Churchill At War

Review: Jonathan Schneer’s ‘Ministers at War’

Winston Churchill
May 10, 2015

By the middle of 1940, with Europe prostrate at the Nazis' feet, Russia allied with Germany, and the United States still out of the war, Britain’s leaders were focused more on survival than on victory. Neville Chamberlain had reached the point where he was contemplating a peace for Great Britain secured at the expense of the sovereignty of her allies. But after the loss of Belgium and the invasion of France, members of Parliament were demanding a new government.

Lord Halifax was the leading choice to lead the new cabinet, but a number of MPs were dissatisfied with his proximity to Chamberlain. Another senior politician, Winston Churchill, had been warning Parliament about the evils of the Nazism throughout the 1930s, long before such a position was popular, and with little success. He now advocated for a strategy of defending the Empire at all costs. Halifax eventually urged Chamberlain to recommend Churchill to the King, and Chamberlain reluctantly did so.

Jonathan Schneer’s Ministers at War provides a detailed account of Churchill’s leadership during World War II, with a particular focus on his management of the politicians closest to him. The book details Churchill’s rise to the position of Prime Minister, the formation of his war cabinet—a delicate balance of competing ideologies and strong personalities, some of whom had their eye on Churchill’s office—their conduct of the war, and its aftermath.

Having formed a national unity government, there was no time to lose. Churchill’s first meetings with his cabinet focused on military strategy. At times, the discussions were consumed with Churchill’s unconventional ideas on how to fight the anticipated German invasion—for example, using ambulances as tanks. Cabinet members Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin found themselves in the position of rejecting Churchill’s more outrageous ideas.

Most of Churchill’s cabinet was in agreement that Britain would have to prepare itself for a long war, but there were some with less aggressive intentions. Many still felt that negotiations with Hitler could save their country. Churchill combated this tendency primarily with his rhetoric—speeches like his famous "we shall fight on the beaches" address rallied the nation to the prospect of a long war.

Having committed to a strategy of vigorous defense, the preservation of the battered British military itself was a looming priority. France was on the verge of surrender and a large number of British and allied troops were nearly surrounded by German forces there. Operation Dynamo—the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk—was a retreat, but also a critical preservation of a British Army that could now defend the homeland. It was the first military success Britain had seen since the start of hostilities.

American readers may be particularly interested in the internal political struggles of Churchill’s cabinet, a story often washed out in the intense light of Churchill’s halo in this country. The Prime Minister faced challenges from the left and the right and was forced to defend his leadership against socialist leader Stafford Cripps and fellow conservative—and personal friend—Lord Beaverbrook.

The war marked a decisive shift in British politics to the left, a fact Churchill didn’t fully come to terms with while it was happening. In 1942 the Beveridge Report was released, a document that reflected the growing expectations of British voters that the government should guarantee healthcare, housing, food, and employment. Churchill’s instincts cut against these policies, but he made regular compromises in order to maintain his coalition, even while feeling that such discussions distracted attention from the war. Labour leaders Clement Atlee and Bevin delayed capitalizing on the changing expectations of citizens in the short-term. They defended Churchill and assured people that reforms would come post-war.

When Germany surrendered to Allied forces in 1945—something hard to imagine in 1940—Churchill was celebrated as the man who had saved Britain. The celebration was short lived. Churchill’s failure to appreciate the leftward drift of Britain’s voters led to Labour taking the majority in Parliament in the 1945 general election. The man who just led the country to victory against a devastating, existential threat was now out of power.

Ministers at War provides a lively account of Churchill’s grand coalition and the challenges he faced dealing with the endless scheming of powerful men and provides a fine description of the complex politics of one of the most important governments in British history.

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