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Churchill, 1940 

David Irving - "Churchill's War" Volume 1


[Reviewed by Sir Anthony Montague-Browne, February 2, 1988; signed typescript in Mr Irving's collection ]


THE late Lord Beaverbrook once told me that if he lived to complete his brilliant series of political histories, the last volume would be called "Churchill's War".

Sadly, this was not to be, and posterity is the poorer. Now, even Lord Beaverbrook's closest friends would admit that he was capable of being mischievous (though I am bound to say that I received nothing from him but outstanding kindness and entertainment), but what I think he meant by this title was the simple theme that Winston Churchill dominated the world scene, specially between 1939 and 1945, in a way that no other figure equalled.

This is not to say that his power was greater, which of course it was not, nor that his initiatives both military and political, were uniformly successful, which they were not, nor above all that his hopes of the outcome of the war were fulfilled, which they were not. But if one looks back on those violent and tortured decades no other world figure so consistently shines forth in history.

Mr. Irving's choice of the same title is based on very different grounds. His 600 page first volume, which skims Churchill's earlier years before settling into a more detailed analysis in about 1933 seeks, or seems, to give the reader the impression that Churchill sought war with Germany for reasons that were far from pure. His motives are suggested, in recurring references, to be a combination of personal ambition, hunger for office, financial advantage of a secure Government salary -- and even the desirability of being lodged at the Government's expense, first at Admiralty House and then at No. 10, rather than having to deal with living expenses of his own. It is even implied, though never definitely stated, that he was subsidised -- Mr Irving hesitates to use the word "bribe" -- by Czech and Jewish funds.

Mr Irving does not, however, hesitate to level the more extreme charge against others, notably the late Sir Rex Leeper, a distinguished Foreign Office official who is dead and cannot answer.

Elsewhere, Mr Irving makes much of an allegation that Churchill sought to meet Hitler in 1932 when he was in Germany researching Marlborough's battle fields for the history of his ancestor, Mr Irving claims that Hitler snubbed Churchill and refused to see him, and that from this somewhat slender foundation, Churchill's unswerving antagonism to the Nazi régime arose. The truth is different: Hanfstaengel, accurately described as "Hitler's court jester", endeavoured to arrange a meeting but Churchill said that he could not meet the man who was leading a vitriolic anti-Jewish campaign where, even at that early stage, cruelty and violence to innocent people was inevitable.

Mr Irving's book seems to have been written by two people.

A great deal of it is a well composed and absorbing account of great events, containing surprisingly generous references to Churchill's qualities. For instance, he refers to "this lion hearted man". Elsewhere one comes across references to "this Leonardo of the English tongue" and to Churchill's prophecies being "a tour-de-force".

However, throughout, Mr Hyde keeps leaping on to the page with a mish-mash of highly selective "research" which often seems little but spiteful gossip. The errors both of fact and deduction are so numerous that to list them all would out-run my licence in this review. To take just a few, not necessarily in full order of importance: Mr Irving makes much play with Churchill's drinking habits. I served him for twelve and a half years and dined and lunched with him more times that I can count. I never saw him the worst for drink, though he certainly in his own words "drank his ration". (Once walking down the steps of a Monte Carlo villa after dinner, he said "Give me your arm, my dear, I am a bit boozed". I saw no signs of it.)

Mr Irving to the contrary, Churchill's table manners seemed to me to be perfectly correct. He enjoyed good food and he enjoyed a varied and interesting life. Why not? Irving refers to him as "sponging off willing friends". My own impression was that his friends, and they were real friends, vied with eachother with their invitations. He enjoyed seeing them, and if the surroundings were beautiful and the table and wines of a high standard, then so much the better. And why not?

I ran out of time with Mr Irving's factual errors. Some are trivial, some substantial. To take but a very few:

1. Churchill did not plan and plot to divert bombing on to London, though this German strategic error probably saved Fighter Command .

