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From the “most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America” (Wall Street Journal), an elegant, concise, and revealing portrait of Winston Churchill

In Churchill, eminent historian Paul Johnson offers a lively, succinct exploration of one of the most complex and fascinating personalities in history. Winston Churchill's hold on contemporary readers has never slackened, and Johnson’s analysis casts new light on his extraordinary life and times. Johnson illuminates the ...

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From the “most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America” (Wall Street Journal), an elegant, concise, and revealing portrait of Winston Churchill

In Churchill, eminent historian Paul Johnson offers a lively, succinct exploration of one of the most complex and fascinating personalities in history. Winston Churchill's hold on contemporary readers has never slackened, and Johnson’s analysis casts new light on his extraordinary life and times. Johnson illuminates the various phases of Churchill's career—from his adventures as a young cavalry officer in the service of the empire to his role as an elder statesman prophesying the advent of the Cold War—and shows how Churchill's immense adaptability and innate pugnacity made him a formidable leader for the better part of a century. Johnson's narration of Churchill's many triumphs and setbacks, rich with anecdote and quotation, illustrates the man's humor, resilience, courage, and eccentricity as no other biography before, and is sure to appeal to historians and general nonfiction readers alike.


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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Revered British historian and journalist Paul Johnson packs decades of wisdom and research into this 192-page biography of the supremely enigmatic Winston Churchill (1874-1965). In the book, Johnson defends his claim that Churchill's extraordinary adaptability and readiness for controversy enabled him to rebound from political setbacks and confront new challenges. A provocative, illuminating, brilliantly concise life by the acclaimed author of Modern Times. Admiring reviews in hardcover; now in paperback.

Publishers Weekly
In this enthusiastic yet first-rate biography, veteran British historian Johnson (Modern Times) asserts that Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was the 20th century's most valuable figure: “No man did more to preserve freedom and democracy....” An ambitious, world-traveling soldier and bestselling author, Churchill was already famous on entering Parliament in 1899 and within a decade was working with Lloyd George to pass the great reforms of 1908–1911. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he performed brilliantly in preparing the navy for WWI, but blame—undeserved according to Johnson—for the catastrophic 1915 Dardanelles invasion drove him from office. Within two years, he was back at the top, where he remained until the Depression. Johnson delivers an adulatory account of Churchill's prescient denunciations of Hitler and heroics during the early days of WWII, and views later missteps less critically than other historians. He concludes that Churchill was a thoroughly likable great man with many irritating flaws but no nasty ones: he lacked malice, avoided grudges, vendettas and blame shifting, and quickly replaced enmity with friendship. Biographers in love with their subjects usually produce mediocre history, but Johnson, always self-assured as well as scholarly, has written another highly opinionated, entertaining work. B&w photos. (Nov.)
New York Times Book Review
It turns out that while Wikipedia can ably trace the arc of Churchill's life, Johnson -- who enhances the familiar story with generous quotations from his subject as well as his own digressive and thoroughly English prose -- can give the reader the definite sense of having known Churchill, or at least of having hung out with him for a bit. . . . Churchill lets you spend some time in this man's company, and who wouldn't want that?
The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Johnson has just written what, at 192 pages, is probably the shortest biography of Winston Churchill ever published.
It came about, he says, because the head of Viking Penguin approached him "saying that young people are very interested in Winston Churchill but we find they are most reluctant to read long books. . . . She said do you think you could do a short biography, and I said 'it's a cinch!'"
. . .
One of the things I hope this little book will do is persuade people to read Churchill's own books. 'My Early Life' is one of the best volumes of autobiography ever written-it's an enchanting book, full of fun and humor."
Mr. Johnson's own journalistic career meant that he spent considerable time with other 20th-century leaders, ranging from Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and Ronald Reagan to "that windbag" Fidel Castro, giving his Churchill portrait added depth.
Mr. Johnson met Churchill himself in October 1946 when he was a boy about to go up to Oxford. "He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, 'Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?' and he said without hesitating: 'Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.' And he then got into his limo.
—Jonathan Foreman
Kirkus Reviews
A slender volume on that most unslender of subjects, Winston Churchill. Memoirist, historian, journalist, soldier, traveler and leader, Churchill committed millions of words to print and generated millions more by other hands. Indeed, writes prolific historian Johnson (Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle, 2007, etc.), "I calculate his total of words in print, including published speeches, to be between 8 and 10 million words." So slim a treatment of the portly prose master would seem unusual, but Johnson seemingly has a purpose in mind-to use Churchill's life as a kind of self-improvement scheme for the rest of us, who have not the opportunity to go steaming off to Gallipoli or escape from the Boers. The author measures Churchill's successes on a broad beam-whence his observation that while Churchill drank like a sailor on shore leave for most of his life, "his liver, inspected after his death, was found to be as perfect as a young child's." Johnson approvingly notes Churchill's habit of casting about widely for learned opinion but keeping his own counsel, making difficult decisions and accepting responsibility for failures as well as successes. Johnson presents a fully rounded character who used the F-word from time to time, though never to Nixonian excess, who learned as he went and who managed to retain principle while acting as a practical politician. The author closes with a list of ten big lessons that Churchill can teach, some very specific (use airpower whenever possible) and some more applicable to ordinary lives (work hard, forge alliances, get your priorities straight). Personal reflections meet large-scale history, most satisfyingly.
Library Journal
Journalist/historian Johnson's biography of Winston Churchill, rife with anecdotes and quotations reflecting the statesman's quirky personality, dry wit, and great intelligence, both entertains and irritates. Narrator Simon Prebble ( does his best with the material, which reads much like fiction. Unfortunately, the author makes sweeping generalizations to bolster his belief that Churchill was a superior man in every conceivable way (e.g., he had the most political presence, the best sense of humor). These vast generalizations grow wearying after the first ten minutes. Perhaps if Johnson had been a bit less effusive, his biography would been more authoritative. An enjoyable but flawed work recommended where there is interest. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.—Ed.]—B. Allison Gray, Santa Barbara P.L. Syst., CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

