Churchill as Leader of the Armed Forces in Peace and War

Sent to the Canadian friend and colleague, Professor Christopher M. Bell of Dalhousie University in Halifax, one of the current foremost scholars on Churchill (see his “Churchill & Sea Power” and his new “Churchill and the Dardanelles”):

I think I should send you this analysis summary because of our common fascination and attachment to the man. For me also because he had a key part in making sure that my country was liberated before I became 6 months old.

My reading of Churchill is influenced by my own background as light cavalry (hussar) officer, by my “conversion” to Clausewitzian due to my involvement as control reader and biographer in the translation of “On War” to Danish 32 years ago and by my personal involvement in political-military work both as official and as teacher at staff and war college levels, so I have a fair idea of how the political-professional “bridge” should work.

I have not made a general study of his work as leader. My work has be concentrated on:
• The first period as First Lord of the Admiralty until mid-autumn 1914 (an in-depth historical analysis). Have not studied the Dardanelles closely as you do in your new book because my focus has been on the alternative Baltic option.
• The period of Russian Interventions as Secretary of War and Air in 1919.
• The second period as First Lord with a focus on Scandinavia.
• His period as “Generalissimo” 1940-42 (as part of my teaching work using Churchill as an illustration of the Clausewitzian insight that a division between the political and military strategic fields is basically false and potentially dangerous rubbish (using Eliot A. Cohen’s book “Supreme Command” to provoke discussion).

My findings:
That Churchill kept being influenced by the profile, temper and understanding of a young cavalry officer: impatient, willing to take risks, admiration of impulsively aggressive rather than deliberate leaders (such as Keyes, Beatty, Bayly in my in-depth studied period).

The practical service limitation with no administrative and logistic staff experience reinforced his lack of understanding of and patience with the time and resource requirements of large operations. He found it hard to accept the limitations of insufficiently trained and led forces (Antwerp and Norway). He was temperamentally unsuited for deliberate strategies such as the late autumn 1912 Royal Navy War Plan.

However, when forced to learn from a tough reality, such as during his time at a Western Front battalion Commanding Officer, he proved both un-dogmatic pragmatism and leadership.

In the ability to work hard, to understand the political pressures on his office and to grasp “maybe potential” strategic opportunities, Churchill was unique, however his lack of patience with and understanding of the difficulty and complexity of deliberate implementation made him totally dependent on a robust and well led staff. So did his American-like continual search for technological silver bullets. This openness to new technical tools was an important strength, but it had to be staffed and harnessed to be an asset.

During the first period as First Lord he did not accept the need and only wanted to use the War Staff for the implementation of his orders. He saw little need for brilliant independent minds such as Ballard and (the arrogant) Richmond of the War Staff Operations Division and the level headed Chief of Staff Jackson and replaced them with more mediocre implementers such as their successors, Leveson and Sturdee.

After having purged the most capable and independently thinking staff officers, the self-confident and arrogant young politician had actually planned to be hailed and more or less approved as the de facto “Admiralissimo” at the late July Spithead Conference than had been moved from the Home Fleets’ Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Callagher’s flagship to the Admiralty Yacht, but the crisis led to the cancellation of the meeting. At the next chance in September, the newly appointed, robust Jellicoe could not be moved to offensive adventure beyond sending submarines on time-limited patrols to the Baltic Sea.

This is an area where Churchill clearly matured between the wars, even if the Norwegian Campaign could have benefited from better and more realistic joint staffing. Maybe he also accepted the limitations because Dudley Pound and he knew each other.

As “Generalissimo” he benefited from the robust interaction from a highly capable staff, which he normally accepted.

One very impressive and attractive element was Churchill’s full acceptance of the limitation of his power in the British parliamentary system. This, however, did not prevent him from making independent strategy when the Prime Minister left the field open (as Asquith in 1915) or was tired and defeatist (as Lloyd George in most of 1919).

Churchill was never a very good judge of character, probably because of his admiration for heroic types and because of the snobbery for royalty of his time, but in an extended direct interaction, he learned and made up his mind if he needed that specific officer as advisor (Ballard: No, Alanbrooke: Yes).

Churchill saw and used the need to be seen by the men of the various units, but he did not seem to have the knack for smelling the weakness and strength of the visited units and formation that comes with an extended professional military career. Therefore he failed to understand the fundamental problem of the 1940 French Army and his own British Army (that David French has underlined so clearly in “Raising Churchill’s Army”).

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