LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR by Lynne Olson

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(Queen Wilhelmina of Holland broadcasting over the BBC from London to her country during WWII)

England has had a long and tortured history as she related to the European continent – always asking the question: should we become involved or not?  We can see it after World War II and the developing Common Market, and of course with the recent Brexit vote.  The dark days during the spring of 1940 when the Nazis rolled over France and the Low countries presented the problem anew, but this time after sitting back in the late 1930s allowing Hitler carte blanche it decided to support a “community of nations” as London was made available as a sanctuary for governments overrun by the Nazis.  London would become the home for the exiled governments of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, and Czechoslovakia.  These governments would band together with England to defeat Nazism and lay the basis for European cooperation after the war.  One of Olson’s major themes rests with the exile communities.  She affirms without the exiles work as pilots, mathematicians, intelligence operators, scientists, physicists, and soldiers who knows how the war might have turned out.  Today, with the European Union under attack on the continent by certain right wing parties it is useful to explore Lynne Olson’s latest work dealing with World War II entitled, LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR.

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(Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free French forces during WWII)

Olson covers a great deal of material in her book, much is new, but some of it has appeared in past books.  For example, the chapter dealing with the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz has a similar narrative that appears in  A QUESTION OF HONOR: THE KOSCIUSZKO SQUADRON: THE FORGOTTEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II as she writes about Squadron 303 made up of Polish airmen who accomplished remarkable things at a time of England’s greatest need.  Other examples can be found in TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO BROUGHT CHURCHILL TO POWER AND HELPED SAVE ENGLAND and CITIZENS OF LONDON: THE AMERICANS WHO STOOD WITH BRITAIN IN ITS DARKEST, FINEST HOUR. The integration of past research enhances her current effort particularly when she writes about the early part of the war.  To her credit she has an amazing knowledge of the leading secondary works and historians dealing with her topic which just enhances the narrative.

Olson employs a wonderful wit as part of her approach to writing.  For example she quotes the novelist and former MI6 member, John le Carre as he noted how devoted MI6 had been to “the conspiracies of self-protection, of using the skirts of official secrecy in order to protect incompetence, of gross class privilege, of amazing credulity,” then remarks that “the years immediately preceding the war MI6, as it happened, had a considerable amount of incompetence to protect.”

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

The author breaks the narrative into two separate parts. The first being the prewar period through the end of 1941 as the Germans rolled through France and the Low countries and we find a number of governments in exile stationed in London. In that section of the book Olson successfully narrates the relationship of these governments in exile first with the Chamberlain government, then that of Churchill.  She explores the important personalities that include King Haakon of Norway, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, Charles de Gaulle of the Free French, and Edvard Benes of Czechoslovakia.  The problems of each are explained as well as how the British responded to their needs.  Olson accurately points out the humiliation and frustration experienced by Benes who was forced not to fight during the Munich conference, then was pilloried for not fighting when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia in March, 1939.  Further she explores the difficult relationship between the British and the French particularly during the evacuation from Dunkirk, as well as with de Gaulle once France fell.  For the British de Gaulle could be described as the self-appointed French leader who exhibited “extreme weakness that required extreme intransigence.”  King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina got along much better with the British as each had merchant marine fleets that English needed, as well as natural resources.  Olson points out the complexity of the relationship with the Polish government in exile.  Of all these governments it was the Poles who fought, wanted to continue to fight, and developed the Home Army to do so.  They made tremendous contributions as pilots, intelligence sources, and creating a resistance against Nazi Germany.

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(Exiled Polish pilots from Squadron 303 who assisted England during the Battle of Britain)

Olson does a commendable job explaining the incompetence of the British and French military leadership who instead of accepting responsibility for events that led to Dunkirk used Belgium as their scapegoat for their own failures and defeat.  Showering King Leopold as a “Quisling” was blasphemy for the king whose army fought as well as possible based on the resources at his command, and further, refused to surrender to the Germans.  Olson also argues that the myth that the French just gave up was unfair based on the lack of support the British provided as the Germans goose-stepped into Paris.

The importance of the BBC is given its own chapter which is important because the radio broadcasts had an important role to play.  First, it allowed exiled leaders the opportunity to broadcast their own message to their people.  Second, it provided the various resistance movements accurate information as to the course of the war. Third, they broadcasted in over forty languages.   Lastly, it gave hope to demoralized population, particularly in France as they told the truth.

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(King Haakon VII of Norway)

By December 1941 the governments in exile came to the realization that with the entrance of the United States and the Soviet Union the entire diplomatic formula was dramatically altered.  With the Americans and Russians now in the war, their early closeness with Great Britain was about to give way to power politics, and perhaps a European Union might be in the offering.  From this point on Olson’s focus begins to change.

Olson spends a great deal of time taking apart the reputations of British MI6 and their Special Operations Executive.  She delves into the lack of competence exhibited by MI6 head Stewart Menzies and his battle with SOE leadership whose task was to foment sabotage, subversion and resistance in Europe.  In chapters dealing with Holland and France, Olson points out the errors that SOE leaders engaged in including a lack of security and simplistic coding, and foolish field decisions involving their agents.  London’s poor decision making would prove disastrous for Dutch agents who were easily rounded up by the Germans as they parachuted into Holland.  Olson is meticulous as she undermines the myth of the excellence of British secret services and the negative impact on events in Holland and France.  Two men stand out in her narrative, Leo Marks and Frances Cammaerts who were “passionate, skeptical, and [possessed] fiercely independent traits unappreciated by the SOE brass.”  The problem was this weak intelligence infrastructure created issues for the French resistance that was to play a major role in D Day planning and the early stages of the invasion as many suffered horrendous death at the hands of the SS.  Further complicating things was the split between the French resistance and de Gaulle, and the British and de Gaulle.  In both cases endangering the overall invasion.

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(Czechoslovakia’s leader Edvard Benes)

Olson is at her best when she integrates stories about certain figures who seem to be on the periphery of the main narrative, but are involved in important actions.  For example Andree de Vongh, an independent woman who decided to ignore SOE objections and developed the “Comet Line” an escape route for British airmen and paratroopers that began in Brussels, snaked its way through France, and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.  She organized safe houses along the route and when MI9 refused to give her funds she raised them on her own.  She personally escorted 118 servicemen to freedom out of 7000 total for all networks during the war.  If reading about de Vongh is not interesting enough, Audrey Kathleen Ruston, a thirteen year old aspiring dancer and Dutch resistance member emerges, a.k.a Audrey Hepburn.

