Al Hemingway shares with us his military book reviews for the August 2009 issue of Military Heritage Magazine.
by Al Hemingway
The Life of Winston Churchill at War by Carlo D’Este
In 1958, Royal Marine General Sir Leslie Hollis visited the old Central War Room in London where he had spent numerous hours during World War II. Situated 50 feet beneath Whitehall, the sprawling six-acre command post consisted of a maze of rooms and hallways where Britain’s ground, air, and sea commanders made momentous decisions regarding their nation’s strategy during the life-and-death struggle.
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As he scanned the room where the country’s leaders convened, Hollis’s eyes fixed on the chair where the wartime prime minister, Winston Spencer Churchill, would sit and hold court. Blank papers were scattered about and there sat the bucket where Churchill would toss his habitually half-smoked cigars. Here the prime minister would cajole, yell, and prod his military commanders to achieve victory over German dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. If this could not be accomplished, Churchill knew better—and sooner—than anyone, it would mean the end of the island nation.
Although there has been a plethora of biographies about Churchill, in his new offering,(HarperCollins, New York, 2008, 864 pp., photos, maps, index, notes, $39.95, hardcover), retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Carlo D’Este focuses on Churchill’s military background and how it shaped his thinking—for both good and ill—during England’s greatest wartime challenge.
Born amid great family wealth in 1874, Churchill was a rambunctious and often undisciplined child. He had a deep love for his mother and father, despite their cold and distant relationship to each other and their eldest child. He spent countless hours playing with his toy soldiers and envisioning himself leading a great army one day.
Although brilliant intellectually, Churchill’s poor grades kept him out of Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, he graduated from Sandhurst, England’s royal military academy, in 1894. He saw service in the cavalry in India, Egypt, and the Sudan, where he participated in the last cavalry charge in British history in 1898 at Omdurman. He also served a brief stint as a newspaper correspondent during the Boer War and was briefly held as a prisoner of war before escaping amid great hoopla and international publicity. During World War I, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty and helped plan the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli, for which he took more than his fair share of responsibility and blame. At his insistence, he commanded a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front
During the years preceding World War II, Churchill was in political hibernation. The dark cloud of Gallipoli hung over him, squashing any chance for a successful political career. He often went into deep depression, which he referred to as his “black dog.” He spent many hours painting in an attempt to overcome his deepening malaise.
Despite being a self-inflicted recluse, he remained outspoken when war clouds loomed in Europe. He constantly criticized the government’s appeasement policy toward the fascist regimes of Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy.
When war was declared in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had attempted to placate the Nazis, came under attack in both houses of Parliament. Churchill seized his opportunity and was selected as prime minister on May 10, 1940, when Chamberlain resigned. Although condescending, cantankerous, and moody, Churchill’s sheer audacity and inspiring words uplifted the spirits of the British people. His speeches instilled a sense of renewed pride and a willingness to fight to the death to defend the home island.
His extensive military training, Churchill believed, made him an expert on strategy—much to the chagrin of his commanders. His constant meddling was a source of irritation and, at times, proved detrimental to the war effort. He relieved generals and admirals at will, some of whom were exceptional field commanders, while ignoring others, including Sir William Slim, whose outstanding performance in the Far East went largely unnoticed. Churchill concentrated on winning the war in Europe, but argued vehemently with American generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall about how it should be done. Churchill was a proponent of the Mediterranean approach, through Sicily and Italy, which he called “the soft underbelly,” to draw German troops away from France. The Americans, by contrast, were strong advocates of the cross-Channel invasion. He was lukewarm to the idea, visualizing the sort of trench-style warfare that remained indelibly etched in his mind after his service on the Western Front in 1916.
In spite of all his shortcomings, the charismatic Churchill was the linchpin for the war effort during the turbulent years of 1940-1945 in Great Britain. A lesser man would have buckled under the extreme hardships of the job. Not Churchill—he thrived on it. The strain of leadership eventually took its toll, as he suffered several heart attacks, pneumonia, and fatigue, as the conflict slowly grinded on. Still, he was seemingly everywhere, mingling with the populace, facing down German bombers during the Blitz, chomping on his ever-present cigar and flashing his famous V-for-victory sign.
“While opinions and assessments of Churchill will continue endlessly, one conclusion is beyond dispute,” writes D’ Este. “It is this: His romantic view of war and his inability to understand various aspects of its prosecution notwithstanding, Churchill nevertheless was the only man in Britain who could have led his nation from the dark hours of defeat with unwavering vision and bulldog tenacity.” It is an achievement that cannot be overvalued, by Great Britain or the rest of the free world.
This article is from the August 2009 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.