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David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004, £30.00, xxvi-646 pages, ISBN 0-713-99819-9)—Paul Addison, University of Edinburgh


At the end of the Second World War Churchill was hailed as the saviour of his country and more widely as the saviour of freedom and democracy. He basked in the applause, but long and painful experience of the vicissitudes of politics had taught him that memories were short and reputation a highly perishable commodity. The lesson was reinforced by his defeat in the general election of July 1945, but as his wife predicted, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Opposition set him free to fight a battle that would ensure his place in history for decades to come: the battle of the war memoirs. He embarked on a six-volume history of the Second World War to which he brought all the energy and vision, and the aggressive political skills, of his war leadership. It was a literary campaign which ended with a decisive victory for Churchill over his most deadly opponents, old age and the clock. Exhaustive research has enabled David Reynolds to reconstruct the story in a compelling narrative abounding with fresh insights and evidence.

This is more than a book about a book. It is a portrait of its author and his multifarious character. During the Second World War Churchill was a patriotic public servant who drove himself to the brink of exhaustion in pursuit of victory. This was the role in which he wished to be remembered by posterity, but there were earthier aspects of his personality on which Reynolds is very illuminating. The Churchill of his pages was also a buccaneering entrepreneur with an appetite for enormous sums of money, a literary predator who exploited and appropriated other people's work, and a historical manipulator who suppressed or adapted the evidence to suit his political purposes. In the hands of Churchill's detractors this would doubtless add up to a telling indictment of a myth-making hypocrite. What Reynolds gives us a rounded and realistic picture of a great man with the defects of his qualities.

Churchill would have agreed with Dr. Johnson that “no man but a blockhead writes, except for money.” He had always lived by his pen, driving hard bargains with publishers and media magnates. Reynolds shows how he exploited his growing fame during the war to raise extra cash from pre-war books and speeches. There was, however, a major obstacle in the way of Churchill's resumption of an authorial career after the war: penal rates of tax on high incomes. He was not prepared to pay income and surtax at a marginal rate of 19s 6d in the pound to the Inland Revenue, and it seems unlikely that he would have written The Second World War but for an ingenious scheme whereby he gave his papers to the Chartwell Trust, which then sold the literary rights and employed the tax-free income generated for the benefit of his children and grandchildren. Reynolds implies that Churchill received no income from the Trust, but according to the official biography he was entitled to £20,000 a year, double the salary of the Prime Minister, to cover his living and literary expenses.

In marketing the rights Churchill had no need to engage in unseemly wrangling. He relied on the hard-nosed skills of his unofficial literary agent, Emery Reves, and the friendship of Lord Camrose, the owner of the Daily Telegraph. Reynolds computes that the literary rights to The Second World War—published by Cassell in Britain and Houghton Mifflin in the United States, with serialisation in the Telegraph and Life magazine—were sold for a figure worth somewhere between eighteen million and sixty million dollars in today's money, depending on the method adopted for calculating inflation.

Churchill was a law-abiding citizen who operated within the rules, but the rules were frequently bent in his favour, and at his request. His use of government documents was a case in point. When he returned to office as First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939 he ordered that his minutes and telegrams should be printed at regular intervals, an arrangement that continued throughout his war premiership. It was suspected with good reason in Whitehall that he intended to make use of the documents when he came to write his memoirs after the war. But were they his to dispose of? The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, wanted to enforce a rule adopted in 1934 whereby ministers on leaving office were required to leave behind them all official papers. His deputy, Norman Brook, warned that Churchill would never accept this, and the War Cabinet agreed in May 1945 that ministers could take away documents they had written themselves, and would be free to publish them provided they had the approval of the government of the day.

