When Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill died in 1965 at the age of 90, tributes to the great man poured in from around the world. But in the decades since Churchill’s death, some have posed questions about his conduct – both political and personal. And allegations about the probity of the British war leader’s private life have recently been revived.
Churchill was born in 1874, when Queen Victoria presided over the far-flung British Empire. And his birth was not humble, taking place as it did in the magnificent splendor of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, an aristocratic descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough and an active politician. His American mother Jennie, on the other hand, was the daughter of wealthy New York financiers.
Furthermore, Churchill followed a path typical to that of the British upper classes of the time. First he attended the exclusive Harrow School. Subsequently, he went on to cavalry officer training at the elite Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Then, after Sandhurst, he joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in 1895 – a mounted regiment founded in 1685. Churchill went on to combine military service in India, Sudan and South Africa with journalism and authorship.
After failing in his first attempts to be elected as a member of parliament, Churchill came into the public eye in 1899. He had traveled as a journalist to South Africa during the Boer War, a bitter conflict between secessionist white settlers and the British government; there, however, he was held as a prisoner. Then after escaping from captivity, he became a hero in Britain for his daring exploits.
Churchill eventually returned to Britain, though, and succeeded in his goal of entering Parliament. He was now a career politician, although he also fought in World War I on the Western Front. His political career would be a checkered one, however, as spells in high office combined with periods of obscurity. Then a certain Adolf Hitler became the leader of a dangerously reinvigorated Germany. And, as it happens, Hitler’s rise to power was eventually also to propel Churchill back to the top of politics.
Indeed, Churchill became British prime minister in 1940, during World War II; and in time, he grew to be renowned as someone who vowed to defeat Hitler at any cost. And, of course, Churchill’s record as a British wartime leader has been the foundation of his reputation as a great man. However, the gratitude felt by the British people for his leadership during conflict did not protect Churchill from controversy.
In fact, some British people hated Churchill. Take the coal miners of Tonypandy, a Welsh town in the Rhondda Valley, for instance. In 1910 the miners there and in surrounding districts were striking for higher wages, and riots subsequently broke out between the strikers and the local police. Churchill was home secretary, the British interior minister, at the time and sent in the army to deal with the clash. Trades unionists around the country never forgave or forgot that harsh reaction to an industrial dispute.
And other incidents in Churchill’s long political career caused fierce controversy. For example, there was Churchill’s attitude to Muslims. However, those views – contained in The River War, a book he penned in 1899 about his military experiences in Sudan – were typical of his day and nationality.
But Churchill’s writings on Islam are deemed so contentious today that in 2014 an obscure politician was arrested in England simply for reading extracts of the The River War out loud in public. Indeed, many of Churchill’s views about race are distinctly unpalatable to contemporary thought. He was particularly scathing, for example, about the great Indian independence campaigner Mahatma Gandhi.
Then there was Churchill’s view on the use of chemical weapons. These combined an enthusiasm for poison gas with overt racism. The BBC quoted his 1919 memo, written when he was war secretary, “I cannot understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.”
Churchill again courted controversy – and made plenty of enemies – with his involvement in Britain’s fractious relationship with Ireland. During the Irish War for Independence, which started in January 1919, Churchill was war secretary; in that position, he was responsible for some vicious suppression of the rebellious Irish. But ever a complex man, he also played a central role in the 1921 peace treaty that ended the conflict.
Even after Churchill’s heroic performance during World War II, the British people weren’t ecstatic about Churchill the politician. In the first general election after the war, Churchill was soundly defeated. Despite their gratitude for his wartime leadership, the British people preferred the socialist policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour Party to the manifesto offered by Churchill’s Conservatives.
Churchill did however go on to win the next general election in 1951 as Conservative leader and served again as prime minister until he resigned in 1955. By this time, he was suffering the effects of two earlier strokes. He finally retired as an MP in 1964, living mainly at his country residence, Chartwell, until his 1965 death.
As we’ve described, Churchill was a controversial man throughout his life and has continued to be so in death. And even though he holds a special place in the affections of many British people – not to mention some Americans – he is far from immune to criticism. But the latest round of controversy is related not to Churchill’s public and political character, but rather to his private life – specifically, his marriage.
