Commanders in Chief

Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were firemen in a world which seemed to be burning all around them. “I expect to maintain this contest until successful or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me,” said President Abraham Lincoln.1 Both their countries were largely unprepared for war. But by the time, Churchill took command in 1940, Britain had been ramping up for more than a year. Neither Lincoln nor Churchill had perfect tools but they used the tool they had. At one point, Churchill told an aide: “Remember, it isn’t only the good boys who help win the wars. It is the sneaks and stinkers as well.”2

Churchill had come by his military knowledge through long experience. He had in the served in the British army in Africa and India as well as in France in World War I so he had a well-formed micro-view of fighting. As First Lord of the Admiralty and minister of munitions before and during World War I, he had developed macro views. Historian David Dilks wrote of Churchill’s World War I service as an army captain: “Dwelling in the trenches, surrounded by slime and rotting corpses and vermin, Churchill experienced intervals of calm after many years of ceaseless fighting, worry and excitement; he felt sometimes the longing for rest and peace, and even a desire to be quit of politics. The mood did not last. He does not seem to have feared death or injury.”3

Still, the reverses of war could not fail to impact the leader charged with leading that war. Illinois attorney Henry C. Whitney met with President Lincoln after the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861: “The then recent disaster at Bull Run was necessarily mentioned, and I said to him: “I heard [Illinois U.S. Rep. William] Richardson say in Congress that General [Winfield] Scott had told him that Bull Run was not his battle, the innuendo being that it was forced on him by the administration.” Lincoln at once went to another part of the room and brought a hand-made map of the battlefield and surrounding country, and said: “Here is the topographical engineers’ map that we planned the battle by. I gave Scott my views; I showed him the enemies’ forces, their positions and entrenchments — their railway facilities — capacities for reinforcing and what Johnson might do; I particularly tried to impress on him the disadvantage [General Robert] Patterson’s forces labored under of having no communication but by a common road; but to all I could urge, or suggest, or doubt, Scott would not reply in detail or specifically, but would scout the idea that we could be defeated; and I really could not get him down to a consideration of the subject in a practical way; he would insist that we couldn’t be beat, no how, and that was all there was of it.’”

The gravity of the situation as it then existed was spoken of, and Lincoln thus expressed himself: “I intend to make and keep the blockade as effective as I can; that is very difficult to do, and it gives me a great deal of trouble, as the line of coast is long; but I attach great importance to that measure, and I mean to do the best I can about it; then I want to move a column of the army into East Tennessee, to liberate the union sentiment there; I want to press them here in Virginia, and keep them away from Washington; I want to hem in those who are fighting us, and make a feint against Richmond, and drive them away from Manassas; I hope ultimately they will get tired of it, and arouse and say to their leaders, and to their politicians, ‘This thing has got to stop!’ That is our only chance.”4

Scott was ineffective as a general-in-chief but he devised the plan that would ultimately win the war. “The initial Union strategy involved blockading Confederate ports to cut off cotton exports and prevent the import of manufactured goods; and using ground and naval forces to divide the Confederacy into three distinct theaters,” wrote historian David Brion Davis. “Ridiculed in the press as the ‘Anaconda Plan,’ after the South American snake that crushes its prey to death, this strategy ultimately proved successful.”5 But before Union success came, four years of bitter warfare and mismanagement would intervene while President Lincoln maintained his faith in its ultimate success.

At the beginning of his presidential term, Lincoln deferred to his military commanders. The early failures and timidity of generals like Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan forced President Lincoln to assume an increasingly active role in the direction of the war. By January 1862, President Lincoln had grown impatient – along with the country – with the inability of the Union Army of the Potomac to mount an offensive. In January 1862, Lincoln brilliantly summarized his military strategy in a letter to General Don Carlos Buell, stating his “general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much. To illustrate, suppose last summer, when Winchester ran away to re-inforce Mannassas [sic], we had forborne to attack Mannassas, but had seized and held Winchester. I mention this to illustrate, and not to criticise. I did not lose confidence in McDowell, and I think less harshly of Patterson than some others seem to. In application of the general rule I am suggesting, every particular case will have its modifying circumstances, among which the most constantly present, and most difficult to meet, will be the want of perfect knowledge of the enemies movements. This had it’s part in the Bull-Run case; but worse, in that case, was the expiration of the terms of the three months men. Applying the principle to your case, my idea is that [General Henry W.] Halleck shall menace Columbus, and ‘down river’ generally; while you menace Bowling-Green, and East Tennessee. If the enemy shall concentrate at Bowling-Green, do not retire from his front; yet do not fight him there, either, but seize Columbus and East Tennessee, one or both, left exposed by the concentration at Bowling Green. It is matter of no small anxiety to me and one which I am sure you will not over-look, that the East Tennessee line, is so long, and over so bad a road.”6

