Friday, August 28

Winston Churchill and the Russian Front

Winston ChurchillImage via Wikipedia

Catherwood, Christopher. Winston Churchill, Flawed Genius of World War II.

I've been reading about World War II again, circling around the subject as an ongoing topic of interest. The book is Winston Churchill, Flawed Genius of World War II. I thought you might like this update from the famous last few lines of Churchill's speech to the House of Commons on June 30, 1940.

We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.

Catherwood writes,

"Not many people know an unofficial part of the speech that, during the cheers, Churchill whispered to his new deputy, the Labour leader Clement Attlee: 'We'll fight them with the butt end of broken beer bottles because that's all we've bloody got!'"

I'm only half-way through the book, but a section on the Rusian front interested me, and I wanted to post about it here. For a more encompassing review of the book, there is a review from Booklist at the end of the post.

The other allies were aware at the time of the tremendous casualties on the Russian-German front, but in Churchill's entire six volume history/memoir of World War II, the siege of Stalingrad, in which over one million people died, is never mentioned. Here again, from Catherwood:

"[Churchill's] visit to Stalin in 1942 betrays this same lack of understanding of the difference between the two fronts: in Stalingrad the Red Army lost half a million men, at El Alamein the British and Allied forces saw 2350 dead, or just about one-fortieth of the losses suffered by the Soviets. As one of Churchill's biographer records, the entire six volumes nowhere mention the siege of Leningrad in which over one million people died -- mostly civilians--a death toll higher than that of the entire British and American casualty rate combined. All this is quite a horrifying lack of perspective from one of the key leaders of the war . . . [emphasis author's own]

"This was, Norman Davies and others now remind us, also the beginning of a major distortion on how we read and understand the war itself. As mentioned earlier, a battle like Kursk was far more important in the defeat of the Axis than countless other battles that were turned into movies or made the subject of myriad books by Western historians.

"To be fair, much of this is because of the sheer inaccessibility of Soviet archive material, which took until the advent of Gorbachev to be opened to outsiders . . . But a great deal was known during the Second World War itself about, for example, Stalingrad and the comparative death counts; it is very clear, for instance in reading Churchill's brief references to the Eastern Front, that he was well aware of the scale of the Soviet sacrifice and of the paucity of Western casualties in comparison. It is also why we still tend to think of the Second World War as a "good war," for reasons we have discussed elsewhere. [Refers to comments that it was not a "good war" for Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc.]

Catherwood goes on to note a conversation between Stalin and Churchill about the Stalin's "murderous elimination" of the kulaks (the richer peasants). "To the dictator it seemed a simple matter of improving the food supply."

"In fact, more kulaks were killed on Stalin's orders because they were the wrong social class, than Jews were murdered by Hitler for being the wrong race, a perspective that was all too lacking at the time, since, for reasons of wartime propaganda, Stalin was portrayed benignly as "Uncle Joe". . . In fact, between "Uncle Joe" and "Uncle Adolf" there was little moral difference, something that the needs of war disguised, and that was also hushed up and even denied in the USSR itself until Khruschchev . . . let the cat out of the bag in the 1950's." (emphasis mine)

What tales of blood and carnage.

I'm halfway through with the book, and these are the things that have interested me so far. Even though I've read about the Russian front before, and the siege of Leningrad, I still overlook them sometimes when I think about WWII. I'm interested in the stories of my father and uncles; their war experiences. Dad fought in France and Germany; Uncle Perry was at the Battle of the Bulge, and Uncle Keith flew bomber missions over Germany. As the war in Europe wrapped up, Dad was sent home for retraining to fight in Japan. He has remarked to me that the odds are good he would have died in Japan if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.

The atom bomb is one of our ultimate symbols of evil. But in fact the Japanese Emperor didn't surrender until we dropped a second bomb. Think of all the civilian and military casualties that would have resulted from close combat in Japan. Unthinkable choices all around.

Catherwood's book describes the choices Churchill faced, how he made the decisions he did, and the lingering consequences of his choices.


You can listen to the "We will fight on the beaches" speech on the BBC site and many others.


Review of "Winston Churchill; the Flawed Genius of World War Two" From Booklist
Catherwood emphatically rejects the school of revisionists that blames Churchill for carrying on in 1940, which they tend to connect to the decline of the British Empire, and asserts his own criticisms of Churchill’s subsequent war leadership. The latter boil down to two points. Churchill, Catherwood argues, shouldn’t have halted a 1941 offensive against the Italians in North Africa to save Greece from the Germans (an effort that disastrously failed), and he should have accepted the American military’s preference to launch D-Day in 1943. Catherwood maintains a 1943 cross-channel attack not only would have shortened the war and spared millions of lives from the Nazis but also might have obviated the cold war by ending World War II with the Western Allies rather than the Soviet Union in control of Eastern Europe. From such leanings into what-if territory, Catherwood reverts to how the year’s delay of D-Day came about; it originated in FDR’s acquiescence to Churchill’s Mediterranean fixations. . . --Gilbert Taylor

If that was a bit murky for you, rest assured, Catherwood does a masterful job of laying it all out with enlivening detail.

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