Book Review: Churchill’s Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration


by Graham T. Clews

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 342+. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $44.95. ISBN: 1682472795

Churchill Champing at the Bit

This is a revisionist look at Churchill’s role in British war making from his appointment as First Sea Lord, Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany, to his accession as Prime Minister, May 10, 1940, on which the Germans launched their ultimately devastating offensive against France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This period was widely reviled as the “Phoney War” because neither the Allies nor the Germans were willing – or able – to undertake serious operations.

Clews, earlier the author of an account of Churchill and the Dardanelles Campaign, based this work on an extensive perusal of primary sources as well as other materials, and throws new light not only on the Churchill’s impact – or lack of same – on events in the period, but also reveals that his relationship with Chamberlain was less frosty than is usually depicted. Both men had the same goal, getting Britain ready for war, but they differed on when and how to carry the fight to the enemy.

Clews opens with several chapters on “Churchill as First Sea Lord”. He shows us Churchill preparing the fleet for war, working on trade protection, coping with a desire for an “offensive” solution to the U-boot threat, opposing his admirals’ demands for more new battleships (which would take too long to enter service) in favor of smaller warships, necessary to defeat the submarine menace, while resurrecting his risky World War I proposal for a Baltic operation, and also addressing problems of fleet air defense.

The second part, “Churchill and the Wider War”, looks at his ideas for offensive operations – action, not reaction – while Chamberlain and most of the government were still focusing on “getting ready”. So we learn about arguments over what actions will be least likely to provoke Germany into massed air raids on Britain, widely believed at the time to be so horrendous as to force Britain’s surrender. As a result, the RAF’s Bomber Command limited air attacks to clearly military targets, well away from possible civilian casualties, and to dropping millions of propaganda leaflets. But the Cabinet did agree to the aerial mining of German waterways, and landings in Norway, initially successful, which had to be abandoned after Germany unleashed its offensive against Netherlands, Belgium, and France, which led to Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister

While it’s possible to argue with some of Clew’s conclusions, Churchill’s Phoney War is an essential read for anyone with an interest in the war or national leadership in wartime.


Note: Churchill’s Phoney War is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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