By the end of January, Lincoln tired of military inaction by his generals. Newly appointed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton told President Lincoln in January 1862: “You are Commander in Chief under the constitution and must act as such or the government is lost….You must order McClellan to move. I think he will obey. If not, put someone in his place who will obey.”7 Lincoln aide John Hay wrote: “On the 27th day of January, the President issued his general War Order No. One to those whose direction it was to be. He wrote it without any consultation and read it to the Cabinet, not for their sanction but for their information. From that time he influenced actively the operations of the Campaign. He stopped going to McClellan’s and sent for the General to come to him. Everything grew busy and animated after this order. It was not fully carried out in its details. Some of the Corps anticipated; others delayed action. Fort Henry and Ft. Donelson showed that Halleck was doing his share. The Army of the Potomac still was sluggish. His next order was issued after a consultation with all the Generals of the Potomac Army in which, as Stanton told me the next morning. ‘We saw ten Generals afraid to fight.’ The fighting Generals were McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman & Keyes and Banks. These were placed next day at the head of the Army Corps.”8

Rather than issue orders directly, Lincoln frequently did so through Secretary of War Stanton or General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, whose unwillingness to take military leadership meant he was often “little more since that than a first-rate clerk.”9 Lincoln sometimes let Stanton play “bad cop” to his “good cop,” but when he was determined on a course of action, he did not allow Stanton to interfere. General James B. Fry, the army’s provost marshal general, recalled such a conflict in Stanton’s office. Stanton argued “Now Mr. President, those are the facts, and you must see that your order cannot be executed.” Lincoln responded: “Mr. Secretary, I reckon you’ll have to execute the order.” Stanton responded: “Mr. President, I cannot do it. The order is an improper one, and I cannot execute it.” The President stared down the shorter Stanton and firmly issued an order: “Mr. Secretary, it will have to be done.”10 Governor Oliver Morton went to Washington in the summer of 1863 to get “Indiana sick and wounded [sent] back to the state and provide for their care and treatment in hospitals or private homes.” Secretary Stanton refused to issue the necessary orders. President declared: “Yes, you will, Mr. Secretary…wire General Grant today to furlough in care of Governor Morton every Indiana sick or wounded soldier now with his army. Or send the adjutant general to me and I will issue the order in my own name as commander in chief of the army.”11

Military historian T. Harry Williams wrote that through diligent application, Lincoln “became a fine strategist.” He argued that Lincoln “was a better natural strategist than were most of the trained soldiers.” President Lincoln realized that war was too important to be left to general. “As he grew comfortable in holding the reins of power,” wrote naval historian Craig L. Symonds:. “Lincoln became more assertive as commander in chief…by 1862 he was beginning to exercise hands-on management, even issuing operational orders to division commanders; and by 1863 he was hitting his full stride as an activist commander in chief. As tentative as he was early on, he eventually became one of the most audacious of all American chief executives, authorizing a blockade and approving a conscription law, paper money, an income tax, and – most revolutionary of all – emancipation.”12 In April 1862, Lincoln – along with the secretaries of war and treasury – even personally plotted the capture of Norfolk, Virginia. “So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President,” wrote the usually critical Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase who had helped in the operation,”for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, [Norfolk] would still have been in possession of the enemy and the ‘Merrimac’ as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever. The whole coast is now virtually ours.”13

Both Lincoln and Churchill were obsessive about reviewing the changing geography of the war. Churchill military aide Joan Bright recalled: “Daily truth belonged to the Map Room. Well equipped, manned by retired officers from the three Services, it was our one centre of fact, a haven not because any news it gave was good but because it represented a peg in a shifting world and because its caretakers were informative, helpful, and charming. Here we could knew the whereabouts and condition of such-and-such convoy ploughing the Atlantic Ocean or squirming its way through to the encircled island of Malta; we could see where the bombs had fallen the previous night, how stood our shipping losses, our civil and military casualties.”14 In the Civil War, George William Curtis visited the White House: “Mr. Lincoln received us in his office….He was dressed in black and wore slippers. On a table at his side were maps and plans of the seat of war; and pins with blue and gray heads represented the position of the soldiers on both sides.”15 Both Churchill and Lincoln were connoisseurs of intelligence. Unsatisfied with the volume of intelligence reports he was receiving in the summer of 1940, Churchill insisted that he get raw intelligence reports, filtered only by a military aide. The War Department’s Telegraph room gave Lincoln access to all military communication. Such access had been denied Lincoln by General George B. McClellan until Stanton moved the telegraph room to the War Department in early 1862.

Lincoln had to put up with a succession of political generals who underperformed in the field – though it also must be admitted that some political generals like Illinois’ John Logan did a good job. Churchill didn’t have to worry about political generals but that didn’t stop complaining about his professional generals. With more ease than Lincoln, Churchill exerted his will over battlefield subordinates, not least because, according to Max Hastings, “modern communications empowered those at the summit of national affairs to influence the conduct of operations in remote theatres, for good or ill, in a fashion impossible in earlier ages.”16 Aide William O. Stoddard recalled hearing President Lincoln pace up and down the second floor of the White House one night in June 1864 after the crushing Union defeat at Chancellorsville the month before. The next morning, “I saw the President’s door wide open and looked in. There he sat, near the end of the Cabinet table, with a breakfast before him. Just beyond the cup fo coffee at his right lay a sheet of foolscap paper, covered with fresh writing in his own hand. There were the orders under which General [George} Meade shortly took [Joseph] Hooker’s place and marched on to Gettysburg. That long night vigil and combat had been a victory, for he turned to me with a bright and smiling face and talked with me as cheerfully as if he had not been up all night in that room, face to face with– Chancellorsville.”17

