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Posted on Jan 18, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 2

By Carlo D'Este

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General
Part II: Churchill and Eisenhower: An unlikely friendship

An Armchair General Exclusive by Carlo D’Este.

Last month’s was the first of a series of articles about Dwight Eisenhower. It provided some insights about the man that are essential to understanding both his character and his generalship. When Eisenhower was appointed to command Operation Torch in August 1942, the invasion of French North Africa on November 8, 1942, it was with the approval not only of Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but of the one person in the new Anglo-American coalition whose consent was absolutely necessary: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.


Soon after Marshall sent Eisenhower to London in the summer of 1942 to take command of all U.S. forces in the UK, Ike began a unique relationship with Churchill that was to continue until Churchill’s death in 1965. Indeed, Ike’s first real test was to pass measure with Churchill. In short order, Eisenhower won over Churchill in no small part because Ike stood up to the formidable British leader when he believed he was right – and was willing to back it up by the risking the wrath of the PM, who was renowned for never suffering fools.

With Ike it was all about relationships and none was more important that his association with Winston Churchill. Two more diverse personalities could hardly be imagined, but together, their friendship became the foundation of the alliance, and, with Roosevelt’s declining health, the glue that held it together. Although he did not know it at the time he was appointed by Marshall to command American forces in Britain, what Ike did in the first weeks and months of his tenure in London set the stage for his rise to high command.


A British Tommy once described Prime Minister Winston Spencer Churchill as "a pugnacious looking b[astard]." Others mistakenly regarded Churchill’s plump figure as the affirmation of a jolly fat man. An historian has aptly described him as resembling a cherubic, jumbo-sized baby with a cigar stuck in its mouth. [1] There are hardly sufficient adjectives in the English language to describe the British prime minister but a descriptive (and contradictory) few will suffice. Churchill was: brilliant, pampered, petulant, romantic, pragmatic, courageous, egotistical, eccentric, possessed of enormous perseverance, opinionated beyond measure, impossibly demanding, drank too much, suffered from depression (what he called his "black dog"), "waddled rather than walked," and by any criterion ought to have been too old to carry the enormous burden of a prolonged war that threatened Britain’s very existence.

His mood swings were legion and ranged from tears to jokes at one and the same time. Eisenhower tells the tale of meetings during which "I’ve seen tears run over his chin." On one occasion, Eisenhower had just rebuffed as impossible something Churchill wanted done in Italy. "He painted a terrible picture if we didn’t do it . . . He said, ‘If that should happen I should have to go to His Majesty and lay down the mantle of my high office. And here were tears running down. But within ten seconds he was telling a joke . . . The man could use pathos, humor, anecdote, history, anything to get his own way." [2]

Churchill possessed an unfulfilled, lifelong ambition to become a warrior-hero in the Napoleonic mold which even five months in the squalor of the front lines as a lieutenant colonel commanding a rifle battalion in France in 1916 ought to have but failed to cure. As early as 1911, one of his critics noted with insightful accuracy that, "He is always unconsciously playing a part – an heroic part. And he is himself his most astonished spectator. He sees himself moving through the smoke of battle – triumphant, terrible, his brow clothed with thunder, his legions looking to him for victory, and not looking in vain. He thinks of Napoleon; he thinks of his great ancestor [the Duke of Marlborough] . . . [in his] fervid and picturesque imagination there are always great deeds afoot, with himself cast by destiny in the Agamemnon role." [3]

Warts and all, Winston Churchill nevertheless represented the indomitable spirit and symbol of a defiant nation under siege. His oratory was stirring and like FDR, Churchill’s words galvanized an entire nation. Although his predecessor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, regarded Hitler as "the commonest little dog," but let himself be duped and coerced by the German dictator’s signature on the meaningless Munich Agreement in September 1938, a vaguely worded covenant that "lacked even the ringing affirmation of nonaggression treaties." [4] Chamberlain’s well-intentioned declaration of "peace in our time" was actually a death warrant for France and a guarantee that Britain was destined for war with Germany. When he learned of Munich, Churchill remarked: "This is only the first step, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor we arise again and take our stand for freedom." When Lord Halifax suggested Britain make peace with Hitler, Churchill not only declined, but instead vowed to rescue "mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened the stained pages of history."

