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Churchill and Seapower

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Churchill on a battleship in 1941

“Historians today are probably further than ever from a consensus on Churchill’s record as the custodian of British sea power.”

This lamentable situation is described by Christopher Bell, associate professor of history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, in his new book about Churchill and seapower. No one in the 20th century is more closely associated with British seapower than Churchill – he held the top civilian job as First Lord of the Admiralty in both World Wars.

That alone is a remarkable feat, made even more so when one considers that he was dismissed from the job in World War I after the debacle of the Dardanelles campaign against Turkey. A fresh and sober assessment of this great defeat has been long overdue, and Bell provides it here, showing without question that Churchill was the scapegoat in the political and military disaster, not the architect of defeat.

The other debacle laid at the feet of Churchill is that he was responsible for the decline of the British navy in the 1930s. This has always been a strange canard, since Churchill was not even in government in that decade. The claim rests on the process he instituted for funding the Navy just prior to that period.

Again, Bell shows that the governments of the 1930s had the full power to change course and increase rather than decrease naval expenditure. Back in the 1920s, the question facing the Admiralty was – when will the next war be, and who will be the enemy?

Remarkably enough, war with the United States was seriously considered as an option because of its claims to naval superiority. Britain had a treaty with Japan back then, and few people believed it would be in any position to launch an attack on the US Navy in the Pacific. The whole question of how many ships, what kind of ships, and what level of armaments they should carry, consumes much of this book.

The intricacies the naval conferences with the US and Japan are crucial to an understanding of this notion that Britain had to have the largest navy. “The great mass of the British public do not desire to see England obsequious to the United States,” Churchill said. Once it became clear it could not exceed the US fleet in size or strength, the goal shifted to making sure it was more powerful than any two other navies combined.

The deadlock was not broken until the Hoover became president, allowing the so-called London Treaty to be signed by Japan, Britain and the US in 1930. The Admiralty regarded the treaty with dismay, as it “ensured that Britain’s naval strength would diminish in both absolute and relative terms.” The point for this book is that Churchill was not even in power then, so blaming him for the decline (as many supposed scholars do) is ridiculous.

The World War II period is also covered in great depth, including operations in Burma under the command of Lord Mountbatten. On the European front, there was a constant tug of war between naval support of air operations over the Continent, and the need to safeguard cargo ships crossing the Atlantic from German submarine attack. Again, Bell does a superb job at explain every nuance of this tactical debate.

There are many “essential” books in a library devoted to Churchill. This is one of them.

Churchill and Seapower (429 pages) is $34.95 from Oxford University Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 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 honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

More in this category: « Churchill and the Prisons
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