One of the major debates that historians seem to engage in is how valuable were resistance movements in winning the war.  Though some argue not as much as one might think, Olson makes the case throughout that they were very consequential.  The Poles in particular who contributed to breaking the Enigma code and intelligence collected by their spies throughout Europe were of great importance to the Allied victory.  The Poles who seemed to have given so much received very little as the war wound to a close, and in the postwar world.  It was unfortunate that they became pawns between Stalin’s strategic view of Soviet national security in Eastern Europe, and Roosevelt’s desire not to upset the Russian dictator whose army suffered an inordinate number of casualties compared to England and the United States.  When Polish exile leaders appealed to Churchill, no matter what the English Prime Minister believed, he could do little to convince his allies to assist the Poles as the Nazis were about to destroy what remained of Warsaw in May, 1944.  As far as the French are concerned General Eisenhower argues that the resistance was “of inestimable value…without their great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”  Olson summarizes her view nicely as she quotes historian Julian Jackson, “there was indeed a Resistance myth which needed to be punctured, but that does not mean that the Resistance was a myth.”

(British General Bernard Montgomery, 1943)

When evaluating the Dutch contribution Olson correctly takes General Bernard Montgomery to task.   Montgomery had a large sense of self, arrogant and stubborn as he refused to take into account Dutch intelligence concerning the retaking of the port of Antwerp.  Rather than securing the Scheldt River estuary before moving on to Operation Market Basket, Montgomery had his eye on racing to Berlin before the Americans or Russians arrived.  As a result the Germans lay in wait, and Arnhem would become a trap leading to a fiasco which Montgomery’s over-sized ego caused..  “As a result, many more people would die, soldiers, and civilians alike.  For the Netherlands, the consequences would be dire” as the Allies controlled southern Holland, but the Nazis the northern cities and they took out their retribution on the populations of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the Hague, Utrecht, and others.

The latter part of the book evolves into a narrative of the last year of the war.  Olson covers the salient facts and personalities as she tries to maintain to her “exile” theme.  If one were to pick which character she was most impressed with it would be Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch people.  Olson points out the errors that politicians made and how their decisions impacted the post war world particularly Czechoslovakia as Patton’s Third Army stood outside Prague and waited to allow the Soviet army march in.  This along with Poland plight reflects Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower’s desire not to allow political implications affect how they decided to deploy American soldiers.  Olson’s new book is an excellent read, a combination of straight narrative, interpretive, and empathetic history that all can enjoy.

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(Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina returning to her country after WWII)

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THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK by Walter Lord

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

A few days ago I saw the film “Dunkirk” which attempted to convey the importance of the rescue of 338,000 men off the coast of France across the English Channel in late May and early June, 1940.  The film does an excellent job presenting the plight of British and French troops as they lined up on the beaches to be extracted from the threat of German tanks, artillery, soldiers and bombers.  What the historian, Walter Lord refers to in his classic study, THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK is a series of crises that allowed many components of British society to take part in the rescue of these men.  Though originally published in 1982, Lord’s book has lost none of its punch and command of events that led to the evacuation, the evacuation itself, and its implication for the overall war effort.  When reading Lord’s work today it still reflects a historian who had mastered the craft of narrative history and allowed the reader to take part in the action being described.

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The approach taken in the film is reflected in Lord’s work.  It presents three important elements of the rescue; the outnumbered  brave British pilots who met and tried to neutralize German Stukas, the employment of anything that would float represented by a family fishing boat, and the men stuck on the French beaches trying to survive German bombing.  All aspects help capture the bravery, spirit, audacity of the British people that allowed them to save their army – an achievement that would go a long way in finally defeating the Nazis five years later.

Having seen the film I decided to read Lord’s highly readable study of what occurred.  Events in France shocked many, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was informed early on the morning of May 15, 1940 by French Premier Paul Reynaud that the French had been defeated after the Germans surprised them by attacking through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  German Panzer Divisions poured through the French countryside trapping the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), two French armies, and all Belgium soldiers, nearly one million men pinned against the sea at Flanders.

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Lord does a superb job describing British resiliency as they tried to block the German advance at the same time they instituted a massive withdrawal to save the BEF.  Lord points out French arrogance in dealing with the British, how quickly their troops and leadership became demoralized, and how the British were confronted with French “invisibleness” as they tried to cope with the German advance.  British policy seemed to always have to take in to account the French state of mind.  Once the French had given up, the BEF command had to prod them to hold certain areas so an escape route could be protected.  Further, the French felt they were not being treated equally once the evacuation began to gather steam.  They wanted the use of British ships and equal extraction of soldiers.  Churchill was very cognizant of French sensitivities as he was afraid of losing an ally at a time when things were becoming desperate.

Once the Germans realized what was occurring as the BEF and its allies began retreating north they worked to close off any access to French ports, be it Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.  The Germans were spreads very thin and were stunned the allies did not attack their flanks as they raced for the beaches.  Luftwaffe head, Herman Goring grew jealous of Heinz Guderian’s Panzer unit and pleaded with Hitler to halt the German advance and allow his air force to complete the job of wiping out the BEF.  Hitler was concerned about his armor and viewed Paris as his main target so he went along with Goring.  This decision was very telling as it gave the BEF three days to organize its retreat before Hitler changed his mind – probably creating the opportunity for the “miracle” at Dunkirk.

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Perhaps Lord’s best chapter, “Operation Dynamo” deals with how the Admiralty bureaucracy organized the diversified types of ships and crafts that would take part in the rescue of the BEF.  On May 14, 1940 the BBC called for “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all their particulars to the Admiralty within fourteen days.”  Lord provides intricate details how this miracle at sea was organized under the leadership of Vice Admiral Betrum Ramsay who was located deep in the White Cliffs of Dover.  The result was a “strange fleet of ferries, hoppers, dredges, barges, coasters, and skoots.”  Once Boulogne and Calais fell, Dunkirk was the only option.

What sets Lord’s work a part from others is how he integrates the private stories and individual experiences of the soldiers and civilians who came to their rescue during the evacuation.  The harrowing trip across the channel and back avoiding German mines and bombers, placing the reader with the heroic individuals Lord describes.  Lord presents a number of important personages in his narrative that include King Leopold III of Belgium who quickly surrendered to the Germans, General Bernard Montgomery who organized his troops to fill the gap in the BEF escape route, and General Gort (Viscount Lord) who was in charge of BEF at Dunkirk, among others.  In addition, Lord has interviewed numerous survivors, civilians, and officers whose personal experiences helped create a fascinating narrative that began with a disorganized movement of troops onto the beaches, the need to create a pier to allow ships to pick the men up, and organizing the men into small units that would make for an efficient extraction.  What resulted at times was “bewildered waiting” and trying to avoid being hit by German bombers.

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The British command also had to make important choices as a number of destroyers dispatched to evacuate men began to be sunk.  Churchill and company were concerned that the losses were too much in light of what they thought would be a long war.  At one point a number of destroyers were withdrawn.  What facilitated the evacuation was low cloud cover and smoke for a good part of the end of May, 1940.  As the Admiralty withdrew the destroyers the void was filled by car ferry’s, fishing boats, open motor launches, barges, cabin cruisers, trawlers, and rusted scows – ships/boats of every conceivable type.  By the end of May, it became a deluge of “little ships.”  These craft were mostly unarmed and many were piloted by everyday civilians, a number of which were on their maiden voyage with little knowledge of nautical equipment.  The ingenuity of the British was seen as troops cannibalized materials from wherever they could, be it partially sunken destroyers, damaged buildings etc. all to create a temporary pier or mole so rescue boats could come astride and extract as many men as possible.

