Category: Winston Churchill

Death in the forenoonDeath in the forenoon

“In the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, across from the former pig meadow and leper colony currently known as St. James’s Park, a full-throated congregation belted out the ‘Te Deum’ and prepared to take communion from the bishop of Maidstone. ‘To Thee all angels cry aloud,’ they sang, ‘the heavens and all the powers therein.’ At 11:10 a.m. [June 18, 1944] an annoying growl from those same heavens grew louder. Ernest Hemingway heard it in his Dorchester Hotel suite, where he was making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon; from the window he looked for the telltale ‘white-hot bunghole’ of a jet engine. Pedestrians in Parliament Square heard it and fell flat, covering their heads. Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, heard it in Hyde Park, where she was visiting the gun battery in which her daughter Mary volunteered. The Guards Chapel congregation heard it and kept singing. Then they heard nothing—that most terrifying of all sounds—as the engine quit, the bunghole winked out, and the black cruciform [V-1 missile] fell. Through the chapel’s reinforced concrete roof it plummeted before detonating in a white blast that blew out walls, blew down support pillars, and stripped the leaves from St. James’s plane trees. A funnel of smoke curled fifteen hundred feet above the wrecked nave; rubble ten feet deep buried the pews even as six candles still guttered on the altar and the bishop stood unharmed. One hundred and twenty-one others were dead and as many more injured. Two thousand memorial plaques accumulated by Guards regiments during eons of war lay pulverized, although a mosaic donated by Queen Victoria remained intact: ‘Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

It happened, nonethelessIt happened, nonetheless

“No one, whether Nazi or not, should be led summarily before a firing squad without legal trial and consideration of the relevant facts and proofs. Rather would I here and now be led out into the garden and shot than that my honor and that of my country should be smirched by such baseness.” – Winston Churchill to Josef Stalin (quoted in The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.)

Think, manThink, man

“Prime Minister to Minister of Agriculture, September 26, 1940: ‘I am far from satisfied at the proposal to reduce pigs to one-third of their present number by the middle of the autumn. This is certainly not what was understood by the Cabinet. . . .  Meanwhile, what arrangements are you making for curing the surplus bacon that will come upon the market through the massacre of pigs?’ “ – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

They got lucky, tooThey got lucky, too

“It was a great, quaintly organised England that had destroyed the Spanish Armada. A strong flame of conviction and resolve carried us through the twenty-five years’ conflict which William II and Marlborough waged against Louis XIV. There was a famous period with Chatham. There was the long struggle against Napoleon, in which our survival was secured through the domination of the seas by the British Navy under the classic leadership of Nelson and his associates. A million Britons died in the First World War. But nothing surpasses 1940. By the end of that year this small and ancient island, with its devoted Commonwealth, Dominions and attachments under every sky, had proved itself capable of bearing the whole impact and weight of world destiny. We had not flinched or wavered. We had not failed. The soul of the British people and race had proved invincible. The citadel of the Commonwealth and Empire could not be stormed. Alone, but upborne by every generous heartbeat of mankind, we had defied the tyrant in the height of his triumph.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

A good-faith argumentA good-faith argument

“It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the Fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

A friend in needA friend in need

“The transfer to Great Britain of fifty American warships was a decidedly unneutral act by the United States. It would, according to all the standards of history, have justified the German Government in declaring war upon them. The President judged that there was no danger, and I felt there was no hope, of this simple solution to many difficulties. It was Hitler’s interest and method to strike his opponents down one by one. The last thing he wished was to be drawn into war with the United States before he had finished with Britain. Nevertheless the transfer of destroyers to Britain in August, 1940, was an event which brought the United States definitely nearer to us and to the war, and it was the first of a long succession of increasingly unneutral acts in the Atlantic which were of the utmost service to us. It marked the passage of the United States from being neutral to being non-belligerent. Although Hitler could not afford to resent it, all the world, as will be seen, understood the significance of the gesture.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Tight with Their MajestiesTight with Their Majesties

