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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

Eisenhower’s years of working for and mingling with the high and mighty had prepared him well to deal with such a forceful and often high-handed character as Churchill. The one unwritten rule for anyone who dealt with Churchill was to avoid being intimidated. Though he was often exasperated and occasionally irked and exhausted by the prime minister’s bulldog-like manner, Eisenhower never succumbed to his fulminations, an invariably fatal failing for those who did. Churchill not only liked Eisenhower personally but also was secretly impressed by anyone who stood up to him.

Churchill stands while the American National Anthem is being played during a visit to a U.S. airborne unit in England.

Churchill was generally popular with American officers. Given their enormous egos, it was perhaps unusual that one of Churchill’s most ardent admirers was none other than Douglas MacArthur. "If the disposal of all the Allied decorations were today placed by Providence in my hands," MacArthur related to a senior British officer attached to his headquarters in Australia, "my first act would be to award the Victoria Cross to Winston Churchill. Not one of those who wear it deserves it more than he." [8]


Churchill and the other great military figures of World War II all shared a common desire to command great armies in battle. Despite his front line service during World War I, Churchill was never destined for generalship. Nearly everyone aspires to be someone else, and in Churchill’s case his goal was to have been a great battlefield general. Although he would later recognize his limitations, the general Churchill most wished to emulate was General (later Field Marshal) Sir Harold Alexander. His envy of Alexander verged on hero worship, and he once said to Alexander, "I envy you the command of armies in the field." [9] Still, as John J. McCloy wrote of him, "Mr. Churchill has seen much of war and warriors . . . [and] he did not hesitate to consider himself sufficient of a strategist and tactician to be competent at least to debate, if not to dictate, military decisions with the professionals." [10] Churchill’s belief in his prowess as a military strategist led to many confrontations with both his generals and with Eisenhower. Throughout the war his principal nemesis was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen. (later Field Marshal) Alan Brooke, who did battle with the prime minister on virtually a daily basis, mostly by trying to dissuade him from carrying out some of his more fanciful military ventures. And, as Eisenhower soon discovered, his conversations with Churchill were as often as not, tests of will, particularly whenever the British leader was advocating one of his pet ideas for military action.

Eisenhower was careful never to be lulled into complacency when dealing with the wily Briton. Early on, Churchill’s relationship with Eisenhower was designed to test his influence over the neophyte American commander. Eisenhower knew perfectly well he was being thoroughly scrutinized by Churchill, and that it would be fatal to permit him to be overpowered by the prime minister’s aggressive personality and charm. In 1942 Eisenhower wrested no concessions from Churchill who, for the time being, occupied the catbird seat in their relationship. It was not the type of mentor-pupil relationship Eisenhower had experienced with Fox Connor, MacArthur or Marshall, but by winning over Churchill the alliance was strengthened immeasurably. In the process a warm and enduring friendship developed between the two men. Even during later stages of the war when their roles were reversed, Churchill never stopped trying to win over Eisenhower to his point of view, and grudgingly but graciously the supreme commander would endure the PM’s endless entreaties. Eisenhower later remarked that Churchill once announced, "All I want is compliance with my wishes, after reasonable discussion." [11] Although the two men would engage in numerous heated debates during the course of the war, neither ever lost his respect for or friendship with the other.

Prime Minister Churchill chats with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in May 1944.

Their mutual love of history became a bond. Churchill was happiest when discussing history and its lessons, and in Eisenhower he found not only a worthy accomplice but one of the few who could match him. Once while dining at Chequers Churchill "remarked to Eisenhower that he had studied every campaign since the Punic Wars," leading Commander Thompson to whisper to his neighbor, "And he’s taken part in most of them!" [12]

Evidence of Churchill’s genuine fondness for Eisenhower was readily discernible in the prime minister’s uncommon gestures of respect, such as invariably seating him to his right at dinner parties even though protocol dictated that the senior officer or politician present occupy that position of honor. That Eisenhower was typically junior to most of the officers present made no difference to Churchill, who himself relished flouting convention. Another example was his habit of personally walking Eisenhower to his staff car at the end of the evening, a gesture usually reserved for visiting royalty or statesmen. [13]

Churchill was the quintessential night owl and rarely retired to his bed until the wee hours of the early morning. His usual evening attire was carpet slippers and a rather bizarre, self-designed, one-piece "siren suit" that zipped up in the front and resembled a handyman’s outfit (lacking only tools hanging from a belt). During the periods Eisenhower was based in London he too was subjected to the full Churchill treatment. All of Churchill’s dinner guests at No. 10 were obliged to sit and squirm on the uncomfortable hardback dining room chairs as the PM pontificated for hours on end.

Such occasions became ordeals of physical endurance. Constantly reinvigorated by food and drink, Churchill’s vitality was in direct contrast to the fatigue on the faces of his captive audiences. Churchill’s method of problem solving was "by talking it out with anyone who would listen," a trait that would drive Eisenhower and others to distraction. Except socially with intimates and on his own terms, Eisenhower despised small talk as much as he was averse to the PM’s late night habits but, like others, stoically endured these weekly ordeals. His chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, also a frequent guest was buoyed that senior British officers such as Ismay and Brooke, were obliged to endure the ritual with the same painstaking expressions of resignation. Brooke’s private wartime diary is filled with examples of Churchill’s penchant for late night meetings and the toll it took upon himself and his colleagues. Whether it was an insignificant wager or an important strategic argument, Churchill used these marathon night sessions to physically wear down his opposition. Exhausted as they may have been on many occasions, Brooke and Eisenhower were themselves too stubborn to give in.

One could never anticipate the direction of Churchill’s thinking, nor did he always accept unpleasant news gracefully, often subjecting the hapless messenger to a verbal roasting. Once, with Eisenhower present, he was briefed on British shipping capacity. "The picture was not bright, but it was as nothing to the dark annoyance on Winston’s face . . . it was easy to see that some outburst was coming." The speaker had referred to British troops as "bodies," a common practice used to avoid having to spell out "officers, non-commissioned officers, and Other Ranks," and one of which Churchill was obviously aware. "How can you use such a disgusting word to describe His Majesty’s fighting forces," he erupted. "These men are not corpses. I will not have it. Stop it at once," he thundered. [14]

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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.

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