Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 28

Churchill as a war leader

Study Sources A to G and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A:

From the memoirs of Lord Halifax, published in 1957.

At the Foreign Office and in the War Cabinet I shared responsibility under the Prime Minister [Churchill] until the end of 1940, through the days which preceded, witnessed and followed the collapse of France and Belgium, and the miracle of Dunkirk. The main burden of all this fell upon Churchill, and inspired him to give leadership to the British people, matchless and unforgettable.... I asked him one day if he could ever imagine circumstances in which he might think it right to recommend the King and Government to move to Canada. He thought for a moment, and then he said with great emphasis that he could imagine no such circumstances; every man ought to fight to the death on his own soil, and ‘if they come to London, I shall take a rifle and put myself in the pillbox at the bottom of Downing Street, and shoot till I've no more ammunition, and then they can damned well shoot me’.

Source: Lord Halifax, Fulness of Days, Collins, 1957.

Source B:

Historian Arthur Bryant gives his assessment of Churchill, published in 1959.

From first to last, his part in winning the war was greater than any man’s - British, American or Russian. He was fertile in resource, inexhaustible in argument, and a spur and stimulus to bold action of any kind. As Prime Minister, Churchill oversaw every department of the country’s life and moulded it into an instrument for total war. This gigantic man fired the whole nation with his passionate indignation, pugnacity, impatience and refusal to admit defeat. Even his faults, when tempered by advice, contributed as much to victory as his virtues. Without him there would have been no triumph.... When in 1940 Churchill took on the offices of both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, the three Service Chiefs became responsible to him alone. This close and direct contact between PM and Service Chiefs ensured the correlation of political and military authority and prevented the dangerous division of responsibility, so nearly fatal in the First World War, between politicians ignorant of military matters, and military advisers who had no means of making their advice effective.

Source: A. Bryant, Triumph in the West 1943-46, Collins, 1959.

Source C:

From the diary of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941.

October 6th 1943. It is quite clear in my mind that with the commitments we have in Italy we should not undertake serious operations in the Aegean.... By 3.25 PM determined to go for Rhodes without looking at the effects on Italy. I had a heated argument with him.

October 7th. Another one-and-a-half hours’ battle with PM to hold on to what I think is right. The same arguments brought up again and again.

October 8th. I can now control him no more. He has worked himself into a frenzy of excitement about the Rhodes attack, has magnified its importance so that he can no longer see anything else. He has set his heart on capturing this one island at the expense of the Italian campaign.

January 19th 1944. In all his plans he lives from hand to mouth; he can never grasp a whole plan - selects individual pieces of the vast jigsaw puzzle and concentrates on it at the expense of all others. March 29th 1945. I feel that I can't stick another moment with him and would give almost anything never to see him again.

July 25th 1945. I shall always look back on the years I worked with him [Churchill] as some of the most difficult and trying of my life. For all that, I thank God that I was given an opportunity of working alongside such a man, and of having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.

Source: Quoted in A. Bryant, Triumph in the West 1943-46, Collins, 1959.

Source D:

The opinion of a military historian, Sir Basil Liddell Hart.

Then came the catastrophes of May and June 1940 when France collapsed and Italy entered the war. In that appalling crisis, the first need was to build up the defences of Britain, and the second to provide for the defence of the Mediterranean area. Those two needs were difficult to meet simultaneously. Churchill's boldest and greatest action was seen in the risks he took to strengthen the defences of Egypt before Britain itself was secure against invasion.... In March 1941 Churchill declared that the new government of Yugoslavia would receive ‘all possible aid and succour from Britain’. Hitler could not tolerate such an insult and at once decided to invade Yugoslavia as well as Greece. Yugoslavia was overrun within a week and Greece in just over three weeks, and the British force was hustled back into its ships. The outcome reflected on Churchill's judgement and on those who had told him military intervention was feasible.... The effects of the loss of Singapore and Malaya were disastrous. It is clear that the responsibility for the failure to reinforce Malaya's inadequate defences rests principally with Churchill himself - and was due to his insistence on launching a premature offensive in North Africa.

Source: B. H. Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War, Cassell, 1970.

Source E:

The opinion of a military historian, Sir Basil Liddell Hart.

Letter from Churchill to Sir John Dill, Brooke’s predecessor as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, May 1941. I gather you would be prepared to face the loss of Egypt rather than lose Singapore. I do not take that view, nor do I think the alternative is likely to happen.... Should Japan enter the war, the US will in all probability come in on our side, and in any case Japan would not be likely to attack Singapore as this would be a dangerous operation for her.

Source: Quoted in Liddell Hart, as Source D.

Source F:

A British historian, Robert Blake, and an American historian, William Roger Louis, give their joint assessment of Churchill, published in 1993.

In May 1940 the failure of the Norwegian campaign brought down Chamberlain and Churchill succeeded him.... Seldom has a more crucial decision been made. It meant that Britain had at the head of its affairs the one statesman who, at precisely the moment of the Fall of France, could not only unite all parties by his eloquence but was prepared in the face of all the odds to continue a struggle which objectively seemed hopeless. It was this determination, unflagging energy, and infectious optimism that prevented a dictated peace.... With Britain out of the way Hitler would almost certainly have conquered the Soviet Union, and Japan might not have risked Pearl Harbor. A defeated Russia and a humiliated Britain would have been more vulnerable victims. The United States might not have been drawn into the struggle. Hitler might have ruled a satellite empire from the Urals to the Atlantic. No doubt Churchill's contribution to the outcome, and more specifically to strategy, can be variously assessed. What cannot be disputed is his contribution to morale. As he put it, he gave the roar to the British lion, and in those critical years 1940-1 his eloquence, however dated it may seem today, was of enormous importance.

Source: R. Blake and W. R. Louis (eds.), Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War, Oxford, 1993.

Source G:

Extracts from historian John Charmley’s reappraisal of Churchill’s role as war leader, published in 1993.

In the eyes of many sensible folk, [in May 1940] the time had come to think about coming to terms with Herr Hitler... there was a good deal of support for the idea of at least opening talks to find out what Hitler's peace terms might be. Of Churchill’s determination to continue the war there was never any doubt....But in his determination to see Germany defeated, Churchill neglected to ask himself, until it was too late, what the result of the total destruction of German power would be upon the balance of power....He had been so fixed upon the German menace to the balance of power that he had signally failed to notice that by destroying German power, he had helped to raise up a new and equally sinister threat;...

Surveying the situation in July 1945 it was hard to argue that Britain had won in any sense save that of avoiding defeat. He had destroyed the awful tyranny of Hitler, but what had risen in its place? ...... At the end of the war he was, once again, faced with what looked like an attempt by one power [USSR] to dominate the Continent, an odd result for so much expenditure of treasure and manpower...

Churchill stood for the British Empire, for British independence and for an anti-Socialist vision of Britain. By July 1945 the first of these was on the skids, the second was dependent solely on America and the third had just vanished in a Labour election victory.

Source: J. Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.


  1. On the basis of the evidence in this collection of sources, suggest why Churchill has been described as ‘the Saviour of the Nation’. (16 marks)
  2. From the evidence of Sources C, D and E and the information in Chapter 28, what mistakes did Churchill make and how serious were they? (10 marks)
  3. Compare and contrast Sources F and G in their assessments of Churchill's role as war leader. (12 marks)
  4. Using the evidence of the sources and your own knowledge, explain which of the two interpretations you find most convincing. (12 marks)
(Total 50 marks)