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Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945

by Max Hastings
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Publishing date: 27/04/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780307268396
  • ISBN: 030726839X


Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2010 Winston's War is a brilliant tribute to the leadership of Winston Churchill during the bleakest hours of World War II. Employing an oratory genius that awed proponents and critics alike, the British Prime Minister fortified national pride and resolve by remaining fiercely defiant in the face of a powerful Axis war machine. Yet historian Max Hastings provides more than just a look at the inner workings of one man, as he extends beyond the words of the dynamic leader to portray an honest account of the emotions that defined Great Britain during the 1940's. Contrary to what his gilded legacy may lead future generations to believe, Churchill did not cement his place in history by winning unanimous public support. Rather, he achieved his iconic status by empowering "millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield...and perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices." --Dave Callanan

Lynne Olson Reviews Winston's War

Lynne Olson, a former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Citizens of London, Troublesome Young Men, Freedom’s Daughters and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.

British historian Max Hastings has entered a very crowded field with Winston’s War, his new book about Winston Churchill’s direction of the British effort in World War II. Hastings, the author of the acclaimed military histories Armageddon and Retribution, readily acknowledges the problem, noting that no human being has been written about more than Churchill. Yet he accomplishes what he has set out to do--provide an insightful, compelling portrait of the political outcast who came to power at the gravest moment in his country’s history and, over the course of a desperate summer, rallied the British to stand alone against Hitler.

Hastings is clear-eyed about Churchill’s not inconsiderable shortcomings as a warlord, including a penchant for rash, ill-thought-out raids and other military operations "more appropriate to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort." Yet, as he points out, that same capacity for boldness enabled Churchill--one of the few British prime ministers ever to have fought in a war himself--to spur into action not only his demoralized countrymen but also Britain’s sclerotic military establishment, whose fortress mentality was the bane of his wartime existence.

Equally important was Churchill’s assiduous courtship of the American people and their president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the prime minister’s relationship with Roosevelt was never as close as Churchill later claimed, he exerted a sizable influence on FDR’s decisionmaking early in the war, including the critical decision to launch a 1942 invasion of North Africa, rather than the premature assault on France that the U.S. military brass had been urging--an attack that almost certainly would have ended in disaster.

In the last two years of the conflict, however, the prime minister’s influence in Washington waned dramatically. To his considerable pain and alarm, Roosevelt paid far more heed to the wishes and demands of Stalin and the Soviets than to Churchill and the British, who now were consigned to junior partnership in the Grand Alliance. Yet Hastings makes a convincing case that Churchill’s still-commanding stature in the United States helped maintain Britain’s status as a key, if diminished, player during the war’s endgame--a time when this exhausted country could easily have been pushed into the shadows as "a backwater, supply center and aircraft carrier for American-led armies in Europe."

Above all, though, Churchill will be remembered for his clarion calls of defiance and hope in the summer of 1940, almost singlehandedly changing the mood of his nation and rousing the British to fight on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. "Gradually we came under the spell of that wonderful voice and inspiration," one London woman later wrote. "His stature grew larger and larger, until it filled our sky."

(Photo © Stanley Cloud)

Max Hastings on Winston's War

Why another Churchill book? We have been told more about him than any other human being. Most of my own research for this book has been done not in the Churchill papers, gutted by historians, but among military and civilian diaries, newspaper files, British, American and Russian records. What I have tried to do is to portray the story of Churchill at war in the context of his relationships with the British and American peoples, the armed forces, the Russians. All these were more complex than is sometimes acknowledged.

It is easy to identify his strategic errors and misplaced enthusiasms. Yet the outcome justified all. The defining fact of Churchill’s leadership was Britain’s emergence from the war among the victors. No warlord, no commander, in history has failed to make mistakes. It is as easy to catalogue the errors of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon as those of Churchill. He towers over the war, standing higher than any other single human being at the head of the forces of light. Without him, Britain’s part would have seemed pretty small by VE-Day. Russia and the United States had played the dominant parts. No honourable course of action existed which could have averted his nation’s bankruptcy and exhaustion in 1945, its eclipse from world power.

