Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Churchill: Walking with Destiny

by Andrew Roberts
Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Churchill: Walking with Destiny

by Andrew Roberts


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One of The Wall Street Journal’s Ten Best Books of 2018
One of The Economist’s Best Books of 2018
One of The New York Timess Notable Books of 2018

“Unarguably the best single-volume biography of Churchill . . . A brilliant feat of storytelling, monumental in scope, yet put together with tenderness for a man who had always believed that he would be Britain’s savior.” —Wall Street Journal

In this landmark biography of Winston Churchill based on extensive new material, the true genius of the man, statesman and leader can finally be fully seen and understood—by the bestselling, award-winning author of Napoleon and The Last King of America.

When we seek an example of great leaders with unalloyed courage, the person who comes to mind is Winston Churchill: the iconic, visionary war leader immune from the consensus of the day, who stood firmly for his beliefs when everyone doubted him. But how did young Winston become Churchill? What gave him the strength to take on the superior force of Nazi Germany when bombs rained on London and so many others had caved? In Churchill, Andrew Roberts gives readers the full and definitive Winston Churchill, from birth to lasting legacy, as personally revealing as it is compulsively readable.

Roberts gained exclusive access to extensive new material: transcripts of War Cabinet meetings, diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs from Churchill's contemporaries. The Royal Family permitted Roberts—in a first for a Churchill biographer—to read the detailed notes taken by King George VI in his diary after his weekly meetings with Churchill during World War II. This treasure trove of access allows Roberts to understand the man in revelatory new ways, and to identify the hidden forces fueling Churchill's legendary drive.

We think of Churchill as a hero who saved civilization from the evils of Nazism and warned of the grave crimes of Soviet communism, but Roberts's masterwork reveals that he has as much to teach us about the challenges leaders face today—and the fundamental values of courage, tenacity, leadership and moral conviction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101981009
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 1152
Sales rank: 48,718
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the bestselling author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Gamble and Napoleon: A Life, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography and a finalist for the Plutarch Award. He has won many other prizes, including the Wolfson History Prize and the British Army Military Book of the Year, and frequently writes for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in London and often lectures in New York.

Read an Excerpt


On Thursday, 20 December 1945, the editor of the Sunday Dispatch, Charles Eade, lunched with Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine at their new home in Knightsbridge in London. Eade was editing the former Prime Minister's wartime speeches for publication, and they were due to discuss the latest volume.

Before lunch, Eade had waited in what he later described as 'a beautiful room with bookshelves let into the wall and carrying superbly bound volumes of French and English books', which Churchill called his 'snob library'. The walls were adorned with pictures of Churchill's great ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and a portrait of Churchill painted by Sir John Lavery during the First World War.

The lunch reflected post-war British rationing: an egg dish, cold turkey and salad, plum pudding and coffee. They drank a bottle of claret that the Mayor of Bordeaux had just sent over. Churchill told the trusted journalist, who had lunched with him several times during the war, that he 'had got very drunk' at a dinner at the French Embassy the previous night, adding with a chuckle, 'drunker than usual'.

Over several glasses of brandy and a cigar - whose band Eade took away as a souvenir - Churchill got down to discussing the best way to publish the wartime speeches he had delivered when the House of Commons had been in secret session during the war. In the course of their hour-long talk, he showed Eade the sixty-eight volumes of minutes, messages and memoranda that he had sent to various Cabinet ministers and the Chiefs of Staff between 1940 and 1945, allowing him to open them at random.

When Eade naturally expressed surprise at the sheer volume of work that Churchill had managed to get through as prime minister, 'He explained to me that he was able to handle all these affairs at the centre, because his whole life had been a training for the high office he had filled during the war.' It was a sentiment that Churchill had expressed two years earlier to the Canadian Prime Minister, William Mackenzie King, during the Quebec Conference in August 1943. When King told Churchill that no one else could have saved the British Empire in 1940, he replied that 'he had had very exceptional training, having been through a previous war, and having had large experience in government.' King rejoined, 'Yes, it almost confirmed the old Presbyterian idea of pre-destination or pre-ordination; of his having been the man selected for this task.' This idea was reiterated by the Conservative politician Lord Hailsham, who had been a junior minister in Churchill's wartime government, when he said, 'The one case in which I think I can see the finger of God in contemporary history is Churchill's arrival at the premiership at that precise moment in 1940.'

