Monday, November 2, 2009

Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

Genre: History
Author:Lynne Olson
Ms. Olson's 2007 history tells the behind-the-scenes work of the "troublesome young men", mostly "backbenchers' in the Tory Party in the late Thirties, who changed the course of history to favor elective government, and at least saved Great Britain from a traumatic defeat if they had not strenuously opposed a government keen on a "phony war", even months after it officially entered a very real war one against a rearmed and confident Germany.

It was left to less well-known men like Duff Cooper, Leo Amery, Robert Cartland, Harold Nicholson, future Prime Minister Harold MacMillian and a handful of other "rebels" to step up and, in Amery's words, "Speak for England!"

It is men like Amery and Cartland, not Churchill or Anthony Eden, that stood defiant against their party Whips and the Cabinet at several critical moments, risking their careers. Men liked Cartland were not afraid to call Chamberlain a dictator to his face; Amery evoked some devastating words from England's history against his government during open debate in the House of Commons after the Fall of Norway (and the disasters of British ships and men in the subarctic ports in May of 1940) with scorn:

"I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation:
"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go".

The story of Britain's change of government in 1940 after the fall of Norway in the Spring of that year is well-known and oft-dramatized. But was less-known (to me at least) was how little a role Winston Churchill ultimately had in hastening the departure of the discredited Neville Chamberlain.

Churchill was in fact already in the government as First Lord of the Navy by September 1939, and had no voice in deposing his boss. He was loyal, too loyal to those who recalled those days in Ms. Olson's books. The Chamberlain government--outside the Admiralty--seemed daunted by the prospect of actually carrying out a war, much less mounting a land offensive. The Prime Minister's letters to his sister reveal Chamberlain's acute depression at the sight of pillboxes, barbed wire and armaments. He was, as one critic put it at the time, "a civilian to the core." Not an evil man, but the wrong leader for his time.

Even after war was declared, conscription of men ages 20-41 was slow to happen. As Hitler's fifty divisions on active duty strengthened, the British could manage five or six. Those who volunteered for the RAF or the Army or Territorials were often joining units that had no uniforms for them to wear, much less heavy weaponry. Over a million and a half men were still unemployed by the end of 1939, an alarming statistic given the national emergency.

And those "Tommies" at the Belgian Front and those sent half-prepared to Norway, ahead of the looming German air-sea advancement, were hardly equipped to fight. Few units had any machine guns, for instance. Basic anti-aircraft equipment was equally hard to come by.

When visiting the Belgian front in December of 1939, Chamberlain startled one of commanders in the field, Bernard Montgomery, by stating in a meeting, "I don't think the Germans have any intention of attacking us here, do you?"
Montgomery told his boss otherwise, but, like so many others, he paid little heed.

Chamberlain, nicknamed "The Coroner" by his detractors, clearly had to go.

The problem was the Conservative had a huge 200-seat majority from the last General Election in 1936. The Labour and Liberal parties could not mount a serious challenge. Any vote of no confidence had to garner a major amount of Conservative supporters. It was here that men like Amery and Duff Cooper--who turned down the offer of Foreign Secretary to remain an independent critic--had to sway their reluctant party stalwarts to cross over and vote "NO" on a confidence vote to bring Chamberlain down. And that movement had to be successful; to fail at bringing down Chamberlain would mean he could hold unto power well into the future.

Chamberlain and his men tapped the phones of Conservatives who met in private to plan strategy. That hurt the cause, as did the fact that the rebels were disunited between pro-Anthony Eden and pro-Churchill groups. Sending out feelers to opposition leaders like Clement Attlee and his Labour Deputy Arthur Greenwood was considered the height of betrayal by a leader who short changed his troops in the field. Chamberlain was content to know "sub rosa" what groups like "The Vigilantes" and other internecine groups were doing.

This is the part of the book I found most interesting; how Neville Chamberlain, like Richard Nixon thirty-odd years later, viewed all attacks on his government as an attack on him personally and could brook no dissent in his inner circle, thus filling important posts with syncopates and second-raters. Perhaps his worse move was getting rid of Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden over the Czech Crisis in October, 1938. It was clear more voices needed to be heard in the Cabinet if Hitler was to be successfully defeated. Stripped of office but not prestige, the Young Mr. Eden remained a dithering disappointment to his followers; Churchill emerged as the man of the hour.

The question of rebellion was totally anathema to many of these men who were all educated at strict schools like Harrow and Eton where loyalty and bowing to seniority was everything. Many had served in the ranks of regiments in the First World War together, makes their effort to depose there former superiors in some cases all the more improbable.

Some 'Young Men" (like MacMillian) were moderate men who saw the changing times and tried to adapt to them; others, like Leo Amery, who hidebound imperialists in the Churchill mold. Addingto their natural conservatism, there were great personal differences: the most juicy being that that MacMillian made common cause with one of the "young men" (Robert Boothby) who had cuckolded him, carrying on a decades long affair with his wife Dorothy. But work together they somehow did, saving their nation against their own senior leadership.

