In his brand new assessment of Winston Churchill's political career, Nigel Knight challenges the sentimental image of the great wartime leader and argues that Churchill's impact on Great Britain was, in fact, consistently disastrous. The author backs up his arguments with rigorous academic research to provide a fresh insight into Churchill's entire career. This book covers Churchill's time as pre-war Chancellor and his contradictory economic policies. It also looks at his time as Prime Minister and his wartime blunders, as well as the post-war period when he failed to rectify his past errors. It includes 16 pages of fascinating archive photographs.
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GALLIPOLI: CHURCHILL'S FIRST DEFEAT
Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty when, during World War I, he masterminded the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, the heart of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Ottoman Empire was the least consequential of the Central Powers; World War I was to be decided by defeating Germany and Austria–Hungary on the Western Front, not by knocking Turkey out of the war. Once Germany and Austria–Hungary had gone, Turkey would collapse of its own accord. Nevertheless, the Gallipoli campaign would set the pattern for Churchill's strategy in World War II, with dire results.
CHURCHILL BECOMES FIRST LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY
It was on Monday, 25 October 1911 that the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, replaced Reginald McKenna with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. In fact, Churchill and McKenna swapped jobs: Churchill had been Home Secretary for 20 months, and McKenna took on the Home Office – with surprising reluctance, as it was of superior ranking and status to the Admiralty. So although Churchill relished his new job, it was something of a demotion. Churchill had been appointed to his first government job in 1905, as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. In 1908 he became President of the Board of Trade, spending two years there before going to the Home Office. Now, just before his 37th birthday, he was still very young for a government minister.
His appointment as First Lord was not greeted with unalloyed pleasure. The Spectator wrote, 'We cannot detect in his career any principles or even any constant outlook upon public affairs; his ear is always to the ground; he is the true demagogue ...' This was the problem of being a turncoat politician, of having left the Conservative Party – his father's party – to join the Liberals in the governments of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and now Herbert Asquith.
Churchill proved most inconsistent in his views on military expenditure. In 1909, while President of the Board of Trade, he had argued for restraint in naval construction, despite the growing threat from Germany. Along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, he argued for the construction of only four new battleships, while the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher – generally regarded as second only to Horatio Nelson in British naval history – wanted eight, and mounted a public campaign with the mantra, 'We want eight, we won't wait.' A compromise of six was proposed, but Churchill still wouldn't agree. On 24 February, Prime Minister Asquith suggested that four be laid down in 1909–10, with four more, if necessary, no later than 1 April 1910. This led the cynics to point out that 'they had asked for four, fought against six, and had got eight!'
Churchill's desire for restraint in 1909 contrasted starkly with his attitude on becoming First Lord, when he immediately ordered 20 new destroyers to be authorized by the 1911 Navy Estimates. He courted Fisher, now retired as First Sea Lord, and would reappoint him at the outset of World War I. Fisher was at first extremely enthusiastic about Churchill's appointment as First Lord, despite their dispute over the eight battleships, but they would fall out again over Churchill's decision to promote three admirals who were favourites of King George V.
As a former junior cavalry officer with no experience of naval matters, Churchill was viewed with disdain by many senior naval officers, particularly the sea lords, who objected to him using his position to hand down orders to them rather than employing their expertise. Churchill replaced the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, with Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman. However, the new man would have a real falling out with Churchill. He complained of Churchill's constant interference with technical decisions and undermining of naval traditions, and threatened to go to the Prime Minister and the King. Churchill consequently replaced him with Prince Louis of Battenberg. Indeed, Churchill fired four sea lords in the space of a year, which caused adverse comment both in the press and in the House of Commons.
Churchill appointed Rear-Admiral David Beatty as his private naval secretary. This would prove controversial, and the two men would eventually fall out. Beatty, at 40, was the navy's youngest flag officer, and some thought him over-promoted. In April 1913 Churchill appointed Beatty to command the battle-cruiser squadron of the Grand Fleet. This would itself be a dubious decision: at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 great losses were endured, at which Beatty purportedly commented, 'There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,' as they exploded and sank.
More positively, Churchill commissioned the five Queen Elizabeth class 'super Dreadnought' battleships, of the new 'all big gun' design, while taking risks with the protracted development of their 380mm (15in) guns. These ships would play an important role at Jutland and again in World War II. He also presided over the introduction of oil-fired boilers to British warships. When Sir Percy Scott, an expert on naval gunnery, suggested introducing a new centralized 'director firing' system to replace the turret-based gunlayers then in use, Churchill ordered a competition between the old and new systems. Scott's system won and was duly introduced into British warships.
WORLD WAR I BEGINS
During the early stages of World War I, Churchill's concentration on the navy would momentarily wear off. The former Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, commented in September 1914, 'Winston for the moment, unfortunately, is much more anxious to rival Napoleon than Nelson, and thinks more of the Army than the Navy.' Churchill made forays to the front and consulted with General Sir John French, then in command of the British Army in Flanders. This did nothing for his relationship with the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Horatio Kitchener, or indeed French, who commented that Churchill's judgment was highly erratic.