Acclaimed historian Paul Johnson (A History of the American People) has written a highly-personal and elegantly concise biography of the man whom Johnson -- among others -- believes saved Britain during the perilous days of World War II.This is an unabashedly admiring life of "the towering figure of the twentieth century," who qualifies in his biographer's words as "the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likeable." Johnson shows us a Churchill who was from the beginning of his career in the army and as a journalist/writer, ambitious, fun-loving, and relentlessly contradictory. In politics, he'd switch parties and become a spellbinding speaker. Johnson recalls listening to Churchill's wartime radio broadcasts with his father: "The combined effect was electrifying and transforming."

Churchill was, in Johnson's view, defined by the kind of resilience he called on from his countrymen in his most famous speech. After he pushed the British military into the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during World War I, Churchill carefully plotted his political comeback while enthusiastically pursuing stress-relieving hobbies like painting and collecting butterflies. He would redeem himself by speaking out against Hitler from 1933 on, and demanding that Britain rearm in preparation for a war he considered inevitable. After Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempt to treat with Hitler resulted in cataclysm, the hard-liner Churchill took the reins. Johnson offers ten detailed reasons why Churchill saved Britain from the jaws of wartime defeat, citing his energy, his humor, his hard-won friendship with FDR, his strategic foresight, and, of course, the inspiringpower of his oratory.

Churchill's greatest wartime achievement, Johnson says, may have been his insistence that the Allied forces be fully ready before they launched the D-Day assault: "With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in mind, [Churchill] insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success." Stalin wanted D-Day to begin in 1942, but Churchill wisely demanded the painstaking preparations that led to Allied victory.

Reverential, yes, but also insightful --a short biography that's worthy of its larger-than-life subject.

--Reviewed by Chuck Leddy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143117995
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 216,418
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Johnson’s many books, including A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, Modern Times, Churchill, and Napoleon: A Penguin Life, have been hailed as masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many others publications. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Six
Supreme Power and Frustration

As prime minister and minister of defense, Churchill held power "in ever growing measure," as he himself put it, from May 1940 to July 1945. Probably no statesman in British history had held power for so long in so concentrated and extensive a form. So the first question to ask is: Did Churchill personally save Britain? Was his leadership essential to its survival and eventual victory?

