Very many Americans came to admire Winston Churchill through the first two volumes of William Manchester’s The Last Lion series, namely Visions of Glory (1983) and Alone (1988). They were well-written, evocative bestsellers, and they have stood the test of time. Tragically, Manchester suffered a stroke in 1998, though not before he had assembled the notes for the concluding book of his trilogy, Defender of the Realm, which takes Churchill from the moment he became prime minister on May 10, 1940, until his death in January 1965. The notes, mainly photocopies of previously published books, have been ably written up by the North Carolina–based journalist Paul Reid. Many readers, therefore, have been awaiting this book for over two decades.
The book’s more than 1,200 pages are of course heavily skewed toward World War II — Churchill’s entire four-year peacetime premiership is packed into fewer than 20 pages, or less than 2 percent of the volume — but American readers will hardly be as interested in the squabbles that the peacetime Churchill had with the railway unions as they are in his titanic wartime struggle with the Axis powers. For all its weight and length, this book does not begin to replace Sir Martin Gilbert’s magisterial one-volume life of Churchill published in 1991. Yet readers looking for a strong, workmanlike narrative account of Churchill’s war will find that Paul Reid has done a good job with the materials that William Manchester bequeathed him. There are certainly no errors of fact, largely because the book was proofread by Richard Langworth, Churchill’s vicar-on-earth and an encyclopedic repository of all known facts on him.
Readers are taken back to the dire situation that Churchill faced on coming to the premiership on precisely the same day that Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg on the West, one of the greatest coincidences of modern times. The story of the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the year in which the British stood alone between June 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941, and the providential moment when, on receiving the news of Pearl Harbor, Churchill finally knew that the war would be won, is well told here with all the sources that were available to Manchester in 1989.
There are some opinions, as opposed to Langworth-checkable facts, with which readers might want to take issue. What can Reid possibly mean when he writes that “Hitler was all talk during the mid-1930s”? Jews in Germany certainly didn’t feel that way in those terrible years, nor did the international community when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. Similarly, the generalization that “the only commodities delivered to Britons with any regularity in early 1941 were German bombs” completely disregards the enormous help given by Canada and the Empire, and arms shipments had been coming in from the United States from 1940 onwards. “In the historical memory of many Americans,” charges Reid, “the year 1941 did not begin until 7 December.” Really? Is Hitler’s invasion of Russia that June completely unknown in the United States? As for the statement that “in June 1950, the NATO treaty of 1949 was backed up by nothing more than the paper it was printed on,” in fact there were over 100,000 American soldiers stationed in Europe at that time, significantly more than the 80,370 stationed there in December 2011. The fogey in me might also criticize Reid’s choice of words when he claims that, on learning of Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941, “Churchill was as much in a tizzy as everyone else.”
The major problem with this book, however, is that Manchester did next to no primary research in the myriad archives that were open to him in the 1980s, that much of his material was taken from Martin Gilbert’s work anyhow (though duly acknowledged), and that Reid almost completely ignores the vast amount of post-1989 work done on Churchill by writers such as (in no particular order) Robert Blake, Arthur Herman, David Reynolds, David Carlton, William Roger Louis, Allen Packwood, Barry Singer, Geoffrey Best, Christopher Bell, Richard Toye, Max Hastings, Carlo D’Este, Celia and John Lee, Barbara Leaming, Jon Meacham, Brian Lavery, John Ramsden, Sebastian Haffner, Klaus Larres, Taylor Downing, Lynne Olson, and Philip White — and those are just some of the book-publishing authors, as opposed to the writers of learned articles and Ph.D. theses. It is incumbent on the authors of biographies of major figures to at least make an effort to keep up with the last quarter-century of thinking and writing about their subjects. One would never guess from this book, for example, that we now have the complete verbatim reports of Winston Churchill’s war-cabinet meetings, as taken down by the stenographer Lawrence Burgis, for not a word from these is quoted.
This book — indeed, the entire Manchester trilogy — would be a perfectly reasonable choice for someone who is coming to Churchill for the very first time. Of the writing of books about Churchill, there should be no end. The fact that the trilogy gives barely a nod to the mountain of scholarship of the past 23 years, and thereby misses altogether many of the new controversies and sources, does not disqualify this book as a worthwhile contribution to the massive Churchillian bibliography. It’s just a terrible shame that Manchester’s stroke meant that it wasn’t published in the 1980s or early 1990s, the era for which it was meant.
– Mr. Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.