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The Churchill Documents: Volume 20: Normandy and Beyond May-December 1944 is, like the previous 19 volumes, a mammoth undertaking. It numbers more than 2,500 pages and weighs in at a hefty 5 pounds. Commencing with Churchill’s speech to the Dominion Prime Ministers’ Conference on May 1, 1944 at 10 Downing Street, the volume charts the course of events through to Churchill’s return to London from Athens in the last days of 1944. The documents include correspondence (written by and to Churchill), diary entries (John Colville, Commander Thompson, Harold Nicolson), meeting minutes (War Cabinet, Chiefs of Staff committee, Combined Chiefs of Staff), Hansard, speeches, newspaper articles, and excerpts from memoirs (Churchill, Anthony Eden). As with the previous documents volumes, the documents are selected and annotated with expert skill. The well-prepared index provides for effective navigation of the huge volume. For example using the index, a reader can follow the saga of General Sir Noel Mason-MacFarlane, the chief commissioner of the Allied Central Commission in Italy, from the blistering cable Churchill sent to him on June 11, 1944 demanding an explanation for his actions, the general’s contrite reply the following day, and the announcement on June 18th that Mason-Macfarlane had asked to be relieved of his appointment and return to England on “medical grounds.” Volume 20: Normandy and Beyond May-December 1944 is a great accomplishment and essential for all Churchill collections.

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Winston Churchill came to the premiership in May 1940 with a wealth of experience in military matters. His life and career had been heavily involved with the military since his father had watched him playing with his 1,500 toy soldiers at the age of thirteen and decided he should go into the army. Churchill had attended Sandhurst, served in a cavalry regiment, fought in three colonial wars, held office as a senior cabinet minister in the First World War, commanded an infantry battalion in the trenches of France and Belgium, and served as the Secretary of State for War and Air after the Armistice. Additionally, Churchill had written his memoirs of the Great War as well as the life of his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, both multi-volume efforts. In the “political wilderness” in the 1930s he had been consumed with defense issues in his long campaign against appeasement. Churchill Warrior: How A Military Life Guided Winston’s Finest Hours by Brian Lavery provides a good recounting of the prime minister’s military experiences, but falls short of explaining – as promised in the sub-title – how these experiences influenced his decision-making as war-time prime minister. Lavery is the Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum and author of The Last Big Gun, Conquest of the Ocean, and Churchill’s Navy.

Book Review

Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are routinely voted by historians and the general public alike in polls and surveys as ranking, respectively, as the best American president and British prime minister in their countries’ histories. Indeed, in a 2002 BBC television series Churchill topped the board as the greatest Briton in history, while a recent 2018 poll of 200 political scientists confirmed Lincoln’s ranking as the greatest president. In Lincoln & Churchill: Statesman at War, Lewis E. Lehrman presents a comparative study of these two giants of British and American history. This is not the first book to pair Churchill with another figure. Dual biographies have previously paired Churchill with David Lloyd George, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Anthony Eden, George Orwell, Jan Smuts, Charles De Gaulle, and Gandhi. Lincoln, for his part, has been the subject of dual biographies with, among others, Frederick Douglass and Jefferson Davis.

Although as Lehrman notes, Churchill was born nine years after Lincoln was assassinated (but for the president’s murder the lives of Lincoln and Churchill would probably have overlapped for several years), there is much new ground for study in comparing the two leaders who led their countries in brutal wars for survival. A comparative study, the book contrasts the two statesmen by such themes as personality, leadership, rhetoric, virtues as leaders, Anglo-American relations, managing of cabinet ministers and legislators, and relations with the generals and army leadership.

In this outstanding work, Lehrman is much too harsh in comparing Field Marshal John Dill and US Civil War general George McClellan. Although both soldiers very much frustrated Churchill and Lincoln respectively, it is unfair to Dill to equate him with McClellan. Dill was a far greater man and general than the “Little Napoleon.” Whereas McClellan had a powerful army he refused to use, Dill had the thankless task of leading the British army in the two years after Dunkirk. In 1940-41 the British army possessed meager resources and even fewer means. Dill held the line and received Churchill’s disdain. That Churchill became entirely exasperated with Dill and rightly moved him out in favor of Alan Brooke should not disguise the fact that Dill, unlike McClellan, was a brilliant general.

