Review of FINEST YEARS: Churchill as Warlord, 1940-1945
It is often muttered that the best MPs are those who have experienced a little bit of life first, and not treated politics as a career that begins the moment they graduate from the student union. Even a career politician like Churchill, who became an MP at a young age, had already been a soldier and journalist, had killed men in battle, and had travelled to far flung corners of the world before he entered Parliament. In many ways, this tenet could also apply to historians. Academic life can be a very closed society: one reads, teaches, produces papers, attends conferences, but does that make one qualified to judge the lives of others? It can pay, I think, to have been around the block a little, especially when dealing with such a towering figure as Churchill, with all his mighty achievements and failures, extraordinary abilities and failings.
Max Hastings certainly fulfils this criteria, having, like Churchill, a career that has taken him to many distant parts of world, often covering wars and conflict. He has been a journalist and editor, has met numerous prime ministers, heads of state and other powerful men, and in between has produced some of the best studies of the Second World War to have been written during the past twenty-five years. It is clear that he has brought this experience to bear very profitably in his latest work, because Finest Years reveals an empathy, understanding, and above all, insight, that has been lacking in many of the books on the great man that have come before. In his book, Churchill burst into life once more: charming, irascible, infuriating, loveable; a giant of a man, whose brilliance cannot be doubted. I defy anyone to read this book and not be both profoundly moved and won over to Hastings’ highly persuasive and convincing interpretation.
Hastings identifies Churchill’s genius as lying in his obvious oratory, his vision and imagination, his optimism, and, above all, his strength of will, which despite his age and increasingly failing health, propelled him to perform Herculean feats of stamina for almost the entire period of the war; while his colleagues, commanders and the people of Britain flagged, Churchill’s energy and drive rarely left him. This is not to imply that Hastings believes he should be free of criticism. He does not, and devotes ample time and explanation to the blots on his record, such as the disastrous and ill-judged Dodeconese campaign, and the shameful obliteration of so many German cities long after a strategic bombing campaign upon them had ceased to be of a value worth more than the terrible cost.
Hastings is also sceptical of Churchill’s plans to ‘set Europe ablaze’ through the encouragement of resistance in occupied countries. Separating the romantically heroic deeds of SOE agents and their long-term value, he points out that only in the Balkans did it really make a long-term effect on the war there. Elsewhere, France especially, resistance did more harm to local communities than it did good to the Allied cause. ‘The impact of SOE’s aid to Resistance movements,’ writes Hastings, ‘was significantly greater upon post-war societies than on military outcomes in the struggle against Germans.’ It is an interesting point.
Yet it is in this analysis of Churchill’s failings that Hastings shows such a deft touch. Rather than judging the man from the comfortable distance of more than sixty years, he views the vast and varied decisions and dilemmas the prime minister faced from the perspective of the time at which they were taken. Nor does he view Churchill’s leadership in isolation. As he points out, when compared with Roosevelt or Stalin – not to mention Hitler – his shortcomings seem considerably less. All leaders make mistakes, but, Hastings argues, it is important to look first and foremost at the essentials, and in Churchill, Britain had a leader of truly global stature, who raised his country’s stature to a far higher degree than its contribution warranted, particularly after 1943.
Moreover, he gave voice to Nazi defiance, mobilizing and unifying a country that was beaten and broken in 1940. Almost single-handedly, Churchill imposed his will upon the British people, giving them the kind of self-belief that enabled them to fight on when they and the rest of the world had believed all was lost. As war time prime minister, Churchill had unprecedented powers for a democratic leader and was without question the man who provided the direction and drive to Britain’s war effort from the moment he took over on 10 May 1940, to the day five years later when the war against Nazi Germany finally came to an end. As such, this book in many ways provides a history of Britain’s part in the Second World War. All too often, we read about the key – or most enduring – events in isolation, whether it be the Battle of Britain, the Desert War, or D-Day. Here we have the whole picture, and how one aspect fed into another; and fascinating it is too, all told with the kind of pace and drama worthy of such immense events.
The breadth of sources is impeccable, and his trick of drawing on quotes from the likes of Disraeli, for example, is highly effective in giving Churchill a deeper historical context. Yet what also makes it so readable is the fact that this is not a mere relaying of events, but very much an opinion piece too. As with his recent epics, Armageddon and Nemesis, his account of Churchill’s war is full of analysis. As someone who has spent the last few years studying the events of 1940, I found it hard to disagree with any judgement he made on that fateful summer. It was also good to see that period move from beyond just aerial battles between Spitfires and Messerschmitts to include the daily anxieties caused by internal dissent, Ireland, Spain, Japan, the French fleet, and particularly the United States. Churchill’s wooing of America was key to his wartime policy in 1940-1942 and Hastings rightly gives the subject its due credit, whilst also revealing American policy as almost entirely self-interested. Roosevelt, great man though he was, comes across as a cold and unsympathetic figure here.
Central, to Hastings’ thesis, however, is the degree to which Churchill towered over the lesser men in his cabinet and those who led his armed forces. The British Army was, he argues, poorly trained, and particularly poorly led. Much of this was due to the post-First World War belief and hope that nothing like it could be repeated again. Massively reduced in size, the army reverted to type, patrolling colonial outposts and ignoring possible advances in tactics and even weaponry, and using the excuse of global recession long after it was too late to rectify. None of this is really explained, however. He is also wrong to say that the RAF failed to support the army until late 1942. After all, it was the Desert Air Force, working in a ground-support role, which saved Eighth Army from annihilation in June of that year. And in men like Coningham and Park, the RAF had precisely the kind of thrusting, dynamic and decisive leaders Churchill so craved. He is also, perhaps, a bit harsh on Alexander, who was the PM’s favourite for good reason. These, however, are minor quibbles; after all, prompting debate is one of the pleasurable benefits of reading good history.
And good history this certainly is. In the last decade there has been Roy Jenkins’ mammoth biography, not to mention a number of books on Churchill’s place in history, on Allied wartime strategy, and, within the last year, an account on Churchill as warlord from no less a historian than Carlo D’Este. In following this, Hastings has set himself a formidable task. Yet I would choose this account over and above the rest. It is a fabulous book: full of perceptive insight that conveys all the tragedy, triumph, humour and intense drama of Churchill’s time as wartime leader; and it profoundly moving as a result.