In the Ranks of Honor
Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939—1941.
by Martin Gilbert.
Houghton-Mifflin. 1,274 pp. $40.00.
On November 30, 1934, Winston Churchill celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Cut off from power, his warnings about the Nazi danger ignored, his judgment doubted, and his motives impugned, Churchill had reason to be pessimistic about his political future, his career appeared to be largely behind him, and he assumed he was entering the last decade of his life. But his friends continued to encourage him, one writing, “In spite of what I hear you say, you have yet a great life before you.”
Churchill’s then thirty-five-year career, which had seen triumphs and a debacle that had almost ruined him, was, as his friend presciently wrote, merely the prelude to the most inspiring chapter in the history of political leadership. That story has never been told with anything approaching the thoroughness and detail of Martin Gilbert’s Finest Hour, 1939-1941. In this, the sixth volume of the authorized biography, the monumental work reaches its apogee.
Gilbert, whose prodigious labors have established him as a leading historian, is an Oxford don who counts a number of works on Jewish history among his scholarly achievements. He replaced Churchill’s son Randolph as the official biographer when the latter died after completing the first two volumes. Gilbert has remained true to Randolph’s motto for the work, “He shall be his own biographer.” The historian remains in the background, allowing the hero to stand forth and tell the story in his own words.
And so our hero does, across 1,274 pages, in letters, memoranda, minutes, and speeches. We accompany Churchill through two years and four months of mortal peril, from September 3, 1939, the day Britain went to war with Hitler, and the day Churchill ended his ten years in the wilderness by joining the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, to December 12, 1941, five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which, by bringing the United States into the war, gave Churchill the assurance of Britain’s ultimate victory. Gilbert relates Churchill’s views of the great events and decisions, and the observations of Churchill’s part in them by those around him, often from day to day and hour to hour. The author has had first use of Churchill’s private papers and of certain diaries and letters of co-workers, which he has supplemented with interviews. Combining these with the mountain of memoirs, Cabinet papers, and other sources previously available, of which he has encyclopedic knowledge, Gilbert gives us a portrait of the war leader we have never had before.
More than a work of political biography, Finest Hour is the story of a noble human spirit—of his courage, fire, ceaseless energy, and humanity. Probably not even those who lived through the year from the fall of France to the German invasion of Russia, a year when, in Churchill’s words, Britain “stood alone and the whole world wondered,” can comprehend the burden that weighed on his shoulders.
Gilbert, in focusing on Churchill’s personal story, allows us to see the doubts and fears that lay behind the indomitable face. Driving back from Buckingham Palace after having been made Prime Minister by the King, on May 10, 1940, Churchill was accompanied by his detective. As Churchill got out of the car, the detective commented how great his task was. Churchill answered, “God alone knows how great it is. I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.” Tears were in his eyes. During the summer of 1940, when Britain faced the daily danger of invasion, Churchill later told Anthony Eden, “I awoke with dread in my heart.”
Churchill’s profound faith in himself and in his country gave him a strength few men could have summoned for the ordeal. His belief in his right to supreme power had been maintained across four decades, through defeats and frustrations that would have buried the hope of most men. Now, at the age of sixty-five, at the supreme moment in his country’s history, the reins of power were finally his. Gilbert quotes from an extraordinary letter Churchill wrote to his wife in 1916 from the trenches in France, where he had gone to serve after the debacle at Gallipoli in 1915 seemed to have laid his career in ruins at the age of forty. Having narrowly averted death in a German shelling, he wrote: “20 yards more to the left & no more tangles to unravel, no more hatreds & injustices to encounter: joy of all my foes, . . . a good ending to a chequered life, a final gift—unvalued—to an ungrateful country—an impoverishment of the war-making power of Britain which no one would ever know or measure or mourn” (Gilbert’s emphasis).
His personal confidence enabled Churchill to look beyond the awesome dominance of Nazi power, sitting astride all Europe, and to keep his eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate victory. “Wars,” he said, “are won by superior will power.” On June 1, 1940, at the end of the evacuation from Dunkirk, the director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, asked Churchill about sending the gallery’s paintings to Canada for safekeeping. “No,” Churchill answered, “bury them in caves and cellars. None must go. We are going to beat them.” On July 14, 1940, three weeks after the French surrender had left Britain alone in the war, its shattered army’s equipment lying in the fields and on the beaches of France, Churchill gave a radio address to the nation in which he spoke of the expected invasion: “We await undismayed the impending assault. Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. . . . But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy—we shall ask for none.” After hearing the speech, Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, “But really he has got guts that man.”
The spring of 1941 was one of the bleakest periods of the war. Germany was invading the Balkans and its threat to the Middle East was growing. Britain’s lifeline to vital American supplies was imperiled in the Battle of the Atlantic. But once the flow of supplies was assured, Churchill told the House of Commons, then however far Hitler might go, “or whatever new millions or scores of millions he may lap in misery, he may be sure that, armed with the sword of retributive justice, we shall be on his track.”
