Subscribe now and receive weekly newsletters with educational materials, new courses, interesting posts, popular books, and much more!
Great Contemporaries: Archibald Sinclair, the Last War Casualty
During the last week of May 1940, Belgium was nearing unconditional surrender and France on the verge of capitulation to Hitler. In London, at tense War Cabinet meetings, Prime Minister Winston Churchill faced a critical challenge. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax was pressing him to pursue peace negotiations, using Mussolini as an intermediary. Fate hung on the Cabinet’s decision.
The most crucial meeting convened at 4:30 p.m. on 27 May. Churchill ensured that Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal Party, was present. His friend and former protégé, Sinclair firmly supported Churchill’s view that no good could come of peace overtures. He was convinced, he said, of the futility of approach to Italy: “Being in a tight corner, any weakness on our part would encourage the Germans and the Italians, and would tend to undermine morale both in this country and in the Dominions.” The suggestion that the British were “prepared to barter away pieces of British territory would have a deplorable effect and would make it difficult for us to continue the desperate struggle which faced us.”
The Labour members Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood agreed with Sinclair. With their backing, Churchill declared he was “increasingly oppressed with the futility of the suggested approach to Signor Mussolini.” The tide had turned against Halifax’s initiative.
A privileged youth
Archibald “Archie” Sinclair was born on 22 October 1890 to a land-owning Scottish family. Both his parents died before he was age five. Sinclair attended Eton and Sandhurst before being commissioned in June 1910 to the 2nd Life Guards. In 1912, on the death of his grandfather, Sinclair inherited 100,000 acres in northern Scotland, becoming “laird of a great estate.” As a young man he cut a glamorous figure in society with “good looks, charm, and Highland aura.” His life consisted of regimental duties, social engagements, polo, and shooting and fishing on his estate. (It was said that his “heart was in the Highlands.”) With his daring nature he also took up flying, frequently taking off before breakfast in the morning.
Sinclair met Churchill, then a Liberal Member of Parliament in the Asquith Cabinet, before the First World War. They became lifelong friends with much in common. Both had American mothers and “swashbuckling Yankee grandfathers.” Both experienced unhappy childhoods, both had speech impediments—a bad stammer on Sinclair’s part, a lisp on Churchill’s. Both were cavalry officers, polo and flying enthusiasts, and ardent Free Traders. Their relationship has been compared to that of father and son, but Sinclair’s biographer Gerard De Groot thinks this a stretch. “The two were at various times brothers, rivals, confidants,” De Groot writes. “They were always friends.”
Churchill was “delighted to discover a young disciple” in Sinclair, De Groot continues. And “it was relatively easy for Archie to fall into the role of Churchill’s protégé.” In April 1914, Churchill arranged for Sinclair to meet Liberal officials to discuss a political career. It was decided that Sinclair would stand at the next election if a “suitable constituency” could be found.
Sinclair and Churchill at the Front
The First World War disrupted these plans. Churchill, however, kept “an alert and protective eye” on his young friend. In 1915, he intervened to get Sinclair appointed aide-de-camp to Liberal MP Jack Seely. Another Churchill intimate, “Galloping Jack” would lead Canadian cavalry in the Battle of Moreuil Wood (1918). Twenty years after Omdurman, it was one of the last great British cavalry charges. Stationed on the Western Front, Sinclair was a success in his post and popular with the Canadians.
Resigning from the Asquith cabinet in November 1915, Churchill rejoined the army and went to France. In January he took command of 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. As his second-in-command Churchill wanted either Sinclair or Edward Spears. Spears was deemed unavailable by the high command, so the post fell to Sinclair.
Over the next four months Churchill and Sinclair served together, surviving several near misses in the trenches and forward areas. “Archie,” Churchill wrote, “is most courageous, conscientious and hard-working but he hates every hour of [the war] with a profound loathing.” Sinclair remained in France in May 1916, when Churchill returned to London and resumed his active political career. Concerned about his protégé, Churchill offered Sinclair a job as a liaison officer in London, away from danger.
Much to Churchill’s annoyance, Sinclair refused the appointment. He was young and fit, he reasoned, and could not take “the softest of soft job.” He chose to remain on the Western Front. In France he met Marigold Forbes and they were married in Boulogne just a few weeks later. It proved a long and happy marriage, blessed by four children.
Archie in peacetime
After the war, Sinclair spent two years as a personal military secretary to Churchill at the War Office. In 1921 he followed his patron to the Colonial Office, even though it required his resignation from the army. In 1922 Sinclair ran in the general election as a supporter of the Lloyd George wing of the splintered Liberal Party. He was elected to Parliament for the constituency of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland. Churchill, meanwhile, was defeated at Dundee and was out of Parliament for the next two years. He was eventually reelected in 1924 and soon thereafter returned to the Conservative Party.
Sinclair, a devout Liberal, did not follow Churchill to the Conservatives. But his party was dwindling, increasingly divided, and destined never again to form a government. In November 1930, Sinclair became Liberal Chief Whip. The next year, upon formation of the National Government, which the Liberals joined, he was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland. He remained in the government for only a year. In September 1932, he and the other Free Trade Liberals resigned over protectionist measures adopted in the Ottawa Economic Agreement.
Churchill, who retained a liking for Liberals like Sinclair and Violet Bonham-Carter, was unimpressed by the resignation. He chided Sinclair that the Protectionism was not sufficient cause to quit the government, even though he himself had left the Conservatives over it in 1904. Times had changed, Churchill argued. One needed “an official dunghill of one’s own to crow from, no matter how small or redolent it may be.”
The 1935 general election was a disaster for the Liberal Party, which elected only twenty-one members, Sinclair among them. A reluctant Sinclair took over as leader despite his party being “deeply demoralized.”
