“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” (George Bernard Shaw)
What causes us to lift a non-fiction volume from the bookstore shelves and part with taxed dollars to own it? Hopefully it will be a volume to challenge, inspire and edify us. It may even anger us. It should, at least, entertain us.
It was with this in mind that I studied Richard Hasselberger’s jacket design. It shows Bettmann/Corbis’s “Churchill and Generals Study”. The original photograph posed (left to right) General G.G. Simonds, Sir Winston Churchill, General Montgomery and General Sir Miles Dempsey intently looking at something on a jeep, parked presumably, on the Normandy beaches. General Simonds is immaculate in a spotless battledress and beret (which were notorious for attracting fluff), and regulation (for generals), pair of binoculars hanging around his neck ― to check presumably for the location of the mess-truck. Sir Winston looks like a ferryboat captain with cap and reefer coat. Viscount Montgomery also has a spotless beret, albeit twice the size, adorned in multiple badges. Richard Hasselberger’s cropped off poor Sir Miles – but then in the original he did look as if he had an unpleasant smell under his nose. The only other photograph is an under exposed portrait of Dr Catherwood himself, taken by Mrs Catherwood whose talents tend more towards music than photography. All of this should have warned me that this was not a book to be taken seriously.
Dr Catherwood is a teacher. Not only that, he is a teacher at the top of his profession. He has every academic qualification known to man, and teaches at the most prestigious seats of learning in the land. In his own estimation, he is a “…renowned historian …” with “ …an unflinching unbiased eye toward revealing the often painful truth …”. Well, what we read here is not truth, painful or otherwise. It is an anti-English diatribe hastily written for the American market. Notwithstanding the fact that Dr Catherwood (and his family) owes everything to England, he is not English. He is an Ulster/Welsh/Scot all of whom have great antipathy towards the mother country.
The great revelation of this book is that America fought the Japanese, and the Russians fought the Germans while the Brits made lunch. To be more precise, America won the war in the pacific, and Russia won the war in Europe. Well, I have to tell him that my Dad fought the Luftwaffe in the RAF, my cousin Reg fought and died fighting the Luftwaffe also in the RAF, and my cousin Ian died at Monte Cassino also fighting the Germans. This of course does not alter the fact that America did win the war, and the Russians fought and died in their millions, but that does not justify Dr Catherwood rubbishing the Brits as he does in this book.
What is not factual is all the ‘counterfactual what-ifs’ that the good Doctor describes as fact. How can anyone ― even one as worthy as Dr Catherwood say that if that had happened, the result would have been that.
Sir Winston Churchill is the villain. His biggest crime was that between 1940 and 1945 he made political decisions and acted like a politician. Duh? That is what politicians do. And in case his history degree course missed it, it is politicians who start wars for political reasons, determine their direction and decide how they will end. Perhaps in the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge, the politicians head for Maui and leave the generals to fight the war. Another Churchillian sin was his reluctance to consider premature independence for India. Did it not occur to Dr Catherwood that Churchill realized that premature independence for India would result in massive bloodshed ― which it did.
However, according to Dr Catherwood, Churchill’s cardinal sin was not agreeing to General Marshalls plan to invade Europe in 1943. This is the same Marshall who originally wanted a 200 division army in Europe but changed his mind in favor of a 90 division one using his individual replacement system. This (IRS), excogitated by Marshall was an utter disaster and had completely broken down by 1944. It was so detrimental to the allies war effort, it has been suggested that he receive the Iron Cross for services to the Wehrmacht. And it is the same General Marshall that recommended Lt. General Lloyd Fredendall of Kasserine Pass fame. This is not to dismiss General Marshall out of hand; he just did not have any operational experience ― nor did his staff. Churchill knew this and preferred his own judgment and that of his experienced generals. And he wasn’t alone; Roosevelt did too. Like Dr Catherwood, George Marshall was a teacher. His entire career before 1941 was training as was General Eisenhower’s. That is not to condemn them, it just happens to be the truth. Northern Europe in 1943 was no place for on-the-job training.
Dr Catherwood; who has a masters in literature, fills this work with very silly statements like, “if that had happened (and it was Churchill’s fault that it didn’t), this would have happened, and then this would have happened resulting in that etc …” It is quite ridiculous to be so dogmatic about outcomes which no one could possible predict. There is nothing wrong with writing a ‘What If’ book: Robert Cowley has done very nicely doing so; but it should be sold as such, not disguised as a legitimate work of history. It is even more outrageous when this deception for personal gain involves the character assassination of the greatest man of the 20th century.
Of course Churchill could have done things differently ― maybe even better, but he did do one thing that made all the difference. He stood up to Hitler when no one else had the guts to do so. In combat as in everything else in life, it is the first man in that makes the difference. To lead from the front, not push from the rear.
As an English infantry officer who bears the physical scars of association with Dr Catherwoods ilk in Northern Ireland, I take exception to his constant derision of Britain’s forces. Members of the armed services do as they are told. They do not decide where or when to fight. If the troops did not fight in a particular theatre, it is because politicians did not want them to. I really must curb my indignation at the way Dr Catherwood revels in fantasy as I know full well who he is pandering too, but when he says “ …the United States did enter the war, and it was that entry that enabled Britain to be on the winning side come 1945.” The United States did not enter the war, they were attacked by Japan and therefore had no choice but to defend themselves, and Germany declared war on them so the same response applied. There are good arguments to suggest that had Germany not declared war in 1941, America might not have entered the European war and concentrated on the Pacific. Clearly the lend lease would have prevailed as it was very good business; indeed, it pulled America out of the depression. Had America stood shoulder to shoulder with Great Britain in 1939, there never would have been a war ― not then anyway.
Dr Catherwood states on page 69 “ …since the United States would have found it remarkably difficult to manufacture an excuse to intervene on the side of the democracies without being attacked first.” How about Nazi tyranny? Wouldn’t that work? Page 70 “It is miraculous that they (the Luftwaffe), failed over Britain as well.” “The UK could have been invaded and flattened by the Third Reich at any time …” It amazing that Hitler or any of his staff didn’t know that – maybe because it was not true?
Notwithstanding the above, Winston Churchill – the flawed genius etc., must be a scholarly work as it has ten pages of acknowledgments. The Cambridge archives have also revealed hitherto unknown gems like “Churchill’s cigar, more waved than smoked.” Wow – I didn’t know that.
If you subscribe to the belief that Britain should have stood aside in 1941and left the prosecution of the war to General Marshall and Marshal Stalin. If you believe that the people of London, Coventry and Bristol were mugs who didn’t know they were beaten. If you believe that winning the Battle of Britain was an amazing fluke, and that the 700,000 military casualties and 60000 civilian deaths was just what we deserved for being such chumps: then this is a book for you.
But, if like me, you believe that the 72 million soldiers and 47 million civilians who died during and as a result of the Second World War didn’t die in vain, but died, doing the best they could with what they had: then leave this fiction to gather dust on the shelf as most people have done.