There never has been a leader more infused with the spirit of the offensive. In the dark days of 1940, Churchill directed that priority be given to production of “craft for landing operations.” He detested “the intolerable shackles of the defensive.” He urged plans for the incineration of Germany’s forests. He bombarded General Wavell, and his successor in 1941 as commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Auchinleck, with messages to attack the German and Italian forces in Libya, the only land theater where Britain could take the offensive.
Nothing could escape Churchill’s notice. All direction of the war emanated from his office, or his bedroom, where he worked mornings. In work days that could stretch beyond midnight, his glare might be fixed on the number of decorations going to the Merchant Navy (too few—bad for morale); on creating a committee to push the production of small inventions; or on the need to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of people with access to intelligence. A subject which frequently occupied Churchill was war production: its rate, technical developments, manpower, training. One of his private secretaries wrote that now that Churchill had the power he had never had before, he “was going to make sure that there were no disasters due to lack of zeal or direction in the back rooms.” Churchill may often have been meddlesome, but there can be no doubt that, by force of the will power in which he so strongly believed, he was able to impart great energy to the war effort. Every bureaucrat knew he labored under Churchill’s eye.
What comes through perhaps most movingly in the biography is Churchill’s intense humanity. Despite all the cares that occupied him, he often was quite generous and thoughtful. (Understandably, he could also be rude and overbearing toward subordinates, a quality less discussed by Gilbert.) An outstanding example is Churchill’s conduct toward Neville Chamberlain after succeeding him as Prime Minister. Chamberlain, who had bitterly excluded Churchill from the government before the war, was ill with cancer. In what were to be his final months, he had to bear witness to the devastating consequences of his prewar policies. One day during the Battle of Britain, Churchill instructed John Colville, a member of his private secretariat, to telephone Chamberlain with the news that over a hundred German aircraft had been shot down. Colville wrote in his diary (one of Gilbert’s major new sources) that Chamberlain was “overcome with joy” at Churchill’s thinking of him. Colville added, “It is typical of Winston to do a small thing like this which could give such pleasure.” Chamberlain died on November 9, 1940. Churchill gave one of his most eloquent speeches in tribute, and cried at the funeral.
Churchill’s personal warmth was also demonstrated in his conduct toward younger people. Averell Harriman’s daughter, Kathleen, wrote to her sister after first meeting Churchill, “I’d expected an overpowering, rather terrifying man. He’s quite the opposite: very gracious, has a wonderful smile and isn’t at all hard to talk to.” Colville once recalled, “He was always very good with young men. He always treated them as if they were frightfully important and contemporaries.”
Churchill’s compassion was manifested in countless attentions to the suffering of the mass of the people. At the height of the Blitz, he sent a memo to the Home Secretary: “How are you getting on with the comfort of the shelters in the winter—flooring, drainage, and the like? . . . I attach the greatest importance to gramophones and wireless in the shelters. How is that going forward?”
A deeply emotional man, Churchill at times was reduced to tears on seeing the plight of victims of the bombing. In April 1941, he toured Bristol, which had been badly damaged in a raid the night before. At a rest center, a poor elderly woman was sobbing until he entered, when she began shouting, “Hooray, hooray!” As his train pulled out of the station, leaving the cheering crowds behind, Churchill hid his face with a newspaper. His eyes were filled with tears, as he said, in a voice choking with emotion, “They have such confidence. It is a grave responsibility.”
Churchill’s generosity was displayed in his attitude toward Germany. Even when the German threat to Britain was at its greatest, he spoke of the need for a magnanimous peace after what he was sure would be Britain’s final victory. Only the Nazis, he once commented, “would be made to suffer for their misdeeds.” His hatred of the “Huns,” as he called the Germans in his (usual) fighting mood, was only “professional.”
In his spacious heart, as his longtime friend Violet Bonham Carter wrote, Churchill combined toughness and tenderness, romantic perspective and realistic judgment, aristocratic temper and democratic passion, veneration for tradition and a taste for the unconventional.
Today, many politicians would be forlorn without the advisers and media consultants they employ to persuade us of their great ability. Manipulating imagery via television, they advertise, rather than demonstrate, their qualities. Of those who attain office, not enough have the character to give truth to the image. Many play at the levers of power; if asked in which direction they should go, they would not know.
Winston Churchill knew his course. It was the one he eloquently described in his eulogy of Chamberlain:
The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes, and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.
The fates played against Churchill for many years. His conscience and uncompromising character kept him from power for a long time. Yet once power and responsibility were in his hands, his fertile genius, under the fierce pressure of events, flowered as never before.
To cite a last example: on August 16, 1940, as the air battle over Britain intensified, Churchill, accompanied by his chief of staff, General Ismay, went to the Operations Room of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command. At one point that afternoon, every squadron in the Group was engaged. None was left in reserve, and the map table showed new waves of enemy aircraft crossing the Channel. As they left by car in the evening, the fighting having subsided, Churchill’s first words to Ismay were, “Don’t speak to me; I have never been so moved.” After about five minutes, he leaned forward and said, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
By his judicious, painstaking accumulation and ordering of the daily details of Churchill’s “finest hour,” Gilbert has performed a crucial task. For as the political philosopher Leo Strauss told his students, on learning of the death of Churchill in January 1965:
We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves . . . of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves . . . in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.