Don’t weary of war

Don’t weary of war

On 25 May 1941 Churchill called my father to his office. My father ran the North Atlantic convoys shipping essential supplies between the United States and Britain. It had been my father’s birthday two days before but the Prime Minister had not called him to deliver good wishes. The war was not going well for Britain. Because of the effectiveness of the German U-boats, losses of tonnage and lives in the convoys had been heavy. The previous day the top British battleship, HMS Hood, had been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. Churchill had made up his mind to sink the Bismarck.

To do so, he told my father, he would have to take all the escorts off the convoys. Since the news of the sinking of the Hood my father had feared this was a possibility. He had an immediate response to Churchill’s demands. Losses, already around 40% of the tonnage being shipped, would increase to 60%. The number of sailors lost would increase proportionately the same. Their conversation was polite but one-sided. Churchill was adamant.

The Bismark was sunk on 27 May 1941. It was one year and eight months since war had been declared. The mood in Britain had been increasingly weary of battle and repeated defeats. On sinking the Bismarck optimism returned and the war started to go in Britain’s favour. In December, the United States joined the war. My father agreed that, in spite of the extra losses we had suffered from unescorted convoys, Churchill had been right. 

He had recognised the vital need to retaliate HMS Hood’s sinking.

But Churchill had recognised more than that, I think. Twenty months into the fighting, a certain war weariness was starting to take hold. At the start we had been promised a six month war, then a year. People rally at the first call to arms to defend their country. But losses of people and life-support needs, changes in seasonal weather, reluctance of allies to join the fray and evidence of impending tougher times all combine to make the futility and absurdity of war start to take over from the principles being defended.

Ukraine is now into the fifteenth month of defending its territory against an unprovoked attack by Russia. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy notices the start of war weariness which he suspects will become even more ingrained by October. That will be the twentieth month of the war, with the prospect of another winter of loss and suffering looming. He is rightly making the case to all his allies for greater help and more decisive weapons.

The critical time in any dispute is when one side alone starts to rationalise withdrawal.

If both sides demonstrate that they are willing to discuss it, there is hope of peace.

Until that happens I want to maintain the right of people to live as they wish. I also wish for the right to write what I think. Thanks to my father and the millions who shared this view in the 1940s, I am still able to do so.

Today would have been my father’s 130th birthday. I celebrate the unswerving courage that he and his compatriots and our allies exercised to avoid war weariness. I bless them for their understanding of when a principle matters most.

And I echo Churchill’s plea. “Give ‘em the tools and they’ll finish the job”.

Good morning

John BIttleston 

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23 May 2023