The question is best answered by examining the factors and virtues which operated in his favor—some determined by objective events, others by his own genius and exertions. They were tenfold. First, as a civilian leader, Churchill benefited from a change of national opinion toward the relative trustworthiness of politicians and service leaders—"frocks and brass hats," to use the phrase of his youth. In the First World War, reverence for brass hats and dislike of frocks made it almost impossible for the government, even under Lloyd George at his apotheosis, to conduct the war efficiently. As Churchill put it: "The foolish doctrine was preached to the public through innumerable agencies that generals and admirals must be right on war matters and civilians of all kinds must be wrong—inculcated billionfold by the newspapers under the crudest forms." Lloyd George had the greatest difficulty in sacking any senior figure in uniform and could never take the risk of sacking Haig, the armysupremo on the western front, much as he would have liked to.

By World War II, the truth about the mistakes of the brass hats in the earlier conflict had sunk so deeply into the national consciousness that the position had been almost reversed. There was no war hero until Montgomery made himself one late in the conflict by his own victories. Churchill by contrast came to power with the reputation of having been right throughout the thirties, and was now proved right by the danger in which Britain found herself. He never had to hesitate, except for genuine reasons, before sacking a general, even a popular one like Archibald Wavell, the British commander in Egypt. He felt his authority and exercised it: he was seen walking up and down the empty cabinet room once, after a major sacking, saying aloud, "I want them all to feel my power." Churchill was overwhelmingly admired, even loved, but also feared.

Second, the concentration of power in Churchill's person, with the backing of all parties, meant that there were never any practical or constitutional obstacles to the right decisions being taken. He always behaved with absolute propriety. He told the king everything and listened to all he said: within months George VI had swung right round in his favor and wrote, "I could not possibly have a better Prime Minister." He also observed all the cabinet procedural rules. Above all, he treated Parliament, especially the House of Commons, with reverence and made it plain he was merely its servant. These were not mere formulae. Insofar as Churchill had a religion, it was the British constitution, spirit and letter: Parliament was the church in which he worshipped and whose decisions he obeyed. All this balanced and sanctified the huge power he possessed and exercised. Unlike Hitler, he operated from within a structure which represented, and was seen and felt to represent, the nation. He was never a dictator, and the awful example of Hitler was ever present before him to prevent him from ever acting like one. This was particularly important in his relations with his service chiefs, such as General Alanbrooke, Admiral Cunningham, and Air Marshal Portal. He and the cabinet took the decisions about the war. But the way in which they were executed was left to the service chiefs. Churchill might cajole and bully, storm and rant, but in the end he always meticulously stuck to the rule and left the responsible senior chiefs to take the decisions. This was the opposite of Hitler's methods, and one principal reason why he lost the war. In another key respect Churchill did the opposite of Hitler: all his orders, without exception, were in writing and were absolutely clear. When issued verbally they were immediately confirmed in written form. All Hitler's orders were verbal and transmitted by aides: "It is theFührer's wish…; " Churchill's system of clear written orders, and his punctiliousness in observing the demarcation lines between civilian and military responsibility, is one reason the service chiefs were so loyal to him and his leadership, and indeed revered him, however much his working methods—especially his late hours— might try their patience and bodies.