Appeasement and war again
Despite some criticism from within his own party ranks, Sinclair opposed the appeasement policies of the Conservative governments under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. He supported collective security through the League of Nations and an understanding with Russia. In Parliament he pressed for a strong air force and other military defenses. On 3 December 1936, he joined Churchill at the Royal Albert Hall for the “Arms and the Covenant” meeting, a failed attempt to unite opposition to appeasement.
Two years later Sinclair defied prevailing opinion in the House of Commons and the country by opposing Chamberlain’s Munich agreement. In the Munich debate he told the Commons: “A policy which imposes injustice on a small and weak nation and tyranny on free men and women can never be the foundation of lasting peace.” After Munich, Sinclair intensified his campaign for rearmament and urged the appointment of Churchill as Minister for the Coordination of Defence.
Sinclair declined the offer of a cabinet post from Chamberlain at the start of the Second World War in September 1939. Eight months later he spoke against the government in the Norway debate. That brought Churchill to the premiership at the head of a coalition government including Labour and the Liberals. Sinclair was appointed Secretary of State for Air. As civilian head of the Royal Air Force, his role was somewhat limited in scope. The service ministers for the army, air force and navy were left outside of the War Cabinet. Churchill as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, with the Chiefs of Staff, set military policy, strategy and operations. Thus Sinclair was removed from highest-level decision-making, and performed a more administrative role, albeit essential and exhausting.
The perils of fighting with allies
As Air Minister, Sinclair was hampered by his old friendship with Churchill. It was claimed that the the Prime Minister treated him as a mere “subaltern and social companion,” giving him more criticism than warranted. Sinclair for his part was accused of never standing up to Churchill, a charge made against many in the Cabinet. De Groot notes, “having once been his protégé he could never be on equal terms with him.” Unlike Lord Beaverbrook, Leo Amery, or Clement Attlee, Sinclair could never speak or argue with Churchill as an equal. Sinclair was also plagued by exhausting quarrels with Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding of Fighter Command, and Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
Dowding hated Sinclair for what he thought was a failure to help him stop Churchill from wasting precious fighter squadrons in France in May 1940. The Air Ministry had long wished to rid themselves of Dowding, who was unceremoniously retired in November 1940. Coming as it did after winning the Battle of Britain, this displeased the Prime Minister.
Beaverbrook’s ministry had been formed because Churchill harbored doubts about the Air Ministry’s ability to produce planes. An old Churchill crony and a newspaper baron, Beaverbrook was a formidable adversary. Although a capable administrator, he was a duplicitous, manipulative intriguer: a bull, or perhaps a beaver, in a china shop. Relentlessly he tried to wrest more powers away from the Air Ministry, and Churchill usually sided with him.
Sinclair doggedly defended his interests, and much time was wasted in their quarrels. Beaverbrook routinely went to Churchill with threats to resign, and the PM became exasperated refereeing disputes. It is noteworthy that the relationship between the Air Ministry and Aircraft Production quickly improved after Beaverbrook finally resigned in April 1941. It is also notable that despite their quarrels, Sinclair and Beaverbrook remained friends.
Sinclair and the Air Staff
At the Air Ministry Sinclair’s military counterpart was the incumbent Chief of Air Staff Cyril Newall. Although unfairly criticized, Newall was not the best the RAF had, and was replaced in October 1940 by Sir Charles Portal, an entirely superior air marshal. Sinclair established a strong partnership with Portal. Working together, they resisted Churchill’s sacking of the capable Arthur Tedder in the Middle East in 1941 and the appointment of Sholto Douglas as Vice Chief of the Air Staff two years later.
As Air Minister, Sinclair strongly supported the bombing campaign against Germany. In common with RAF thinking, he believed that bombing was a war-winner that could bring about the collapse of Germany. The campaign has been criticized as ineffective, a waste of resources, and morally unjust in its killing of civilians. Sinclair, unconflicted by the moral aspects, believed all measures should be used to defeat Nazi Germany. He never tried to disclaim his responsibility for the bombing of Dresden and other German cities.
After the defeat of Germany, Sinclair and the Liberals were prepared to remain in the coalition government until the defeat of Japan. Attlee and Labour were not, and Churchill formed a “caretaker government,” pending the election on 5 July 1945. In that brief Cabinet, Sinclair was succeeded as Air Secretary by Harold Macmillan.
The election brought an abrupt end to Sinclair’s career. He was defeated at Caithness and Sutherland in a result that saw the top three candidates separated by just sixty-one votes. Sinclair had paid the political price for having devoted himself to his Cabinet position and, by necessity, neglected his constituency. An attempt to reenter the House of Commons in the 1950 election also ended in defeat.
In 1952, Sinclair was created Viscount Thurso but soon suffered a severe stroke, and two years of difficult rehabilitation followed. Suffering with ill-health, he nevertheless took his place in the House of Lords in 1954. Over the next three years he took an active role in debates. He attended his last meeting of The Other Club on 24 July 1958. The next year he suffered a greater stroke from which he never recovered. Long bedridden, he died on 15 June 1970.
Lord Beaverbrook, his friend and nemesis, called Archibald Sinclair one of the “unremembered heroes of the war.” During Sinclair’s long illness Beaverbrook wrote: “He did so much over five years and worried so greatly on account of the boys who lost their lives that [it] is no wonder that he is now a war casualty.”
Gerard J. De Groot, Liberal Crusader: The Life of Sir Archibald Sinclair. London: Hurst & Company, 1993.
Ian Hunter, ed., Winston and Archie: The Collected Correspondence of Winston Churchill and Sir Archibald Sinclair. London: Politico’s, 2005.
Dr. Tolppanen is Professor of Library Services, History Librarian and head of Circulation Services at Eastern Illinois University. He is the author of the definitive study, Churchill in North America, 1929.