ARCHIVED THREADS > Winston Churchill's The Second World War - good or bad?

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message 1: by Meirav (last edited Feb 16, 2008 09:01AM) (new)

Meirav Rath Firstly, I'd like to say I'm having a great time here, this is a wonderfully well-educated group of mature readers who can run a good discussion without slipping into drama or soapbox speeches. I'm very, very proud of you all ^_^

And now for the actual topic:

I'm currently plodding through the second volume, Their Finest Hour, which is getting a bit too heavy on the dispatches and letters quotes and wondered if I'm the only one going through this. Last volume was getting a bit too navy-obsessed for my taste after a while but I stuck to it and skipped anything that had 'boat' in it, so it's not a first for me to not be able to read what he wrote.

I love Churchill and his wonderful writing style dotted with dry humor and good old phrases (which are only made better because I have a copy from the articulate archaic languaged early 60s which my uncle got for his Bar Mitzva and never bothered opening...tssk ^_~) but he lacks the knowledge of editing much...

Also and fellow buff friend of mine mentioned Churchill's writings are somewhat biased on representing his mistakes and the mistakes of others, which made me wonder where exactly I can see an example of that other than his constant (and annoying) contempt towards Soviet Russia.

message 2: by Patrick (new)

Patrick | 16 comments I'm glad you brought this topic up, Meirav...I've been meaning to start a thread on it for awhile.

First of all, there's a great book, recently published on this entire subject. The author is David Reynolds, and the title is IN COMMAND OF HISTORY: CHURCHILL FIGHTING AND WRITING THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

I have a copy of this book, but I can't find it right now. I haven't read the whole book yet, but the gist of Reynolds's argument is that, when Churchill sat down to write this series of books, he had an agenda:

1) He needed money badly, and so he wrote and published them fairly quickly. He also wanted to get his side of the story out in print before other major figures published their books. This tactic had helped him in the past.

2) He was offered the book contract just after he lost that election following the war, and that disturbed him badly. So he was kind of writing with an eye towards getting back in the political game.

3) He had a need to depict himself as being the most forward seeing, innovative, and smartest guy in the room in each setting he was in, and the memoirs try to make that case. In addition, since the later volumes of the memoirs were published during the early, intense years of the Cold War, at which point there was very little doubt in anyone's mind that the Soviet Union was hostile to the West, Stalin-bashing was an easy target, and it gave Churchill great political capital to make the case that he foresaw the dangers the USSR presented better than anyone else. After all, Roosevelt was dead, and Stalin wasn't exactly going to write into the London papers to contradict what Sir Winston wrote in his books, so Churchill could get away with it.


My knowledge of Churchill's Second World War Books is not first-hand. That is to say, I haven't actually read his books. Someday I might, but generally I try to stay away from memoirs by first-hand participants in historical events if they were too high up the chain of command.

Churchill's memoirs are a classic example of why I do this. I have frequently seen footnotes and textual commentary in other books I have read wherein the author remarks that: "Winston Churchill, in his volume X of his series on the Second World War, states that.....however, the (writings of othe participants in that meeting)/ (meeting minutes) / (other records from the files of the Army/Navy/Royal Air Force/Ultra/etc.) actually prove that (the opposite occurred)."

The best examples I know of where Churchill interfered way too much in military decisions and where he may have skewed the record come from my reading about decisions made in reference to the China-Burma-India theater. Churchill saw that place as a chance to exercise his fascination with outlandish small-unit special forces, and inflicted a guy named Orde Wingate and his Long-Range Penetration patrol teams on the theater commanders there (these teams are better known historically as the Chindits).

These guys did some exciting things, and were an asset in the first campaign of the Allies against the Japanese in Burma in 1944 as Stilwell and his Chinese forces sought to take Myitkyina. But, as I read accounts of the 1943 Quebec Conference (QUADRANT) in which Churchill pushed the idea of using Wingate and his military theories, it seems that Churchill in his books give his favorites a little too much credit for what they accomplished in Burma, while minimizing the contributions of the Americans and supposedly completely ignoring the efforts of the Chinese under Stilwell. Most current historians of the battle who were not participants actually see the whole who did what question in the exact opposite manner.

So this is one example of where Churchill's books skew the record. The idea of using Wingate and the Chindits was his baby, so in his books he mainly concentrates on the conference where the decision was made (to be fair, that's the only part of this matter he was directly involved in), and when the time comes ot discuss the operations itself, he makes his guys look good, other contributors seem less relevant, and ignores the efforts of "native peoples" in liberating their territory.


