From The Sunday Times
August 30, 2009
Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings
The Sunday Times review by Piers Brendon: Winston Churchill is portrayed as a ruthless, brandy-gulping maverick in Max Hastings’s outstanding study
This volume is dedicated to the memory of Roy Jenkins, who invited Max Hastings to help with his 2001 biography of Winston Churchill. As Hastings recounts in his introduction, Jenkins became so exasperated by his many critical comments that he eventually sent him packing, saying that he should write his own book. This dramatic portrait of Churchill’s war leadership is the result and, ironically, it is vastly superior to Jenkins’s overrated work. That was little more than a digest of Martin Gilbert’s gigantic official life and it depicted Churchill as a bland, wine-bibbing Whig, much like Jenkins himself. Hastings presents him more convincingly as a ruthless, brandy-gulping Tory with the fire and the guts to beat Hitler.
It is true that Jenkins (who died in 2003) was on automatic pilot by the time he came to create his own image of Sir Winston: his writing was flaccid; he never set foot in the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, a treasure-trove of unpublished material; and he failed to appreciate the worth of Churchill as hooligan, carnivore and rogue elephant. By contrast, Hastings’s efficient, soldierly prose marches along at a brisk pace and carries the reader with it. He has drawn on copious original sources and consulted experts familiar with them, enabling him to cast fresh light on familiar episodes. And the burden of his story is that Churchill, with all his rash impulses and wild judgments, embodied a war spirit too often lacking in his countrymen.
Churchill’s first and crucial triumph when he became prime minister in May 1940 was to keep Britain in the war as France collapsed under the German blitzkrieg. Weighing up the odds, ministers such as Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler. Hastings rightly says that Churchill discussed the proposal (something not recorded in his war memoirs) principally because the old appeasers might have ousted him if he had seemed “irrationally intransigent”. But there was no escaping his determination to fight.
He got rid of Halifax as soon as possible and he rejected any deal to let the Third Reich engage in single combat with the Soviet Union. Some historians assert that by allowing them to destroy each other, he could have saved the British Empire. Hastings responds unanswerably that a bargain with Hitler would have been not only a blunder but a crime.
In what was his own as well as his country’s finest hour, Churchill’s achievement was to inspire the nation and to animate its armed forces with his own will to win. He managed the first, of course, by mobilising the English language and sending it into battle. The second was more difficult, despite the Luftwaffe’s failure in the Battle of Britain and General Wavell’s successes against the Italians in Africa at the end of the year. This was because, as the chaotic evacuations from Dunkirk and Brittany showed, the British army was no match for the Wehrmacht, or, later, for Japanese troops. Hastings reveals in humiliating detail the shortcomings of boneheaded brass hats with memories of the Somme, and tommies whose training was as bad as their equipment. And he shows how Churchill, for all his energy, imagination and pugnacity, was seldom able to distil victory from Britain’s “torpid military culture”.
Needless to say, Churchill’s own record was far from perfect. Hastings compiles a remorseless (though not exhaustive) catalogue of his errors, which were usually those of a subaltern of hussars impatient to make the enemy bleed and burn. Churchill dissipated allied strength in the Mediterranean by supporting Greece in 1941 and later by engaging in a futile struggle for the Dodecanese. He had a compulsion to capture irrelevant islands, from Pantelleria to Sumatra, and to mount amphibious operations, such as the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid. Luckily his scheme for landings in north Norway was aborted — Churchill’s military adviser General Ismay feared an “Arctic Gallipoli”.
Churchill also encouraged cloak-and-dagger operations to set occupied Europe ablaze, though they were usually damp squibs that provoked ferocious Nazi reprisals. He clung to the costly strategy of advancing into Europe via Italy and dithered over the Normandy invasion. Despite his humane instincts, he connived at what Hastings calls “the undoubted excesses of the bomber offensive”. Moreover, Churchill neglected to plan for a better post-war society, which probably cost him the 1945 election. Confronting present perils, he simply could not look to the future — though he did once wonder if heaven were a constitutional monarchy, “in which case there was always a possibility that the Almighty might have occasion to send for him”.
On the other hand, Churchill never made a war-losing mistake. He possessed incomparable strategic vision: almost from the first he forecast that Hitler would “recoil eastwards” and he proposed to “drag” the United States into the conflict. In spite of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments, he embraced Stalin when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Whether his ardent wooing of Roosevelt would have made America a belligerent if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor remains doubtful. But Churchill played a vital role in focusing *transatlantic attention on Germany first.
By delaying D-Day until 1944, he ensured that the Red Army did most of the fighting. This resulted in the communist domination of eastern Europe, which Churchill could not prevent. Yet he remained one of the “Big Three”, even though the British lion was dwarfed by the American buffalo and the Russian bear.
Reflecting on the “sustained magnificence” of Churchill’s performance, Hastings concludes that he was “probably the greatest actor upon the stage of affairs whom the world has ever known”. Hyperbole or not, Hastings himself turns in a magnificent performance. Naturally, there are niggles. He spells Freyberg, one of Churchill’s favourite generals, wrongly throughout. He says that Stalin had only three English phrases, which he deployed at Yalta, whereas they were almost certainly designed to conceal some real grasp of the language. Furthermore Hastings deals perfunctorily with the Empire, which was a mixed blessing for Britain and a main bone of contention between Churchill and Roosevelt. Nevertheless, in a crowded field, this is one of the best books ever written about Churchill.
Finest Years by Max Hastings
Harper Press £25 pp688