Churchill has nothing to hide

Paul Addison

  • Road to Victory: Winston Churchill 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert
    Heinemann, 1417 pp, £20.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 434 29186 2

The latest volume of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill biography is the fifth he has published since taking up the task in 1968. This time he accompanies Churchill on the long march from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour to VE Day. The book has all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors. It is a superbly researched chronicle, almost wholly devoid of explicit historical interpretation. It is more like a compilation of source materials, expertly edited with a linking narrative, than a contribution to the many debates that have raged for so long on the subject of Churchill and the Second World War.

Reading between the lines one may guess that in Gilbert’s view the evidence tells in favour of Churchill and against his critics. But since events are observed exclusively through the eyes of Churchill and his circle, we are back with the problem of the fly on the wheel of the coach. The fly believed that it made the wheel go round, and being a very communicative and literary fly, left millions of words to prove it. A number of trustworthy bluebottles, who were in the vicinity at the time, were happy to corroborate the fact as independent witnesses. The record, therefore, is plain and indisputable. But a detached historian would begin by taking a good look at the coach.

In defence of Martin Gilbert, it can be urged that biography and history are two different things. The whole duty of a biographer is to give us the life of a single person. A life cannot possibly include a history of the times: the two projects are bound to cancel one another out. By compiling the biographical record, day by day and hour by hour from a multitude of sources, Gilbert does succeed in bringing Churchill to life. Page by page the great man walks and talks and eats and drinks and wallows in his bath before us. Here is Churchill from the outside, as others saw him; and Churchill from the inside, struggling to feel and think his way into the possibilities of ever-changing situations. To read Gilbert is almost to re-live the life of Winston as he himself must have experienced it – and whatever criticisms have to be made on other grounds, that is a very remarkable achievement.

The Second World War, as conducted by the men at the top, is the best documented event of modern times. So much has been published that Gilbert, in spite of his access to the Churchill archive and immersion in the Public Record Office, has no great shocks or surprises up his sleeve. This is the first volume in which his footnotes reveal a considerable reliance upon sources already in print, such as the Alanbrooke and Cadogan diaries, Churchill’s own six volumes on the war, and the history of British intelligence by F.H. Hinsley. For evidence which has never seen the light of day before, Gilbert has drawn on the correspondence of the Churchill family, the papers and recollections of his staff, and stories sent in by people who responded to a request of his on Desert Island Discs.

In his letters to Clemmie, Churchill took her into his confidence about the conduct of the war with a candour born of respect for her judgment. But otherwise the new material is mainly revealing of family and personal matters, and goes to show Churchill’s capacity for the human touch. Though he worked his secretarial staff extremely hard, he seems to have been a considerate boss, and was certainly one of the most entertaining. ‘I got the best view of his behind that I have ever had,’ his secretary Marion Holmes confided to her diary. ‘He stepped out of bed still dictating and all too oblivious of his all-too-short bed jacket.’ It is also heartening to discover, from the recollections of soldiers and sailors, that he often spared the time to talk to lesser mortals, and never in a condescending way.

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