“Churchill,” wrote historian Paul Johnson, “took over at a desperate time. The sheer power of the Nazi war machine, against which he had warned, was now revealed.”18 Historian Max Hastings wrote: “Churchill spent much of the first half of the war searching in mounting desperation for commanders capable of winning victories on land.”19 Historian Carlo D’Este argued: that “while some of Churchill’s appointments were flawed, under his leadership the armed services were at last beginning the vital process of working together as a single fighting team. Joint service operations and cooperation were born at Dunkirk, and despite disasters and defeats that lasted well into 1942, lessons were learned that culminated in history’s greatest and most successful amphibious landing in 1944.”20

Churchill was more fortunate than Lincoln – all he seldom acknowledged it — in the generals and other military officials that surrounded him. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) at the beginning of the war, Edmund Ironside, was soon replaced by General John Dill. Historian John Connell wrote that Dill “was a sensitive man, without [General Archibald] Wavell’s inner resources of gaiety. His judgments, on people as well as on strategy, were sound and well balanced; he had, however, as C.I.G.S., constantly to defend those judgments in cut-and-thrust verbal argument with the Prime Minister – a process which, to Churchill, was essential as well as enjoyable, but which exhausted and sickened Dill. Churchill used every weapon of aggressive debate – mordant sarcasm, prosecuting counsel’s bullying, extravagant rhetorical flourishes, urchin abuse, Ciceronian irony and sledgehammer brutality – and Dill had to bear it all and suppress his anger and his anguish.”21 By late 1941, Churchill decided to replace Dill – with General Brooke, a general more willing to engage in the kind of intellectual military debate that Churchill demanded. Dill was dispatched to Washington where he did yeoman duty coordinating British and American military policy with General George C. Marshall.

Both national leaders were prudential but proactive. Lincoln and Churchill shared a commitment to victory – no matter the personal cost or humiliation. “I will hold McClellan’s horse, if he will only bring us success.”22 General David D. Eisenhower recalled an incident from 1943: “Just before I left England, Mr. Churchill had earnestly remarked, ‘If I could meet [Admiral Jean-François] Darlan, much as I hate him, I would cheerfully crawl on my hands and knees for a mile if by doing so I could get him to bring that fleet of his into the circle of Allied forces.”23 Both Lincoln and Churchill were impatient for battle. “It is a regular disease that he suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched,” wrote General Alan Brooke in his diary in September 1942.24 “I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded,” said Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons on November 11, 1942. “In fact, if anything, I am a prod…..My difficulties rather lie in finding the patience and self-restraint to wait through many anxious weeks for the results to be achieved.”25 Like Lincoln, Churchill wanted action, not excuses and delays. In March 1943, Churchill complained that Allied military staff “are overloading their operational plans with so many factors of safety that they are ceasing to be capable of making any form of aggressive war.”26

President Lincoln received news of the July 4, 1863 Union capture of Vicksburg by General Ulysses S. Grant while at the War Department. Navy Secretary Welles wrote in his diary about how he transmitted the news: “At the moment of receiving this delegation I was handed a dispatch from Admiral Porter, communicating the fall of Vicksburg on the fourth of July. Excusing myself to the delegation, I immediately returned to the Executive Mansion. The President was detailing certain points relative to Grant’s movements on the map to Chase and two or three others, when I gave him the tidings. Putting down the map, he rose at once, said we would drop these topics, and ‘I myself will telegraph this news to General Meade.’ He seized his hat, but suddenly stopped, his countenance beaming with joy; he caught my hand, and, throwing his arm around me, exclaimed: ‘What can we do for the Secretary of the Navy for this glorious intelligence? He is always giving us good news. I cannot, in words, tell you my joy over this result. It is great, Mr. Welles, it is great!’”

We walked across the lawn together. ‘This,’ said he, ‘will relieve Banks. It will inspire me.’ The opportunity I thought a good one to request him to insist upon his own views, to enforce them, not only on Meade but on Halleck.27

President Lincoln frequently had a better view of strategy than his better trained subordinates. Three years after the Civil War began, in March 1864, Lincoln found his man, General Ulysses S. Grant, upon whom he conferred the special rank of lieutenant-general, the first American to hold that permanent rank since General Washington. Aide John G. Nicolay wrote on March 9, 1864: “The Presentation ceremony of Gen. Grant’s commission as Lieut General took place today at 1 P.M. in the Cabinet chamber. The newspapers give the proceedings and addresses in full. Both the President and the General read their remarks from MSS. The General had hurriedly and almost illegibly written his speech on the half of a sheet of a note paper, in lead pencil, and being quite embarrassed by the occasion, and finding his own writing so very difficult to read, made rather sorry and disjointed work of enunciating his reply. I noticed too that in what he said, while it was brief and to the point, he had either forgotten or disregarded entirely the President’s hints to him of the night previous.”28 In his brief remarks, Lincoln said: “The Nation’s appreciation of what you have done, and it’s reliance upon you for what remains to do, in the existing great struggle, are now presented with his commission, constituting you Lieutenant General in the Army of the United States. With this high honor devolves upon you also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need to add that with what I here speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”29

