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Churchill’s Workshop

Thursday, December 1, 2005

David Reynolds.
In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War.
Random House. 631 pages. $35.00.

Churchill’s wartime memoir, the six-volume The Second World War, is among the most influential works of history of all time. From boyhood, one remembers the great set pieces from the abbreviated one-volume edition: His description of the fall of France, where outside in the garden of the Quai d’Orsay feeble French officials were pushing wheelbarrows of archives onto bonfires; the calm efficiency of the operations room of Fighter Command at the height of the Battle of Britain; his telegrams to fdr signed “Former Naval Person”; the sinking of the Bismarck; and, of course, his reaction to Pearl Harbor.

With the memoirs, Churchill decided how we see World War ii, shaping its content, structuring it. With the individual titles, he provided the war with its shorthand vocabulary. The Gathering Storm, Their Finest Hour, The Grand Alliance, The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring, Triumph and Tragedy. Unforgettably, on the title page of each volume he set out the principles that ought to guide every democratic war effort: “in war: resolution, in defeat: defiance, in victory: magnaminity, in peace: good will.” Volume One, The Gathering Storm, taught us “how the English speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.” And in the great rolling cadences of his prose, with their echoes of Gibbon, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, you can hear his voice.

Appearing between 1948 and 1954, The Second World War was the world’s most popular publishing venture after the Bible. Running at some two million words, of course the books were not read by everybody who bought them. But millions read the one-volume version or excerpts in serialization in Life magazine, the New York Times, and the Daily Telegraph. The books were hailed as the “literary event of our generation, possibly of the century,” earning their author the Nobel prize for literature; and he was acclaimed greater than William Pitt the elder, the victor of the Seven Years War, and greater than Lloyd George, the victor of World War I.

At the time it was assumed that the books were the work of one man. A typical review of The Gathering Storm — this one from Newsweek — read, “the tremendous personality of the author glowers and shines in almost every sentence.” “One of the most engaging things is that he wrote it himself,” added the New Yorker. By contrast, the magazine noted, “when we read the speeches and public papers of Roosevelt, it is hard to know whom we have hold of.” And one critic wondered how Churchill managed it all at his age “through all the accumulated perils of brandy and black cigars.”

We now know that things were a little more complicated. In his absorbing study, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, from which the above review quotes are taken, David Reynolds tells the story of how these books came to be and of what he calls Churchill’s “second wilderness years.” Reynolds is a professor of international history at Cambridge University, and his is the most delightful Churchill book since Martin Gilbert’s 1994 In Search of Churchill.

 

As Reynolds’s book opens, we find Churchill lolling in the waters of the Mediterranean in July 1945, enjoying his first holiday in the south of France since taking over the leadership in 1940, “‘floating like a benevolent hippo,’” as his private secretary Jock Colville puts it. Confidently awaiting the result of the general election that had taken place on July 5, he was reminiscing about the war and preparing himself for meetings with Stalin and Truman in Potsdam.

In the middle of the Potsdam conference, he briefly flew back to London to hear the election returns, expecting to be back at the conference within a day. He was in for a rude awakening. When the result of the election was announced July 26, he had been thrown out of office in one of the worst defeats in Conservative history. Labour’s Clement Attlee was Britain’s new prime minister. If there is a moment that proves that one should not expect gratitude in politics, this is it. Churchill’s wife, Clementine, tried to console him, suggesting that this might be a blessing in disguise. To this he growled, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised” and went into a deep funk. “I cannot explain how it is but in the misery we seem instead of clinging to each other, to be always having scenes. I’m sure it is all my fault, but I am finding life more than I can bear. He is so unhappy and that makes him very difficult,” Clementine wrote to her daughter.

But, Churchill being Churchill, he soon started preparing for his comeback. A two-pronged plan emerged, where each line of attack would reinforce the other: One was to play the role of international statesman and visionary, giving speeches and warning against the dangers of communism. The high points were the Fulton, Missouri speech of 1946 on the Iron Curtain and the speech in Zurich that same year about the tragedy of Europe, in which he advocated a “United States of Europe.” The other was to cement his reputation as Britain’s wartime leader by writing his memoirs.

According to Reynolds, criticism of him — designed to undermine that reputation — had already appeared in America. Harry Butcher, an aide to General Eisenhower, had published My Three Years With Eisenhower in 1946, in which he revealed Churchill’s doubts about an invasion of France and his resentment of American “bullying” on the subject. The book also contained some unflattering descriptions of some of his eccentricities, including “slurping his soup to the accompaniment of loud gurglings” and calling out for new socks in the middle of the evening. Even more critical was As He Saw It by fdr’s son Elliott, who, claiming to speak for his father, accused Churchill of being haunted by memories of World War i and obsessing about the Balkans.

Churchill knew there would be more to come, so it was a question of getting in his punches early by supplying the first draft of history. This is entirely in accordance with his view of history, namely that he who writes it wins the argument. In a 1932 debate with Stanley Baldwin in the House of Commons, Churchill had proclaimed: “History will say that the right honourable gentleman was wrong on this matter. I know it will, because I shall write that history.” And in his view, not believing in an afterlife, this was the only way to ensure his immortality. “Words are the only thing that lasts forever,” he said. Publishers were salivating at the prospect.

But certain obstacles had to be cleared away first. Churchill had received an offer from the American publishing house Houghton Mifflin of $1 million, the equivalent of £250,000, which, being a man of expensive tastes, he was eager to earn. But Britain’s punitive tax system would have had him paying 97.5 percent of it in taxes. “Under this system, in fact, I should only get 250,000 sixpences,” he said. “I agree with Dr. Johnson that only a blockhead writes except for money.” An ingenious solution was devised in which a trust could hold Churchill’s papers and sell them to the publishers without being liable to taxation. The publishers could then hire Churchill to write his book.

The legal side of the matter was equally annoying. Under Britain’s draconian secrecy laws, which prevented private researchers from getting access to government World War 11 papers until sometime in the twenty-first century, it was hard to write memoirs. When he had been prime minister, Churchill had been careful to grant exceptions to other ministers wishing to use their papers — among them one of his predecessors, Stanley Baldwin, whom he despised — thereby establishing a useful precedent. Throughout the war, he had his minutes and his telegrams to world leaders printed out every month and marked as “personal minutes” and “my personal telegrams.” When leaving office, he had the whole lot carted off to Chartwell, his country house in Kent.

In his effort to publish his memoirs, Churchill secured the vital backing of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, who regarded the project as a sort of semiofficial British history and hence deserving of the government’s support. According to Reynolds, a deal was worked out between Churchill and Bridges by which he could keep his papers, but would agree to have the text approved. Houghton Mifflin won the U.S. rights, and in Britain Cassell and Company was the publisher. To this he added lucrative serialization deals.

 

Having fought these preliminary skirmishes, he now gathered around him a crack team of academics and military men to help him in the immense task ahead. The group, which became known as the Syndicate, consisted of Bill Deakin — an Oxford don who had worked for Churchill in the ’30s and who had been the liaison officer to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia; Sir Henry Pownall, the former vice chief of the Imperial General Staff; and Lord Ismay, the former military secretary to the cabinet. Commodore Gordon Allen, who had been senior naval officer at Combined Operations Headquarters, took care of naval matters, and Denis Kelly, a young barrister, was available for all tasks. In addition, a host of specialists were asked to contribute on specific topics on which they were knowledgeble.

Thus, as Reynolds makes clear, rather than being an original work, this was a collaborative effort, and over time Churchill’s team learned to write in his style. Commenting on Churchill’s wartime correspondence, his wartime secretary, Jock Colville, had once noted how difficult it will be for future historians to know what is ‘genuine Churchill’ and what is ‘school of.’ We were all fairly good imitators of his epistolary style now.” The same came to apply to the members of the Syndicate, especially Bill Deakin.

