How Churchill Waged War

How Churchill Waged War: The Most Challenging Decisions of the Second War. By Allen Packwood. Frontline Books, Barnsley, 2018.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

IT is generally accepted that Napoleon Bonaparte has had more books written about him since 1800 to the present day than anyone else. Winston Spencer Churchill may well be the second highest subject for biographies, political and military analyses and titles such as ‘Churchill and …’. 

Churchill was the statesman and strategic giant of the first half of the 20th century. 

His life spanned the swashbuckling era of colonial wars of the 1890s (in which he served as a junior officer) to politics from 1900 until he left the House of Commons in 1964, the year before his death.  His term as First Lord of the Admiralty, from 1911 to 1915, ended in ignominy following the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of which he was the architect. His long period in the political wilderness of the 1920s and 30s were marked by his increasingly alarmist warnings regarding German rearmament which attracted trenchant criticism from British political and society circles. His return to the Admiralty as First Lord on 3 January 1939 – the first day of the Second World War – was a precursor to his assumption of the prime ministership on 10 May 1940.

Churchill was a prolific and successful author; included in his output were the six-volume ‘The World Crisis’ (his history of the First World War) and the six-volume ‘Second World War’. Churchill biographies abound; not the least of which is Martin Gilbert’s seven-volume ‘Winston S Churchill’.  So where does this book, ‘How Churchill Waged War’, fit into this vast Churchillian lexicon?

Allen Packwood, the Director of the Churchill Archives, aims to provide an insight into how Churchill’s attitudes and decisions were shaped and changed over the five years of war.  The ten chapters are a chronological analysis covering different theatres of war and varying emergencies, strategies and outcomes. 

Packwood, in the book’s introduction, states his aim thus:

‘What sort of a war leader did Churchill want to be and why? How did he cope with the crises of his first few weeks and respond to the Blitz? Did he have a strategy for taking the offensive? What can be learned from comparing his approaches to Roosevelt and Stalin? How did he respond to the loss of Singapore? What drove his personal interference in military commands? Why did he embrace the concept of unconditional surrender? How did he survive illness and pressure? What were his concerns regarding D-Day and how did he overcome them? Why were Greece and Poland so important to him in the final months of the war and what led him to fight and lose the 1945 election?’

Seasoned Churchill enthusiasts should be happy with Packwood’s choice of topics and his treatment of them. His narratives are presented in an urgent and vivid style that the reader can associate with the Great Man as he dealt with three main tranches of his prime ministership.

The first of these tranches is the period from his assumption of power in May 1940 to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941. This period spans the desperate attempts to keep France in the war, that county’s surrender, Churchill’s orders to the Royal Navy to fire on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kabir, the Blitz and Britain alone against the German threat of invasion. The second tranche deals with the Soviet Union as an ‘ally’, following the German invasion, with Churchill changing his attitude from hatred of communism to pragmatic acceptance that Britain had to support Stalin morally and materially. He was totally focussed on the defeat of Nazism and would brook no divergence from that aim. Churchill was also determined to bring the US into the war. It is said that upon hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor Churchill happily went to bed and slept ‘the sleep of the saved’.

The third tranche extends from the US entry into the war to Germany’s surrender in May 1945. Churchill convinced Roosevelt that that strategy should be ‘Germany First’. However, there were increasing undercurrents of disagreement between the British and US military strategists as to campaign priorities and there was the constant ogre of Stalin to satisfy. From 1943 Churchill came to realise that the US and the Soviet Union now had usurped Britain in power and influence, and he fought to sustain British interests for post war particularly as regards Soviet territorial and strategic intentions.

Packwood deals with these climactic events, and how Churchill managed them, with an intensity reflecting the times. Churchill’s stamina was amazing considering his age exceeding 70 years. He suffered a serious attack of pneumonia in 1943 but overcame this and other physical ailments to unsuccessfully fight the 1945 election. The election is the last of Packwood’s topics and illustrates Churchill’s quixotic ability to change almost instantly. He went from running a coalition wartime government with equal numbers of Labour Party members in the Cabinet to turning on them to decry socialism in the most strident manner. This lost him the election as the British people yearned for social services so long denied them during the dismal life they had endured during the war.

‘How Churchill Waged War’ is not a biography; however, the reader shares the crowded and tempestuous moments with Churchill arguing, cajoling, encouraging and infuriating political colleagues, military commanders, allied leaders and family in this absorbing book. This is at once an ideal primer for those who are not familiar with Churchill and a must read for the serious Churchillian student. It deserves full attention as an Action This Day. 

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