Leon J. Waszak is author of Agreement in Principle: The Wartime Partnership of Wladyslaw Sikorski and Winston Churchill (1996).
Derek Leebaert, Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945– 1957, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 612 pages, $35.00. ISBN 978–0374250720
American leaders at the end of the Second World War, not yet confident of their nation’s new role as the principal defender of Western democracy, initially looked to the British for guidance. That Britain thus assumed a role in animating US policy for the remainder of the 1940s and well into the late 1950s is the focus of a new study that author and historian Derek Leebaert calls the “grand improvisation.”
Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 is viewed by Leebaert as a symbolic “passing of the torch,” when the gravity of responsibility started to shift from Britain to the US. This was not, however, a cut-and-dried departure. The speech was not widely appreciated at the time on either side of the so-called “special relationship.” Many Americans thought that Britain sought to drag the US into yet another foreign entanglement, while British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin attacked Churchill, who had been voted out of office less than a year before, as a dangerous egotist and manipulator: “’E thinks ’e’s Prime Minister of the world.” Nevertheless, within a few years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Churchill had more or less called for, had been created. Read More >
Robert A. McLain is Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton.
Damien Lewis, Churchill’s Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, WWII’s Invisible Secret Weapon, Citadel Press, 2020, 389 pages, $27. ISBN 978–0806540634
It is lamentable that the role of technology in the Second World War has received relatively little attention when compared to major campaigns, particularly given its importance to winning the war. The conflict was fundamentally a technological race for better military intelligence and improved weaponry. In this regard, Damien Lewis’s Churchill’s Shadow Raiders reveals the crucial role of radar in defeating the Luftwaffe, itself a precedent for the Anglo-American landings in 1944.
A journalist by training, Lewis has written extensively on special operations. This was furthered in the summer of 2018, when he had the good fortune to gain access to the archives of the Telecommunications Research Establishment [TRE], which was Britain’s principal wartime effort at radar intelligence and counterintelligence. R. V. Jones, one of the TRE’s key scientists, suspected that the Germans had developed a short-range radar system to complement their longer-range “Freya” units. The deadly short-range Würzburg parabolic radars were in fact vectoring German night fighters to RAF bomber streams that resulted in staggering losses for the British. Jones was fascinated by photo reconnaissance and spent significant time at Danesfield House, the manor where young Sarah Churchill served as a skilled interpreter of aerial photos. There, in late 1941, Jones and an assistant examined images that seemingly confirmed the presence of a Würzburg emplacement on the French coast at the village of Bruneval. Read More >
Max Hastings, Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II, Harper, 2020, 400 pages, $35 ISBN 978–006295363X
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College.
Max Hastings’ newest book, a history of the British effort to destroy three dams in the Ruhr Valley in May 1943—codenamed Chastise—allows him to draw upon the interviews he conducted for his 1979 classic Bomber Command. Building on new archival labors and recently published studies, Hastings provides a more detailed examination of the attack than in his previous book.
The basic facts are familiar to viewers of the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which dramatized the attack on the Möhne, Sorpe, and Eder dams. Breaching these three structures, it was argued, would cause enormous devastation in a region important to Germany industry. At the time, however, the airborne munitions capable of destroying the dams did not exist. Enter Barnes Wallis, a brilliant engineer employed by Vickers, who created a weapon called Upkeep, designed to explode in the reservoirs just behind the dams and collapse them under hydrostatic pressure. The attack on 16–17 May partly succeeded. The Möhne and Eder dams were both breached and much death and destruction inflicted in the communities downriver. Read More >
Annie Gray, Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook, Profile Books, 2020, 400 pages, £16.99. ISBN 978–1788160445
Katherine Carter is the Collections and House Manager at Chartwell.
Health Warning: While reading this scrumptious book, be prepared to crave deliciously rich-sounding recipes. I first spoke with Annie Gray early in 2018 when she had got in touch as part of her research for the book she was writing about Georgina Landemare, the Churchills’ cook. She was keen to visit Chartwell and get a feel for the house where Mrs. Landemare had spent so much time and where I am fortunate enough to work. Annie wanted to learn what had been the layouts of the house both before and after the Second World War so as to understand what had been the logistics involved in Mrs. Landemare’s job.
Many people write about Chartwell, and lots of them visit over the course of their research, but on her first visit I sensed in Annie a real desire to understand Mrs. Landemare’s life there. Where had the kitchens been? Which were the stairs she would have used? How close were these in relation to the service lifts, and where had the family dined? Annie was combing meticulously through menus, fridge bills, wine lists, and other archival documents.
