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Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

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A riveting history of the daring politicians who challenged the disastrous policies of the British government on the eve of World War II

On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons began perhaps the most crucial debate in British parliamentary history. On its outcome hung the future of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government and also of Britain—indeed, perhaps, the world. Troublesome Young Men is Lynne Olson's fascinating account of how a small group of rebellious Tory MPs ...

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Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

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A riveting history of the daring politicians who challenged the disastrous policies of the British government on the eve of World War II

On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons began perhaps the most crucial debate in British parliamentary history. On its outcome hung the future of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government and also of Britain—indeed, perhaps, the world. Troublesome Young Men is Lynne Olson's fascinating account of how a small group of rebellious Tory MPs defied the Chamberlain government's defeatist policies that aimed to appease Europe's tyrants and eventually forced the prime minister's resignation.

Some historians dismiss the "phony war" that preceded this turning point—from September 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany, to May 1940, when Winston Churchill became prime minister—as a time of waiting and inaction, but Olson makes no such mistake, and describes in dramatic detail the public unrest that spread through Britain then, as people realized how poorly prepared the nation was to confront Hitler, how their basic civil liberties were being jeopardized, and also that there were intrepid politicians willing to risk political suicide to spearhead the opposition to Chamberlain—Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, Leo Amery, Ronald Cartland, and Lord Robert Cranborne among them. The political and personal dramas that played out in Parliament and in the nation as Britain faced the threat of fascism virtually on its own are extraordinary—and, in Olson's hands, downright inspiring.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A well-written, fast-paced book that reads like a political thriller . . . Troublesome Young Men is an extraordinary tale of political courage in perilous times–and a wonderfully written book.” —Terry Hartle, Christian Science Monitor

“[A] riveting book . . . Olson tells her story with verve, never letting the reader forget what was really at risk—and what might have happened if these particular troublemakers hadn’t been so willing to stir the political pot.” —The Atlantic Monthly

"During the 1930s, as the rise of Nazism threatened western civilization, Winston Churchill’s was a lonely voice warning of the coming danger, opposing the British government’s policy of appeasement and urging immediate rearmament. Lonely, but not entirely alone. For a few younger Tory members of Parliament held similar views about the German threat, though they did not necessarily agree with Churchill on other issues. The odds were against them, and in attacking their own party’s leaders they put their careers at risk, but in the end they and their allies prevailed: Neville Chamberlain and his defeatist government were overthrown, opening up the room at the top that Churchill so famously filled. Lynne Olson has seized upon their wonderful but neglected story and has told it with verve. It is a riveting tale, immensely readable, that brings to history the excitement of a novel." —David Fromkin, author of Europe’s Last Summer

David Cannadine
…vivid and compelling…Troublesome Young Men describes and celebrates the efforts of Chamberlain's opponents within his own Conservative Party. These Tory rebels finally succeeded in bringing the prime minister down after a famous debate in the House of Commons in early May 1940 in which Leo Amery ended his powerful speech by quoting the terrible words that Oliver Cromwell had used to dismiss the Long Parliament 300 years before: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" Chamberlain grudgingly resigned, and Winston S. Churchill succeeded him, convinced that destiny had nurtured him and prepared him for what would soon be his finest hour. Yet while this may all seem inevitable in retrospect, there was nothing predestined about it at the time.
—The Washington Post
Jon Meacham
Churchill was not alone in his opposition to Hitler during what he called his wilderness years, and therein lies the strength of Lynne Olson’s brisk, engaging new book, Troublesome Young Men. Olson, a former White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, has given us a fascinating snapshot of the Tory “rebels,” as she calls them, who ultimately opposed Neville Chamberlain and helped elevate the then-unbeatified Churchill.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In 1930s England, faced with the gathering menace of fascism, 30 or so junior members of Parliament understood that Hitler would not be dissuaded by Prime Minister Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Their rebellion against their leader and the "elderly mediocrities" of their own Conservative Party is the subject of Olson's absorbing book. The forces opposed to Chamberlain were initially inhibited by party loyalty and the ferocious reprisals threatened against anyone who challenged the prime minister. Olson traces how Hitler's continuing depredations (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland) served to recruit more insurgents in the House of Commons and galvanize those shamed by England's inaction. Olson's story picks up energy as she reviews the events of 1940, when at long last Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill. Olson is interested in the moral imperatives driving her protagonists. The dominant figure in the narrative, of course, is Churchill, who despised Chamberlain's defeatism but served loyally in his cabinet until Chamberlain's forced resignation. Infused with the sense of urgency felt by the young Tories, Olson's vivid narrative of a critical generational clash leaves the reader wondering what might have happened had they prevailed earlier on. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Here is the engrossing story of the British Tory dissidents, upper-class MPs who denounced Neville Chamberlain's attempts to mollify Hitler's ravenous territorial ambitions in pre-World War II Europe. The "Young Rebels" despised appeasement as a diplomatic strategy and sought to remove Chamberlain from office. As back benchers, they were expected to tow the Conservative Party line strictly enforced by Chamberlain and his Tory whip, David Margesson. Yet Ronald Cartland, Harold Macmillan, Bob Boothby, Harold Nicholson, and their like-minded colleagues risked political suicide in their frustrating attempts to oust Chamberlain and to make Winston Churchill prime minister. It was only after the outbreak of hostilities and the dual defeats in Norway and France that their concerns finally gained traction: Chamberlain stepped down and the indomitable Churchill became England's leader, vindicating the Young Rebels. Olson (Freedom's Daughters) does a superb job of capturing the smoked-filled, whiskey-soaked ambience of British politics and the web of personal relationships involved. While not sympathetic to Chamberlain's diplomatic strategy, she does convey the complexities of developing an effective foreign policy in a parliamentary government. For a more sympathetic view of Chamberlain's attempts to keep the peace, see Peter Neville's Hitler and Appeasement. Olson has crafted a seamless narrative that flows from primary and secondary sources and is a worthy addition to all World War II collections.
—Jim Doyle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374531331
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/29/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 151,320
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne Olson, former White House correspondent for The Sun (Baltimore), is the author of Freedom’s Daughters, and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt


They were schooled at Eton and Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford. They lived in Belgravia and Mayfair and spent their weekends at sprawling country houses in Kent, Sussex, and Oxfordshire. They were part of the small, clubby network that dominated English society. And now, in May 1940, these Tory members of Parliament were doing the unthinkable: trying to topple Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the leader of their own party, from power.

They knew they were courting political suicide. They were challenging a powerful, authoritarian prime minister who equated criticism of his policies with treason and employed a full complement of dirty tricks to stamp out dissent. Opponents branded the rebels as unpatriotic. Sir Samuel Hoare, the home secretary, denounced them as "jitterbugs" and claimed that their "alarm-and-scare-mongering" had thwarted a new "golden age of tranquility" in Europe.

Like other former public-school boys, the small band of backbenchers had been taught to value loyalty. But in the current crisis, they believed, they owed loyalty to their country, not to their party or prime minister. For eight months Britain had been at war with Germany, a war that Chamberlain and his government clearly had no interest in fighting, a war being waged, as one Tory rebel said, "without arms, without faith, and without heart."

Defending Poland was the ostensible reason why Britain and France had declared war on Hitler's Germany the previous September. But Poland had been quickly devastated by the German invasion, and its Western allies, despite all the treaties and all the promises to that shattered country, did nothing to save it. Was there any other justification for continuing this putative conflict? If so, Chamberlain's government never said what it was. The government declined to declare its war aims and seemed to prefer a token war, waged as cheaply as possible. The British Army was undermanned, ill equipped, and badly organized. Mobilization was lethargic; able-bodied men were still working as chauffeurs and as doormen at London's private clubs and luxury hotels. Armament production was proceeding at a snail's pace, and few, if any, controls had been imposed on civilian manufacturing.

Throughout Great Britain, there was doubt, cynicism, apathy, and distrust. When war was declared, the British braced themselves to bear the shock, believing their cause was just. But when their leaders turned their backs on Poland and nothing more happened, the sense of mission evaporated. More than a million city dwellers had been evacuated to the countryside; a blackout had been imposed, causing tremendous disruption and danger—and for what? Where were the bombs? What was the rationale for turning everyone's life upside down? Why were the wealthy still throwing lavish parties and drinking champagne at posh nightclubs while workers struggled with shortages and skyrocketing costs? To his radio listeners in America, the CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow reported that the people of Britain felt "the machine is out of control, that we are all passengers on an express train traveling at high speed through a dark tunnel toward an unknown destiny. The suspicion recurs that the train may have no engineer, no one who can handle it."

Hitler, meanwhile, had no doubts about where he was heading. His forces had taken full advantage of the inertia of Britain and France, knifing through Poland the previous autumn, then, in April, invading Denmark and routing the British Army and Royal Navy from Norway. German troops were now poised to launch a lightning sweep through the heart of Western Europe, striking toward the English Channel.

