Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945

When Hitler had conquered nearly all of Europe, Winston Churchill resisted the considerable pressure to make terms with Germany. Britons take a justifiable pride in their most famous Prime Minster’s foresight, and his achievements during the war that followed. Indeed, as Max Hastings writes in Winston’s War, his superb study of Churchill as warrior and statesman, “To an extraordinary degree, what he did between 1940-1945 defines the nation’s self image even into the twenty-first century.” Nearly every aspect of his leadership has prompted torrents of ink, not least from the man himself: few statesmen have better managed their reputations for posterity than has Winston Churchill. The drooping, bulldog jowls and ever-present stogie have been transformed into symbols of a nation’s gruff resolve; the oratory, by turns inspiring and bombastic, still rings in our ears. After all the chaff about blood, toil, tears, and sweat, what is there left to say?

Very much, it seems. As Hastings writes, “there are infinite nuances” regarding Churchill’s wartime conduct. His book, both reverential and revisionist, carefully mines this rich seam. Hastings, perhaps our finest historian of World War II, endorses Churchill’s greatness — but he also chips away at the myths that have encrusted the British war experience in a shell of hoary clichés. While Hastings salutes Churchill’s statesmanship, he does not take at face value his subject’s compulsive myth-making. For all the perorations about finest hours, British forces endured countless disastrous minutes on the battlefield between 1940 and 1942. Aside from the skies, where the Royal Air Force performed brilliantly against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, checking Hitler’s plans to invade England, the war went very badly. At Dunkirk, the British Army barely escaped destruction; in the Far East, Singapore fell to the Japanese, while Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps ravaged British troops in the Libyan desert.

The British Army is subjected to Hastings’s withering appraisal. Its officer class teemed with backslapping mediocrities, and its generals lacked the prime minister’s fighting spirit. (“My trouble is that I am not really interested in war,” one confessed. Churchill later sacked him.) “Too many of the British Army’s senior officers were agreeable men who lacked the killer instinct indispensable to victory,” Hastings observes. For much of the war, Churchill asked too much of an institution that could not deliver the goods; but, by putting a hopeful, even extravagant gloss on what seemed like unending defeat, he “empowered millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield, and the squalor of their domestic circumstances amid privation and bombardment, and to perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices.”

Hastings views the British role in the Allied effort with an almost brutal realism: as Britain floundered in minor combat theaters, Russians were dying by the millions as Hitler and Stalin engaged in a vast death struggle on the Eastern Front. Here, Hastings continues a line of argument he brilliantly advanced in Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 — it was the Russian Army that broke the Wehrmacht; the British and Americans merely finished it off. Yet, Hastings notes, Churchill knew that the British had to be seen showing initiative, somewhere, anywhere. He was a powerful advocate of the Allied cause — “he articulated the hopes and ambitions of the Grand Alliance as no other man, including Roosevelt, was capable of doing” — even if  his own strategic sense was sometimes impaired.

Churchill viewed war as a kind of entertainment — it must dazzle, it must inspire, it must showcase heroics. Clement Atlee, a political foe, once said, “he was always looking around for ‘finest hours,’ and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture one.” Hastings partly concurs with this judgment: “His genius for war was flawed by an enthusiasm for dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions and sallies more appropriate — as officers who worked with him often remarked — to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort.”

Churchill got many little things wrong, but he was right, crucially so, on major points of Allied strategy. When the Americans joined the war, they were hot to invade France. Churchill dissuaded Roosevelt from mounting what, in 1942 or 1943, would have most likely been a suicide mission, and redirected Allied attention to North Africa and Italy. The Mediterranean campaign bore mixed results, but Churchill’s instincts were correct. There is a poignant ambiguity about Hastings’s title; after 1943, the conflict was anything but Winston’s war. For a time, Churchill alone had embodied the West’s hopes; but as the war turned in the Allies’ favor, he was shunted aside. Roosevelt ignored his advice, and, to Churchill’s horror, signed off on Stalin’s subjugation of Eastern Europe. In these last years, we see a much diminished war leader. He fretted endlessly about D-Day — “This battle has been forced upon us by the Russians and the United States military authorities,” he complained in April 1944 — and fixated on invading the Balkans. Churchill deserves our admiration; first however, as Hastings wisely insists, “history must take Churchill as a whole.”