The increasing attention to the staff that served the upper classes of early twentieth-century society has been interesting to observe for those of us who run historic houses in Britain. “The Downton Abbey effect,” as I call it, means that the team at Chartwell are now asked almost as much about butlers, maids, secretaries, bodyguards, and cooks as about the Churchills themselves. But can the stories of the staff make interesting histories unto themselves? With Victory in the Kitchen, Annie Gray emphatically proves that they can. Read More >
Celia Lee, Jean, Lady Hamilton 1861–1942: Diaries of a Soldier’s Wife, Pen and Sword, 2020, £19.99. ISBN 978–1526786585
Andrew Roberts’most recent book is Leadership in War (2019). ,
Readers of Finest Hour who are familiar with Winston Churchill’s role in initiating the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 will instantly recognise the name of Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of that tragically doomed expedition. Churchill had recommended Hamilton, a distinguished Edwardian soldier and long acquaintance, to Lord Kitchener, the secretary for war, for that high command, which turned out to be an utterly poisoned chalice.
The young cavalry officer had been thrilled to come to the attention of the famous soldier, Ian Hamilton, who was twenty-one years his senior. Churchill’s sixth book, Ian Hamilton’s March, was written to honour his achievements in the South African war. They remained firm friends and shared many of the liberal, and indeed Liberal, beliefs of the day. Both were opposed to harsh peace settlements with the Boers in 1902 and the Germans in 1918.
Celia Lee has an unrivalled knowledge of the invaluable and detailed diaries kept by Jean, Ian Hamilton’s wife, and has written a remarkable biography based on those intimate daily records of the life of a member of the Edwardian power elite. Jean, the daughter of a millionaire Scottish entrepreneur, had a profound effect on Hamilton’s career at crucial moments. And through her deliciously gossip-ridden diaries we get many wonderful anecdotes about life in that gilded age. Read More >
Ophelia Field is author of The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (2018)
Hugo Vickers, The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, Hodder and Stoughton, 2020, 388 pages, £25. ISBN 978–1529390704
When Hugo Vickers concludes, towards the end of this jaw-dropping biography, that Gladys Deacon “had lived a fuller and more varied life than most,” he is guilty of extreme British understatement. This was a woman who had been a muse, an object of infatuation, or at least an object of curiosity to Auguste Rodin, Bernard Berenson, Giovanni Boldini, the Crown Prince of Prussia, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Count Hermann von Keyserling, Henri Bergson, Jean Giraudoux, Jacob Epstein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Marchand, H. G. Wells, Paul Valéry, Lytton Strachey, Arnold Bennett, George Moore, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Siegfried Sassoon, and many more. Events such as having lunch with Mussolini, or D. H. Lawrence entrusting her with his dirty drawings, barely even find space here for explanation.
By comparison, the ninth Duke of Marlborough seems a rather boring man for the beautiful young American heiress to fixate on marrying from the age of fourteen, a consistency of purpose at odds with the overall discontinuity of both her life and personality. Like an actress, Gladys could metamorphosise. One hostess wrote of her when she visited, “Fortunately she is a hundred people in one, and entertains herself by her own rapid changes of mood.” Read More >
Graham T. Clews, Churchill’s Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 339 pages, £50.50/$44.95. ISBN 978–1682472798
W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).
Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time at the start of the Second World War in September 1939. As in 1914, when Churchill held the office at the start of the First World War, he presided over the largest naval force on earth. This time, however, he carried deep political scars from the Great War and the Dardanelles. Nevertheless, the Admiralty supposedly signaled all the ships of the Royal Navy: “Winston is back.”
The “Phoney War”—or the “Bore War” as some derisively called it—took place over an eight-month period from September 1939 to spring 1940 and was a naval conflict, with the armies on the continent in gridlock and their air forces frozen. In his memoirs, Churchill termed it the “Twilight War.”
The mortal enemy facing Britain was again Germany, but this time, a war-tested German U-boat fleet was in place. Author Graham Clews is critical of Churchill’s slow response to the submarine danger and argues persuasively that Churchill did not sufficiently understand the threat it represented. There was considerable debate at the Admiralty about how to confront the U-boats—whether to reintroduce the convoy system used in the First War or to activate an aggressive “patrolling school,” which would command surface ships to seek and destroy the submarines. Churchill, after some vacillation, promoted the convoy approach, which Clews says was the better choice. Read More >
David Stafford, Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill, Yale University Press, 2019, 301 pages, $26/£20. ISBN 978–0300234046
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F. E. Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and Roy Jenkins.
Every time I review a book for Finest Hour I am amazed by how many new angles historians manage to find from which to write about Churchill. Some do seem to be scraping the barrel; but, by focussing closely on a single critical year in Churchill’s life, David Stafford has found a genuinely illuminating and fresh perspective. One could suggest other pivotal years, but Professor Stafford makes a compelling case for 1921 as the year in which Churchill, on the cusp of middle age at forty-six, began to bounce back from the disaster of the Dardanelles, shake off his youthful reputation for recklessness and poor judgment, and be recognised, in some quarters at least, as a potential Prime Minister.
Much of the freshness comes from the way Stafford mixes the public and political with the private and personal, with no clear boundary between the two. His book opens with Churchill at a New Year party at Philip Sassoon’s house at Port Lympne, along with Lloyd George and various other ministers and fixers, where the singing of music hall songs mingled with serious discussion; and ends with Winston and Clementine enjoying Christmas on the Riviera. In between, a constant whirl of country house weekends with aristocratic relatives and society hostesses is a reminder, often lacking in conventional political history, of the gilded social world in which the governing class of the day lived and moved. By contrast, Churchill only once visited his Dundee constituency during the year and was shocked by the poverty and barefoot children he encountered. Read More >
Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance during the Blitz, Crown, 2020, 585 pages, $32. ISBN 978–0385348713
Chris Matthews hosted Hardball on MSNBC for twenty years and is a member of the Board of Advisers to the International Churchill Society.
Erik Larson tells the story of London under the Blitz with all its sound and fury, but also its unexpected joy. The Splendid and the Vile delivers the great saga with a novelist’s touch. It is like you are watching and hearing the days and nights of 1940 as a passenger on a London double-decker bus.
“It was the dust that many Londoners remembered as being one of the most striking phenomena of this attack and others that followed,” Larson writes. “As buildings erupted, thunderheads of pulverized brick, stone, plaster, and mortar billowed from eaves and attics, roofs and chimneys, hearths and furnaces—dust from the age of Cromwell, Dickens, and Victoria.” Through that dust we meet up with our defiant hero.
“Good old Winnie,” comes a voice from the crowd. “We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it. Give it back. When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” Now we hear the answer that would make all the difference: “You leave that to me.” Read More >
Martin Gilbert and Larry P. Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, volume 22, Leader of the Opposition, August 1945 to October 1951, Hillsdale College Press, 2019, 2328 pages, $60. ISBN 978–0916308407
With hindsight, the years 1945–51 seem like an interlude between Winston Churchill’s two premierships, while Clement Attlee and the Labour party held power. But Churchill had a remarkable capacity for making history out of office, as well as in office. What might be termed his second wilderness years are a case in point—as this latest volume of documents vividly shows.
Far from being the “anti-climax” Churchill initially dreaded, he used the time to prodigious effect. Aided by his “Syndicate” of assistants and financed in style by his publishers, he completed five of the eventual six volumes of war memoirs. We can read his progress reports to Clementine, his queries about delicate issues such as the Dieppe Raid or the bombing of Dresden, his unconcealed pride when telling his King that 250,000 copies of Their Finest Hour had been sold in a single day, and his regular complaints about the workload: “Volume IV is a worse tyrant than Attlee.” Read More >
Adrian Phillips, Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, and Britain’s Plight of Appeasement, 1937–1939, Pegasus Books, 2019, 368 pages, $29.95. ISBN 978–1643132211
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College.
The eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War was accompanied by a predictable flurry of works about British efforts to appease Germany up to September 1939. Adrian Phillips’ book is the latest of this kind and follows close upon similar studies by Tim Bouverie (reviewed FH 187) and Robert Crowcroft (reviewed FH 184). Whereas Bouverie and Crowcroft summarized broadly the efforts to avert war by accommodating Adolf Hitler’s demands, Phillips focuses more specifically on the role of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s chief advisor Sir Horace Wilson in promoting appeasement.
Phillips’s focus is welcome, since Wilson remains one of the most understudied figures of the period. A child of lower-middle class parents, he rose rapidly from the Second Class of the British Civil Service to its heights by virtue of hard work and ability. Chosen as Permanent Secretary of the nascent Ministry of Labour, Wilson showed skill in resolving industrial disputes, making him an indispensable figure for the governments of the interwar period. Read More >
The Crown, Netflix’s hit series dramatizing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is back for its third season, which premiered on Sunday, November 17. Gone after the first two seasons is the bulk of the cast, including Claire Foy (Elizabeth) and Matt Smith (the Duke of Edinburgh), who are replaced by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies respectively. Cast rotation is intended to be every two seasons, with seasons three and four set to cover the Queen’s reign from Harold Wilson through Margaret Thatcher.
