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Hitchens holds Churchill personally and solely responsible. He argues that Churchill overruled the Admiralty because of his outdated, romantic imperialism: he thought sending a naval force to Singapore would “overawe the primitive locals, as if we still lived in the Victorian era”. Yet Churchill was surely right to do all in his power to head off the impending threat, not only to south-east Asia, but to India and Australia. If the British and Americans had co-ordinated their efforts at deterrence sooner, before Prime Minister Tojo and his war party had prevailed on the Emperor Hirohito to unleash war, the presence of Force Z at Singapore might have been a valuable factor.

Hitchens also blames Churchill for imposing naval economies in the 1920s as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but in fact Repulse, like many other capital ships, was largely reconstructed between the wars and Prince of Wales was a new, state of the art battleship, nicknamed “HMS Unsinkable”. The real problem, which was hardly Churchill’s doing, were the restrictions laid down by the Washington naval treaty, which resulted in only two new British battleships coming into service between the wars.

What all critiques of Churchill as a war leader tend to ignore are his unique qualifications for the job. This was a bona fide hero who endured trench warfare and insisted on first hand experience of the sacrifices he demanded of civilians and the services; a military genius who pioneered amphibious landings, the tank and the aircraft carrier; an enthusiast for science who kept abreast of research and its applications; a historian who spent years learning the lessons of past conflicts. Churchill had no peer as a political leader in war on land, at sea and in the air. Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin and Mao, Tito and De Gaulle: none could match Churchill’s mastery of strategy, tactics and technology. Roosevelt with his fireside chats had a comparable ability to rally his people, but his disabilities forced him to remain aloof; by temperament he remained a prisoner of his patrician class. Only Churchill could, as Roberts remarks, “think beyond the Establishment’s way of waging war”. He quotes Hitler’s mocking jibe in November 1938, when only one major figure in Britain stood against appeasement: “Has the Almighty perhaps handed the key to Democracy to such people as Churchill?” Roberts comments: “The answer was yes.”

Today, as the British people languish in gloom and perplexity for lack of leadership, the thought of Churchill should act as a tonic — even an inspiration. We should never apologise for recalling him to mind. This autumn we commemorate not only the centenary of our victory over one tyranny in the First World War, but also the 80th anniversary of Munich, when we failed to confront another. Yet humiliation breeds resistance. The Commons debate that followed, on October 5, was the moment when the lion began to roar: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

Ambassador Ammon had it wrong: what happened next was not “a nice story” (Peter Hitchens is right about that), but reflecting on its meaning for our time is relevant to the problem that faces us today. Salzburg was not another Munich and the EU is not a tyranny. But the British people do not deserve to be punished or humiliated merely because we seek to preserve our independence as a nation state. Churchill, as Andrew Roberts shows, was the greatest advocate of what he called “United Europe”, but he was quite clear that Britain could never be an integral part of any kind of federation: “We are not seeking in the European movement . . . to usurp the functions of government.” That is, unfortunately, precisely what the EU has been doing now for many decades. Two years ago British voted for the Churchillian vision: “profoundly blended” with Europe, but aloof from the structures of the EU. It is now for the government to honour that people’s vote. We must take our stand for freedom again.
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Patrick Heren
October 30th, 2018
6:10 PM

October 18th, 2018
7:10 PM
A few points of detail need clarifying. HMS Cossack did enter Norwegian territorial waters to rescue British prisoners from the Altmark but the Germans had already violated international law by seeking to carry prisoners of war through the waters of a neutral state so Cossack's action was justifiable. There were five Queen Elizabeth class battleships not four so the legacy of the Churchill of the First World War to that of the Second was that bit greater. The Revenge class were not modernised which is why the Admiralty did their best in WW2 to keep them away from the enemy. Churchill probably did over-estimate the deterrent effect of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse but the key error that led to their loss was the failure of Admiral Phillips to summon air cover from Singapore as soon as his ships were spotted by a Japanese scout plane. No-one really knows when Hitler decided on a policy of genocide against the Jews but the fact that he could publicly make a comment that was effectively a threat of such a policy early in 1939 tends to make you think his intention long predated August 1941.

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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