Socially and militarily, Britain teetered on the edge of disaster. Yet there appeared to be little hope for change. Chamberlain was determined to stay in power, and most of the massive Tory majority in the House of Commons seemed determined to support him. So were the BBC and the nation's newspapers. Such support was in the national interest, editors rationalized. Criticizing the government in time of war would be disloyal, they declared, splitting the country further and only helping the Germans.

This, then, was what the Tory insurgents faced as they plotted to oust Neville Chamberlain. It was the climax of a two-year struggle against his policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany that had begun with the resignation of Anthony Eden as foreign secretary in February 1938. The fight had been bitter and intensely personal. The rebels were challenging men who had been their comrades in school, who belonged to the same clubs, who in some cases were members of their own families. They were violating the gentlemanly norms of their society; for that, they were vilified as traitors to their party, government, class, and country. Among the rebels themselves, there were deep divisions and dissension. They had trouble finding a leader; only after the war had begun did a senior colleague finally step forward with the courage and conviction to head the revolt.

That leader was not Winston Churchill. Indeed, the Tory dissidents had been given no help at all by the man who once had been the foremost critic of Chamberlain's appeasement policy. When war was declared, Churchill joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. In the months that followed, although he pressed hard in government councils for a more vigorous prosecution of the war, he remained loyal to the prime minister. To the dismay of his anti-appeasement colleagues, Churchill made clear he would do nothing to help bring Chamberlain down. If the prime minister was to be toppled, it must be their doing, not his.

The climax of the anti-Chamberlain movement would come on a soft, golden spring afternoon in early May, when members of the House of Commons gathered to debate Britain's humiliating defeat in Norway. It was the final showdown between the prime minister and the Tory rebels, joined by their newfound Labour, Liberal, and Independent allies. As they worked feverishly before the debate to line up last-minute support, the rebels knew that the odds of their succeeding were regarded as slim to none. According to Time magazine, "nobody thought on that first afternoon of debate that there was more than an outside chance of dislodging Chamberlain."

Yet three days later Neville Chamberlain was gone, and Winston Churchill was prime minister. This is the story of how that came to be—and the men who made it happen.

The idea for Troublesome Young Men grew out of research for two previous books that I wrote with my husband, Stanley Cloud, both of them touching on the climactic summer of 1940 in Britain. It was during those terrible yet glorious days that the epic of Winston Churchill really began. "You ask what is our aim?" he declared to the House of Commons on May 13, three days after replacing Chamberlain. "I can answer in one word: victory." That word remained his touchstone, even as France fell, British troops retreated to Dunkirk, and a German invasion of Britain seemed to loom on the horizon. When Luftwaffe bombers began their assault on Britain later that summer, the new prime minister rallied his countrymen to greatness.

The story of Winston Churchill in 1940 is, without question, one of the most compelling dramas in modern British history. But as I researched the period in more detail, it seemed to me that the behind-the-scenes story leading to Churchill's accession—that of the Tory rebels defying their party and prime minister—is, in its way, no less significant or engrossing. For if it hadn't been for those MPs, and for the parliamentary colleagues who joined their ranks in the Norway debate, Churchill would never have been given the chance to rise so magnificently to the challenge, and Britain might well have negotiated for peace with Hitler or even gone down to defeat.

In the past six decades the emergence of Churchill as savior of Britain has come to be viewed almost as a preordained event. He is such a monumental figure, sweeping everyone else from center stage and claiming history's spotlight, that it's easy to believe, as many people do, that he stood virtually alone in opposing appeasement before the war and that his rise to power was inevitable. Neither assumption is true. As the historian Paul Addison has noted, "Looking back on the crisis of May 1940 with the benefit of hindsight, we must remark how uninevitable the 'inevitable' seemed to be at the time."

As prime minister, Neville Chamberlain possessed an overwhelming parliamentary majority. He and his men were masters of the House of Commons, manipulating and dominating that body just as they did the other traditional overseer of the government, the press. Using tactics that have striking resonance today, Chamberlain and his subordinates restricted journalists' access to government sources, badgered the BBC and newspapers to follow the government's line, and claimed that critics of their policies—in both the press and Parliament—were guilty of damaging the national interest.