A familiar face, however, does return to start season three: John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Improbable casting, at least in this writer’s eyes when first announced, Lithgow’s Churchill was one of the many strong points of the first two seasons. Putting aside the American actor’s towering height (at times he appeared to be leaning over Foy), Lithgow performed admirably within a heavily-dramatized script: from crying over the death of a girl in a London “Pea-Souper” fog to his gruff treatment of the young Queen. His Churchill “accent” is one of the best ever performed on screen, and Lithgow epitomizes Churchill’s natural intellect and magnetism without veering into parody.
Winston Churchill loved movies, and for about fifty years now movies have loved Winston Churchill. He has been portrayed by many of the cinema’s biggest stars on both film and television. John Lithgow’s portrayal in season one of The Crown proved so popular that he has now been brought back by popular demand to reprise the role in the first episode of season three, even though this has required some ahistorical contrivance to accomplish.
How appropriate, then, that a British filmmaker has finally made a documentary about the entirely true story of Churchill’s friendship with the founder of the British film industry! Alexander Korda was a Hungarian immigrant who fled the persecution of the Jewish people in his homeland during the 1920s. He embraced his adopted nation with panache, naming his company London Films and using Big Ben as the studio’s calling card. He also took to smoking Churchill-size cigars.
Korda’s first box-office smash, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), won an Oscar for Charles Laughton and the praise of Churchill, who stirred to the King’s call for tripling the size of the fleet: “To do this will cost us money, Sire,” says the King’s counseor. “To leave it undone will cost us England!” rejoins the King. Against the backdrop of the Nazis coming to power in Germany only a few months before, the tone of the film explains why Korda and Churchill became fast friends.
Tim Bouverie, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, Tim Duggan Books, 2019, 496 pages, £14.90/$30.00. ISBN 978–0451499844
W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).
It is impossible to overstate the devastating impact the First World War had on the British nation and people. The loss of lives and treasure was immense, with 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme. This enduring impact is front and center in Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War. King George V, whose reign spanned the Great War, once shouted late in his life, “I will not have another war. I will not!” It is against this backdrop that journalist and historian Bouverie provides a fascinating narrative history of the policy of appeasement and its ultimate ramifications in 1939 for Great Britain, Europe, and the world.
The scope of the book runs from when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In their dealings with a revitalized Germany under Nazi control, both Britain and France pursued appeasement—a foreign policy of making concessions to avoid armed conflict—believing that Germany had been unfairly punished under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Underscoring Britain’s deep reluctance to fight another war, the Oxford Union approved in early 1933 the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” In response, Winston Churchill, who was emerging with a small group of supporters as the archenemy of the appeasement policy, called the Oxford Union motion a “disquieting and disgusting symptom” of the times. Bouverie notes that because of Churchill’s aristocratic connections and high social standing, he had access throughout the 1930s to classified information about German motives that was not available to the general public. As a result, Churchill never doubted Germany’s aim to dominate Europe. Read More >
Kevin Ruane is author of Churchill and the Bomb (2016) and teaches history at Canterbury Christ Church Univeristy.
David Cohen, Churchill and Attlee: the Unlikely Allies Who Won the War, Biteback Publishing, 2018, 356 pages, £22. ISBN: 978–1785903175
As a cursory internet search will confirm, the popular perception of the Winston Churchill-Clement Attlee relationship is largely shaped by two purportedly Churchillian remarks. The first—the wording alters marginally depending on where one looks— goes thus: “An empty taxi drew up outside Number 10 Downing Street and out stepped Mr Attlee.” The second has Churchill dismissing Attlee “as a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” From these quotes, it is reasonable to infer that Churchill regarded Attlee, the Labour Party leader (1935–55) and his deputy as Prime Minister during the Second World War, as a vacuous non-entity. There is, though, a problem with such an inference: Churchill did not actually utter the remarks upon which it rests. Indeed, when apprised of the barbs he was supposed to have shot in Attlee’s direction, Churchill became angry and upset.
Popular perceptions are quick to set but slow to shift. In 2002, the BBC commissioned a public television poll to determine the “Greatest Britons” of all time. Churchill came top. Attlee did not even make the top 100. In contrast, David Cohen reminds us in his new book Churchill and Attlee that in 2004 British historians were polled on the most successful UK Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Attlee came first, Churchill second. Historians, then, as opposed to the public, have never lost sight of Attlee and his importance.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.