Churchill, therefore, left office with a complete wartime set of key documents which served as the backbone of his memoirs. In theory the Attlee government could have prevented their publication but as Reynolds explains, there was never any question of this. On the contrary Norman Brook, who succeeded Bridges as Cabinet Secretary, treated Churchill's memoirs as though they were virtually an official history, popularising Britain's contribution to victory and counteracting American (and Russian?) claims to have won the war single-handedly. Churchill and his research team enjoyed the assistance of the Cabinet Office, including almost unlimited access to wartime files. In return Churchill was the most co-operative of authors, submitting drafts of the book to be vetted by the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services. The overriding consideration in Whitehall was the need to ensure that Churchill's memoirs were in harmony with the interests of Britain's Cold-War defence and foreign policies. The Second World War was therefore a semi-official history and, with Attlee's blessing, an exercise in post-war consensus.

To assist him in writing the book Churchill gathered together a team of researchers, who became known as “the Syndicate.” The principal members were William Deakin, an Oxford historian, General Pownall, who had been Mountbatten's Chief of Staff in Burma, and Commodore Allen, a senior naval officer. Surprisingly, perhaps, the drafts and memoranda they prepared, together with materials supplied by Brook, Ismay and others, have been preserved in abundance in the Churchill papers. Having gone through the materials with a fine toothcomb Reynolds is able to show that Churchill's advisers and assistants wrote many parts of the book. The tone, structure and overall interpretation were unmistakeably Churchillian and so too were many of the set pieces and personal recollections, but it would have come as a great surprise to readers at the time to learn that the passages on the emergence of Hitler, the evacuation from Dunkirk, the rise of Japan, the Dieppe raid, the war in Burma, and numerous other topics, had been written by others. Furthermore the ghost writers soon acquired the habit of writing in the first person singular and imitating Churchill's style. Seven pages on the tensions between Churchill and Cripps over the machinery of defence policy in the autumn of 1942 were actually the work of Norman Brook. “My long experience in these matters,” Brook made Churchill say, “had taught me that a Minister of Defence must work with and through responsible advisers.”

In retrospect Churchill's method of organising and leading a collective project looks perfectly sensible, and Reynolds argues that it does not diminish his standing as an author. But the impact of the book has always owed a great deal to Churchill's apparent mastery of military history, and the illusion of a literary genius composing every word. Though the book still ranks as one of Churchill's most remarkable achievements, Reynolds's analysis deals another blow to the Churchill myth of the forties and fifties.

“History will say that the Right Honourable Gentleman is wrong in this matter,” Churchill is alleged to have said after an argument with Baldwin in the House of Commons. “I know it will, for I shall write the history.” He did indeed write the history and more to the point he got his version in first. With Roosevelt dead and Stalin keeping his secrets, he was the only one of the allied war leaders in a position to give an authoritative account of the “Grand Alliance.” On the British side his only possible competitors were Eden, who lagged behind in the race, and Alanbrooke, who was spurred into action too late to halt the mighty juggernaut in its tracks. Churchill stamped his interpretation of the Second World War on the minds of a generation and even now British historians find it hard to know exactly what to make of the Churchill version. Reynolds has given us, for the first time, the technical and intellectual resources we need for a detached historical assessment.

He takes us through The Second World War volume by volume, explaining the circumstances in which each was written, the ways in which Churchill interpreted and manipulated the evidence, and his motives for doing so. We see the war Churchill waged, in parallel with the war as he reconstructed it, and the war as historians understand it today. Churchill, of course, was driven by a desire to vindicate himself before history. “He was trying,” Reynolds writes, “to shift perceptions of himself from the man of words to the man of deeds.” One of the most interesting of his discoveries is the extent to which Churchill was plagued by doubts that surfaced in early drafts but were subsequently deleted. The first of his volumes, The Gathering Storm, gave a highly distorted and partisan account of the 1930s which reflected the prevalence of the “guilty men” thesis, Churchill's bitterness at his exclusion from office, and the failure of Baldwin and Chamberlain's biographers to mount a robust defence of their subjects. In one of the early drafts, however, Churchill admitted his “incredible neglect” of the tank in the 1930s: “In my conscience I reproach myself for having allowed my concentration upon the Air and the Navy to have absorbed all my thought.” In the first draft of his account of the Norway campaign of April 1940 he wrote: “It was a marvel—I really do not know how—I survived and maintained my position in public esteem while all the blame was thrown on poor Mr. Chamberlain.” Also revealing are the wartime documents Churchill omitted from the record, though the reasons why are sometimes a puzzle. Why, for example, did he exclude his minute about the bombing of Auschwitz? And was it from a sense of guilt, or mere political expediency, that he gave so little space to the strategic bombing offensive, and deleted references to “terror bombing”?

