The man voted England’s Man of the Millennium was a person of enormous complexity: aristocrat; war correspondent; prisoner of war; politician; wartime leader; and architect of modern Europe. He did it all!
He saw active duty in five foreign battlefields (including active duty on the Western Front after he was dumped from the helm of the Admiralty in the wake of the failed Gallipoli landings).
It pays to recall that in 1935, Mussolini was the most famous man in the world. Although Italy’s fascist strongman was soon eclipsed by Hitler.
Many politicians and commentators in those naive days were ambiguous in their assessment of fascism. In contrast, Churchill never wavered in his warnings – though they went largely ignored during the heady days of the Munich Peace Conference.
Towards the end of WWII he was again warning the world of a growing threat to world stability. This time he warned of the Soviet menace and that an “iron curtain” was descending across Europe. Again his warnings were initially dismissed.
Undaunted, Churchill remained a man of strong views and convictions that were so firm that they tended to swiftly divide opinion. He surged on regardless.
That dogged determination led to a tumultuous political life that spanned an era. He rose to political power and a seat in the Ministry and was then ousted a number of times.
Each political demise seemed complete and then, almost inexplicably, he would return to the centre of political gravity and reset the nation’s course.
While hundreds of books have been written about the man, his life and legend, there are two books I highly recommend.
Winston Churchill: Man of the Century
Professor John Ramsden
This is yet another of the quality offerings in the Modern Scholar lecture series.
Ramsden is a leading academic authority on the political and social significance of Churchill’s life and actions. In this series of 14 lectures he paints an intriguing overview of the highs and lows of Churchill’s life and career.
He absorbed enough drama, action and pressure for a dozen lives and yet Churchill endured and surged forward undaunted and resolute.
It was career filled with controversy. He gave firm backing to the civilian bombing campaign run by the RAF leader, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.
Some still argue that the deliberate obliteration of Germany’s cities was a war crime.
Churchill’s detractors also often cite the failed military campaigns at Gallipoli in WWI and in Greece and Crete in WWII as evidence of his inept strategic thinking. While those campaigns did fail and he played a huge role in their planning, he did have other strategic success.
It was Churchill’s view that the soft underbelly of the Nazi crocodile was the Mediterranean. He overcame opposing strategic plans and insisted on the North African and Italian landings prior to the D-Day landing in Normandy.
History proved him correct. In hindsight, his judgment appears correct. One can only wonder what would have been the outcome of WWII if those other plans had been attempted and failed.
The Last Lion
William Manchester and Paul Read
This was the last work produced by Manchester – one of America’s greatest authors. He was too ill to do the writing, but the book is based on a mountain of research Manchester conducted on the WWII period of Churchill’s life.
Read compiled that research into a book that has incredible depth. It runs to about five times the length of a normal book and it is an impressively detailed forensic analysis of a pivotal period in modern history.
The book steps slowly through each phase of the war with an almost daily examination of the setbacks, decisions and pressures. Churchill’s tenacity when everything failed and when the Empire was on its knees was staggering.
Many found it hard to retain hope after the defeats at Dunkirk, then in North Africa at the hands of Rommel’s rampaging Afrika Corp, the Blitz and later with the Fall of Singapore. These were devastating blows to the British Empire.
Yet, Churchill moved forward to secure alliances with the United States and Russia and to bring about the defeat of the Axis powers.
An unapologetic atheist, Churchill paid no heed to religion or its dogma.
It is a curious historical fact that, in contrast, Hitler enjoyed the tacit support of the Pope.
This book is filled with fascinating insights into the complexity of Churchill; the man; husband; father; friend; politician; leader; statesman; writer and historian.
He cajoled critics that he knew history would look favourably upon his actions as he intended to write that history. And he did.
Churchill’s voluminous writings command respect.
He was literally the man at the table in the meetings where the history and borders of Europe were decided. He had libraries of documents and papers to support his conclusions. It is a unique perspective on those events. The words of the actual decision maker.
Churchill emerges from Read’s work as a man with a great sense of humour, a staggering capacity for alcohol and cigars and a man of awesome intellect and capability.
It was a life writ large and one we can learn much from.