Authority if the British Prime Minister

I am reading Churchill’s History of the Second World War.
While PM, he is unable to forbid the Admiralty from sending a convoy with much needed tanks to Malta on the longer journey around Cape Horn rather than across the Mediterranean. When the Admiralty proposes to let a French battleship travel to Toulon to be completed, he cannot forbid it, but tells the Admiralty that it will be held responsible.
Yet he seems confused that FDR cannot merely order fifty American destroyers to be given to Britain without Congressional approval.
How does the British system work?

The British Prime Minister isn’t the Commander-in-Chief like the President of the US is; that role calls to the Sovereign, but the Sovereign only acts on the advise of his/her ministers. IIRC the PM isn’t actually part of the chain of command so s/he can directly give orders to military, they have to relayed thru the Minister of Defence (granted the Minister is unlikely to go against the PM unless there’s a severe breakdown in Cabinet discipline). The Ministry of Defence didn’t exist until the '60s though. During WWII there were separate War & Air Ministries, and the Admiralty was a government ministry in an of itself; each with it’s own minister (well secretary of state). Churchill ended up creating the position of Minister of Defence for himself so he could insert himself into the chain of command and take more direct role in leading the war.

True, but even then as Commander-in-chief the president would need authority to dispose of federal assets. He could detach 50 destroyers and assign them to work with the Royal Navy, but an outright transfer of ownership would be outside his C-in-C authority, wouldn’t it?

The Ministry of Defense didn’t exist until the 1960s, yet Churchill made himself Minister of Defense in 1940.
This is a British thing, isn’t it?
I mean, I knew that…

I recall his asking permission from the King or Parliament to make himself minister of defence, but that was 1,200 pages ago.

Possibly this was a strategm to put pressure on FDR to push this forward.

I don’t think Churchill could have given away fifty British destroyers either. He was just surprised (or feigned to be) that Roosevelt’s authority as Commander-in-Chief didn’t extend that far.

I think that should be the Cape of Good Hope, not Cape Horn! (i.e. around Africa, not around South America.)

Regarding Churchill’s authority, as he says in his history of WW2,

“The reader must not forget that I never wielded autocratic powers, and always had to move with and focus political and professional opinion.”

We have a Minister without portfolio, so it’s perfectly rational to have a Minister 20 years before the Ministry is created.

Normally a Minister is head of a Ministry. But in this case he was just the Minister that was in charge of defence. Not the Minister who was head of the Ministry that was in charge of defence.

Specifically, Churchill’s role as Minister for Defence was to co-ordinate the contribution to the war effort of the three service departments - Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry - each of which also had its own Minister. However the Ministers in charge of the individual service departments did not sit in the War Cabinet - the inner group of Cabinet charged with conduct of the war. Churchill himself, obviously, did.

This structure of senior Minister for Defence with separate service ministers for each service department continued until 1964, when the three departments were unified into a single Ministry of Defence, headed by a Secretary of State for Defence.

In other words he appointed hmself to be what’s called the joint chief of staffs today

Several of his communications with FDR seem to be manipulative.

Thanks, everyone.

No. The Chiefs of Staff Committeeexisted since before and throughout the war. It consisted of the professional heads of the three services (Royal Navy, The British Army and the Royal Air Force ) and on occassion heads of the Commonwealth militaries… Churchill or any PM was not nor is he a member of this.

The head of the Committe was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (“CIGS”, pronounced “sigs”). The officers who were CIGS during the war were

General Sir Edmund ironside (replaced shortly after Churchill became PM)
General Sir John DIll (till 1941)
Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, till wars end.

Brooke’s diaries are the other big source of information about the war besides Churchill’s own writings.

The general(!) thrust of them? “Winston is a nutter”.

That’s politics. FDR wasn’t always transparent.

On the original point, I think it comes down to the point that a political leader has to judge how far the experts want to push their opposition to an idea, and could s/he face the prospect of resignations or having to sack someone so as to get the relevant orders and plans prepared and dispatched. In the middle of a war, the last thing you want is the appearance, never mind the reality, of turmoil at the top.

Going a little off topic, I’ve read Churchill’s history of WW2, and I’m now busy reading his history of WW1.

I’m only on the first volume, but I’m finding it even more fascinating than WW2. The view we usually get of WW1 is ‘from the trenches’, so it’s very interesting to see the top-down view of the war.

Even if Churchill couldn’t personally order the military to do specific things, he (or rather, the majority of Parliament that he commanded) could replace the men who could order them, right? Though of course, that would bear a political cost, since presumably he’s the one who put them in their positions in the first place, and so replacing them could trigger a vote of no confidence, right?

Speaking of a First Lord of the Admiralty (sending tanks to Malta by a short, more dangerous route), Churchill said (I paraphrase) “I knew that if he would not do it, no one would, and I could not force him.”

“Winston is nutters”, I like that.

There was never any question of a vote of no confidence during the war.

Churchill could basically replace top commanders whenever he liked, though he would discuss it with the War Cabinet first. But he didn’t like to interfere with ‘the men on the ground’, who might be in a better situation to understand local conditions, and who bore the responsibility. A commander really had to screw up or show himself to be useless to be replaced.

“I was entirely resolved to keep my full power of war-direction. This could only be exercised by combining the offices of Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. More difficulty and toil are often incurred in overcoming opposition and adjusting divergent and conflicting views than by having the right to give decisions oneself. It is most important that at the summit there should be one mind playing over the whole field, faithfully aided and corrected, but not divided in its integrity.”

  • Churchill

On the other hand, there is only so much the person at the top can do, and

“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.”

  • Churchill

My favorite Churchill quote from Their Finest Hour is a footnote to an order to make the water “unpotable” when the British evacuate an area: "This is the horrid word that was in use at the time to mean “undrinkable”. I am sorry.

Oh yes there was