Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Fooling the Enemy
Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception, 1914-1945, by Nicholas Rankin. Faber & Faber, paperback, illus., 672 pp., $14.95, Amazon $11.69.
By Christopher H. Sterling
Arecent addition to the growing =shelf of “Churchill and” books, this centers on Britain’s use of propaganda, camouflage (the book’s most important historical contributions), secret intelligence and special forces— all subjects near and dear to Churchill during both world wars. There is some discussion of code-breaking as well.
But it must be noted that Churchill’s direct tie to much of this derring-do is often pretty thin. While the book is well-written and eminently readable, and filled with interesting sidebars, Churchill appears only here and there, more often absent than present on its pages. Rankin, a BBC producer turned historian and biographer, carries his reader along with artful comparisons of what actually happened with what fiction and non-fiction books said had happened—often not the same thing. But Rankin’s focus is not on Whitehall’s politicians but on unsung figures behind the scenes.
Examples: We read of Archibald Wavell, long before he became a World War II general; several World War I camouflage creators, including the marine painter Norman Wilkinson; T.E. Lawrence as he developed his Arab persona in 1917-19; and jolly Sefton Delmer, who was a reporter before becoming (after 1940) a black propaganda radio expert. Rankin’s book is a series of interwoven vignettes demonstrating entertaining and insightful examples of British deceptive creativity and pluck, often in the face of huge odds.
While I recommend this as a useful survey, it is not a “Churchill book,” despite a title that seeks to produce sales by suggesting otherwise. Even in its second part, dealing with the 1939-45 period when Churchill bestrode the government, the Prime Minister appears only sporadically.
It’s a tactical rather than strategic tale. Rankin supplies us with profiles of people and tasks that developed (in part) from Churchill directives; but this is really a contextual history of British responses during both world wars.
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