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Perhaps it is me. I have read many books concerning the Second World War and the major heads of government and each book seems to have its own area of concentration and viewpoint. This is, of course, as it should be and why different books about the same subject are likely to yield additional insight into the events for those of us who were not directly involved. The same thing is true of this book. Max Hastings, who also wrote the book Inferno about World War 2, concentrates on Winston Churchill and his direct involvement in the running of the war. This book is not about the war itself but rather about how Churchill directed Britain's efforts in the war, both successfully and unsuccessfully, his interactions with his military chiefs and with leaders of other countries. Those efforts were political as Churchill worked to bring the Americans into the war and convince them of the soundness or lack thereof of various actions as were his relationships with Roosevelt, Stalin and others like Harry Hopkins and Charles de Gaulle.
Hastings is clear in his regard for Churchill and refers to him as the greatest British personality of the 20th century and, perhaps, of all time. The last part of the book is fulsome with praise of Churchill who Hastings clearly regards as the only person who was capable of saving Great Britain at that time. Given those statements it is hard to square the book, with its constant drumbeat of Churchill's failings, with his conclusions about Churchill's leadership. Of all of the books I have read about Churchill and the Second World War this is definitely the most downbeat and perhaps that is why I found it tiresome enough that, toward the end, I had a hard time finishing.
Hastings is a gifted historian and writer and it is hard to take issue with each listed blunder, mistake and failing that he mentions. They are all valid points and documented with letters, memorandums, reports and the like, but the cumulative effect of all of them is to paint Churchill as a muddle-headed war leader full of bizarre and wrong-headed plans and capable of the most stunning strategic blunders. Clearly some of this is true as his continued insistence on attaching "the soft underbelly of Europe" resulted in the only really impossible Allied military operation of the war - the war in Italy. Similarly his attempted defense of Greece, his plan to seize Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands, his plans for Malta and other similar operations were clearly wrong-headed and tended to put off the Americans and annoy the Russians. But the emphasis of the book seems to be on these poor strategic decisions and to give less credit to those of Churchill's choices which were either correct or the least bad choice and one is left with the idea that Churchill was essential only up until perhaps the end of 1942.
To be sure the book also spends a lot of time discussion how ill prepared the Americans were to fight the war in Europe or even to be partners with the British in preparing to fight the war. Hastings discusses how little coordination there was between the US Army and Navy in discussions with the British, how ill prepared the American chiefs were when meeting with the British at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland and how much personal dislike there was between the two groups and between the people of the two nations. But much more time is spent on Great Britain's helpless situation in the early 1940s and the cynicism of those in power, including Churchill, in dealing with their allies. This book presents a different view of Churchill and a very different view of Great Britain than is normally seen in histories of this period.
At the end of the book I was left with the impression that Churchill's main contributions to the war were his stirring speeches and his defiance of Hitler and, had I not been reading about this period for more than 50 years, I would have been left with the impression that Churchill was over-rated as a statesman. But I know better. It was Churchill that kept Great Britain independent and in the war in 1939 and 1940. Without him the US would never have been able to find a way to help liberate Europe as it would have been impossible to do so from the US mainland. It was Churchill that kept the Americans from directly attacking France in 1942 when such an attack would have been a total and complete disaster. It was Churchill that pointed the way to the Mediterranean as the only place to fight Germans in 1942 and the place where the American Army could become proficient in battle. It was Churchill who helped keep the Russians in the war against the Germans and made it possible to defeat Nazi Germany. It was Churchill who foresaw the subjugation of Eastern Europe. The list goes on. To be sure all of this is covered in the book but I felt that the balance between Churchill's foresight and Churchill's follies was wrong and left one with the wrong impression.
Robin Sachs' narration is well done including a reasonable impression of Churchill's voice. This is a very good book but readers might also want to read another book about the period such as the third volume of William Manchester's Churchill biography "Defender of the Realm" to get a more balanced view of Churchill and the war years.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
This excellent work by historian Sir Max Hastings gives a much more balanced approach to British involvment in World War II than does Winston Churchill's series covering the same period. Hastings obviously considers Winston the great leader he was but he also brings out some of "the warts". Churchill's mistakes in judgement were numerous but not well defined in his work. Hastings shows a number of Churchill's bad ideas for exactly what they were.
This is an excellent book to read after the "Second World War" series by Churchill which is also presented on Audible. (Except the last volume which has to come from Audible UK). I highly recommend this book for both its educational and entertainment value. Anything by Hastings is usually very good.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful