Book Review: Churchill - The Greatest Briton Unmasked

By Nigel Knight

Published by David and Charles, 2008; ISBN 13-978-0-7153-2855-2 384pp (Hardback); ISBN 13-978-0-7153-2853-8 400pp (Paperback)

Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked - Nigel Knight

"All men are worms, but I am a glow worm." - Winston S. Churchill

It is ironic that during the recent Euro-election, the British National Party juxtaposed the image of Winston Churchill with photographs of WWII RAF fighter aircraft as the motif for its election campaign. The truth is that if Churchill had had his way he would have committed almost all Britain’s available fighter squadrons to saving France during the German invasion of that country. We would then inevitably have lost the Battle of Britain. Fortunately, the C-in-C of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, a man of great foresight and courage, refused to let the squadrons go. The result was that, despite the RAF’s numerical inferiority vis-à-vis the Luftwaffe, it won the Battle of Britain. It is indisputable that if that Battle had been lost, Britain would have lost the war. Sad to relate, no sooner than the Battle was won, Dowding was sacked, and he was never promoted a Marshal of the RAF as other, lesser chair-borne Air Marshals were.

(Sacking senior commanders was a penalty Churchill inflicted on any commander or chief of staff who dared to question his often bizarre and impossible orders or ideas. In this way, he relegated to backwaters many of his most able military leaders. As Nigel Knight puts it, "This was a characteristic of Churchill: he was reluctant to overrule his chiefs of staff, but he would sack them.")

Churchill had almost nothing to do with either the preparation or conduct of the Battle of Britain. Such rearmament as had taken place prior to the war was the result of the policies of former Premiers, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain. Churchill’s reputation as the saviour of Britain at that time relies mainly on his inspired speeches, which did much to raise public morale, and his writings after the war. In his six-volume narrative, The Second World War, he greatly exaggerates his part in the Battle and blames everyone apart from himself for any errors and shortcomings. As he once boasted: "I have not always been wrong. History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself". Referring to Churchill’s self-justifying account of his part in WWI, Arthur Balfour said, "Winston has written a great book about himself and called it The World Crisis."

Nigel Knight’s meticulously researched book is important because it reveals the truth that lies behind the Churchill persona and the damaging consequences his leadership had for Britain and the British Empire. In 1942 he famously said, "I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire". However, by his megalomania, chicanery and refusal to listen to any opinions other than his own, that is precisely what he did achieve. The Empire has now long gone, and today our country is a shadow of its former self. That this is so is in no small measure due to the malign influence he wielded over our national affairs for more than half a century.

Mr Knight does not dwell for long on Churchill’s childhood or early life, apart from telling us that his military career was marked with impetuosity and glory-seeking. His book, unlike so many other books about Churchill, is not a work of hagiography. He points out that beginning with the havoc Churchill wrought on the Allies at Gallipoli during WWI, when First Lord of the Admiralty, his career was a catalogue of misjudgments and defeats.


The catastrophic Gallipoli debacle - during which Britain and the Commonwealth suffered some 238,000 casualties - was almost entirely Churchill’s fault. It was the prototype operation of his "soft underbelly" theory, which Knight calls the "dispersionist" strategy, whereby instead of attacking the enemy directly, war was waged by means of a series of futile pinpricks on the periphery of the main theatres of operations. Churchill had little knowledge of naval affairs. He did not understand that the Royal Navy had insufficient vessels or firepower to penetrate the Dardanelles successfully. This insufficiency was also Churchill’s responsibility because in 1909, when he was President of the Board of Trade, he persuaded the Chancellor, David Lloyd George, to oppose any increase in naval construction. Churchill’s dispersionist strategy was the precursor of the policy he adopted in WWII during the campaigns in Norway, North Africa, the Balkans, Greece and Italy.

