Daniel Todman's First Stop in an Anti-Churchillian vision of Britain at War
Granskad i Storbritannien den 16 augusti 2020
Four years after In Battle in 2016, Daniel Todman concluded his two tome ten year journey through Britain & her peoples Empire’s history of the Second World War, synthetically fusing the traditional military plus high political aspects with the social and economic factors as could be avidly read by a professional historian looking at the latest subtle nuances, down to the few surviving veterans in their nineties, and general readers wishing to be enlightened with well-told stories.
The work kicks off in 1937 with the coronation of a new British monarch, George VI, and comes up for air perhaps at Britain’s worst moment at the end of 1941 when the Japanese were marching fiercely on Malaya, soon followed in Todman’s second volume by General Percival’s humiliating, demoralizing surrender of “Fortress” Singapore, in February 1942. For some neutral observers the US had reluctantly been dragged into the war, after Pearl Harbor, in December, but with the German armies just 15 miles outside the gates of Moscow, Hitler took the unexpected decision on December 11th of declaring war on the US to sever the supply lines by which they were sustaining the war against him. In one act he transformed, and united with one idea two distinct conflicts into a single wider world war.
It explains for the author’s decision at what point to divide the analysis into two volumes, each dealing with two distinct British wars: the first (1939-41) mainly fought alone with her imperial forces in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, described at the time as their “Finest Hour”; the second (1942-45) as a junior partner with the US and the USSR Super Powers in a global conflict, and preparing the footwork for the post-war age.
The author has illustrated the truths and myths of the events. First, without using Arthur Marwick’s “watershed” (1968), he mentions the progressiveness of Labour - and consequently the backward looking nature of the Conservatives, already in the 1930s, in the area of domestic social affairs, showing that they were ready to prepare for a post-war “New Jerusalem” as the Liberal Government had between 1906-10. It was, however, the strength of character and past experience in administration and management of committees of Attlee, Morrison, and trade unionist Bevin at local council level – the behind the scenes day to-day, give and take of politics, the “parliamentary socialism” of Ralph Miliband (1964) to persuade those hesitant, less willing which the road the people’s future should be heading towards, which were notable. Their determination acted as a benchmark in Whitehall, for others called to explore reform in other social areas- whether the Liberal maestro Beveridge in social insurance, or the former Conservative appeaser RAB Butler in secondary education. The key word was central planning directed by government agencies, never socialism, much less communism, highly dubious, distrusted, and foreign system within the hierarchy of the British labour movement.
Second, he dismisses the idea that the Conservatives changed after the resignation of Chamberlain in May 1940; rather as was correctly presented in the film The Darkest Hour (2017), though Churchill had always considered he was called for a mission to save Britain – meaning the nation and her Empire, he was virtually alone, still viewed as an adventurer, an outsider by his party, and until he could demonstrate any small military achievements in the field – on land in North Africa, and in East Africa in 1940-41, and in the naval attack on Taranto in 1940, he was heavily dependent on the good will of his predecessor Chamberlain, and his yes men Earl Halifax, and Butler, all tarnished in 1940 with defeatism as the Guilty Men, but who pulled the levers of the party. The entry of Churchill’s boys – Bracken, and the eclectic editor of the Daily Express Lord Beaverbrook (comparable to the entry of bully-boy outsider Alistair Campbell in Blair’s sofa government after 1997), indeed, were never accepted in the party, nor in Whitehall as reliable or sound, much less by the author himself, who openly declared Churchill setting up his own court as “corrupt” and “nepotistic” – empty terms of abuse in any organization by “boring”, abstemious types not thought worthy in the new establishment. Such ideas as expected are miles from those expressed by Sir Martin Gilbert (1991), Boris Johnson (2014), or Andrew Roberts. (2018)
Third, Todman places great emphasis on the “Battle of the Atlantic”- a term Churchill coined, a deliberate invocation to the Battle of Britain, as the Atlantic was the “carotid artery”, for Jonathan Dimbleby (2015), on which Britain depended for survival and its capacity to prosecute the war. Even if the Germans had just 13 submarines carrying 14 torpedoes during the first twelve months, before breaking the enigma codes – a vital success, and capturing a machine from U-110 in May 1941 (not mentioned, he does not even refute the false Hollywood story of Jon Bon Jovi finding one on U-541 before the entry of the US into the conflict) their effect was felt, as in only three months between August and October 1940 they had sunk 128 merchant ships, with 700,000 tons of supplies, and killed numerous mariners. In 1942, just after In Battle, half of the tonnage lost in the entire war was sunk.