Aide William O. Stoddard came to the President’s office that spring and asked Mr. Lincoln, who was resting on the sofa, what kind of man Grant was: “Well…I hardly know what to think of him, altogether. He’s the quietest little fellow you ever saw,” said the President. “Why, he makes the least fuss of any man you ever knew. I believe two or three times he has been in this room a minute or so before I knew he was here. It’s about so all around. The only evidence you have that he’s in any place in that he makes things git! Where he is, things move!” Unlike other generals, the president told Stoddard, Grant did not look for excuses to avoid an advance. “When Grant took hold I was waiting to see what his pet impossibility would be, and I reckoned it would be cavalry as a matter of course, for we hadn’t horses enough to mount even what men we had. There were fifteen thousand or thereabouts up near Harper’s Ferry, and no horses to put them on. Well, the other day, just as I expected, Grant sent to me about those very men; but what he wanted to know was whether he should disband them or turn ‘em into infantry.”30

Although Lincoln’s focus was on the Army of the Potomac, he also worried about the shifting war fronts in Kentucky and Tennessee. On September 10, 1863, presidential aide John Hay wrote: “A despatch came yesterday morning from [General William] Rosecrans written in a most querulous and discouraged tone, saying to Halleck that his orders warning Rosecrans agst a junction of Johnston & Bragg were too late: the junction could not be prevented: he must fight both: Gen [Ambrose] Burnside’s movement was independent of his: he knew nothing and expected nothing from him: The gravest apprehensions were justifiable: they were the legitimate consequences of Halleck’s orders: all that could now be done was for Burnside to close in on his (R’s) left and throw forward his right to threaten the enemy while he ® caught the enemy in his grip & either strangled him or perished in the attempt.

The President read it with a quiet smile. He said he did not believe the story of [Confederate General Joseph] Johnston’s junction. Johnston was watching Mobile. Rosecrans was a little excited. In the afternoon a despatch in a better tone came from Rosecrans. He intimated that the prospect was the enemy would leave Chattanooga without a fight.”

“This morning the despatches confirmed the last view, justified, as usual, the President’s instinct, and proved that Rosecrans was a little stampeded.”31

Longtime friend Henry Clay Whitney wrote: “As ‘Appomattox’ hove in sight” [in the early spring of 1865] and Lee suggested to Grant a ‘military convention,’ Lincoln reflected on the trouble political generals like Fremont and McClellan had occasioned him by ‘poaching upon his manor’ – and trying to run the politics as well as the war; so, in reply to Grant’s request for instructions, he sent him the following explicit message, viz: ‘The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee, unless it be for the capitulation of General Lee’s army, or in some minor or purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political questions. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to military conferences or conventions. Meanwhile, you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.’”32

Both Lincoln and Churchill delegated most non-war responsibilities to cabinet colleagues. Churchill relied on John Anderson as Lord President of the Council and later Chancellor of the Exchequer to handle domestic affairs. Lincoln relied on Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to handle the complex financial affairs demanded by the war. But because Lincoln and Churchill trusted these domestic administrators did not necessarily mean they liked them. Lincoln was far more comfortable with convivial Secretary of State William H. Seward and the gruff Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton than with the pompous Chase on the self-satisfied Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Similarly, Churchill relied on Anderson without embracing him. Churchill’s physician wrote: “It is said that he was pompous as an Edinburgh student, and in the days of his fulfilment they called him Jehovah. I remember once saying to him: “Winston is hopeless with strangers.’ He agreed, but added, in his pontifical manner: “Winston must not only get to know a man, he must also find him congenial.” Dr. Charles Wilson added: “Winston trusted him, he respected his judgment, but he did not always find him congenial.”33

Churchill “was the indispensable man, South African Field-Marshall Jan Smuts once remarked, because full of ideas,” wrote historian David Dilks. “He had what Stalin called ‘desperation’, an untameable resolve to fight the war to a victorious finish no matter what the odds or the cost. To these formidable qualities we must add another that was indispensable: Churchill knew far more about warfare than any other minister. [Clement] Atlee, leader of the Labour Party and Deputy Prime Minister from 1942, remarks that Churchill unlike Lloyd George had the military knowledge to tell the general what was right.”34 The generals and admirals did not always agree with him, of course, and more important, Churchill did not always get his way. But there was a full discussion of options and strategy that might lead to victory. Churchill had the advantage of trusted advisors like Smuts. General Hastings Ismay wrote that Churchill “was perhaps too impatient and self-willed to be an ideal chairman in the generally accepted sense, but his enthusiasm, drive, imagination and readiness to accept responsibility more than made up for all.”35 Generals who did not stand up to Churchill did not last. In his memoirs, General John Kennedy acknowledged: “The training and outlook of the politician are so fundamentally different from that of the soldier that clashes of opinion are always bound to be frequent and severe.”36

Like Lincoln, Churchill often faced dilemmas. Britain anticipated an invasion of Britain far earlier than one was even planned in 1940-41. Biographer Martin Gilbert wrote that CIGS John “Ironside had expected the German invasion to take place on July 9, a Tuesday. Colville, who was on duty that day at Downing Street, noted in his diary: ‘invasion said to be on Thursday’.”37 Fortunately, Ironside was wrong.

