By Chet Yarbrough
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 3: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965
By William Manchester, Paul Reid
Narrated by Clive Chafer, Paul Reid
This is a surprisingly good book; surprising because it is written by a feature writer that became friends with William Manchester. Paul Reid manages, after the great author’s death, to assemble William Manchester’s prodigious collection of notes about Winston Churchill to write a highly interesting, third and last, book of “The Last Lion” series. Reid does not have the story-telling polish of Manchester but his clever assembly of Manchester’s research opens history’s door to one of the most fascinating characters of WWII’s beginning, its evolution, its finish, and its aftermath.
In the first hour, of this 53 hour and 27 minute audio book, a listener’s interest weakens but as the story of Churchill’s experience in WWII progresses, Reid begins to reveal what Manchester set the table for in his first two books about Churchill’s life. Reid pulls together disparate facts of Churchill’s experience during and after WWII that show how perfect and flawed this leader of the British Empire is in resisting German aggression and prosecuting British military strategy.
At times, Churchill could see the future; at other times, his vision was blurred by the past. Churchill clearly understood Hitler’s intent and Stalin’s post WWII ambition. Churchill opposed any effort to appease these notorious world leaders when they were at the height of their powers. In contrast, Churchill insisted on maintenance and continued hegemonic control of the British Empire, even as imperialism became déclassé, and increasingly reviled by the West.
A fine point is made of the difference between American and British perspective on WWII. Reid garners a letter from Roosevelt to Churchill, after America’s entry to the war, suggesting that India and Mahatma Gandhi’s desire for independence is tantamount to the 13 colonies revolt against King George II. In contrast to Roosevelt, Churchill suggests Great Britain is protecting India. Roosevelt, in his letter, infers Churchill is protecting the British Empire.
Churchill’s prodigious memory is exemplified by Reid’s inclusion of precisely recalled, and timely quotations, from Shakespeare, Gibbon, and Kipling, three of Churchill’s favorite writers.
Churchill is an unsurpassed and indefatigable writer and deliverer of speeches. Reid conveys Churchill’s inspirational ability with famous quotes from a number of Churchill’s perfectly paced speeches; i.e. quotes like “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” (The only American equivalent might be Lincoln.)
However, Reid is no sycophant. Churchill’s failures are evident in the story of Dunkirk, Norway, North Africa, Greece, and the reckless tactical mistake made in sending a British convoy (Prince of Wales), without air support, to the United States after Pearl Harbor. Reid argues that Churchill had poor strategic military judgment but a tenacious ability to persevere in the direst military circumstance.
One is left with the abiding belief that Great Britain needed Winston Churchill to survive WWII. It seems the circumstance of war, Churchill’s incredible physical stamina, his political acumen, and his extraordinary oratorical skill were Churchill’s late-in-life source of effectiveness and fame. The politics of war perfectly fit Churchill’s experience and qualification to be Prime Minister of Great Britain.
In contrast, Reid infers Churchill’s military strategy could have lost the war. It is not that Churchill could not learn from his mistakes but the magnitude of error and the paucity of resources (soldiers and equipment) increased Great Britain’s danger of defeat with even one, let alone several, tactical military mistakes. On the other hand, mistakes or not, Great Britain’s active military opposition forestalled German victory long enough for Russia and the United States to join in an Allied command that defeated the Axis powers. One wonders if any other leader could have done a better job under the circumstances.
Churchill grew up as an elitist Tory. Though he sympathized with the plight of the poor, he firmly believed in the superiority of aristocracy. He despised labor union movements and eschewed any effort to reduce the size or control of the British Empire. Though Churchill’s jingoistic beliefs served the United Kingdom’s need in WWII, he became a relic of the past when war ended.
Paul Reid provides a balanced picture of a great man in Volume 3 of “The Last Lion”. The surrounding cast of characters, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, General Marshall, General MacArthur, General Eisenhower,Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Stafford Cripps, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, Lord Mountbatten, Field Marshall Montgomery, Aneurin Bevan, Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and many more play their parts but Reid clearly shows Churchill is the man of the hour in the “sturm und drang” of WWII.