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Former Naval Person: Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy

06 Feb 24

(originally published by Cassell, 1968)

415 pages


David Collins


One wonders whether the apparent thirst for books, articles, and commentaries about Winston Churchill will ever abate. There must be a thousand of them now covering all aspects of his life and work. It came somewhat as a surprise therefore to this reviewer to be asked to consider a reissue of the well-received volume by Peter Gretton on Churchill and the Royal Navy first published in 1968. It was reviewed in the NR at the time (Vol LVL 1968, Issue 4). 

There had been much revisionist opinion on Churchill since as to whether he was truly the saviour of the free world or more broadly a menace. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. He was a capricious politician who made as many errors as he achieved great things. He had an enormous ego, and his own voluminous writings reflect very much how he saw the world and his place in it, naturally to his advantage. Despite his huge achievements during World War II, his legacy has been tarnished by memories of the Gallipoli fiasco, his interference in military operations, his alleged racism and the fact that his second term in office as premier was less than stellar. 

That may all be, but as we consider retrospectively what Admiral Gretton wrote in 1968, did he get it hugely wrong or was he on the mark? On rereading the book (in the original) I was struck by how balanced Gretton had been in his assessments of Churchill’s work with the Royal Navy over the years. The book is certainly not hagiographic.  The highs of the enthusiasm of Winston become First Lord following the lacklustre McKenna to his period as chancellor in the 1920s when he practically bankrupted all three services are all described in detail. Gretton is also brutally honest in his assessments of the condition of the Royal Navy both before the First World War and at the beginning of the Second World War, warts and all. From flag officers who were more interesting in the brightwork in their fleets than they were in warfighting capability to the fact that the old system of promotion largely by seniority had been upgraded to one more by merit by 1940. Amusingly Gretton details at length the tussles Churchill had with the King over the naming of HM Ships. He flogged to death his proposal that a ship be named after Oliver Cromwell, seemingly insensitive to the King’s view about regicides. 

For readers interested in the minutiae of naval administration, there will be much appreciation of what Churchill achieved in reforming the navy, initially in partnership with Jackie Fisher until the two of them fell out. He was a moderniser, a reformer and an innovator, all of which the Navy needed at the time of his first stint as First Lord. What surprised this reviewer a bit was that after his electoral defeat in 1945 and during his second administration, Churchill never seemed to regain the enthusiasm he had once had for the Royal Navy. 

Gretton wrote clearly and his style remains agreeable. In his acknowledgments he gives full credit to Arthur Marder who reviewed this book (pace Captain Stephen Roskill) and whose material he used to form his judgements. On balance, I conclude that Gretton’s assessments of Churchill’s interaction with and for the navy largely hold to this day. The reprint of his book will give many a chance to refresh their knowledge of various aspects of Churchill’s political life and of the contributions he undoubtedly made to the development of the Royal Navy, along with a few miscues along the way.