In a nutshell, Churchill stands accused of being unfaithful to his wife Clementine – although this is hardly the first time that a prominent politician has been accused of infidelity. In 1904 Churchill first met Clementine Hozier at a ball in one of England’s grand country homes, Crewe House. The two wed in London in 1908 and remained married until Churchill’s death.
The couple were together for 56 years, in fact, and the union produced five children. Was it a happy marriage? We have no way of truly knowing, although we do know that they stayed together for more than half a century – an achievement in itself. But they did from time to time vacation separately, with Churchill sometimes retreating without Clementine to Château de l’Horizon, a splendid modernist villa on the French Riviera.
And it was on some of those summer holidays in France in the 1930s that it’s been alleged Churchill had an affair with a society hostess called Doris Castlerosse. Castlerosse is hardly a household name, but her great-niece has known some contemporary fame: she’s the model Cara Delevingne.
The evidence for the affair that has recently emerged is a taped interview from 1985 with Sir John Colville. Colville was for a time Churchill’s private secretary, and the interview seemingly confirmed rumors that had been around for years that Churchill had had an affair over the course of four summer vacations in France. Also identified as evidence of the affair was the fact that Churchill, a keen amateur artist, had painted Castlerosse twice.
But some have poured cold water on this “new” evidence. One naysayer is the eminent British historian Andrew Roberts, who has spent four years working on a Churchill biography. Writing in The Spectator in February 2018, he stated, “The alleged affair took place [from] 1933 to 1937, but Colville did not become Churchill’s private secretary until May 1940. So this is at best second-hand information.”
And regarding the Castlerosse artwork, Roberts points out that he painted lots of other women without any suggestion of impropriety. So while Churchill may well have been thoroughly unpleasant to the Welsh, the Irish, the Muslims and Mahatma Gandhi as well as the Nazis, evidence that he cheated on Clementine is thin at best.
Meanwhile, another story about Churchill that has fascinated historians for years is that of an encounter with five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was March 1944, and the Second World War was rumbling on. The Allied assault on northern France was just a matter of weeks away. But all was not well with the invasion force’s supreme commander. You see, Eisenhower is in a bitter dispute with Churchill. And he was so angered by the clash that he was contemplating drastic action – a maneuver that could have entirely changed the course of WWII.
Yet D-Day – the famous attack by sea and land on Normandy – did of course go ahead on June 6, 1944. The massive operation had been meticulously planned for months on end, too. But discussions about the precise timing of the invasion had been intense – at times even acrimonious. And that’s perhaps not a surprise, as tentative geopolitical alliances were at stake.
What’s more, these issues threatened to cause bitter divisions between the main Allied countries opposing Hitler: the U.S., Britain and Russia. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was keen to see the invasion of France happen as soon as possible, for instance, so that his eastern troops could be given some respite. Given the bitter fighting taking place on Russian soil, this was entirely understandable.
And earlier in the war, Britain had stood up against the Nazis without those other two Allied nations. Even after the Germans had overrun Western Europe in 1940, the U.S. had been reluctant to commit troops to what it deemed to be a European conflict. Back then, Russia had also been in a pact with the Germany that pledged neither country would attack the other. As WWII scholars know, though, the international geopolitical scene changed drastically during the course of 1941.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler double-crossed Stalin by breaking their pact and invading Russia. That left the Soviet Union to join the war on the Allied side. Then, a few months later on December 7, the Japanese launched their unpredicted attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. This, of course, was the act that brought the U.S. into the conflict – and left the fault lines of WWII now more firmly defined.
But before we explore the build-up to the D-Day invasion and the bitter dispute that split Churchill and Eisenhower, let’s find out a little more about Eisenhower himself. David Dwight Eisenhower – as he was originally known before his mother switched his names to avoid him being confused with his dad – came from a wildly different background to Churchill. Yes, while the British premier was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Eisenhower’s clan had had to work hard for their money.
