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Completed Churchill bio gets a V for vivid and vital

William Manchester had finished by a 10th of a projected thousand pages covering the Winston Churchill’s war years before passing the project on to Paul Reid.

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The Last Lion
William Manchester and Paul Reid
Little, Brown

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.

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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."

In 1,000 pages, there is inevitably much that has been covered by others. Accounts of Churchill's appetite for alcohol are legion, and yet even so there is new material recounted here. He began the day with a glass of white wine, and continued with variously enumerated and interspersed doses of scotch and soda, Pol Roger Champagne, claret, port, brandy and, sometimes, beer. "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me," he once quipped.

Reid concludes that all this drinking impaired him little, and that he had an astonishing capacity to hold his liquor. Similarly, Reid avers, in opposition to many commentators, that Churchill did not suffer from a lifelong depression (what he called the Black Dog) – an opinion originally promoted by psychiatrist Anthony Storr and Lord Moran. "Nothing – not his moods, not Britain's defeats, not the slow strangulation of the U-boat blockade, not his reluctant generals – impeded Churchill's capacity to inspire his countrymen and to fight for their salvation. Nothing diminished his love for his family. Nothing undercut his love of life. If one accepts Freud's dictum that mental health is the ability to love and work, Churchill possessed his full measure of mental health."

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While unashamedly admiring of his subject, Reid does not scrimp in pointing out how difficult Churchill could be, how wrong-headed on some subjects, how prone he was to commit serious errors of judgment or make a nuisance of himself when others were simply trying to do their jobs. He had little feel for the war in the Pacific, and allowed racial prejudice to underestimate the Japanese war-making tenacity. "As a Victorian gentleman, he thought little of the brown races, the black and the yellow," Reid writes.

He could be a dreadful micro-manager, constantly interfering in matters of which he had very little knowledge. Appreciating what he thought was gallantry or a fighting spirit, he could misjudge individuals – such as Louis (Dickie) Mountbatten. He could drive close associates, such as Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, to utter distraction. "He [the PM] is in a very dangerous situation," Brooke confided to his diary in October, 1943, "most unbalanced, and God knows how we shall finish this war if it goes on." While he had unquestionably vast experience in war, Churchill could be hopelessly out of touch – both in his quaint terminology and, more important, in his appreciation of operational matters. And on new weaponry, he could be dead right – as with tanks – or dead wrong – as with the future of battleships.

To be sure, no book is perfect. Reid seemingly can't get enough of Mollie Panter-Downes, a wartime correspondent for The New Yorker, and he quotes her more liberally than makes sense for achieving a breadth of view. Moreover, and inevitably, since so many of the best Churchill stories have already been told, at least some are bound to suffer in the retelling. The author occasionally contends with some classic sources on his subject, such as Sir Martin Gilbert, but I would have appreciated his comparing notes with more recent writers, such as Jon Meacham, David Reynolds, Max Hastings, Roy Jenkins or Carlo D'Este. And finally, Churchill mavens may tire toward the end of this long book, feeling that Reid loses some steam in the 100 or so pages that take Churchill from the end of the war in 1945 to his death 20 years later.

Still, like the great man himself, this book keeps focused on the essential, and provides another monument to the ideals of a generation that withstood a supreme challenge and did its best, sometimes remarkably, to prevail in the war against Hitler. Churchill embodied the best of his people during a time of great trial. As we look about the world today, we have precious few leaders about whom we can say as much, and this, together with Churchill's great talents, flair and qualities of spirit, of course, accounts for our continuing appreciation and fascination with the man.

Michael R. Marrus's most recent book is Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. He is a senior fellow of Massey College.

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