Also in 1940, Churchill wanted to restrain the Vichy government from aiding Nazi Germany. But he also wanted to urge French forces under Weygand to split from Vichy. And he wanted de Gaulle, who was despised by most French military leaders, to take the lead. “De Gaulle is definitely an embarrassment to us in our dealings with Vichy and the French people,” said Churchill to aides in November 1940. As few days later he said: “We are trying to arrive at some modus vivendi with Vichy which will minimize the risk of incidents and will enable favourable forces in France to develop.”38 Churchill’s priority in 1940 was survival, not victory. He recalled: “September 15 was the crux of the Battle of Britain. That same night our Bomber Command attacked in strength the shipping in the ports from Boulogne to Antwerp…On September 17, as we now know, the Fuehrer decided to postpone “Sea Lion’ indefinitely.”39

Churchill aide John Colville observed: “Churchill fascinated and impressed the Service Chiefs, but he often exasperated them with proposals they deemed unrealistic or, at their most extravagant, sheer fantasy. [General Hastings] Ismay provided the corrective. Questions of high strategy were debated by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet under Churchill’s chairmanship. However, the implementation of decisions and matters of disputed detail sometimes gave rise to menacing clouds. Then Ismay would beg the Chiefs of Staff, of whose committee he had once been secretary and was now a full member, to leave a solution to him. More often still, they chose that he should be their intermediary.” Colville noted that Ismay was a master of timing in his interventions with Churchill.”40 Indeed, Ismay was the grease that allowed Churchill’s military machine to function. Aide Joan Bright recalled that Ismay “held the balance between the Prime Minister and the Service Chiefs, presenting the views of each to the other with clear-headed verity and simplification of divergencies. He supported, and was on excellent terms with, Colonel [Leslie] Hollis and Colonel [Ian] Jacob, keeping their trust and giving them freedom of action. Right down the scale of his integrated Defence Staff and its many military sub-committees, he was respected and liked.” He was “urbane and approachable, of superb physical appearance, with a pronounced taste for the good things of life.” He possessed a “clairvoyant foresight, a psychic perception of men’s foibles, and, more often than not, a sure discernment of their true motives.”41

Churchill like to argue through military strategy, a process that generals like John Dill found exhausting. Unlike Lincoln, who learned by listening, Churchill learned by arguing. As Churchill crossed the Atlantic in August 1943, Churchill discussed an operation in the Indian Ocean with a mid-level officer. Despite the prime minister’s badgering, the officer maintained his opposition. “Well you are the expert and now I have heard what you have to say I accept your decision.”42 The back and forth with the Chiefs of Staff and military planners was nearly continuous for Churchill, but aggravating to his subordinates. During his Quebec trip, Churchill wrote of a Burma Plan: “I remain absolutely where I was at the last Conference, and where we all were, that a campaign through Rangoon up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and beyond would be most detrimental and disadvantageous to us.”43

In 1941, Churchill deprecated the army’s future role, writing in a memo that it would be “impossible for the Army, except in resisting invasion, to play a primary role in the defeat of the enemy. That task can only be done by the staying power of the Navy, and above all by the effect of air predominance. Very valuable and important services may be rendered overseas by the Army in operations of a secondary order, and it is for these special operations that its organization and character should be adapted.” The bombardment of Germany, however, was much less effective than supposed during the war. But, wrote General John Kennedy, director of military operations at the War Office, “the bombing policy of the air Staff was settled almost entirely by the Prime Minister himself in consultation with [Air Chief Charles] Portal, and was not controlled by the Chiefs of Staff.”44 In retrospect, far too much of Britain’s meager resources were diverted into the bombing efforts that barely dented the military manufacturing capacity of Nazi Germany.45

Churchill did not believe in false optimism. After a speech to the House of Commons in September 1940, Harold Nicolson wrote “that he does not try to cheer us up with vain promises.” Speaking to the House of Commons in July 1942, Churchill explained British military planning: “Under the present arrangement the three Chiefs of Staff, sitting almost continuously together, carry on the war from day to day, assisted not only by the machinery of the great departments which serve them, but by the Combined General Staff, in making their decisions effective through the Navy, Army, and Air Forces over which they exercise direct operational control. I supervise their activities, whether as Prime Minister or Minister of Defence. I work myself under the supervision and control of the War Cabinet, to whom all important matters are referred, and whom I have to carry with me in all major decisions. Nearly all my work has been done in writing, and a complete record exists of all the directions I have given, the inquiries I have made, and the telegrams I have drafted. I shall be perfectly content to be judged by them.”46

