The Genius and Wit of Winston Churchill
A Speech to the Sacramento, CA Rotary Club
By Robin Lawson
(Published in Finest Hour 73)
I believe that Winston Churchill, although obviously unaware of it, almost certainly saved my skin. It is often said that if it hadn't been for the United States, England would not have survived the war. This may be true, but it really isn't that simple. Had the UK succumbed during the Battle of Britain, which she fought alone, there would have been very little to save.
The Battle of Britain was the air war which occurred because Hitler insisted the British Air Force be destroyed before any attempt to invade the island. The fact is, Churchill and his advisors made it possible for the Royal Air Force to outfight the Luftwaffe, and convince Herr Goering that his German pilots simply could not provide Hitler with air superiority over the English Channel. Thus, Hitler's planned invasion was ultimately cancelled.
Since no Americans except those in the military at the time, and perhaps a few folks living in Hawaii or on the Northwest coast, ever experienced an enemy attack, let me speak for a moment about my experience. I lived in a small town called Bexley, located about 17 miles south of London. Toward the end of the Battle of Britain, in a desperate attempt to bring England to her knees, Hitler began bombing London.
My parents' home was almost directly in the path of the bombers as they headed to London. Almost nightly we would stand on the back porch and watch huge numbers of murderous looking planes fly in formation toward the city. At about the same time searchlights would begin stabbing the sky, hunting for targets. As soon as one was spotted, the operator would hold the light beam on the underbelly of the plane. Simultaneously, bright tracer bullets would arc toward the sky as the anti-aircraft guns went into action. Our fighters would buzz around the bombers like angry bees.
Occasionally a plane would disintegrate right above us, sometimes with the hapless crew members unable to extricate themselves. Some German pilots, sensing the zeal with which the British were attacking, would frequently dump their bombs, turn tail and run. We would hear the whistle of those bombs on their way down. For protection, my parents would then throw my sister and me under the grand piano in our living room.
Curiously, the bombing had quite the opposite result from that envisioned by Hitler. Far from causing Britain to surrender, the nightly bombardment strengthened the people's resolve against the demented little corporal.
Eventually Hitler gave up the air war. He could no longer sustain the losses in men or equipment. The raids all but ceased, and the date of the planned invasion was permanently postponed. However, in 1944, in place of piloted airplanes, Hitler began launching from France what was variously known as the V-l, the Flying Bomb or the Doodle Bug. Still later came an even more terrible weapon . . . the V-2, launched from the Netherlands.
This was the first weapon to use rocket guidance technology. The developer was Werner von Braun, who later was largely responsible for the design and success of the Saturn Five rocket used in the American Space program. These things were very fast, and completely unstoppable. They carried a lot more explosive material than the V-l and therefore caused much greater damage. If Hitler had been able to develop these weapons a year or so earlier and in sufficient numbers, I might not be talking to you today.
In the early morning hours of 6 March 1945, when the war was very nearly over, I awoke to a curious sight: the sky above my head. The roof of the two story house in which we lived was virtually gone. My father, who did not hear the supersonic V2 rocket landing in front of our house, saw only a brilliant green flash. The front wall of the house was leaning out. Jewelry on my parent's dressing table, which was canted at an alarming angle, slipped off the table and down into the fish pond in the front garden, now full of rubble. It was never found.
The fire in the house across the street lit up the inside of our house. Lucky it did. Our staircase was found in the back garden and, without that light, my dad would probably have stepped off the second floor into thin air, with who knows what result. My mother, hit in the forehead by a piece of sidewalk, went to rescue my small sister from her bedroom. Frantically she cleared away a number of fallen bricks which had piled up in my sister's crib. Mother was in a panic because at first she thought my sister was injured, but the blood was actually coming from her own wound.
We all got out of the house safely, and, amidst the burning houses, walked down the street in our pajamas to a neighbor's house. As a six year old, I'm sure I found it all rather exciting; but my parents must have had quite different thoughts, having seen their home destroyed in the space of a few seconds. During the course of the war in Bexley alone, a town with a population of about 30,000, records show 674 high explosive bombs fell, 20,000 incendiary bombs were dropped, 25 Flying Bombs exploded, two enemy fighters crashed, 155 people were killed and over 800 homes were destroyed.