Lehrman is well-suited to undertake this study as he has previously authored Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point as well as Churchill, Roosevelt & Co.: Studies in Character and Statecraft. In Lincoln & Churchill: Statesman at War he has written a well-researched and absorbing work.

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Churchill’s Spy Files: MI5’s Top-Secret Wartime Reports reproduces the 25 monthly reports prepared for Prime Minister Winston Churchill by MI5, the British Security Service, during the last two years of the war. Also reproduced are two special reports prepared at Churchill’s request, the first on HARLEQUIN (an Abwehr prisoner) and the second on the GARBO double-agent case. MI5 began preparing short two to three page monthly reports on their activities at the suggestion of Alfred Duff Cooper, the cabinet minister responsible for MI5, who thought it would be useful for the prime minister to be informed of their operations. These reports were strictly for “sole consumption of the prime minister” and were hand-delivered and not shared with any members of the prime minister’s staff. Churchill was always enthralled by intelligence, spies, and the work of the security services and read the reports with deep interest. The reports followed a standard format and provided information on arrested spies, ongoing espionage cases, controlled enemy agents, sabotage, and deception plans. Quite interestingly, Anthony Blunt, a Soviet agent inside MI5, was charged with preparing the reports for the prime minister.

The volume is edited by Nigel West (Counterintelligence Centre, Washington, D.C. and author of over 40 books on intelligence topics) who provides detailed essays for each of the reports, which as he notes, leaves “the reader rather better informed than Churchill” about each of the intelligence cases described in the reports.

Churchill Research

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As part of a study of methods of natural resource management in different countries (US, Norway, Russia, Angola), Thorvaldur Gylfason (University of Iceland) quotes Winston Churchill’s observations about public ownership of resources in Uganda. The article, “Political Economy, Mr. Churchill, and Natural Resources” in Mineral Economics (2018, volume 31), includes an excerpt from My African Journey (1908) in which Churchill warns that without state ownership the profits from natural resources will not benefit the government or people of Uganda. Gylfason writes that Churchill’s warning “is as pertinent today in Uganda and around the world as it was more than a century ago.” The author writes that there is a “distinction to be made between state ownership and national ownership, a distinction implicit in Churchill’s words.” The website for Mineral Economics is here.

Churchill Bulletin

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The June issue (#120) of the Churchill Bulletin: The Newsletter of Winston Churchill has been released. It includes articles on Sir Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Churchill, being scheduled to speak at the 2018 International Churchill Conference, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the International Churchill Society, and the donation of a Churchill painting to the National Churchill Museum. The Churchilliana column is on a Boer prison train postcard. The newsletter is available here.

Churchill Research

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Matthew S. Seligmann (Brunel University) in his article “A Service Ready for Total War? The State of the Royal Navy in July 1914” published in the English Historical Review (February 2018) considers the question: “was the Royal Navy actually as devoid of technological understanding, competent leadership and broader strategic and tactical thinking” as previous historical judgements have asserted. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the outset of the First World War, contributed to the view of the navy as unwilling to think about modern warfare with his claim, among other comments, in his war memoirs that the navy failed to “develop any notable thinks or theorists during the pre-war years.” Based on a conference of the senior naval leadership scheduled by Churchill for July 1914, which was never held as it was preempted by the war, Seligmann finds “that on the eve of the conflict, it was evident that the naval leadership had given considerable thought to the difficulties of war against Germany in the North Sea.” The English Historical Review is here.

Finest Hour

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The theme of the Spring 2018 (No. 180) issue of the Finest Hour: The Journal of Winston Churchill and His Times is “Churchill’s Adventures.” Articles include “Churchill on Foot – 13 & 14 December 1899: New Research Reveals More of Churchill’s Trail in and around Witbank during the Anglo-Boer War” by John Bird, “Churchill’s African Journey” by Fred Glueckstein, and “A Regency Fit for a King: Churchill Visits Athens, December 1944” by Christos Bouris. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Churchill Society and the spring issue has a history of the society’s first half century. The website of the Finest Hour is here.

