But Churchill was ready. “He had readied himself for this moment during every hour of every day for six decades,’’ the authors write.
The portrait of Churchill that emerges from these pages is strategic, tactical — and political. That latter is often forgotten, or diminished, for much of Churchill’s life is the story of political disaster. Not in 1940 and during the war years, when he combined intellectual, cultural, and military mastery with political mastery.
It was at Dunkirk and in his fight-on-the-beaches speech that Churchill sealed his leadership bona fides. He convinced a nation with its back to the wall, facing deadly invasion, without allies, without prospects, that it had reached its finest hour, as if saying so would make it so, which it did. That nation, aflame and in agony, nonetheless girded itself to fend off the Germans with garden tools and prepared to pour sugar into the gas tanks of passing Panzer divisions. The queen mastered firing a revolver. Good that it never was necessary.
Throughout this volume the writing is strong, heroic even, with an irresistible forward momentum. We know the ending of this story — victory, then rejection at the polls in 1945, then new storm warnings, this time of the Soviet threat in Europe — yet we are pulled in, as if by a tidal undertow. And sometimes, having been drawn in, we are then astonished by the occasional gentle literary buss, none more affecting than the description of the glow that grew out of London on the first night of Nazi bombing: “[T]his was not the tangerine handiwork of the setting sun; the East End was burning.’’
Churchill fought this war with heart and mind, to be sure, but mostly with his mouth. Jan Smuts said that “each broadcast is a battle,’’ and on that battlefield the war was won, or at least kept in abeyance until the Russian and American troops arrived after 1941 to make victory a certainty, though not a swift one.
Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt grew old and feeble together, though Churchill would outlive the 32d president by two decades. Churchill’s war was tougher — the years 1940-45 consisted of constant struggle, constant engagement, constant tension, constant physical danger. He fought World War II as a combatant as much as leader, with no part of the effort, military or civilian, beyond his purview. It was the adventure of his life, and of the century.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.