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Winston S, Churchill

Their Finest Hour

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This is the second volume of Churchill's six-volume memoir of the second world war. Like the first, it is in two parts: Book I takes us up to the fall of France and Book II is about Britain's virtual isolation following the French disaster.

The German invasion of western Europe was a masterly coup, in marked contrast to the fiasco that characterised the French response. Belgium and Holland clung to German assurances that their neutrality would be respected until it was too late. The result was a short-order collapse of resistance culminating in the near-miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation, which was allowed to take place largely thanks to an uncharacteristic German blunder.

Before reading this book my mental picture of events had been that there was almost no contact between Britain and France after Dunkirk, but this is wrong. French resistance, though broken, was not completely defeated and German advance was slower than I had understood. Both before and after Dunkirk Churchill made a number of visits to France accompanied by senior colleagues. His account of these is alarming to read about even in retrospect.

They flew in a passenger plane called a Flamingo, which was unarmed and quite slow, so after Dunkirk they were escorted by twelve Spitfires. On the fourth of these journeys Churchill was accompanied by Anthony Eden and General Ismay. When they returned the Spitfires were unable to take off owing to lack of suitable petrol so the British team flew alone. As they crossed the Channel the crew spotted two German fighters firing on fishing boats. "We were lucky that their pilots did not look upwards." The Flamingo came down to about a hundred feet above the sea to be less visible.

Churchill was constantly under pressure by the French to send fighter squadrons to support them against the advancing Germans, but he had to refuse because there was no chance of success and the fighters were vital to British defence against the threat of invasion. This created ill-feeling (although de Gaulle told Churchill he was right). There were still British troops fighting in France at this time, so after the French finally surrendered there needed to be a second evacuation from western ports. This mostly went well although there was a tragic incident in which a 30,000-ton liner was sunk as it was leaving St Nazaire. There were 5,000 men on board, of whom over 3,000 were drowned.

The invasion menace is a major theme in Book I. Churchill always considered that the Germans either would not risk coming across the Channel in the face of British naval superiority or, if they did, they would be destroyed; in fact, he rather hoped they would try. But this did not prevent him from taking the strongest defence precautions he could, including the formation of the Home Guard (like 'Commando', this is title for which he was responsible).

In order to invade the Germans required command of the air, which they failed to achieve thanks to British victory in the Battle of Britain. But even after this the survival of Britain was not assured, for next came the Blitz—the heavy night-time raids by hundreds of bombers, mainly although by no means exclusively directed at London. Churchill gives full credit to the population for standing up to the prolonged German attack and thinks they were even stimulated to respond. But it was a close call. "It would be unwise…to suppose that if the attack had been ten or twenty times as severe—or even perhaps two or three times as severe—the healthy reactions I have described would have followed."

The end of the Blitz came about through increasing German losses of aircraft which they were unable to sustain, and also because Hitler's attention was beginning to turn towards Russia. But this was not the last major threat that Britain had to face. At the end of this volume we see Churchill worrying about the increasing danger from U-boats in the Atlantic, which he sees no obvious way to counter.

Italy had entered the war, after much procrastination, and had sent a large army to North Africa with the aim of invading Egypt. But, unlike the Germans, the Italians were remarkably unimpressive militarily. "Our anxieties about the Italian invasion of Egypt were, it now appears, far surpassed by those of Marshal Graziani, who commanded it." Graziani told the Foreign Minister Ciano that their preparations were far from complete. "Never," says Ciano, "has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders." A British counter-attack was later to result in the complete rout of the Italian army and the capture of a huge number of prisoners together with their equipment.

The period under discussion in this book saw Hitler's formulation of his plan to invade his Russian ally, although Churchill did not know this at the time. The Russian envoy Molotov visited Berlin to talk to Hitler. After Hitler had retired for the night there was a British air raid. "We heard of the conference beforehand and though not invited to join in the discussion did not wish to be entirely left out of the proceedings." When the warning sounded Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister, took Molotov down to his deep air raid shelter to continue the conversation. He assured Molotov that Britain was finished. "'If that is so,' said Molotov, 'why are we in this shelter, and whose are these bombs which fall?'."

In both books Churchill cites extensively from his memos to colleagues and also his cables to President Roosevelt, whose friendship he cultivated assiduously; 1940 saw the launch of the Lend Lease programme that provided vital support to Britain's war planning. At times some of this citation seems a little excessive, but it can be skimmed if necessary and the narrative flow that characterised Volume 1 is maintained here.

Unlike Hitler, Churchill didn't always get his own way. Troops and armaments were being sent to Egypt the long way, round the Cape, because the Mediterranean was thought to be too dangerous owing to the risk of air attack. Churchill disagreed and did his best to persuade the Admiralty to adopt the shorter route, but they continued their opposition and he was unwilling to over-rule them. However, he insists that later events showed he had been right.

There is one important respect in which this account of the war is incomplete. Nothing is said about Ultra, the decryption of the German cipher system that was carried out at so brilliantly at Bletchley Park and is credited with having shortened the war by years. This was not revealed until 1974, twenty-nine years after the book was published.


%T Their Finest Hour
%A Churchill, Winston S,
%I Rosetta Books
%C New York
%D 1950, 2013
%G ISBN 9780795311468
%P 556pp
%K memoir
%O maps, diagrams, notes, appendices
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2019
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