In Churchill’s own words, the memoirs were written “the way they built the Canadian Pacific Railway. First I lay the track from coast to coast, and after that I put in the stations.”  The “track” consisted of his documents, wartime telegrams, and minutes, which formed the core of the books. The “stations” were his personal reminiscences, which sometimes, in a mellow after-dinner mood, he would dictate late at night to a secretary using a muffled typewriter, or they were the potted histories worked up by his assistants.

To make it all come together, to “bulldoze” the work, as he put it, he would go for a brief working holiday every year in some exotic spot like Marrakesh or Monte Carlo with Life and the New York Times footing the bill. On these working vacations, Churchill did most of the vacationing, painting a lot, while his assistants did most of the work. Yet at other times he was very engaged: The book supplies photographs of his work on the drafts, sharpening up the adjectives and adding dramatic suspense. He was very particular on the point of commas, chastising his former private secretary: “They should only come in when it is absolutely necessary to make the bloody fools understand.”

Never the easiest of men, he drove his publishers up the wall with his constant revisions and tinkerings. His manuscripts were marked “Final — Subject to Full Freedom of Proof Correction,”  and this veritable blitz of overtakes went on even at the stage where the pages were about to be bound. In a telegram to his boss at Houghton Mifflin, an American editor grumbled: “Author insists on reading proof. Cartographer in Brighton with nervous breakdown.” But this was Winston Churchill, and of course he got away with it. As Reynolds notes, what publisher was going to take on the man who had beaten Hitler?

After the first volume appeared, one more member was added to the team — Carlyle Wood, a proofreader who had worked for Churchill back in the ’30s on Marlborough and on The World Crisis, Churchill’s account of the First World War. For despite all the effort that had gone into it, The Gathering Storm contained many gaffes, the chief of which being a reference to the French army as “the poop of the life of France” instead of the “prop of the life of France,” a Freudian slip of a certain charm, perhaps, but serious nevertheless. Wood was a pedant of the first rank, as proofreaders can sometimes be, and Churchill called him “indefatigable, interminable, intolerable.” From volume two onward, Wood’s green pen is much in evidence, exhibiting what the other members referred to as “Wooding.”

 

In his prefaces Churchill modestly stressed that these were the personal experiences of an individual. “I do not describe it as history, for that belongs to another generation,” he said, “but I claim with confidence that it is a contribution to history that will be of service to the future.” Modesty thus duly dispensed with, he proceeded to lay down the law.

But while stupendous in their breadth, the memoirs are not without flaws and omissions. Some of the problem is structural, arising from the constraints imposed on him by the government. Churchill had gotten permission to quote from his own papers, but Clement Attlee had been unwilling to let him quote from papers he had not himself originated, despite the warnings of Sir Edward Bridges that “Mr Churchill quotes so many of his own documents, that there is some danger of his creating the impression that no one but he ever took an initiative.” Though this impression cannot have been unwelcome to Churchill, he can hardly be blamed for sticking to the agreement.

What he can be blamed for is the uneven quality of the memoirs. Due to the pressures of time and the demands of his job as leader of the opposition, and finally as prime minister once again, they vary a great deal in their narrative intensity. Volume one, The Gathering Storm, is generally regarded as the best. The origins and curious mindset of appeasement were clearly a topic close to Churchill’s heart, not least because of its renewed urgency vis-à-vis postwar Soviet behavior. Here, notes Reynolds, and in volume two, Their Finest Hour, Churchill holds center stage, and the story of Britain and his own story are one.

In the later volumes, with the war widening and Churchill’s influence waning, a constant refrain of his publishers and editors was that there were too many documents and too little Churchill. His standard defense of the inclusion of all this material was that “People say my speeches after Dunkirk were the thing. That was only part, but not the chief part. They forget I made all the main military decisions,” and the war-time minutes prove the point. This may be so, but as Reynolds notes, two-thirds of volume four, The Hinge of Fate, is documents, (four-fifths if one includes the appendices), which does seem excessive. Sometimes even his wife joined the critics, complaining that “The minutes are too wholesale and there is hardly any fresh stimulating material.”

