Can Churchill survive defeats in the Far East ?

Winston Churchill with the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Stafford Cripps, and the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, on the quarterdeck of HMS KING GEORGE V at Scapa Flow, 11 October 1942.

The beginning of 1942 was a particularly bleak period for the British. Churchill had returned from his successful visit to the White House to face domestic politics – and a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

Since then there had been reverses in North Africa, and in the Far East a series of disasters had led to the fall of Singapore. The Japanese continued their advance in Burma and the omens for the British Empire did not look good. Even the German’s successful ‘Channel Dash’ had contributed to the sense that all was not well with the war effort.

Now Churchill re-shuffled his Cabinet and brought in Sir Stafford Cripps, previously Ambassador to Moscow and a leading socialist. Some saw in him a potential successor to Churchill himself. Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to Britain, assessed the situation in a despatch to President Roosevelt on 6th March:

Although the British are keeping a stiff upper lip, the surrender of their troops at Singapore has shattered confidence to the core – even in themselves but, more particularly, in their leaders. They don’t intend to take it lying down and I am satisfied we will see the rebirth of greater determination. At the moment, however, they can’t see the end to defeats.

Unfortunately Singapore shook the Prime Minister himself to such an extent that he has not been able to stand up to this adversity with his old vigor. A number of astute people, both friends and opponents, feel it is only a question of a few months before his Government falls.

I cannot accept this view. He has been very tired but is better in the last day or two. I believe he will come back with renewed strength, particularly when the tone of the war improves.

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