Suffolk author Roger Hermiston on new book All Behind You, Winston, from Aurum Press
- Credit: Archant
‘These people had faults and flaws, but they provided outstanding leadership in their fields’
The early summer of 1940. Rocky days for a nation at war. Britain had failed to act in time and the Nazis had taken Norway. Now Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose earlier attempts to appease Hitler had ended in failure, was paying the price for his misjudgments. Having lost the confidence of much of the country, he resigned on May 10.
It was a day memorable for more than the downfall of a premier. Hours later, the Nazis cut swiftly through Holland and Belgium and invaded France. Chamberlain’s successor would have a baptism of fire. That man was Sir Winston Churchill, back in favour after years in the wilderness and seen by the outgoing PM as the colossus who could unite the country.
The former cavalry officer, first elected to Parliament in 1900, when only 25, had been a vocal critic of Hitler’s growing dictatorship and in the run-up to war had called for Britain to re-arm itself quicker.
He needed his mettle in the early months of office, as the nation endured some of its darkest hours. There was disaster as France surrendered and the British army was evacuated from Dunkirk. Summer brought the Battle of Britain – a fight for aerial supremacy – and autumn the Blitz, as Hitler launched powerful bombing attacks on major cities.
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Churchill rallied Britons with speeches like one he gave before the Battle of Britain, vowing “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 never surrender”.
But he couldn’t and didn’t do it all alone, argues Roger Hermiston.
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In his new book, the man who was for 11 years assistant editor of BBC Radio 4’s The Today Programme puts the case for a war Cabinet heralded as the most remarkable gathering of leaders in modern British history. They brought victory and built a brave new world with welfare at the top of the agenda.
Churchill’s coalition Cabinet of “all the talents” looked after things like arming, feeding, funding, sheltering, evacuating and healing Britain. Within its ranks were figures such as Churchill’s recent rival Lord Halifax (close to becoming PM himself); Labour leader Clement Attlee, who gave loyal support despite being on the other side of the political divide; newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, and department store owner Lord Woolton, who became Minister of Food. Roger calls them a group “whom history has almost forgotten, really. You have this titanic historical figure whose shadow seems to obscure everyone else who was around”.
The aim “is that we push Churchill – if it were possible! – into the background a little and bring to the foreground this cast of characters who helped sustain Britain in World War Two and arguably helped win the war, kept us fed, clothed, and conscripted us to do all sorts of jobs.”
Even so, surely Churchill’s force of personality and leadership was critical?
“The picture of Churchill in the first year and a half of the war is of this defiant, inspirational character who embodies the national spirit and keeps the country’s morale up – which I think is undoubtedly true. If the Prime Minister had been, say, Halifax, one does fear a little bit for what we would have done. There’s every chance we would have made some sort of peace treaty, on some sort of terms, with Germany.
“Churchill was determined to resist and still deserves, clearly, enormous credit for that first year and a half, through the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and so forth.
“But the more you explore it – the more you read the Cabinet minutes and diaries – you realise it shouldn’t obscure the fact he couldn’t do it all on his own.”
We probably have never seen a better coalition Government, says Roger, whom we asked to pick out a handful of those whose stories and achievements particularly caught his eye. See the panels on these pages.
The author – who lives near Long Melford – says: “For me, the interesting thing was exploring in the second half of the book the time post-Beveridge – how, under Woolton, all sides started to plan for post-war.”
The 1942 examination of social insurance, known as the Beveridge Report, was influential in the later creation of the welfare state. “The collectivist ethos had developed, because Britain of course was under state control during the war, and all sorts of White Papers (proposals for future laws) were coming on employment and health and so forth, and this really is the beginnings of the welfare state. You have to give credit to this Government for starting that. I think that’s been forgotten.”
Similarly, we shouldn’t forget how taking care of the home front contributed to military success. “Beaverbrook, for instance, got the planes built that won the Battle of Britain. And Atlantic convoys, which we were losing, meant we were struggling for food supplies. Woolton was a fantastic communicator – always on the radio, getting people to ration and make inventive use of their food. If they hadn’t all played their part effectively, perhaps we wouldn’t have won the war. These people had faults and flaws, but they provided outstanding leadership in their fields. If not a unique generation, then a very gifted generation.”
