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After resigning from Asquith’s cabinet in late 1915, Winston Churchill rejoined the army and left for service in France, being temporarily attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. On his arrival a young officer of the regiment, Lieutenant Frederick “Boy” Browning, was detailed to accompany Churchill around the trenches. Although he arrived with a large kit, Churchill lacked a coat against the cold weather. Browning, however, loaned the newly arrived politician a great coat; a loan that was long remembered as it was the first thing Churchill recalled when introduced to Browning’s daughter four decades later.

During the Second World War, Churchill again encountered Browning, who was by then a senior general who played the leading role in the formation of the British Army’s airborne forces. Browning served, in succession, as commander of the 1st Airborne Division, airborne advisor to Eisenhower in the Mediterranean, and commander of I Airborne Corps during Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Arnhem, for which he has been ascribed much blame for the failure. Despite his controversial role in ‘Market Garden,’ General ‘Boy:’ The Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning by Richard Mead is the first biographical treatment of the general’s life.

Mead, the author of The Last Great Cavalryman: The Life of General Sir Richard McCreery, Commando General: The Life of Major General Sir Robert Laycock, and The Men behind Monty, provides a good account of Browning’s quite interesting life that was at times marked by misfortune. He recounts Browning’s military career as well as his interests in sailing and sports (he represented his country at the Olympics), his vain and difficult personality, his troubled marriage to the popular novelist Daphne du Maurier, his service to the Royal Family after his retirement from the army, and his health struggles that included a nervous breakdown in 1958.

Although Browning has been heavily criticized by historians as a “villain” of ‘Market Garden’ and very poorly portrayed in the movie A Bridge Too Far, Mead is fair in his evaluation of the general’s conduct in the operation. While sympathetic to his subject, the author concludes that Browning “certainly cannot be absolved from a significant level of responsibility, but he does not deserve to be castigated above all others.”

There is, unfortunately, a formating error in the photographs printed in the paperback volume of the book read by this reviewer.

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Churchill Bulletin

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The May issue (#119) of the Churchill Bulletin: The Newsletter of Winston Churchill has been released. It includes articles on the scheduled speakers for the 35th International Churchill Conference, the world premiere of a play by Winston Churchill’s mother at Churchill College on May 12, a review of Churchill without Blood, Sweat, or Tears, and the Churchilliana column has a report on a sketch of Churchill and Attlee by Hugh Dalton. The newsletter is available here.

Book Review

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As prime minister during the Second World War, Winston Churchill dealt with dozens of British army generals, including such famous officers as Wavell, Dill, Brooke, Alexander, and Montgomery as well as many less prominent generals. This post is the first of a series of reviews of recent biographies of lesser known British generals who served under Churchill during the war.

Strafer Desert General: The Life and Killing of Lieutenant General William Gott, CB, CBE, DSO, MC by N.S. Nash is a biography of the British general Winston Churchill favoured over Bernard Montgomery to assume command of the 8th Army at the critical moment in 1942.

Having served in the First World War, where he was wounded, decorated, and captured – making two unsuccessful escape attempts – Gott was a 41-year old major in 1938. He, however, made a “meteoric rise” during the Second World War, advancing to the rank of Lieutenant-General and being designated commander of the 8th Army. Gott’s reputation had been made as a desert general in the two years of fighting in the Western Desert campaign from 1940 to 1942, successively commanding a support group, armoured division, and corps. He was a legendary officer within the 8th Army.

In August 1942, after the defeat at Gazala and retreat to the Alamein line, Churchill and Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, arrived in Egypt to review the situation. Both men decided a change of command was needed, with the prime minister supporting Gott as the new commander of the 8th Army and the CIGS, instead, arguing for Montgomery to come out to Egypt. Brooke’s objection was that Gott was exhausted after two years in the desert, while Churchill concluded that was not an issue after he met Gott for the first time on August 5, 1942. Doubts about his physical condition aside, Brooke thought very highly of Gott and quickly agreed to his appointment.

Nash considers Churchill’s support of Gott as a “whim” and reflects the prime minister’s attraction to heroes which the general was most definitely. Indeed, Churchill’s support for Gott can be questioned. While the most experienced of the desert generals who possessed the confidence of his subordinates, Gott’s record in the campaign was mixed. As a senior officer he bore some responsibly for the command by committee atmosphere at the top of the 8th Army; the failure to coordinate infantry, armour, and artillery; and specifically for the failed attack by the 23rd Armoured Brigade on July 22, 1942. With his “powers of leadership” and “charismatic personality” Gott’s ceiling may have been as a brigade or division commander.

Montgomery, in contrast to Gott, was a thorough professional soldier and dedicated student of his profession with a character that, regardless of other flaws, was ruthless and determined. Brooke’s choice for the 8th Army was called upon in the end as Gott was killed on August 7, 1942, his aircraft having been shot down by German fighters. He had been flying the same route from the desert to Cairo that Churchill had taken two days earlier, likewise unescorted by Royal Air Force fighters. Nash writes that the official line that Gott’s death was “just bad luck” as he was shot down by a stray German fighter is wrong and that he was targeted after an intercept of British communications. The deliberate “assassination” of a senior general was not unprecedented during the war as the British sent a squad to try to kill Rommel and the Americans successfully conducted a military operation to eliminate Isoroku Yamamoto.