By the end of the evacuation 224,686 of the BEF and 123,095 French soldiers were evacuated.  This would be a problem for Churchill for the remainder of the war as the French believed that the British did not do their utmost to save French soldiers. Lord also does a marvelous job detailing the intricate and frosty relationship between England and France, especially as the Germans began to turn their attention away from Dunkirk and moved their panzer divisions to conquer Paris.

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The significance of the evacuation lay in the large number of British troops that were saved.  Guns and vehicles could be replaced, but not the only trained troops that Britain had left.  It would form a nucleus of the great allied army that would win back the continent.  Further, leaders such as Lt. General Alan Brook, Major-General Harold Alexander, and Major-General Bernard Montgomery “all cut their teeth at Dunkirk.”  In addition, the evacuation electrified the British people and gave them a sense of purpose that the war previously lacked.  It was an opportunity for ordinary citizens to feel they had made a direct contribution to the war effort.

Lord has written a highly readable account of the rescue of allied forces from Dunkirk.  An accomplishment many historians credit for saving Britain from being forced out of the war with Germany.  Though written and researched over thirty five years ago it still stands as the best narrative of the rescue and provides numerous insights into the mindset of the hundreds of thousands who survived the Nazi onslaught in the late spring of 1940.

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

VICTORIA: THE QUEEN by Julia Baird

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(Queen Victoria)

The current airing of PBS’ Masterpiece Theater of VICTORIA and its popularity has created great interest in the British monarch who ruled her kingdom and the world’s largest empire between her accession to the throne in 1837 and her death in 1901.  The program is written by Daisy Goodwin who has recently published her novel VICTORIA a fictional account of the early years of Victoria’s reign.  For a full and intimate biography Julia Baird has filled that void with VICTORIA: THE QUEEN which is an in depth study of the queen focusing on what it was like to be a female monarch in a world dominated by men.  Baird takes a somewhat feminist approach to her subject and based on years of research and mastery of primary and secondary material, the reader will learn what it was like for the teenage girl to suddenly assume the throne in 1837, her views on Parliament, Prime Ministers, attitudes toward the poor, foreign policy ranging from the Crimean War to the Boer War, but also the effect of her reign on society and women in particular.  The approach Baird takes is informative, well thought out, provides impeccable analysis, but at times she takes her intimate approach a bit too far.  I understand the importance of Victoria’s multiple pregnancies that produced nine children, but I do not need to know the details of her menstrual cycle and her reproductive anatomy.  Details about her life with Prince Alfred are fascinating, but at times, here too, she goes overboard.  However, despite some flaws the book is beautifully written and an important contribution to the historiography of the Queen.

During her reign Victoria steered her people through the social and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and oversaw her kingdom as the European balance of power was radically altered through nationalism and imperialism.  The Queen’s reign was the longest in British history until it was recently surpassed in 2015 by Queen Elizabeth II.  Baird points to the many myths associated with Victoria relating to her marriage to Prince Albert, her use of power as queen, her treatment of her subjects, and her personality traits.  Baird accurately concludes that “Victoria is the women under whose auspices the modern world was made.”   Further, Baird does an exceptional job analyzing her subject in the context of mid to late 19th century socio-economic change and her impact on European society and the larger world especially for the role of women.  In a sense Baird has created an ode to the development of the women’s movement with Victoria’s situation seen as a primary motivator behind it.  Baird correctly argues that Victoria fought for her independence, prestige, and respect for her reign from the time she was a teenager, and did so mostly on her own.  For the author, she “worked until her eyes wore out, that she advised, and argued with, ten prime ministers, populated the royal courts of Europe, and kept the British monarchy stable during the political upheavals that shook Europe in the nineteenth century.”

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(William Lamb, Lord Melbourne)

Baird gives Victoria a great deal of credit but then she backtracks as she discusses the queen’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, who she leaned on for support in dealing with her mother, John Conroy, certain members of her family, Parliament, and policy decisions. Baird describes a young woman infatuated with an older man, who thankfully does not seem to take advantage of his positon.  According to Baird, Victoria will eventually concede powers to Prince Albert in most major social, political, and foreign policy areas.  Granted, Victoria was pregnant a great deal of the time during her marriage to Albert, and suffered from postpartum depression and other ills that made her involvement in decision making less of an issue, but Baird herself points out the differences in approach between Victoria and Albert.  The Prince was more of an intellectual than his spouse and was greatly interested in the problems of the poor and working classes.  Albert was a cultured and well educated person who did not want to crush public dissent like Victoria and it appeared he wanted to bring about reform in order to lessen that dissent.  According to Baird, “the role of the monarchy under Albert’s leadership, then, was a forceful influence, which urged the government to exercise restraint in foreign policy and democratization, to erode the authority of the aristocracy and exert influence through a web of royal connections that spanned Europe in a network of carefully planned and delicate backdoor diplomacy.”  Victoria on the other hand was not as empathetic toward her subjects.  A case in point is her approach to the Irish famine where she started out criticizing tyrannical landlords, but once a few landlords that she knew were murdered, her sympathy for Irish tenant farmers waned.  Baird argues that it was a stretch to blame Victoria for the famine, but there was a great deal she could have done to mitigate their effects.  It is clear that from the time of her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 until his death in 1861 England may have gone through an Albertine Age as Baird suggests, and it took until the Prince died for Victoria to seize the reigns and create the Victorian Age.

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(Queen Victoria and Prince Albert)

For Victoria until Albert’s passing life was a balancing act; how to be a good mother, wife, and reign over her kingdom.  Baird does her best to show the Queen as a loving and doting mother, but then in the next sentence she will point out that she was rarely involved in certain aspects of her children’s care. Victoria possessed a quiet stubbornness that forced many who opposed her wishes to underestimate her, particularly when she ruled by herself.  Lord Melbourne did school her well on how to be an effective Queen, and she learned from Albert certain sensibilities that a monarch needed to possess.

Baird does an effective job dealing with Victoria’s views and impact on events.  Her role in the Crimean War debate is discussed in full, her fears of revolution in 1848 and why the social upheaval throughout Europe did not cross the English Channel, her distaste for the Russians in the Eastern crisis that led to war and the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, and her opposition to Home Rule for the Irish.  Further, Baird’s discussion and analysis of Victoria relationship with her Prime Ministers is top drawer particularly her negative relationship with Lord Palmerston when he was Foreign and Prime Minister, and her up and down relationships with certain Prime Ministers, particularly William Gladstone, Lord Derby and Lord Russell.  Her relationship with Lord Salisbury was excellent but nothing compared to her relationship with Benjamin Disraeli as he was the only Prime Minister to realize that the lonely queen wanted to be “fettered, flattered, and adored.”  As Victoria aged she moved on from her Whiggish liberalism under the influence of Melbourne to outright conservativism due to her close relationship with the Tory, Disraeli.  The last twenty years of her reign Victoria, who never acted as an impartial monarch, became greatly involved in politics, especially when the man she loathed, William Gladstone had defeated Disraeli in parliamentary elections in 1881.