“The King changed his practice of receiving me in a formal weekly audience at about five o’clock which had prevailed during my first two months of office. It was now arranged that I should lunch with him every Tuesday. This was certainly a very agreeable method of transacting State business, and sometimes the Queen was present. On several occasions we all had to take our plates and glasses in our hands and go down to the shelter, which was making progress, to finish our meal. The weekly luncheons became a regular institution. After the first few months His Majesty decided that all servants should be excluded, and that we should help ourselves and help each other. During the four and a half years that this continued, I became aware of the extraordinary diligence with which the King read all the telegrams and public documents submitted to him. Under the British Constitutional system the Sovereign has a right to be made acquainted with everything for which his ministers are responsible, and has an unlimited right of giving counsel to his Government. I was most careful that everything should be laid before the King, and at our weekly meetings he frequently showed that he had mastered papers which I had not yet dealt with. It was a great help to Britain to have so good a King and Queen in those fateful years, and as a convinced upholder of constitutional monarchy I valued as a signal honour the gracious intimacy with which I, as First Minister, was treated.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour


“On November 15 [1940], the enemy switched back to London with a very heavy raid in full moonlight. Much damage was done, especially to churches and other monuments. The next target was Birmingham, and three successive raids from the 19th to the 22nd of November inflicted much destruction and loss of life. Nearly eight hundred people were killed and over two thousand injured; but the life and spirit of Birmingham survived this ordeal. When I visited the city a day or two later to inspect its factories, and see for myself what had happened, an incident, to me charming, occurred. It was the dinner hour, and a very pretty young girl ran up to the car and threw a box of cigars into it. I stopped at once and she said: ‘I won the prize this week for the highest output. I only heard you were coming an hour ago.’ This gift must have cost her two or three pounds. I was very glad (in my official capacity) to give her a kiss. I then went on to see the long mass grave in which so many citizens and their children had been newly buried. The spirit of Birmingham shone brightly, and its million inhabitants, highly organised, conscious and comprehending, rode high above their physical suffering.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

As ye sow, so shall ye grimly reapAs ye sow, so shall ye grimly reap

“One day after luncheon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood, came to see me on business at Number 10, and we heard a very heavy explosion take place across the river in South London. I took him to see what had happened. The bomb had fallen in Peckham. It was a very big one—probably a land-mine. It had completely destroyed or gutted twenty or thirty small three-story houses and cleared a considerable open space in this very poor district. Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognized, the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say, ‘You see, he really cares. He’s crying.’ They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration. . . . When we got back into the car, a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. ‘Give it ‘em back,’ they cried, and ‘Let them have it too.’ I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out; and this promise was certainly kept. The debt was repaid tenfold, twentyfold, in the frightful routine bombardment of German cities, which grew in intensity as our air power developed, as the bombs became far heavier and the explosives more powerful. Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (emphasis in original)

Bathing nations in bloodBathing nations in blood

“I have often wondered . . . what would have happened if two hundred thousand German storm troops had actually established themselves ashore. The massacre would have been on both sides grim and great. There would have been neither mercy nor quarter. They would have used terror, and we were prepared to go all lengths. I intended to use the slogan, ‘You can always take one with you.’ I even calculated that the horrors of such a scene would in the last resort turn the scale in the United States. But none of these emotions was put to the proof. Far out on the grey waters of the North Sea and the Channel coursed and patrolled the faithful, eager flotillas peering through the night. High in the air soared the fighter pilots, or waited serene at a moment’s notice around their excellent machines. This was a time when it was equally good to live or die.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

That’s the way to do itThat’s the way to do it

“When I said that the French Army, fighting on, wherever it might be, could hold or wear out a hundred German divisions, General Weygand replied, ‘Even if that were so, they would still have another hundred to invaded and conquer you. What would you do then?’ On this I said that I was not a military expert, but that my technical advisers were of opinion that the best method of dealing with German invasion of the island of Britain was to drown as many as possible on the way over and knock the others on the head as they crawled ashore.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Amateur hour in MesopotamiaAmateur hour in Mesopotamia

“Experience at the end of World War II demonstrated that it is much more difficult to order the affairs of liberated nations than of defeated ones. This is because it is undesirable, if not impossible, to arbitrate their affairs with the same ruthlessness. If Washington’s twenty-first-century neoconservatives had possessed a less muddled understanding of the experience of 1944-45, had studied more closely Allied difficulties managing liberated territories in the Roosevelt-Churchill era, they might have inflicted less grief upon the world in our own times by their blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan.” – Max Hastings, Winston’s War

How to believe the unbelievable, in an endless number of difficult lessonsHow to believe the unbelievable, in an endless number of difficult lessons