All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 is published by Aurum Press at £20. Roger, whose previous works include The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake, and Clough and Revie, is appearing at the BooksEast Festival in Ipswich on May 15.
The nice uncle who told you to take your nasty medicine
Frederick, 1st Earl of Woolton, was Minister of Food and Minister of Reconstruction. “Hopefully my book will give him his place in the sun,” says Roger.
“People knew him as Uncle Fred. He was this avuncular character who was heard on the radio a lot. He would come on and exhort people to ration, and there were all sorts of programmes, like Kitchen Front.
“He was the uncle who had to tell you to take your nasty medicine. He was a fantastic communicator.
“There was one film – a little broadcast for Pathé News. He walked into his office and sat down, casually, perched on the end of his desk, and started talking. I think it was about black-marketeers. It struck me that in those days that was quite a revolutionary thing to do. People would do broadcasts sat behind desks, in a very straitlaced way. If you look at today’s newsreaders, they’re encouraged to come out and perch on their desks. Woolton was doing that in 1942!
“He said something like ‘I would always imagine I was talking to one person: a man who had come home from work and was sitting down in his cottage, having a cup of tea at the end of the day.’
“He knew that radio was about one-on-one.”
‘God’s butler’ got things done
Sir John Anderson was Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Home Security. Roger – who describes Anderson as having a long, lugubrious face (“He looked a bit like a bloodhound, and bred them”) found him a fascinating character.
He explains how, at a time when some prominent figures were being killed in air crashes, Churchill wrote to the king, saying that should he and Foreign Secretary
Anthony Eden both die, Anderson should become Prime Minister – “which is extraordinary”.
“He was a non-political figure, in that he was Britain’s greatest civil servant, really, in the 20th Century. At the Home Office, he’d organised the Government’s reaction to the General Strike. He helped set up the Irish Free State… was governor of Bengal.
“Not a particularly likeable figure in some ways. Some of his colleagues would call him God’s butler. He looked a bit like a stern butler or undertaker. He didn’t do a particularly good job as Home Secretary. People wanted to go into shelters underground, into the Tube stations and so forth, and he wanted them all to remain in his own Anderson shelters: these little corrugated iron things in gardens. But he became in charge of The Lord President’s Committee” – the body looking after the economy and other key domestic areas – “and everybody acknowledged he got things done.”
‘Powers a dictator would envy!’
Ernest Bevin was Minister of Labour and National Service. “The mobiliser of the nation’s workforce. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act introduced in May, 1940, gave Bevin powers to direct people to work where he wanted them to work. He was given powers a dictator would have envied!
“With Bevin’s trade union background, Churchill realised how important it was to have someone who could look after the workforce for him. A big character in Government who would have no problems disagreeing loudly in Cabinet and had no qualms standing up to Churchill if need be.”
The Fiery Particle and Florence
Roger also writes about two women who while not at the very centre of policymaking were interesting characters.
Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson served as a junior minister, mainly at the Ministry of Home Security.
“Ellen was a left-wing politician from the north-east. She’s quite famous for a prominent role on the Jarrow March. (In 1936 – a bid to create jobs in the town). She was known as Red Ellen or The Fiery Particle. Good speaker. Very lively personality.
“She was a junior minister at the Home Office. She went around London, visiting shelters and making sure they were sanitary and well-kept.
“When Churchill was asked about his Government in its early days, he quite proudly said it ranges from the Lord Lloyd of Dolobran on the right to Ellen Wilkinson on the left.
“He could see her value and liked her a lot. And she liked him, actually, despite their political differences.”
Tory Florence Horsbrugh, MP for Dundee, worked at the Ministry of Health and helped organise the massive evacuation from the cities of women and children early in the war.
“And then she and Wilkinson worked quite closely together on civil defence and nursing requirements, and ensured there were canteens to help people made homeless in the Blitz.
“She went to Coventry after the bad bombing and spent a lot of time there.” A newspaper described her as mothering the city. “She made sure there were homes, and food, and that the people of Coventry got back on their feet.”
Florence was later involved in proposals for health reforms. “Quite austere in a way, not as charismatic as Wilkinson, but got the job done.
“Very little credit has been given to these women. Of course, they were junior ministers, but they sat on key committees.”
After the war, both women would serve as Minister of Education.