On the night of May 10, 1940, nine months after the invasion of Poland, Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain. Of that evening, he wrote in his history of World War II, "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." At age 65, Churchill took the helm of a nation unprepared for a war he had long foreseen and became the indomitable force around which the British people would rally in their darkest hours.
Churchill's "The Second World War," while it covers six volumes and is extraordinarily broad in scope, remains essentially a highly personal, first-hand account of the events leading up to Britain's entry into the conflict and of Churchill's conduct of the war. From the vantage point of the British prime minister, Churchill the historian re-creates for the reader the ever-widening crisis that engulfed him, as it occurred and without the benefit of hindsight. Through a narrative that draws heavily on confidential correspondence, meeting records and government documents of the period, he treats the reader as a member of his inner circle and invites him to judge the actions taken, the risks run and the prices paid.
The six volumes of the history--"The Gathering Storm" (724 pp.), "Their Finest Hour" (684 pp.), "The Grand Alliance" (818 pp.), "The Hinge of Fate" (917 pp.), "Closing the Ring" ( 673 pp.) and "Triumph and Tragedy" (673 pp.)--are much more than a memoir. They are the story of a leader whose defiance and resolution, when nearly all was lost, so moved his people that they were prepared to die defending their beaches with picks and shovels had he but given the signal. For Churchill believed that "It is a curious fact about the British Islanders, . . . that as danger comes nearer and grows they become progressively less nervous; when it is imminent they are fierce; when it is mortal they are fearless."
This history is also much more than a re-enactment of famous battles. The role Churchill played was highly diverse and complex. The immense challenge of converting British industry to war production, the infighting between generals, the exasperating alliance with Stalin and the Russians, the constant political intrigues throughout the globe, and the development of Britain's special relationship with the United States all make for fascinating reading. In addition, the work reveals much of Churchill's singular style of leadership and of his uncanny grasp of the course of European events.
When "the odds were great, our margins small, and the stakes infinite," Churchill had the courage and confidence to be relentless in pursuit of the enemy, ever willing to take the calculated risk, and ruthless in his tactics. In that vein, while he committed precious British sea power and supplies to help support the Eastern Front at the risk of Britain's defense, he remained vigilant of the growing Russian threat.
Churchill can speak to the reader with a plain elegance, but much of what he writes is also stirring oratory. Thus, while I welcome Houghton Mifflin's new and economical paperback edition ($9.95 per volume; $59.70 for the set), I am led to the conclusion that one can more fully capture Churchill's spirit and genius by listening to "The Second World War" as a book on tape, as I have done over the last several months. This is particularly the case given Richard Green's superb reading in the Books on Tape edition (147 hours of recording; $177 in cassette rental fees).
Green, a London-born actor who has performed on both the British and American stage as well as on television, captures Churchill's many moods and enlivens the reading by faithfully re-creating many of his subject's peculiarities of emphasis. The highest drama, of course, comes when he declaims some of Churchill's most memorable speeches. Such was Green's concentration that, as I learned when I phoned him about this review, he spent many an hour recording in his studio while chomping on a cigar just as Churchill used to do.
After listening to this recording, Edwin F. Russell, president of Newhouse Newspapers and Churchill's nephew by marriage, wrote: "I have just completed 'Triumph and Tragedy' and feel quite lonely. Richard Green is so superb, I feel as if I have spent a week with Winston Churchill."
Many may, like me, have long wanted to attempt this work but found that committing the time to read the text of all six volumes represented too formidable an undertaking. Listening to the work on tape while commuting may be for them as it was for me the perfect solution.
The Free World owes much to Winston Churchill. "The Second World War" as a work of history, and this reading in particular, does justice to his memory.