Churchill did not command the confidence of all the British people all of the time. But his rhetoric empowered millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield, the squalor of their circumstances amid privation and bombardment, and to perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices. This was, of course, of greater importance in 1940-41 than later, when the allies could commit superior masses of men and material to securing victory. But Churchill’s words remain a lasting force in causing the struggle against Hitler to be perceived by posterity as ‘the good war’.

He cherished aspirations which often proved greater than his nation was capable of fulfilling, which is one of my central themes. But it is inconsistent to applaud his defiance of reason in insisting that Britain must fight on in June 1940, and denounce the extravagance of his later demands upon its people and armed forces. Service chiefs often deplored his misjudgements and intemperance. Yet his instinct for war was much more highly developed than their own.

History must take Churchill as a whole, as his wartime countrymen were obliged to do, rather than employ a spoke shave to strip away the blemishes created by his lunges into excess and folly, which were real enough. If the governance of nations in peace is best conducted by reasonable men, in war there is a powerful argument for leadership by those sometimes willing to adopt courses beyond the boundaries of reason, as Churchill did in 1940-41. His foremost quality was strength of will. This was so fundamental to his triumph in the early war years, that it seems absurd to suggest that he should have become more biddable, merely because in 1943-45 his stubbornness was sometimes deployed in support of misjudged purposes.

As he left Chequers for the last time in July 1945, he wrote in its visitor’s book: ‘FINIS.’ Three weeks later, on 15 August, Japan’s surrender brought an end to the Second World War. Churchill was among the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs the world has ever known. Familiarity with his speeches, conversation and the fabulous anecdotage about his wartime doings, does nothing to diminish our capacity to be moved to awe, tears, laughter by the sustained magnificence of his performance. He has become today a shared British and American legend. If his leadership was imperfect, no other British ruler in history has matched his achievement nor, please God, is ever likely to find himself in circumstances to surpass it.

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  • A magnificient history of Churchill as war leader
    From Amazon

    As I finished the last words on page 486, I yearned for more. Except for the acknowledgements, bibliography and such, there was no more. The excellent writer and detailed-obsessed military historian Max Hastings had brought us to the end of Churchill's reign as the war leader of the British Empire. You can measure Churchill, the man, by the thousands of books, movies, documentaries and other expositions about him. In Hastings, we find much that is new. As with many contemporary histories of WWII, more than a little comes from the once again closed Soviet archives. But much more comes from the diaries and unpublished letters of people, particularly the little people, the ones who in a democracy elect those who lead. Hastings leaves us in absolutely no doubt of Churchill's unique accomplishments - and his failures. For many months, the future of any vestige of democracy in Europe and perhaps the world rested on Churchill's shoulders. Through his oratory and pluck alone, Churchill encouraged battered and, in fact, defeated Britain to rally itself and fight on, despite the fact that literally all its artillery, amour, small arms and military vehicles had been left on the battlefields of France. Churchill pleaded and cajoled to get Franklin Roosevelt into the European war, but Roosevelt basically wouldn't budge. For a while, it was Churchill, a few hundred brave pilots, a few thousand ground crew and radar plotters who kept Britain in the war. Hastings tracks the public opinion of the day. Churchill had long been a divisive character, long relegated to the back benches of Britain's ruling class for his outspoken opinions on the dangers of a rearmed and resurgent Germany. Neville Chamberlain had captured the support of the people who believed that giving Hitler what he wanted was the road to peace. It was not and the 66 year old Churchill, called a war monger by so many, was asked by the King to become Prime Minister. It is now widely agreed that Churchill was the only man who could have saved Britain. Hastings keeps his focus on Churchill as war leader, but lets us see how the world around him reacted to his larger-than-life presence. He irritated and frustrated his military leaders by his constant interference and demands for action now. He lifted the spirits of his people in his visits to the bombed out streets of London. He bestirred the Members of Parliament (and controlled them) with his wit and guile. Finally, he roused the world through oratory of a brilliance rarely seen. Churchill, as Hastings endlessly points out, was not perfect. Far from it. His military plans were more often than not entirely impractical and when he did succeed in getting his ideas acted upon, they often resulted in disaster. But strategically, Churchill was ahead of his generals who for the most part never rose to anything near Churchill's greatness. Hastings correctly believes that it was the military of the Soviets that defeated Germany and that Britain and the United States played a subordinate role militarily. No serious student of the period can disagree. It was the Soviets who broke the armies of the Germans and their allies. But Churchill believed he enjoyed some kind of personal relationship with Stalin, a delusion he persisted in almost to the end of the war. It is fascinating to read the letters and diaries of the average citizens, many, if not most, of whom revered Churchill the war leader, while reserved about Churchill the domestic leader. The letters of the committed leftists are chilling to read. Military men and Churchill's staff left behind copious memoirs, published and unpublished, about their impressions. Hastings draws upon all of this and more to produce a truly in-depth history of Churchill's six years as the most powerful leader in British history and one of the most remarkable men to have appeared in Western civilization. The pity is that history is no longer taught in American schools and what has replaced it has little relation to history. Thus the children of today will grow up with little idea of how close the freedom they abuse came so close to being snuffed out were it nor for Winston Churchill who roused the West to save itself. Next time, perhaps, we will not be so fortunate as to have a Churchill. Hastings makes it clear just how remarkable Churchill, as the war leader of his people, was. Jerry

