Eighty years ago, blackmail battles oratory inside the British government



Lord Beaverbrook’s campaign to elbow himself a larger share of power in government, and, perhaps to position himself to displace Churchill, found its way into public notice, albeit in well-disguised form. He had intensified his drive to promote giving maximum support to the Soviet Union, which served as a platform to attract support both inside government and with the public.  Stories appeared pointing to the strain on his health – he was known to suffer from badly from asthma – brought on by the intensity of his working arrangements. What was hidden was the fact that as well as periodic threats of resignation on points of principle he bombarded Churchill with threats of resignation on the grounds of health. It is not known who lay behind this move to call Beaverbrook’s bluff.

Churchill’s standing was always greater with the public than inside government. His greatest strength was his oratory which bound the nation to the war effort; the staunchest Chamberlainite appeasement nostalgists acknowledged this. His errors of judgement were not obvious. He chose one of his regular visits to his alma mater Harrow School to deliver what could rank as the last of his truly great wartime speeches, with its repeated  exhortation, “Never give in” and the inspirational message, “these are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest our country has ever lived.” Churchill’s support for Harrow carried less conviction, though. His time there had not been happy and he later stated,  “I was on the whole considerably discouraged by my school days” although he did make one vital exception. He struggled with Latin and Greek, then considered the pinnacle of learning, but claimed that he drew an unexpected benefit from being placed lowest in the school because of this. Whilst other boys were driven to more extensive study of the classics, “dunces” like Churchill had to make do with English. Here he praised the thorough teaching in sentence structure he received from Robert Somervell, which provided the foundation for his mastery of the language.

Stalin had learned from his early mistakes in trying to act as a military commander himself and appointed General Georgi Zhukov to command the defence of the northern sector of the front, including Moscow. It was a crucial and successful choice. Zhukov had proved his skills by defeating the Japanese of the Khalkin Gol in 1939 but his performance in the early stages of Barbarossa had been lacklustre, possibly because of Stalin’s interference. He had clashed with Stalin – usually a prelude to death – and been sacked as chief of staff. At that stage there was a limit to the scale of his rehabilitation. Stalin’s preferred general Timoshenko commanded in the south until his failure the following year, which left Zhukov in sole charge.

The reputation of the British army had fallen low after its failures in France, Greece, Crete and North Africa. In a bid to restore its standing, it publicised the somewhat belated formation of a paratroop arm in imitation of the German Fallschirmjäger who had inflicted a resounding defeat on the more conservative British in Crete. Perversely, the losses the Germans suffered in Crete together with their dwindling strength in the air, meant that they never mounted a major air-drop operation again, whilst what was to become the Parachute Regiment went on to win lasting glory on many battlefields.


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