Fourth, from his first hours as Prime minister, Churchill was at pains to get Roosevelt and the US to assist in supplying the necessary arms, and eventually to force its entry officially and openly into the struggle – the basis of what has since been described as the so-called “Special relationship”. Todman does dwell on that the President was faced by an “isolationist” Congress, and an anti-British Ambassador Kennedy in London, and with great efforts managed to change the “neutrality” laws to allow any foreign belligerents purchase military products in wartime. FD Roosevelt too, however, was on a mission directly opposite to the British leader, in wanting to fight for democracy of all peoples against all imperialism which brings war, but Churchill was certain he was had gained the ear of his friend.
Until Pearl Harbor, the author stresses, help was too slow in coming, and in the second volume showed -as Churchill partly realized by late 1943, he made him and Britain pay heavily for the help. In contrast, Chamberlain could never trust a helpful US for fear in future of becoming a colony of Britain’s former colony. A Special relationship? The author does not elucidate, but hints Churchill had obviously deluded himself into believing in the goodness of the US in reaching out to a fellow English speaking nation in need.
Fifth and finally, Todman, underlines that Churchill was much to blame for the coming defeats in the Far East. Britain could fight against Germany, even against Italy in the Mediterranean without the assistance of France after June 1940, but that was beyond the Empire’s resources to fight a third opponent, Japan, all at once.
The British had hoped the US would assume the burden of being the dominant western power in the Pacific to make use of “Fortress Singapore” without any improvements being made in the defences in Malaya, or training the local units in jungle warfare. The presence of a “Fortress” - a meaningless term without the necessary substance, plus Force Z -a new task force, should also suffice to gain time for the arrival of last minute reinforcements. If that failed, one fell back on the racial comic stereotype that the Japanese were useless little slit-eyed Asians; something which was laughable because it was so untrue, but worse as until the mid 1920s Britain had for years worked closely with the Japanese as allies, and the professionals knew the true realities of Japan’s great military preparation, ingenuity and courage.
True, Japan was severely constrained by insufficient raw materials – which the US had, but surely they would not be stupid in fighting concurrently against two great Western Powers? Instead of propping up the necessary Far East first Churchill instead preferred to be seen in assisting the new ally Stalin in holding back the Nazi speedy advance into the Soviet Union: a third of the tanks used in Moscow in December 1941 were British Matilidas and Valentines, as were 200 reliable US Tomahawk fighters initially dispatched to Britain through Land Lease, representing 9 and 8 per cent of Soviet production respectively. What would have happened had this equipment gone to Singapore? What if?
Was all this because Churchill, as CIGS Gen Sir Alan Brooke noted, every day he woke up with ninety-nine crazy ideas, and only one good one, but he did not have the anyone, except himself, who could stomach him for long to see the woods for the trees, or because he was too easily distracted and would not accept delegating authority to others?
Why the "Great Man" survived was due to the stoic nature of the British public, who dusted themselves down first thing in the morning after a night of bombing in the factories or doing ARP duties, and merrily went to work, or in Churchillian terms KBO: Kept buggering on, as there was no other, and in the emergency there was no other choice. That was no different to life in uniform, where squaddies might grumble about the snobbish horsey middle class officers. But come the end of the war they would give their thumbs down in public, as the people did at the 1945 General election.
The place the author comes to an abrupt halt is good because one will be stimulated to ask what about the End of the beginning at El Alamein in 1942, what about D Day in 1944, and the war in the Far East over 1944-45? And the answer is all here in volume 1.
For Churchill claimed to have only one serious fear in the war: the Atlantic, and there would be no victory in the Mediterranean, no supply routes from the Middle East, no D Day, and no bombing campaign in Germany without a combined Allied victory in the Atlantic.
It would not be the place to discuss volume 2 – A New World, which any interested readers will find I have already provided. However, having chosen to read the second tome before the first, one can honestly understand the reason why Daniel Todman did not begin analyzing Britain at war before page 200: to understand the existing peacetime social, political and economic factors used by the protagonists up for discussion throughout the war years. But why one will ask did his postwar analysis stop in 1947 and not at the end of Labour’s first term in government in 1950, which should have seen the delivery of the Labour promises of the People’s war?
The war, moreover, may not have seemed to have concluded at one level for many people until rationing ended in the mid 1950s, whereas on another the ideas of the Wartime Coalition lived on and spread unofficially throughout the 1950s, 60s and early 70s in the “Butskellism” consensus existing across the two main national parties, and in Whitehall. Its end may have coincided with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, a child of the war, whose economic “Powellite” ideas, however, emerged as a reaction of the collectivism of war via Schumpeter and Von Hayek.
Remember, one piece of warning, besides, Brooke – which he uses occasionally, the author does have his socialist favourites: Richard Titmuss for one. And yet, if readers enjoyed Arthur Marwick they will must love to be taken on a long ten year enlightening journey, and engrossed in the arms of Daniel Todman’s anecdotes. First splash landing: Dunkirk, Tobruk and Pearl Harbor.
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