Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Churchill Series - May 20, 2009

(One of a series of daily posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Readers Note: The following post, first published in December 2005, is my favorite Series posts.


At a critical time during World War II, an American military leader Churchill trusted set in motion plans to thwart something he felt the Prime Minister was planning.

It sounds ominous, but if you read on, I think you'll agree things worked out for the best.

Just before Pearl Harbor, Churchill sacked Britain's Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Sir John Dill. It was arranged that Dill would finish out the war in a backwater post.

Following Pearl Harbor, Churchill decided to go to Washington to develop joint American-British war plans. He knew the British would need Dill's knowledge at what would be complicated and contentious planning sessions.

So Dill was brought along with Churchill's party to give what he had, and then be shuffled off.

But it came about that he stayed on in Washington in a new position; one in which he made a vital contribution to the war effort.

How so?

Well, since the American and British chiefs of staff would jointly plan Allied strategy and allocate scarce resources; and since the joint chiefs would meet only occasionally for planning sessions; there was a need for liaison between the two nations' chiefs between meetings.

That difficult task was given to Dill.

It was agreed he could best fulfill it in Washington with direct access by cable to each of the British chiefs and right to attend the American chiefs' meetings.

Dill performed splendidly. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said no one surpassed Dill in explaining to the chiefs of each nation the ideas, needs and temperaments of the chiefs of the other nation.

But during the first months of 1944, with D-Day approaching, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall feared both countries' chiefs would lose Dill's service because Churchill felt Dill was tipping too much in the Americans favor. Marshall thought Churchill might recall Dill.

Marshall wanted to convince Churchill that Dill was so well thought of in America that recalling him would harm Allied relations.

So Marshall hatched a scheme.

What if Harvard gave Dill an honorary degree, he asked an aide. Wouldn't that impress Churchill? The PM wouldn't want to pull such a man out of the States, would he?

The aide was dispatched to Harvard whose president said he would like to but there was so much that went into an honorary degree, he didn't see how it could be done.

The aide duly reported back to Marshall.

"Try Yale," Marshall barked.

Yale had some of the same problems with an honorary degree as Harvard. But its President, Charles Seymour, said Yale could award Dill the Charles P. Howland Prize.

And what was that?

It was awarded for outstanding contributions to international understanding.

The award ceremony, President Seymour said, would include mace, academic procession, anthems, etc.

Marshall thought that would all be just fine.

The War Department informed the press that the Chief of Staff would be taking time from his very busy schedule to travel to New Haven to attend this most important award ceremony. What's more, Secretary of War Simpson and Asst. Secretary of War Lovett were also planning to attend.

The press reported on the ceremony with what Simpson later called a big "splash." Marshall stayed long after the ceremony talking informally to the press and posing for pictures, actions not typical of the General.

Soon other colleges and universities, including The College of William and Mary and Columbia University awarded Dill honorary doctorates.

Marshall later told the aide he'd heard Churchill had said, "Dill must be doing quite a job over there."

Of course, there was no more talk of recall.
Forrest C. Pogue,
George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory. (pgs. 336-337)


Anonymous said...

George Marshall was truly a great individual as well. What has never ceased to amaze me are the number of individuals who were willing to do great things, undertake tremendous hardships, and for some sacrifice their lives, to eliminate the scourge of Naziism and fascism - not looking for glory, wealth, or honor - but who did so because they kenw it was the right and only thing to do.

Danvers said...

What a great pity that today America lacks the same calibre of leadership amongst its politicians, as that exhibited by Roosevelt, Eisenhower etc! Conversely just imagine the outcome of WW2 had BHO, Biden and Pelosi been the senior political figures in power at that time.

Churchill would indeed have been a man singularly alone!

Rick Drake said...


And if I'm not mistaken, Dill is the only foreigner to be buried at Arlington.

Thanks for this insight. Please alert your readers to the Marshall Foundation web site at

The George C. Marshall Foundation perpetuates the legacy of George Marshall. We are the keepers of the flame. Our job is to remind everyone of the remarkable example of George Marshall as the ultimate citizen-soldier. While there are other Marshall organizations out there, not one of them is focused on educating the public about George Marshall’s exemplary leadership, unimpeachable ethics and selfless public service and providing a contemporary context for understanding his extraordinary life.