- - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

CHURCHILL AND THE KING: THE WARTIME ALLIANCE OF WINSTON CHURCHILL AND GEORGE VI
By Kenneth Weisbrode
Viking, $26.95, 224 pages

They were a truly odd couple. George VI never wanted to be king of England, and Winston Churchill always wanted to be its prime minister, and they found themselves locked in an unusual partnership during one of the most perilous periods in English history.

Yet during those six years when the British Empire staggered under the Nazi threat, Churchill and the king forged a remarkable alliance. They resolved the differences in their personalities and were pragmatic enough to realize they must complement each other in order to survive.

In this perceptive profiling of the challenges of leadership, Kenneth Weisbrode notes that both men were loners “and lived to some degree in fantasy worlds of their own making. Both had difficulty in learning and in speaking.”

At the time when he roared into leadership with the beginning of World War II, Churchill was “lurking in the political wilderness,” according to the author, while the king, flung into office by the abdication of his brother, “was a shy young man who dreaded speaking in public.” It was only having become king, he discovered “he was able for the first time in his life to make up his own mind.” They became the unlikely pair who in 1940 led Britain in war.

Yet the author emphasizes that if the king were thrust into performing a role he said he had never wanted, Churchill on the other hand “thrust himself into the part he had always aimed to play.”

He offers the grim alternative of what could have happened had the king’s brother, Edward, remained on the throne, even without the disaster that was Wallis Simpson, with his rumored appeasement of the Nazis circulating and British integrity thrown into question.

The author notes that both the king and Churchill had few real friends. Their own budding friendship was partly a result of the fact that Churchill was devoted to the king, who in turn came to be in awe of Churchill, as is testified in his letters in the course of the war to the prime minister.

They met for lunch every Tuesday (which the king on one occasion described as the “high point” of his week), when he and Churchill could exchange their confidences and their thinking. On at least one occasion when Churchill was ill, the king sent him messages telling him how much he missed their talks. For his part, Churchill respected and understood the problems of the king, who was haunted, perhaps more than most monarchs would have been, by the plight of the British people caught up in the flames of war with a blitz that killed thousands of Londoners. It remains to the credit of the royal family, and probably sustained them through a period of postwar unpopularity, that they never considered leaving London. Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times, and visiting dignitaries were shocked by its condition. Yet the king and queen went out to look at the shattered east end of the city, where Queen Elizabeth made her famous comment that being bombed made her feel she could “look the east end in the face” and disclosed that she was taking lessons in using a revolver.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the palace in 1942 and “was struck by its wartime appearance, with wooden coverings on missing windows and lack of heat and hot water, as well as the poor quality of the food.”

Apparently, the only disagreement between the king and the prime minister was whether they should be present on the scene of the crucial D Day landings. In a letter of typical restraint and reason, the king told Churchill, “I have very reluctantly come to the conclusion that the right thing to do is what normally falls to those at the top on such occasions; namely to remain at home and wait,”

Churchill argues as was his wont, yet in the end he defers to the king in a grudging letter in which he concedes that it was “a great comfort” to know that the king’s wishes arose from his desire to maintain the services of the prime minister.

It was a classic example of how the relationship had matured to a point where the king’s disagreement with Churchill’s logic usually led to seeking clarification from the prime minister. However, the author does not suggest that “operationally” the king mattered to the war. What mattered more was that he did not work at cross-purposes with Churchill, and their alliance “had as much to do with the character of the king as the deficiencies of the prime minister.”

Told of the king’s death, Churchill broke down when he broadcast the news. At the funeral, he attached a small card in his own handwriting to the king’s wreath. It read simply, “For valour.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.