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Winston Churchill: Review of the War to the House of Commons

(December 11, 1941)

I think that the military spokesman in Cairo has been pretty well justified in what he has said having regard to how things stood or seemed to stand at each moment when he said it. If anybody based their hopes on what he said, that man would find to-day he has not been misled.

The Libyan offensive did not take a course that General Auchinleck and others expected, though it will reach an end at which they aimed. Still, when all is said and done, on November 18 Auchinleck set out to destroy the entire armed forces of the Germans and Italians in Cyrenaica and now on December 11, I am bound to say it seems very probable he will do so.

Commanders beforehand had the idea the whole German armoured forces would be encountered by our armoured forces in mass at the outset, and that the battle would be decided one way or other in a few hours. This might have been the best chance for the enemy. However, sudden surprise and success of our advance prevented any such main trial of strength between the armoured forces.

Almost at the first bound we reached right up to Sidi Rezegh, dividing the enemy armoured forces and throwing them into confusion. In consequence, a very large number of fierce detached actions took place over an immense space of desert country and the battle though equally intense, became both dispersed and protracted.

General von Ravenstein, whom we captured, expressed himself very well when he said, "This warfare is a paradise to the tactician, but a nightmare to the quartermaster." Although we have large armies standing in the Middle East, we have never been able to apply, in our desert advance, infantry forces which were numerically equal to those the enemy had gradually accumulated on the coast. For us, the foundation of everything was supply and mechanized transport, and this was provided on what hitherto had been considered a fantastic scale. Also, we had to rely upon superiority in armour and in the air. But most of all in this struggle, everything depended for us upon the absolutely unrelenting spirit of the offensive, not only in the Generals, but in the troops and in every man. That has been forthcoming and is still forthcoming.

All our troops have fought all the time, in every circumstance of fatigue and hardship, with one sincere insatiable desire to engage the enemy and destroy him, if possible, tanks to tanks, man to man and hand to hand, and this is what has carried us on.

But behind all this has been the persisting will-power of the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck. Without that will-power we might very easily have subsided to the defensive and lost that precious initiative to which here, in this Libyan theatre, we have for the first time felt ourselves strong enough to make a claim.

The first main crisis of battle was reached between November 24 and 26. On the twenty-fourth, Auchinleck proceeded to his battle headquarters and on the twenty-sixth he decided to relieve General Cunningham and appoint Major-General Ritchie, a comparatively junior officer, to command of the Eighth Army in his stead. This action was immediately endorsed by the Minister of State and myself.

General Cunningham has rendered brilliant service in Abyssinia and is also responsible for the planning and organization of the present offensive in Libya, which began with surprise and success and which has now definitely turned the corner. He has since been reported by medical authorities to be suffering from serious overstrain and has been granted sick leave. Since November 26, therefore, the Eighth Army has been commanded with great vigor and skill by General Ritchie, but during nearly the whole time Auchinleck himself has been at battle headquarters.

Although the battle has not yet finished, I have no hesitation in saying that for good or ill, it is Auchinleck's battle. I believe we have found in him, as we have also found in General Wavell, a military figure of the first order.

British armoured corps of the New Zealand Division, South African Division and Indian Division, the British 17th Division and the rest of the Tobruk garrison, including the Poles, have all played an equally valiant and active part.

At the beginning of the offensive I told the House we should for the first time be fighting the Germans on equal terms with modern weapons. This was quite true. Naturally there have been some unpleasant surprises and some awkward things have happened. Who fight the Germans, fight a stubborn and resourceful foe-a foe in every way worthy of the doom prepared for him.

Some of the German tanks carried, as we knew, a six-pounder gun which, though it fires many fewer shots, is somewhat more effective than the gun with which our tanks are mainly armed. Our losses in tanks were a great deal heavier than we expected and it may be that at the outset, before it was disorganized, the enemy's recovery process for damaged vehicles worked better than ours. I am not so sure of it, but it may be so. They are very good at that. However, we had good superiority in numbers and quality to the enemy, and although the Germans have drawn in a most extravagant manner upon reinforcements from many quarters, including the Russian front, that superiority has been more than maintained.

The greatest satisfaction is expressed by the troops and by the military authorities about the way in which they have been helped and protected by the action of the R.A.F. None of the complaints in previous enterprises have reached us here upon that score.

