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Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940–1945

by Max Hastings, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010, $35

It’s not as though the world was screaming for another book about Winston Churchill, least of all about his role in World War II. With the possible exceptions of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, there is no more exhausted biographical subject than Britain’s wartime prime minister.

Yet Max Hastings, the esteemed British journalist and military historian, meanders down this well-trodden path with his new Winston’s War. And while the former Daily Telegraph editor hasn’t really found much new to tell, his lively, opinionated volume is worth a read simply for the author’s profound knowledge of the topic and decisive judgments on the great questions of the period.

If anyone could find something new to say about Churchill’s tenure, it would be Hastings. His seven books on the period include Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944– 1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–1945.

Hastings’ portrait of Churchill is complex. Behind the brilliant rhetorician the author perceives a heroic figure with human flaws—meddlesome, easily distracted, temperamental and a poor judge of advisers. Hastings highlights how Churchill’s closest aides often wearied of him, and how Brits and Americans alike questioned his usefulness as the conflict wore on and the PM dallied in ill-advised adventures in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It’s a given that Churchill’s own “finest hour,” to borrow his term, was his ability to rally the British Empire when it stood alone against Germany. Yet in Hastings’ eyes, two other strategies Churchill pursued paid critical dividends in the Allied effort.

Churchill was among the first to realize that to win the war, Britain must convince the United States that a Nazi defeat was in its strategic interests. The lobbying began years before Pearl Harbor or Churchill’s famous 1941 Christmas at the White House.

Second, Hastings argues that Churchill’s deep understanding of Allied military weaknesses drove him to delay the invasion of northern Europe until 1944, despite American enthusiasm for an earlier assault. “On the issue of the Second Front, [U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George] Marshall’s judgment was almost certainly gravely mistaken,” Hastings writes. “The 1942 strategic view adopted by Churchill and [Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan] Brooke was right.”

This quote encapsulates Hastings at his best and worst. His knowledge of the period is exhaustive—every paragraph reveals a lifetime of research, and the sheer number of his primary sources is astonishing. Each quotation is perfect, honed to Hastings’ central message. But, like most English-language histories of World War II, the author adopts the prejudices of his home country. Winston’s War is definitely a British record of the period, and Hastings buys in to the belief that a European invasion launched from the United Kingdom in 1942 or 1943 would have failed miserably. He never, of course, explains why it took two-and-a-half years after Pearl Harbor to launch the invasion, and he doesn’t give the Roosevelt administration due credit for its financial and military aid to Britain, especially in 1940 and 1941. The author even makes the ludicrous claim that French and British arms purchases in 1938 and 1939 ended the Depression and spurred the wartime boom.

In fairness, a biography of Churchill by an English author would inevitably have such biases, and they constitute only a minor flaw in an otherwise profound and comprehensive work.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here