Eisenhower entered the world in 1890 – so, 16 years after Churchill – into a Pennsylvania Dutch family in Denison, Texas. Before his birth, his father, David, had been a store owner in Kansas; as the business dwindled, however, he found himself forced to take on various jobs to put food on the table. Fortunately, David ultimately managed to haul his family out of hard times.
The Eisenhowers were by no means wealthy, mind you. When college beckoned for the future president, in fact, he agreed with a brother to take turns studying and earning money to pay for tuition. But before Eisenhower had his own chance to hit the books, he changed tack. In 1911 he decided to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Then, after leaving the academy in 1915, Eisenhower spent time at army bases in Georgia and Texas. A spell overseas seemed to beckon, too, when the U.S. joined WWI in 1917. But this wasn’t to be. Mere days before Eisenhower was due to travel to France, you see, peace broke out – thus denying him his chance of active service.
After the conclusion of WWI, Eisenhower continued as a captain in the army, although he was upgraded to major in 1920 – a rank he maintained for the decade and a half that followed. And in the early 1920s, he worked on the development of modern tank warfare, during which he became something of a specialist in the field. That said, Eisenhower and his colleagues’ vision of what future conflict may look like wasn’t exactly met favorably by his commanding officers.
The major’s superiors viewed tanks as merely back-up tools for soldiers, after all, and took a dim view of Eisenhower and his co-workers’ notion that the vehicles could be used in offensive tactics. This clash of ideas even saw Eisenhower face a potential court-martial when he failed to give up on proposing his apparently avant-garde theories.
And as the 1920s rolled into the 1930s, Eisenhower’s career in the army was in the doldrums. At one point, he was pushed towards a role in the American Battle Monuments Commission that hardly made the best use of his talents. Nevertheless, in fall 1941 – just weeks before Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into WWII – the serviceman earned the rank of brigadier general.
Then Eisenhower began to prove his mettle. Following the Pearl Harbor assault, he joined the U.S. Army General Staff and was entrusted with coming up with schemes to ultimately thwart both the Nazis and the Japanese. In 1942 he also traveled to London to take up residence at the Allied Force Headquarters, upon which he became head of military operations in North Africa and Europe.
And November 1942 saw Eisenhower command Operation Torch – a joint British and American assault on the North African countries of Morocco and Algeria. The Nazi-backed Vichy French authorities occupied these territories, with the attack designed to help the Allied troops who were facing down Axis powers in Egypt.
Operation Torch made history, too, as it marked the first time that U.S. forces had ever engaged in a large-scale airborne attack. And if the mission went well, it would not only assist Allied soldiers, but it would also make way for a later invasion of Italy and the nearby island of Sicily. Fortunately for all concerned, then, Operation Torch was a triumph.
After that, the British Eighth Army, led by General Bernard Montgomery, pushed the Germans out of North Africa – which proved to be a huge setback for the Nazis. Eisenhower was the man superintending that operation, and he also acted as commander for the subsequent takeover of Sicily.
Then in January 1944 President Roosevelt honored Eisenhower with the position of the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force – a role he would hold until the German capitulation in May the following year. The scene was now set for the argument between Eisenhower and Churchill that we heard about earlier. And the dispute was bitter enough, in fact, that it could actually have derailed the planning and execution of D-Day.
Eisenhower actually played a key part in the plan to invade northern France, and he believed that there was one element vital to the success of an air- and seaborne invasion of Normandy. In his view, finding a way to stop the Germans ushering in powerful reinforcements to the scene of the landings was absolutely essential.
And as it happens, Eisenhower had an answer to this problem: destroy as much key transport infrastructure in France as possible. Indeed, he believed that the full force of the Allies’ aerial bombing capabilities should be directed towards the endeavor. This strategy came to be known as the Transportation Plan.
The Transportation Plan was principally the brainchild of a military planner called Solly Zuckerman. Perhaps unusually, he had been a zoologist before war had broken out; during the conflict, however, he became the British Bombing Survey Unit’s scientific director. And it was Zuckerman, it seems, who came up with the idea of destroying French railroads to hamper the Nazis in responding quickly to the Allied invasion of France.
