His Finest Hour

A career officer who began serving his country during World War I, LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIR IAN JACOB was Military Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet from 1939 to 1946. Here he pays tribute to Churchill’s qualities as a war leader, and describes the differences in his approach to Roosevelt and Stalin.

ON May 10, 1940, the German onslaught on Holland, Belgium, and France began. By the evening we had heard that Churchill was Prime Minister in place of Neville Chamberlain, who had resigned. We in the War Cabinet office were decidedly perturbed. We had known of Churchill all our lives and were fairly well acquainted with his checkered career as soldier, war correspondent, historian, Member of Parliament, Minister, but above all as a cantankerous, headstrong, and redoubtable controversialist. There was much in all this to admire, but in some curious way the reputation established in the minds of those who did not know the man personally was of brilliance combined with unpredictability.

Since the outbreak of war we had come to know at firsthand the power of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. We had seen his restless energy and had felt the force that resided in his experience and character. But we had also seen the effect his wide-ranging activity had had on some of his colleagues into whose field of responsibility he had not hesitated to penetrate. The memorandums full of suggestions that he had circulated, the outbursts of interfering inquisition that he had unloosed at meetings had not proved easy to tolerate, particularly for the other service ministers. We foresaw a stormy future, and we wondered how this difficult and seemingly erratic character would get on as the leader of the team in a situation of such grave urgency.

What we had not understood was the difference between Churchill as a fretting member of a Cabinet which was taking things too easily and Churchill as head of a Cabinet of his own choosing, with a task in front of him gigantic enough to absorb even his astounding energy. The point has been vividly expressed in volume two of The Second World War, where, in his own account of this period, he compares the position of number one with that of numbers two, three, or four in any sphere of action. We soon saw that the methods which produced friction and heat among his equals and superiors were exactly those that produced action when employed by a Prime Minister toward his subordinates. Within three months Churchill had established himself in an unassailable position as the leader of the nation. He had become the dominant force in the military as well as in the political conduct of the war, the embodiment of the fighting spirit of Britain.

Churchill was then sixty-five years of age. Moreover, for the ten years before the outbreak of war he had been out of office and had not even been a leading member of any party. He had remained a Member of Parliament, unattached and largely unheeded, a situation which might have caused an ordinary man to become indolent or to go to seed. As it was, this period of freedom from routine burdens had given Churchill the opportunity to prepare himself for the catastrophe which he had had no hand in bringing about and against which he had uttered so many warnings.

What were the qualities that made Churchill so towering a war leader? First, one must place courage, mental and physical. He scorned danger and was impervious to disaster. I shall never forget the first six weeks of his administration. The battle was raging in France and Belgium, and day by day the news became worse. The French in their agony were demanding help, and we had little more to offer. Nearly the whole of our Army was on the Continent with the French Army, and as the retreat proceeded, it seemed inevitable that it would be pinned against the coast and destroyed. At the height of the crisis a meeting was held in the Admiralty at which General Lord Gort’s Chief of Staff, General Pownall, who had flown over from Belgium, explained the situation and told of the plans for holding a perimeter around the beaches of Dunkirk. The Royal Navy was making all possible preparations to try to withdraw as many men as possible.

The Prime Minister questioned General Pownall and listened to the plans. No one in the room imagined that they could be successful if the German armored divisions supported by the Luftwaffe pressed their attack. The perimeter would be broken as it thinned out, and there would be carnage on the beaches, Churchill never gave a sign of weakness. Nothing but encouragement and resolve showed in his face or his voice. We felt that he would have liked to be fighting on the beaches himself. Throughout this period Churchill imparted an intense drive to action in every direction; no one was left in peace; all were urged to throw everything into the struggle. And in the middle of it all a test came that no one without supreme moral courage could have withstood.

After the armies had been divided by the armored breakthrough to the coast, the French government realized that the situation had become desperate. They felt that the only possibility of saving the battle was for Britain to throw in as many of the fighter squadrons of the R.A.F. as could be moved rapidly to France from England, where they formed part of the air defenses. The French made numerous appeals to Churchill. The story has often been told, so I need not repeat it. Some squadrons were sent, but the principle of preserving at all costs the minimum strength of Fighter Command was firmly upheld. I believe that Churchill’s courage in refusing the request at that time, torn as he was by his great love for France, saved Britain from defeat, and thus saved the free world. I can see him now, on a warm summer’s afternoon, sitting in the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street, considering with his political and military advisers one of these French pleas, and then moving into the garden, where the momentous decision was made.

