Finest Hour 117, Winter 2002-03
By Richard M. Langworth
Winston’s War, by Michael Dobbs. HarperCollins, 488 pp. £17.95, member price $28
On April 2nd, 1938, facing a mountain of debt, Churchill placed his beloved country home on the market. A few days later he withdrew it. Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s political disciple, had saved Chartwell by convincing financier Sir Henry Strakosch to manage Churchill’s investments, being responsible for all debts and losses. Strakosch acted to spare Churchill financial distractions during his campaign for British preparedness and a firm line toward Hitler.
For purposes of this novel you are required to believe that the Strakosch rescue never occurred—that Churchill’s finances were still precarious when Neville Chamberlain went to Munich in October 1938; and that Churchill was incensed by Munich because his investments, made in anticipation of war, might not now pay off.
You must further accept that Brendan Bracken, far from safeguarding Churchill’s finances, committed an indiscretion that tipped off Hitler to Britain’s Norwegian assault in April 1940; and that knowing he was responsible caused Bracken to retire into obscurity after the war. Finally you must believe that two civil servants, Sir Horace Wilson and Sir Joseph Ball, were, respectively, Chamberlain’s eminence grise and political assassin, the first dictating the PM’s every move between Munich and the invasion of Poland, the latter going after Chamberlain’s enemies with the tactics of a Mafia chieftain.
If you are willing however temporarily to believe all that—and if you accept that Chamberlain hated Churchill till the day he died (he didn’t)—Michael Dobbs will spin you a good yarn about the parliamentary machinations, treachery and betrayal by which Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. He will also tell you, better perhaps than any history book, what the war was like for ordinary people, trying to preserve their families amidst the chaos brought by the prewar leadership. These stories, intertwined with the main plot, have not received just attention from reviews—they tell a story that must have been repeated thousands of times in wartime Britain, where citizens of the West knew better than anyone the sheer horror of World War II.
There are holes in this story which need not exist. The most jarring is the idea that investments would have been paramount for Churchill after Munich. It was simply not in his nature to let personal fortunes interfere with the national interest. Even if it were, Churchill would have rejoiced, because he knew Munich made war more, not less, likely. (On 11 September 1938 WSC wrote a friend: “We seem to be very near the bleak choice between War and Shame. My feeling is that we shall choose Shame, and then have War thrown in a little later….”)
It would have been better to have the despondent Churchill muse that despite Strakosch’s kindly rescue, he had made no progress in changing the public mind over Hitler. That was truly why he was depressed over Munich, and would have added a degree of authenticity to the tale.
Some of the dialogue strains credibility. It is most unlikely that WSC would have unburdened himself over Munich to a perfect stranger like Guy Burgess, a representative of the despised BBC at that; or that U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (even he!) would address a high ranking MP like Duff Cooper in language better suited to a public bar than an embassy. Dobbs would have done better to suggest that Lord Randolph most likely died of a brain tumor, not syphilis—a story that originated with a disgruntled literary agent in the 1920s and has a half-life longer than plutonium. Max Beaverbrook’s house at Cherkley (not “Checkley,” one of the few place names Dobbs gets wrong), would certainly not have seen a party where Churchill was burnt in effigy: toward WSC Beaverbrook was diffident, but not hateful.
Some of the characters take on a larger-than-life persona. Horace Wilson was not nearly so influential on Chamberlain, who always in the end made up his own mind. And nowhere in the literature could I find a word against Joe Ball, a civil servant respected by all sides; if Ball was the villain he is painted as here, he certainly covered his tracks.
Many of the character sketches— Duff Cooper, Hoare, Halifax, the King—are powerfully believable. Two fictitious Chamberlainite MPs are quoted throughout—I was convinced I was hearing Walter Runciman and “Rab” Butler. The omnipresent shade of Lord Randolph dwells in Winston’s mind. Dobbs wrote to me privately: “I have always compared and contrasted Churchill’s relationship with his father to that of—wait for it—Adolf Hitler. Hitler loathed his father and I suspect that relationship might have been a cause of the son’s brutal and depersonalized character. Churchill, by contrast, embraced his father’s neglect and gained character, strength and compassion from it. A huge plus for Winston”—an interesting point.
Quibbles aside—and most of the worst howlers occur in the first twenty pages—this is a well crafted novel. I couldn’t put it down, though I was sorry that poor Bracken lays such an egg. The real Brendan was not nearly so indiscreet. A gripping tale, told with the famous skill that gave us Francis Urquhart MP, the evil schemer of House of Cards—what more could you want? The descriptions of some characters and episodes are so well done that I expect we’ll be reading thinly disguised versions of them in future non-fiction. And that may be an altogether unintended consequence of Dobbs’s work.