeating the Germans in France and also a logistical nightmare. To Churchill, however, the Balkans presented an opportunity not only to harry the Germans, but also to pre-empt Soviet advances.

This policy reflected his suspicion of the Soviet Union, but also his strong sense that the war was a stage in the history of the twentieth century, a formative stage but one that would be succeeded by challenges and rivalries that had only been partly suspended during the conflict. To Churchill, who had played a key role supporting intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1919–20, the cause of freedom meant keeping the Soviets at bay. On 30 September 1940, broadcasting to the people of Czechoslovakia then under German tyranny, he had promised, ‘The hour of your deliverance will come. The soul of freedom is deathless; it cannot, and will not, perish.’ [ 13 ] By 1943, however, particularly in Poland, there was the danger that one tyranny would replace another. Churchill, nevertheless, failed to prevail with the Americans who, by 1944, were clearly taking the leading role in the Western alliance.

Despite his concerns about the Soviet Union, Churchill was sceptical about the idea of a post-war Western bloc, not least because he was worried about French intentions. Reluctant to see a fragmentation of Europe into hostile blocs, Churchill wrote to General Franco in December 1944, ‘I should be seriously misleading you if I did not at once remove any misconception that His Majesty’s Government are prepared to consider any grouping of powers in Western Europe or elsewhere on the basis of hostility towards or of the alleged necessity of defence against our Russian allies’. [ 14 ]

Churchill’s Balkan strategy also caused tension in the coalition at home. British intervention in Greece at the expense of the Communists in 1944–5 led to serious strains, in large part because anger over British military support for the royalists interacted with tensions within the Labour Party. [ 15 ]

More than politics was involved. British strategic concerns in the Mediterranean were also a legacy of conflict with the Axis in the Mediterranean from 1940. The British had military resources in the region, as well as territorial and strategic commitments to protect, notably the Suez Canal, and the resources could not be readily relocated. [ 16 ]

There were issues of practicality in Churchill’s strategic options. The boldness of his strategic planning paid insufficient attention to logistical and other military realities. This was a particular problem in Churchill’s case, as in his plans in 1942 to invade Norway and in August 1943 to gain ‘partial control’ of the Dardanelles. [ 17 ] Indeed, it could be argued that Churchill was poor at military strategy but better at the geopolitical strategies of coalition warfare. Churchill’s emphasis on operations in the Mediterranean had serious logistical implications as it was more distant from British bases than France. Instead, the American preference for concentrating on a cross- Channel invasion of France was more appropriate in terms of resource availability and the resulting logistical capability.

Discussion of Churchill’s role in Anglo-American wartime strategy continues to be contentious, not least because it is linked to counterfactuals relating to post-war geopolitics, notably the claim that more commitment to a Mediterranean strategy might have restricted subsequent Soviet control of the Balkans, affecting the cold war, an issue that melds politics and morality. Moreover, it is argued that greater success in Italy could have been obtained had American pressure to allocate resources to an invasion of southern France in 1944 been unsuccessful. Churchill hoped that a presence in Italy would encourage resistance in Yugoslavia, hold down German forces in the Balkans, and serve as the basis for advancing into Austria and southern Germany. His expectations that a forward policy in the Mediterranean would affect the post-war situation possibly did not take sufficient note of the realities on the ground in Yugoslavia, both during and after the war. Nevertheless, the Hungarian government thought of joining the Allies in 1943–4 if their forces invaded the Balkans, while Romania and Bulgaria also switched sides in 1944 when the Soviets advanced.

Yet, Churchill failed sufficiently to appreciate the difficulties of campaigning in Italy, both those posed by the terrain and those due to the German defenders. Moreover, the amphibious force sent to secure the formerly Italian-held Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean in late 1943 proved a disaster, with the Germans successfully regaining the islands in October–November. The Americans had opposed the commitment. It appealed, however, to Churchill’s interest in bold steps, his commitment to action and his longstanding belief in the importance of Turkey; indeed, in some respects it was Gallipoli 1915 redux. He hoped that the operation would lead Turkey to enter the war. In the event, the British lost about 4,800 troops, six destroyers and 113 planes. Churchill’s emphasis on the Mediterranean risked an east-west iron curtain that left more economically advanced areas under Soviet control, [ 18 ] although, looked at differently, this was potentially a valuable supplement to a Second Front invasion of France.

Churchill was sensible in supporting a delay in the launching of the Second Front by means of an invasion of France. The deliberative, controlled style of attack supported by clear superiority in artillery, which Montgomery had used at El Alamein, could not be replicated in an amphibious attack.