Note: not all the "Troublesome Young Men" were men. Women such as Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of Prime Minister Asquith, also played a role in drumming up anti- appeasement support. And the case of Katherine Scott-Murray, Duchess of Atholl ib Scotland and one of the few female MPs of that era, deserves an entry from Wikipedia:

"She was the Scottish Unionist Party Member of Parliament for Kinross and West Perthshire from 1923 to 1938, and served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education from 1924 to 1929, the first woman to serve in a Conservative government. She resigned the Conservative whip first in 1935 over the India Bill and the "socialist tendency" of the government's domestic policy. Resuming the Whip she resigned it again in 1937 over the Anglo-Italian Agreement. Finally she resigned her seat in parliament in 1938 in opposition to Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement of Adolf Hitler. To permit her resignation (technically proscribed by law), she was named Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds on 28 November 1938. She stood in the subsequent by-election as an Independent but lost her seat.

"According to her autobiography Working Partnership (1958) it was at the prompting of Ellen Wilkinson that in April 1937 she, Eleanor Rathbone, and Wilkinson, went to Spain to observe the effects of the Spanish Civil War. In Valencia , Barcelona and Madrid she saw the impact of Luftwaffe bombing on behalf of the Nationalists, visited prisoners of war held by the Republicans and considered the impact of the conflict on women and children in particular. Her book Searchlight on Spain resulted from this involvement, and her support for the Republican side in the conflict led to her being nicknamed by some the 'Red Duchess'. Her opposition to the British policy of non-intervention in Spain epitomised her attitudes and actions."

None of the male Tory "rebels" came to her direct aid during that bi-election. The best Churchill could offer in 1938 to "The Red Duchess" (who was no more a socialist than Donald Duck) was a letter of support, and a lukewarm one at that.

The following is an interview with Lynne Olson from a Canadian broadcast.

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  1. Looks interesting. Will have a look around for it.

  2. He literally was the one that lead the path to the end of WW2...
    Churchill was a very strong minded man but at the same time he was one that most even whom I am listening too never really understood the man. He was loyal, and he went up into the mountains to draw as he had so much going on. But he never waivered as he brought about a crown, that served him with vigilance over he entire time - not just england but literally he was the benchmark within bringing about the change of history during the times of of world war 2 - so many think that it was from Roosevelt but that was three years after over so many had passed away.

    This man never waivered....

  3. I think its worth a look through, Frank, if politics has an interest for you.

  4. For all his faults,I think that's a fitting epitaph for Churchill, Jack.

    History would have been very different without him, and very likely the worse for his country and Canada and The United States as well.

  5. No.... he just changed sides occasionally

  6. You are right about the Spanish Civil War and Cable Street , AA. I hope I did not imply in my review that this was more than what I meant the book to be from my view--- one important story in the long fight against aggression and fascism--nor were there unsullied angels in these Tory back-benches. I don't think Ms. Olson was trying to reduce the struggle against Hitler to an internecine Tory party struggle--but rather to highlight those "late comers" who got in the PM's face when others were still willing to pretend the status quo would suffice.

    This is a very good book, but NOT the only book one needs to read about this crucial era--not by a long shot.

    Thanks for filling in some of the important larger political and International Brigade background to the politics of this time.

  7. It has been said that Churchill was well placed to benefit from the war and it is only natural that someone would take that chance. He was one of the few men with any experience of military weapons.

    I read somewhere that Churchill slid down the greasy pole of politics more than any other man only to climb back to the top again. He had great leadership powers and understood his men well. However, he lacked patience and could be a bit of a grump. Still none of us are perfect and in the game of war and politics one doesn't get anywhere being a nice guy all the time, it's a rat race. We are aware that in war all men play their part, not just the leaders. The truth is we need each other.

    It is interesting to know how the troublesome young men started taking their place in the field of politics.

    I read Duff Cooper's life story, he was another interesting man. The books sounds like a good read Doug. Thank you for the review.

  8. I read a while back that Churchill, while still in the cabinet, was a keen promoter of tank technology in the First World War. The tanks of the time had little impact on the Western Front, however. But he was onto something.
    His is one of the most dramatic lives of the 20th Century. His book, "My Early Life" (called "A Roving Commission" in America when it came ourt in 1931) encapsulates an amazing up-and-down career. Churchill was written off by many after he was hit by a taxi in New York City and was badly hurt. He had already been out of goverbment for years. One biographer notes that he got around America's draconian Prohibition laws by having a friendly doctor prescribe brandy to him "for medicinal purposes" ;-) He was also a "grump", as you say, and was quite hard on those ordinary people who did the research for his massive histories.

    The War Cabinet in WWII preferred the meetings when Churchill was at a confernece with FDR or Stalin; apparently deputy PM Clement Attlee was a less grumpy taskmaster, and the meetings were shorter.

    You mention one of the things I liked about "Troublesome Young Men"--that it puts the spotlight on some men and women who are too often left out of the story of 1939-40 and the start of the war. I knew something about MacMillian and Anthony Eden, but so many of these people like Cooper and Vilet Bonham Carter were unknown to me. Ms. Olson shines a better light on the day to day events of the revolt against Chamberlain in his own party than I had ever read.