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(Prime Minister William Gladstone)

It can be argued that 1861 was a watershed year for Europe and the world because of its impact on the United States and across Europe.  It witnessed the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, the supposed emancipation of serfs in Russia, and the death of Prince Albert.  Her husband’s death became the greatest test for Victoria’s reign.  She seemed to succumb to an extreme depression and many wondered if mental illness would overtake her as it did George III.  Her depression would last for a number of years where she had doubts about how to proceed with policies and felt extremely alone.  During that time a number of major events in Europe would draw the attention of the British Foreign Office.  The Polish Revolt against Russia and the controversy over Schleswig-Holstein would lead to the Danish War between Denmark and Prussia.  English influence in this 1863 crisis was marked and if Albert had been alive he might have influenced events more than his mourning widow.  By the late 1860s it appeared that Victoria was emerging from her depressive state, and as she overcame her loss she would go on to be a strong monarch in her own right making a deep impact on her kingdom as well as Europe.

The key individual in Victoria’s emergence from her widowed state was John Brown, a Scottish Highlander who had been Albert’s outdoor attendant at Balmoral who became her most intimate friend.  Her children despised him and nicknamed him the “Queen’s Stallion.”  There are many rumors and myths about their relationship that Baird addresses, whether they were lovers and what impact he may have had on policies, as one writer referred to him as “Rasputin with a kilt.”  No matter what the truth may be, one thing is certain is that the Queen came to rely on him and he helped fill the void created by Albert’s death.  In fact, Victoria would spend eighteen years in his company, almost as long as she spent with her beloved Albert.

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(Wilhelm II of Germany, Victoria’s grandson)

Baird spends a great deal of time discussing royal genealogy and its impact on Victoria’s life and policy decisions.  Using the marriage of her children for diplomatic need had been a tradition of European and English monarchies for centuries, but in her case the result can be considered quite disastrous as her lineage connects her to Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia who both bear a great deal of the blame for the outbreak of World War I and the carnage that followed.  Her children were placed throughout Europe as a means of extending English influence, but in reality that goal was rarely met.

There is no doubt that no one person dominated her kingdom the way Victoria had, particularly from the 1870s onward as she applied the political lessons learned over the decades, especially working in the shadows to achieve her goals while her subjects thought she was romping in Scotland as any monarch would do.  Baird creates an absorbing picture of a fascinating life.  Despite a few flaws Baird should be commended for producing the most comprehensive analysis of Victoria and her importance in history, and it should remain the most important secondary source on Victoria’s life for years to come.

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(Queen Victoria)

1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)

During my forty two year teaching career my students repeatedly complained when I used the term “watershed date” in class.  There are certain dates in history that deserve that characterization, i.e.; 1648 the dividing line between the Medieval and the modern, 1789 the year of revolution and of course 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others.  Often historians seem to come up with new dates, arguing its historical significance, and in Simon Hall’s new book 1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT, the author chooses a year that probably qualifies as a “watershed date.”  The year 1956 witnessed a number of important events that include the Suez War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the Polish uprising, the Algerian Civil War, Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization speech, the independence of Ghana, and important events in South Africa, Cuba among many others.  Trying to write a complete history of all of these events is a daunting task that for Hall, falls a little bit short.  The author makes a valiant attempt by introducing the main characters through biographical sketches and goes on to explain what has occurred and why it is important.  The problem for Hall is carrying out his theme of anti-colonialism and the rise of independence movements, while trying to effectively link them all together globally, a truly difficult task.

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(Algerian Civil War independence movement)

Today we acknowledge the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution with a number of new books appearing particularly monographs by Michael Doran and Alex von Tunzelmann, which are narrower in focus than Hall’s work.  The author teaches at the University of Leeds and has published a number of works on civil rights and the protest movements of 1960s.  Hall sees 1956 through a much wider lens in which the European powers refused to fully relinquish their imperial ambitions, the so called “people’s democracies” of eastern Europe were confronted  by further Soviet oppression, and in the United States and South Africa white supremacists tried their best to retain racial control.  The book is broken down into a series of chapters that seem to jump from one topic to another with a closing paragraph that tries to create continuity with the next chapter.  This technique is very informative from a narrative perspective, but linking the history of Rock n’ Roll to civil rights and independence movements is a bit of a stretch.  At times this technique does work as the Algerian Civil War impacted other colonial struggles in Cyprus, Ghana and other areas.

Hall devotes a great deal of time to the Suez Crisis that resulted in war at the end of October into November 1956.  His narrative is spot on but he does not add anything new to historical analysis.  His discussion of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion are accurate and provide insights into how the drama unfolded and was settled.  Hall relates Suez to events in Poland and Hungary as the war provided cover for the Soviets to crush descent in its satellites.  It was able to avert a military incursion of Poland through threats, and in Hungary the Soviet army crushed the revolution with tanks and infantry.  Hall introduces Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and the workers and intellectuals who stood up for their principles as best they could. These events were fostered by Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 Speech to the Soviet Party Congress where he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality” and argued that countries could take a different path to socialism.  The Soviets let the genie of freedom out of the bottle and throughout the Soviet bloc people began to call for greater rights.  As events in Hungary showed the forces of freedom went too far for Soviet tastes.   As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn stated “the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.” (381)

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(Hungarian people demonstrating against Soviet oppression knock down statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest)

Hall makes many astute comments in the narrative.  His discussion of the strategy employed behind the scenes during the Montgomery bus boycott and the leadership of Martin Luther King and how he relates the strategy of non-violence pursued by civil rights leaders in America and its impact on events in Africa and Asia are important.  The strategies and ideology of the white supremacists blaming calls of integration and greater civil rights for all citizens as a communist plot, just played into the hands of Soviet propaganda as it was crushing the citizens of Budapest with tanks.  Hall is perhaps at his best when discussing the origin and the course of the Algerian Civil War. His explanation of how one million European settlers living in Algeria dominated a Muslim population of over nine million reflects the basic problem.  Of these one million Europeans, about 12,000 owned most of the industry, media and fertile land in Algeria.  Hall explains the creation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and describes its leadership and strategy as the bloody civil war that Alistair Horne calls the “A Savage War of Peace” in his excellent study of the conflict progresses from its origin in November 1954 and would not end until 1962.

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(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)

Hall’s final chapter is very timely as he describes the rise of Fidel Castro and his 26 July movement.  It is especially relevant today as this morning we learned that Fidel passed away at the age of ninety.  Hall explores Fidel’s rise and how he created his movement with his brother Raul, Che Guevara and eighty Marxist guerillas, and why it was so successful, in addition to its impact in the western hemisphere and Africa.

Overall, the book is extremely well written, though it relies too often on secondary sources.  If you are looking for a general history of world events with a global perspective that seems to come together in the mid-1950s that impacts Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for decades, then Hall’s effort might prove a satisfactory read.