The author explains that although Churchill vociferously supported rearmament owing to the threat posed by Germany, Italy and Japan during the 1930s when out of office, he was equally vociferous in opposing rearmament in the 1920s, when the threat was becoming

increasingly apparent. Indeed, when Chancellor in 1925, his budget for that year significantly decreased the Service Estimates, particularly with regard to the RAF. This penny-pinching would have disastrous consequences later. Fortunately, however, Ramsay MacDonald’s government initiated a programme to develop the Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft in the mid 1930s. These aircraft, together with the development of radar, ultimately proved to be Britain’s salvation. The author claims that it was not Churchill, but MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain - and of course Dowding - "who put in place the organization and matériel, particularly for Fighter Command, which would prove decisive in protecting Britain in its hour of greatest danger". Although Neville Chamberlain has been unfairly linked with appeasement, he at least bought us time (just!) to rearm. If Churchill had been in power in the 1930s, he would have prematurely attacked Germany, as Knight says, with "canvas-skinned biplane fighters, and short-range bombers of the period, with limited armament, open cockpits and fixed landing gear..." Knight obviously admires Chamberlain. He quotes a letter Chamberlain wrote to his sister in 1936:

I have had to do most work on the programme, which has been materially modified as a result, and I am pretty satisfied now that, if we can keep out of war for a few years, we shall have an air force of such striking power that no one will to care to run risks with it. I cannot believe that the next war, if it ever comes, will be like the last one, and I believe our resources will be more profitably employed in the air, and on the sea, than in building up great armies.

These words are hardly those of an "appeaser".

Churchill, 1939

As soon as the war was under way, Churchill was able to give free rein to experiment with his dispersionist strategy. Norway was Churchill’s first attempt to relive the Gallipoli operation and thus prove his critics wrong. It had all the hallmarks of a Churchillian operation. He went ahead with it against the advice of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. As Knight says, "The entire Norwegian campaign had endured disastrous organization, planning and execution, and, more than anyone, Churchill had been in charge". Matters were made worse by his continual interference with the plans of the operational commanders and his frequent changes of mind and vacillation. Knight sums up the campaign by writing:

The fiasco has largely been airbrushed out of history, despite the fact that it was clear that Churchill undertook political and military direction and had learned nothing from the experience of Gallipoli. It is deeply ironic that the immediate cause of Churchill succeeding Chamberlain as Prime Minister was a catastrophic event for which he himself had been culpable.

The Battle of France that culminated in the catastrophe of Dunkirk was yet another example of Churchill’s incompetence. He simply did not understand that the Battle was lost until too late and admitted that the defeat was "one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life". While the Battle raged, Churchill promised to supply France an additional ten RAF fighter squadrons. Dowding immediately wrote what Knight calls "a seminal letter" of protest, pointing out that RAF fighter losses in France were exceeding the rate of replacement. Dowding ended his letter with these words:

I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

Churchill then told the Cabinet that Dowding had agreed to the departure of more squadrons to France, to which Dowding replied: "What can one say about Churchill’s statement other than that it was totally untrue... I never discussed such a point with him. I’d never had the opportunity to discuss with him anything about such matters..." It is clear that Churchill lied; it is also clear that he was prepared to denude the RAF far beyond the point of risking "final, complete and irremediable defeat". During the Battle of France, the RAF lost more aircraft than it did in the Battle of Britain.

According to Knight, during the Battle of France, Britain abandoned 2,472 guns, 84,427 vehicles, 657,000 tons of ammunition, six destroyers, and 1,000 aircraft. In addition to the thousands of soldiers and sailors who were killed or injured, 320 pilots were killed or reported missing, and 115 became prisoners of war. This represents a massive defeat by any standards. Knight rightly says that the battle "amply demonstrates Churchill’s lack of grasp of the realities of Blitzkrieg warfare". He goes on to suggest that "Although Churchill was quite out of touch with events as they unfolded, he insisted on interfering with military strategy at a most critical moment..."

