Sir Max Hastings, eminent military historian and war journalist, has subtitled this fat volume, “Churchill as Warlord 1940-1945.” It is a subject he knows well. Readers may groan at the thought of more “Churchilliana”. I disagree. By any definition Churchill was a giant among men and it is bracing and salutary to read of real leadership when so often we are led by pygmies. Hastings does not provide new material here, or a revision of the revision; bringing together the wealth of his research in his other studies of the period, he provides an intimate and deeply affectionate – but not adulatory – portrait. We of this generation are fortunate not to have lived through a world war. Indeed, because of the memory of it there is a profound and healthy wish for permanent peace. But in 1939 peace at any price was not an option and we should be grateful that a man emerged who understood this and whose supreme gifts of oratory articulated the deepest and best thoughts of his fellow countrymen.
Hastings lays down his cards in his introduction by describing Churchill as “the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.” He accepts that Churchill was “a warrior to the roots of his soul”, instinctively on the attack and not an appeaser. The appeasers of the period, principally Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, do not come out well, but Hastings is fair to them; after the horrors of the Great War it was natural for men to flinch from a second. But Churchill had the clear vision to see that Hitler was evil; that he must be opposed at all costs; and that nothing must come in the way of this fight to the death. When on 19 July 1940, Hitler publicly offered Britain a choice between peace and “unending suffering and misery”, Churchill responded with inimitable panache, “I don’t propose to say anything in reply to Herr Hitler’s speech, not being on speaking terms with him.”
There are many similar ripostes, examples of wit and legendary anecdotes which have been well-rehearsed and circulated. Hastings includes them, alongside his hero’s flaws, as a contrast to the other leaders who dominated the world scene: Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt. Enough ink has been spilled on explaining the warped and hideous psychology of the first two; Roosevelt, although a great democrat and US president was, in Hastings’ estimation, also a cold fish; cautious, aloof, reluctant to engage in the combat, superficially a man of personal charm but entirely lacking the warmth and humanity of the English prime minister. Churchill had Roosevelt’s measure; Hastings believes it is to his great credit that he patiently continued to woo the president, despite rebuffs, knowing that without US help Britain could not possibly defeat Hitler. In this he prepared the ground well before the attack on Pearl Harbour and ensured America’s engagement in Europe as well as the Far East.
Hastings is a clear and powerful prose writer; his account of the fortunes of the Front is gripping and measured, even if he has a small (though understandable) weakness for superlatives. Interspersed with the sheer logistics of a world war are shrewd, incisive pen portraits of some of the principal players, such as Lord Beaverbrook, Wavell, Brooke, Bevin and Attlee. Churchill had to contend with the knowledge that too many of the army’s senior officers were “agreeable men who lacked the killer instinct for victory.” Nor were the Tommies a fighting machine equal to the Germans. Montgomery was the first commander, despite his overweening vanity, to display the necessary steel. Clement Attlee was consistently loyal, Ernest Bevin had greatness, Aneurin Bevan was churlish, constantly sniping at the PM in the Commons.
Churchill did not find Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, a congenial colleague. This was reciprocated, but both men respected each other, determined to make victory their common cause. Brooke recognised that his boss’s genius for war “was flawed by an enthusiasm for dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions, more appropriate to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast, industrial war effort.” There was bungling in the Aegean, bungling in the bombing of German cities and more bungling with the operations of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Dowding, the Air Chief Marshall, rightly commented, we “made fewer blunders than the other side, which is how all battles are won.”
The end of the war brought many disappointments, not least losing the General Election, when the electorate sensibly divined that their prime minister had not brought his mind to bear on the problems of post-War Britain, exhausted, bankrupt and about to lose her empire. As disappointing was the Yalta Conference where, with Roosevelt very sick and Stalin determined on compensation for his country’s colossal sacrifice during the War, Churchill fought for a free Poland in vain: “It seemed to him unbearably tragic that impending Allied victory should merely offer a new servitude to the people on whose behalf Britain had declared war…” Over this and other controversies, such as the enforced repatriation of Russian soldiers who had fought on the German side, Hastings soberly comments, “The integrity of Allied purposes in World War Two was inescapably compromised by association with the tyranny of Stalin to defeat that of Hitler. Once this evil was conceded, lesser ones remorselessly followed.”
Throughout, Hastings rightly emphasises the importance of Churchill’s speeches, a unique combination of simplicity of purpose allied to grandeur of expression, and their impact on the listening world. Churchill, a man deeply confident of his destiny to lead his country, believed passionately in “this long island story”. In the House of Commons on 4 June 1940, when France had fallen, there was fear that the Germans might invade and the US stayed watching and waiting in the wings, he stated, “I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty…we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” This was romantic rather than realistic, yet Churchill’s love affair with ‘Great Britain’, its history, character and traditions, made his listeners, for a brief period, believe in it too.
writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.