Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Vincent Orange, Grub Street, 8 April 2013
ISBN: 978 1 908117366
Churchill and his Airmen
This book provides a valuable reality check to those who have put Churchill on a pedestal. Orange leaves the reader in no doubt that Churchill’s undoubted and major talents were balanced by countervailing faults.
Any book about Churchill the man has to paint a broad landscape, for this icon had an incredibly long period at the heart of the affairs at Great Britain - from 1911 to 1945. In the case of Orange’s topic, Winston’s involvement in the Boer War is of no consequence – although we are reminded more than once that Churchill retained a love of dash and valour that betrayed his origins as a Victorian cavalry officer.
But at the dawn of the twentieth century, Churchill had the vision to see the military potential of the aircraft. Combined with his love of adventure, it was unsurprising that he was desperate to learn to fly. Sadly for him, but probably luckily for GB, he had no natural ability. He had almost 140 lessons between 1912 and 1914, and never went solo! Clemmie, his wife, commanded him to give up his piloting pretensions – he acquiesced, nonetheless believing he was on the cusp of gaining his pilot’s certificate. Delusion was an early and enduring trait.
His ability to stir things up – for good and ill – was also evident early. In February 1917, after he had been appointed Minster of Munitions, the Morning Post commented “That dangerous and uncertain quantity is back again in Whitehall. We do not know in the least what he may be up to, but from past experience we venture to suggest that it will be everything but his own business.” !!
"Now Winston, you are not going up in one of those damned contraptions ever again!"
Orange puts Churchill squarely in the cadre of senior men who thought that the scale of British and Allied losses on the Western Front was gallant and honourable. Whilst Henderson, Smuts and Trenchard were key to the creation of the RFC and then the foundation of the RAF, they were lucky to have such an airminded person as WSC in the Cabinet. Further, being given the War and Air Ministries at the end of 1918, he was instrumental in preventing the RAF being absorbed into the other services. Moreover in the Twenties he could see the utility of air power and ensured the RAF was given enough strategic tasks to prove its worth to doubters. Orange does note in passing that Churchill’s love of action caused him to ignore the civilian aspect of developing the UK’s aviation industry.
By the Twenties WSC’s propensity to rewrite history had started. He later overlooked his role in savaging the defence budget (at a time when Germany was beginning to try to rearm) whilst Chancellor of the Exchequer. Orange concludes “thanks in part to Churchill’s conduct for five years in a powerful office, Britain’s ability to face the dictators from 1933 onwards was seriously weakened. “ It was at this time that he contributed to the later downfall of Singapore by his parsimonious attitude to funding its garrison. He enthusiastically endorsed the (cheap) suggestions of John Salmond (then CAS) that the island could be defended by one division of soldiers, and 6 squadrons, (and neither heavy shore batteries nor submarines). CG Grey (the astringent editor of Flight) noted that Singapore’s defences “are the laughing stock of any intelligent Asiatic.” The island’s subsequent fate was not aided by the 1937 appointment as governor of ACM Brooke-Popham, dragged out of retirement at the age of 62, and with no experience that fitted him for the role.
One of the enduring interests of this book is that Orange does not hesitate to spread critical assertions of figures that are still largely well respected. As well as denigrating WSC for his key role in Singapore’s ultimate demise (including sending reinforcements far too late to just add to the Japs’ bag of prisoners), he also points to Wavell’s strategic miscalculation in the region.
WSC was very partial in his selection of senior advisers and staff officers. One who attracts Orange’s sustained criticism is Frederick Lindemann, later created Lord Cherwell in WSC’s largesse to his chums.