Another disturbing factor was Churchill's ominously growing list of failures. He initiated a foray into Antwerp, organizing the defence of the port himself with disastrous consequences, an operation that was also compromised by the use of untrained troops. He admitted in Cabinet on 15 October 1914 that the navy could not prevent German submarine operations in the English Channel. He failed to prevent the cruiser Emden from wreaking havoc in the Indian Ocean, or German surface raiders from doing the same off East Africa. HMS Audacious was sunk by a mine on 27 October 1914, and the navy was defeated at the Battle of the Coronel Islands on 4 November. The debit side of the balance sheet was becoming very apparent, but there was little to compensate on the credit side.
It was at this point that Churchill decided to change his First Sea Lord – again – exhibiting the disturbing propensity to blame others for his own failures that would be apparent throughout his career. Prince Louis of Battenberg was accused of having pro-German ties; given that he was of German extraction (as was King George V), this was an easy charge to make. He was replaced by an older man who had little support from anyone apart from Churchill. The older man was none other than Jackie Fisher, so it is easy to question the wisdom of those who opposed his appointment. However, recalled out of retirement at 74, Fisher was past his best, and the motive for his appointment was highly dubious: Churchill hoped that the great man could rouse himself and pull Churchill's chestnuts out of the fire, yet Fisher would also be someone to hide behind – a scapegoat for his failures. Churchill also wanted to manipulate the 'old and weak' Fisher, as he admitted to Asquith's daughter in May 1915. So he wanted it both ways: to draw on Fisher's immense ability while Fisher took the flak for whatever went wrong, and yet to ensure that his, Churchill's, wishes were ultimately implemented.
The initial result of Fisher's appointment was unalloyed success. The navy soon won a great battle in the South Atlantic, off the Falkland Islands, and a skirmish off the Dogger Bank. Fisher's complaint that there was no attempt to follow up the Falklands victory was kept quiet. But relations between the two men quickly soured because of Churchill's interference in purely operational matters. He stopped Fisher's plan to send out the Grand Fleet after the German High Seas Fleet had undertaken a naval bombardment off Hartlepool, and also blocked his plans first to mine the Elbe and Heligoland, then to mount an attack on Prussia's Baltic coast. Already Fisher was minded to go, and would go soon.
GALLIPOLI TAKES SHAPE
World War I was settling into stalemate along the Western Front, and Churchill frantically searched for any strategy that could overcome this inertia and try to win the war pretty much at a stroke; he eventually came up with Gallipoli. A more patient and rational response would have been to address the problems on the Western Front and attempt to gain advantage there. Churchill's involvement in the creation of the tank was a very real attempt to do precisely this. But the technology of the period was too impoverished to make the tank an effective instrument of war. Twenty years later it would be different, but the technology of World War I favoured defence almost exclusively.
It was the machine gun, artillery and barbed wire that made defensive tactics superior to offensive ones. This was because artillery and machine guns were largely immobile: they worked efficiently from the gun line and the trenches respectively, and barbed wire was a very effective barrier against an infantry advance – a problem the tank was intended to solve. During an offensive operation, troops moved ever further from their railhead and so became increasingly difficult to supply, while the defending army was pushed back nearer to its own railhead and thus could be supplied more readily. The failure fully to appreciate these realities meant that Churchill did not foresee that the Gallipoli campaign would necessarily bog down into stalemate just like the Western Front – the very situation it was intended to avoid.
Before Churchill settled upon Gallipoli, among a myriad of possible operations he decided that the Dutch island of Ameland should act as a springboard for the defeat of Germany. This was despite the fact that its occupation would violate Dutch neutrality and in the limiting case risk pushing Holland into the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria–Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). His response to these objections was merely to select another island, Borkum, even though it was defended with modern fortifications, the seas around it were mined and it was easily defensible with U-boats and torpedo boats. Alternatively, he came up with another island: Sylt. The notion that warships could defeat fortified emplacements on land would be a hallmark of his naval strategy, directly contrary to Nelson's dictum that ships cannot destroy forts.
According to Churchill, Germany would be defeated as the result of the Borkum occupation because the minute military power of Denmark would give up its neutrality and join the Allies, and with the Baltic in Allied hands the Russians would be able to land forces close to Berlin. The occupation of Borkum would prevent any raid on, or invasion of, Britain – such as had been suggested in Erskine Childers' famous 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands – and would initiate a naval battle that would determine the outcome of the war. The whole strategy was predicated on the occupation of an island, and in Churchill's mind this objective could be readily accomplished. His chief of staff, Admiral Henry Oliver, commented: 'Churchill would often look in on his way to bed to tell me how he would capture Borkum or Sylt. If I did not interrupt or ask questions he would capture Borkum in twenty minutes.'
