His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero

Mike Wood - February 12, 2018

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The Black and Tans frisk an Irish civilian. MilitaryHistoryNow.com

8 – He created the infamous Black & Tans, who terrorised Irish people

“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English”

Churchill had seen firsthand what the British imperial project meant while serving in India and Africa, and just how successful terror could be as a weapon against people in revolt. He would find in Ireland that it was not always successful.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Ireland – then a constituent part of the United Kingdom without its own Parliament – had been promised Home Rule, but had had it suspended due to the conflict. During the war, however, militant nationalists staged the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, an attempt at revolution that was brutally suppressed by the British. All the leaders were executed and the rebellion crushed, but the tide of public opinion had shifted massively against Britain. At war’s end, a general election was held in 1918 and the radical Nationalist party in Ireland, Sinn Fein, won a resounding victory. They refused to take up their seats in the House of Commons and instead declared independence.

The Irish War of Independence began in early 1919 and the military wing of the Irish nationalist movement, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began attacking British Army units stationed in Ireland. Churchill, who was at the time Secretary of State for War, proposed a paramilitary force that could back up the regular army, to be recruited from unemployed veterans from the First World War. Nearly 10,000 men were raised, trained in a hurry and shipped over the Irish Sea. Due to their uniforms, which did not match, they were known as the Black and Tans. Alongside them were the Auxiliaries, a paramilitary wing of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police, recruited from former British Army officers, again spearheaded by Churchill.

Between them, they wreaked havoc on the local population. As the IRA tended to work in flying columns and attack and withdraw quickly, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries would take out their revenge on the local civilian population. They were poorly disciplined and often drunk, as well as arbitrarily violent and destructive. In November 1920, they killed 14 civilians at a Gaelic Football match in Dublin, while in December, they burned the centre of Cork to the ground and shot at firefighters attempting to put out the blaze. It was clear that they were out of control and the Irish public only galvanised themselves against them. Back in England, public opinion turned against the Army because of their strongarm tactics.

“If the British Commonwealth can only be preserved by such means, it would become a negation of the principle for which it has stood,” wrote Lionel Curtis, a staunch defender of imperialism. When peace was offered by England, Gandhi wrote: “it is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else.”

Churchill’s decision to vastly escalate the conflict in Ireland through paramilitaries begat the end of the closest colony to England and again diminished his reputation further. He remained Secretary of State for War, however, and would again show his brutality in the near future: this time, in the Middle East.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
British troops parade through an Iraqi town, 1919. Smithsonian Magazine.

9 – He was responsible for massacres of entire villages in Iraq

“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes… it would spread a lively terror.”

The extent of the influence that Churchill had on the Middle East ranges from individual acts of brutality to organisational terror that lasts right into the present. The question of how much he was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Mespotamia, now Iraq, is also one that it is debated, with official records claiming that no gas was used, while on the ground reports say that it was. Whether you believe it was or wasn’t, the truth of the matter is that Churchill was heavily in favour of it being used and heartily recommended it, despite that being a direct contravention of the accepted rules of war.

Chemical weapons as we know them today were in their infancy in the First World War, but had proven effective against static trench lines. The British Manual of Military Law, the general outlines for how war should be conducted, strictly forbade using it against “uncivilized” people, which certainly would have included those in Mesopotamia at the time. Churchill certainly thought so: in the quote above, he calls the residents as such in a memo taken from May 1919, which also includes lines such as “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.” It is fairly unequivocal stuff.

When discussing British imperial military tactics in the colonial period, the myriad reasons why Britain might have been in the countries that they were in are often laid by the wayside. The Empire had been present in the Middle East since the demise of the Ottoman Empire during World War One, roughly splitting up the region with France along lines drawn up in secret by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The north of Iraq and Kurdistan, where the chemical weapons were used, did not actually fall into the British sections, which were centred on what is now Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait and southern Iraq, but a later agreement had agreed to hand them over to Britain. Naturally, oil was the major draw and Mosul, in the area intended for France but controlled by Britain, was the major centre of production.

Mesopotamia, as it was then known, was never an official part of the Empire and the locals had no desire to become one. They rose in May 1920 in Baghdad and made a case for independence, which was dismissed out of hand by the British. A fatwa was released that read “It is the duty of the Iraqis to demand their rights. In demanding them they should maintain peace and order. But if the English prevent them obtaining their rights it is permitted to make use of defensive force.” As the revolt spread, Churchill, in his role as Secretary of War, was swift to react.

