The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm

Despite some noteworthy shortcomings, Paul Reid's examination of the last third of Churchill's life gives us the British statesman in all his robust complexity.

The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm By William Manchester and Paul Reid Little, Brown 1,232 pp.

Winston Churchill was one of the central statesmen of the 20th century and, almost 50 years after his death, remains a subject of enduring fascination.  Part of the current interest in this venerable figure can be attributed to two superb biographies written in the 1980s by historian William Manchester: “The Last Lion: Visions of Glory” and “The Last Lion: Alone." These two books examined the first two-thirds of Churchill's life.

Unfortunately, after completing the second volume, Manchester’s health declined and the rest of the project stalled. So great was public interest in the long-delayed final volume that it was the subject of a front page story in The New York Times. 

Eventually, in 2003, Manchester asked his friend Paul Reid to complete the trilogy. Now, nearly a decade later, Reid has published The Last Lion, the final piece of this monumental undertaking. Reid starts when Churchill was appointed prime minister in May 1940 and follows him through his death in 1965. While most of this volume is appropriately devoted to World War II, it also includes the vast expansion of the British welfare state following the war, the start of the Cold War and the enormous dangers it carried, and the loss of the British Empire.   

Reid has written a thorough and complete analysis of these years, and it is a worthy finale to the first two volumes. Exhaustively researched and carefully written, it draws on a full range of primary and secondary materials. This book will be essential reading for those who enjoyed the first two volumes and those with a deep interest in understanding this seminal figure and his place in history. 

Reid does a wonderful job of capturing Churchill in all his complexity. He gives Churchill great praise for his personal courage and inspirational leadership during the dark days when Britain stood alone, but he is equally clear about Churchill’s poor strategic judgments, such as the efforts to defend Greece and Crete, the Allied assault on Anzio, and the decision to send the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse to the South China Sea without adequate air cover (where they were promptly sunk by the Japanese). He highlights Churchill’s naiveté in dealing with Soviet Premier Stalin in the early years of the war, but praises his prescience in anticipating Stalin’s land grab in Eastern Europe at the end of the conflict. Reid also gives welcome attention to aspects of the war – such as Churchill’s fear that the United States might decide to put its primary emphasis on defeating Japan regardless of the “Germany first” understanding he shared with Roosevelt – that have received little attention in other books.   

But the book is far longer than necessary, and even readers with a deep interest in the subject may feel overwhelmed. Partly, this is the result of the enormous amount of trivia that finds its way into the text. It really does not matter that “the Parker ‘51’ pen – the latest in writing tools – sold out at Gimbels in New York” or that “'Walpurgisnacht’ is a traditional festival in Europe in which witches are said to await the arrival of spring... [and that] peasants lit bonfires intended to keep at bay demons who roamed the landscape.” Even some material that is related to the subject is extraneous. Do we really need to know that Churchill named his Breguet watch (“the timepiece of choice for ... most of Europe’s royal swells”) “the turnip”?   

The book also provides far more detail on the purely military aspects of World War II, such as the movement of individual units, than is necessary. For long stretches of text, Churchill is barely mentioned. As if to underscore the length of the book, several individual chapters are almost 200 pages long.

While Reid arguably provides far more detail about World War II than necessary, he seems to slight Churchill’s post-war career and his success in leading the Conservatives back to power. This was a dramatic and formative era, and some of Churchill’s efforts, like his desire to see (West) Germany play an important role in Europe and his plan to establish an effective European community as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, merit far more attention than they receive.  

There are a few factual errors: US Senator Russell Long was not from Alabama, the “Book of Revelations” is really the “Book of Revelation,” and Churchill was the first person, not the second, to be awarded honorary US citizenship by Congress. Moreover, there are a couple of places, such as the sinking of the Bismarck and the saturation bombing of Dresden, where Reid’s analysis would be challenged by other historians. But given the size and length of the book, these are small matters, and some of them will undoubtedly be corrected in the next edition.   

In the end, despite some noteworthy shortcomings, Reid shows us Churchill in all his robust complexity: generous, humorous, imaginative, energetic but also mercurial, impatient, insensitive, and overbearing. He praises his leadership, but does not shy away from criticizing it when appropriate. This book lacks the narrative elegance of the first two volumes, but that is not surprising because few authors can equal Manchester’s story-telling ability. Nonetheless, it stands as a valuable and much-welcome conclusion to the project that William Manchester began some three decades ago. 

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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