Of the literally hundreds of books about Winston Churchill, a significant few have attracted writers of great talent and distinction. The renowned and masterful American historian William Manchester published one of these, the first volume of his own three-volume study, about 30 years ago, but when he died in 2004, he had written only a 10th of a projected thousand pages covering the war years and after. By then, after about 15 years of procrastination, several strokes and what seems to have been a kind of literary exhaustion, he had reluctantly passed the project along to his friend Paul Reid, a Second World War buff and one-time features writer for The Palm Beach Post. Reid had never written a book before.
Manchester bequeathed to his untested successor about 40 packages of notes that he called “clumps,” bringing together not only the fruits of his vast reading, but also his more than 50 interviews with Churchill’s family, friends and associates. Reid spent years cracking the code of this treasure trove, and practically wore himself out with this outsized project.
With this volume, he has finally brought this great ship into port after nearly 10 years of struggle. Reid’s achievement is little short of miraculous: Overcoming formidable challenges, with no small help from his editors and at great cost to himself, his career and his family, he has produced a great work on Britain’s wartime prime minister. As James Andrew Miller noted recently in The New York Times, Reid “has emerged from the project in a kind of literary shell shock, knowing that if the book is a success, most of the praise will go to Manchester, and if it flops, blame will fall on him.” Neither should be the case. This is a distinguished contribution to Churchilliana, giving a lively, fully rounded account that maintains its balance even while it sustains an admiring legend of the great man.
Reid assembles his vast narrative chronologically, fragmenting coherent themes that others have assembled. Vestiges of the “clumps” seem occasionally evident, at least to me, as he follows events largely as they were lived, rather than as analysts have come to understand them. The story of the failed British defence of Crete in the spring of 1941, for example, opens with an account of the prime minister’s receipt of Enigma decryptions of German intentions, decoded communications signalling intended attacks on the island via parachutists and glider-borne troops.
The narrative then departs to a discussion of Canadian Max Beaverbrook’s machinations as Churchill’s newly appointed minister of state and his efforts to energize war production. After consideration of the terrible shipping losses to submarines in the North Atlantic, the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, the British campaign in Iraq and communications with Roosevelt about the overall strategic situation, plus pages dealing with the unexpected arrival in Scotland of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, the story returns to Crete for a description of the desperate defence of the island by the Allied commander, Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg.
However true to multiple crises of the moment, the juxtaposition of all these issues makes any one of them difficult to follow. But the advantage of juxtaposition is also plain: As events coincide, one appreciates Churchill’s contending with a great multiplicity of crises – and with precious few means to control any one. “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” he famously told the British and American publics in a radio broadcast in 1941. But this was talk – even if inspirational talk. Truer to life was Churchill’s motto of those years: K.B.O. (Keep Buggering On), which, faute de mieux, he embroidered with his magnificent rhetoric of defiance and determination.
Reid’s account blends Churchill’s infectious and theatrical calls to duty – what broadcaster Edward R. Murrow called the mobilization of the English language – with what must be every Churchill biographer’s gift: the telling, colourful anecdote to illustrate the great man’s intelligent wit, unshakable self-confidence, prodigious energy, capacity for tears, encyclopedic memory, impish sense of humour, dogged determination, personal courage, Victorian manners, democratic commitments, imperial fidelity or disarming charm.
Often, Reid points out, Churchill knew precisely what he was putting on display; but this does not take away from his wonderfully revelatory behavioural instincts. Among my favourites are the stories of the prime minister’s dangerous trips to North Africa in cold, unheated, cramped and noisy aircraft, in one case with an oxygen mask specially adapted to allow him to smoke his cigars. On one of these supremely uncomfortable journeys, in this case together with his doctor Lord Moran and Air Marshal Charles Portal, the latter two bundled up against the cold at night with layers of clothing. Churchill wore nothing but an intimate badge of social rank, his silk nightshirt. “On his hands and knees,” Moran recalled, “he cut a quaint figure with his big, bare, white bottom.”