Churchill put his remarks to King and Eade far more poetically three years later in the final lines of his book The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his war memoirs. Recalling the evening of Friday, 10 May 1940, when he had become prime minister only hours after Adolf Hitler had unleashed his Blitzkrieg on the West, Churchill wrote, 'I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial ... I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail.'

He had believed in his own destiny since at least the age of sixteen, when he told a friend that he would save Britain from a foreign invasion. His lifelong admiration of Napoleon and his own ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, coloured his belief that he too was a man of destiny. His aristocratic birth, as the holder of the two famous names of Spencer and Churchill, gave him a tremendous self-confidence that meant that he was not personally hurt by criticism. In the courageous and often lonely stands he was to take against the twin totalitarian threats of Fascism and Communism, he cared far more for what he imagined would have been the good opinion of his fallen comrades of the Great War than for what was said by his living colleagues on the benches of the House of Commons.

The memory of his friends killed in war or by accidents (such as Lawrence of Arabia) or alcoholism (such as F. E. Smith) very often moved Churchill to tears, but so did many other things, as this book will relate. Churchill's passions and emotions often mastered him, and he never minded crying in public, even as prime minister, in an age that admired the stiff upper lip. This was just one phenomenon of many that made him a profoundly unusual person.

This book explores the extraordinary degree to which in 1940 Churchill's past life had indeed been but a preparation for his leadership in the Second World War. It investigates the myriad lessons that he learned in the sixty-five years before he became prime minister - years of error and tragedy as well as of hard work and inspiring leadership - then it looks at the ways that he put those lessons to use during civilization's most testing hour and trial. For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping.

Part One

The Preparation


A Famous Name, November 1874-January 1895

It is said that famous men are usually the product of unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.

Churchill, Marlborough

Half English aristocrat and half American gambler.

Harold Macmillan on Churchill

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born in a small ground-floor room, the nearest bedroom to the main entrance of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, at 1.30 a.m. on Monday, 30 November 1874. It was a worrying birth as the baby was at least six weeks premature, and his mother, the beautiful American socialite Jennie Jerome, had suffered a fall a few days earlier. She had also been shaken by a pony-cart the day before the birth, following which her labour-pains started. In the event there were no abnormalities, and the baby's father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, was soon describing him as 'wonderfully pretty' with 'dark eyes and hair and very healthy'. (The hair soon went strawberry blond, and great tresses of it from when he was five can be seen in the birth room at the Palace today; thereafter Churchill was red-headed.)

The name 'Winston' recalled both Sir Winston Churchill, the child's ancestor who had fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War, and Lord Randolph's elder brother, who had died aged four. 'Leonard' honoured the baby's maternal grandfather, a risk-taking American financier and railway-owner who had already made and lost two great fortunes on Wall Street. 'Spencer' had been hyphenated with 'Churchill' since 1817, the result of a marital alliance with the rich Spencer family of Althorp, Northamptonshire, who at that time held the earldom of Sunderland and were later to become the Earls Spencer. Proud of his Spencer forebears, he signed himself Winston S. Churchill, and in 1942 told an American trade unionist that 'of course his real name was Spencer-Churchill and it is in this way that he is described, for example, in Court Circulars when he goes to see the King.'


The child's paternal grandfather was John Winston Spencer-Churchill, owner of Blenheim Palace, which has been described both as the English Versailles and as 'the greatest war memorial ever built'. Named after the most glorious of the battles won by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the War of Spanish Succession in 1704, its magnificent structure, tapestries, busts, paintings and furnishings commemorated a victory in a conflict that had saved Britain from domination by a European superpower - in this case, the France of Louis XIV - a message that the young Winston did not fail to imbibe. 'We have nothing to equal this,' King George III admitted when he visited Blenheim Palace in 1786.

'We shape our buildings,' Winston Churchill was later to say, 'and afterwards our buildings shape us.' Although he never lived at Blenheim, he was profoundly influenced by the splendour of the Palace's 500-foot frontage, its 7 acres of rooms and its 2,700-acre estate. He absorbed its magnificence during the many holidays and weekends he stayed there with his cousins. The Palace was - still is - pervaded with the spirit of the 1st Duke, the greatest soldier-statesman in British history, who, as Churchill was to describe him in his biography of his ancestor, was a duke 'in days when dukes were dukes'.