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

HERO OF THE EMPIRE:THE BOER WAR, A DARING ESCAPE AND THE MAKING OF WINSTON CHURCHILL by Candice Millard

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(Winston Churchill as a war correspondent)

Author Candice Millard’s recent successes include RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY which chronicles the former president’s exploration of the Amazon River, and DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: A TALE OF MADNESS, MEDICINE AND THE MURDER OF A PRESIDENT that categorizes the life and assassination of President James A. Garfield.  She has followed these works with her latest book, HERO OF THE EMPIRE: THE BOER WAR, A DARING ESCAPE AND THE MAKING OF WINSTON CHURCHILL that introduces the reader to Churchill’s early career exploits during the Boer War, a war which brought Churchill to the attention of a British public that was shocked by the difficulties that Her Majesty’s soldiers experienced in fighting the Boers.  Churchill found himself in South Africa hoping to achieve the military fame that had eluded him previously in Cuba, India, and the Sudan.  He was driven by an insecure ego that hoped to make a name for himself so he would not only be known as the scion of a rich of an aristocratic family.  Early on, Churchill would inform others that soon he would soon earn a seat in Parliament, and eventually would become Prime Minister.  In England at the time he was considered a “self-promoter par excellence.”

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Churchill’s sense of his own destiny is well known and was reinforced by his experiences in witnessing British troops fighting the Pashtuns in what today is Pakistan, and Madhists in the Sudan.  Churchill used family connections to be placed in whatever colonial war England was engaged in at the time, and was able to build a resume as an important figure in British politics as he felt the weight of his ancestor, John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough who throughout the last 17th and early 18th century never left a battlefield unless he was victorious.  After being defeated in his run for a seat in Parliament at the age of twenty-five, Churchill realized he needed a “good war” to propel his career and events in South Africa presented a unique opportunity with its reserves of gold and diamonds.  Storm clouds in the region gathered throughout the second half of the 19th century and by October, 1899 the Boer (a combination of Dutch, German, and British people who had migrated to the area since the 17th century) had enough of London’s encroachment into what they deemed to be their “republics” and war became official on October, 11, 1899.

Millard is a wonderful stylist who provides enough detail that the reader gains a true understanding of the makeup of Boer society and politics, along with an accurate portrayal of local topography, Boer villages, and culture.  The author captures British military arrogance from the outset of the first Boer attack in Dundee, an attack that was designed by Boer commander, Louis Botha to shake British confidence. For the British the goal of defeating the Boer by Christmas was no longer a forgone conclusion.  Millard’s comparison of Boer and British fighters is priceless as she described the British as moving at a “glacial pace,” and the Boer being “astonishingly mobile.”

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Millard explains the background history of the region before Churchill’s arrival from the Dutch extermination and removal of local tribes, the British settlement of the Cape Colony, and the Boer “trek” to the Transvaal, and wars against the Xhosa and Zulu.  The importance of the war against the Zulu cannot be underestimated because it provided the Boer with military lessons and strategy which allowed them to fight like no Europeans had previously and gave the British such difficulties.  Once Churchill zeroed in on South Africa he had to use family connections to gain an appointment as a journalist to enter the war zone since he was no longer a member of the military.  It is interesting that the future First Lord of the Admiralty hated to travel by sea which was how he reached Cape Town!

The author provides a number of mini-biographies of the major players in her narrative.  Aside from Churchill and his coterie of friends like Adam Brockie and Aylmer Haldane, she explores the lives of important Boer figures like Louis Botha, the Boer commander, and Boer President Paul Kruger.  Her discussion of Boer leadership is especially important because her discussion of their leadership and strategic skills takes the reader inside their movement and when she compares it to the British approach it explains the poor showing of Her Majesty’s forces.  Further, if one projects into future Boer methodology, it is useful to imagine the decline of the “Empire” beginning between 1899 and 1902 in South Africa.

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(Two Boer soldiers)

The narrative recounts Churchill’s experiences and exploits during the Boer War and its implications for Churchill’s future career and the effect on Britain’s political and military history.  Millard explores Churchill’s captivity and treatment and how he was able to acquire the many amenities that he had been used to as a member of the aristocracy.  Churchill’s argument with the Boers rested on his “status” as a journalist for the Morning Mail, demanding that he be released immediately.  When the Boers realized the type of prisoner they possessed there was no way they would restore his freedom.  The Boer reaction to his escape was one of obsession and the need to recapture him, and humiliate him to the point that for a period his recapture was more important than the war itself.  We witness the planning that went into his escape, his life as a fugitive, and his final arrival in Portuguese East Africa, a trek of over 300 miles to freedom.

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(Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener)

Millard lists the advantages that Boers had at the outset of combat and the desperate measures the British employed, (i.e.; concentration camps that resulted in the death of 22,000 women and children out of a total of 26,000 total death) to finally bring about an end to the war in 1902.  The Boers had felt no shame in conducting a war based on staying hidden, not pursuing personal glory, fighting to the death, applying superior knowledge of the veld, and their ability as sharpshooters.  For the British, war was about romance and gallantry as they viewed guerilla tactics as cowardly, and believed they were engaging in an adventure until they realized their approach was a failure.  Their arrogance had been self-defeating and proved very detrimental to their cause until Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener introduced an unprecedented level of savagery to the conflict.

In the end Churchill achieved the level of heroism he sought and gained election to Parliament soon after the war.  A war that taught him many important lessons that he would employ during his marvelous career that followed.  Millard has written a stirring narrative that should interest the general reader and students of Winston Churchill equally.  This is her third straight successful literary venture, and I look forward to the fourth no matter what subject she chooses to tackle.

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(Winston Churchill as a war correspondent)

WHEN LIONS ROAR: THE CHURCHILLS AND THE KENNEDYS by Thomas Maier

(US Ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, and English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill)

The 20th century was greatly affected by a number of prominent families, but aside from the Roosevelts, few stand out more than the Churchills and the Kennedys, and their relationship with each other.  The interactions between these two families forms the core of Thomas Maier’s recent book, WHEN LIONS ROAR: THE CHURCHILLS AND THE KENNEDYS.  The book explores the different dynamics that existed between the two families and the world around them, be it political, financial, personal, and too often, sexual.  The result is a historical work that at times seems peppered with a bit too much gossip.

As I examined the book I wondered if the author had unearthed anything of substance.  Tackling a topic that has been mined by many excellent historians, it seemed to be a difficult task.  Concentrating on the relationship between fathers and sons; Winston Churchill and his son Randolph, and Joseph P. Kennedy and his sons Joe Jr. and John, the author provides a glimpse into both families and the intensity of their relationships.  The most interesting facet of the book involves how both fathers had such grandiose hopes for their sons, but in both cases, the fathers were to be disappointed.  Randolph spent much of his life trying to emerge from the shadow of his famous father, while remaining loyal to him.  At times father and son would grow to resent each other, Winston disappointed by his somewhat alcoholic and womanizing son who would never reach the heights that were expected of him.  Joseph Kennedy’s disappointment revolved around the agony of losing his eldest son Joe Jr., whose naval bomber was shot down over England.  Unlike Winston, the senior Kennedy, would be rewarded when his second youngest son, John Fitzgerald would become a war hero, and successful politician who would be elected president in 1960.

