Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Finally — Volume 3 of the Churchill bio

The long-awaited third and last vol­ume of Wil­liam Manchester’s mas­ter­ful bi­og­ra­phy of Win­ston Chur­chill cov­ers the fi­nal 25 years of the sub­ject’s life — nearly as long as it took to re­search and write the book.

It was worth the wait.

Even if it had ended in 1940, Chur­chill’s ca­reer was re­mark­able enough to jus­tify the first two vol­umes that span a ne­glected child­hood, a search for glory on the bat­tle­field, and years in the po­lit­i­cal wil­der­ness in which he warned his coun­try­men about the loom­ing threat in Nazi Ger­many.

For most of us, how­ever, the years be­fore he was ap­pointed prime min­is­ter in 1940 merely set the stage for the Chur­chill we re­mem­ber: the bull­dog­like leader who in­spired Brit­ain dur­ing its dark­est days when Hitler was mas­ter of Europe and the is­land na­tion stood alone.

Manchester had fin­ished the re­search for De­fender of the Realm when he suf­fered a stroke and in 2003 asked his friend, jour­nal­ist Paul Reid, to com­plete the proj­ect. Manchester died less than two months af­ter Reid came on­board. All told, it took more than 20 years for the nearly 1,200-page book to see the light of day.

Hap­pily, the col­lab­o­ra­tion com­pletes the Chur­chill por­trait in a seam­less man­ner, com­bin­ing the de­tailed re­search, sharp anal­y­sis, and spar­kling prose that read­ers of the first two vol­umes have come to ex­pect.

The fo­cus, of course, is World War II, and the book dou­bles as a his­tory of the con­flict. Shocked by the swift fall of Sin­ga­pore — Chur­chill called it “the great­est di­sas­ter in our his­tory” — he was buoyed less than nine months later by the tide-turn­ing vic­tory at El Alamein. Along with the bat­tles, the au­thors pro­vide vivid ac­counts of the prime min­is­ter’s meet­ings with Frank­lin Roosevelt and Joseph Sta­lin, where we see Chur­chill’s role di­min­ish to that of third fid­dle among the Big Three as his con­cerns about the So­viet dic­ta­tor’s de­signs on east­ern Europe prove to be pro­phetic.

Through­out the book, Chur­chill comes across as a man of ac­tion, an en­er­getic leader with an in­dom­i­ta­ble spirit whose strength and vi­tal­ity be­lie his age. His pro­di­gious drink­ing and late-night work sched­ule didn’t ap­pear to ham­per his ef­fec­tive­ness, and the au­thors re­ject the no­tion that he suf­fered from de­pres­sion, or what Chur­chill called the “black dog.”

He found the war “ex­hil­a­rat­ing,” view­ing it as “the su­preme chap­ter” of his life. He was drawn to the bat­tle­field; he sought to get close to the ac­tion at crit­i­cal times such as D-Day and ea­gerly vis­ited anti-air­craft crews and bombed-out sec­tions of Lon­don dur­ing the Blitz. But his words proved to be his might­i­est weap­ons, in­spir­ing Bri­t­ons when they fought alone. His trib­ute to his na­tion’s fighter pi­lots who won the Bat­tle of Brit­ain — “Never in the field of hu­man con­flict was so much owed by so many to so few” — re­tains its power to­day. “Cer­tainly he demon­strated that pow­er­ful words could al­ter the course of his­tory,” the au­thors write.

Read­ers who might be put off by the length of this door­stop of a book need not worry. This is pop­u­lar his­tory at its most read­able and ab­sorb­ing. It cap­tures the drama of the war years and the lead­ing play­ers while pro­vid­ing a bal­anced and mem­o­ra­ble por­trait of the man viewed by many as the 20th cen­tury’s great­est states­man.

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