Third, Churchill was personally fortunate in that he took over at a desperate time. The sheer power of the Nazi war machine, against which he had warned, was now revealed. The worst, as it were, had happened, was happening, or was about to happen. He was able to say in perfect truth, just after he took power (May 13, 1940), "I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government, 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' " He added, in the same speech, that his aim was quite simple and clear: "Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival." The last words were of deadly significance, and felt to be so. For Britain was not facing defeat in the sense that it had been defeated in the American War of Independence. It was facing extinction as a free country. Ordinary people were made to feel that. On Churchill's orders, the national anthems of the Allies were played on the BBC before the 9:00 p.m. news every Sunday. There were seven of them, six already defeated, occupied, and under the total control of the Gestapo. Soon, France joined the losers.Churchill certainly did all in his power to save her, paying five perilous visits to consult with her disintegrating, scared, and defeatist government and service chiefs. He would not, however—and rightly—go beyond a certain point. He was prepared to offer France a union of the two states, a most imaginative and adventurous idea, characteristic of his fertility. He was not willing, however, to comply with their request to send all of Britain's precious fighter squadrons to France in a despairing effort to stem the Nazi blitzkrieg. That, he said, would be "hurling snowballs into Hell." Instead, as France lurched toward dishonorable surrender and puppet status under Marshal Pétain, Churchill concentrated on getting the British Expeditionary Force safely back home. And he succeeded. Nine-tenths were rescued from Dunkirk, and many Allied soldiers with them, more than three hundred thousand in all, brought back by an improvised armada of ships, great and small, including pleasure cruisers and fishing boats, which gave picturesque color and even romance to the story, a typically British tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Thus within a month of taking office, amid the unmitigated catastrophe of France's fall, Churchill was able to report a British victory—Dunkirk—and to speak glowingly of "the Dunkirk spirit." It was in a sense a bogus victory, for the troops had been forced to leave their heavy equipment behind, and in many cases even their rifles, which they had smashed before embarking. But Dunkirk nevertheless gave a huge boost to British morale: now that Churchill was in charge, the people felt that, far from plunging further down into the abyss, the country was moving upward, if only an inch at a time.

Fourth, Churchill himself began to set a personal example of furious and productive activity at Ten Downing Street. He was sixty-five but he looked, seemed—was, indeed—the embodiment of energy. He worked a sixteen-hour day. He sought to make everyone else do likewise. In contrast to lethargic, self-indulgent old Asquith ("the bridge-player at the Wharf," as Churchill called him) or even Lloyd George, who had high tea instead of a proper dinner to discus strategy and went to bed at nine o'clock, Churchill began to wear his own form of labor-saving uniform, a siren suit, easy to put on or take off, in which he could nap if he wanted during long nighttime spells at work. This added hugely to the fast-accumulating Churchill legend: the public called it his "rompers." In fact, thanks to Clemmie, some of these siren suits were of elaborate and costly materials, velvet and silk as well as wool—for "best" parties in the Number Ten bombproof dining room, and so on. Churchill had always used clothes for personal propaganda and had a propensity to collect unusual uniforms. Since 1913 he had been an elder brother of Trinity House, a medieval institution which supervised all lighthouses and port lights in the British Isles. Its uniform had a distinctive nautical flavor and for court dress he always wore it in preference to that of his Privy Council. General de Gaulle, who had by now taken charge of France's resistance forces, asked him what it was and received the mystifying reply, "Je suis un frère aîné de la Sainte Trinité." But the siren suit was the everyday wartime wear and proved a masterstroke of propaganda. In it the prime minister worked within days of taking over, as the first brief and pointed memos and orders flowed out under the famous headline: "Action This Day." So did the endless series of brief, urgent queries: "Pray inform me on one half-sheet of paper, why…; " Answers had to be given, fast. Churchill had teams of what he called "dictation secretaries." He worked them very long hours. He was sometimes brusque or angry, swore, forgot their names, even lost his temper. But he also smiled, joked, dazzled them with uproarious charm and whimsicalities. They all loved him and were proud to work with him. They helped him to turn Number Ten into a dynamo, and its reverberations gradually resounded through the entire old-fashioned, lazy, obstructive, and cumbersome government machine, until it began to hum, too. Churchill's sheer energy and, not least, his ability to switch it off abruptly when not needed were central keys to his life, and especially his wartime leadership. But it must be admitted that he killed men who could not keep up—Admiral Pound, for instance, and General Sir John Dill—just as Napoleon Bonaparte killed horses under him.

