One of the most interesting things for me when reading a biography is when the individual is wrong. I have previously noted that Winston Churchill was changeable, but he was so in the way an admitted, unapologetic egoist is changeable.

This reluctance to change one’s mind is not all bad of course. Were Churchill less stubborn and sure he was right, how else could he have held out against Appeasement, which was done mostly alone in the political wilderness? The key is that he was sure he was right, and he was so often right. What about when he was wrong?

After WWI, the uniformed personnel of the Admiralty told their civilian superiors that surface ships had solved the U-boat problem. Beyond tactical changes, they had a secret weapon.

This was the asdic, “the name,” Churchill wrote, for “the system of groping for submarines below the surface by means of sound waves through the water which echoed back from any steel structure they met. From this echo the position of the submarine could be fixed with some accuracy.” It is a marvellous system and achievement.” It wasn’t, not then. Later versions, which Americans came to know as sonar, fulfilled the promise of the primitive device Churchill saw and would prove valuable antisub weapons, but during Churchill’s tenure as first lord the asdic was almost worthless.1

As soon as hostilities began, it became clear German submarines were still a huge factor in the war.

[Churchill] has known from the beginning that if Britain loses the duel with Nazi submarines she cannot survive. The high priority2 he gives to converting trawlers into antisub vessels and his emphasis on destroyer production will contribute to the Admiralty’s eventual success. The difficulty is that all this is defensive, and he is comfortable only when carrying the war to the enemy. He overrates the asdic.3 Worse, he withdraws destroyers from convoys to form “hunting groups” or “attacking groups,” directing them to seek and destroy U-boats. This is “aggressive,” he argues; convoy duty, on the other hand, is “passive.” He minutes4 to Pound—who agrees—that “Nothing can be more important in the anti-submarine war than to try to obtain an independent flotilla which could work like a cavalry division.” He is dead wrong; weakening convoys to permit offensive sweeps fails on both counts—no U-boats are sunk, and their elusive commanders, seizing opportunities while the destroyers are looking for them elsewhere, penetrate convoys with alarming results. Yet Churchill will stick to his “hunt ’em down” strategy after he becomes prime minister. Not until 1942, when the effectiveness of the convoy strategy has been demonstrated beyond all doubt, does he accept it without reservation.5

It may be impossible to always know whether you are the one lone voice of truth persisting in the face of popular opinion or whether you are stubborn and unable to see the truth. Implacability is a two-edged sword, and which way it cuts depends solely on whether you are right or not. The maniac and the genius are both completely sure.

  1. Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone 1932-1940. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1988. p.366. Amazon Link ↩︎

  2. After the Germans invaded Poland, On September 1, 1939, Neville Chamberlain bowed to parliamentary and public support and returned Churchill to the War Cabinet again as First Lord of the Admiralty. Interestingly, once he joined Chamberlain’s government, he was loyal to Chamberlain when many would have forgiven him for twisting the knife as support for Chamberlain waned. As Manchester put it, “He had taken the queen’s shilling, had signed on for the cruise, and intended to give the captain his best possible performance.” To Chamberlain’s credit, he proved as staunch in war as he was in peace, although his government would not survive the transition. ↩︎

  3. The failings were more subtle than the demonstration Churchill had witnessed in person “The shorter the range, the weaker the ping [from the asdic], and if a U-boat approached within fifteen hundred yards—the lethal range for torpedoes—the asdic signal was lost completely. U-boat commanders could hear the ping, too, and they would quickly learn how to take evasive action and approach at a deadlier angle.” The in-on-the-ground-floor adoption here seems similar to his thoughts on aviation. Amazon link ↩︎

  4. “Minutes” as used here indicates he sent a memorandum or some other official correspondence. ↩︎

  5. Manchester, Amazon link ↩︎