The war took its toll – at the bottom and at the top. British General John Kennedy summarized the atmosphere in London in the spring of 1941: “the gist of the criticisms was that we were living from hand to mouth on a diet of improvisation and opportunism; that no clear-cut military appreciations were being laid before the War Cabinet, for their discussion and approval or rejection; that from their very inception, military opinions were being distorted and coloured by the formidable advocacy of the Prime Minister; in fact that he was not only advocate, but witness, prosecutor and judge. He was also criticized for sending personal directives to the Commanders-in-Chief without professional advice, and for exhausting the Chiefs of Staff to the point of danger.”47 Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert wrote that by June 1941: “Amid the grave problems and setbacks, signs of strain in Churchill were noted that day by two members of his own Secretariat, Peck and Colville, who watched the Prime Minister at closest quarters. ‘John Peck and I agreed,’ Colville noted in his diary on June 19, ‘that the PM does not help the Government machine to run smoothly and his inconsiderate treatment of the Service Departments would cause trouble were it not for the great personal loyalty of the Service Ministers to himself.’” Colville wrote that Churchill “supplies drive and initiative but he often meddles where he would better leave things alone and the operational side of the war might profit if he gave it a respite and turned to grappled with Labour and Production.”48

Manfred Weidner wrote that “since the first twenty-eight months of his prime ministership saw an ‘almost unbroken series of military defeats’ without precedent in English history, it was a marvel that, under heavy political fire in the summer of 1942 and on the eve, as it happened, of an unbroken chain of successes, he was not removed from office, as he had been in 1915.”49 Winston Churchill pushed to have reinforcement of British forces in Egypt made by a convoy through the Mediterranean rather than the much longer but safer trip around the horn of Africa. “I am not impressed by the fact that Admiral Cunningham reiterates his views. Naturally they all stand together like doctors in a case which has gone wrong. The fact remains that an exaggerated fear of Italian aircraft has been allowed to hamper operations.”50 “During the early days of August the shape of a operation for the reinforcement of the Mediterranean began to take form under the name of Operation ‘Hats’,” Admiral Andrew Cunningham recalled. “We also became aware that there was a pressing desire on the part of the Prime Minister to send with the ships….a convoy of merchant vessels carrying tanks and motor transport. I was not at all in favour of this, and said so. The presence of merchant ships slowed up the whole operation, and gave the Italians time to concentrate all they had to dispute the dangerous passage through the Sicilian narrows, in which case any vital reinforcements might quite well arrive in a damaged condition.” In a “fierce” discussion. Churchill however insisted on the speedier more dangerous route through the Mediterranean rather than the longer safer route around the horn of Africa.”51

General Kennedy acknowledged: “Prime Ministers need luck as well as Generals; Prime Ministers who usurp the role of Commanders-in-Chief need a double dose of it. His boldness had certainly been justified on several occasions, and had strengthened his position vis-a-vis the Chiefs of Staff. He had sent a hundred tanks to [General Archibald] Wavell and the May convoy to Russia against naval advice; the first had got through, and only five or six out of forty had been lost from the Russian convoy.”52 There was seldom a problem for which Churchill did not have a solution, sometimes he seemed to have solutions for which no problem had yet been found. Indeed, Churchill had the rare ability to make problems seem appealing. In a letter to Stalin in October 1944 regarding the future of Poland, Churchill wrote “what a great pleasure it has been to me to find ourselves talking on the difficult and often unavoidably painful topics of State policy with so much ease and mutual understanding.”53

Churchill had a difficult balancing act. He stood at the intersection of many conflicting vectors. He was a cheerleader not only for his country, but for a cause. He kept King George informed, he kept his wife informed, he kept his children informed, he kept Commonwealth leaders informed, he kept FDR and Harry Hopkins informed. He kept informed civil and military British officials around world. He worked hard to achieve agreement among his own military and civilian advisors – and with those in other countries. He had to reassure a constantly impatient Josef Stalin that a second front would be opened in Europe as soon as possible. He had to keep up the team spirit. He kept up a constant stream of telegrams congratulating all who needed congratulating. Churchill wrote King George VI on September 24, 1942, for example: “I am under dire necessity of convincing Premier Stalin of our resolve to help him to the utmost of our strength.”

By nature, Churchill was a combatant. Churchill’s natural instinct for combat extended to his relations with colleagues and allies. On one occasion, Air Force chief Charles Portal apologized to Churchill for being “a bit over-assertive or hot under the collar.” Churchill responded: “In war, my boy, you don’t have to be sorry; you only have to be right!”54 Historian Andrew Roberts wrote that First Sea Lord Dudley “Pound evolved a way of dealing with the Prime Minister that he vouchsafed to a deputy: ‘Never say a direct “No” to Churchill at a meeting. You can argue against it, and as long as you don’t exaggerate your case the PM will always let you have your say.”55 They learned to pick battles with the prime minister as carefully as with the Nazis.

