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Churchill: Winston's War Book Review

by John Cobley

Monday Oct 28th, 2019





This 2011 book begs this question: Another book on Churchill? After the acclaimed work of Martin Gilbert and Roy Jenkins, any new book on Churchill had to be good, and it had to provide new material or a new approach. Max Hastings, with many fine books to his name, took up the challenge with Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945.


Though clearly an admirer of the great man—and who couldn’t be?—Hastings doesn’t shy away from Churchill’s imperfections. He is especially effective in capturing the two sides of the leader’s character: the belligerent, determined side and the sensitive, caring side that often brought him to tears at a time when male tears were taboo.


There were also two contrasting sides to Churchill’s leadership in the war: statesman and strategist. Hastings tells us that “Churchill’s closest wartime colleagues, above all the Chiefs of Staff, emerged from the Second World War asserting the Prime Minister’s greatness as a statesman, while deploring his shortcomings as a strategist.” (362) Hastings describes all the strategic failures, Greece for example, as well as the many conflicts with his generals. Although Churchill had been a soldier—the only Prime Minister to have killed in battle—he didn’t always understand the situation at the front.


He was always promoting action, often when his advisers were cautioning him. A lot of this promotion arose from the pressures that faced him as a statesman. In the early part of the war, especially after Dunkirk, there was pressure for military action from his own countrymen. Although the RAF had won the Battle of Britain and although the army was in disarray, his country still expected the army to be actually fighting.  Furthermore, after Russia was attacked by the full might of the Nazi army in 1941, the Soviets pressured Churchill to engage the German enemy on the western front. And later, after joining in the war in 1943, the USA also wanted action by Britain’s land forces.


Churchill had other pressures. In his first years as PM (1940-1942), he had to exert his energies to raise the morale of the country. The upper classes were skeptical about fighting Germany, many of them wanting to make peace with Hitler. The rest of the country was appalled by the early success of Germany on the continent and had to be persuaded that sacrifices were necessary. Hastings argues that Churchill’s greatest achievement was “to mobilize Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters and to stir the passions of the nation.” (61)


Of course, Britain was not prepared for the war it had declared. And after the army’s humiliation on the continent that ended with the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill was wary of involving his army anywhere. As Hastings points out, Britain lacked “means to undertake any substantial military action.” (59) The weakness of the British army was explained by Colonel Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet: “We have for 20 years…been immersed in our day-to-day imperial police activities.” (21)


For much of the war Churchill was handicapped by this weakness of his army. It wasn’t until 1941 that the army became involved in major action (North Africa). During this campaign and the Italian campaign that followed, he was continually frustrated with the army’s performance. 


Hastings is especially good on Churchill’s relations with Russia and the USA, Britain’s two allies. Stalin was devious; Churchill knew this but he was always confident that he could negotiate. Roosevelt was continually courted, but with limited success. The importance of these two allies to Churchill can be gauged by his willingness to travel, despite the danger, to both Moscow and Washington. 


The build-up to D Day is covered in the context of the whole war. The invasion into France was a crucial step towards victory; it had to succeed. Churchill’s frequent delaying of the invasion disappointed and angered his allies, but he was aware of how difficult the invasion would be. When he finally agreed to go ahead in 1944, he was still really apprehensive about the ability “of an Anglo-American army against the Wehrmacht.” (312)


By 1944 Churchill, now almost 70, was clearly exhausted. The previous year his colleagues, according to Hastings, had already been concerned about his “weariness and erratic judgment.” (341) Roosevelt, aware of Churchill’s condition, no longer took him seriously when they met Stalin in Tehran. During this meeting, Churchill realised “how small Britain was” (351) in relation to the USSR and the USA. For the rest of the war the tired Prime Minister was “laboring to compensate by sheer force of will and personality for the waning significance of Britain’s contribution.” (390)


As the war was being won, Churchill looked ahead at the prospect of the USSR controlling a large part of Europe. Especially worried about Poland, the country for which Britain had gone to war, he was initially unable to persuade Roosevelt and then Truman that the Russian threat was serious. According to Hastings that Americans had little interest in eastern Europe. They were thus amazed when Churchill proposed military action after the Germans were defeated to push the Russians out of Europe. Hastings claims that Churchill’s satisfaction over the defeat of Nazism was overshadowed by the Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe. The great statesman was the first western leader to foresee the Cold War.


Hastings concludes his 480-page book with an assessment of Churchill’s foremost quality—his strength of will. After reading Winnie’s War, it’s hard to imagine how Britain and its allies could have defeated Germany without Churchill at the helm. “Good old Winnie,” as my father said to me many, many times.

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