Because of Chamberlain's seemingly impregnable position, the rebels encountered frustration after frustration in their two-year struggle. Fighting appeasement, one of them observed, was "like battering one's head against a stone wall." They were forced to wait for a major military setback before they could finally make their move. But once that reversal occurred, the foundation for revolt was firmly in place. Although some historians have argued that Chamberlain's downfall in the Norway debate was the consequence of "parliamentary political spontaneous combustion," it was, in fact, the result of the rebels' actions. "Rebellion," as the biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen observed, "does not come by sudden chance." The Tory dissidents pressed for the debate and urged the Labour Party to call for what turned out to be a vote of confidence in Chamberlain. And it was their leader, a former close friend of the prime minister's, who, in one of the most electrifying speeches ever heard in Parliament, persuaded a number of his colleagues that Chamberlain must go.

On the eve of Hitler's invasion of Western Europe, the House of Commons, prompted by the dissidents, reasserted itself as the guardian of democracy and took the first critical step toward victory. With their action, the rebels underscored the truth of a comment made by Ronald Cartland, the youngest member of their group, who himself would suffer the consequences of the government's failure to prepare properly for war.

"No government can change men's souls," Cartland said. "The souls of men change governments."

Excerpted from Troublesome Young Men by Lynne Olson. Copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson. All rights reserved. Published in April 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents


1. "We May Be Going to Die".............................................8
2. Playing the Game.....................................................21
3. "Troublesome Young Men"..............................................36
4. "Dictators Are Very, Popular These Days".............................61
5. "I Lack the 'Spunk'".................................................84
6. "Quite Simply, He Told Lies".........................................107
7. "Our Own Soul Is at Stake"...........................................126
8. "'Terrible, Unmitigated, Unparalleled Dishonor'".....................143
9. Retribution..........................................................158
10. "Waiting for a Stirring Lead".......................................176
11. "Here Is the Testing"...............................................192
12. "Speak for England".................................................202
13. Playing at War......................................................219
14. "The Misery of Doing Nothing".......................................240
15. "He Is Absolutely Loyal"............................................261
16. "Gambling with the Life of the Nation"..............................275
17. "'In the Name of God, Go!'".........................................289
18. "Victory at All Costs"..............................................306
19. A Question of Loyalty...............................................322
20. A Son's Betrayal....................................................339
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 18, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    In depth history of the years leading up to Churchill's rise to Prime Minister

    Well-researched, character-driven, biographical account of the few brave politicians who helped to oust Chamberlian and install Winston Churchill to the British Prime Ministry so WWII could be properly fought, England properly defended. Focuses on the years 1938 to 1941 and privides startling detail about each player and his role. Good book for avid WWII fans, not for the mildly interested. The suspense lies in the slow lead up to the war and the very slow response by Parlainment. Had enough momentum for me, given my fascination with the war. Very little here about the war itself; although, the actions taken by the Nazi's before Britain declared war is detailed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2007

    Lights in England's Blackest Hours

    From a niche in time comes an eye-opener for all but the most knowledgeable readers of English history in the period immediately before World War II, the so-called age of appeasement. Troublesome Young Men details the background, lifestyle and deeds of the few in Britain's elite who dared to challenge the iron rule of Neville 'Peace in our Time' Chamberlain. No, it is not a paean to Winston Churchill but rather the tale of those who brought him, somewhat reluctantly, to power ... Macmillan, Boothby, Cartland, Amery, Eden to name just few. To those of my generation growing up in England in the late 1940s and 50s, many of these names, other than Churchill, of course, were known as respected politicians whose deeds had passed beyond current affairs yet were too recent for history classes. Now, 50 years and many history books later, I find that Macmillan and Eden balked at taking 10 Downing Street. Any previous actions notwithstanding, Churchill, too, remained loyal to Chamberlain and as a member of his cabinet 'Admiralty' defended him in the House of Commons. Chamberlain, himself, was not the querulous, umbrella-toting wimp he his known as today but a flint-hearted Nixonesque dictator who employed bullies, smear tactics and wiretaps against disssenters. There are also some 'juicy bits': a whiff of upper-crust bisexuality Macmillan cuckolded by Boothby for decades, a humiliation the eventual Prime Minister didn't overcame until he found his feet again guiding Eisenhower in the North African campaign a son that was hanged as an instrument of Nazi propaganda. This is not arid history but a thoroughly absorbing account of a crucial period of the 20th century. Author Lynne Olson, former White House correspondent for The Sun of Baltimore deserves nothing but praise for her work.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 10, 2013

    Very readable and very fact-filled and interesting story of the

    Very readable and very fact-filled and interesting story of the Tory rebels who opposed Neville Chamberlain in 1940. The book, through, covers decades, and WWII is only a small portion of it (with 1942-1945 largely overlooked). If you like British political history, this is a must-buy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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