For Meirav and others...I wrote this post off the top of my head BUT I need to go back and check some things to verify my assertions. Mainly I need to check the Reynolds book to ensure I got his outline of Churchill's motive for writing these books correct. I also need to go back through my CBI books and cite specific books and examples for the second part of my post. Take all this with a grain of salt until I either clean it up with specifics or until you read or skim the Reynolds book yourself!

message 3: by George (last edited Feb 19, 2008 04:31PM) (new)

George | 116 comments It's a rare historical figure indeed who doesn't embellish his record in an effort to control how history will look at him. However, you need to do a bit more research on the man if you think he was merely contemptuous of the Soviet Union. He was a dominent force in attempting to overthrow the communists in the period immediately after the revolution and into the 20's, among other things. He was one of the Soviet Union's most dedicated enemies, until they were attacked by Nazi Germany. And he resumed that position after the war ended. It was Churchill who invented the phrase "Iron Curtain." He was a very busy man indeed in the 20's having been heavily involved in the formation of Transjordan and the British involvement in Iraq as well.

message 4: by Ian (new)

Ian | 85 comments Churchill found it very difficullt to keep away from meddling in military actions, particularly those involving special forces, much to the annoyance and frustration of his senior commanders. Amongst other hare-brained schemes he twice proposed an amphibious landing in Sumatra prompting the threat of resignation of senior generals. The CIGS Alan Brooke commented in 1944 when the proposal was raised for a second time " I began to wonder if I was in Alice in Wonderland".

Wingate, who was probably slightly mad, was a great favourite of WSC's who promoted him to a major-general and wanted him to command British forces in the East. Wingate's exploits were good for home morale but expensive in terms of casualties and did not achieve all that much militarily. Wingate was killed in an air crash in March 1944 much to the relief of many British generals who saw him as a loose cannon. Bill Slim - one of the best British Generals of the war who commanded The Forgotten Army - The 14th - saw Wingate and the Chindits as a distraction.

However, WSC's real role and talent was as a voice and representative of the British people. To most of my parents' - and my - generation Churchill was the voice of defiance during the two years in which Briitain stood more or less alone. Through his relationship with FDR he was instrumental in the commencement of the Lend-Lease plan and, it could be argued, the 'Germany FIrst' strategy when the US entered the war. His anti-communist stance also made him more sceptical of Stalin's motives in the discussions over post-war spheres of influence where he saw American attitudes to Stalin as naive.

As a military thinker Churchill was an amateur and his commanders fought him many times over his proposals. Fortunately they tended to win albeit by threatening to resign from time to time!

It is hard to over-emphasise the regard in which Churchill was held as leader during the war. [He was still voted the Greatest Briton of All Time in a BBC poll a couple of years ago]. However, this regard was for him as a leader during time of war. The British people did not want his party as the government of Britain after the war and as leader of the Conservative party he was rejected in the election of 1945. The best biography of Churchill is still probably the multi-volumed set by Martin Gilbert - a tough read but it's all there!

message 5: by George (new)

George | 116 comments Atkinson's Day of Battle goes on at length on Churchill's resposibility for the invasion of Sicily and the rest of Italy, over very serious misgivings among the American military command, but it seems none of them thought to resign over it. The book opens with his war time visit to Washington and makes for very interesting reading. One would have thought Churchill's debacle in the Dardanelles would have cured him of thinking of himself as a strategic genius or for that matter, cured most everyone else of listening to him, but apparently not, and he was a most persuasive man.

message 6: by Christopher (new)

Christopher | 13 comments Ian,

I agree that Churchill was known to meddle with military affairs to the great annoyancwe of his generals. However, what wartime leader didn't?

By the time Stalingrad was surrounded, Hitler had placed himself personally in charge of large swaths of the Eastern Front's command. In Japan, there was effectively no division between military and political leadership (unless you believe that Hirohito and the royal family were the ones actively directing

message 7: by Christopher (new)

Christopher | 13 comments Argh, hit the wrong key...

...actively directing the war.

Stalin was not exactly a hands-off leader when it came to military matters either.

FDR ends up looking like the least meddling political leader of a major combatant nation.

message 8: by Ian (new)

Ian | 85 comments Christopher,

Yes, you're absolutely right about leaders' interference in military matters. Two points:
1. you would expect the separation of political & military leadership to be more pronounced and better respected in a democracy even in wartime - as with FDR;
2. at some point military decisions become poliitical, certainly when such decisions reach the strategic level.

Churchill never did recognise the 'separation point' in military matters, added to which his military experience, (limited though it was), led him to think that in military terms he had expertise. Fortunately, in the Second World War at least, his flights of fancy were reined in by his generals.

With Hitler & Stalin, the nature of the beast, the pathological distrust of anybody inevitably led to military involvement. I agree with you about the Japanese; the military was always in charge and the struggle between the militarists & the civilians is a significant aspect of the Japanese experience, particularly towards the end of the war and the so-called peace overtures through Moscow.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

the common people want a great leader to rally behind (even if it's part illusion)
stalin and his pogoms and his ambition for world dominion was a real threat and their army was mobilized and taking huge chunks of europe
roosevelt didn't appreciate nor possibly understand the threat in the same way
and war weary britian didn't have the patience nor the time to wait for anything other than decisive action
so churchill painted a more self serving picture, how much of a chink in the armour of greatness do we take off for it

it was world war II
the world to lose
but churchill as a major figure (with help)saved the world
i think he gets to go down in history as the big guy amongst the other big guys

by the way
i love these discussions and am so impressed by your (the groups) historical knowledge
it's part refresher course, part seminar, part new knowledge and insight you are giving me for free
keep it up :)

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