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Churchill’s Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration by Graham T. Clews

Reviewed by Dr Bart Zielinski

Visiting Research Associate, Menzies Australia Institute, School of Global Affairs, King's College London


Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Pp. 360, ISBN: 9781682472798, £40.95

As the title suggests, the narrative begins in September 1939 and ends, abruptly and intentionally, in May 1940, when the next phase of the war begins with both the German invasion of France and Churchill becomes Prime Minister. The author has previously written Churchill’s Dilemma: The Real Story Behind the Origins of the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign, which looks at possibly the most controversial British decision-making process of the First World War. This sets the scene well for this work. One of its core tasks is identified as ‘locating’ Churchill in September 1939, which is indeed an intriguing question, and contrasts the situation with the one in July-August 1914, where Churchill was one of the inner Cabinet architects of the declaration of war.


It is structured into two parts, ‘Churchill as First Lord’ and ‘Churchill and the Wider War’, making a distinction between Churchill the politician-strategist and Churchill the wider politician, although this remains fluid as both aspects keep overlapping. The individual chapters have chronological aspects, but the main approach is thematic, addressing the challenges and questions that lay before Churchill and the British war effort in late 1939 and 1940. In light of the shortness of the time period covered, this approach works well and allows for deep thematic analysis, while at the same time not overly falling into the trap of repetitiveness sometimes encountered in thematic works. A main narrative tool is an accusation-vindication/confirmation mechanism, which cites assessments from contemporary and later sources about Churchill’s performance, judgments, achievements and errors and ‘fact-checks’ them for their validity. The results are at times predictable and sometimes surprising, but give the work structure, guidance and a narrative.


That said, here also lies the book’s strength, especially the naval and strategic part: it unpicks meticulously the decision-making processes with regard to the early options for Britain, informed by its relative dominance of the seas and weakness on land. Thus, plans for operations in the Baltic (Operation Catherine), in Scandinavia including Norway’s Atlantic coast, and for the mining of the Rhine (Operation Royal Marine), along with Britain’s relationship with France as a main political factor, are dissected. The convoy vs patrolling/hunting debate to counter the German U-boat threat is well covered, as is Churchill’s ‘creative’ naval thinking narrative, stereotypically held back by reality but also imbibed by the vision to take the war to the enemy; the (unclear) intelligence situation regarding German U-boats gets a particular mention. At the same time, the ‘lack’ of war in Western Europe, the quick removal from the war of Poland in September 1939, and the limited Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union are taken into account. So is the uncertainty regarding the Soviets for the Allied strategists, not least as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact.


Britain’s naval strength, Clews argues, ‘led to British strategic myopia’ while ‘ideas to use it at all costs’ produced an unrealisitic Operation Catherine, based on Churchill’s ‘long-standing preoccupation with the Baltic’ (p.56). The conclusion in this regard that ‘visionary grand strategy has value only if it is centered in operational practicability’ (p.57) is one of the author’s more interesting swipes at Churchill.

On a grand strategic level, by shifting the potential later participants across his narrative chessboard, such as a possible involvement of Japan in a war in the Far East (Australia and the Fleet-to-Singapore Plan receive their due mention) and of Italy in the Mediterranean, he makes it fascinatingly clear how many imponderables there were for the British. The hypotheticals and what-ifs of this period remain tantalising, and the consequent psychology is well-narrated, as the book uncovers the developing but uncertain dynamic from Churchill’s, Chamberlain’s and, more widely, Britain’s perspective.


The political –‘Wider War’ – part of the book focuses on Churchill’s relationship with Chamberlain and uncovers the dynamic that eventually led to the latter’s downfall as Prime Minister. A particular emphasis here is [laced on the de-mythification of the portrayed general assumption that Churchill and Chamberlain were political rivals and that Churchill’s ascent to the prime ministership followed a calculated plan to oust Chamberlain. In fact, they are portrayed as partners faced with an adversarial situation, in which circumstance led to the outcome we are familiar with rather than mere personal ambition. Churchill’s ‘bulldog image’ is deftly deconstructed.


The book thus sits in between a strategic and a political study of Churchill. The specificity of the time, when Churchill is not the prime decider and when Britain is forcibly reactive in its conduct of war, is well-developed as an evolution across an uncertain time, rather than a linear progress towards events we only know about with hindsight, allowing the reader to read events ‘up’, chronologically speaking, not yet anticipating what will happen next.


To locate Clews’ work within the Second World War and Churchill historiographical canons, the main point of reference invoked is Patrick Cosgrave’s Churchill at War: Alone, 1939-40 from 1974. This volume is structured in a different manner, however, and with a different aim. First, it covers 1940 to the end of the year rather than up to May only. Secondly, its intention was to locate Churchill in the entire war period, with a second volume to cover the subsequent war years, which was never published. In this context, Clews’ contribution is a timely and important update on research conducted nearly 50 years ago.


That said, it is impossible to present an exhaustive literature, but some other titles do come to mind to further locate the work. General works on Churchill include Robert Blake’s and William Roger Louis’s edited volume Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War with significant chapters on ‘Churchill in 1940: The Worst and the Finest Hour’ by David Reynolds and on ‘How Churchill Became Prime Minister’ by Blake, which this book refers to, but could make better use of. The same is true of Daniel Todman’s panoramic survey Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941, which also covers relevant ground with regard to strategy and grand strategy. David Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine with a focus on resources and weapons is an omission from the secondary literature. Factual omissions include the Mechelen Incident when a German military plane crash-landed in Belgium in January 1940 and German military plans for the invasion of the Low Countries were revealed to the Allies. Whether Churchill is on record or not to have commented on this, it would be useful to include detail of this sort for the contextualisation of the broader subject. On a wider contextual scale, World War One and its impact on Churchill’s thinking, not least with regard to the naval blockade which brought Germany to its knees in 1918, is a dimension that is hinted at, but a short explicit discussion would have been useful, maybe in the context of Churchill’s idea of ‘starving’ Germany of Swedish iron ore. From an archival perspective, despite the fact that the Anglo-French relationship is presented as one of the book’s pillars, the French archives have not been consulted.


Overall, the achievements of Churchill’s Phoney War are considerable, as the challenges that the author faces, presenting a biography, a chronology, a thematic political and strategic study, as well as a psychological analysis, are substantial. It places Churchill inside the Phoney War and measures him against his own past (and future), but does not read backwards from the later stages of World War Two and the post-war. Refreshingly, it provides an astute chronology and analysis of the period, embedded in but not overloaded by Churchill’s and the wider war’s context. That said, some more sprinkles of detail and context, even as mundane as tables regarding naval strengths, and a deeper discussion in the book’s second (political) part would have been useful. Nevertheless, the author’s leitmotif that the period was ‘marked by folly, frustration, and too often, failure’ which in turn ‘demands a consideration of why [Churchill] found himself prime minister on 10 May 1940’ is met, as re-interpreting Churchill, and both his strengths and weaknesses, in this context should be greeted as a significant update on our understanding of Churchill, the early war, the what-ifs, and, more broadly, our thinking about the uncertainty and psychology of the early stages of any of the great conflicts of the past.

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