Friday, August 21, 2009

The War Effort

But the fact was that the fall of Singapore had left [Churchill] angry and depressed. A force of 100,000 British soldiers had lain down their arms, despite outnumbering the Japanese invasion force four to one. “They should have done better,” he lamented.

What use was it, that he himself displayed a warrior's spirit before the world, if those who fought in Britain's name showed themselves incapable of matching his rhetoric?

He was not alone in his poor opinion of Britain's fighting men. The chief of the general staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote in his diary: “If the Army cannot fight better than it is doing at the present, we shall deserve to lose our Empire.”

Nor was the judgment a new one. Back in 1941, following defeats in Greece, Crete and North Africa, Sir Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office wrote: “Our soldiers are the most pathetic amateurs, pitted against professionals. The Germans are magnificent fighters, veritable masters of warfare. We shall learn, but it will be a long and bloody business.”

A year had gone by since then and, with the fall of Singapore, Cadogan added: “Our Army is the mockery of the world!”

It was the absence of any scintilla of heroic endeavour at Singapore, any evidence of last-ditch sacrifice of the kind with which British armies through the centuries had so often redeemed the pain of defeats, that shocked Churchill.

There was no legend to match that of Rorke's Drift in Zululand or the defence of Mafeking in the Boer War, only abject defeat—surrender to a numerically inferior enemy who had proved themselves better and braver soldiers.

He was confident that America's recent entry into the war would enable Britain to survive. But how could the nation hold up its head in the world, be seen to have made a worthy contribution to victory, if the British Army covered itself with shame whenever exposed to a battle?

The bigger problem for Churchill was in the United States—the ally who had only just joined the war against Hitler but was crucial if victory was to be won. There, a perception was growing that Britain was too yellow to fight. This worried Churchill because he suspected it might be true.


There were similar concerns voiced about the workings of the Home Front. If his fighting men were letting him down, then Churchill had reason to believe he was not getting the best out of the country's civilians either.

The majority of the British people remained staunch and united in their war effort. Yet class tensions ran deep. Few workers broke ranks during the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain periods, but as those crises receded, there was less urgency about the struggle for national survival.

In 1942, amid the continuing military defeats, a weariness and cynicism pervaded the country. Industrial unrest and strikes revealed fissures in the fabric of national unity which are seldom acknowledged.

To be fair, many wartime industries achieved remarkable results. The Labour politician and War Cabinet member, Ernest Bevin, mobilised the population, and especially the women, more effectively than any other belligerent nation, save possibly Russia. At the same time, some factories suffered from poor management, outdated production methods, lack of quality control and a recalcitrant work-force.

These were shortcomings that had hampered the nation's economic progress through the previous half-century, but they were not resolved by the war.

Strikes were officially outlawed, but the legislation failed to prevent wildcat stoppages in coal pits, shipyards and aircraft plants, often in support of absurd or avaricious demands. Some trades unionists adopted a shameless view that there was no better time to secure higher pay than during a national emergency, when the need for continuous production was compelling.

Nine thousand men at Vickers-Armstrong walked out in Barrow in a dispute over piecework rates. When a tribunal found against them, the strikers still refused to resume work and the dispute dragged on for weeks.

Lesser stoppages were over the use of women riveters, and refusal by management to allow collections for the Red Army during working hours.

In the engineering and shipbuilding industries in 1942, 526,000 working days were lost to strikes, rising to a million in 1944. In the aircraft industry, 1.8 million days were lost in 1943, rising to 3.7 million in 1944. All of this suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to the war effort in some factories.

Nor was it confined to labour relations. In dockyards, workers were guilty of systematic pilferage, including lifeboat rations. U.S. seamen arriving in Britain were shocked by the attitudes they encountered as trucks and tanks were damaged by reckless handling during offloading.

Max Hastings
The Finest Years: Churchill As Warlord 1940-1945

To Be Published In The United Kingdom On September 3, 2009
To Be Published In Canada On October 15, 2009
To Be Published In Australia On November 1, 2009
Publication In The United States Not Yet Arranged

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