The perpetual state of unpreparedness of Britain’s army and its Houdini-like ability to escape from disasters is both a testament to the Royal Navy and the lessons of history never learned by its political leadership. World War II was the greatest test of all and much of the credit for the nation’s survival belongs to Churchill who simply refused to lose. His defiance of "Corporal Hitler" (as he scornfully referred to the Nazi leader) was on full display throughout the war: from his "fight ’em on the beaches" to his "we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever." That alone would have been sufficient to impress Dwight Eisenhower who had so long chafed to strike back at Germany. In the summer of 1942 the new alliance between Britain and the United States left Churchill under no illusions that his nation’s generous ally would hardly remain a bridesmaid for long. He did, however, employ his considerable powers of persuasion to maintain that illusion, even as he began to test the newly arrived American general who represented the U.S. military effort in the United Kingdom.

On the Banks of the Rhine, 1945. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lights one of his trademark cigars as Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower seems lost in tought. During his command of Allied forces in Europe, Ike’s relationship with Churchill was much closer than any he ever had with American President, Franklin Roosevelt.

Winston Churchill was unlike anyone Eisenhower had ever met. Though a megalomaniac on a par with MacArthur, Churchill elicited a wholly contrary response from Eisenhower, whose aversion to big egos was built on a lifetime of experience with such men. With Churchill, Eisenhower found himself up against a powerful personality with a penchant for the dramatic gesture – in whom were combined politician, statesman, warlord, and frustrated soldier who would much rather have been on the battlefield commanding troops. In the latter he had in common with Eisenhower.

Soon after Eisenhower’s arrival in England the prime minister got into the habit of inviting him to lunch once or twice a week at No. 10 Downing Street. On other, less auspicious occasions Eisenhower (and often Mark Clark) endured long nights with Churchill at Chequers, the stately Elizabethan country home of British prime ministers and a place during the war whose unheated rooms could have chilled the bones of the dead. [5] Its halls and rooms were decorated with the paintings of long-dead British noblemen and women, most of whose portraits, pointed out Churchill’s naval aide, Commander C.R. Thompson, "showed the royalty with dirty necks." [6] Eisenhower referred to Chequers none too fondly as "a damned icebox," and both he and Clark would come to dread overnight visits with Winston. On his first night at Chequers, Eisenhower slept in a bedroom that had once belonged to Oliver Cromwell, which felt as if its absence of warmth had survived the two hundred eighty-four years since his death in 1658. The following morning the two generals inspected an impressive honor guard of tall Coldstream Guardsmen who provided security for Chequers. As they trooped its ranks, Churchill leaned out his bedroom window dressed only in his nightshirt and shouted, "Aren’t they a fine body of men!" Both generals wholeheartedly agreed. During another overnight ordeal at Chequers, enlisted aide, Sergeant Mickey McKeogh forgot to pack his boss’s pajamas. A butler lent Eisenhower one of Churchill’s extra-large-size nightshirts. In the early morning hours he awakened from a vivid nightmare that someone was strangling him to discover the culprit was the nightshirt. Until he saw the humor of it in the light of day, Eisenhower’s only thought was how much he wanted "to get his hands on Mickey McKeogh." [7]

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1 Comment

  1. Why study Hitler as a failure or a success?

    Nothing as monumental as Hitler accomplished by creating WWII can afford to be ignored as lessons in upheaval and social turmoil than WWII, or of Hitler’s role in achieving it. Even with Eisenhower and Churchill, in combining forces, with the consent and encouragement of FDR, it was a massive undertaking to meet might with right to negotiate those challenges.

    If Hitler is an illustration in social cohesion, opponents and their progress are the lesson in how to deal with that popular program when it is used devastingly upon society rather than for social and economic empowerment. While it is traditionally not characterized as political regimes gone awry, it could be, and probably should as it takes its place among others of its ilk in the annals of massive political upheavals and regime effects upon society.

    Some view it as the worst, but that only includes the most modern of the Twenthieth Century. Going further back in history, it takes its place among world conquests that challenges the survival of mankind altogether as a peak period of the threats to mankind that humans must learn not to duplicate because of the devastation caused.

    That is an approach to study that has yet to be recognized by historians but should be.

    Regime changes are not just for armchair generals anymore.