In spite of all that, there is no doubt that Mr. Churchill's personal hand in the conduct of the British War effort spelled the difference between victory and defeat.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 at Blenheim Palace, the home of his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough. His mother, whom he idolized, was Jenny Jerome, an American born in Brooklyn. At age seven Churchill was sent to boarding school. He did not shine as a student. He demonstrated considerable skill in History, some foreign languages and English, but little else. His father, with whom Churchill had minimal contact, was convinced the boy was destined for the military because he felt he was not smart enough for any other profession.
So, soldiering it was. After three attempts, Churchill squeaked into Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point. After graduation, he distinguished himself as a cavalry officer, and had several narrow escapes from death in South Africa, India and Cuba, which strengthened his conviction that he was being spared for some greater task.
Ultimately he found his niche in politics and became one of the' world's foremost writers and speakers. Interestingly enough, some say that if he had devoted more time to art, which he used as an escape, he could also have been one of the world's great painters. Churchill began painting in 1915 and completed 500 works in his lifetime, most of them landscapes. He said, "Trees and ponds never complain."
First elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1901, he was to change parties twice. His support of free trade caused him to oppose Conservative plans to put import duties on foodstuffs, so in 1904 he defected to the Liberal Party. Teamed with the later Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, he conceived and passed legislation which created a system similar in scope to the U.S. Social Security Program. At that time Churchill was viewed by the conservatives as a traitor to the upper class. Later, many concepts crafted by Churchill and Lloyd George were adapted by President Roosevelt as part of his New Deal.
Forced out of office during World War I, Churchill went to France and became an infantry battalion commander. In 1917, before that war ended, he was again back in government service as minister of munitions.
Failing to win re-election, Churchill wrote a best selling book, and with the proceeds purchased the Chartwell estate just outside London. He painted, built a cottage, and designed and built an outdoor water delivery system for his swimming pool.
In 1924, with the Socialists still in power, Churchill rejoined the Conservatives and offered himself for election. He attained a seat in the House of Commons. He once said politics is almost as exciting as war. "In war you can be killed only once, but in politics . . . many, many times."
In the following year, the Conservatives were once more defeated and Churchill went home again. Over the next three years he travelled and wrote. A visit to Germany in 1932 alerted him to the rise of the Nazis. Back in England he repeatedly warned the government of the growing danger. He felt the appeasing Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin were no less spineless than the pacifist Socialists under Ramsay Macdonald. He defined appeasers as people who feed the crocodiles, hoping that they will be eaten last. His attitude left him with few supporters.
"Shortly after this the playwright George Bernard Shaw came up to me and said, would I care to accept two seats for the first night of his new play? He said, 'Bring a friend ... if you have one.' I replied, 'GBS, unfortunately I have an engagement on that night, but I would like to come on your second night. . . if there is one.'"
By 1937 Churchill was being advised quietly by various well placed sources of the vast military buildup in Germany. He obtained information which drove the Prime Minister to distraction because the information, suppressed by the government, was absolutely accurate. Cabinet members were mystified as to Churchill's sources.
In 1938 Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia. In the vain hope of preventing further military conquests, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany for consultations with Hitler, and came back with his famous "peace for our time" announcement. Churchill told him, "You were given the choice between war and dishonour . . . you chose dishonour and you will have war."
With the coming of war in September 1939, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time. He watched Hitler march through Poland. In May 1940 the Germans attacked Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France. Prime Minister Chamberlain came under tremendous fire from the House of Commons and the British people. On May 10th, the King of England called for Churchill, now 65 years old, to form a coalition government and pull the country together. He quickly accepted. He was quoted as saying he felt relief to at last have the authority to take charge. He believed he had been walking with destiny toward this moment. He was sure he would not fail. But the difficulties weremonumental. There were shortages of everything: weapons, aircraft, trained pilots, you name it ... we were out of it.