He despatched two squadrons from the Royal Air Force and bombed the civilian population – the Iraqis, unsurprisingly, had no air force – causing somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 deaths. While historians debate whether gas was used, the point is somewhat moot given the willingness of the British to drop bombs on people’s homes. The revolt was ended and a puppet government installed, ensuring that oil, and more importantly, oil profits, flowed out of the Middle East and into Britain.

The mass bombing of civilians was not invented by Churchill, but the idea of “aerial policing”, the term he coined to describe what the British did in Iraq, was. One of the fighter pilots of 1920, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, wrote

“The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means. Within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”

He would do his job again in the Second World War, when the idea would be taken to its logical conclusion – at Dresden.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The wreckage of Dresden after the bombing. Wikipedia.

10 – He ordered the bombing of Dresden, even though everyone knew it was unnecessary

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.”

The bombing of Dresden is still discussed as one of the worst excesses of the Allied forces during the Second World War, and as evidenced by the quote above, one of the few that made Churchill sit back and think that he might have gone too far. Bombing of civilian cities was something that was elevated to commonplace status in the destruction of World War Two, and there is no doubt that it played a vital role in the conflict, but by the time the bombers appeared above the Saxon city of Dresden in the middle of February 1945, it was winding down.

The war was in its death throes: on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had crossed the Oder river and entered into modern-day Germany, less than 100km from Berlin, with the Nazi forces in total retreat, while in the West, American and British forces were winning the Battle of the Bulge and pushing towards the Rhine. With cities in the East – namely Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden – now within range, Churchill canvassed opinion on whether he should engage them. Cheif of the Air Staff Charles Portal wrote a memo that read “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West,” and another that advocated a bombing on Dresden, claiming that it “will cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts.”

The civilian evacuation mentioned might better be read as a concentration of refugees. Dresden had once been a city of importance to the Nazi war effort, but was thronged with civilians escaping from the East. An attack was conceived to deliberately target these people, but the industrial suburbs that housed the factories were left untouched. A further memo noted the propaganda power of an attack on Dresden, stating that the British could “show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.” Dresden might well be considered an early battle of the Cold War.

When the bombers arrived, they were merciless. The entire historic city centre was destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people killed over the course of 3 nights, partly by bombs and partly by the firestorm that ensued. “The final phase of Bomber Command’s operations was far and away the worst,” wrote Wing Commander H.R. Allen of the Royal Air Force. “Traditional British chivalry and the use of minimum force in war was to become a mockery and the outrages perpetrated by the bombers will be remembered a thousand years hence”.

Many later classified it as a war crime and even a genocide. There were an estimated 300,000 refugees in the city centre, the city held little military significance and the tactic of firebombing, which the Allies knew would have hardly any strategic effect and cause maximum casualties, was devastating. Churchill’s actions replicated those of the Nazis that he had seen first hand during the Blitz, but they were far from the first time in which tactics more commonly associated with his enemy would be attributed to him…

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
A Kenyan concentration camp, 1954. South African History Online.

11 – Churchill forcibly evicted thousands of Kenyans and put them into concentration camps

“This course [detention without trial and forced labour] had been recommended despite the fact that it was thought to involve a technical breach of the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and the Convention on Human Rights adopted by the Council of Europe”

As we have discovered, Churchill presided over a campaign of civilian bombing in the Middle East that foreshadowed what would follow in the Second World War. In that case, it was trying something out before the war and then using it to devastating effect in a larger conflict, whereas in the case of Kenya, it was taking something that had been seen in the war and then reapplying it in the colonies. One would think that, having seen the horrors of a brutal imperialist project and the logical conclusion of racist beliefs, he might have ameliorated his views on imperialism and race. Not for a second.

Churchill was deposed immediately after the Second World War and replaced by Clement Atlee, a Labour Prime Minister, but soon returned to power in 1951. Britain had spent the immediate post-war period messily splitting the Raj into India and Pakistan (and fermenting sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims) as well as attempting to squash a rebellion in Malaysia, and in 1952, a further uprising started in the hugely profitable colony of Kenya.

