A legend at his zenith


ROSS LAVER December 8 1986

A legend at his zenith


ROSS LAVER December 8 1986

A legend at his zenith



(Stoddart, 1,1*17 pages, $39.95)

On the evening of June 5, 1944, Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, had a rare private dinner together at 10 Downing Street. Before going to bed, the British Prime Minister went to his map room with his wife for a final check on the preparations for Operation Overlord. The landings on the Normandy beaches, the largest amphibious assault ever mounted, would start in a few hours. “Do you realize,” Churchill asked Clementine, “that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?”

In fact, only 3,000 Allied troops died the next day. But the remark illustrated Churchill’s fear that the senseless slaughter of the First World War would be repeated in the Second. In Road to Victory, the seventh volume in Churchill’s official biography, Chur-

chill is quoted as saying, “An entire British generation of potential leaders has been cut off and Britain could not afford the loss of another generation.”

“Throughout the war,” writes author Martin Gilbert, “Churchill had to try and strike a balance between an excess of caution and wise restraint.” His view of how the war should be fought frequently brought him into conflict with the British and American joint chiefs of staff. Their caution, he thought, undercut their combined effectiveness. But Gilbert’s exhaustive study never decides whether Churchill himself struck the right balance.

In fact, Gilbert, who has written five of the seven volumes already published, makes no judgments at all. Instead, he uses Churchill’s contemporaries to assess the leader. Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chairman of the British chiefs of staff committee, says of Churchill’s reluctance to accept advice: “There are times when he drives me to desperation. . .” But substituting quotes and details for analysis is not enough—in fact, it creates its own problems. Readers are expected to recognize names such as Sir Alexander Cadogan (chief civil servant for foreign affairs)—because Gilbert does not offer introductions.

Yet Road to Victory, spanning four of the most dramatic years of the cen-

tury, is a compelling book. It begins immediately after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 — the attack that finally brought the United States into the war alongside Britain and the Soviet Union—and ends with Churchill’s broadcast announcing victory over the Nazis on May 8, 1945. Along the way, it chronicles his despair over the defeats suffered by British troops at Singapore and Tobruk, his efforts leading up to the Yalta conference to secure an independent Poland and his constant struggle with the Americans over where and how to conduct the war.

But the book’s singular contribution to the vast library of Churchilliana is its portrait of the 70-year-old Churchill himself, who, after two mild heart attacks and a nearly fatal bout of pneumonia, persisted in starting his work days at 1:30 a.m.—and occasionally enjoyed whisky-and-sodas before 9 a.m. The book also communicates a strong sense of the man’s eccentricity. During a 1943 visit to the White House, Cadogan notes: “The PM’s

sleeping arrangements have now become quite promiscuous. He talks with the President until 2 a.m., and consequently spends a large part of the day rushing up and down corridors in his dressing gown.”

Victory made Churchill a legend—

the greatest war leader of a democracy in modern times. On the death of his own former political leader, David Lloyd George in 1945, Churchill composed a eulogy that said, “As a man of creative energy he stood, when at his zenith, without a rival.”

The same words would have made a fitting epitaph for Churchill himself.


At precisely one o’clock in the morning on Nov. 6, 1986, Martin Gilbert sat in a booklined study in his north London home and wrote—in longhand in a large blue notebook—the phrase,

“he died.” Those two words completed the final sentence in the eighth and final volume of a project that has dominated Gilbert’s life for almost two decades: the official biography of Winston Spencer Churchill. To be sure, Gilbert still faces months of polishing, editing and proofreading before the book is finally published,

probably in the spring of 1988. But for the moment the 50-year-old historian is profoundly relieved. “If someone had told me at the beginning that this project would take almost 20

years,” said Gilbert, seated at his simple pine writing desk, “I would never have believed it.”

A fellow of Oxford’s Merton College, Gilbert was writing a book about the origins of the Second World War when Randolph Churchill, the former prime minister’s son, invited Gilbert to join the research team working on his father’s official biography. When Randolph died in 1968 after pubfishing the first two volumes—covering the period up to the outbreak of the First

World War in 1914—Gilbert took over. Unlike Churchill, Gilbert had no firsthand experience of his subject. He based his judgments solely on contemporary records, correspondence and interviews with more than 300 friends and colleagues of the former

prime minister, many in their 80s. What he calls his only direct “encounter” with his subject occurred in a dream. At the time, Gilbert was trying to determine if Churchill was the author of a telegram ordering a naval attack in the Dardanelles in 1915. “In the dream, Churchill was walking along a promenade by the sea. I ran to try to catch him, but as soon as I did I woke up. I never even had a chance to ask my question.”

Gilbert, who spent his own childhood in wartime evacuation in Toronto, works obsessively. Like a detective bent on tracking down every last bit of evidence, he sifted through 40 or 50 collections of private papers and read thousands of previously classified cabinet documents. He also travelled as far as India to learn more about Churchill’s 1930s campaign against the British government’s decision to grant that country dominion status.

His work consumes 12 hours a day and most weekends, but he says that he cannot imagine writing a biography any other way. “It’s disgraceful that such a high percentage of historical writing is done so sloppily,” he said, adding: “My job is surely to present Churchill’s opinions in such a way that the reader can agree or disagree. The worst thing you can do is to suppress evidence simply because it doesn’t accord with your own interpretation.”

Even after devoting years to Churchill’s life, Gilbert claims that he still takes a detached view of his subject. In part, that is because a fair proportion of Gilbert’s time has been spent on other projects, including Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time, a biography released just before the Kremlin allowed the Soviet activist to emigrate to Israel last February, and an 828-page history of the Holocaust. In all, he has written or edited 39 books since 1963. He also maintains a vast private correspondence with other Soviet refuseniks still trapped inside the Soviet Union.

Most of Gilbert’s writings have their origins in the Churchill work. “For example,” he said, “Churchill once issued an instruction to Anthony Eden to bomb the concentration camps. In fact, Auschwitz wasn’t bombed. Eventually it grew into a 368-page book, but it derived entirely from one paragraph on Churchill’s instruction.”

Now that the mammoth biography is almost behind him, Gilbert says that he wants to distill the Churchill series into a single volume, with more personal interpretation. “Eight volumes is an awful lot of reading,” said Gilbert. “Most people would have to wait until they retired before they sat down at page one and went right the way through.”

— ROSS LAVER in London