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Churchill's War Cabinet

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Churchill and his War Cabinet Churchill and his War Cabinet

Suppose you woke up one morning and heard on the radio or television that the Government now has “full power to control all persons and property. There is no distinction between rich and poor, between worker and employer, between man and woman.” What would you think? What country do you think you would living in to hear this?


The answer to the second question is England, and the date was May 22, 1940, just five days before 225,000 British troops and 111,000 Allies were evacuated from Dunkirk. Then Europe was plunged into the darkness of Nazi tyranny until D-Day in 1944 saw British troops once more on European soil.


But who was on the radio that day in May? It was not the Prime Minister Winston Churchill but instead Clement Attlee, a member of his War Cabinet, the person who would eventually defeat Churchill in the 1945 election to become PM.


This excellent book by Jonathan Schneer, professor of history at Georgia Tech, tells the story of the men who comprised Churchill's War Cabinet in World War II. To be clear, this is not about his Cabinet, which comprised many more people, but just the inner circle dubbed the War Cabinet whose efforts were directed solely towards winning the war. Too often we hear of this entirely from the perspective of Churchill himself. In this book, we hear many other perspectives, making it a valuable contribution not only to Churchill studies but the study of World War II as well.


Schneer makes a particular point that he is examining “Churchill as manager of men, a role not much appreciated at the time, or often studied by historians. In fact, he worked hard to encourage his team and to keep it in good temper...For he presided over a political coalition of tough and prickly individuals, strong personalities unaccustomed to turning the other cheek when criticized or contradicted.”


One of these, who is a central figure in the book, is the Canadian press magnate Max Beaverbrook. He was constantly threatening resignation, and sometimes he really did leave. His mercurial character is deftly explored by Schneer. But to highlight how Churchill dealt with him and others in terms of a “manager of men,” I will mention just one incident.


In charge of the Air Ministry was Archibald Sinclair, who in the 1930s was one of the few who opposed the appeasement of Hitler by PM Chamberlain. In August 1940 Beaverbrook and Sinclair were “locked in argument over whether to focus on production of fighter aircraft or bombers. Churchill intervened,” saying fighters meant salvation, but “bomber offers means of victory.”


Churchill also knew how to manage a fall. Sir Stafford Cripps veered so far to the left in the 1930s even the Labour party expelled him. He became ambassador to Russia in 1940, and was brought into the War Cabinet in 1942 against the vehement protests of Beaverbrook and Attlee. Unsuited to the task he was given, he didn't last long, just 10 months. He was replaced by Anthony Eden, another future PM.  “In making Cripps House Leader, he (Churchill) had knowingly passed him a poisoned chalice. Finally, Cripps had drunk deeply of it,” writes the author Gothically. Cripps then became Minister of Aircraft Production till the end of the war in '45.


Cripps was important because he was maneuvering to become PM. “In the great, if never publicly acknowledged, contest for primacy carried out between Winston Churchill and Stafford Cripps during most of 1942, then, game, set and match to the prime minister.” This is just one of many machinations Schneer brings to the fore, much of which has until now been virtually unknown or obscure.


I do have a few quibbles with the book, despite its overall fine merits. First, there are no illustrations. Aside from the front cover we don't get to see any photos of the members of the cabinet. There is a capsule biography of each principal player at the outset, but with all the cabinet changes over the 5 years of the war, what is needed is a table of each cabinet post with the person holding it and the dates of their tenure. Keeping track of it all is not something an interested reader who is not a war historian should be expected to do. A photo of each person beside their capsule biography would have been helpful.


While the cabinet members themselves are obviously key, they were supported by junior ministers. We are tantalised here when Churchill at one stage in the war first reshuffles these junior minister before doing a Cabinet reorganisation. I would have appreciated more depth to this aspect.


I might also recommend reading a recent book by William Louis, published by ibTauris: Speak for England: Leo Amery and the British Empire in the Age of Churchill. Amery is mentioned several times in Schneer's book. He was secretary of state for India beginning in 1940, but not a member of the War Cabinet. As the premiership of Neville Chamberlain was ending, Beaverbrook met with Churchill to ask if he would serve under the Earl of Halifax as PM. But Schneer says even Beaverbrook may not have known what he wanted. “Upon leaving Churchill he told a former Cabinet minister that he thought Amery should become prime minister.”


I read this book while drinking English tea. I suggest you do the same. Put the kettle on and get ready for a jolly good read!


There is a typo on page 166: “of the of” should be “of the”


Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet (323 pages) is $37.50 from Basic Books.


Photo caption:


[Front row, seated left to right]:
(1) Sir John Anderson (National),
Lord President of the Council (October 1940 - September 1943),
Chancellor of the Exchequer (September 1943 - July 1945).

(2) Winston Churchill (Conservative),
Prime Minister (May 1940 - July 1945),
Minister of Defence (May 1940 - July 1945).

(3) Clement Attlee (Labour),
Lord Privy Seal (May 1940 - February 1942),
Deputy Prime Minister (February 1942 - May 1945),
Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (February 1942 - September 1943),
Lord President of the Council (September 1943 - 23 May 1945).

(4) Anthony Eden (Conservative),
Secretary of State for War (May 1940 - December 1940),
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (December 1940 - July 1945),
Leader of the House of Commons (November 1942 - July 1945).

[Back row, standing left to right]:
(5) Arthur Greenwood (Labour),
Minister without Portfolio (May 1940 - February 1942).

(6) Ernest Bevin (Labour),
Minister of Labour and National Service (May 1940 - May 1945)

(7) Lord Beaverbrook, 'Max' Aitken (Conservative),
Minister of Aircraft Production (May 1940 - May 1941),
Minister of Supply (May 1941 - February 1942),
Minister of War Production (4 - 19 February 1942).

(8) Sir Kingsley Wood (Conservative),
Chancellor of the Exchequer (May 1940 - September 1943).
(He left the War Cabinet February 1942 but remained as Chancellor until his death on 21 September 1943).

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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