Until his appointment as prime minister on 10 May 1940, history’s judgement of Winston Churchill would have been less than charitable: an untrustworthy if talented maverick with a largely wasted political career behind him. But the wartime premiership was to be the making of Churchill, as he wrote on the night after assuming power: ‘I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’
If there was ever a case of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ then it was Churchill in 1940. Untainted by the appeasement policies of most of his fellow Conservative politicians, he threw his formidable energy behind the prosecution of the war, all thoughts of negotiated settlement rejected in favour of victory over Nazi Germany – no matter how doubtful the prospect seemed at the time.
He invigorated Britain’s war effort, and in the words of the author, his ‘sublime achievement was to rouse the most ordinary people to extraordinary perceptions of their own destiny’. Though, as Hastings emphasises, Churchill would become increasingly disappointed at what he saw as a lack of resolve displayed by Britain and her Army as the war progressed – a theme developed by Hastings in several of his previous works. Churchill’s other great achievement was to be among the first to realise the absolute necessity of bringing the United States into the war on the Allied side, and to have worked so assiduously to bring this about.
By additionally taking over the post of defence minister, Churchill stood at the centre of military policy throughout the course of the war. This had its drawbacks, however. Although Churchill had a profound grasp of the global nature of the war, his passion for the more exciting bits of military history made him a dangerous armchair strategist, and the plethora of unsound military schemes that came from his fertile imagination was a constant problem for his more cautious yet more knowledgeable military advisors. In the main, they were able to restrain his more dangerous enthusiasms, but the ill-fated 1943 Dodecanese campaign and his promotion of SOE to ‘set Europe ablaze’ revealed his shortcomings in the conduct of strategic operations.
Churchill possessed a boundless personality, eccentric and unpredictable – in such marked contrast to his chief opponent, Adolf Hitler – and, perhaps inevitably, he was a man of paradox. At his worst Churchill could act as an over-bearing bully, petty and vindictive, yet he was able to inspire the affection and devotion of his hard-pressed staff at Number 10. He had a child-like enthusiasm for war, but this never clouded his essential humanity or his deep empathy for those suffering war’s terrible consequences, which extended to his enemies.
Max Hastings professes a deep admiration and affection for his subject that is announced from the outset: ‘Winston Churchill was the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.’ And while fully aware of his many shortcomings – personal and professional – it is this admiration that informs his excellent biography of Churchill as war leader. As ever, Hastings marshals his sources with great skill so that ensuing narrative – complete with thought-provoking comment, trenchantly expressed – brings alive this undoubtedly extraordinary man during an extraordinary moment in our history.
HarperPress, 576 pages, £9.99 (p/b); HarperPress, 668 pages, £25 (h/b)
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