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Great Battles and Leaders of the Second World War
by Winston S. Churchill, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995, $40.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was stunned and upset when he received news of the fall of Singapore in February 1942. He was outraged when he heard that Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival’s garrison in Malaya had failed to halt a Japanese invading force that it outnumbered. When it was soon clear that Percival was about to be defeated, Churchill became desperate.

The prime minister signaled Field Marshal Archibald P. Wavell, the Far East supreme commander, to urge that the newly arrived 18th Division fight “to the bitter end” and that “commanders and senior officers should die with their troops.” But the division was captured almost intact, an event unprecedented in British history. Percival marched into enemy lines under a white flag. It was the worst disgrace in Britain’s long and unequaled military history.

Churchill, an old soldier himself who had displayed valor under fire in the Sudan, South Africa and France, was devastated, believing that his country had been humiliated. Yet he did not write one immoderate word about the disastrous episode in his monumental six-volume The Second World War. This restraint was dictated by one of his principles–that of “never criticizing any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it.”

Churchill was fascinated by military operations and followed their progress closely, but he resisted intervening in their control at the hour-by-hour and unit-by-unit level adopted by Adolf Hitler. The prime minister warned, advised, encouraged and occasionally excoriated. He involved himself intensely in all aspects of the war effort, military and civil, and his barrages of memoranda titled “Action This Day” became legendary. The prime minister appointed and removed commanders, but he did not presume to do their jobs.

Neither President Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor Marshal Josef Stalin nor Hitler left any firsthand narrative of their roles in the direction of the war, so Churchill’s record is acutely revealing, an extraordinary achievement of comprehensiveness, sweep, objectivity and artistry. It will be read as long as World War II is remembered.

This impressive volume, opening with a succinct foreword by the distinguished military historian John Keegan, is a distillation of Churchill’s war chronicle, which won him the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature. Liberally embellished with stunning photographs, it is a unique and authentic high-level account–much of it intensely personal–of the key people and major events in the greatest confrontation in history.

Churchill was at the center of the world stage, from the “stern days” of 1940-41 to the eventual Allied triumph, and he was supremely qualified to record the saga. He did so brilliantly. He was, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower described him, “a champion of freedom” who also had a deep sense of history and considerable literary gifts. In terms of depth, scope and scholarship, Sir Winston’s history of the war has not been equaled.

The reader is provided with behind-the-scenes details of many of the major campaigns and battles of the war: the German attack on Poland; the lightning panzer invasion of France, Belgium and Holland; the miracle at Dunkirk; the swift collapse of France; the Battle of Britain, when Churchill inspired the British people to fight on alone in defense of Western freedom; the ill-fated campaign in Greece; the long and harrowing Battle of the Atlantic; the German invasion of Russia; the seesaw struggles in North Africa; the American triumph at Midway; the long and gallant defense of Malta and the Mediterranean convoys; the Allied turning points at El Alamein and Stalingrad; the Battle of Tunis; the Sicily invasion; the costly landings at Salerno and Anzio; the grueling Cassino campaign; the momentous Normandy invasion; and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.

And there also are frank and revealing opinions here of Churchill’s friends and foes: men like Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, Charles de Gaulle, Chiang Kai-shiek, Josip Tito, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, George Marshall, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Anthony Eden, Harold Alexander, Rudolf Hess, Erwin Rommel, Galeazzo Ciano and Vyacheslav Molotov.

The Second World War was one of the great historical works of the century, and perhaps of all time. This condensation of Churchill’s opus, while obviously lacking the epic detail and range of the original, is nevertheless a rewarding masterwork that will be appreciated by all military history enthusiasts.

Besides being Britain’s greatest prime minister, an eloquent orator and a tireless advocate of people and liberty, Churchill was also a man of prodigious literary skill and energy. He found time to write many books, including five volumes on World War I; The History of the English-Speaking Peoples; a study of the Duke of Marlborough, his ancestor and one of Britain’s greatest soldiers; and memoirs of his services with the Lancers in the Sudan and on the Northwest Frontier.

A former senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Keegan is the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph in London. He has written a number of highly acclaimed histories, including The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and Six Armies in Normandy.

Michael D. Hull