On 18 June, Churchill warned the British people that the ‘battle of France’ was over and the ‘battle of Britain’ was about to begin. His words were proved right. As early summer gave way to July and August, the threat of invasion loomed over Britain.
If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.
Churchill, as quoted in Hugh Dalton’s Second World War Diary, entry for 28 May 1940
Churchill, seeing that control of the skies was vital, put businessman Lord Beaverbrook in charge of Aircraft Production (as Minister) and encouraged British scientists to improve radar defences and counter German technology. In August, the Royal Air Force managed to inflict heavy casualties on the German Luftwaffe and, in September, the German pilots transferred their attention from the coastal airfields and those in south-west England to London, allowing the fighter bases respite from attack but putting British people in the city at much greater risk. In early September a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred German bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in London’s East End almost continuously, day and night.
On 24 August, German night bombers aiming for the airfields accidentally destroyed several London homes due to a navigation error, killing civilians. Churchill retaliated immediately by bombing Berlin the following night.
Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights, and other British cities were targeted. But a real turning point in Britain’s fortunes in the war occurred on 15 September.
In an attempt to shatter British morale, now that an invasion began to seem increasingly unrealistic, Hitler sent two enormous waves of German bombers. But their attacks were scattered by the RAF; the German defeat caused Hitler to order, two days later, the postponement of preparations for the invasion. In the face of mounting losses of men and aircraft, the Luftwaffe switched from daylight to night-time bombing and although fighting continued in the air for several more weeks, and British cities continued to be bombed, German tactics to achieve air superiority ahead of an invasion had failed.
For much of the war, Churchill lived not at 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, but in ‘the Annexe’, a building nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this, were the Cabinet War Rooms (now a museum called the Churchill War Rooms) – a ‘bunker’ – where he and his government were protected from the worst the German bombers could rain down on London.
He spent a lot of his time here in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached).
Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937–1941, Allen Lane, 2016, 848 pages, £30.
Review by Mark Klobas
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network.
Daniel Todman’s Into Battle is the first half of an ambitious effort to encapsulate the entirety of Britain’s Second World War experience into a comprehensive narrative, one that begins in the prewar era and promises to end (in a volume scheduled to be published next year) two years after the surrender of the Axis powers. It is a revisionist assessment of the war, that is one that embraces modern perspectives on a story that has often been told in an effort to offer a better understanding of the true dimensions of the conflict.
This effort begins with Todman’s choice of 1937 as his starting point. Opening with the celebrations of the coronation of King George VI, Todman portrays a nation in its last full year free from the immediate threat of war. His focus here is on the changes that Britain was facing, both domestically and internationally, and the stresses these posed to the status quo. Todman uses this to put into context the challenge posed by Hitler’s increasingly aggressive defiance of the Versailles settlement. Drawing upon the lessons of the First World War, the governments of both Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain began a rearmament program designed to build up a modern, mechanized military without straining an economy still recovering from the Great Depression.
Susan Elia MacNeal, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Bantam, 2014, 306 pages, $16. ISBN 978–0345536747
Review by Michael McMenamin
Portrayal of Churchill **1/2 Worth Reading ***
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is the fourth book in the Maggie Hope series to be reviewed in Finest Hour. The first three are Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (FH 156), Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (FH 158), and His Majesty’s Hope (FH 160).
In The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Maggie is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to her last mission to Berlin. Unfortunately, Ms. MacNeal succumbs to the same temptation as other novelists who employ Churchill as a literary character and has Maggie describe her very real PTSD as something akin to Churchill’s “Black Dog” because “She’d once heard Winston Churchill describe his own melancholy as his ‘Black Dog.’” Maggie does have very real psychiatric problems, including insomnia and nightmares over her ordeal in Berlin, where she had killed a man and helplessly watched a little Jewish girl shoved into a cattle car. The reference to Churchill’s “Black Dog,” however, is gratuitous, entirely unnecessary, and wrong. As I noted in “Churchill as a Literary Character” in FH 173, “Churchill never suffered from clinical depression at any point in his life. Ever. Full stop. See “The Myth of the Black Dog” (FH 155). Hence, much as I really enjoy the Maggie Hope novels, I have docked her half a star for her portrayal of Churchill, which is otherwise very good and worth three stars.
Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, Routledge, 2016, 494 pages, $24.95/£14.98. ISBN 978-1138888869
Review by Mark Klobas
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network.
During the Second World War, millions of Britons tuned in regularly to the radio broadcasts from Reichssender Hamburg, the English-language propaganda station operated by Nazi Germany. The network’s leading broadcaster was “Lord Haw-Haw,” who nightly rattled listeners with his seeming omniscience about events in Britain and his confident predictions of German victory. Though the sobriquet was applied to nearly all of the British broadcasters working for the Germans, it was most frequently associated with William Joyce, who for his activities on behalf of the Nazis was arrested after the war, tried for treason, and executed by the British—the last person in British history to be put to death for that crime.
Joyce’s life was layered throughout with conflict and mystery, much of it generated by Joyce himself. One of the achievements of Colin Holmes’s new book is in the extent to which he unravels many of these mysteries using the available sources. To that end, the author engaged in years of research, interviewing many of the people who knew Joyce and researching recently declassified documents in archives throughout Britain as well as abroad. The result is a book that offers us our best understanding yet of the circumstances of Joyce’s life and the factors that led him to become both a fascist and a servant of the Third Reich.
Nial Barr, Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II, Pegasus Books, 2015, 544 pages, $35. ISBN: 978–1605988160
Review by Nigel Hamilton
Nigel Hamilton is senior fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Dr. Hamilton is author of Monty, an award-winning three-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He is currently at work on a three-volume study of Franklin D. Roosevelt as US Commander in Chief during the Second World War. The second volume, Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943, was published in June 2016.
Winston Churchill was born half-American— and ended his life as an honorary American. Educated as a soldier (at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst), moreover, he probably saw more combat in the field abroad than any US president or British prime minister. A military historian from his first books (The Story of the Malakand Field Force and The River War) to his near-last (The Second World War), he would have loved Niall Barr’s Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II.
Churchill—who had a wonderfully wry sense of humor—would also have been amused, I think, by the change of title as the book crossed the Atlantic—for it was originally published in Britain as “Yanks and Limeys.” (It bore, however, a less sensational subtitle, namely “Alliance Warfare in the Second World War.”)
Both titles are in reality misnomers, for whether it be Eisenhower’s Armies or Yanks and Limeys the 544-page book is far, far more than a study of US and British approaches to military alliance in the Second World War. A full third of the volume covers the period before the United States even entered the war, beginning in the year 1755 and carrying the reader up to Pearl Harbor. Read More >
Adrian Stewart, February 1942: Britain’s Darkest Days, Pen & Sword Military, 2015, 198 pages, £19.99. ISBN 978–1473821156
Review by Mark Klobas
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network.
In any argument for when was the lowest point of the Second World War for Great Britain, an excellent case can be made for February 1942. Though the entry of the United States into the conflict just two months before led Winston Churchill to exult that Britain’s victory was assured, the road to that triumph became costlier, and the result diminished because of Japan’s subsequent assault on Britain’s empire in Asia. Before that victory could be achieved, Britain would suffer a series of humiliating and tragic defeats, most dramatically and symbolically represented by the fall of the “eastern Gibraltar,” Singapore.
Adrian Stewart outlines the events of that mensis horribilis in this short book. His focus is on operations in three theaters: North Africa, where the overextended Eighth Army was driven back by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps; the English Channel, where the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen evaded the combined efforts of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to destroy them; and Southeast Asia, where Japanese forces were in the midst of inflicting a series of defeats upon British, imperial, and allied forces on land, on sea, and in the air. Stewart traces much of the responsibility for this to Churchill’s decision the previous year to divert forces destined for Southeast Asia to Egypt. Buoyed, in Stewart’s view, by the recent success of Operation CRUSADER in rolling back Rommel’s forces to El Agheila in Libya, Churchill preferred to gamble on a victory in North Africa, instead of playing it safe by shoring up Britain’s military presence in the Far East. Read More >
Paul Bew, Churchill and Ireland, Oxford University Press, 208 pages, £16.99/ $29.95.
Review by Robert McNamara
Robert McNamarateaches History at Ulster University and is the editor of The Churchills in Ireland 1660– 1965: Connections and Controversies (Irish Academic Press, 2011).
