The wartime years of Winston S. Churchill

Winston S. Churchill, by Martin Gilbert. Vol. VII. ``Road to Victory, 1941-1945.'' Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1,417 pp. Illustrated. $40. Although it deals with only a brief period in the life of the great man, this is above all a big book.

Heavy with scholarship, filled with judicious interpretation, laden with facts, crammed with details of everything from military strategy to politics, encrusted with Churchillian anecdotes and keen insights (of Churchill's and into Churchill), this huge volume is, by some peculiar alchemy, lightened by all that is contained within it.

Oxford historian Martin Gilbert, who has now completed five volumes of the official biography of Winston S. Churchill (the first two were done by Randolph S. Churchill before his death in 1968), builds an impressive foundation for his massive enterprise. Quite simply, he says, he establishes a chronology of where Churchill was and what he did on every single day. Yet, even with someone as chronicled and observed as a wartime prime minister, this must indeed be a Herculean labor for the biographer - and all of it to be done before the actual feat of winnowing, shaping, and writing!

But the completed edifice of Professor Gilbert's biography is rendered immeasurably more textured as well as more splendidly solid by the painstaking methodology he has employed.

Needless to say, Gilbert has done a great deal of primary scholarship in the more than two decades since he began working on this project as an assistant to Randolph Churchill. He has interviewed and corresponded personally with many people who were key figures in the events covered by this volume. Some of the most fascinating material has its provenance in Gilbert's primary researches, and it is fortunate that he did not wait until the time of writing this volume to do all the research for it, since many of the principals he interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s are no longer around to be interviewed or corresponded with!

As befits a biographer blessed and burdened with ``official'' status, he also makes excellent and comprehensive use of published sources. Two recently published works, John Colville's diaries (``The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955,'' Norton, 1986) and ``Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence'' (3 vols., ed. Warren F. Kimball, Princeton 1985), are mined to great effect: The best and brightest of their revelations find their way into the text of this volume, where they are seen in the wider context provided by the truly comprehensive biographer.

Particularly striking is the use Gilbert makes of the recollections - both published and unpublished - of the secretaries and stenographers who were in attendance on Churchill. Close to him as they were, night and day, always on call and frequently called, these observers are able to provide a uniquely intimate portrait of the great man when he was not on the stage where he orated and strutted so magnificently.

This volume covers a little less than three and a half of Churchill's 90 years - a period starting with the entry of the United States into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and ending with the Allied victory over Germany in May 1945.

For Churchill, these years were not as unremittingly difficult as the previous years of the war, when Britain's prospects seemed so bleak: After the US had committed itself to the Allied cause, Churchill had no doubt about ultimate victory.

Yet there were periods of intense crisis, such as the surrender of Singapore in February 1942, and the fall of Tobruk in June of the same year, to say nothing of political crises of confidence at home and such thorny problems abroad as attempting - without success - to establish a free Poland in postwar Europe.

In these years, Churchill had very little private life. All his energies were concentrated in his being a supreme war leader. And it must be said that this is not the kind of biography that attempts to get under its subject's skin. A classic historian of the school that chooses not to engage in historiographical debates with other scholars, Gilbert has no interest in such endeavors as psycho-biography.

Nor does he attempt to speculate or theorize about the political or sociological implications of the Churchill phenomenon as a force in the affairs of his own country and of the world.

Gilbert is content, rather, to show us that phenomenon as he appeared to those around him and to millions all over the globe. He has succeeded in doing so with clarity, grace, and precision, and this is in itself an enormous achievement.

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