Another example of Churchill’s great courage was the decision to prevent the French Fleet from falling into the hands of the Germans, even if in doing so it had to be sunk. The ultimatum delivered at Oran and the subsequent naval bombardment of the French Fleet in harbor were expressions of a resolve to carry on the war no matter what the cost. Such a decision could not have been taken by anyone but a leader already sure of his position and possessed of an unusual degree of courage and determination. The world realized that Britain, after years of wavering and indecision, was now fully aroused and was led by a man of no ordinary quality.

Churchill’s courage was matched by his concentration and his thoroughness. No detail was too small for his consideration if it could contribute to the project on which his mind was bent. He was at his best and most forceful when he could see in front of him a specific operation which would be hard to accomplish and which seemed to him to need a driving force behind the preparations. His mind chafed during those periods of the war when there was a lull, caused perhaps by the need to recover from a battle, to build up reinforcements, and to plan ahead. Then he would turn to some subsidiary project which might, as he thought, be pressed on in the interval. He was not moved by the argument that his project might detract from the mainstream of action and weaken the principal effort. He wanted the enemy to be engaged all the time on all fronts. This passion for continuous action must be regarded as a weakness in his strategic thinking, but it was undoubtedly a potent spur to those who were content with less intense enthusiasm.

The presence at the top of a human dynamo, the current from which flowed throughout the military machine, was one of the principal factors in drawing from the British Commonwealth and Empire an effort proportionately greater than that of any other combatant nation. For more than five long years, under his leadership, the men and women of the British Isles were more fully mobilized and more continuously engaged against the enemy than were those of any of the other Allies. The Russians had a terrible struggle on land against the Germans, though it began nearly two years later than ours. The United States developed a power which became preponderant from July, 1944, onward. But Britain, under Churchill, was engaged constantly and fully by land, sea, and air in all theaters from May, 1940, till the end of the war in 1945.

I HAD the honor of accompanying Mr. Churchill on his first visit to Washington in December, 1941, and to Moscow in August, 1942. I was at his meetings on those occasions with President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin. Here were three men who between them controlled the greatest power the world has seen. How did Churchill measure up to his two companions? He had done much to prepare the ground for a close association with the President. He had kept up a constant correspondence with him for over two years, and he had seen much of Harry Hopkins, through whom he had explored the President’s mind. He had already met the President in Placentia Bay, though then the two were not yet comrades in arms. It was comparatively easy, therefore, for him to establish a comradely relationship, which with the years grew into close friendship.

Churchill knew far more than Roosevelt of war at firsthand and of the way in which military operations should be conducted. He was far less in the hands of his experts and was much more distrustful of official advice. Twice he had had to wrestle with the awful problems of world war waged with insufficient resources. He was thus equipped to guide and advise the President, but he knew that if he pressed his advice and guidance too far, he might damage the Alliance. He did not do so. Never for a moment did he forget, or allow any of his ministers or military advisers to forget, that the President was a head of state — indeed, the head of the most powerful state in the world — and a man of strong personality and wide views on world affairs. Thus, the divergent but immense qualities of the two men were harmoniously dovetailed, and until the closing stages of the war, when the President’s powers were failing and when he mistakenly began to think that he should draw somewhat apart from Churchill in order to deal more effectively with Stalin, the combination was supremely beneficial.

With Stalin, the position was quite different. Speech had to be through interpreters; background, mode of thought, and ideals were poles apart. The meetings in the Kremlin took place at night. Churchill and his staff were admitted through bastions and portcullises; they were passed from guard to guard, in the manner one reads about in chronicles of medieval times. Stalin seemed like a crafty peasant in his Russian shirt and boots, with his curly pipe and large mustache. Churchill was robbed of some of his weapons by his inability to communicate directly to Stalin in his inimitable phraseology.

The meetings were baffling and inconclusive. In a long final evening which the two men spent informally together, Churchill tried to lay the foundations of an intimate and friendly relationship, and succeeded as far as it was possible to do so. He emerged from the Kremlin at 3 A.M., tired but conscious of a great effort well directed. He returned to his villa and lay down for an hour before going to the airport to take off for departure. I doubt if he had many illusions, but if he had, they were soon dispelled. As I wrote at the time, one might as well have tried to make friends with a python as with Stalin. But I am sure that at that meeting each had gained an insight into the tremendous force and quality of the other.

In those meetings, as in his dealings with other Allied leaders, Churchill was strengthened by his abiding historical sense. Not only had he his own long and varied experience to draw upon, but he had deeply studied and written about the history not only of England but of Europe and the United States. He knew that great nations are not defeated except after long and costly struggle. He had little sympathy for those who looked for shortcuts. He knew that wars are futile unless, when victory is sure, they are directed in such a way as to produce lasting political settlements. He alone seemed to see how fatal to the future life of Europe would be the admission to the heart of Germany and Austria of the Russian barbarian power. From 1943 his policy was aimed at preventing this, but he found himself unable to carry with him the President, who seemed to have a less clear perception of the issues at stake and of the real motives of the Soviet Union.

