Dr R Balashankar
Churchill & Sea Power, Christopher M Bell, Oxford University Press, Pp 429 (HB), £ 25.00
WINSTON Churchill is one of those men in history who refuse to go away. Once celebrated and then riled. Such personalities’ decisions and actions are discussed and dissected by analysts again and again without really coming to a definite conclusion. His role in the decline of Britain as the world’s best naval force has been written about from various perspectives. Christopher M Bell in his Churchill & Sea Power, using several archival material analyses Churchill as a naval strategist.
Churchill loved the Royal Navy and was mighty proud of it. But that did not deter him from recognising the fact that the force had not kept pace with time and several other nations—America for one—had built a navy that was superior. More than the army and even the air force, maintenance of the navy is an expensive proposition. Substantial money has to be spent on updating technology, an expenditure that may not be justifiable from a purely defence need point of view. At a time of resource crunch, during the Second World War Churchill allowed the decline of the Royal Navy to continue. He was not the one who started it, argues Christopher.
“Given the force of Churchill’s personality and propensity to intervene in all aspects of naval business, it is not surprising that naval leaders were often agitated.” Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, Britain’s First Sea Lord said Churchill was “impervious to arguments and sweeps them aside as if they did not exist.” Christopher says that Churchill had been acknowledged equally as a good strategist.
“Churchill has usually been judged according to the success or failure of his actions in wartime. However, no consensus has emerged on his record as a naval strategist. To his harshest critics, Churchill was a dismal failure,” says Christopher, who while defending Churchill in some of the toughest accusations also highlights the some of his mistakes which had not been criticised as they should have been. For instance in the Battle of Atlantic, Churchill aimed not at tactical superiority at sea but at conserving resources for the bombing campaigns. The navy suffered losses without the air support. “Churchill’s memoirs do not attempt to conceal the importance he attached to strategic bombing, but they do gloss over the fact that the grand strategy he championed during 1942 deliberately deprived the navy of much-needed air support, led to avoidable losses in merchant ships and their crews, and may have ultimately delayed victory in the Battle of Atlantic.”
After cursorily discussing the political life of Churchill, Christopher takes up the campaigns one after another for thorough scrutiny. Several naval strategic points have been highlighted by Christopher using a lot of archival material, including Churchill’s memoirs and some unpublished writings. He concludes, “Historians today are probably further than ever from a consensus on Churchill’s record as the custodian of British sea power, although it is likely safe to say that there is general agreement on some things.” While it is generally agreed that he had a brilliant mind and fertile imagination, it is also undisputed that his qualities were marred by his brusque, offensive spirit. How much of the latter damaged the former is a matter of widely varying opinion says Christopher. For himself, the author feels that in the first half of the twentieth century “air power gradually replaced sea power as Britain’s most potent and valuable weapon, and would have done so whether Churchill was in power or not. But even when the nation’s sea power was being deliberately neglected and its naval resources run down, Churchill ensured that the navy’s most important needs were met, and that its long term interests were protected as well as possible.”
Today, when Britain is hurtling towards a third world status, these discussions seem immaterial. But from a historic perspective, they are important, as the history of Britain then was shaping the history of the world and Churchill was a chief player in that. Christopher M Bell, Associate Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia has struck a fine balance between defending Churchill and being objective about his actions.
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