Then came the fall of France and 225,000 British troops had their backs to the sea at Dunkirk. Churchill said we needed a miracle. He got one. Hitler inexplicably stopped the Luftwaffe from finishing off those stranded troops. They were saved to fight again. The German Air Force, while dropping bombs on the sandy beaches to little effect, was continually harried by British fighters, and simply couldn't deter the on-going rescue. Thus a quarter million British troops, along with 100,000 French soldiers, were ferried back across the channel to England and safety by a huge armada of boats of all shapes and sizes. Then France collapsed, and Britain stood truly alone.
Churchill never flinched. His speeches were the rallying point. Here is part of what he said in a June 1940 broadcast, after those troops were rescued at Dunkirk. "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations . . . We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Churchill had vowed, for the future of the world, "to drag America herself into the war." In December 1941, the Americans came in. Churchill became very close to President Roosevelt, later calling him "The best American friend" Britain ever had. But he said the alliance was much like a family. There were problems. He said the only thing worse than fighting with an ally was fighting without one.
Of course this war was also bitterly fought in many parts of the world. Names like Guadalcanal, Corregidor and Pearl Harbor are now etched in American military history. In June 1944 came the last big push in the European Theater . . . the invasion of France at Normandy under General Eisenhower, and eventually the end of the war in Europe. Incidentally, Churchill was opposed to placing the major emphasis on landing in France. He preferred another quite different approach, but once the die was cast he became an enthusiastic team player and added his considerable expertise to the effort.
Churchill was a man who said what he thought with little concern about potential political damage. In other words, he was far more interested in moving the country forward than he was in pleasing his colleagues or advancing his own career. Roosevelt is said to have called him the greatest statesman the world had seen. He took unpopular positions, and by the power of his oratory was frequently able to sway the House of Commons. He did this in spite of the British tradition which allows members to boo and hiss and attempt to shout down the speaker.
I find it odd, given the reputation the British have for gentility, that they have retained that habit, while in Congress such an outburst would be considered offensive and the perpetrator restrained or ejected. It would be interesting to see how persuasive Churchill would be in the present-day U.S. Congress.
Today, on the floor of either chamber, speeches are almost always delivered only to television cameras, while members work in their offices with the TV serving as little more than a background. As friend of the Churchill Society, columnist George Will, recently pointed out, that has diminished the vigor of the institution by removing the considerable impact of face to face give-and-take.
Churchill was able to predict with surprising accuracy what might unfold next on the world stage. In 1946, in Zurich, he spoke of the eventual creation of a kind of United States of Europe, the beginning of which we may be about to witness. He always looked years ahead of almost all his political contemporaries. After the War he was invited to speak in Fulton, Missouri at Westminster College by President Truman, who promised to introduce him. He could not resist the world stage such an introduction would bring. During the speech, which turned out to be perhaps one of his most important, he warned of the emergence of the Soviet Union and talked about the Iron Curtain. But he had a fine sense of humor. Before making that very serious speech he had this exchange with the President, aboard the Presidential train in Washington's Union Station: “The very first thing the President did was to show me the new Presidential Seal, which he had just redesigned. He explained, ‘The seal has to go everywhere the President goes. It must be displayed upon the lectern when he speaks. The eagle used to face the arrows but I have redesigned it so that it now faces the olive branches . . . what do you think?' I said, 'Mr. President, with the greatest respect, I would prefer the American eagle's neck to be on a swivel so that it could face the olive branches or the arrows, as the occasion might demand.'
For those who might have the impression that Churchill saw everything in military terms, I want to leave you with something he said as he neared 80 years of age: “If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of material prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way towards one another, and science will do for them all that they wish, and more than they can dream.... Nothing is final. Change is unceasing and it is likely that mankind has a lot more to learn before it comes to its journey's end.... We might even find ourselves in a few years moving along a smooth causeway of peace and plenty instead of roaming around on the rim of hell.... Thus we may, by patience, courage, and in orderly progression, reach the shelter of a calmer and kindlier age."