In the Churchill Museum

Winston S. Churchill: Vol. VII, Road to Victory, 1941–1945

by Martin Gilbert
Houghton Mifflin, 1417 pp., $40.00

Another damned, thick, square book, eh, Mr. Gilbert?

Gibbonian in scale, the latest volume of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill has all the great virtues, idiosyncracies, and short-comings of its predecessors. This is not merely, as the cliché has it, a monument of historical scholarship—always a doubtful compliment, since monuments are generally viewed from the outside. This is a museum of historical scholarship, a vast, neoclassical museum in which the informed visitor can walk for days with profit and delight, though the casual visitor may soon be lost.

Gilbert’s long reconstruction of Churchill’s wartime life in extraordinary chronological detail, day by day, often hour by hour, leaves the reader, as the original left his associates, both exhilarated and exhausted. Perhaps only this method can bring home to us the full, awful burden of wartime leadership, and the gargantuan energy, spirit, wit, and gallantry with which Churchill carried this burden: an overweight man in his late sixties, having already suffered one minor heart attack, perpetually smoking, drinking, eating, and talking to excess; forever leaping in or out of trains and airplanes (between September 1939 and November 1943 he traveled 110,000 miles, spending 792 hours at sea and 335 hours in the air); now dashing off to meet Roosevelt in Washington, now to woo “the bear” in Moscow, to rally the troops in North Africa, to negotiate with the Turkish president (“The Turkish President kissed me” he told his daughter Sarah on retiring to bed. “The truth is I’m irresistible. But don’t tell Anthony [Eden], he’s jealous”); informing, inspiring, cajoling, bullying generals, allies, parliamentarians, Empire and Commonwealth leaders, family and friends; shooting off memoranda, many brilliant, some barmy, on every subject under the sun (the importance of well-chosen code names for operations, beer rations for the troops in Italy); dictating from his bed or his bath (between which two receptacles he spent much of his working day), reminiscing about his cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman until one in the morning, devouring official papers from his dispatch boxes until three, and still barking at his exhausted secretaries: “Gimme more!”

Gilbert’s method has the further virtue of often allowing us to see events as they occurred to Churchill, huggermugger, helter-skelter, without benefit of hind-sight. His exhaustive search for testimony from, it seems, everybody who came into contact with Churchill in these years has produced some choice nuggets. One example must stand for many. Just a few weeks before D-day Churchill is walking down to the House of Commons with John J. McCloy, then Roosevelt’s assistant secretary for war: “Suddenly,” McCloy later recalled, “he referred to the number of his early contemporaries who had been killed during what he called the hecatombs of World War I.” Churchill then described himself “as a sort of ‘sport’ in nature’s sense as he said most of his generation lay dead at Passchendaele and the Somme. An entire British generation of potential leaders had been cut off and …

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