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The Gathering Storm

Simon Goodall

Winston S Churchill
First published by Cassell, 1948

‘The Second World War: Volume 1’ (theme of the volume: ‘How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature
allowed the wicked to rearm.’) 

This book is a comprehensive history of the inter-war period from a British perspective and includes accounts of all the major events in some detail. One episode described is the epic sea chase and battle to destroy the pocket-battleship Graf Spee, complete with diagrams and Churchill’s own instructions from the Admiralty War Room. It is with some relish that I survey the five remaining volumes, no doubt packed full of more entertaining detail and anecdotes. 

 Churchill could never have attempted an impartial account of events and makes no pretence of doing so. It is not unfair to say his style is self-congratulatory. At times it reads like a Boy’s Own yarn with Winston as the hero tirelessly campaigning against appeasement, ever present in the key dramatic moments, always one step ahead of his peers in his understanding of the diplomatic and military advances of the day, breaking only for boating and painting trips on the French Riviera or other continental sojourns. On one such adventure (this time on a research tour for his book on his ancestor the First Duke of Marlborough) he nearly met his nemesis. In 1932 Hitler heard he was in Munich and made an appointment to see him, only to blow him out at the last minute, ‘thus Hitler lost his only chance of meeting me’. 

 More than a yarn though, the volume is packed with documentary evidence of historical import, not least Churchill’s own correspondence with nearly all the key players in Britain and many in France and reams of statistical evidence on issues such the Allies’ military preparedness for war and their estimates of German rearmaments. In combination with, I believe, an honest if self-serving commentary, the book paints a fascinating picture of the perceptions of the day. Everybody’s biggest fear at the time was air attack and Churchill saved some of his most damning criticism for Stanley Baldwin when he stood up in 1936 (as Prime Minister) and admitted that not only had he failed in his promise to the nation that Germany would not achieve parity in the air, but that Germany’s air force had actually overtaken our own. 

 Letter writing seemed to be a key political tool for Churchill and he used it to great effect, rarely shrinking from offering advice on any subject to anybody. His letter of the 10th September 1939 starts in typical fashion – First Lord to Prime Minister: ‘I hope you will not mind me sending you a few points privately.’ He goes on to express his thoughts on what Chamberlain ought to do about
all the major issues of the day. 

 But then what was Winston not qualified to advise on? He had fought in the Boer War, served as First Lord of the Admiralty in the Great War and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1920s. The man even claimed to have completed bricklaying the kitchen of his cottage retreat to calm his nerves on the eve of war. That night he sat up with his pistol by his side, and an old friend similarly armed, such was his fear that the Germans might attempt a pre-emptive strike on a vital resource.

 Just one further extract from perhaps his most important correspondence, the first letter of over a thousand – President Roosevelt to Mr Churchill, 11th September 1939: ‘I am glad you did the Marlborough volumes before this thing started – and I much enjoyed reading them.’