2. Winston Churchill's wife was not "The Honourable".

3. Churchill did not hold Sir Edward Marsh in contempt: he was an old and trusted friend whom he held in affection and regard ("Eddie Marsh taught me punctuation" said the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature.")

4. It is not true that Churchill "as an author rarely originated material himself". In composing his books, he certainly made use of a large number of "devils", but most of his huge output was personal. Indeed, Mr . Irving says as much in his next page: "Thus his written prose was as eloquent as his oratory, a silver torrent of spoken words ."

5. Mr. Baruch was called Bernie and not "Barnie" .

6. "The Prince of Wales" was a new battleship and not an "ancient battle cruiser" .

7. A terrapin is a tortoise, not a fish.

8. The late Sir Robert Boothby never saw Churchill in his later age.

9. Lord Randolph Churchill did not die of alcoholism, but of syphilis.

One could go on and on! What a task to correct then all!

To turn to the more serious side of Mr Irving's criticism, he emphasizes and re-emphasizes that Churchill was a dictator. This simply is not so. He was the most powerful man in Britain and the most imaginative war-time Prime Minister since, perhaps, Pitt but he did not force operational decisions down the throats of the military. He threw off ideas like sparks from a Catherine Wheel and of his 20 ideas a week, perhaps only a small percentage were practical.

All of them were argued vigorously and objections were overwhelmed by a torrent of eloquent language. But at the end of the road, professional opinion predominated and out of all the rough ore of his thoughts, came some pure and glittering military metal which others could not match. Politically, he remained a servant of the House of Commons and never forgot this fact.

In his description of our relations with the United States and Soviet Russia, Mr Irving says much that is true. There is no doubt that the United States took financial advantage of us and many in the Administration and in Congress sought to strip us both financially and territorially in our hour of greatest need. Personally, I felt that our gratitude was over-fulsome for the meagre assistance given to us pre-Land Lease.

People tend to forget that the French and ourselves were the only powers who voluntarily entered the war against Germany. The others including, the United States and Russia, were unceremoniously kicked into the conflict by the attacks from Germany and Japan. Without Pearl Harbor, would the United States ultimately have become co-belligerent against Germany and Italy? I rather doubt it, though Churchill would not have agreed. Favours we received from Roosevelt were nicely conditioned by American interests.

Mr Irving is, however, greatly mistaken in assuming that Churchill was led by the nose by Roosevelt, and any perusal of the Prime Minister's memoranda and remarks in his own and others memoirs will amply bear this out. The fact was, that there was little alternative but to play second fiddle to the Americans in a great many areas and the President was more friendly to us than many others in his country.

To suggest, as Mr Irving does, that Stalin "jollied Churchill along" with alcohol is quite absurd. What is true is that Churchill suffered to some extent from the delusion that great men, in the sense of national leaders, could solve all problems if they got together in a series of cosy chats. Churchill did say that Stalin did not break his word to him and in an extremely limited sense this may have been true. But it was Churchill who stood up against the appalling cannibalism of Soviet Russia at and after Yalta, where Roosevelt was a wraith and his advisors were only too keen to combine with Stalin to do us down.

Mr Irving obviously feels that the war could have been avoided and that Churchill did his best to bring about its outbreak. Yes, it probably could have been avoided. But for how long? Could we trust Hitler to "leave us the Empire" while he took over in Europe? How long could it have been before our turn?

Mr Irving is ploughing a field that has been tilled by abler and less prejudiced hands. I suppose that from an author who suggested that General Sikorski was murdered by the British no extravagance is impossible. But here his evidence is too flimsy to stand scrutiny and I do not believe that Winston Churchill's reputation will suffer. I think that history will agree that Churchill did more to win the war than any other single man. The obvious is usually true.

[signed] A.A. Montague Browne 2/2/88

* Note that the criticisms reproduced here in green are typed on a different typewriter -- by a different author at M-B's request perhaps? But he signed for them.
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