Erik Larson has taken a risk in writing a book about Winston Churchill, already the subject of many biographies. In drawing on the diaries and correspondence of family members, personal aides and ministers, he sketches a gripping chronology of the Prime Minister’s first year in office, when Germany seemed poised to invade and conquer England from May 1940 to May 1941. Along the way, Larson offers intimate peeks at the foibles of people in high places.
Churchill’s personal habits are already well-documented: receiving visitors while bathing or in bed, chain-smoking cigars, swilling whisky and brandy, keeping late hours and working his staff to exhaustion. Other tidbits were new to me, including his son Randolph’s extravagant behavior, and reactions to Churchill’s “finest hour” speech, when some listeners thought he sounded drunk because he delivered it with a cigar in his mouth.
Larson provides much more than scuttlebutt. Particularly fascinating is the story of a twenty-eight-year-old intelligence man who discovered a German system for bombing British targets at night with unprecedented accuracy. Another is that of Lord Beaverbrook, whose ruthless tenure as minister of aircraft production enabled Britain to maintain parity with the Germans during the legendary battle of the skies. The book also provides the most detailed account I’ve ever read of Rudolph Hess’s dramatic peace overture, which reads almost like an action movie script.
One cannot help squirming at the contrast between the Churchills’ pampered lifestyle while ordinary Britons were suffering or dying by the thousands during the blitz. To his credit, Larson makes no judgments, just lays out the facts and statistics, while paying homage to Churchill’s well-known morale visits to communities ravaged by German bombing raids. His tireless enthusiasm for his job makes one long for the days when world leaders put their countries’ interests ahead of their own.
In summary, I enjoyed this book, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. It seems as though the author has seasoned it with titillating revelations to make the historical passages more palatable. The Battle of Britain, one of the most dramatic war stories ever told, needs no such help.
Be aware that there are a few quotations of profanity, sexual activity and gutter language that could have been avoided.