For his late Victorian contemporaries, the young Winston Churchill's name conjured up two images: the splendour of the 1st Duke's military reputation and Palace of course, but also the adventurous career of Lord Randolph Churchill, the child's father. Lord Randolph had been elected a Member of Parliament nine months before Churchill was born, and was one of the leaders of the Conservative Party from the child's sixth birthday onwards. He was controversial, mercurial, opportunistic, politically ruthless, a brilliant speaker both on public platforms and in the House of Commons, and was marked out as a future prime minister - as long as his inherent tendency to recklessness did not get the better of him. In politics, he followed the precepts of the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli, which combined imperialism abroad with a progressive programme of social reform at home. Lord Randolph was to call his version Tory Democracy, and it was to be imbibed in full by Winston. His slogan, 'Trust the People', was to be used many times in his son's career.

Although Lord Randolph was the son of a duke, he was not rich, at least relative to most of the rest of his class. As an aristocratic younger son in the era of primogeniture, he could not expect to inherit much from his father; and although the father of his American wife Jennie Jerome had been enormously rich in the recent past - he was once nicknamed 'the King of New York' - he had seen massive reverses in the American stock-market crash of 1873. Nevertheless, Leonard Jerome still lived in a house that covered an entire block on Madison Avenue and 26th Street, and which boasted extensive stabling and a full-size theatre. He had owned the land where the Jerome Park Reservoir is today, founded the American Jockey Club and co-owned the New York Times.

By the time of Jennie's wedding the year after the crash, however, Jerome could settle only £2,000 per annum on his beautiful daughter, the Duke of Marlborough contributing £1,200 per annum for his son. Along with the leasehold on a house at 48 Charles Street in Mayfair, courtesy of Jerome, that ought to have been enough for the couple to live upon comfortably, had they not both been notorious spendthrifts. 'We were not rich,' their son recalled during the Second World War. 'I suppose we had about three thousand pounds a year and spent six thousand.'

Lord Randolph had met Jennie at Cowes Regatta on the Isle of Wight in August 1873. After only three days he had proposed and been accepted. They married in the British Embassy in Paris after a seven-month engagement, on 15 April 1874. Although the Marlboroughs gave their formal blessing to the union, they were absent from the wedding, because the Duke - who had sent agents to New York and Washington to try to ascertain Jerome's genuine net worth - thought it a mŽsalliance and Jerome 'a vulgar kind of man', 'a bad character' from 'the class of speculators'.

Churchill was proud that his parents had married for love. Writing in 1937 about a libel action he was launching against a book which had described him as 'the first-fruit of the first famous snob-dollar marriage', he told a friend:

The reference to my mother and father's marriage is not only very painful to me, but as you know is utterly devoid of foundation. This was a love-match if ever there was one, with very little money on either side. In fact they could only live in the very smallest way possible to people in London Society. If the marriage became famous afterwards it was because my father, an unknown sprig of the aristocracy, became famous, and also because my mother, as all her photographs attest, was by general consent one of the beauties of her time.

(He eventually won £500 in damages from the publisher for the libel, plus £250 in costs, but not the apology for which he had been hoping.)

Winston Churchill was born into a caste that held immense political and economic power in the largest empire in world history, and that had not yet become plagued by insecurity and self-doubt. Churchill's sublime self-confidence and self-reliance stemmed directly from the assurance he instinctively felt in who he was and where he came from. In his obituary of his cousin 'Sunny', the 9th Duke of Marlborough, he wrote that he had been born into one of 'the three or four hundred families which had for three or four hundred years guided the fortunes of the nation'. He knew he came from the apex of the social pyramid, and one of the key attributes of that class at that time was not to care overmuch what people further down it thought of them. As his greatest friend, the Tory MP and barrister F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, was to write of him, 'He was shielded in his own mind from self-distrust.' This was to prove invaluable to Churchill at the periods - of which there were many - when no one else seemed to trust him.

The social life of the Victorian and Edwardian upper classes was partly based upon staying in the country houses of friends and acquaintances for the 'Friday-to-Monday' extended weekend. Over the coming years, Churchill was to stay with the Lyttons at Knebworth, his cousins the Londonderrys at Mount Stewart, the Rothschilds at Tring, the Grenfells at Taplow and Panshanger, the Roseberys at Dalmeny, the Cecils at Hatfield, the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall and on his yacht Flying Cloud, his cousins Lord and Lady Wimborne at Canford Manor, the John Astors at Hever and the Waldorf Astors at Cliveden, as well as paying frequent visits to Blenheim and very many other such houses. Although he occasionally experienced social ostracism as a result of his politics in later life, he always had an extensive and immensely grand social network upon which he could fall back. This largely aristocratic cocoon of friendship and kinship was to sustain him in the bad times to come.

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