Churchill did not like to be told no. In Montgomery’s first meeting with Churchill in the summer of 1940, the general asserted that he “neither drank nor smoked and was 100 percent fit.” (On another occasion, Churchill declared: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”56) Montgomery could be as impudent in his relations with Churchill as McClellan had been with Lincoln. When Montgomery sought to prevent Churchill from visiting his battlefront in July 1944, Churchill demanded: “Who does he think he is, trying to stop the Prime Minister from visiting?”57 Admiral Andrew Cunningham recalled that before D-Day on June 2, “the Prime Minister sent for the First Lord and myself to come to his map room at 12.45. Once there he blithely informed us that he had arranged with Sir Bertram Ramsay to embark in the Belfast with Read-Admiral Dalrymple-Hamilton for ‘Overlord’, and that he would be seriously angry with anyone who tried to prevent him.” Churchill thus tried to circumvent Eisenhower’s opposition to his participation in the D-Day invasion. Only the opposition of the
King George stopped Churchill.58

Often right, occasionally Churchill’s strategic judgements could be spectactularly wrong. Despite his great experience in naval affairs, his judgement on the Battle of the Atlantic has been criticized. So has the diversion of resources into the often ineffective bombing of Germany Historian Christopher Bell noted that Churchill “has received less criticism over his role on the Battle of Atlantic than might have been expected. In this instance, Churchill’s memoirs were probably instrumental in preserving his reputation. [The] dispute between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry over the allocation of long-range aircraft was outlined in British official histories, but Churchill emerged from these volumes relatively unscathed. Post-war investigations revealed that the bomber offensive was far less effective in 1942 than its supporters claimed at the time, and that Bomber Command could have relinquished aircraft for trade protection without significantly diminishing the impact of its strategic campaign against Germany.” Bell wrote “that Churchill’s strategic judgement was, at best, inconsistent; that he possessed a brilliant and fertile imagination, tremendous, courage, and unbounded optimism, but that these qualities were marred by his restlessness and offensive spirit, which sometimes led him to champion reckless and impracticable schemes.”59 Churchill’s attitude during the first two years as prime minister basically was things are awful, therefore Britain will win. Military historian John Keegan wrote: “Churchill’s historical vision was simple and direct – too simple to be taken seriously by professionals. Professional historians see complexities and ambiguities; Churchill saw certainties.”60

Historian Andrew Roberts wrote that Churchill’s relationships with his Chiefs of Staff (COS) deteriorated dramatically in the spring of 1944 after the COS opposed his preferred Operation Buccaneer in the Bay of Bengal. Churchill went on the attack in a memo to them: “I very much regret that the Chiefs of Staff should have proceeded so far in this matter and reached such settled conclusions upon it without in any way endeavouring to ascertain the views of the civil power under which they are serving….Considering the intimacy and friendship with which we have worked for a long time in so many difficult situations, I never imagined that the Chiefs of Staff would get into a great matter like this of long-term strategy in which so many political and other non-military considerations enter without trying to carry me along with them, so that we could have formed our opinions together.” While Churchill was pulling rank, the ranking chiefs were attempting to pursue a rational strategy; conflict was inevitable.61

In both civil and military affairs, Churchill was a micromanager. “Churchill was convinced that he had to take seriously anything that might later lead to trouble or difficulties,” wrote Martin Gilbert. “His, in the last resort, was the responsibility for anything that was overlooked.”62 Churchill was deeply impacted by the confidence of the British people in his leadership. “They have such confidence. It is a grave responsibility,” he said after visit to Bristol in April 1941.63 He pushed for additional British naval action in support of the D-day invasion. Churchill was not impressed by the response that such action had not been requested by General Dwight Eisenhower: “It is not the least use telling me that General Eisenhower has not asked for anything. He is very busy with the land battle and knows very little about the sea.”64 Eisenhower himself wrote of Churchill: “An inspirational leader, he seemed to typify Britain’s courage and perseverance in adversity and its conservatism in success. He was a man of extraordinarily strong convictions and a master in argument and debate. Completely devoted to winning the war and discharging his responsibility as Prime Minister of great Britain he was difficult indeed to combat when conviction compelled disagreement with his views. In most cases problems were solved on a basis of almost instant agreement, but intermittently important issues arose where this was far from true.”65

“It is true that the elaborate machinery of government provided many obstacles to action and equally true that many a time Churchill was restrained by reasoned objections from the Chiefs of Staff,” observed historian David Dilks.66 Churchill’s driven impulsivenss was balanced by the COS’s measured prudence. In May 1944, aide John Colville wrote: “Whatever the PM’s shortcomings may be, there is no doubt that he does provide guidance and purpose for the Chiefs of Staff and the [Foreign Office] on matters which, without him, would often be lost in the maze of inter-departmentalism, or frittered away by caution and compromise. Moreover he had two qualities, imagination and resolution, which are conspicuously lacking among other Ministers and among the Chiefs of Staff. I hear him very much criticized, often by people in close contact with him, but I think much of the criticism is due to the inability to see people and their actions in the right perspective when one examines them at quarters too close.”67