In Command of History is a work as nuanced and complex as the text it analyses, but lucid and fascinating throughout. Nothing in the book conveys the complexities better than Reynolds's analysis of the Anglo-American dimensions, on which he writes with exceptional authority. Churchill was a fervent believer in the concept of the “special relationship” and his book was intended to demonstrate the need for closer Anglo-American co-operation in the post-war world. But Anglo-American relations had been troubled by a number of contentious issues including American hostility to the British Empire. Churchill was also under attack in the United States from writers who claimed that he had been opposed to a cross-Channel invasion and had fought hard to delay or prevent the opening of a Second Front. He was trying, therefore, to defend himself against his American critics, but he also had a case to make against Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. Writing as the Cold War intensified, he sought to show that he had been more far-sighted about the Soviet threat than American policy-makers, whom he blamed for allowing the Red Army to enter Berlin, Prague and Vienna before the British and the Americans. But Churchill could not afford to offend Truman, who remained President until 1952, or his successor, Eisenhower. It was a measure of Churchill's skill in the handling of so much dynamite that he managed in The Second World War to assert his own claims while maintaining cordial relations with the Washington Establishment—and marketing the book in the United States. He could only achieve this, however, by practising some economy with the truth. In particular his claims to have been a consistent supporter of a cross-Channel invasion were misleading. In October 1944, we learn, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff came close to abandoning operation Overlord. Churchill even set out a dream-like scenario for a British strategy independent of the Americans.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Churchill as Reynolds, with his mastery of the sources and the historiography, deconstructs chapter after chapter with a rigorous audit of the great man's errors, omissions and spin-doctoring techniques. I had the impression at times that Churchill was always manipulating the evidence or getting it wrong. Reynolds, for example, comments that Churchill paid little attention to the eastern front, neglecting the crucial role played by the Red Army in the achievement of victory. But Churchill's main theme, following the thread of his minutes and telegrams, was the British war effort. His mistake was to expand what were essentially his war memoirs into a history of the war as a whole and to do so in a half-hearted fashion in which the eastern front—like America's war in the Pacific—was dealt with in perfunctory fashion.

Reynolds does acknowledge that The Second World War possessed substance as well as spin, but he could perhaps have given the substance greater emphasis. Churchill's book was Anglocentric, egocentric, and artfully constructed. Nevertheless his six volumes, published at intervals between 1948 and 1954, represented a quantum leap in historical knowledge. There was much selection and editing of the documents, but Churchill also published in complete and original form a wealth of primary source materials that would otherwise never have been available to historians until the 1970s. If Churchill commanded history, it was partly because of this extraordinarily bold act which ran clean contrary to Whitehall traditions of secrecy, and opened up his record to critical scrutiny. Churchill has often been accused of publishing his minutes and telegrams without publishing the replies. Here Reynolds does come to his aid by pointing out that Attlee discouraged Churchill from publishing documents written by other officials, especially the Chiefs of Staff.

“These six volumes,” wrote J.H. Plumb in 1969, “require the most careful assessment, and one not yet made: soon, however, the scholars must get to work, and what a task they will have!” In spite of Plumb's injunction, Churchill the writer and historian has been comparatively neglected, while Churchill the statesman has been intensively researched and debated. David Reynolds has redressed the balance in a work of superb scholarship which has now received the recognition it deserves with the award of the Wolfson Prize.

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