David Cameron is still paying the price for his remarks about Britain being the “junior partner” to the U.S. in the “special relationship.” During a town hall meeting in Hove yesterday he was accused by a pensioner of “denigrating” his country. Cameron responded immediately by conceding that he misspoke when he used the date of “1940” during his “junior partner” interview with Sky News on his trip to the States. But that didn’t assuage the pensioner. His previous corrections as to the date have also fallen on deaf ears. The critics actually care little, I suspect, whether Cameron was talking about 1940 or the 1940s and beyond.
Admittedly, his “junior partner” comment was bold – and some would say foolhardy. But his remark about Britain being the junior partner in the alliance with the U.S. during the Second World War and since are accurate.
Of course, 1940 was the triumphant year for Britain. Without British defiance in 1940, the game for Western Europe would have been up. The stubbornness of Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain pilots mitigated the Nazi achievement. But the then British Prime Minister was in no doubt in December 1941 what the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor meant. “So we had won after all!” was Churchill’s immediate response.
Read the opening chapters of Max Hastings excellent book Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, if you want to understand how the Americans (and Russians) increasingly called the strategic shots. In the immediate months following Pearl Harbor, “the Americans deferred to his (Churchill’s) greatness and to his nation’s experience of war,” wrote Hastings, a highly respected WWII military historian and hardly an unpatriotic journalist.
“From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill’s influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler’s empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944 – Operation Overlord – as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.”
And Hastings quotes the significant players themselves. Churchill’s private secretary wrote that the British war leader is “by force of circumstances little more than a spectator.”
“It was America who made the big decisions,” Churchill acknowledged. And that isn’t surprising considering the huge materiel production of the U.S. and the massive numbers of troops it deployed.
On some of those “big decisions” the Americans got it wrong – Roosevelt was wrong to concede so much to Stalin when it come to the division of Europe, although what in reality he could have done to stop the Iron Curtain descending is another matter. But British strategic vision about the conduct of the war against Germany was deeply flawed, too. Churchill’s obsessive notion of rolling up the Germans from the south, his Mediterranean Strategy, was nonsense and he remained wedded to the idea of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia as late as the winter of 1943-1944.