(The Kennedy Patriarch and his family)

Maier provides the background story of each family that has been told many times before.  His biographical sketches of Winston and Joseph Sr. present nothing substantially new, but it should prove helpful for the general reader.  The most important component is how the two families become dependent on each other.  Maier begins in 1933 with the first meeting of Winston and Joseph Sr., as both men were allies when it came to prohibition.  The senior Kennedy hoped to procure a deal to acquire the distribution rights for English gin and other liquors in the United States as prohibition was coming to an end.  Kennedy would use his close relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son, James as a conduit to his father and a budding relationship with Churchill to achieve his goals.  Kennedy achieved an economic coup as he set up a company called Somerset importers and landed the contract to distribute Dewar’s scotch, Gordon’s gin and other important liquors.   Maier reviews the instability of Churchill’s income in comparison to Kennedy, particularly when he was out of power.  Churchill had to rely on his writing and the “gifts” of rich friends to survive a lifestyle he could not afford.  One wonders if the future Prime Minister benefited in any way from the future Ambassador to the United Kingdom.  For a wonderful discussion of Churchill’s finances see the new book NO MORE CHAMPAGNE: CHURCHILL AND HIS MONEY by David Lough.

(John F. Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Joseph Kennedy, Jr.)

Maier examines the different responses taken by both families to the rise of Adolph Hitler to power in Germany.  Both Churchill and Kennedy offspring follow the leads of their fathers.  Randolph would mimic his father’s preparedness views and the fear that war with the Nazis was inevitable.  Joseph Jr., then a student at the London School of Economics conformed to his father’s views about the Nazis, even expressing a certain amount of anti-Semitism.  John F. didn’t toe the line as much as his elder brother and more and more he came around to Churchill’s viewpoint.  A tendentious problem developed between the fathers as how to approach the militarization and expansion of Nazi Germany.  Once the war broke out and both men were in positions of power, the diplomatic rift between the two was exposed as Kennedy seemed to rely on Charles Lindbergh’s opinion of the Nazis, and his own fears of war and how it could affect his son’s futures.   Kennedy’s overt support for appeasement throughout his stay in London created a great deal of tension between the two men.  Churchill was careful of not pushing Kennedy too far because he realized how dependent he was on the creation of a “special relationship” with the United States, especially after the Nazi seizure of Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940.  Behind the scenes we are told the story of how FDR manipulated both men and how the president could no longer tolerate an ambassador who was undermining his foreign policy, a story that Michael Bechloss has told very effectively in his book, KENNEDY AND ROOSEVELT.

(Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill, and his grandson Winston)

The one major criticism of the book I would raise is the amount of racy information Maier either states or suggests.  The reader is presented with a series of love triangles, affairs, and the sexual needs of the different characters that appear in the narrative.  Randolph Churchill’s wife Pamela is involved with FDR’s personal liaison to Churchill and later Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman, Edward R. Morrow of CBS news, among a number of prominent historical figures.  The affairs of Clare Booth, writer, politician and future husband of Time magazine magnate, Henry Luce, with Joseph P. Kennedy, Randolph Churchill, the American financier Bernard Baruch and numerous others is over the top.  In addition, Sarah Churchill’s relationship with Joseph Kennedy’s replacement as ambassador to the United Kingdom, John G. Winant, and of course Maier cannot leave out the dalliances of John F. Kennedy and after a while, I wondered what purpose this information plays, if not just to spice up a historical narrative that should stand on its own merits.

To his credit Maier distills a number of situations that have remained obscure over the years.  Perhaps the most interesting is that of Tyler Kent, a code clerk in the American Embassy in London under Kennedy’s ambassadorship.  Kent was stealing documents and funneling them to a right wing group in England, conservative pro-Nazi politicians, and the Nazi government.  Documents included sensitive communications between Churchill and Roosevelt among others.  Scotland Yard and MI5 surveilled Kent and Kennedy for over seven months.  Once Kent was arrested, Maier, quite accurately describes Kennedy as an inept administrator who worried more about how things affected the “Kennedy Brand” as opposed to the damage the fiasco caused the war effort.  Kennedy would emerge totally discredited, which reinforced FDR’s negative view of him.  Another tidbit that Maier explores is that of Churchill’s health that resulted in two heart attacks and the belief that his son Randolph who surprisingly exhibited tremendous courage despite his reputation needed to be kept in a safe area as not to overly stress his father, since the Prime Minister was a key to holding out against the Nazis until victory.

(Winston Churchill and his daughter Mary, Lady Soames)

Maier does a competent job tracing the rise of Jack Kennedy from his election to Congress in 1946 to the presidency fueled by the wealth of his father.  Kennedy Sr. lived vicariously through his second son as he wanted him to gain the respect and success he could never attain.  Though there is nothing new in his discussion of Jack Kennedy’s rise to power, Maier does bring to the fore Churchill’s adamant position visa vie the Soviet Union following the war.  After giving his “Iron Curtain Speech” in Fulton, MO delineating the Soviet threat he would follow up by advocating the use of the atomic bomb against the Russians, taking advantage of the nuclear option before the Soviets developed their own which he was convinced they would employ.  Using little known FBI records, Churchill urged Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, “that if and atomic bomb could be dropped on the Kremlin wiping it out, it would be an easy problem to handle the balance of Russia, which would be without direction.” (433)

(Randolph and Pamela Churchill)

Maier provides the reader with interesting portraits of a number of important historical figures.  Chief among them was Max Aiken, or Lord Beaverbrook, a close friend and companion of Churchill, and the senior Kennedy, who at times professed his own agenda.  Other portraits include; Clementine Churchill, the spouse of the Prime Minister, as well as Rose Kennedy.  The English writer Evelyn Waugh, the financier and FDR confidant, Bernard Baruch, Clare Booth Luce, Kay Halle, a beautiful Cleveland journalist who worked with William Donovan at the OSS and at one time was the paramour of Randolph Churchill, George Gershwin, Averell Harriman, the columnist, Walter Lipmann, and Robert F. Kennedy, among others.  FDR and his advisors, particularly Harry Hopkins are portrayed fairly, as are certain important members of the British parliament.  Overall, Maier’s portrayals captures numerous individuals, and the author is even handed in his approach as he presents his breezy narrative.

Maier’s writing is easy to follow and each component of his story seems to flow into the next in a pattern that maintains the reader’s interest.  His story is carried into the 21st century following the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as Maier repeatedly seems to conjecture as to what might have been.  Whatever the case, Maier’s work is quite appealing and should interest those who have questions about two remarkable political dynasties.

