Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945

Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945

Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945

Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945


This is the first serious analysis of the combat capability of the British army in the Second World War. It sweeps away the myth that the army suffered from poor morale, and that it only won its battles thorugh the use of 'brute force' and by reverting to the techniques of the First World War. David French analyses the place of the army in British strategy in the interwar period and during the Second World War. He shows that after 1918 the General Staff tried hard to learn the lessons of the First World War, enthusiastically embracing technology as the best way of minimizing futurecasualties. In the first half of the Second World War the army did suffer from manifold weaknesses, not just in the form of shortages of equipment, but also in the way in which it applied its doctrine. Few soldiers were actively eager to close with the enemy, but the morale of the army nevercollapsed and its combat capability steadily improved from 1942 onwards. Professor French assesses Montgomery's contributions to the war effort and concludes that most important were his willingness to impose a uniform understanding of doctrine on his subordinates, and to use mechanized firepowerin ways quite different from Haig in the First World War.


During the first two years of the Second World War British politicians and generals could explain away the string of defeats that their army suffered in Norway, France, Greece, and North Africa as being the result of Britain's unpreparedness for the war that began in September 1939. But, by late 1941, that explanation was beginning to wear thin, and many of them started to wonder if something much more fundamental was wrong with the army. They harboured intense private doubts about the professional competence of the senior officers in command of the army in the field and the morale of their soldiers. In September 1941 Churchill, contemplating the possibility of a landing in Western Europe, decided that it 'could only have one outcome. The War Office would not do the job properly; indeed it was unfair to ask them to pit themselves against German organisation experience and resources. They had neither the means nor the intelligence.' On 2 February 1942, the CIGS, Sir Alan Brooke, recorded in his diary, 'As usual, most unpleasant remarks by various ministers in connection with defeats of our forces. As we had retired into Singapore island and lost aerodromes, besides being pushed back in Libya, I had a good deal to account for.' Four months later, Churchill accounted the surrender of Tobruk as a disgrace that reflected poorly on the morale of the British army. As late as July 1944, Churchill was still capable of turning on his generals with venomous criticisms. Although Brooke stoutly defended his senior subordinates in the face of Churchill's charges, he privately shared some of the Prime Minister's concerns. Brooke blamed the army's poor performance on the holocaust of the Western Front in the First World War that had deprived it of its best leaders and the spread of decadence at home. He spent hours pouring over the Army List in search of suitable divisional commanders. In July 1942, at the nadir of the army's fortunes, he wrote to Sir Archibald Wavell, the C-in-C in India, that

I agree with you that we are not anything like as tough as we were in the last
war. There has been far too much luxury, safety first, red triangle, etc., in this

J. Colville, The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London, 1985),

LHCMA Alanbrooke MSS 5/1/5, Diary entry, 2 Feb. 1942.

W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, iv. The Hinge of Fate (London, 1951), 343-4.

M. Gilbert, Road to Victory. Winston S. Churchill 1941-45 (London, 1986), 844.

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