All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition, 1940–45, by Roger Hermiston, Aurum Press, London, 2017, $29.99
On the back dust jacket of this important volume, eight mostly elderly, bald and paunchy men in business suits stare glumly at the camera. These gloomy gents are British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and members of his cabinet in 1940, a year after the outbreak of World War II.
Missing a chance at ironic juxtaposition, the publisher failed to include a group photo of their mostly younger and thinner Nazi German counterparts. The latter also commanded a larger, better-equipped military whose soldiers (if not airmen and sailors) were arguably the world’s best at that point in history. Yet after nearly two years of failing to defeat the forces led by these frumpy old men, the Aryan elites proceeded to commit collective suicide over the following three years.
Historians have hardly ignored Churchill’s wartime leadership, but journalist Hermiston delivers one of the best and most complete accounts. He relates the fighting only as background to the work of “all the talents” who assisted the pugnacious Churchill, often restrained him, performed brilliantly in areas that didn’t interest him and then largely faded from Britain’s collective memory.
American readers may recognize a few names. Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee lacked the charisma of his boss but more than made up for it in good sense. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden remained faithful despite Churchill’s oft-repeated preference for dealing one on one with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
Almost no one remembers Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton, a wealthy magnate who served as wartime minister of food. Yet while Britons hated rationing and the dreary diet, Woolton himself proved universally popular, cheerfully pouring out propaganda and cooking advice while working to keep prices low and distribution fair. In contrast, few loved Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, a sort of free-range minister and press flack à la William Randolph Hearst whose fierce energy offended other cabinet members and may or may not have furthered the war effort.
Churchill’s cabinet included everyone from pugnacious socialist union leader Ernest Bevan to hidebound aristocrats more conservative than the prime minister himself. Their quarrels and bitter rivalries were every bit as bad as those of Adolf Hitler’s high officials, yet they functioned far more efficiently.
Hermiston’s book is excellent history and an oddly feel-good story. Overmatched by Nazi Germany and ultimately impoverished by the war, Britain survived without sacrificing its democratic values, thanks to the resilience of its people and the tireless work of its talented leaders, only one of whom was named Churchill.