Nash unfairly claims that Churchill and Brooke displayed “ill-concealed relief” at Gott’s death which permitted Montgomery to take command of the army in the desert. While Churchill may have quickly concluded that Montgomery was Gott’s superior as a military commander, it is too much to say that the prime minister was not genuinely grieved by the general’s death.

Churchill Research

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“In Carthage ruins: the illness of Sir Winston Churchill at Carthage, December 1943” by JA Vale and JW Scadding reviews the prime minister’s illness, the treatment initiated by his doctors, and whether the illness impacted his direction of the affairs of state. Churchill was severely ill at Carthage and was prescribed Sulphadiazine and digitalis leaf by Lord Moran with the “expert advice” of his medical colleagues. The article is published in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (47:3, September 2017). The journal web site is here.

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The article “Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Dr Robson Roose, MD Brux, FRCPE (1848-1905) and Dr Joseph Rutter, MD Lond, MRCP (1834-1913): Treatment for pneumonia in March 1886” by J. Allister Vale and John W. Scadding reviews the treatment of “close watching, nourishment, and stimulants” Churchill received after falling ill while a schoolboy at Brighton. The 11 year old Churchill was attended by Roose, “one of the most fashionable ‘society’ doctors in England,” with the assistance of Rutter. Vale and Scadding conclude “Roose was exemplary in his professional commitment to his young patient and assiduous in informing Lord Randolph Churchill of his son’s clinical progress.” The article is available as OnlineFirst from the Journal of Medical Biography. The journal web site is here.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill fell ill with pneumonia in February 1943 and again in August-September 1944. On both occasions he was confined to bed at 10 Downing Street and treated by Lord Moran and other doctors. The management of Churchill’s illness by his medical team are reviewed in “Sir Winston Churchill: treatment for pneumonia in 1943 and 1944,” by JA Vale and JW Scadding, published in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (74:4, December 2017). Among the sources used in the article are the diary of Nurse Dorothy Pugh and the correspondence of Nurse Doris Miles, both of whom were from St. Mary’s Hospital and attended on Churchill. The journal is available here.

Churchill Bulletin

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The April issue (#118) of the Churchill Bulletin: The Newsletter of Winston Churchill has been released. It includes articles on the 35th International Churchill Conference, the 2018 Churchill Fellows Weekend held on March 24–25 at the National Churchill Museum, and Churchilliana about a Wooden “V” for Victory carving. Also included are reviews of Churchill’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Unite Europe and Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War. The newsletter is available here.

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“British Attempts to Forge a Political Partnership with the Kremlin, 1942-3” by Martin H. Folly (Brunel University, London) considers a stalled initiative by the Foreign Office in February 1943 to launch discussions with the Soviet Union about postwar aims. Stalin responded to the approach with a request for formal negotiations. This response, however, exposed the “deep unreadiness of the British themselves to actually confront postwar issues.” Eden and the Foreign Office hesitated, while Churchill, who was unaware of the initiative, reacted angrily. Upon seeing Stalin’s telegram, the prime minister “emitted a series of the most vicious screams from his sickbed and ordained the whole subject of post-war matters should be dropped at once like the hottest of hot bricks.” The article was published in the Journal of Contemporary History (53:1, 2018). The journal’s web site is here.

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“Bound hand and foot and handed over to the caste Hindus: Ambedkar, untouchability and the politics of Partition” by Jesus Francisco Chairez-Garza (University of Leeds) studies the politics of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit (Untouchable) politician and intellectual, in the years before the independence of India. In 1946 Ambedkar communicated with Winston Churchill in an effort “to delay independence until some safeguards for his people were secured.” Although the “alliance between Churchill and Ambedkar was not very successful,” it provided the Dalit politician with an avenue to pressure Congress and the colonial government. The article was published in The Indian Economic and Social History Review (55: 1, 2018). The journal web site is here.

Book Review

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Churchill’s War in Words: His Finest Quotes, 1939-1945 by Jonathan Asbury and published by the Imperial War Museum is a pleasantly prepared small-sized coffee table book. Heavily illustrated with photographs, the volume provides quotes by Winston Churchill drawn mostly from his speeches as well as observations and comments about him by friends (Violet Bonham Carter), members of parliament (Henry Channon, Harold Nicholson), cabinet ministers (Anthony Eden), members of his private staff (John Colville), and enemies (Josef Goebbels). The quotes are arranged chronologically and extend from a sentence excerpted from a letter from Churchill to Clementine on January 8, 1939 through to August 16, 1945 with quotes from his first major speech in the House of Commons as leader of the opposition. On the “morrow” of victory, Churchill declared in that last quoted speech, “We have come safely through the worst” and that “Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”