Of particular interest is the stuff Churchill left out, which, not surprisingly, tends to show him in a less than flattering light. Thus, missing from Their Finest Hour are cabinet discussions at the time of Dunkirk about a negotiated peace using Mussolini as a go-between. Pressured by his foreign minister, Lord Halifax, Churchill at one point seemed to be willing to consider conceding Malta or Gibraltar or some African colonies if an accommodation with Hitler could be reached. This, of course, does not quite square with our image of him as the bedrock of anti-Nazi fortitude.

Despite his public stance of imperturbability, privately Churchill was less than certain of the outcome. At one point he worried aloud to General Ismay that they “probably would be dead in three months time.” But he also realized that Britain was in a very poor bargaining position and that even the hint of using Mussolini would be terrible for morale. “One cannot easily make a bargain at the last gasp. Once we started the friendly mediation of the Duce, we should destroy our power for fighting on.” The whole idea was quickly dropped. But we should not let this glimpse of a less confident Churchill diminish him, Reynolds cautions. Instead of “the almost blindly pugnacious bulldog of popular stereotype,” we should see him as a normal human being, subject to normal fears. What mattered was that he was capable of overcoming his private doubts to project utter confidence.

Certain things he had to leave out on national security grounds. He could not mention Ultra and Britain’s secret codebreaking facility at Bletchley Park, which had managed to crack the German signals traffic and had been of vital importance for the British war effort, as it enabled them to know what the Germans were planning. The Brits did not want to alert the Russians to their codebraking skills. Furthermore, they did not want to allow a myth to grow in Germany that the Germans had been unfairly defeated.

These were arguments Churchill understood better than anybody. Back in the ’20s, the Baldwin government, of which Churchill had been a member, had published Russian intercepts as a preliminary to breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviets. The Russians immediately changed their codes, with the result that British intelligence was unable to read Soviet signals until 1944.

An especially intriguing point is Churchill’s relations with his military advisers, which he presents in the memoirs as rosier than they were. One who suffered most bitterly was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, who later became Lord Alanbrooke. A notation in his diary reads: “I don’t think I can stand much more of it. My God, how tired I am of working for him.” Churchill had casually deprived him of the role of commander of the allied invasion of France, which he had been promised, and in retirement Lord Alanbrooke became one of Churchill’s severest critics.

Churchill’s weaknesses as a commander-in-chief are well known. Always an admirer of military dash — he had been a cavalry officer, after all — Churchill had little patience for humdrum but rather necessary things like logistics. He was constantly meddling in operations, and he had too many crackpot ideas — his late-night brainstorming sessions were known as the “Midnight Follies” by his staff — that needed curbing. Reynolds calls him a man of “iron whim.” On the other hand, generals tend to be a cautious lot who want ideal circumstances in which to perform. Somebody needs to prod them on. Churchill certainly knew how to do that.

 

There are occasional problems of emphasis in the later volumes, giving them a somewhat parochial perspective, and sometimes amounting to an outright distortion of the historical record. In volume four, The Hinge of Fate, Reynolds notes, Churchill depicted the battles of Midway and El Alamein as the hinges of the war while giving Stalingrad short shrift (a mere four pages). Alamein was certainly important for the Brits — “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat,” Churchill wrote — but its significance does tend to pale in comparison with Stalingrad. According to figures supplied by Reynolds, half a million Russians died in Stalingrad, and the Red Army killed 150,000 Germans and captured 91,000. At El Alamein the British 8th Army lost 13,500 men and took 30,000 Germans prisoner. The neglect of Stalingrad is no doubt explained by the Cold War — The Hinge of Fate was published at the time of the Korean War — which understandably was not the moment to be praising the Russians.

