'Finest Hours: Churchill as Warlord 1940-1945' - Max Hastings - Review

In this brilliant work, Hastings deservedly waxes lyrical about Churchill’s personal influence over the fortunes of the entire world. Churchill was never prepared to countenance any immoral dealings with a foe he regarded as fathomlessly evil.  He stubbornly clung to this view from the ascension of Hitler to popular knowledge, even to the detriment of his own career.  

During the period in which Britain stood alone against the seemingly unassailable evil of Nazism, Churchill presented a series of crushing defeats and evacuations as noble encounters, even as he desperately waited for the American intervention, the second Faustian pact he made during the war’s bloody course, the mixed moral blessing of Soviet intervention six months earlier being the first. While the Stalin’s colossal Red Army, and Hitler’s monstrous Wehrmacht clashed on the most abhorrent front in world history, the British fought comparatively inconsequential sideshows in the Mediterranean, in which they largely bested Mussolini’s Italians. Whereas the Russians had to deal with 200 Axis divisions, the British struggled to defeat the couple deployed under Rommel as the Afrika Korps. Churchill was so intensely frustrated by the caution and lack of imagination of his generals – notably those who had won VCs in the First World War – that he tried to fight his own war of commando raids, failing to get his way over landings in Norway, and getting it with disastrous effect in 1943 in the Dodecanese. 

Hastings’s brilliant book is also a quietly damning indictment of Britain’s culture of waging war, whether of making do with shoddy equipment – or appointments and promotions based on social standing. Despite the British Army’s shortcomings in comparison to the raw power of the Wehrmacht, Hastings acknowledges that if Britain held the militaristic culture of Prussia necessary to forge such a fighting force, it would cease to possess the liberal democracy it bled to uphold against the forces of Fascism.  

Hastings is also sceptical about the glorification of resistors, secret agents and spies. Hastings believes that the SOE, and every resistance movement, with the exception of Yugoslavia, were of no strategic significance, regardless of their subsequent necessity to various national mythologies and self respect. He is also dismissive of the German resistance to Hitler, many of whose aims were only marginally less objectionable than those of the Nazis. On several occasions Hastings praises the role of the Navy, which kept millions of tons of supplies rolling in, as well as the RAF, which relentlessly pounded German cities into rubble. Contrary to the popular view of a nation defiantly united behind Churchill, Hastings chronicles the mounting clamour to deprive Churchill of the Ministry of Defence, while strikes were endemic among working men who earned 10 or 20 times the wage of an infantryman.

Hastings also traces the arc of Britain’s influence over the course of the war. Whereas Churchill began the war as the lone resistor to Hitler determined to defend his island to the death against Hitler’s Panzers, by 1943-44 Britain was akin to the USAs aircraft carrier, and held no sway over Stalin’s hordes steamrolling across Eastern Europe. 

In spite of his weak position, by sheer force of personality, rather than arms, Churchill saved Greece from impending subjugation under Stalin’s iron fist. He foresaw the Soviet Empire in Europe long before the US, and decisively acted, in the imperialistic traditions of Britain, in the interests of the Greek people.  

At a time when our politicians are mismanaging a foreign war, it has many invaluable lessons, not just about leadership, but about the relationship between soldiers and civil society, which range far beyond the period Hastings nominally addresses. In that respect this is an exceptionally important book, and thus merits a 5/5.


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