Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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22 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, cold war, politics, World War Two

22 responses to “Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

  1. I hate to say this, but I’m not sure the American public would have a taste for this. Modern interests seem to trend more towards one of two traits. Either we need brand-new heroes, or we need to see our older heroes crash and burn. Since this book, from your summary, tells the story of Churchill’s gradual fade-out, I doubt most Americans would find it of interest. More’s the pity – as we lose our WW2 vets, we Americans have come to rely more and more on Hollywood for our education. If more Americans would view history as something other than an hour’s worth of sleep in high school, maybe we wouldn’t be so mystified at political and diplomatic developments overseas.

  2. James Daly

    Interesting. For some reason I had always thought that the American popular history market was quite bouyant regarding British figures such as Churchill. Over here people are a bit more cynical nowadays I think, I think most people see through the bulldog/v for victory/buzz words hype about WSC.

  3. You ARE aware of the true meaning of the “V for victory” gesture, right? :D

    I think the fascination with Churchill peaked with the Princess Diana craze. While there is still some attention paid to the Royal family, America’s world vision has been diverted by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan overseas, and by our economic woes at home. History has gone by the wayside – there have been few mentions of various 70th anniversaries passing, even the Battle of Britain (usually an American favourite, as we love an underdog!) slipping past with little mention. Maybe next year, with the 70th of Pearl Harbor rolling around, will rekindle some interest. One can hope – I’m getting tired of explaining to the neighborhood why I hang out a 48-star flag on certain days (like Veterans’ Day coming up, or 7 December) and a Canadian flag on others (like 19 August). Bonus points if you know what 19 August commemorates!

  4. James Daly

    I think Churchill is one of the most contradictory yet fascinating characters in British history. Such an inspiring and likeable person, yet also you cannot help but feel it must have been hell to work for him. Brooke stated that if he felt moved to resign every time Churchill insulted him, he would resign at least once every day. And then of course you have WSC’s liking for hare-brained peripheral schemes, his liking of dubious characters such as Mountbatten, and his childlike need to micromanage things that were not his business… not to mention somehow managing to wear uniforms all the time during the war!

    Funnily enough I think modern perceptions of Churchill are very similar to what happened in the 1945 election – thank you for your leadership, but we won’t get carried way thank you very much.

  5. You bring up an excellent point on Churchill’s love of the peripheral attack. The Gallipoli debacle is well documented. Less well known is his support of the disastrous Dieppe raid, which was run by one of his “pets” Mountbatten. I realise that Mountbatten is lionised in Britain, not least because of his truly tragic death, but his handling of the entire Dieppe affair was inept to the point of criminality – I doubt his career would have survived had he served in the US. The whole incident reinforces the “cult of personality” that so embodied Churchill’s style. If he liked you or your plans, you were in. If he didn’t, you wandered the wasteland, fighting to get back into his good graces. Fortunately, Churchill was mostly a good judge of character, and with a few notable exceptions, usually had a good grasp of strategy and tactics.

  6. James Daly

    One of the worst aspects of Churchill’s leadership was how badly he treated some of his officers. People such as Wavell, Auchinleck, and even Monty used to get a really rough ride from WSC, when they were doing the best that they could in the circumstances. Yet people such as Alexander and Mountbatten were lauded because of their more romantic backgrounds. Admiral Forbes, CinC of the Home Fleet in 1940, was also very roughly treated for no real reason.

    As for Mountbatten, of course his death was tragic, and his war service was clear for all to see. But I think most people ‘in the know’ regard him as a well-connected, politically driven establishment officer with limited real ability who on the face of it should never have received the appointments and promotions that he did. Plenty of buildings, streets etc are named after Mountbatten, but no-one really regards him as one of our greatest leaders. Just to give a flavour of the man, he had planned his own state funeral down to the last letter.

    • I wasn’t sure how high a regard you held Mountbatten, so I was being diplomatic! :) So many times when criticising a national hero, people assume you have to find the person has ALL faults or NO faults. General Patton is quite the national hero over here (for obvious reasons), but if you criticise him for being egotistical, his supporters jump down your throat. I do regard him quite highly, but I know he had numerous flaws – some of which actually helped him achieve his success. It’s the same with Mountbatten, or really any great military figure. As we both have demonstrated, they are real people, with real strengths and real weaknesses. Understanding the faults can be more crucial to understanding their achievements than understanding their strengths.