Eisenhower wasn’t the only one to give his support to the Transportation Plan, either; his deputy chief commander Arthur Tedder also concurred with such a measure. But there were others who had considerable reservations about the scheme. Naysayers even gave the Transportation Plan a cutting nickname: “Zuckerman’s Folly.”
The British Royal Air Force air marshal Arthur T. Harris certainly wasn’t enamored with Zuckerman’s idea. He believed, by contrast, that the war could be won for the Allies through so-called “area bombing.” And as that name suggests, this method did away with any attempt at picking out specific targets; instead, it involved trying to annihilate a city’s entire war manufacturing effort as well as its workforce. Not for nothing did the military leader earn the name of “Bomber” Harris.
Speaking to the History network’s website in March 2019, The National World War II Museum’s Robert Citino described the views of Eisenhower and his supporters on the matter. “Eisenhower wanted to use our heavy strategic bombers – the big four-engine planes that were built to destroy German cities and the economy – and send them to wreck the French roads and railway system,” the historian said.
According to Citino, however, Harris and his opposite number in the U.S. Air Force, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, “wanted to keep bombing German cities.” He added, “[Harris and Spaatz] thought that was the quickest way to end the war. That might seem like the height of naivete today, but people believed it at the time.”
“The air forces wanted to prove that they could win the war on their own. You want to bomb Berlin, and instead you’re being told to bomb some podunk French village because it’s got a railway crossing,” Citino continued. And it seems that Harris was once fairly scathing about Zuckerman and his scheme. Author Peter Gray related the air marshal’s thoughts in his 2012 volume The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945.
Focusing on Zuckerman’s previous work as a zoologist and in particular his studies of monkeys, Harris disparaged him with the words, “Our worst headache has been a panacea plan devised by a civilian professor whose peacetime forte is the study of the sexual aberrations of the higher apes.” This choice insult exposes the bitter depths to which the debate had reached.
If it had only been Harris and Spaatz who had opposed the idea of transferring the bombing from German cities to French railroads, Eisenhower and Tedder may well have prevailed easily enough. But the two air commanders had the support of none other than Churchill himself – thus making their position all the more formidable.
What’s more, Churchill opposed the idea of bombing France from more than one angle. To begin with, such a strategy had the potential to kill a lot of innocent people. And while it was one thing to attack a key enemy such as Germany in this manner, it was quite another to subject a country that was ostensibly a wartime ally to this fate.
Churchill also threatened that alienating the French population by bombing them may push them towards joining forces with the Soviets after the war. Yet Citino has claimed that any humanitarian concerns played second fiddle in the prime minister’s decision-making process. He told History, “The real question was who could win the war more quickly.”
Meanwhile, the likes of Harris were claiming that bombing German munitions and supplies factories could finish the war within just six months. That was a powerful argument if it held any water. But Eisenhower was determined that the Transportation Plan was the way forward. Nothing, as far he was concerned, was more important in giving the D-Day invasion the best chance of success.
And Eisenhower had a powerful ally in the arguments for and against bombing France: Charles de Gaulle. In particular, the future president of the European nation claimed that the sheer importance of achieving the Normandy invasion outweighed any concerns about civilian losses. The dispute continued, though, and so Eisenhower sat down to further express his views about the matter in a memo.
As Eisenhower dictated his message in March 1944 and outlined how the arguments about D-Day had originated, he became increasingly frustrated by the way in which events had unfolded. Indeed, it’s said that by the time he’d completed his memo, he’d actually worked himself up into a towering rage. And at the conclusion of his note, he had harsh words for the reader.
Eisenhower claimed that he intended “to take drastic action and inform the combined chiefs of staff that unless the matter is settled, at once I will request relief from this command.” And he even apparently said to Tedder, “By God, you tell that bunch that if they can’t get together and stop quarreling like children, I will tell the prime minister to get someone else to run this damned war. I’ll quit.”
So, in the face of this warning, Churchill seemingly backed down. At any rate, the Transportation Plan went ahead, as did D-Day on June 6, 1944. And what would have transpired if Eisenhower had indeed walked away from the job of commander is one of the great unanswered “what ifs” of history. Perhaps, in fact, the invasion of Normandy could have turned out quite differently minus the Transportation Plan and without Eisenhower at the helm.