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What we can say with confidence is that without the devastation of their cities, Germans might not have turned against Nazi ideology so swiftly after 1945 — in contrast to the previous generation, who had returned to militarism with a vengeance after 1918. Churchill wasn’t a prophet, although he had predicted in 1924, long before it became a scientific possibility, that “humanity has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination” with “a bomb no bigger than an orange.” Even he could not know that the decisive role of air power would only come when nuclear weapons were used against Japan.

The warship in which Churchill sailed to meet Roosevelt was HMS Prince of Wales, then the Royal Navy’s most modern battleship. Hitchens devotes much of his indictment to the war at sea, arguing that the Navy had been starved of resources between the wars and was ill-equipped to fight the all-important Battle of the Atlantic against the Nazi U-boat fleet. He regales the reader with touching stories from his days at boarding school, when he and his friends built plastic models of warships. One was the destroyer Cossack, celebrated for violating Norwegian neutrality early in 1940 in a dramatic rescue of 300 British prisoners from the South Atlantic incarcerated on the German freighter Altmark. As the vessel was boarded, captives in the hold below cried out in English. Cutlass-wielding sailors responded: “The Navy’s here!” Hitchens insists he was duped by a heroic myth. Yet maybe the romanticism of his youth was nearer to the truth than the cynicism of the angry old man.

It is the same story with the sinking of HMS Hood, one of the most notorious naval disasters in history. Hitchens describes this great battlecruiser as “a whited sepulchre”, presumably meaning that she was a death trap for her crew of more than 1,400. This is a rare lapse by Hitchens. St Matthew’s Gospel makes clear that the phrase means “hypocrites”. How can a ship be hypocritical? The mighty Hood, as she was known, was for 20 years between the wars the largest capital ship afloat; she was also, by common consent, the most beautiful. She was constantly in demand to “fly the flag” across the globe; when war came it was too late to modernise her. She was built after Jutland and her design had supposedly incorporated the lessons of that greatest of modern sea battles, in which three British battlecruisers were sunk because their horizontal armour-plating below deck could not withstand shells plunging vertically from great distances. During the action, Admiral Beatty (the dashing commander of the battlecruiser squadron and one of the younger officers promoted by Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty) had remarked: “There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Hood, like all battlecruisers, was built for speed rather than safety, but her armour was regarded by naval experts as adequate to protect her magazines. Churchill was a great advocate of battlecruisers — he had despatched two of them to the Falklands in 1914 to destroy a squadron of German cruisers under Graf von Spee, in what proved to be the only decisive naval victory of the war — but he was not their creator. As First Lord, his legacy to the Royal Navy had been the Queen Elizabeth class of four fast battleships which, together with the similar Revenge class also laid down during his tenure at the Admiralty, were still the backbone of the fleet in the Second World War.
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Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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