Winston at War
Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1983

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by Martin Gilbert. Houghton Mifflin; 1,308 pp; $40.

IT IS 3 a.m. on the 11th of May of 1940 and Winston Churchill has finally got to bed. Hitler's Blitzkrieg is exploding into France. The German army has overrun Norway. Shipping losses to enemy submarines in the Atlantic are appalling. Neither at this moment, nor for months to come, would any of the world's experts --most notably U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy -- willingly have bet a crooked sixpence on England's chances of survival.

Churchill, however, experiences a profound sense of relief. For eight months he has been first lord of the admiralty in the "phony war," vainly trying to stir the Conservative government, the same chaps who provided appeasement instead of arms, into some sort of offensive action. Now he is prime minister, at 64. "I felt," he writes, "that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and this trial. . . . My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. 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 would not fail."

If he had failed, gentlemen now abed in England would not be reading Martin Gilbert's new book, the latest volume in his huge, ongoing biography. Nor would American audiences now be submerged in a new wave of adulatory Winstoniana. This year alone, it has already brought us Ted Morgan's Churchill, William Manchester's The Last Lion, not to mention the TV series (based on Gilbert's Volume V) about the years Churchill spent pleading with Chamberlain & Co. to build planes and stand up to Hitler.

Finest Hour encompasses political decisions and events from September 1939 to December 1941, including the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz (and with them the threat of German invasion), Hitler's attack on Russia and, finally, Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into the war, allowing Churchill (who had been moving heaven and earth to achieve just that end) to breathe easier for a bit.

New generations are discovering World War II, in which it was still tolerably possible to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Churchill's story keeps being retold, however, mainly because it reinforces a necessary belief that in moments of crisis God, History, or Sheer Chance somehow bring to the fore men equal to the great tasks at hand.

Gilbert is a Churchill fan, of course. It is hard not to be. He is also an authorized biographer. It is said he sifted through three tons of papers in creating Finest Hour, and few readers will doubt the claim. The book is enormous, lavishly, often fascinatingly, footnoted. It is not the author's way to popularize, or to describe the sweep of history. Nor, explicitly at least, does he try to vindicate his hero. Only in rare instances is there any attempt to step back from his subject to provide an uninstructed reader with perspective, or to point out that the record is being set straight.  He naturally tells the story from Churchill's point of view. If an event is political, rather than military, and the prime minister was there, as he was during all the withering face-to-face negotiations before the collapse of France, then the book produces a rich mixture of hard history and anecdote.

It follows that anyone seeking descriptions of war's high drama in the field, a vision of the small boats at Dunkirk, or burning tanks at Tobruk, should look elsewhere, starting perhaps with Churchill's own splendid history of World War II. Finest Hour itself leans heavily on Churchill's book, and on the voluminous, unpublished daily notes of Churchill's secretary, John Colville, whose slender published memoir Footprints in Time is crammed with wise, brief and sharp comments about Churchill and predecessor Neville Chamberlain. Gilbert is an expert and unobstusive stitcher-together of facts and dates, of voices and tactics, of statistics and world strategies, and he ends by creating a narrative that other historians will no doubt have to borrow from for decades to come.

Cumulatively he overwhelms with revealing material about Churchill's exchanges with Franklin Roosevelt, his handling of Conservative colleagues in the War Cabinet and generals in the field, his mankilling work habits, humors (and ill humors), his family, his love of cats, and his drinking; he did less than we supposed, mostly whiskey and soda about the strength of mouthwash.

Even so, Finest Hour sometimes rather resembles a grand opera -- long stretches of fairly dull recitativo blessedly punctuated by soaring sounds that stir the heart. The connectives are Gilbert's; the arias are all excerpts from the speeches or writing of his famous subject.

The book does not change the grand lines of the well-worn, much-loved Churchill image. But it amplifies and enriches the character, rekindling past awe. It is the man's humor and his unbelievable energy that seem most astonishing, as well as his ability to master detail without getting lost in it. We read again the famous "minutes," short pieces of totally clear prose, brief questions or commands with which, every day, he showered his associates. As he struggled to goad his countrymen "into giving up their cherished reasons for not doing anything at all" and to break away from what he called "the intolerable shackles of the defensive," the closing line of such missives was so often "Pray let me have your thoughts on this," that at the Admiralty they became known as First Lord's Prayers.

The neutrals in Europe were one of his pet peeves. "Each of them," he once noted scathingly, "hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last." Yet once the war started he seems never to have reproached his fellow Conservative leaders for the cowardly moral trimming that left Britain all but helpless. At an Anglo-French meeting during the worst moments of the French debacle, he silenced anger on both sides by remarking, with tears in his eyes: "We are companions in misfortune. There is nothing to be gained by recrimination over our common miseries."

All the old favorite passages, from "We will fight on the beaches" to "Give us the tools and we will finish the job" appear. The eloquence wears well, partly because Churchill still stands as one of the masters of the English language, partly because, along with uplift he always includes a hard-eyed look at the situation. Even 40 years on, this reader (who listened to the speeches as a boy crouching over a tiny Emerson radio in New York) felt himself gripped by considerable emotion.

At the same time, reading so many exhortations end to end, one glimpses why, in peacetime, their intensity so offended the pallid Conservative upper-class Englishmen who regarded Winston as a sort of elocutionary bounder who overstated his case. The book shows that they went on absolutely hating his speeches right into the war, even while most Britains, distant Americans and downtrodden Europeans were applauding wildly. One early speech, aimed at stirring hope in the fight against Hitler, ends with the thought that the struggle "may pave the way to a broader solidarity of all the men in all the lands than we could ever have planned if we had not marched together through the fire." Commented Undersecretary of State R.A. (Rab) Butler: "Beyond words vulgar!"

What such critics could not understand -- as the British people did -- was that Churchill had at last come to a moment in history fateful enough to justify his high sense of drama. As Lord Ismay, Churchill's right-hand man, put it -- in the gamesmanlike, white-flanneled terms that Butler would have understood: "The PM is superb in a Test Match, but he is no good at all at Village Cricket."

In the Test Match that was World War II, he sometimes, most vulgarly, wept for the sacrifice of those who endured the pain of the war he so relentlessly pursued. He read nine newspapers a day, besides all the dispatches. He chided his cat, Nelson, for cowardice; with a name like that how could Nelson crawl under a chest of drawers during air raids. He endlessly schemed and planned ahead, especially to build confidence in Britain in the heart of Franklin Roosevelt. Ironically, that confidence was to be won unwittingly.

As French military power and moral resolve shriveled in June 1940, Churchill kept trying to prevent France from capitulating totally. But he was finally reduced to a desperate defensive measure, an attempt to ensure that the French fleet would never fall into German hands. (At one point he even suggested that Roosevelt buy the fleet outright. FDR in fact made an offer, but, as he later explained, "by that time there was nobody from whom he could buy it.")

Despite her prime minister's protestations, the watching world did not really believe that Britain would fight on alone. On July 3, though, after a "heartbreaking" decision, British naval units opened fire on French warships in Oran harbor. When the smoke cleared, most of the French fleet had been blown up, beached or sunk. And 1,250 French sailors lay dead.

Churchill loved France. Relieved by the action, he was also deep in gloom.

It was only seven months later that he learned, from FDR's representative Harry Hopkins, that it was the British willingness to fire on the French fleet which convinced Roosevelt, despite Joseph Kennedy's defeatist reports, that Britain had the courage to take on Hitler alone.