How Churchill Waged War: Unpicking the mythical status

Book review: Allen Packwood’s intimate, sometimes critical portrait examines the decision-making process of one of the most important figures of the 20th century

 Churchill’s decision to become minister of defence as well as prime minister carried great political risks. Photograph: Getty Images

Churchill’s decision to become minister of defence as well as prime minister carried great political risks. Photograph: Getty Images

On June 18th, 1940, the day that a stunned world learned that the French government had decided to lay down its arms and seek surrender terms from Nazi Germany, British prime minister Winston Churchill went before the House of Commons to warn the British people that what had been termed “the Battle of France” was over, and that “the Battle of Britain” was about to begin. “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian Civilization,” he famously continued, for “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war”. He then urged his fellow countrymen to gird themselves for the coming struggle, confident that “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour’.”

The six weeks that encompass both the fall of France and the beginning of Churchill’s tenure as prime minister in the spring of 1940 remain one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the 20th century. Much of Churchill’s reputation as a war leader is built upon this period, when, in the face of the seemingly overwhelming superiority of German arms, he insisted that Great Britain would “never surrender”. In light of what was at stake, it is not surprising that the striking power of Churchill’s rhetoric – best captured in the three major speeches he delivered during these dark days – has earned him an almost mythical status; a leader among leaders with the power to inspire an entire generation to stand up to what he rightly called a “monstrous tyranny”.

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