Britain stood alone against the Nazis in 1940 after the fall of France. She survived and won the war with the help of America and Russia and the inspirational oratory of Winston Churchill.
His oratory also won him a Nobel prize for literature in 1953 and Gary Oldham an Oscar in 2018 in the film Darkest Hour.
Churchill performed the role of statesman on the world stage brilliantly and could have won an Oscar for best actor himself. His speeches during the war are moving even in these bland times. His address to the House of Commons at the beginning of his premiership when he had Parliament eating out of his palm was brutal yet masterful.
‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land sea and air with all our might against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the lamentable catalogue of human crime. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs.’
You cannot deliver a speech of such power without thespian genius. Churchill himself was inspired by Lawrence Olivier, the greatest actor of his time, whose Saint Crispin’s Day speech from William Shakespeare’s Henry V was broadcast by the BBC during the war at Churchill’s behest.
The crescendo from Lawrence Olivier’s rendition is worth a quote if only to show its inspirational impact on Churchill.
‘We few, we happy few. We band of brothers; for he, today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile this day shall gentle his condition.’ As the Battle of Britain raged over England, Churchill adapted the theme of the few to great effect. ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,’ he told Parliament in August 1940 in praise of Britain’s airmen
Lawrence Olivier’s performance in King Henry V was nominated for an Oscar in 1947 but ironically it was for his performance as Prince Hamlet of Denmark that he won an Oscar in 1949.
There are leaders whose character and personality lends itself to box office success – Adolph Hitler in Downfall, Joseph Stalin in the Death of Stalin and now Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. So far as I know, Franklin Roosevelt was never a box office success, despite being much better looking and more powerful than the others.
Charles de Gaulle only managed a cameo as the target of an assassination attempt in the Day of the Jackal. Yet his performance on French television saying Non to British entry into the European Community in the 1960s was as memorable as it is topical. He hated being in the shadow of Churchill in London during the war and took cold revenge in the 1960s by saying Non to Britain twice.
Churchill was not just an actor on the world stage. He loved making mischief. There is a very funny scene in Darkest Hour when he huddles with his secretaries in some corner of the Cabinet war rooms where they giggle as they inform him that his victory sign is facing the wrong way. His fingers should face outwards, he is told, because facing inwards is the sign for ‘up your bum’, which Churchill finds hilariously funny and joins in the giggle like a little boy.
His wit was legendary. A story, probably apocryphal, has him in waspish mood when confronted by the virago Lady Nancy Astor. ‘Winston if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee,’ she is alleged to have said at a high society do. ‘Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it,’ Churchill rejoined.
He even made light of his contribution to the war effort. ‘The nation had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be invited to provide the roar,’ he once said with false modesty.
Like Mustafa Kemal, Churchill drank to excess but, unlike his old adversary at Gallipoli, it did not kill him. ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,’ Churchill once boasted.
But his judgement was not always sound. He was the cabinet minister who recklessly sacrificed thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the botched campaign at Gallipoli in World War I that gave credence to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ label attached to people of his ilk. Another botched campaign was the Norwegian fiasco at the beginning of War II for which he was heavily criticised for bad strategic planning and bad execution.
In July 1940 he judged correctly that the powerful French navy should not fall into Nazi hands after France fell. But his decision to attack a small French fleet anchored at Mers El Kebir on the Algerian coast, killing more than a thousand French sailors, was an appalling error of judgement that nearly caused France to declare war on Britain.
He had no reason to doubt the word of French naval officers – who a few days earlier had been Britain’s allies – when they said they would scuttle their ships rather than hand them over to the Nazis. But Churchill wanted to show off to the Americans that he had the cojones to fight and allowed the killing of allied sailors even though their ships posed no immediate threat to Britain.
If his judgement was often demonstrably flawed, the energy with which he pursued the war effort was phenomenal. In 1943 after conferring on the future conduct of the war with US President Roosevelt at Casablanca, in one fell swoop, he flew to Cairo for talks with British commanders and then to Adana in Turkey to meet with Prime Minister Ismet Inonu in an attempt to persuade Turkey to join the Allies.
How the author of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I hoped to persuade the Turks to join the war effort is difficult to fathom. In the end, Inonu persuaded Churchill that Turkey was more use to the Allies if she remained neutral. He argued that if Turkey joined and were defeated it would give Germany control of the oil supplies of the Middle East which would be disastrous for Britain. Inonu had learned the lesson of history but dressed it up to suit Britain’s war effort too.
Churchill then flew on to Cyprus before winding up his sojourn in the region with a trip to see Montgomery in Tripoli. Thank God the Cyprus problem did not exist at the time so he did not hold any talks about how to resolve it – to paraphrase John Lennon, ‘Imagine there’s no Cyprus problem.’
Nevertheless, Churchill addressed a selected audience of Cypriots about the United Nations, which did not exist at the time. He could not have known that the UN would send a force to Cyprus within 20 years, but the idea of a United Nations Organisation must have been germinating in his head.
There is a picture of Churchill outside Government House – now the presidential palace. It had not changed much since the last time I saw it with the British coat-of-arms still engraved in stone above the main entrance. There is an amusing story that on being teased by the Soviet ambassador about such an obvious symbol of British imperialism, Archbishop Makarios, Cyprus’ first president told him, tongue in cheek, it was because it had enormous value as a tourist attraction.
Churchill and the Tories were voted out of power in 1945. He was an inspirational war-time leader, but his skills were not geared to the tasks of reform and reconstruction. The Labour Party was ready to assume power with many talented ministers who had served in the war-time coalition. They formed a high-quality Labour administration that delivered the welfare state that included the NHS. They improved housing and education and helped build a much more equal society than Churchill could ever have done.
Only a mature democracy like Britain’s could have booted Churchill out in his finest hour.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part-time judge