The Importance of Being Winston

The Importance of Being Winston

Mini Teaser: The British Bulldog's unique ability to win Stalin's respect and trust in August 1942 proved that great national leadership matters.

by Author(s): John Lukacs


AND NOW the days and weeks of July 1942 stretched out, replete with more trouble. A very large convoy of ships sailing for the Far North of Russia, packed full of armor and other war materials, was disrupted, scattered and more than two-thirds of its vessels sunk by German attacks issuing from northern Norway. The British now canceled or postponed other convoys bound for Russia over the next few months. This had to be told to Stalin, together with the definite fact that the Allies had decided once and for all that there would be no American-British invasion of western France, no second front, in 1942.

Churchill informed Stalin that he wished to meet him in Russia. He would fly there from Cairo, where he was to confront his concerns about the leadership of the British Eighth Army. He suggested places in the south of Russia, at Stalin’s best convenience, to spare both of them a very long journey. Stalin answered, they’d better meet in Moscow. On the last day of that gloom-laden month, Churchill left London. Among other messages, he received a warm bon voyage letter from the king, George VI. “I feel that your visit East will be even more epoch-making than those you have paid to the West.” He was right. In his answer Churchill wrote: “In Russia too the materials for a joyous meeting are meagre indeed. Still I may perhaps make the situation less edged.” A few days later he dictated a long letter to his wife, from Cairo: “I am not looking forward to this [Russian] part of my mission because I bear so little in my hand, and sympathise so much with those to whom I go.” On August 5, he wrote to Roosevelt: “I have a somewhat raw job.” He now asked Roosevelt to send Averell Harriman (whom both of them knew well, and who would eventually become American ambassador to Moscow in 1943) with him. Churchill wanted to impress Stalin with the fact that Harriman was coming and would be talking in accord with Roosevelt’s wishes.

Years later he recalled:

[During the long flight], I pondered on my mission to this sullen, sinister Bolshevik State I had once tried so hard to strangle at its birth, and which, until Hitler appeared, I had regarded as the mortal foe of civilised freedom. What was it my duty to say to them now?

That last was a rhetorical question. He knew well what he had to do. Perhaps the question was not what but rather how:

Still . . . it was my duty to tell them the facts personally and have it all out face to face with Stalin, rather than trust to telegrams and intermediaries. At least it showed that one cared for their fortunes and understood what their struggle meant to the general war.

His travel was arduous. The aircraft carrying him to Cairo (with a stop at Gibraltar) was uncomfortable, its passengers forced to put on oxygen masks at higher altitudes. His week in Egypt was full of business and action. Rommel was near El Alamein, hardly more than fifty miles from Alexandria, and some of the British Eighth Army was in disarray. Churchill changed its command, summoning Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery from England to assume it. He took it upon himself to see as many soldiers as he could. His confidence, in retrospect, amazes: Rommel’s army must be destroyed; it will be destroyed. The British forces in Egypt were twice the size of their German enemies, in numbers and in armor, but the Germans, and especially Rommel, had been able to defeat British troops against many odds.

Nearing midnight on August 10, Monday, Churchill was flown to Tehran in a now-much-more-comfortable airplane, a new B-24 Liberator commanded by a superb American pilot, William Vanderkloot, fondly remembered many years later. They left Tehran again soon after the following midnight. Churchill brought a less-than-usually-small staff with him. Their plane was delayed and temporarily diverted; Churchill’s was not. After a very long flight he landed in Moscow at five in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 12.


HE AND Harriman descended from the impressive American aircraft. The scene at the Moscow airport was ceremonial (including, among other things, a military parade), more so than for previous Soviet governmental receptions of foreign guests. At least it suggested that, whatever Stalin’s ill humor and frustration with his Western Allies, he was impressed with Churchill coming to see him. The prime minister, in turn, was impressed with the lavish details of Russian hospitality, including the comforts of State Villa Number Seven where he and his staff were housed. There were two hitches. He was told to be careful, since in all probability some of the walls harbored secret microphones. (Royal Air Force Air Marshal Arthur Tedder passed a note to the prime minister in French: “Méfiez-vous”—be careful.) Churchill then chose to intone a loud tirade denouncing Communism and Communists, hoping that the secret-police listeners would get it all. The other matter was less pleasant: as was his custom, he wanted a hot bath after the long, weary aerial journey, but instead he was stung by the icy water rushing upon him from a Russian faucet he had thought contained hot. Typical of Churchill, he set his first meeting with Stalin a mere two hours after his arrival in Moscow (and a mere half hour after clambering out of that tub).

