Not quite a biography and not quite a history. Winston’s War by Max Hastings is a fascinating look at World War II from a completely Churchill-centric viewpoint.
Let’s take a brief look at this book after the jump.
Students of World War II history may already be familiar with what a complex character the British Prime Minister was. He was an inspiring man of great vision. But he was also rash and impulsive with a flawed understanding of the great military operations involved in this massive war.
As an American, the relationship between the US and Britain was perhaps the single most fascinating part of this book to me. We so often hear about the special relationship between our two countries and what a close working relationship existed. And it did. Make no mistake, US and British operations achieved a level of cooperation that’s rare for allies. But looking at things from the lofty perch of grand strategy and relationships between heads of state really emphasizes some of the difficulties.
Just to start are the connected issues of “cash and carry” and “Lend Lease”. American Neutrality Laws required that a combatant had to pay cash (no credit) for all purchases. Although this meant Britain could buy the arms they needed, they did this by spending the entire treasury. No doubt Lend Lease was generous and kept Britian in the fight against Nazi Germany; but it came after the British treasury had jump started the US economy out of the Great Depression. All of this was well observed by the British, and led to considerably more animosity than most histories will get into.
“Empire” was another area of very different agendas between British and US governments. No surprise Churchill considered himself the head of state of a democratic nation, but his view of the Commonwealth was not exactly modern. This not only caused problems in dealing with Australia and India, but it was a huge problem with FDR and the US. In particular, there was a determination not to use American resources for British Empire; Churchill often struggled to see the distinction but it was huge for many Americans.
The nature of the British/American relationship changed significantly over time too. Early in the war Britain was an aggressive suitor, desperate for American involvement. After Pearl Harbor Britain was the dominant partner with two years of war experience. But gradually the US became more important and more confident. By late 1943 American Generals had learned their basic lessons, American troops could face the Germans with confidence, American divisions outnumbered British and American hardware equiped both nation’s militarys.
And this all ties in to a recurring frustration for Churchill. The British Army was consistently that nation’s least competent arm of the military. The Royal Navy and Air Force were capable and professional forces, but the Army struggled to the end of the war. Its problems started at the top, with officers who rose through the ranks in peace time based on their social skills. Churchill was pretty aggressive in hiring and firing officers to find the right ones. He even acquired a pretty bad reputation for impatience and ruthlessness (Hitler once observed he hadn’t fired nearly as many generals as Churchill did). It is interesting to read some of the details on the generals he fired and the generals he kept.
Another major theme of the book is the relationship between Churchill and Stalin. It is so easy for us to forget how popular and romaticized the Soviet war effort was by (leftist) press in the west and how deeply that affected the civil population in Britain (and the US to a lesser extent). Soviet attrocities were largely unknown during the war years and Churchill fought a delicate power struggle against Stalin. He had once been militantly anti-communist, but was partially won over by Stalin’s seemingly open manner in the middle war years. When he realized he’d made a deal with the Devil was when his personal and national power were in decline and he could do little to block the Soviet agenda.
The fate of Poland seems most poignant. In 1939 Britain had gone to war to protect Poland from Nazi aggression. But in 1945 Churchill could do nothing as Poland was devoured by the Soviets.
A couple of less known stories were also very interesting. The first was the British Aegean campaign of 1943. This was almost wholly a Churchill initiative. The idea was to liberate the Greek Islands. Allied forces were gaining strength and confidence that year with victories in North Africa, Sicily and Southern Italy. Churchill thought another operation around the periphery, when Germany was already in retreat would be a good idea. But he got no support from the US. American generals (Marshall and Eisenhower) saw this as a diversion and distrusted Churchill’s Imperial ambitions. So British forces launched the campaign alone and initially liberated several German held islands. They even enlisted the aid of Italian troops who had been stranded in the area after the fall of their government.
But local German strength was greater. With no American support the British could not sustain their forces. Civilian populations paid a heavy price. Italian soldiers who had switched sides were treated as traitors by the Germans. And the whole campaign turned into a bloody fiasco.
Churchill’s 1944 campaign in Greece went far better. By now Germany was withdrawing forces, but the various guerilla groups in Greece quickly turned on each other. The communist guerrillas were generally the most ruthless and best organized. Greece was in a very bloody Civil War. So again with no American support Churchill moved troops into Greece. This may have been Churchill’s last great triumph of the war. He reached an understanding with Stalin that Britain would not interfere in Eastern Europe but would have a free hand in Greece. Just getting Stalin to back off may have been a diplomatic coup but it didn’t end there. Churchill’s instincts on what faction to support were not good (he wanted to support the Royalists) and it took much time to determine who could lead and bring peace to a troubled country.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Max Hastings does an excellent job of covering many issues related to Churchill’s wartime leadership. He provides a look at the complexities, and shows us what made Churchill great without shying away from his limitations. He also brings some life and humanity to the great man. The book is medium length (around 500 pages) so allow a few days. I recommend it highly and enthusiastically.