(Joseph P. Kennedy and Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing Street)

THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY by Boris Johnson

(English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, August 27, 1941)

If you are looking for a personal, breezy hagiography of Winston Churchill then Boris Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY will be of interest.  Johnson’s effort is not a traditional biography of the former occupant of 10 Downing Street, but a manifesto imploring the reader to consider the genius and greatness of Churchill.  Johnson is concerned that as time has passed fewer and fewer of the non-World War II generation have forgotten or are not aware of Churchill’s accomplishments as he states at the outset “we are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice, and I worry that we are in danger….of forgetting the scale of what he did.”  For the author, World War II would have been lost, if not for Churchill, and he further argues that the resident of Chartwell House and Blenheim Palace saved civilization and proved that one man can change history.

Johnson’s writing is very entertaining.  His phrasing is both humorous and poignant, i.e., “the French were possessed of an origami army! They just keep folding with almost magical speed.”  In his description of Churchill, he looked “like some burley and hung over butler from the set of Downton Abbey.  However, aside from the humor presented, Johnson has a serious purpose as he seems to want to align himself with Churchill as a means of furthering his own political career.  The question is what do we make of Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR?  Many who are familiar with Johnson’s career can foresee this Member of Parliament, mayor of London, former editor of The Spectator, and columnist for the Daily Telegraph pursuing the leadership of the Conservative Party, and at some point attaining the position of Prime Minister.  By manipulating Churchill’s legacy as a comparison to certain aspects of his own life, Johnson may have hit upon a vehicle for his own political ascendency.  Johnson suggests certain similarities with his hero, but then upon reflection he negates them, but for those who are familiar with the British political system, Johnson’s ambitions are clear.

Johnson’s thesis rests on rehabilitating the less savory aspects of Churchill’s personality and politics, at the same time presenting him as the genius who saved the world from Nazism.  Johnson strongly suggests when reviewing the political choices that existed in England as the Dunkirk rescue was ongoing in May, 1940 there was no alternative to Churchill.  Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both appeasers and wanted to make a separate peace with Germany.  Johnson reviews Churchill’s career as a journalist, soldier, and social reformer to reflect on his preparation for taking on Hitler, and does not find him wanting in any area.  The author tackles the opposition to Churchill within the Conservative party and why he was a lightning rod for his opponents.  Johnson explains why he was so despised by many head on.  He argues that Churchill, like his father Randolph, suffered from a lack of party loyalty and we see that both followed their own path when it came to shifting parties and then returning to the conservative fold.  In addition, Churchill helped bring on ill will by always being a self-promoter and political opportunist.  Churchill made a number of errors during World War I and later, in his career.   The following come to mind: the fiasco at Antwerp in October, 1914, and Gallipoli in September, 1915 that forced many to question his ability as a military strategist when he was First Lord of their Admiralty. Further, Churchill’s ill-fated plan to block the Bolshevik victory in Russia after World War I, as well as fighting to prevent Indian self-government where not well thought out.  Lastly, Churchill’s support for Edward VIII’s desire for a divorce and forfeiture of his throne angered many conservative back benchers.

(Churchill’s March 5, 1946 “Iron Curtain Speech” at Westminster College, Fulton, MO)

Johnson presents Churchill’s bonifedes as a military leader by spending a good amount of time reflecting on Churchill’s bravery.  He discusses Churchill’s love of planes and desire to develop an air force.  He reviews his combat experience in the Sudan, the Boer War, India and the trenches of World War I.  He concludes that Churchill’s own personal bravery allowed him to ask whether other candidates in 1940 had the experience and demeanor to lead England against the Nazis.  Johnson also tackles some of the negative charges against Churchill.  For Johnson, Churchill is a social reformer in the context of being a capitalist and a free trader.  He argues that next to his mentor, Lloyd George, Churchill had great concern for workers and the lower classes.  For Churchill, workers were the bedrock of the British Empire and without them the empire would collapse.  Johnson points to Churchill’s championing of Labour exchanges, a Trade Board Bill to enforce minimum wages for certain jobs, unemployment insurance with worker, government and employer contributions, a 20% tax on land sales in order to fund progressive programs and redistribute wealth.  Churchill was concerned that if the needs of the workers were not met, unrest could “scuttle” British power overseas.  One might argue that Churchill was somewhat of a hypocrite based on some of his racist and imperialist goals, Johnson would say that he was nothing more than being politically pragmatic.  Perhaps Churchill’s “compassionate conservatism” was years ahead of George W. Bush.

The author rests much of his argument on Churchill’s amazing work ethic and the motor of his exceptional brain.  Johnson offers a great deal of evidence to support his claim, i.e., Churchill’s prodigious writing that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature at the age of seventy-five.  Churchill’s work developing tank technology during World War I, his role in creating the boundaries for the Middle East, the partition of Ireland, and diplomacy during World War II to save England from the Nazis and rallying his own people.   Lastly, the use of his personal charm to “drag” the United States into World War II.  Once out of power Churchill sought to warn the west about Stalinist expansionism.  His “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 made public his concerns, but Churchill had internally warned his cabinet and FDR at least a year earlier.  As in the 1930s when he warned about Nazism, as World War II came to a close he was seen as a war mongerer by many.  Despite the fact that he was correct in both cases, this did not help him politically at home or in his relationship with President Truman, as he was soon out of office.  Once he returned to power in 1951, and with the death of Stalin in 1953, Churchill worked for a summit of the great powers as he was deathly afraid of a thermonuclear war.  Though he did not achieve his goal, after he left office for good in 1955, a four power summit did take place.  For Johnson, in the end, Churchill’s ideas prevailed, from his speech in Fulton, MO in 1946 to the final collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Churchill had called for rapprochement between France and Germany, and a united Europe all of which was eventually achieved.

(Cairo Conference, 1921, Churchill is on the left, Gertrude Bell in the center, and T.E. Lawrence on the right)

One of the major blemishes that exists in dealing with Churchill’s career lies in the sands of the Middle East.  As Colonial Secretary he had to undue the negative results of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration all issued during World War I making very contradictory promises that Johnson describes as “Britain sold the same camel three times.”  The story of the Cairo Conference and Churchill’s influence on the creation of Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and Palestine has been told many times, but even Johnson must acknowledge that what Churchill had created, though it lasted for decades was bound to come a cropper.  Further Churchill’s optimism concerning Jewish-Palestinian relations was ill-conceived.  Johnson, as his want, does not blame Churchill, but the selfishness of both sides, particularly the lack of Arab leadership, a rationalization to deflect away from Churchill anything the author finds unacceptable.     Despite his errors the author proposes that Churchill, even in old age, was a man ahead of his times, and based on his amazing career who is to say that Johnson was wrong.

(Potsdam Conference, July, 1945, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin)

Perhaps the major criticism one can offer is how the author presents his material.  I for one enjoy objective biography, not subjective hero worship, particularly when there are so many instances of a lack of source material to support the author’s conclusions.  However, if one is interested in a fast read encompassing Churchill’s entire career, Johnson’s effort could prove to be intellectually challenging, and entertaining.