On the vital topic of Overlord, the allied invasion of France, Churchill particularly wanted to prove that he had not been opposed to it, as certain factions in the United States alleged. But, says Reynolds, he did not make a particularly good job of it. Though he had always paid lip service to Overlord as the keystone of Anglo-American cooperation, he saw as a fatal error the 1943 failure to exploit the Italian collapse by grabbing the Aegean islands and persuading Turkey to enter the war. Churchill’s problem with Overlord was not that he doubted the Allies could land in France; he worried what might occur between days 30 and 60 after the landings. Accordingly, he forwarded to Stalin a telegram he had received from Eisenhower’s headquarters. Three-fourths of the telegram, composed by General Harold Alexander, contained an exceedingly gloomy assessment of the Italian situatuion following German reinforcements, making a cross-Channel invasion impracticable. But Churchill deliberately omitted a fourth section, written by Eisenhower himself, containing a much more optimistic view of the future and of Overlord’s chances. In what Reynolds considers “one of the most blatant distortions of the memoirs,” Churchill included in Closing the Ring the pessimistic portion of the cable, but again excluded Ike’s more optimistic view.

Having been forced to commit to Overlord, Churchill had at least arranged for it not to have a British commander. In a draft version that did not appear in the final work, he wrote: “I had the fear that if a bloody and disastrous repulse were encountered, far bigger than the first day on the Somme in 1916, there might be an outcry in the United States, it would be said that another result would have attended the appointment of an American general.”

Finally, with Triumph and Tragedy Churchill was prime minister again, and a number of political considerations had come into play in his relations with international leaders, making him pull his punches. While with The Gathering Storm the reader was meant to draw implicit parallels to the Soviet threat and the Korean War, in Triumph and Tragedy the overall aim was to strengthen ties with Washington and simultaneously try to reduce tension with Moscow. The result is duller history.

One of Churchill’s aims in Triumph and Tragedy was to pin the responsibility for Yalta and its aftermath on the Americans — though letting Roosevelt off easy on the grounds that the president had been dying at Yalta. And on the final race toward Berlin he blamed the U.S. generals for thinking in purely military terms and for ceding Berlin to the Soviets. But he could not criticize Eisenhower too directly, since Ike was now in the White House and Churchill did not want to damage the special relationship. Thus the line “Berlin, Prague and Vienna were needlessly yielded to the Soviets: Here may be discerned the tragedy of our triumph” ended up on the cutting room floor. But that was how he felt.

Trying to reduce tensions with the new Soviet leadership made him go easy on Stalin and shift blame for Soviet behavior onto shadowy “men behind him” and to the marshals. This is of course nonsense; Stalin had always been calling the shots in Moscow.

 

With the working methods, priorities and flaws of the memoirs having thus been laid bare by Reynolds, what does this do to our view of Churchill’s genius? Since the Romantics’ day, we have been operating with the notion of the writer or artist as a lonely, anti-social and half-crazed individual, who produces his masterworks from the great solitude of a rat-infested garret. This was clearly not Churchill’s way. Reynolds quotes Syndicate member Denis Kelly as saying: “I am often asked: ‘How much of his books did he really write himself?’ It’s almost as superficial a question as asking a master Chef: ‘Did you cook the whole banquet with your own hands.’” Reynolds himself compares Churchill to the head of a modern research group.

A more apt comparison would perhaps be to the methods of a baroque master painter like Rubens, who ran a workshop. A contemporaneous description of his opulent house in Antwerp shows Rubens presiding over a swarm of assistants while he has Tacitus read aloud to him and dictates a letter to a secretary. In the main room, a group of young painters sit working out his concepts until the last minute, when the master moves in and adds the finishing touches.

While there are weak spots, Churchill’s memoirs are a work on a Rubensian scale: The ideas and the directions are his, and his creative spirit suffuses them from start to finish.