It was out of this chaotic thinking that the whole Gallipoli campaign arose. It was the beginning of Churchill's 'peripheralist' or 'dispersionist' strategic thinking: to mount raids dispersed around the enemy's periphery, rather than concentrating forces in a decisive Schwerpunkt ('focal point') action against the heart of the enemy. He believed that Turkey was a 'prop' supporting the war effort of the Central Powers, and that by knocking this away those powers would collapse. (In World War II he would again see Turkey as pivotal and encourage it to enter the war on the Allied side to aid Russia.) Balfour, for one, saw the obvious: he pointed out that Germany was quite indifferent to the fate of its allies when their loss was of no strategic importance to its own fortunes. However, the Gallipoli proposal gained credence in the government because David Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Maurice Hankey, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), both had the idea of a Balkan Front to ease pressure in Flanders. Also, Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) considered that a naval attack on the Dardanelles area of Turkey would relieve pressure on the Russians. Churchill presented his plan precisely in Kitchener's terms, though he elaborated it out of all proportion to Kitchener's original intent, and others in the government, such as Lloyd George and even Balfour, were at times similarly seduced.
Churchill now saw the Dardanelles as fundamental to winning the war, and when the War Council met, it agreed to his plan. The stalemate on the Western Front was palpable, and with both Kitchener and Churchill seeing the Dardanelles as a useful operation the balance of argument was tipped and the council pressed for it. However, Fisher, who had supported the plan, now openly opposed it, to the point of walking out of the meeting, only to be stopped by Kitchener.
Churchill wanted to occupy the Gallipoli Peninsula; much more ambitiously, he perceived that the naval operation might precipitate a revolution in the Turkish capital of Constantinople, and he wanted the army to be ready to occupy it. Indeed, he had managed to persuade himself of the most optimistic outcome – that the 'fall of [the] first fort' might precipitate revolution by itself. However, whereas a plan for naval bombardment alone could have been enacted and terminated at any point, a military landing and occupation would be a very obvious failure if it had to be withdrawn.
According to Churchill, the desired outcome could be accomplished with just one army division, the 29th, though its precise function was rather vague in his mind: it was to be used variously to mop up the forts, or perhaps to mount some undefined local operations or, in the most optimistic case, to occupy Constantinople itself. Thus, the naval operation plus the deployment of the 29th Division was, in one go, to precipitate the defeat of Turkey in the war.
However, Churchill would press ahead with the naval operations before the deployment of the 29th, and as luck would have it, he said that if a disaster happened to occur due to an insufficiency of troops, which – given this action – there was, he would disclaim responsibility for the whole affair. This would be an important get-out clause later on. There would always, of course, be debate over where the threshold for an 'insufficiency' actually was.
THE GALLIPOLI ASSAULT BEGINS
The assault was initiated on 19 February 1915. The initial long-range bombardment gave way to a close-range engagement and, as a result, the Turks abandoned the outer forts. This enabled minesweepers to penetrate 10km (6 miles) into the Dardenelles. Churchill was so buoyed up by this that he drew up a draft armistice for the Turks to sign. But the Turkish inner forts, often out of the ships' line of sight, were difficult for the naval bombardment to silence. Further minesweeping operations were severely hampered by Turkish shore fire, and the minesweepers had to be withdrawn. Churchill chivvied the naval commander, Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden, to make better progress, a characteristic he would display in World War II with dire results.
As things became desperate Churchill became ever more rash: he wanted to send older battleships to force a way through the Turkish defences, on the grounds that it didn't matter if they were sunk. This notion was not new to him: in October 1914 he had come up with the idea of sending such ships into Germany's River Elbe. He telegrammed Carden on 3 January 1915:
Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ship a practicable operation. It is assumed older Battleships fitted with mine bumpers would be preceded by Colliers or other merchant craft as bumpers and sweepers. Importance of results would justify severe loss. Let me know your views.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Churchill"
Copyright © 2011 Nigel Knight.
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Table of Contents
1 Gallipoli: Churchill's First Defeat,
2 The General Strike and the Depression,
3 Disarmament: Weakening Britain's Defence in the 1920s,
4 Churchill under Baldwin: The Wilderness Years,
5 Churchill under Chamberlain: Appeasement,
6 Norway: Gallipoli All Over Again,
7 Dunkirk: Churchill's Defeat,
8 The Battle of Britain: Dowding's Victory,
9 The War at Sea: Churchill's Battleship Fetish,
10 North Africa: Churchill's Dispersionist Strategy Takes Hold,
11 The Balkans: Churchill's Obsession,
12 Dieppe: Churchill's Folly,
13 The Far East: Catastrophic Defeat,
14 Italy: The 'Soft Underbelly' of Europe,
15 The Second Front: Churchill Procrastinates,
16 The Bomber Offensive: The Lost Opportunity,
17 The 'Big Two' and 'Big Three' Conferences,
18 General Election Defeat and Into Opposition,
19 The Last Tired Government,
20 Conclusion: The Reckoning,