DUNKIRK: THE MEN THEY LEFT BEHIND by Sean Longden

Last July I found myself looking out from the white cliffs of Dover peering across the English Channel at France. After touring the tunnel caves carved out during Napoleon’s time and put to use by the British during World War II I began to wonder what it was like for the soldiers who were not rescued by the “mythical British flotilla” that saved so many at Dunkirk. While browsing in the main bookstore for the historical replication of the tunnel caves I came across Sean Longden’s DUNKIRK: THE MEN THEY LEFT BEHIND. What unfolds in Longden’s narrative is the horrific experience of the 40,000 British soldiers who were not rescued as the Germans marched through France and threatened the channel coast. These were the men who performed a rearguard action that allowed the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to escape. The story of the rearguard soldiers who would spend five years as prisoners of war was not publicized by the British government as they sought to translate the Dunkirk evacuation not as a defeat, but as a victory. Therefore, the plight of the POWs was kept hidden from the British public for years. According to the author it took until the publication of Richard Collier’s THE SANDS OF DUNKIRK for the true story of the evacuation to be told. Longden has resurrected the story of these men through numerous personal interviews and mining the vast historical documentation. What emerges is the application of the survivor’s descriptions and emotions from their experiences interspersed through a well written and extremely thoughtful narrative.

Longden begins the book with a history of the Dunkirk evacuation and explores how the British found themselves in such dire straits in May, 1940. The author describes the lack of training given to recruits and the equipment that was World War I vintage. The German advance through Belgium and France that fostered thousands of refugees is described as is allied military incompetence. The resulting carnage of the British retreat is described with stunning images. Once the order to fall back was given a rearguard action was instituted to allow as many British soldiers as possible to escape across the channel. The British government highlighted the evacuation and purposely forgot about the men who were left behind. Many of these men felt abandoned, though there were other rescue attempts that did not come to light until sixty years later.

The author takes the reader along on the odyssey that befell the remaining British Expeditionary Force who were not fortunate enough to reach Dunkirk. The reader witnesses all aspects of what the soldiers experienced. The poignant and difficult stories abound as some soldiers tried to escape through other venues; while others were captured by the Germans and turned into POWs who were marched across Western Europe to their destination in camps in eastern Germany. The detailed descriptions of the horrors the POWs experienced as they marched including daily humiliations, malnutrition, shootings, and exhaustion by their German captors leaves nothing to the imagination. The Germans did their best to foster hatred between British and French captives, and singled out the English soldiers for “systematic inhumanity” as reported by a later government investigation. (369) Longden description on p. 373 summarizes the plight of these men well, “For so many of the marchers it was a lonely existence. They were surrounded by thousands of men. All were sharing the same hideous experiences, all had known the horrors of battle and seen their friends slaughtered, yet they had no emotions to share. Instead each man became wrapped up in his own small world – a world that revolved around the desperate desire for food and rest.”

The plight of the POWs continued over the next five years of captivity. The narrative employs the words of the survivors to recreate their experiences. The Germans were totally unprepared to house the massive influx of POWs, particularly as it related to their medical condition. What resulted were years of depravity, continued malnutrition, dysentery, gastro-intestinal issues, lice and a host of other problems. Emotions were shattered as they witnessed the shootings of their comrades and the total disregard for humanity exhibited by their German guards. The lives of the prisoners “revolved around forced labor, inadequate food, disease, violence and death.” (456) Not only does the author describe daily life but he accurately explores the physical, and especially the mental state of the prisoners during captivity.

After five years in POW camps the prisoners were finally liberated in April, 1945. The liberation created a confusing situation as to whom to surrender, which direction they should follow, how to gain enough sustenance to make their way west, and how to deal with their own physical condition. The earlier march east was endured by heat; however the march west was so cold that frostbite was a regular occurrence. As they left the camps they continued to witness the horrors of war. Soviet vengeance against the Germans was ever present, contact with Holocaust survivors, performing what seemed to be barbaric medical procedures on their “mates” to save them, starvation leading to eating and drinking the foulest things just to survive, are all difficult to imagine.

The stories of liberation are heartwarming, but repatriation and homecoming could not possibly go smoothly based on the condition of the men and what they had experienced. Post traumatic stress disorder was very common, but in 1945 it was not a diagnostic category with recommended treatment. Longden correctly points out that the mindset of the returning soldiers centered on the failures of the British army in France in 1940 as they felt they were trained as a 1918 force to go up against a mechanized German machine. “They had witnessed the superiority, in both numbers and quality, of German tanks and aircraft….and seen allied armies outmaneuvered by advancing Germans…..they had been let down by a government that had sent them to France in 1940 ill-prepared for modern warfare.” (525-526) “As the prisoners returned home there was a general lack of understanding of what they had endured…..Whether it was the soldiers surrounded at St. Valery, the men who received disabling wounds during battles, or the men who had been plucked from the sea following the sinking of the Lancastria, the plight of those left behind at Dunkirk seemed like a footnote to history.” (528) The story of the miracle of Dunkirk seems to have passed these men by and they felt it upon their return home and for many years to follow. What separates Longden’s book from others is the use of the words of the captives describing their emotions and what had they had experienced. It leads to a powerful narrative for anyone interested in reading a work of history that sets the records straight.

ANTHONY EDEN: A LIFE AND REPUTATION by David Dutton

The career of Anthony Eden as British Foreign Secretary before, during and after World War II and his Prime Minister ship during the Suez crisis is fraught with many myths that historians have debated for decades. David Dutton in his monograph, ANTHONY EDEN: A LIFE AND REPUTATION has joined the debate presenting the reader with a work that is less a biography and more so an analysis of Eden’s career from the early 1930s to the debacle over Suez in 1956. The book is very well researched, though it could have used further American sources in dealing with the Anglo-American relationship that dominated English foreign policy during the period. Eden comes across as a political animal that is somewhat disingenuous in dealing with the appeasement issues of the late 1930s that resulted in his first resignation from public office. The major themes of the book include the evolution of Eden’s attitude toward the United States during World War II until his resignation in 1956; his relationship with Winston Churchill over strategy during the Second World War and his endless wait for Churchill to retire and allow him to assume the office of Prime Minister in 1955; and accepting England’s decline from being a major power after 1945. Dutton deals with many other concerns highlighted by Eden’s attitude toward Franklin Roosevelt, his hatred of Benito Mussolini, the onset of the Cold War and relations with the Soviet Union, the integration of Europe after World War II, and his obsession with Gamal Abdul Nasser. The reader is presented with many important insights into the personalities and policies involved during Eden’s long career and is left with the feeling that Eden was not quite up to the roles ordained by British politics and was chosen for his different offices in part because of a lack of talent in the British Foreign policy establishment and Eden’s public persona. The book would be very useful from an academic perspective, though there are a number of areas that the author treats that are not totally accurate; i.e.; Eden’s true attitude toward appeasement, the plight of the Poles during and after World War II, and the Suez Crisis. However, though the general reader might find the material plodding in spots if one is interested in the subject matter the book is a welcome addition the works of Robert Rhodes James and David Carleton.