Winston Churchill: The Flawed Genius of World War II
By Christopher Catherwood. 336 pp. Berkley, 2009. $26.95.
Churchill’s first love, Pamela Plowden (later Lady Lytton), once said of him, “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” However, in Christopher Catherwood’s Winston Churchill, very few of his virtues are in evidence.
Catherwood opens his book by claiming that it is “an unashamedly postrevisionist book” that “for the first time” balances where Churchill was right as well as where he was wrong. That Churchill was a flawed genius, however, has been well established in dozens if not hundreds of books. Most recently, historian David Reynolds revealed in In Command of History how Churchill manipulated his six-volume memoir of World War II to reflect his own version of events, which did not always square with the truth. Others, like Robert Rhodes James in Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900–1939, have honestly and accurately depicted both his genius and his flaws. But Catherwood does not belong in their league: the flaws in his book are less Churchill’s than his.
Catherwood’s central assertion is that Churchill’s mistakes cost the Allies dearly and unwittingly perpetuated the problems of the postwar world. He points to Churchill’s obsession with fighting the Germans in the Mediterranean as obstructing Gen. George C. Marshall’s aim of carrying out the cross-Channel invasion of France in 1943—and adds that delaying the invasion to 1944 permitted the Russians to advance farther west and create the iron curtain. Conspicuously neglected, to take just one example, is the fact that further operations in the Mediterranean and Normandy’s delay had Roosevelt’s blessing as well.
Catherwood’s arguments that Operation Overlord ought to have been carried out in 1943 are not new and have been thoroughly discredited. Yet these claims persist (and not just in this book), even though, as desirable as it may have been, it was never feasible. Combat commanders like Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin, who have been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it, scoffed at such notions for good reason. Overlord required an enormous and sustainable logistical buildup in place in Great Britain—nearly impossible in 1943, given the Battle of the Atlantic. A 1943 invasion would have had insufficient landing craft, lacked air superiority, and pitted inexperienced British and American troops against the Wehrmacht.
But what is most troubling about books like this is their ahistorical approach. They pontificate, making implausible, unproven arguments from the comfort of historical hindsight to second-guess difficult decisions made in the midst of war without the benefit of a clairvoyance that no one, not even Churchill and Roosevelt, could have possessed. While it is unquestionably true that some of Churchill’s wartime decisions hindered more than they helped, the author seems oblivious to another inescapable fact: without Churchill, Britain had little hope of survival.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.