What did Winston Churchill really think about Irish nationalism and unionism? Indeed who is the real “Churchill” when it came to Ireland: an ardent home ruler or a diehard unionist Tory? Since he, at least on the surface, changed his mind often regarding both the conflicting communities in Ireland, it is rather difficult to identify a coherent thread, let alone an idée fixe.
Remarkably, this is only the fourth book on the subject out of the many thousands published about Churchill. Paul Bew covers the intersections of Churchill’s career and Ireland from the baby in the pram in the viceregal lodge in Phoenix Park to the 1950s. Mainly he negotiates a delicate balancing act mixing praise and criticism in his portrait. Unlike previous books written on the subject, Bew takes a moderate unionist perspective on some of the issues.
Irish opinions on Winston Churchill are mixed, to say the least. The accusations levelled against Churchill are long. He was the son of Lord Randolph, the man who played the “Orange Card.” He supported coercion and, most infamously, reprisals during the 1919–21 Troubles. He was a leading figure in the Treaty that partitioned Ireland and led to a bitter civil war in the south. He showed no respect for Irish neutrality (and by implication independence) during the Second World War. In a victory broadcast in May 1945, he launched a venomous attack on Irish neutrality, which Eamon de Valera defiantly rebuked in a famous reply. Read More >
Lord Randolph was still in South Africa on business during the summer when he received Winston’s letter recounting, among other things, the abandoned factory windows he and some other Harrow students had broken. In his reply to Winston on 27 June, Lord Randolph made no reference to the broken windows. Rather, in distinct contrast to many of his critical letters to his son, he began this one in a cheery upbeat manner:
You cannot think how pleased I was to get your interesting & well-written letter & to learn that you are getting on well. I understand that Mr Welldon thinks you will be able to pass your examination into the Army when the time comes. I hope it may be so, as it will be a tremendous pull for you ultimately.
He concluded the letter with “Ever yr most affte father” and added a p.s. that he was “doubtful about being able to bring home a tame antelope.” In a letter to his father on 22 July, Winston clarified what he wanted: “I never meant you to bring home a ‘live’ antelope. What I meant was a head for my room.” Read More >
By Patrizio Romano Giangreco and Andrew Martin Garvey
Patrizio Romano Giangreco lives in Italy. He is grateful to Andrew Martin Garvey of the University of Turin and Italian Officers College for assistance in preparing this article.
At age nineteen Winston Churchill first set foot in Italy in August 1893. He had passed into Italy via Switzerland, where he had gone as a reward for having passed the entrance exams to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
He was favorably impressed by the activity of the Milanese and even more so by the female company he kept. While staying in Milan he took boat trips, one of which was on Lake Maggiore to admire the extraordinary beauty of the Borromeo Islands and their lovely gardens: beauties he described in glowing terms in his letters home to his mother.
Some thirty-four years were to go by before Churchill returned to Italy in January 1927. By then he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin Government and had organized a trip to Europe with his wife Clementine and their children Randolph and Sarah. In Rome, Churchill, a guest of the British Ambassador in Italy, was enchanted by the Forum and, finding time to devote himself to his favorite hobby, did not fail to portray it in some paintings he executed on the spot. Read More >
Antoine Capet is Professor Emeritus of British Studies at the University of Rouen.