Now he was driven to the Kremlin. He and Stalin shook hands. (Others remarked later that, all of his frankness notwithstanding, Stalin rarely looked at the eyes of his conversants.) There ensued their first conference, lasting for more than four hours. It was after midnight that Churchill was brought back to his state villa. He had spoken first, and at considerable length. He began with the nub of the matter. There would be no Anglo-American landing in France in 1942. He reminded Stalin that he had told that to Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov when the latter had been in London two months before. Then he went into considerable detail explaining why such an invasion would be impossible. There were not enough American troops in Britain yet, not enough armor, not enough shipping and not enough planes for an air umbrella stretching over western France, giving the Allies air superiority. Such details did not impress Stalin. Why, he said, could not the Allies at least land six divisions on the western coast of France? They could, Churchill said, but they could not stay. The Germans would crush them or, at best, force them to leave. And what good would that be? It would surely compromise his and Roosevelt’s plans for a serious invasion of Western Europe in 1943. (That there was, as yet, no such definite plan, Churchill did not say.)

Stalin, until then largely silent and glum, now became somewhat impatient, and then sardonic and bitter. Not to risk anything means not to wage war seriously enough. Why were the British afraid of fighting the Germans? He could not demand what his allies would or would not do, “but he was bound to say that he did not agree with my arguments,” Churchill wrote.1 There came a long moment of silence. Then Churchill chose to speak at some length about the now-ever-increasing British and American bombing of Germany. So, Stalin said, there would be no landing in France, and, as Churchill heard the Russian leader, “all we were going to do” was “pay our way by bombing Germany.” Churchill—contrary to his temperamental impatience—did not reply. In his hand there was but one good card to play. That was Operation Torch, the planned American-British invasion of French North Africa, less than three months away. Its prospects were infinitely better than an uneasy and temporary descent of a handful of divisions on the western coast of France. Rommel would be struck back. Franco’s Spain would be impressed. Italy would be forced to retreat, eventually from the war itself. The Mediterranean was “the soft underbelly of Europe.” (Churchill at one point drew a crocodile, hard and rigid on the top, soft and white on the bottom.) All of this would benefit not only the prospects of the war but Russia itself. With the Mediterranean eventually taken from the Axis, the Allies would have easy access to the Black Sea to help the Russians (when and if needed), and the Russians, a better route to open waters.

Stalin seemed to pick up on the prospects of Operation Torch remarkably quickly and well. Whether he had known something of these Allied plans (mostly through American contacts and intelligence agents), we cannot be sure. He may have had an inkling but nothing that was certain. Churchill, who was impressed with the directness of Stalin’s reaction, was gratified and relieved. He now asked Stalin to meet with him again; Stalin said of course. So that momentous day—and some of its succeeding night—had passed.


CHURCHILL DID not retire to bed before two in the morning. He had now been up for something like twenty-six hours, interrupted by snatches of sleep during the long flight from Tehran to Moscow. Understandably he rose the next morning—Thursday, August 13—somewhat later than was his usual wont. Before him lay the prospect of a (relatively) restful day. He proposed to call on Stalin at ten that night. Stalin suggested eleven. The working day began with Churchill meeting Molotov, the latter expressionless and slab faced as usual. Then Churchill lunched and rested in his state villa during an undemanding afternoon, inspecting the garden with its fountains and goldfish which inspired his interest, and then a sumptuous air-raid shelter which did not. Late at night he was driven to the Kremlin, where only Stalin and Molotov were waiting for him, with an interpreter.

Image: Pullquote: The most important, nay, the decisive matter we can state about Churchill in Moscow, about Churchill and Stalin: it is impossible to imagine that any other British public figure could have appeared in Moscow and impressed Stalin as he did.Essay Types: Essay