General Sir Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay was Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant during the Second World War and the first Secretary General of NATO, serving from 1952 to 1957. Although he held important posts before and after the Second World War, including Lord Mountbatten’s chief of staff during the transfer of power in India, he wisely devoted over three hundred of the 464 pages of his memoirs to his five years with Churchill. The result is an essential source for Churchill biographers and Second World War historians.
Everyone liked Pug, and in the sometimes extremely fraught interactions between Churchill and the British chiefs of staff, it often fell to him to pour oil on the occasionally grinding wheels. He never lost the confidence and friendship of Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), the chairman of the British chiefs of staff.
Ismay’s memoirs are well-written, direct, and always from “the room where it happened” since he saw the prime minister daily throughout Churchill’s wartime premiership, accompanied him on all his journeys abroad, and organized his military secretariat with good nature but also the extreme efficiency born of having been the Assistant secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence since 1925. In all military affairs, there was no one closer to Churchill during the war than Ismay, to whom he confided all his thoughts, hopes, and fears.
Although there are any number of extraordinarily dramatic moments in the book, it is Ismay’s telling of the Fall of France that sticks in this reader’s memory most powerfully. Of the moment on May 26, 1940 that Churchill ordered Brigadier Claude Nicholson to hold Calais at all costs and not surrender, in order that the British Expeditionary Force could begin its evacuation from Dunkirk, Ismay wrote: “The number of troops involved was relatively small, but it is a terrible thing to condemn a body of splendid men to death or captivity. The decision affected us all very deeply, especially perhaps Churchill. He was unusually silent during dinner that evening, and he ate and drink with evident distaste. As we rose from the table, he said ‘I feel physically sick.’”