11 JANUARY 1992, Page 24

Fighting with the Prime Minister

Richard Lamb

FISHER AND CUNNINGHAM: A STUDY OF THE PERSONALITIES OF THE CHURCHILL ERA by Richard 011ard Constable, £15.99, pp. 192 Richard 011ard has had full access to Admiral Andrew Cunningham's papers and diaries, and from them gives an authorita- tive account of Cunningham's running feud with Winston Churchill during the second world war.

011ard recalls the touching incident when Churchill, in March 1916, from the Opposi- tion benches in the Commons, pleaded with Asquith to reinstate Admiral Jackie Fisher as First Sea Lord in spite of Fisher having ruined Churchill's political career by resigning during the Dardanelles crisis. Churchill showed no such generosity to Cunningham.

Their first clash came over the sinking of the French Fleet at Mers el Kebir (Oran) in July 1940 after the fall of France. Churchill overruled his Admirals and was solely responsible for the bombardment in which nearly 1500 French sailors died. After the war Admirals Cunningham, North and Somerville agreed it was 'a ghastly error which could easily have been averted'. Cunningham was C-in-C Mediterranean and his signals from Alexandria to the Admiralty strongly opposing 'force' against the French Fleet were ill-received by Churchill, and in the 'We used to drink to success. Now we just drink to excess.' Prime Minister's eyes Cunningham com- pounded his fault when, with great negoti- ating skill, he persuaded the French Admiral Godfrey to immobilise the French battle fleet which was moored at Alexan- dria. There was no fighting and Churchill felt Cunningham's bloodless success put his action at Oran 'in a different light from which he wanted it to be viewed'. Churchill never forgave Cunningham for this.

011ard is scathing because Martin Gilbert in his official biography of Churchill is 'silent' on Churchill ignoring Cunningham's and the other Admirals' opposition to Mers el Kebir, and writes that Gilbert's chapter gives 'no clear impression of what hap- pened there and why'.

When Stephen Roskill was writing his official history, The War at Sea, Churchill was again Prime Minister and insisted on reading the draft. As a result, Roskill was unable to contradict Churchill's tenden- tious account in his memoirs of how the Mers el Kebir decision was taken. In the Public Record Office I read (although 011ard does not refer to it) the minutes of one meeting of the Cabinet Offices Histori- cal Committee in 1952 at which General Playfair, the official historian, said no account of the decision over Mers el Kebir should be published which contradicted Churchill. Cunningham, a member of the Committee, objected vigorously but in vain, stating that if the truth about how the Admirals had objected at the time was made plain it would remove the bitterness created by the Oran incident with the French.

The second major row between Churchill and Cunningham was over a hare-brained scheme by Churchill in 1941 to capture the island of Pantellaria where Mussolini built a modern aerodrome. Cunningham report- ed that its capture created no problem but its maintenance would throw an intolerable strain on the Navy and Air Force. Churchill was furious and the break widened even further when Cunningham vetoed another foolhardy scheme of Churchill's to sink the battleship Barham at Tripoli in order to block the harbour. This would have entailed sending several hundred sailors to almost certain death. 011ard terms this plan 'strategical imbecility'. To Churchill's extreme annoyance Cunningham flatly refused to permit the Barham to sail from Alexandria with most of her company under sentence of death.

Churchill went on sending aggravating 'prodding messages', implying Cunningham lacked an offensive spirit because he was unwilling to risk his battleships in the Mediterranean. Cunningham responded firmly that until more destroyers were available it was impossible. to screen the battleships.

While Crete was being evacuated in May 1941 the quarrel came to its climax. After Cunningham lost two cruisers and four destroyers sunk, plus one battleship put out of action for months and two other cruis- ers considerably damaged, he ordered his Fleet not to operate north of the island in daylight. Churchill refused to agree, saying that the Fleet and the RAF must 'accept whatever risk' is entailed to prevent the Germans reaching Crete by sea by night or day, 'even though the losses incurred will be considerable'.

Relations sank to such a low ebb that Churchill replaced Cunningham as C-in-C Mediterranean with Admiral Harwood whom Cunningham thought 'inadequate'. At the same time Churchill in the Com- mons denigrated Cunningham's brother, General Alan Cunningham, who had been sacked from command of the Eighth Army. Cunningham wrote in his diary that his brother had been made the scapegoat 'for Churchill's boasting before the battle began'; 01lard comments that at that stage Cunningham looked on Churchill as 'a bounder and adventurer'.

After all the rows it might perhaps he thought generous of Churchill to have agreed to Cunningham becoming First Lord in October 1943. However, Cunning- ham recorded in his diary that Churchill accepted him only 'grudgingly', and had told Alexander, the First Lord:

If the Admiralty do not do as I say I will bring down the Board in ruins, even if it means my coming down with it.

Once in Whitehall, Cunningham's diary comments on Churchill are as derogatory as Alanbrooke's. He refers to Churchill's 'hectoring and rudeness' and 'too much alcohol': a devastating entry is: 'What a drag on the wheel this man can be'; anoth- er: 'He has such a crooked mind that he is suspicious of the Chiefs of Staff.' It was a great relief to Cunningham when Attlee sometimes presided at meetings.

This book brings to life the quarrels between Churchill and his Admirals, of which there is no hint in his own memoirs or the official histories.