The Life and Struggles of Winston Churchill: Global War, 1941

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Sir Winston Churchill

During 1941, Britain was no longer alone in the fight against Nazi Germany and its allies, for like Russia, the USA was also pitchforked into the war.

When Winston returned home from his meeting with President Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in August 1941, he found his Cabinet in a gloomy mood. As he explained in a telegram to US envoy Harry Hopkins: “There was been a wave of depression through Cabinet and other informed circles here (over) the President’s many assurances about no commitments and no closer to war etc.”

Winston’s Doubts

The British Prime Minister’s main concern was the chance that a German victory in Russia, which they had invaded on June 22 1941, would have dire consequences for Britain. ‘If Germany (were to) beat Russia to a standstill, and the United States made no further advance towards entry into the war, there is a great danger that the war might take a turn against us.”

In September 1941, this outcome seemed imminent The Germans were closing in on the Russian capital, Moscow. In the south, they captured Kiev in the Ukraine. In addition, the Caucasus in southern Russia, together with, its valuable oil wells were almost within reach.

Josef Stalin, the Russian leader, grew increasingly agitated. Winston sought to assuage his fears with a generous aid package. He promised to send Russia half the aircraft and tanks Stalin had requested and urged the Americans to provide the rest.

More Aid for Russia

To protect vital supplies to Russia, alternative routes were created. A joint British and Soviet force occupied oil-rich Iran, so providing northward access for oil supplies to Russia. Another route, to Murmansk, the only major ice-free port in northern Russia, was opened up in September.

Despite terrible, freezing conditions and ferocious attacks by German submarines and aircraft, Britain shipped four million tons of war matériel and other supplies to the hard-pressed Soviets via Murmansk.

Winston assured Stalin: “We shall batter Germany from the air with unceasing severity and keep the seas open and ourselves alive.”

Fortunately, German messages decrypted at the Bletchley Park codes and cypher center in Buckinghamshire provided some hope. In September and October 1941, Winston learned by this means that units of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, in Russia were suffering major supply and maintenance problems.

No Blitzkrieg

It was now too late in the year for the quick blitzkrieg victory the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler had anticipated and as the fearsome Russian winter advanced, German prospects became even worse.

Meanwhile, Winston’s restless imagination searched for possible opportunities for action, In late October 1941, he produced plans for two amphibious assaults, one against Nazi-occupied Norway, the other against the Mediterranean island of Sicily in order to aid the forthcoming British offensive against the German Afrika Korps in North Africa.

Winston Frustrated

Winston was disappointed when the Chiefs of Staff turned down both proposals, considering them to be too risky and impractical. Under War Cabinet rules, the Prime Minister had no powers to override their decisions and he became frustrated at what he considered their lack of daring.

“The Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals chant their stately hymn of Safety First.” Winston wrote to his son Randolph. “I have to restrain my natural pugnacity by sitting on my own head!”

Winston longed for a tough-minded companion who would share his urge to go on the offensive and strike the enemy with maximum force. His impetuous character meant that he often clashed with his cautious Chief of Imperial General Staff (CIGS) General Sir John Dill.

General Alan Brooke

The Prime Minister eventually lost patience with Dill and dismissed him, replacing him with General Alan Brooke on November 16, 1941, Brooke was a far better prospect for Winston since he was much more inclined than Dill to be bold and audacious.

In addition, there was a strong personal tie between Winston and his new CIGS. In his youth, when he was himself a soldier, Winston had been close friends with Brooke’s two brothers, Victor and Ronald, both of then by now dead.

Winston wrote to Brooke on November 18: “I feel that my old friendship for Ronnie and Victor, the companions of subaltern days and early wars, is a personal bond between us, to which will soon be added the comradeship of action on fateful events.”

Pearl Harbor

Unknown to Winston, the first of such events was not long in coming At Placentia Bay, President Roosevelt had confided to Winston the need for some “big, dramatic” incident to prompt the US into the war: this was now about to transpire.

On December 7, 1941, three weeks after he wrote to Brooke, Japanese carrier-borne aircraft attacked the US Pacific fleet at anchor in the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. There was no prior warning or declaration of war and the Americans were caught unawares.

The US Joins the War

By the time the two-hour assault ended, the Americans had lost five warships, 187 aircraft and some 2,400 personnel. On what he later termed “a day that will live in infamy”, Roosevelt had at last found what Winston had hoped for: the justification required for entering the hostilities. On December 8, Roosevelt declared war. When Winston telephoned him for news, the President told him “We are all in the same boat now.”

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which had been designed to prevent the US from interfering with Japan’s expansionist plans in the Pacific, a long-prepared tide of conquest swept across the ocean, engulfing American territories and one after the other, colonies of the British, French and Dutch empires.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Japan’s partners in the Axis tripartite Pact signed in September 1940, declared war on the United States. Winston was both saddened and relieved.

“We must expect to suffer heavily in this war with Japan,” he wrote to his wife Clementine. “…The entry of the United States into the war is worth all the losses sustained in the East many times over. Still, these losses are very painful to endure and will be very hard to repair.”

Sources:

  1. Albright, Harry: Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Fatal Blunder : The True Story Behind Japan’s Attack on December 7, 1941 New York, NY: (Hippocrene Books, 2003) ISBN-10: 0781810183/ISBN-13: 978-0781810180
  2. Weeks, Albert Loren: Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II ( Lanham, Mayland: Lexington Books, 2010) ISBN-10: 0739145630/ ISBN-13: 978-0739145630