'Winston's War': A different take on Winston Churchill
A review of "Winston's War," in which British historian Max Hastings offers a slightly different take on Winston Churchill as a wartime prime minister.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945'
by Max Hastings
Knopf, 555 pp., $35
In "Winston's War," British historian Max Hastings says things about World War II that Americans don't often hear.
One such statement is that the Russians did more to beat Germany than Britain or America did. "The Western allies never became responsible for the defeat of Germany's main armies," Hastings declares.
For long periods of the war, while the Russians were in the fight on a thousand-mile front, the British and Americans had a narrow front in North Africa or Italy, with the luxury of biding their time before D-Day.
The first part of "Winston's War" is about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's decisions in France, North Africa and other fronts. The last half is more about his attempts to influence his ally, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, over such matters as the timing for D-Day.
Churchill and Roosevelt made a show of friendship. Churchill particularly, writes Hastings, "could not afford not to revere, love and cherish" Roosevelt, at least publicly. His book shows that they often disagreed, especially toward the war's end.
Churchill had an almost instinctive sense of big questions. Early in the war, he sensed that Hitler would turn on Russia. Later, he sensed that Stalin was not to be trusted, an insight Roosevelt never had. Churchill was a classic war chieftain. And yet, Hastings writes, Churchill's "genius for war was flawed by an enthusiasm for dashes, raids, skirmishes, diversions and sallies."
The book chronicles several of these, including an attempt to retake the Greek islands. That was the backdrop of the 1961 movie, "The Guns of Navarone," a fictional story of British triumph. In reality, the campaign was a small disaster.
Churchill wanted action. Britain had a famous navy and a courageous air force, but its army, Hastings writes, had a "torpid" culture that made it slow to act and quick to congratulate losers. "It was not that Britain's top soldiers were unwilling to fight," he writes. "It was that they deemed it prudent to fight slowly."
Hastings takes down several of the British brass in one-sentence bursts. He calls Field Marshal Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff, "a shop steward for unsuccessful British generals." Of Churchill's favorite, Gen. Harold Alexander, the Allied commander in Italy, Hastings writes: "He seldom pressed a point, because he rarely had one to make."
Hastings is an accomplished historian who knows World War II and other wars in and out. He uses a broad range of sources, including diaries of ordinary citizens, to put his subject into a public context. He is not hobbled by any obvious bias other than perhaps too easily accepting major decisions as best — a tendency of those who understand how things came to be decided.
At $35, this book ought to offer some extras, and it does. It has 32 pages of photos and — a necessity in a military history — excellent maps. Publishers have been leaving maps out of books that ought to have them, and it is a delight to find a book that has left them in.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.