Both Lincoln and Churchill were hedgehogs who saw the big strategic picture of the war. Their view was not perfect, but it was often much better than that of their military subordinates.
Historian David Dilks wrote of Churchill: “At the level of high tactics he did less well than in high strategy. All the same, this was a civilian justified in believing that he knew ‘a good deal about it all’, playing a part beyond the reach of a conventional politician.”68 Churchill told aide Colville: “Each night, I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something really effective.”69 Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “Eric Seal, Churchill’s Principal Private Secretary at the Admiralty and later at Downing Street, wrote in a private letter after a stormy meeting in April 1940 about the course of the Norwegian campaign: ‘Winston is marvellous at picking up all the threads and giving them coherent shape and form.’”70 Churchill told aide John Martin that his mantra was “Keep jogging along.”71 Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “Continue to pester, nag and bite’ summed up Churchill’s own method of war leadership. To one of his commanders-in-chief he had a further exhortation: ‘Improvise and dare.’”72 Even in the war’s darkest hours, Churchill never stopped looking for new ways and new places to advance the war against Germany. In the mature Churchill one observes the permanence of his youthful adventurism in imperial war skirmishes. “There was always a paradox about Churchill as warlord,” wrote Max Hastings. “[H]is genius for war was flawed by an enthusiasm for dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions, and sallies more appropriate – as officers who worked with him often remarked – to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort.”73

Those who worked with Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were amazed by their resilience under relentless military and political pressures. Both had to deal with the backstabbing and second-guessing that came with military reverses. At the beginning of 1862 and 1942, disasters piled on disasters in both wars. Churchill’s personal physician, Dr. Charles Wilson, recalled observing the prime minister in his Map-room shortly after the fall of Singapore. “He was standing with his back to me, staring at the huge chart with the little black beetles representing German submarines. ‘Terrible,’ he muttered. I was about to retreat when he whipped round and brushed past me with his head down. I am not sure he saw me. He knew that we may lose the war at sea in a few months and that he can do nothing about it.”74 Historian Max Hastings observed: “Churchill’s single-minded commitment to victory lay at the heart of his greatness as a war leader.”75 Equally important as their determination to achieve victory without compromise, Lincoln and Churchill had to prepare to win the peace for future generations.

For Further Reference

  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume V, p. 292 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Seward, June 28. 1862).
  2. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 861.
  3. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 19.
  4. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 440-441.
  5. David Brion Davis, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty, p. 310.
  6. CWAL, Volume V, pp. 98-99 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Don Carlos Buell, January 13, 1862).
  7. Frank Abial Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 138.
  8. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 35 (March 1862).
  9. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p 19 (April 28, 1864).
  10. James B. Fry, Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Lincoln, p. 398.
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 272.
  12. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. xii.
  13. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 85 (May 11, 1862).
  14. Joan Bright Astley, The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top, p. 62.
  15. “Abraham Lincoln: The Thirtieth Anniversary of his Assassination,” (Letter from George William Curtis to R.R. Wright, undated), pp. 107-108.
  16. Max Hastings, Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945, p. 123.
  17. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 237.
  18. Paul Johnson, Churchill, p. 111.
  19. Max Hastings, Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945, p. 218.
  20. Carlo D’Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, p. 495.
  21. John Connell, Wavell, Scholar and Soldier, p.256.
  22. Michael Burlingame, John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 289.
  23. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 105
  24. Alex Danchev, Daniel Todman, editors, Lord Alanbrooke War Diaries, 1939-1945, p. 319 (September 8, 1942).
  25. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 255.
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 355 (March 3, 1943).
  27. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 364-365 (July 7, 1863).
  28. Michael Burlingame, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, p. 130 (March 9, 1964).
  29. CWAL VII, p. 234 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, March 9, 1864).
  30. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 197-199.
  31. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 81 (September 10, 1863).
  32. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 394.
  33. Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: the Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, p. 130.
  34. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 42.
  35. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 163.
  36. John Kennedy, The Business of War, p. 14.
  37. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 657.
  38. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 866-868.
  39. Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, Volume II, p. 297
  40. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 163.
  41. Joan Bright Astley, The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top, pp. 69-70.
  42. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 466.
  43. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 479 (August 20, 1943).
  44. John Kennedy, The Business of War, pp. 96-97.
  45. Historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote that “the damage to German war production was at most 9 per cent, and probably less. The demands of bombing on Allied war production were much greater: about 25 percent. In Great Britain and 15 percent. In the United States.” A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 571.
  46. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 139.
  47. John Kennedy, The Business of War, pp. 114-115.
  48. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1112.
  49. Manfred Weidner, Sword and Pen, p.144.
  50. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 772.
  51. Viscount Andrew Browne Cunningham, A Sailor’s Odyssey: The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, p. 269.
  52. John Kennedy, The Business of War, p. 239.
  53. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1023 (Letter from Winston S. Churchill to Josef Stalin, October 17, 1944).
  54. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 104.
  55. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 42. Pound, suffering from a medical condition that killed him in 1943, slept through many meetings.
  56. William Manchester and Paul Reid, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, p. 11.
  57. William Manchester and Paul Reid, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, p. 859.
  58. Viscount Andrew Browne Cunningham, A Sailor’s Odyssey: The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, p. 601-602.
  59. Christopher M. Bell, Churchill and Seapower, pp. 335, 337.
  60. John Keegan, Winston Churchill, p. 15.
  61. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 469-471.
  62. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 549.
  63. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1059.
  64. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p, 876 (August 4, 1944).
  65. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 61
  66. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 57.
  67. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 771.
  68. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 43.
  69. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 758 (Colville diary, August 27, 1940).
  70. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 51.
  71. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 817.
  72. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 74.
  73. Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 318.
  74. Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: the Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, p. 32.
  75. Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 322
Posted in Essays