Some months ago, I read Catastophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings. I was incredibly impressed with the book, the subject, and the author. Some years back, I read Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945, also by Max Hastings. The British Isles continue to produce some of the best historians, with my favorites being Paul Johnson, Anthony Bevor, John Keegan, Simon Schama, and Niall Ferguson. (I expect Peter Ackroyd to soon join the list.)
Max Hastings has advanced from an “also ran” to the top tier of favorite historians. He is what I want to be when I grow up. Catastrophe 1914 was surely good enough on its own to put Hastings and his books on my “must read” list.
That means that I am now buying, planning to buy, and conniving to acquire all of Max Hastings’ writings. Being a bit picky about the collecting, it also means that I want hardback versions with dust jackets in “like-new” condition for really cheap prices. (That last condition is dictated by necessity, not desire.) By the way, a big thanks to Jeff and Kris Bruce for picking up copies of two Hastings’ books. They got me a copy of Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-1945 when they were at Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas and a copy of Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945 recently when they went to Little Rock.
Of late, I have been reading Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945. This book was published in 2009 and was titled Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-1945 in the original, first, and British edition. (Alas, I have to settle for an American First Edition and a former library edition to boot.)
When I saw the book some years ago, I wondered “Why another book on Churchill?” I know I have read over a dozen books about Churchill, all of which emphasize his insight before and leadership during World War II. I have about a dozen books by Churchill, including his six volumes on World War II. (I can never forgive myself for not buying a fine edition of his four volumes on the Duke of Marlborough, his distinguished relative, which I once saw at an estate sale.) I have another dozen or so books about Churchill as well. As extensive as my collection is, it is only a fraction of what is out there.
In this case, Max Hastings himself, rather than Churchill, who compelled the buying and reading of this book. It is outstanding.
The first major point I have gotten out of the book concerns the views people have or had of Churchill. Because I think him great and am not alone, it is easy to imagine that peers and people recognized his brilliance and gifts from the beginning of World War II. His hold on political power was tenuous all along. Add to that the nature of the British system. He was not like an American President who automatically holds office for a set amount of time. Churchill presided over a coalition government. He himself had switched political parties several times. People who knew him well or who had to work with him often either despised him or often doubted or questioned his judgment. The voting public in Britain, as later shown when Churchill was bumped out of office in May of 1945, was not always behind Churchill.
Secondly, he made some major blunders in leading Britain. Great men and good leaders often make horrendous mistakes. In a major case, Churchill’s wishes and plans were circumvented by others around him. Dunkirk was an amazing save on the part of the British military. Cut off by the German armies, a large British contingent faced possible annihilation by the Germans. By the grace of God, the Germans continued in pursuit of the French army rather than focusing on the British troops. Also, the German Luftwaffe blundered the opportunity to finish off the British. Most important, the British mobilized their navy and commandeered all available ships and rescued their army. Sometimes a retreat or a rescue is a victory.
But amazingly, Churchill wanted to start putting British troops back into France soon after Dunkirk. From the perspective of that time, with France having held out against the Germans for four years in the First World War, the idea of the imminent fall of France was beyond belief. Reintroducing British troops in western France would have replicated the Dunkirk escape at its best. Most likely, the British army would have been destroyed right alongside the French army.
Churchill was consumed with the idea of unity and solidarity with France. Thankfully, his good motive and conviction were overturned by wiser heads around him.
Third, it is astounding, beyond belief, that Churchill was unswervingly commited to holding out against Germany after the fall of France. Man to man, the British could not have mobilized an army the size of Germany’s. In the French campaign, the British had 10 divisions alongside France’s 90 divisions. This combo caved in before the German juggernaut (I love getting to use that word). After Dunkirk, the army was intact, but much equipment had been abandoned.
The remaining British army remained ready to repell the Germans. However, it was the British navy that was the key to preventing a channel crossing, and it was the RAF that blunted the edge of the German bombing campaign. At its best, holding out alone is not the same as winning. Churchill did not merely wish to see Britain survive, he wanted to see Hitler defeated. Churchill understood better than many the evil nature of Hitler and Nazi-ism. (When I hear recordings of Churchill saying “Nazis,” it sounds almost like he is blending the word with “Nausea.”)
If there had been no Churchill, Britain would have been led by Lord Halifax. Halifax, along with many others, would have offered for ending the war, making a deal with Herr Hitler, and conceding the Christian heritage of Western Civilization.
Even when the Germans turned east and attacked Russia, Britain’s immediate prospects were not rosy. Churchill, like many others, assumed that Russia would be defeated by Germany. Look at any map of the eastern front in 1941 or 1942, look at the number of Russian prisoners taken, and look at the many other details. Russia’s survival and triumph is as astounding as is Britain’s survival.
A fourth major point and the last for now relates to the year 1942. Churchill was thankful for Pearl Harbor. Regarding the night of December 7, 1941, Churchill writes, “Saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful. One hopes that eternal sleep will be like that.”
He knew, as history proves true, that America’s entry in the war spelled the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers. But 1942 was a bad year for Churchill. Britain took some severe hits that year. The fall of Singapore, with the surrender of about a 100,000 British troops (background to the Bridge over the River Kwai and To End All Wars movies), was a devastating and unexplainable loss. Churchill’s political clout was fading. He had suffered a near heart-attack while in America. The British were struggling to hold North Africa, and American intervention was delayed in arriving.
Through it all, it was the rhetoric of Churchill that sustained Britain. That is another installment as I continue with this book.