As ever, the British imperial project wasn’t particularly concerned about the people of wherever they were colonising, and instead about just how much wealth they could wring out of it. In the case of Kenya, that wealth lay in the fertile soil and the bountiful crops that could be grown in it. The Deputy Governor of Kenya wrote to London in 1945 saying: “The principal item in the natural resources of Kenya is the land, and in this term we include the colony’s mineral resources. It seems to us that our major objective must clearly be the preservation and the wise use of this most important asset.”

An earlier report, in the 1920s had described Kenya as having “some of the richest agricultural soils in the world, mostly in districts where the elevation and climate make it possible for Europeans to reside permanently,” and recommended that thousands of settlers be given land to farm. Thus, some 7 million acres had been forcefully taken from locals and given over to white settler farmers, with the natives then forced to work the land as labourers for their white masters.

When the Mau Mau, as the local forces were called, rose up against the British, a state of emergency was declared in 1952 and some 150,000 people forcibly moved into concentration camps. Rape was a common weapon, while suspected rebels were tortured with electricity. Others were summarily executed. Churchill presided over all of this. The story of the Mau Mau Uprising was suppressed for decades and only in recent years was documentation found that told the whole story of the brutal treatment of Kenyans.

An editorial in The Guardian in 2011 on the Mau Mau Uprising, shortly after a group of Kenyans who had lived through the horrors of British rule had sued the British Government for compensation, read: There is something peculiarly chilling about the way colonial officials behaved, most notoriously but not only in Kenya, within a decade of the liberation of the concentration camps and the return of thousands of emaciated British prisoners of war from the Pacific. One courageous judge in Nairobi explicitly drew the parallel: Kenya’s Belsen, he called one camp.”

In this piece, we have spoken extensively of Churchill’s disdain for basically anyone who was not white and British – but he was also no big fan of plenty of other British people too. In fact, he wasn’t above turning the troops on his own people when he saw fit.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Striking miners at Tonypandy in 1910. Libcom.

12 – Churchill was happy to attack his own people

“Make your minds perfectly clear that if ever you let loose upon us again a general strike, we will loose upon you”

As we have heard, Churchill was the product of an upbringing that instilled beliefs in the power of Empire, the supremacy of white British people and the need for a strong, patronly leadership to keep order. We have also seen how ready he was to strike back against anyone who defied him and his class’ god given right to rule over the whole world without any dissent. While this was usually expressed far away from home, whether starving Indians, beating up Irish people, herding Kenyans into concentration camps or massacring Africans, there is ample evidence that Churchill did not think much of those with whom he shared his own island.

The young Winston was the child of an aristocratic family and lived his life as an aristocrat, but the time in which he lived was the absolute height of British industry and the British working class movement. Trade Unionism was as strong as it would ever be and the newly-founded Labour Party was representing the interests of the organised working class in Parliament and beyond. Winston had very little time for the working man, especially when that working man exercised his right to strike or to demonstrate against those in power.

The most notable incident was the Tonypandy Riots, which took place in 1910 and 1911 in Wales, when Churchill was Home Secretary. Miners had been in a dispute with mine bosses for several months and, when the bosses locked workers out of their workplaces, the miners went on strike. They managed to get 12,000 workers all over South Wales to come out with them and, fearing the potential for destruction that such a force possessed, the bosses called in the police. All pits were closed in the Tonypandy region of South Wales by picketing miners and they clashed with police sent in to keep the mines open.

When the police were unable to quell the miners, they appealed to the Home Secretary for help. Churchill sent in the Army and they clashed with the strikers, with an estimated 500 injured and at least one killed. Rumours spread all over Wales that the Army had fired on unarmed demonstrators. Churchill was widely blamed for the incident, as he had ordered that the troops in. Furthermore, by sending in the soldiers to a civil dispute, he had made it impossible for the miners to win their strike, essentially intervening directly on the side of bosses in an industrial dispute.

In the eyes of many working-class Britons, Churchill’s reputation as a posh bully boy was never erased. When giving a speech in the Welsh capital of Cardiff in 1950, he was forced to acknowledge his huge local unpopularity and even in the late 1970s, his grandson was told by then Prime Minister James Callaghan not to speak on a House of Commons debate regarding the pay of coal miners for fear that people associate it with “the vendetta of your family against the miners of Tonypandy”. He would later utilise the Army against striking workers in Liverpool in 1911 and then, after the First World War and while serving as Secretary of State for War, set the troops on protestors in Glasgow during the so-called Red Clydeside period.