“British and American intelligence possessed enough information by late 1944, from Ultra and escaped Auschwitz prisoners, to deduce that something uniquely terrible was being done to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, if the right conclusions had been drawn from the evidence. . . . [G]iven the known limitations of precision bombing even where good target intelligence was available, the case for specific action against the Nazi death machine seemed overborne by the overarching argument for hastening military victory to end the sufferings of all Europe’s oppressed people. The airmen could be sure that any bombing of the camps would kill many prisoners. It is the privilege of posterity to recognize that this would have been a price worth paying. In the full tilt of war, to borrow Churchill’s phrase from a different context, it is possible to understand why the British and Americans failed to act with the energy and commitment which hindsight shows to have been appropriate. Temperate historians of the period recognise a real doubt about whether any plausible air force action would substantially have impeded the operations of the Nazi death machine.” – Max Hastings, Winston’s War

That day in historyThat day in history

“Some illusions persist that the wartime Allies missed opportunities to promote the cause of ‘good Germans’ who opposed Hitler, rejecting approaches from such men as Adam von Trott. Yet the British seemed right, first, to assume that any dalliance of this kind must leak, fuelling Soviet paranoia about a negotiated peace and, second, in believing that the anti-Hitler faction was both weak and flawed. Michael Howard has written: ‘We know that such “right-minded people” did exist; but the remarkable thing is that . . . there should have been so few of them, and that their influence should have been so slight.’ Howard notes that most of the July 1944 bomb plotters were right-wing nationalists, who cherished grotesquely extravagant ambitions for their country’s postwar polity. The principal objective of most of those who joined the conspiracy against Hitler, as the Foreign Office perceived at the time, was to enlist Anglo-American aid against the Russians. It is easy to understand why postwar Germans sought to canonise the July bomb plotters. But it would have represented folly for Churchill’s government to dally with them, and there is no cause for historians to concede them exaggerated respect. A large majority of the July 20 conspirators turned against Hitler not because he was indescribably wicked, but because they perceived that he was leading Germany to defeat.” – Max Hastings, Winston’s War (ellipsis in original)

My enemy’s enemy is not my friend, but can be quite usefulMy enemy’s enemy is not my friend, but can be quite useful

“For many years after 1945, the democracies found it gratifying to perceive the Second World War in Europe as a struggle for survival between themselves and Nazi tyranny. Yet the military outcome of the contest was overwhelmingly decided by the forces of Soviet tyranny, rather than by Anglo-American armies.” – Max Hastings, Winston’s War

The race to make life pointlessThe race to make life pointless

“Both squadrons were now steaming southward on slightly converging courses—the British to seaward with the setting sun behind them, and the Germans nearer the land. And now began the saddest naval action in the war. Of the officers and men in both the squadrons that faced each other in these stormy seas so far from home, nine out of ten were doomed to perish. The British were to die that night: the Germans a month later. At 7 o’clock the sun sank beneath the horizon, and the German Admiral, no longer dazzled by its rays, opened fire. The British ships were silhouetted against the afterglow, while the Germans were hardly visible against the dark background of the Chilean coast.” – Winston Churchill, The World Crisis

And so they bet it all, and so they lostAnd so they bet it all, and so they lost

“The world on the verge of its catastrophe was very brilliant. Nations and Empires crowned with princes and potentates rose majestically on every side, lapped in the accumulated treasures of the long peace. All were fitted and fastened—it seemed securely—into an immense cantilever. The two mighty European systems faced each other glittering and clanking in their panoply, but with a tranquil gaze. A polite, discreet, pacific, and on the whole sincere diplomacy spread its web of connections over both. A sentence in a dispatch, an observation by an ambassador, a cryptic phrase in a Parliament seemed sufficient to adjust from day to day the balance of the prodigious structure. Words counted, and even whispers. A nod could be made to tell. Were we after all to achieve world security and universal peace by a marvellous system of combinations in equipoise and of armaments in equation, of checks and counter-checks on violent action ever more complex and more delicate ? Would Europe thus marshalled, thus grouped, thus related, unite into one universal and glorious organism capable of receiving and enjoying in undreamed of abundance the bounty which nature and science stood hand in hand to give? The old world in its sunset was fair to see. But there was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity the nations turned restlessly towards strife internal or external. National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce if shrouded fires. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare.” – Winston Churchill, The World Crisis