'CHURCHILL' - THE MOVIE
I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to write a piece about Churchill's mood on the eve of D-Day, to coincide with the release of the eponymous film on that subject. I enjoyed the movie - in particular the bravura performance of Brian Cox - although at times it did play a little fast and loose with history.
A MAN ALONE
Before retiring to bed on Monday 5 June, the eve of D-Day, Clementine Churchill dropped by the Map Room, the nerve centre of the Cabinet’s wartime planning operations, to offer her husband her customary solace and encouragement. She found him stripped of the bravado and boundless optimism he habitually exhibited to political and military colleagues. ‘Do you realise’, the Prime Minister said to her, ‘that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?’
A new film, ‘Churchill’, dramatises the war leader’s thoughts and actions in the days immediately preceding the biggest amphibious operation in history. While he could confidently tell General Montgomery that Overlord was to be their ‘greatest adventure’, deep down Churchill was racked by anxieties. The immediate history of Cross-Channel enterprises had been disastrous: Dunkirk, for all the heroism and the preservation of lives, had essentially been an inglorious retreat, while Dieppe in 1942, a ‘dry run’ for D-Day, had concluded with the massacre of Canadian soldiers on the beaches.
Then there were the ghosts of the Dardanelles. As First Lord in 1915, Churchill’s similarly ambitious naval assault – to knock out Turkey and establish a ‘second front’ in the East - only led to a bloody mess on the Gallipoli peninsula with a quarter of a million Allied casualties. No matter that Clement Attlee, his loyal Labour deputy in the wartime coalition - himself, as Major Attlee, a courageous Gallipoli veteran - reassured him that its strategic conception was sound, and it had only been undone by the dithering of politicians and military chiefs. Churchill would forever fret over this stain on his reputation.
After five years of war, the Prime Minister’s reputation at home and abroad remained as high as ever. In its bleakest hour, he had rallied the nation with his stirring rhetoric: his careful, assiduous wooing had drawn a reluctant America into the conflict: and when pressure from Stalin, and then Roosevelt, to open up a ‘second front’ in Europe had been unrelenting, he had been at his most effective in stubbornly resisting it.
Yet by that fateful day in June 1944, Churchill was in some ways a diminished figure, physically and politically. Not surprisingly given the natural stresses and strains of war – not to mention the absurdly late nights he preferred – his health had declined markedly. He suffered a heart attack on Boxing Day 1941 when staying at the White House, first contracted pneumonia in February 1943 on his return from a gruelling trip to Moscow, and then suffered a second – more dangerous bout – while visiting General Eisenhower at Carthage.
Politically, at home Churchill was now on the back foot following the Beveridge Report of December 1942. The Liberal social reformer’s plans for a ‘welfare’ state had given a beleaguered British people a warming vision for the future, and galvanised the key Labour members of the wartime coalition – Attlee, Home Secretary Herbert Morrison and Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin. Churchill’s reforming instincts – so great in Asquith’s Liberal government earlier in the century – had long since dimmed, and his acquiescence of Beveridge (‘that awful windbag’) was always grumbling and reluctant.
Abroad, although he was arguably almost always right on all of the major, strategic military decisions, he was now clearly the junior member in the Big Three, dwarfed not by the lesser personalities of Roosevelt and Stalin, but by the size and significance of their countries contributions to the vital final stages of the war. Churchill was conscientious in his dealings with Stalin, while fully comprehending – which Roosevelt did not – the Soviet dictator’s aggressive territorial designs on Europe.
Where Roosevelt and Churchill did agree on was another other inflexible, egocentric leader who loomed large as the hours ticked away to D-Day. They both detested General de Gaulle, who was only finally invited to Britain on 4 June to learn about the planned deliverance of his country.
What followed was a disastrous meeting on the Prime Minister’s train, Churchill’s bonhomie being sulkily rebuffed by the Free French leader. De Gaulle, simmering at the way France’s future was being carved up by the Anglo-American liberators, refused to read a D-Day script prepared for him and forbade his liaison officers to accompany the invading forces.
But in the final hours it was the weather that overshadowed all else. Chief meteorologist Dr James Stagg’s persuasive briefing on Saturday (3rd) of rough seas, low cloud and winds up to force six in the Channel forced Eisenhower and his colleagues to postpone the invasion for twenty-four hours.
When Stagg finally gave the all clear on Monday morning, Churchill dutifully telegraphed Stalin to tell him of the ‘most favourable change’ in the forecast. ‘Tonight we go’, he told the Russian leader. ‘We are using 5,000 ships, and have available 11.000 full mounted aircraft’. Not to mention 156,000 troops.
Once the moment had arrived, Churchill did as he had always done –put the dark fears to the back of his mind, renewed his mission of duty to his nation, and prepared to lead it through ‘undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult operation that has ever taken place.’