In 1943, many key German units were allocated to the unsuccessful Kursk offensive on the Eastern Front; the Germans lacked the advantages of the build-up in munitions production that 1943 was to bring and their defensive positions in France were incomplete. The Soviets, indeed, mentioned their suspicion of their allies’ failure to open a Second Front to the Germans when probing the possibility of a separate peace.

Nevertheless, there was only limited equipment for, and experience in, amphibious operations, while it was also still unclear how far, and how speedily, it would be possible to vanquish the U-boat threat and thus control the Atlantic shipping lanes. Aside from the need to build up forces and experience for an invasion of France, there was also the requirement of assured air and sea superiority to support both landing and exploitation. Moreover, delaying the invasion until 1944 enabled the Allies to benefit from the problems that hit the Germans in 1943: failure at Kursk and subsequent large-scale Soviet advances chewed up part of the German army and air force.

Aside from wanting to invade the Balkans in order to pre-empt or, at the least, influence Soviet advances, Churchill, in late 1944, supported a ‘Narrow Front’ advance on Germany designed to lead to a rapid advance across the Rhine. This opposition to a ‘Broad Front’ campaign was seen as the best way to get to Berlin before the Soviets. As with the Mediterranean sphere, there were, however, questions about military practicality as well as the competing views of British and American generals.

Churchill supported a prudent stance over the Second Front, but his sometimes cavalier failure to note the constraints within which the military operated could lend an air of fantasy to some of his strategic speculations. For example, in March 1944, the Chiefs of Staff successfully responded to pressure from Churchill that they plan for a year’s campaigning to restore British power in Malaya and Singapore, before British forces were switched to join the Americans in the Pacific in attacking Japan:

This assumes a flexibility which would not, we fear, prove practicable. The administrative preparations for whatever operations may be decided upon, whether in the East or in the West, will be on a vast scale, indeed not beyond our power, to make these preparations in both areas. There is thus no question of retaining indefinitely an option in this matter. It is essential to make a decision within the next three months as to which policy is to be adopted, and to adhere to it.

As a salutary rejoinder to Churchill’s hopes, the Chiefs of Staff also argued that there was a lack of necessary resources, unless they were lent by the Americans, and claimed ‘we shall not have sufficient British aircraft to equip the full number of fighter carriers required’. Churchill, in contrast, had written:

It is in the interest of Britain to pursue what may be termed the ‘Bay of Bengal Strategy at any rate for the next twelve months … All preparations will be made for amphibious action across the Bay of Bengal against the Malay Peninsula and the various island outposts by which it is defended, the ultimate objective being the reconquest of Singapore. A powerful British fleet will be built up based on Ceylon, Adu Atoll [in the Indian Ocean] and East India ports. [ 19 ]

In the event, a powerful British fleet was to be sent to the Pacific where, while opposing Japan, it did not greatly contribute to Britain’s imperial interests. When the Eastern Fleet was divided in November 1944, the British Pacific Fleet got the best capital ships, including the fleet carriers, while the new East Indies Fleet made do with escort carriers and only one battleship. The Chiefs of Staff had argued that a focus on the Pacific would make it easier to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, but it did not do so in the way Churchill had wished.

Churchill’s interest in regaining control of Malaya and Singapore reflected his passionate commitment to the Empire. Under American pressure, the Atlantic Charter, issued by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Placentia Bay conference (9–12 August 1941), had declared ‘the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live’. The Roosevelt administration was opposed to colonial rule and, instead, in favour of a system of ‘trusteeship’ as a prelude to independence. Roosevelt pressed Churchill on the status of both Hong Kong (which he wanted returned to China) and India. In 1943, at the Tehran conference, Roosevelt told Churchill that Britain had to adjust to a ‘new period’ in global history and to turn their back on ‘400 years of acquisitive blood in your veins’. [ 20 ]

Churchill, however, did not accept these views. On becoming leader of the Conservative Party, he had declared, ‘Alone among the nations of the world we have found the means to combine Empire and liberty.’ [ 21 ] Aside from being determined to protect the Empire, a major theme already in his policies in office in the 1910s and early 1920s and in heated opposition to the Government of India Act in 1935, Churchill also sought gains, again continuing his earlier policy. He considered the annexation of Libya, while Italian Somaliland remained under British administration. Churchill was also interested in the Kra isthmus in southern Thailand, which would provide a continuous land route between the neighbouring British colonies of Burma and Malaya. At present, there are Chinese plans for a canal across the isthmus in order to improve maritime routes to the Indian Ocean.

At the same time, Churchill made significant concessions. Article seven of the Lend-Lease agreement of 1942 affected imperial preference, the commercial adhesive of the Empire, although imperial preference continued until 1973 and Roosevelt assured Churchill that the article did not mean its abolition. In 1944, Britain and the United States signed treaties with China ending the extra-territorial rights acquired the previous century.

