- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

By Carlo D’Este
HarperCollins, $39.95, 845 pages, illus. REVIEWED BY JOHN M. TAYLOR

For a decade following World War II, Winston Churchill was lionized in the English-speaking world as the doughty warrior who had held off Hitler’s war machine and helped lead the Allied coalition that destroyed Nazi Germany. His magnificent oratory was seen as symbolizing Britain, defiant in the face of seemingly certain defeat.

Over time, however, cracks began to appear in the image of Churchill as a war leader. A key development was the publication in the 1950s of the diaries of Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Churchill’s senior general, whose acerbic comments regarding the prime minister often portrayed him as an incompetent busybody.

Since then there have been numerous biographies of Churchill, many of them focused on his role as a war leader. These may have been overtaken for the indefinite future by Carlo D’Este’s splendid “Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945.” The author of fine biographies of Patton and Eisenhower, Mr. D’Este is eminently qualified to take on Britain’s wartime leader.

Churchill was born for war. Although his father was a failed Tory politician, young Churchill maneuvered with toy soldiers and revered his famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. Never one to work his way up the ranks, he managed to accompany Queen Victoria’s armies as a general’s aide or as a war correspondent. As such, Churchill lived well. He sometimes campaigned with a personal valet, and his provisions included Scotch whisky, fine wines and other luxuries. Churchill would later write, “This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. … It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed.”

When Churchill ran out of wars, he went into politics and became First Lord of the Admiralty in the early years of World War I. “The Churchill of 1915,” Mr. D’Este writes, “was an ego-driven, self-assured man, secure in his beliefs and unmoved by dissent.” He was also an energetic and effective administrator, but to his lasting remorse he instigated a disastrous amphibious campaign against Turkey through the Dardanelles. The failure there cost thousands of lives and cost the ambitious Churchill his job.

Churchill supported his family between the world wars - barely - through writing and lecturing. Leaders of the Conservative Party regarded him as erratic and untrustworhy, but his early, unconditional opposition to Nazi expansionism kept him in the public eye and led to his inclusion in Neville Chamberlin’s last Cabinet. When war came, the prescient Churchill became prime minister.

France quickly fell, and Britain’s strategy became one of survival. After Dunkirk, it was Churchill’s words that galvanized a shaken British people. Opposition Members of Parliament were seen to weep as Churchill promised, “We shall fight in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

In 1940, Churchill’s bulldog determination was vindication of the Great Man interpretation of history: that individual leaders matter. But once America entered the war his role was diminished. Britain was the junior partner in the alliance, and the Americans were not so easily bullied as Churchill’s own generals. He succeeded in vetoing American plans for an invasion of France in 1943 in favor of action in the Mediterranean, but as time went on Roosevelt and Eisenhower became more assertive.

Churchill had two roles. One was to develop, in concert with his American ally, a strategy for winning the war. The second was to prod his own commanders into going on the offense, a greater challenge.

Churchill had no great respect for the commanders at his disposal. (After one meeting the prime minister was heard to complain, “I have to wage modern war with ancient weapons.”) His generals, on the other hand, were scarred by the slaughter of World War I and had no desire to see blood spilled unnecessarily. Their temper was not helped by a stream of memoranda from the prime minister demanding action.

Some of Churchill’s field commanders suffered, notably Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchinleck, who had to contend with the formidable Rommel in North Africa. Although Auchinleck had led a masterful campaign against the Italians in 1941, failures in Greece and Libya led to his removal. The string of military defeats ended with Montgomery’s victory over an outnumbered Rommel at El Alamein.

Churchill was to be found at every front, cheering on his soldiers and prodding his generals. He was extremely uneasy regarding the proposed invasion of France, not only because of his respect for the German military but because of his concern for French casualties. Whatever the outcome of the war, Britain would still have France as a neighbor.

By 1944-45, Mr. D’Este writes, Churchill resembled “a leader on a downward spiral, whose power and influence were nearing rock bottom.” It did not help that Churchill had long battled depression. Brooke described one meeting in July 1944 where Churchill arrived “in a maudlin, bad tempered, drunken mood, ready to take offense at anything.”

But then came victory. In March 1945, during a visit to the front, Churchill, in his famous jump suit, was seen to urinate on one of the fortifications of the Siegfried Line. It was the ultimate, juvenile gesture of contempt for Nazi Germany and Hitler.

Brooke, who had been one of Churchill’s severest critics, would write in his diary, “I shall always look back on the years I worked with [Churchill] as some of the most difficult and trying ones of my life.” He then added, “For all that, I thank God I was given an opportunity of working alongside such a man, and of having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.”

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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