  • History behind the scenes
    From Amazon

    This book provides an interesting perpective on the stengths and foibles Winston Churchill possessed that made him one of the most important individuals in the Second World. He was a person at the right place in the opportune moment to influence the course of world history. He was a mystery inside an inigma.

  • Churchill as the Great Man of WWII
    From Amazon

    Hastings has the wonderful ability to synthesize an enormous body of material, weave it into an interesting narrative, and to make sound judgments about the historical questions presented. In this book, he tells the familiar story of Churchill in World War Ii, but does so in a fresh way, adding negative as well as positive criticism of Churchill's performance. Hastings contrasts Churchill's will with that of French premiere Reynaud and some of the defeatists in England. Churchill's combative instincts and his ability to communicate to mobilize all of England explains much of the difference between the outcomes of the Battle of France and the Battle of England. Of course, one should not ignore the geographic vulnerability of France versus the benefits of the English Channel and one should not ignore the effectiveness of the RAF. Hastings is critical of the performance of the English Army, which surprises me. However, he does make the case that unlike World War I, the English troops simply never were a match for the Germans unless they had overwhelming advantages in men, air cover, and artillery. He is also critical of the English commanders. Hastings is also effective at coveying the great crisis of confidence in England and Churchill's ability in overcoming it, but the ultimate inability of even Churchill to reverse the inevitable downfall of the English Empire by the end of the war. Churchill's penchant for distracting adventures and reluctance to focus on the need to win the war in the west via a cross channel invasion are criticized. Although Hastings believes Churchill was right to dissuade the U.S. from mounting suicidal cross channel invasions too early, he does concede that Churchill was too hesitant to launch D-Day. In the end Hastings makes the case for the great man theory of history -- without Churchill's strong leadership, exceptional energy, and great communication skills, the war in the west may have turned out much differently.

  • With a million books out there on Churchill, it's refreshing
    From Amazon

    Of course, there are many books written about Churchill but this one very good. It seems fair, balanced and not in awe of the folklore that surrounds Winston. Highly recommended for history buffs and biography fans.

  • wonderfull reading
    From Amazon

    great book could not put down. hastings writes in a "cant put book down" style. anyone interested in ww2 will find this book full of historical events not found in other books.

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