CHURCHILL: THE UNEXPECTED HERO. By Paul Addison. Oxford University Press. 308 pages, $20.
For those who like their biographies relatively short, historian Paul Addison's 'Churchill" is tailor-made. A lively and perceptive writer, he leads us through Winston Churchill's successes and failures, leading up to the heroic leader of World War II.
Churchill had lived a full life before he took on what many believed was the hopeless task of prime minister in May, 1940. Nevertheless, he rallied his countrymen to stand up against what most saw as German invincibility.
Born in 1874, Churchill was 66 when he took the reins of government as Europe was falling before the Nazi blitzkrieg. He had only the force of personality to stiffen his countrymen and he did: "We will fight them on the beaches; we will fight them on the landing grounds. We will never surrender!"
Addison traces Churchill from a Boer War soldier and journalist to Member of Parliament; from minor Cabinet posts to First Lord of the Admiralty as World War I began; from advocate of the Gallipoli campaign to outcast when it failed.
Churchill wrote to his mother in 1898: "A few months in South Africa would earn me the S.A. medal and in all probability the Company's star. Thence hot-foot it to Egypt - to return with two more decorations in a year or two - and beat my sword into an iron despatch (sic) box," a euphemism for a seat in Parliament.
Originally a Conservative, Churchill became a Liberal in 1904, backing minimum wages, expansion of technical colleges and trade school programs, and public works to counter unemployment.
He fell out of favor after Gallipoli in 1915, but in 1917 Conservative Prime Minister Lloyd George brought him into the Cabinet as Minister of Munitions. After the Battle of the Somme, Churchill strenuously argued against massive offensives until new weapons would be devised.
Addison writes, "Here was one of the perennial sources of his survival in British politics. No one else could match his ability, on a good day, to sway the House of Commons by the force of his argument." Lloyd George decided, "Difficult though he might be as a ministerial colleague, he could be more dangerous on the outside."
In the late 1920s and '30s Churchill saw war clouds gathering and preached preparedness. By then he was a Conservative again, but he was preaching to the wind.
The appeasers were proved wrong when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Churchill returned to the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. He ordered an invasion of central and northern Norway to stop the Nazi invasion in April 1940. Its failure led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain as prime minister.
After debate in Commons on May 8, Labor refused to serve with him and at a meeting the next day Lord Halifax withdrew his candidacy because he was a member of the House of Lords, leaving only Churchill.
Germany invaded Belgium the following day, Chamberlain resigned, and Churchill became prime minister. Addison quotes historian Liddell Hart: "It was the irony, or fatality of history that Churchill should have gained his opportunity of supreme power as the result of a fiasco to which he had been the main contributor."
Addison demurs, saying, "Chamberlain and his colleagues had been in office since 1931. They could no longer escape the blame when disaster struck."
This is an excellent biography of the man many say was the most important figure of the 20th century.
Jules Wagman is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville, Fla.