Like other people concerned, I had hoped for a quick decision, but maybe this wearing down battle will be found in the end to have inflicted a deeper injury upon the enemy than if it had all been settled by manoeuvres and in a few days. In no other way in this Libyan attack could a second front have been brought into action under conditions more costly to the enemy and more favourable to ourselves.

This will be realized when it is remembered that about half, and some times more than half of everything, men, munitions and fuel, which the enemy sends to Africa is sunk before it gets there by our submarines, cruisers and destroyers and by the activities of our air forces, acting both from Libya and from Malta. In this way a prolongation of the battle may not be without its compensations to us. From the viewpoint of drawing the weight from the vast Russian front, continuance of fighting in its severity is not to be regarded as evil.

The first stage of the battle is now over.

The enemy has been driven out of positions which barred our western advance-positions which he most laboriously fought for. Everything has been swept away except certain pockets at Bardia and Halfaya which are hopelessly cut off and will be mopped up or starved out in due course; it may be definitely said that Tobruk has been disengaged.

The enemy, still strong but severely mauled and largely stripped of his armour, is retreating to a defensive line to the west of the Tobruk fortress, and the clearance of the approaches to Tobruk by the establishment of our air power this far forward to the west in a new airfield, enables the great supply depot of Tobruk, which has been carefully built up, to furnish support for a second phase of our offensive with great economy upon our lines and communications. Substantial reinforcements and fresh troops are available and close at hand.

The enemy, who has fought with the utmost stubbornness and enterprise, has paid the price of his audacity, and it may well be that a second phase will gather more easily the fruits of the first than has been our experience in the fighting which has taken place so far.

All fear of the Army of the Nile not being able to celebrate Christmas and New Year in Cairo has been decisively removed.

When I last spoke on the progress of the Battle of the Atlantic I said that in the four months ending with October, making allowance for new building, but not for sea captures or United States assistance, the net loss of our mercantile marine had been reduced to a great deal less than one-fifth of what it was in the four months ending June-a tremendous saving.

November has now gone by, and without revealing actual figures I am glad to say it fully maintains the great recovery of the previous four months.

In the first ten days of this month we have also found that progress and position well maintained. I turn to Russia.

Six weeks or a month ago, people were wondering whether Moscow would be taken, or Leningrad, or how soon the German would overrun the Caucasus and seize the oil-fields of Baku. Since then a striking change has become evident. The enormous power of the Russian armies and the glorious steadfastness and energy with which they have resisted the frightful onslaught made upon them have now been made plain. On top of this has come the Russian Winter and on top of that the Russian air force.

Hitler has everywhere been brought to a standstill. On a large portion of the front he is in retreat. The sufferings of his troop are indescribable. The losses have been immense. This is not the end of the winter-it is the beginning. The Russians have not gained definite superiority in the air over large parts of the front. They have great cities in which they live. Their soldiers are habituated to the severe weather and climate. They are inspired by the feelings of advance, after retreat, and of vengeance after monstrous injury. In Hitler's launching of the Nazi campaign on Russia we can already see, after less than six months' fighting that he has made one of the outstanding blunders of history, and the results so far realized constitute an event of cardinal importance in the final decision of the war. Nevertheless, we must remember the great munition capacities which have been lost to the Russians by the German invasion, and our pledges to the Russians for heavy monthly quotas of tanks, airplanes and vital raw materials which we have made.

Although, as we can fully see, our position has been altered in various important ways, not all in favourable directions, we must faithfully and punctually fulfill the very serious undertaking we have made to Russia. The scene of war has now taken an enormous and very grave expansion. The Japanese Government, or ruling elements in Japan, have made a cold-blooded, calculated, violent and treacherous attack upon the United States and our-selves. The United States have declared war upon their assailants and we and the Royal Netherlands Government have done the same. A large part of the Western Hemisphere is at war. State after State, Parliament after Parliament is following the United States. It is a great tribute to the respect for international law and for the independence of these less powerful countries which the United States has shown for many years, particularly under Presidency of Mr. Roosevelt, that so many other States in Central and South America and the West Indies-powerful and wealthy, populous communities-are in the process of throwing in their lot with the great Republic of North America.

It will not stop here. It seems to be quite certain that Japan, when she struck her treacherous and dastardly blow at the United States, counted on the active support of Germany's Navies and of the Italian Fascists. It is therefore very likely that the United States will be faced with the open hostility of Germany, Italy and Japan. We are in all this too.