The one redeeming feature of the whole sorry affair was that Britain was fortunate in having such leaders as Hugh Dowding, and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay (earlier sacked as Fifth Sea Lord by Churchill) who masterminded the successful evacuation of 338,000 troops from France. Knight quotes the following passage from an article written by Max Hastings:

Dowding... understood what Winston Churchill did not: that his job was not to destroy the Luftwaffe, an almost impossible task, but simply to keep his force flying and fighting. If Dowding had thrown everything into the Battle, as the Prime Minister instinctively wanted, the RAF could not have supported its rate of attrition against the much bigger German air force. Dowding also knew that if the RAF could keep going until the approaching winter made flying difficult, it would be possible to build up the RAF’s strength during the winter months.

Nigel Knight devotes a large part of his book to recording the failure of many of Churchill’s dispersionist escapades that were costly in lives and matériel, as well as detracting from the war against the German homeland. These included the war in North Africa; the excursions in the Balkans, Greece and Crete; the long and futile slog from Sicily and up through Italy - all of which contributed very little towards the defeat of Germany. Such sideshows militated against the early establishment of the Second Front in the West, much to the annoyance of Roosevelt and Stalin, who both wanted the invasion of France to begin as early as 1942. In order to mollify them, Churchill ordered the launch of the botched and ill-fated raid on Dieppe, which resulted in many casualties, particularly of Canadians. Knight calls the raid "Churchill’s Folly".

Churchill’s continued procrastination in establishing the Second Front infuriated the Americans and Russians, as well as some of his own commanders. It was from this point that Churchill, and hence Britain, began to be sidelined by the "Big Two". Knight states:

Churchill’s behaviour weakened Britain’s ties with Canada. It would help to loosen the grip of Empire, which had been central to Churchill’s interests for most of his political career. It would do little to help the Allied war effort - far from it. Dieppe was no more than a pinprick raid, another part of Churchill’s dispersionist strategy.

Bomber Harris memorial

Bomber Command provided Britain with the best chance of bringing the war to an early closure, but Churchill squandered that opportunity by ordering the C-in-C, Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, to adopt a policy of area bombing German cities rather than targeting the country’s industrial complexes. He thought that this would undermine the morale of the German civilian populace, but the evidence is that it had precisely the opposite effect.

When, after the horrific firebombing of Dresden, international concern suggested that Britain was committing war crimes against civilians, Churchill distanced himself from the bombing campaign and blamed Harris as responsible for the policy. In fact, Churchill washed his hands of the bombing campaign, the consequent murder of countless German civilians, including women and children, and the unnecessary deaths of 55,500 RAF aircrew who had bravely carried out the policy that he had initiated and ordered. In his "VE" Day broadcast to the nation he made no mention of Bomber Command, and unlike other senior commanders, Bomber Harris’s name was omitted from the subsequent New Year’s honours list. As Knight writes, "Yet again, things that Churchill didn’t like were someone else’s fault, not his own".

Knight claims that Churchill’s reputation as a war leader rests almost entirely on his rhetoric: "His rhetoric inspired the nation but it was victories that were needed, not rhetoric". Aneurin Bevan put it more succinctly; suggesting that Churchill treated speeches as though they were battles and battles as though they were speeches. Knight ends this compelling, if controversial,

Churchill in Hitler's garden after the fall of Berlin

account of Churchill’s political career by comparing Churchill with Hitler in the following words:

In the deepest of ironies, it was Hitler who made Churchill a historical figure. If it had not been for Hitler, Churchill would never have been recalled as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, let alone become Prime Minister. He would have ended his political career in 1929, as Chancellor of the Exchequer - just as his father had. He would have been a minor figure in British political history, and would be largely forgotten today. It is because of Churchill’s role in World War II, and because he wrote so much of the history himself, that we remember Churchill, above all else, for Hitler’s defeat. Hitler is remembered for himself.

Reviewed by: Ronald G. W. Rickcord, Newport Pagnell, England

Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked is available for £11.49 (hardback) or £9.29 (paperback) + postage from

This review first appeared in the January-March 2010 issue of Heritage and Destiny (Issue 39). You can buy single back issues of H&D for £4.00, while an annual subscription (four issues) costs just £20.00. Visit the Heritage and Destiny page here for more details or place your order online via PayPal in our Online Shop.