BUT what of Churchill as a strategist? Was he the man who thought out the moves in the military campaigns and fashioned the pattern of ultimate victory? These questions can hardly be given a direct answer, because of the nature of modern warfare. The scale of operations, the intermingling of political and military affairs, the dependence of military action upon long-drawn-out planning, production, and supply, and the need to harmonize conflicting Allied policies all conspire to make it impossible for a single mind to control the course of events. Napoleon could decide to invade and overthrow Austria, consulting no one and directing the action himself. Churchill was rarely, if ever, in a position to take such unfettered decisions. Even when, with the Commonwealth and Empire, Britain stood alone against Germany for a year, British action was largely determined by the direst need to hold on and to avoid defeat. Large strategic plans can be made only after the initiative has been wrested from the enemy, but when, late in 1942, this had been done, Churchill found himself one of two men who stood at the head of highly organized military teams — the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

Even had conditions been somewhat different, it is doubtful whether Churchill’s mind would have moved in the way that is followed by that of the theoretical strategist. He hated biding his time; he did not approve of cautious preparation and the gathering of strength for an eventual knockout blow in some unexpected quarter. His pugnacious spirit demanded constant action. The enemy must be assailed continuously; the Germans must be made to “bleed and burn.” Hence it was vital that Churchill should be firmly harnessed to a strong and capable military staff. This he found to his hand in the British Chiefs of Staff. He provided the flow of ideas, the stimulus and drive, and the political guidance. They turned all this into a consistent military policy and saw to it that plans were matched by resources. The Prime Minister and his military staff made a formidable combination. Infused with mutual trust, unvarying in composition, they grew together in experience and force. With the President and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff as partners, the direction of the Alliance was in safe hands. Mistakes and disagreements, there were. How could there not be? But these were of minor importance when compared with the record of success.

Churchill’s impetuosity was, however, curbed somewhat by his past experience, and especially by the lessons he had learned in World War I. His historical sense taught him that Britain, as a maritime power, could deploy its strength most favorably in theaters where the enemy’s preponderant land power could not be brought to bear. He wanted no more battles of the Somme, or of Passehendaele. He has been accused often of being lukewarm toward the invasion of northwest Europe. So he was — until the moment came when it could be done with resources and in circumstances that would preserve the campaign from degenerating into an indecisive slugging match.

It is stated that man is incapable of absorbing new ideas after middle age. Churchill’s mind in military matters only partially confirmed this general principle. He tended to think of naval warfare in terms of the fleet action of World War I and attached an undue importance to battleships. Similarly, there were times when he seemed to reckon armies in terms of bayonets and sabers and found it difficult to admit that a modern army can be effective only with a complex system of communications, with plenty of armor and with a formidable administrative support. Yet no one developed more interest than he in the invention of new devices, in the employment of novel aids to successful operations, and in the progress of the scientific side of aerial warfare.

When I reflect on Churchill as we saw him from day to day during the war, various pictures come to mind. I see him in bed, propped up on pillows, surrounded by papers, his dispatch box open at his side, a stenographer in attendance, a cigar in his mouth, and a candle handy for relighting it. I recall the Prime Minister dressed in his town attire, his particular kind of high-crowned bowler on his head, striding around factories, visiting the coast defenses, and generally inspiring a spirit of defiance against the enemy across the Strait of Dover. Cigar always in mouth, he was tireless. I see him in the desert, driving around with the military commanders, addressing gatherings of troops, making his famous V-sign gesture, and ending the day with prolonged discussion of the plans and projects expounded to him in the command caravan. I see him pacing up and down in his bedroom at the embassy in Cairo in his dragon-embroidered dressing gown exclaiming: “Rommel, Rommel, Rommel — what else matters but beating him?”

Through the long years of war, Churchill never rested. He nourished the Alliance, he drove his government. He led the people. He traveled far and often, risking all in tire cause. Never can there have been a more single-minded and sustained pursuit of one objective — victory.

Great Britain many times in its history has faced imminent and deadly danger. Often we have been isolated and apparently at the mercy of a Continental power. We have found that the extremity of danger has united the nation and has brought out someone who has had the courage and skill to direct its energies and to ride the storm. Queen Elizabeth, William Pitt, Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington — these names are still household words, though we know of their deeds from afar. In our own times we have had Lloyd George, who rallied the Commonwealth and led it to victory in 1918.

Sir Winston Churchill takes his place in this company of the great and may well be judged by history to be pre-eminent. No one who served him closely during his finest hour could ever forget the experience or fail to believe that he had been privileged to observe the greatest Englishman of them all.