Reviewed by: David Stafford Author: Max Hastings Publisher: HarperPress Price (RRP): £25
The flood of books on Churchill seems unstoppable. A decade or so ago it was possible to imagine that just about everything that could possibly be written about the 20th-century’s greatest Briton had already been penned. But the new millennium has seen a powerful new surge of books about him, including biographies by Geoffrey Best, Paul Addison, Roy Jenkins and John Ramsden; David Reynolds’s masterful analysis of how Churchill fashioned his war memoirs; Klaus Lorres’s book on Churchill’s Cold War diplomacy; Raymond Callahan’s discussion of Churchill and his generals; and – within the last 12 months – Carlo d’Este’s study of Churchill at war. These are merely the highlights of a list that stretches into dozens.
Now comes the irrepressible Sir Max Hastings, with his own 600-page spin on Churchill’s war leadership during the Second World War. What on earth can he say that hasn’t been said before? Yet it’s not so much what he says but how he says it that matters here. Hastings is never knowingly understated. Part combative journalist who loves verbal fisticuffs, and part historian who takes sides on every controversy, he’s never short of an opinion. This is not a book that leaves the reader wondering where the author stands, and there’s never a dull page.
His view of Churchill is overwhelmingly positive. “He bestrides the tale in all his joyous splendour,” he writes. Essentially, this is a portrait of Churchill’s leadership weighted towards the first half of the war, before his contribution became overshadowed by his allies Roosevelt and Stalin, and when he could truly be described as the nation’s saviour. About this, Hastings has no doubt. Much of it he attributes not to Churchill’s strategic acumen, which was at best shaky and sometimes woeful, but to his ability to lead and inspire the country by his strength of will, the force of his rhetoric, and his willingness, in the end, to take good advice.
Hastings is no ivory tower academic. He has edited a national newspaper, taken tough decisions himself, and knows how the world works. He understands that politics is more than intellect in action. It’s a test, too, of character and personality. Churchill was fearless, energetic, insatiably curious, had oodles of self-belief, and could be, when the moment demanded, a great actor. Such was the case in 1940, when he almost single-handedly helped forge the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that ensured the nation’s survival. It was true again when he kept his humiliations at the hands of the Americans private in the public cause of hailing the all-vital transatlantic alliance. He was also furnished, Hastings readily accepts, with a legion of follies and misjudgements. But these, he argues, were “as pimples upon the mountain of his achievement”. It’s hard to disagree.
Those familiar with Hastings’ other books about the Second World War will detect some of his usual suspects. The British army in general comes in for his customary disdain, as do generals such as Wavell and Alexander. Of the former he brutally suggests that there was “less to him than his enigmatic persona led admirers to suppose”, and of the latter he scathingly remarks that he “seldom pressed a point because he rarely had one to make”. He has little to say about the Royal Navy, and beyond his familiar criticism of the strategic bombing offensive he offers no new insights into the Royal Air Force.
He does, however, have some odd ideas about the Special Operations Executive, to which he devotes an entire chapter. It’s true that SOE has sometimes been oversold, not least in the romantic memoirs of some of those who fought for it. But Hastings’ view that it was created to stir up terror and did little more than provoke disastrous German retaliation on European civilians for no worthwhile military gain is a parody, which he would have known had he bothered to read some specialist books on the subject. It’s all very well to have opinions, even strident ones, as long as they are based on knowledge. It’s another to peddle travesties. Hastings writes of Churchill that he could be “intolerant of evidence unless it conformed to his own instinct”. It’s one thing to admire Churchill. But it seems perverse to copy his failings, too.
David Stafford, author of Endgame 1945 (Abacus, 2007), is writing the official history of the SOE in Italy 1943–45