The fifth factor was Churchill's oratory. It is a curious fact that he switched it on to its full power just as Hitler switched his off. Hitler had been, in his time, the greatest rabble-rouser of the twentieth century. In his successful attempt to destroy Versailles and make Germany a great power again—incidentally ending unemployment—his oratory had been a vital factor in making him the most popular leader in German history (1933–39). But the Germans, while overwhelmingly behind the campaign against Versailles, had no desire to see Hitler turn Europe into a servile German empire, let alone lead them into a world war. When Hitler marched into Prague in March 1939 it was his first unpopular act. Until now he had ruled mainly by consent. Thereafter it was by force and fear. Sensing his loss of personal popularity, Hitler ceased to address the Reichstag or make public speeches. By the time Churchill took charge, Hitler had retreated into his various military headquarters, mostly underground, rarely appearing and never speaking in public. He became a troglodyte, while Churchill became a world figure ubiquitous in newspapers and newsreels wherever Nazi censorship had no control.

The oratory had two interlocking audiences: the Commons and the radio listener. Here a personal word is in order. I was twelve when Churchill took power and had learned to caricature him since the age of five (I could also do Mussolini, Stalin, and Roosevelt). My father, having served four years in the trenches and lost friends in the Dardanelles, was suspicious of Churchill. In April 1940 I recall his saying, "There's talk of making that fellow Churchill prime minister." But by early May events had swung him round: "It looks as if we'll have to put Winston in charge." By then the nation was calling him "Winston." My father and I read in the newspaper together all his speeches in the late spring and summer of 1940, and listened to all his regular broadcasts. The combined effect was electrifying and transforming. I can remember the tone of voice, the words, many whole phrases to this day. There were two passages in particular. After Dunkirk, and before the last phases in the already lost battle on the Continent, he insisted (June 4):We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

In the Commons, Churchill characteristically supplemented the passage with a joking aside, sotto voce, "We shall fight with pitchforks and broomsticks, it's about all we've bloody got." Jokes were never far away when Churchill spoke, even in the gloomiest times. He was rather like Dr. Johnson's old friend from Pembroke College: "I try to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in." Of course we did not know that bit about the pitchforks. But the bit about never surrendering rang true. We believed it, we meant it.

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Table of Contents

Churchill Chapter One: Young Thruster
Chapter Two: Liberal Statesman
Chapter Three: The Lessons of Failure
Chapter Four: Success and Disasters
Chapter Five: The Unregarded Prophet
Chapter Six: Supreme Power and Frustration
Chapter Seven: Glorious Twilight
Further Reading
About the Photographs

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Customer Reviews

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( 35 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 22, 2010


    The book is incredibly disappointing. Dramatic and historic events are glossed over in a few paragraphs at most. There is virtually no original research here, and what is here is devoted mostly to quoting the subject in times when the author thought he was uttering something witty. This was a deeply diappointing book and one I am sorry I wasted time or money on.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 4, 2010

    Excellent Book

    Recently read this wonderful biography of Winston Churchill and was absolutely riveted by it. Unlike many books on Churchill, this book is short, not comprehensive, but perfectly captures his life story and achievements. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Churchill, WWII, England.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    This book was simply a summary of Churchill's life. Although this book was entertaining, it was not a great work of history.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An Interesting Book regarding an Interesting Person

    Well written and engrossing story about a central figure of the 20th Century. Well worth reading. I'll probably read it again.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2010

    Very well done

    I bought this book for my lady who is from England. She never put it down and said she learned more about Churchill than she ever did before.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    A good one!

    Interesting, informative and entertaining. Worth the experience.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2012

    How to describe it? A good read.


    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2012

    Good read

    This e book is an easy read on Churchill, and gives insight to both the man and the politician, The world had the right person in Churchhill at the right time to fight the agressors.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2011

    Adulating Churchill

    This is more hagiography than biography, Not only does Johnson revere Churchill, he credits him with winning World War II all by himself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Churchill a Key World Historical Figure

    If you don't know the story of Winston Churchill's life you really can't possibly understand the importance of Winston's contributions to the effort of winning World War II and the shaping of the modern political world. Paul Johnson's book does an excellent job of exploring all the important details in Churchill's life. Johnson steadily builds Winston's character through the many phases and events of his lifetime to show how Churchill became the larger than life leader he was.

    Johnson's writing style is easy to read and holds your interest throughout the book. I highly recommend this book and found it to be one of the most engaging biographies I have read. It leaves you satisfied and with a desire to dive even deeper into the person of Winston Churchill.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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