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Robert Laycock made a meteoric rise during the Second World War, being appointed in 1943, at the age of 36, the Chief of Combined Operations in succession to Lord Louis Mountbatten. As Richard Mead observes in his book, Commando General: The Life of Major General Sir Robert Laycock, KCMG, CB, DSO, Laycock’s rapid advancement from a captain at the start of the conflict to the highest echelon of the British military four years later was due to both his great abilities as well as having impressed two important patrons: Mountbatten and Winston Churchill.

Laycock was “born into a life of wealth and privilege” and after Eton and Sandhurst joined the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). In 1940 he joined the newly formed commandos, first raising No. 8 Commando and later commanding Layforce in the Mediterranean. Ironically, as Mead notes, although Laycock joined the commandos to see action his “encounters with the enemy” would total just 24 days, in Crete, Libya, Sicily, and Salerno. Mead reviews Laycock’s controversial evacuation from Crete, about which Laycock himself always harbored doubts about whether he had done the right thing.

Churchill had known Laycock since the officer’s childhood and valued his abilities. Laycock’s relationship with the prime minister was probably further helped by his “tolerance” of Randolph Churchill in the commandos. In 1941, after the disbandment of Layforce and his return to England, Laycock was invited to spend the weekend at Chequers where he presented his case to the prime minister. Within days Churchill ordered the reconstitution of the commandos in the Middle East and Laycock’s return in the role of Director of Combined Operations. Churchill even intervened to order his return by air when he found Laycock was being sent back by a long sea journey. In 1943, Churchill turned to Laycock as Mountbatten’s replacement at Combined Operations, after being turned down by two admirals who he had first offered the position.

In 1947 Laycock left the army at the age of 40 and, with the exception of five years as Governor of Malta in the 1950s, retired. Mead writes that Laycock’s “post-war life was largely wasted” and that his “skills, experience, and connections […] could have been put to full-time use in any number of ways.” The decision to retire was, however, not unusual in Laycock’s “stratum of society.”

Mead, who has also written biographies of General Richard McCreery and General ‘Boy’ Browning, has produced in Commando General another fine study of a previously biographically neglected British general of the Second World War.

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In July 1940, after the fall of France and with Britain fighting alone with scant resources available for the offensive, Prime Minister Winston Churchill named Hugh Dalton, MP as the political head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Britain’s organization dedicated to sabotage and subversion in Nazi-occupied Europe. The prime minister’s directive was famously for the SOE to ‘Set Europe ablaze!’ The officer who played the leading role in putting Churchill’s instruction into action was Sir Colin Gubbins.

Brian Lett recounts Gubbins’ role in the sabotage campaign against Germany in SOE’s Mastermind: An Authorized Biography of Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC from Pen & Sword. It is a thorough study of Gubbins’ career and accomplishments.

As the author details in the biography, Gubbins was eminently prepared to direct SOE’s operations as after four years with the Royal Artillery on the Western Front in the First World War, he had served in North Russia (1919) and Ireland (1920-22); held appointments in Military Intelligence; written three handbooks on subversive warfare; and served with the British mission to Poland in 1939. After commanding the “independent companies” in the Norwegian campaign, Gubbins had been tasked with establishing the Auxiliary Units, a resistance network in England to be deployed in the event of a German invasion. Churchill closely followed the reports on the progress of the Auxiliary Units and was impressed with Gubbins. In 1940 Churchill intervened and insisted Gubbins’ go to the SOE when the army raised difficulties and attempted to prevent his reassignment. The prime minister remained “an ardent supporter of both SOE and Colin throughout the rest of the war.” In 1943 Churchill again intervened to keep Gubbins where he was when the army attempted to get him back for regular service.

Although he made an important contribution during the war, one for which he was uniquely qualified, Gubbins retired from the army in 1946 at the age of 49 with the rank of major-general and a knighthood. As Lett notes, had he not diverted from regular army service into the SOE, Gubbins would have reached “the very top of the military tree.”