Books & Critics April 2002

The Medals of His Defeats

Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two—and still finds that Churchill was a great man
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In the fateful spring and early summer of 1940 the people of Britain clustered around their wireless sets to hear defiant and uplifting oratory from their new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On May 13, having just assumed the burden of office from a weak and cowardly Neville Chamberlain, Churchill promised a regime of "blood, toil, tears and sweat." On June 4, after the evacuation of the defeated British army from Dunkirk, he pledged, "We shall fight on the beaches." On June 18 he proclaimed that even if the British Empire were to last for a thousand years, this would be remembered as its "finest hour." Over the course of the ensuing months Britain alone defied the vast conquering appetites of Hitlerism and, though greatly outclassed in the air, repelled the Luftwaffe's assault with a handful of gallant fighter pilots. This chivalric engagement—"The Battle of Britain"—thwarted Nazi schemes for an invasion of the island fortress and was thus a hinge event in the great global conflict we now call World War II.

The foregoing paragraph could appear without much challenge in almost any English or American newspaper or magazine, and versions of it have recently seen print in the reviews of Churchill: A Biography, by the British Liberal statesman Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. One might, however, call attention to some later adjustments to this familiar picture.

• The three crucial broadcasts were made not by Churchill but by an actor hired to impersonate him. Norman Shelley, who played Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC's Children's Hour, ventriloquized Churchill for history and fooled millions of listeners. Perhaps Churchill was too much incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself.

• Britain stood alone only if the military and economic support of Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, and the rest of a gigantic empire is omitted. As late as October of 1940, furthermore, the Greeks were continuing to resist on mainland Europe and had inflicted a serious military defeat on Mussolini. Moreover, the attitude of the United States, however ostensibly neutral, was at no time neutralist as between a British versus a German victory.

• The Royal Air Force was never seriously inferior, in either men or machines, to Hermann Göring's Luftwaffe, and at times outgunned it. British pilots were mainly fighting over home territory and, unlike their German opponents, could return straight to duty if they parachuted down. The RAF had the advantage of radar and the further advantage of a key to the Nazi codes. The Royal Navy was by any measure the superior of the Kriegsmarine, and Nazi surface vessels never left port without exposing themselves to extreme hazard.

• The German High Command never got beyond the drawing-board stage of any plan for the invasion of Britain, and the Führer himself was the source of the many postponements and the eventual abandonment of the idea.

A close reading of the increasingly voluminous revisionist literature discloses many further examples of events that one thinks cannot really be true, or cannot be true if the quasi-official or consecrated narrative is to remain regnant. Against which nation was the first British naval attack directed? (Against a non-mobilized French fleet, moored in the ports of North Africa, with the loss of hundreds of French lives.) Which air force was the first to bomb civilians, and in whose capital city? (The RAF, striking the suburbs of Berlin.) Which belligerent nation was the first to violate the neutrality of Europe's noncombatant nations? (The British, by a military occupation of Norway.) But these details, not unlike the navels and genitalia in devotional painting, are figleafed in denial. They cannot exactly be omitted from the broader picture, nor can they be permitted any profane influence on its sanctity. Meanwhile, who made the following broadcast speech to the British people in 1940?

"We are a solid and united nation which would rather go down to ruin than admit the domination of the Nazis ... If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed."

That was Neville Chamberlain, who (albeit in his rather reedy tones) delivered the speech himself. And how many casualties did the RAF suffer during the entire Battle of Britain? A total of 443 pilots, according to official sources cited in Richard Overy's cool and meticulous revisiting of the story.

I was brought up on the cult of Winston Churchill. My father, a Royal Navy commander, was on board H.M.S. Jamaica when it helped to deal the coup de grâce to the Nazi warship Scharnhorst on December 26, 1943—a more solid day's work than any I have ever done. In the declining post-imperial Britain of the 1950s and 1960s the Homeric story of 1940, and of its bulldog-visaged protagonist, was at once a consolation for many disappointments and an assurance of Britain's continued value to the world. Even then it was sometimes difficult to swallow Churchill whole, as it were. A sort of alternate bookkeeping was undertaken, whereby the huge deficits of his grand story (Gallipoli, the calamitous return to the gold standard, his ruling-class thuggery against the labor movement, his diehard imperialism over India, and his pre-war sympathy for fascism) were kept in a separate column that was sharply ruled off from "The Valiant Years." But even the many defeats and fiascoes and dishonors added in some numinous way to his stature. Here was a man who had taken part in a Victorian cavalry charge at Omdurman, in the Sudan, to avenge the slaying of General Gordon by a messianic mullah, and who had lived to help evolve the design and first use of thermonuclear weaponry. He was not a figure in history so much as a figure of history. (Invited by Adlai Stevenson to contribute something to the English-Speaking Union, he gruffly replied, "I am an English-speaking union." In anyone else this would have been solipsism, rather than charm commingled with truth.) And because in 1946 he had effectively founded the Anglo-American "special relationship" in its Cold War form, at Fulton, Missouri, his enormous specter seemed to guarantee Britain a continued role as a junior superpower, or at least as a superpower's preferred junior.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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