Churchill and de Gaulle parade down the Champs-Élysées, 11 November 1944
Strangely enough, we have a book on Churchill and Finland,1 but none on Churchill & France— only a number of articles and book chapters. Is it because of the sheer size of the task, considering the vast available sources, including Churchill’s own publications and private correspondence? Or is it because of the contradictory nature of much of this material, which makes it extremely difficult to master? Thirty years after Churchill’s death, Anthony Montague Browne gave us what is arguably the best short summary of Churchill’s attitude to France, from someone who accompanied him in many of his later travels to the country and heard what he had to say at first hand:
When it came to France, ambivalence was again evident. WSC’s love of France was sentimental and long-standing, based on personal experience in peace and war. His greatest heroine, or indeed hero for that matter, was Joan of Arc. But this did not deter him from taking a firm line with the French if he felt it was required, and he told me that after 1940, and their breaking of a solemn agreement not to sue for a separate peace, he never felt the same about them.2
One might add that this ambivalence is often in evidence according as it is Churchill-the-statesman and impeccable British patriot speaking or Churchill-theprivate-man and Francophile. When the interests of France coincided with those of Britain, all was well— there was no conflict of loyalties deep in his heart. But when he felt that they did not and that British interests were threatened, he naturally gave Britain priority. As “Jock” Colville later put it, “de Gaulle’s loyalty was… to France alone. Churchill’s…was merely to Britain first.”3 But when divergences inevitably occurred, Churchill somehow suffered from a sense of guilt towards France which made him irritable, often Read More >
Robin Prior, When Britain Saved the West, Yale University Press, 2015, 360 pages, $35 / £20. ISBN 978-0300166620
When I was young, I remember a book by Herbert Agar, Britain Alone, left lying on the stairs by my parents. I was intrigued by the picture of the Tommy on the cover staring in defiance at the clouds of aircraft swarming over the cliffs of Dover. I became dimly aware that this was something that had happened to my country, not so long ago, and that it was a “big deal.” When older, I read the book, which told in ringing tones what is still one of the most stirring stories in all history: the lonely, vital stand of Britain and the Commonwealth between the fall of France and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. This is the story that Robin Prior tells here, and it is told in equally memorable style.
This is an accurate, straightforward, narrative history of a compelling story. It is predominantly a military history, describing the Battle of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and of Fighter Command’s immortal stand. We have the detail of squadron tactics and aircraft capabilities. Consequently, there is no mention of Churchill for large sections of the book, as is right given that he is not the primary focus. He is, however, given his rightful place. Read More >
Jonathan Dimbleby, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War, Viking, 2015, 560 pages, £17. ISBN 978-0241186602
The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest sustained campaign of the European theater in the Second World War, began with the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. It continued to rage right up to the German surrender in 1945. Yet, the term “Battle of the Atlantic” is a misnomer, according to Jonathan Dimbleby. Rather than a traditional Trafalgar-like battle, the Atlantic struggle encompassed a series of naval campaigns over an expansive geographical region from the icepack in the Arctic deep into the vastness of the South Atlantic. The primary German weapon was the U-boat. The desired victim was merchant shipping with the object of attacking Britain’s greatest vulnerability: its critical dependence on resources coming from overseas.
The subtitle of Dimbleby’s book, How the Allies Won the War, is certainly provocative but reflects his thesis that the Atlantic battle was the decisive struggle in the war. To prove his point he quotes President Franklin Roosevelt: “I believe the outcome of this struggle is going to be decided in the Atlantic” (xxvi). Nothing, to Dimbleby, more clearly explains the battle’s significance. He maintains that nearly everything else in the war was contingent upon the grinding, attritional campaign occurring in the stormy waters of the Atlantic. Read More >
Leon Bennett, Churchill’s War Against the Zeppelin 1914–18: Men, Machines and Tactics, Helion, 2015, 406 pages, $59.95. ISBN 978-1909982840
Long interested in both airship history and Churchill, I had high expectations for this book that melds both topics. To a great extent they were met, though with a few frustrations along the way.
Leon Bennett’s book centers on the German Zeppelin (airship) bombing raids against England (and especially London) during the First World War and the defense measures taken to meet the new air threat. German fliers tried to bomb the city for months after the war began in August 1914, but initially managed only sporadic raids against easy-to-find coastal towns. Weather was often the chief culprit—especially capricious winds that could push the huge rigid airships miles off course. Crude nighttime navigation was hit or miss, often the latter. British airships (also covered here) faced the same limitations—a key reason that Churchill, after initial enthusiasm, became a consistent critic of the technology. Despite his misgivings, however, the British continued their expensive airship program after the war until the R 101 tragedy in 1930 shut down the effort.
When the huge and clumsy Zeppelins succeeding in hitting something in the Great War, public panic far exceeded the casualties or physical damage. For here was an invasion for which, at first, there seemed no defense. Gradually the fledgling British Royal Flying Corps and Naval Air Service developed methods of fighting the floating “baby killers,” including the use of searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, plus slowly improving fighter aircraft. The airship’s chief weakness was its reliance on highly flammable Read More >
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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.
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