- - Tuesday, May 12, 2015



By Nathan Schneer

Basic Books, $29.99, 323 pages

How nervous was an unprepared Great Britain about a possible German invasion in 1940? The fears were made plain in a memo that Winston Churchill sent to the War Office soon after being made prime minister.

Churchill noted the British military had a mortar “which is capable of throwing an ordinary bottle — for example, a beer bottle — 150 yards or more. These bottles could be filled with high explosives.” He also suggested that commercial vans could be enforced and converted into “rolling pill boxes.”

The British military, of course, pulled up its socks in short order. The Germans never came close to invasion, and the beer bottles remained unlaunched. The national perseverance under duress was largely due to Churchill’s leadership, as Nathan Schneer, a history professor at Georgia Tech, documents in a fascinating work containing some of the best academic writing I have ever encountered.

Britain certainly needed firm leadership to replace the bumbling Neville Chamberlain, who set a record for inept “statesmanship” in his negotiations with Hitler during the 1930s. Mr. Schneer’s account of the political maneuvering that led to Churchill’s ascension should fascinate even readers who care naught for British politics.

British intelligence reports added to Churchill’s nervousness during the tedious summer of 1940. On June 29, the Polish ambassador in Turkey passed on information “from a reliable source” that a sea attack would be made “on or about July 8.” Churchill was so alarmed at the reports that he switched bombing targets from oil refineries to German ports. In the end, an invasion never came.

A political outcast after an early brilliant career, Churchill wisely chose Cabinet ministers and other officials who represented a wide political spectrum. That some of his choices were personally distasteful was of no import; his goal was to oversee a government that would win a war. As Mr. Schneer puts it, Churchill assembled a coalition government of “exceedingly right-wing Tories and strongly left-wing socialists, who united in a common purpose.”

To appease the left, for instance, Churchill reached out to its “spearhead,” the veteran politician Stafford Cripps. Even by demanding British standards, Cripps was a political odd duck. He was widely viewed as a Communist fellow traveler. A vegetarian who considered a handful of nuts and a carrot a pleasing dinner, he foreswore alcohol (unlike Churchill, whose imbibing constantly worried colleagues).

Privately, Churchill detested Cripps for posturing as “the model of probity and high mindedness.” He mused, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” Ridding himself of a public nuisance, Churchill shipped Cripps to Moscow as ambassador and meant to leave him there: “He was a lunatic [now] in a country of lunatics, and it would be a pity to move him.” In due course, during a spasm of Cabinet turmoil, Cripps tried to supplant Churchill, only to be slapped down by a master of the game.

Churchill was far more comfortable with his old friend, Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born publisher of three major national newspapers. Realizing that national survival depended on the swift production of aircraft, Churchill tapped “the Beaver” for that task, and he delivered, producing twice as many aircraft as Germany during the crucial 1940s. (Which is not to say he was a beloved figure: some staid Conservatives considered him a kind of “dissolute, brash and extravagant ‘gangster,’” but he did the job for which he was selected.

But even as Churchill put together a capable government, some powerful voices pressed for peace talks with Germany. Perhaps foremost was Lord Halifax, who was briefly considered for prime minister, then became ambassador to the United States. A staunch Catholic, Halifax feared that continued war with Germany would benefit only Russia. Both the pope and Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador, supported him (prompting a Cabinet colleague to call him “silly old Halifax”). Naught came of their maneuvers.

Churchill did suffer bumps with the military. Given his vast experience (dating to battlefield service during the Boer War), Churchill knew quite a bit about the military. But as Mr. Schneer writes, “his generals knew more, and the problem was to get him to see that.” Gen. Alan Brooke (later Viscount Alanbrooke), the chief of the Imperial General Staff, referred to his “frightful impatience” and accused him of behaving like a “spoilt child.”

For all his acumen in directing Britain’s war effort, Churchill never sensed growing public sentiment for a revised social order once peace came. Even as the guns roared, socialists clamored for such reforms as national health care and a more universal vote. Thus, Churchill’s direction of a successful war effort was rewarded with a thorough thumping at the polls in July 1945, initiating what Mr. Schneer calls “the high-water mark of twentieth-century British socialism.”

Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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