  7. James Daly

    I think Mountbatten is the best example of the British military figure who somehow seems to be revered, but when you dig deeper deserves absolutely none of the plaudits. Same as Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning of Arnhem notoriety (ironically a Mountbatten protege). A fine administrator and string-puller, but should never have been let anywhere near an active command. But who was going to stand in the way of a well-connected Grenadier Guardsman? Even now he’s regarded as the ‘father of British Airborne Forces’, even though he only took over when Airborne Forces were at Brigade level, which hardly makes him the father… that would be one hell of a mix up in paternity tests.

    Re Patton… I can’t say I’m a huge fan. I try not to let the fact that I’m a Monty fan get in the way of things, but for all his faults I cannot recall any incidents of Monty slapping his soldiers. If he had he would have been cashiered in seconds. My impression has been that Patton was very good at driving very fast in a straight line with little opposition, but not much else. Could he have done Overlord? or Alamein? Or Arnhem?

    • Interesting comments, especially the questions you ask about Patton. Could he do Overlord? Doubtful – while he was a team player to a degree, Overlord was at least as much political as it was military, if not more so. Arnhem? If he was only running 30 Corps on the ground, absolutely. His ruthless push would, I think, have driven further faster than 30 Corps did. Not to diminish Horrocks and company – they were capable but cautious, an excellent combination, but on occasion a force may need to push beyond caution. Rommel pushed beyond caution in France, and almost cut the BEF off from Dunkirk. Alamein? Depends upon at what point. Monty, while a bit over-cautious, made absolute certain he had enough strength, especially artillery, to overwhelm the Germans. Once into pursuit, though, Patton’s hell-for-leather pursuit could have shortened the war in Africa, possibly even moving up the invasions into Sicily and Italy. Though I doubt earlier would have helped – the only real beneficiary would have been the Anzio “end-run” amphibious assault, which was cut short due to landing craft being needed for Overlord.
      And don’t forget Patton’s Battle Of The Bulge counter-attack. He was fully engaged in the south, pulled out, turned 90 degrees, and charged north without rest or resupply. Patton was a ruthless SOB, but that’s what you need in pursuit situations. Monty handled sieges well, but was more of a set-piece tactician. Patton was cavalry down to his boot heels – ride like the wind, slicing through into the rear and causing chaos. Patton did face a number of experienced divisions during the Normandy breakout, and the fact he didn’t face more was part of the overall plan – Monty pulled the Waffen-SS panzers onto his forces at Caen, which the Germans willingly did because they thought Patton was still going to invade at Pas De Calais with the fictitious 1st Army Group. The Germans respected Monty, but didn’t truly fear him, while Patton truly terrified them (including Guderian and Rommel, two of Germany’s best tank commanders). The two slapping incidents, while a public relations debacle, simply reflected Patton’s experience from WW1 that fear and defeatism were a bigger threat than the enemy. (Also remember Patton was career military, and expected a level of professionalism that US draftees frequently failed to demonstrate.) Patton capitalised on a concept (albeit FAR more humanely) that the Russian NKVD did – fear of those behind you will drive you forward. Good idea? Questionable – there are plenty of examples of commanders, loved by their troops, who pushed just as hard. Effective? Third Army drove from Normandy in August to the Rhine in early December, sweeping all before them. Hard to argue with the results, though I am NOT arguing that the ends justify the means. Different personalities, different methods.

      As was said on another thread on this site, “Rant Over.” :)

  8. James Daly

    Just a quick thought re 1944-5 commanders… I’ve often wondered, and failed to work out, what exactly Bradley brought to the party… I can’t think of one achievement or one major contribution, but more than a few ignominious moments.

    • Let’s see if I can keep it short, too! :) Sorry, been wordy today. Anyway, Bradley was the great manager. He interfaced between (and kept from each other’s throat) Patton and Monty, and between Monty (who the Americans thought was timid) and Eisenhower (who the Brits thought was a lousy strategist with his broad front policy). Bradley made sure the logistics end was handled, including overseeing the setup of the famous “Red Ball Express” trucking route carrying fuel and ammo to the front. He co-ordinated tactical air support (Ike handled it at the strategic level with Harris and .. Trenchard? The name escapes me at the moment). He co-ordinated the closure of the Falaise Gap. He was the consummate middle manager. The better he did his job, the less you knew of him – and, sadly for his future fame, he did his job excellently!

      • Oh, and in North Africa, he was the perfect contrast to Patton. The troops loved him, he took care of them like they were his sons, and they fought as well as inexperienced, poorly-equipped units could. Unfortunately, Bradley also liked Patton’s predecessor, and allowed the guy to run down II Corps. Patton swept in, shook things up, and got II Corps shaped up following Kasserine. Bradley was never wild about Patton, but he knew Patton could get things done.

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