“Churchill” by Paul Johnson

First impression: “A biography of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, only 160 pages long?  Huh?  How is that possible?”  I was leery for the first chapter or so, but somehow it works.  The book comes across to me as a kindly, well-informed grandfatherly man just talking about his favorite subject for a few hours, somewhat veering off-course temporarily but for no longer than a few minutes or so at a time.  Johnson actually met Churchill once and blends personal accounts with the historical record nicely.  This is a good outline or introduction to Churchill … provided one has a basic grasp of early twentieth century British history.  I struggled a bit myself with the people and events in the pre-WWI and Interwar period, as well as the finer points of the structure of the British government.  But the meat of the book, the WWII period, was great.

Some interesting things learned:

  • Young Churchill was quite the war “ambulance chaser.”  He used his parent’s connections to land assignments as a journalist in most of Britain’s wars in the 1890s and early 1900s.  He was also an unabashed medal seeker.  This kind of ambition seemed a little cringe-worthy to me, but it worked at putting his name out there.  He became very popular and well known.
  • As First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI, Churchill took the fall for the failure at Gallipoli.  Even though, in retrospect, things were out of his control, it almost ruined his career.
  • British post-WWI strategy in Middle East was to box in extremist Saudis by creating friendly coastal buffer states (Muscat, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain).   BP and Shell dealt with them rather than Saudis, but US Standard Oil screwed up everything by allying with Saudis, giving them immunity (due to US interests) and wealth, which they used to undermine region.  A shadow was cast over future….
  • Churchill might have made just as great a mark on history (well, probably not quite so great) as a painter or a writer as he did as a politician and leader.  He painted voluminously and quite well, evidently.  Same for writing – 10 million published words+.  From his speeches he is obviously a master wordsmith and has a good sense of humor; I’m looking forward to digging into The Second World War some time soon….
  • Churchill prophesied and warned against German aggression since 1933.  He repeatedly called for immediate rearmament, but was up against a very strong pacifist movement.  Britain should have started WWII in 1938 for the Czechs over the Sudetenland Crisis.  Besides the Czechs having 40 well-equipped divisions that were now for, not against, the Nazis (the net equivalent of 80 divisions for Germany — about the size of the entire French army), the French were not as demoralized as they were a year later.

One of Johnson’s chapters tries to answer the question, “Did Churchill personally save Britain?”  Here are his reasons why the answer is “yes”:

  • Greater acceptance of civilian leadership than during WWI permitted Churchill to control the military.
  • No constitutional or political obstacles to his decisions.
  • Took over at a desperate time.  Mastermind of Dunkirk.
  • His energy and productivity were an example to the nation.
  • Master orator who provided inspiration and encouragement.
  • Grasped early the importance of new technologies like air power, radar.
  • (7 & 8) Harassed Italy early, when Britain was in no shape to fight Germany – secured oil supply route, gained experience for troops.
  • Always cultivated alliances with countries great or small.
  • Got priorities right – ie Germany-first.

There are too many great Churchill quotes to list, but here’s a favorite, given after his party lost the election in 1945 (and thus heralding his exit as PM):

On the night of 10 May 1940, at the outset of the mighty Battle of Britain, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct in their affairs.



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