Our foes are bound by the consequences of their ambitions and of their crimes to seek implacably the destruction of the English-speaking world and all that these stand for, which is a supreme barrier against their designs. If this should be their resolve, if they should declare their wish to compass the destruction of the English-speaking world, I know that I speak for the United States as well as for the British Empire when I say that we would all rather perish than be conquered. And on this basis, putting it at its worst, there are quite a lot of us to be killed.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek has announced his decision to declare war against Japan and against Japan's partners in guilt, Germany and Italy. He further assured me that the whole of the resources of China are at the disposal of Great Britain and the United States. China's cause is henceforth our cause.

The country which has faced the Japanese assault for over four years with undaunted courage is indeed a worthy ally, and it is as allies that from now on we will go forward together to victory not only over Japan alone but over the Axis and all its works. The Japanese onslaught has brought upon the United States and Great Britain very serious injuries to our naval power.

In the whole of my experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful as the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse on Monday last. These two vast ships constituted an essential feature in our plans for the fight against the new Japanese danger as it loomed against us in the last few months. These ships had reached the right point at the right moment and were in every respect suited to the task assigned to them.

In moving to attack Japanese transports and landing-craft which were disembarking invaders at Siam and Malaya at the Kra Isthmus or thereabouts, Admiral Phillips was undertaking a thoroughly sound and well-known offensive operation, not indeed free from risks, but not any different in principle from many similar operations we have repeatedly carried out in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. Both ships were sunk by repeated air attacks by bombers and torpedo aircraft. These attacks were delivered with skill and determination. There were two high level attacks both of which scored hits and three waves of torpedo aircraft of nine in each wave which struck each of our ships with several torpedoes. There is no reason to suppose that any new weapons or explosives were employed or that any bombs or torpedoes of exceptional size were used. Continued waves of attack achieved their purpose and both ships capsized and sank having destroyed seven of the attacking aircraft. The escorting destroyers came immediately to the rescue and have now arrived in Singapore crowded with survivors. There is reason to believe that the loss of life has been less heavy than was at first feared. But I regret that Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips is among those reported missing.

He was well-known to us at Whitehall, and his long service in the Admiralty in a central position as Vice-Chief of Naval Staff made him many friends who mourn his loss. Personally I regard him as one of the ablest brains in the naval service and I felt honoured to have established personal friendship with him. On his way out, I was most anxious that he should see General Smuts and so was he, and a long interview was arranged between the great statesman and the naval officer whose long service at or near the summit of the Admiralty had made him acquainted with every aspect of war. It is a heavy loss that we have suffered.

I hope that in a short time it will be possible to inform the relatives of the many who have safely arrived at Singapore from both of these great ships. Still, the loss of life has been most melancholy. Naturally I should not be prepared to discuss the resulting situation in the Far East and in the Pacific or the measures which must be taken to restore it.

It may well be that we shall have to suffer considerable punishment, but we shall defend ourselves everywhere with the utmost vigor in close co-operation with the United States and Netherlands Navies. The naval power of Great Britain and the United States was very greatly superior and is still largely superior to the combined forces of the three Axis Powers.

But no one can underrate the gravity of the loss which has been inflicted in Malaya and Hawaii, or the power of our new antagonist who has fallen upon us, or the length of time it will take to create, marshal and mount a great force in the Far East which will be necessary to achieve absolute victory. We have had a very hard period to go through and a new surge of impulse will be required and will be forthcoming from everybody.

We must faithfully keep our engagements to Russia in supplies and at the same time must expect, at any rate for the next few months, that the volume of American supplies reaching Britain and the degree of help given by the United States Navy will be reduced.

This gap must be filled and only our own efforts will fill it. I cannot doubt, however, now that the 130,000,000 people in the United States have bound themselves to this war, that the flow of munitions and aid of every kind will vastly exceed anything that could have been expected on the peace-time basis that has ruled up to the present. Not only the British Empire now, but the United States, are fighting for their life.

Behind these two great combatant communities are ranged all the spirit and hopes of all the conquered countries in Europe prostrate under the cruel domination of the foe. It would indeed bring shame upon our generation if we did not teach them a lesson which will not be forgotten in the records for thousands of years.

Sources: ibiblio