Hopes of imperial gains capture the war as opportunity, a theme differently pushed by Stalin and (less crudely) Roosevelt, but again suggest a degree of hubris in the face of Britain’s relative decline and difficulties. Indeed, there was, and is, good cause for criticizing Churchill. In particular, he bore some of the responsibility for the humiliating failure of the strategy for confronting Japan, and the diary of Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), the Chief of the Imperial General Staff from December 1941 to January 1946, made it clear that he could be very difficult as far as military planning was concerned. For 6 July 1944, Alan Brooke recorded,

At 10 p.m. we had a frightful meeting with Winston which lasted till 2 a.m!! It was quite the worst we have had with him. He was very tired as a result of his speech in the House concerning the flying bombs, he had tried to recuperate with drink. As a result he was in a maudlin, bad-tempered, drunken mood, ready to take offence at anything, suspicious of everybody, and in a highly vindictive mood against the Americans. In fact so vindictive that his whole outlook on strategy was warped. [ 22 ]

However, although his confidence in Churchill having the necessary grip lessened, Brooke’s overall judgement was that Churchill was crucial to the winning of the war, while command failures in Malaya and Singapore were fundamentally responsible for disaster there. More generally, Churchill’s main objective was to get the Americans to fight the Germans and then defeat the Japanese later; and, despite his fears, [ 23 ] that was how the situation worked out.

Jeremy Black, University of Edinburgh

Jeremy Black holds the Established Chair in History at the University of Exeter. He was previously Professor of History at Durham. His books include The British Seaborne Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004) and The Politics of World War Two (London: Social Affairs Unit, 2009). He holds a MBE for services to stamp design.


  1. 1. I am most grateful to Andrew Roberts, Daniel Johnson and Richard Toye for their comments on an earlier draft.
  2. 2. For Churchill’s concern with his record, see D. Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004).
  3. 3. Winston Churchill to Lord Trenchard, 26 September 1940, CHAR 20/2A/59.
  4. 4. Winston Churchill to Sir Samuel Hoare, 23 September 1940, CHAR 20/14.
  5. 5. Clementine Churchill, notes in the margin of Churchill’s draft war memoirs, CHUR 4/170/90-105.
  6. 6. Winston Churchill to Charles de Gaulle, 10 October 1940, CHAR 20/14.
  7. 7. Winston Churchill, minute for Chiefs of Staff Committee, 13 October 1940, CHAR 20/13/7.
  8. 8. R. Coupland (ed.), The War Speeches of William Pitt the Younger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).
  9. 9. Winston Churchill, speech notes, 9 October 1940, CHAR 9/145/1-6.
  10. 10. J.R.M. Butler, History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy, Vol. 2 (London: HMSO, 1957), p. 580.
  11. 11. War Cabinet, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Weekly Résumé No. 56, 19–26 September 1940, CHAR 23/6/86-99.
  12. 12. Winston Churchill to Harry Hopkins, 9 April 1943, CHAR 20/109/100.
  13. 13. Winston Churchill, speech notes, 30 September 1940, CHAR 9/144/71-75.
  14. 14. Winston Churchill to General Franco, 20 December 1944, CHAR 20/138B/227-232.
  15. 15. A.J. Foster, ‘The Politicians, Public Opinion and the Press: The Storm over British Military Intervention in Greece in December 1944’, Journal of Contemporary History, 19 (1984), pp. 453–94; A. Thorpe, ‘In a Rather Emotional State? The Labour Party and British Intervention in Greece, 1945–6’, English Historical Review, 121 (2006), pp. 1075–105.
  16. 16. S. Ball, The Bitter Sea: The Struggle for Mastery in the Mediterranean, 1935–1949 (London: Harper Press, 2009).
  17. 17. Winston Churchill to General Ismay, 6 August 1943, CHAR 20/104/2.
  18. 18. G.L. Weinberg, ‘Some Myths of World War II’, Journal of Military History, 75 (2011), p. 709.
  19. 19. Chiefs of Staff to Winston Churchill, 28 March 1944, CHAR 20/188B/84-88; Winston Churchill to Chiefs of Staff, 20 March 1944, CHAR 20/188A/64-68; and King’s College London, Liddell Hart Library, Alanbrooke papers, 6/3/9, 8.
  20. 20. N. Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 360; W.R. Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941–1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); A.J. Whitfield, Hong Kong, Empire, and the Anglo-American Alliance at War, 1941–1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).
  21. 21. Winston Churchill, speech notes, 9 October 1940, CHAR 9/145/1-6.
  22. 22. Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries 1939–1945, edited by A. Danchev and D. Todman (London: Phoenix, 2002), p. 561.
  23. 23. Winston Churchill to General Jan Smuts, 12 December 1941, CHAR 20/46/90.

(c) 2013 Jeremy Black