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Winston Churchill Goes to War

Contemporary reports by the British leader and those who knew him

MARTIN GILBERT, Winston Churchill's official biographer, has achieved an unusual and marvelously effective framework for the story of Churchill and World War II by telling it exclusively through the comments of the time.

"The Churchill War Papers, Vol. I: At the Admiralty, September 1939-May 1940" is not a historian telling his version of a great man and his times. It is the Churchill war story as it emerges from the things Churchill wrote and said, interspersed with what others wrote or said to him or about him at the time.

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The effect is to make the reader an unseen presence at Churchill's side as he leads and manages his country into the war from an almost helpless beginning toward ultimate triumph.

The narrative starts on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain's ultimatum to Hitler to cease his invasion of Poland expired. The first entry is an account by Churchill's police bodyguard, detective constable W. H. Thompson.

"Within a few minutes of Chamberlain's broadcast telling the nation that we were at war with Germany, the air raid sirens sounded over London.

"Churchill went outside and started staring at the sky. What thoughts must have been crowding into his mind at that moment! It was with difficulty that we prevailed upon him to enter an air-raid shelter. He only agreed to go when it was pointed out that it was up to him to set an example."

During the rest of that first day of the war, Churchill went to the House of Commons; made the best speech of the day, which inspired both the House and later, the nation; was summoned to the prime minister's office; was invited to join the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty (his old job from World War I); attended the first War Cabinet meeting at which his support decided the appointment of General Ironside as chief of the imperial general staff ("and that settled it"); had the staff find his fa vorite octagonal work table and box of charts from 1915; and ordered up in succession a report on all German U-boats, a report on the number of rifles in the possession of the Navy "both afloat and ashore," and a list of the escorts for "the big convoy to the Mediterranean."

In between, he presided over a meeting of the Board of Admiralty and received numerous letters, one of which predicted that his speech that day would inevitably make him prime minister.

On that first day, his thoughts were focused on the Navy and the problem of keeping Britain supplied through the encircling fleet of German U-boats. But his attention was almost at once reaching outside his responsibilities at the Admiralty.

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He began writing to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain not only about grand strategy but also about such marginal war problems as blackout rules. He thought they should be eased up.

Then, on Oct. 5, just over a month into the war, he mentioned at a Cabinet meeting that "he had received a personal message of a very friendly character from President Roosevelt." That first letter from Roosevelt had been dated Sept. 11. Why Churchill waited until Oct. 5 to tell his colleagues makes for interesting speculation. He did wait. But by Oct. 5, he was sending two messages to Roosevelt in a single day and had a telephone call back from Roosevelt that night.

That was too much, by far, for the Foreign Office. Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, complained about Churchill invading Foreign Office territory. So did Prime Minister Chamberlain. One of the Admiralty private secretaries, John Higham, recalled that:

"Certainly everyone was very conscious that he [Churchill] was regarded by his colleagues as trying to take the war over. They were pretty sensitive about that. There was a feeling that the war was being run from the Admiralty War Room."

The suspicion was justified. Churchill was scolded but unreformed. He was in fact the war leader from the day he entered the Cabinet, not by the preference of the Chamberlain Cabinet, but by popular demand.

From these documents, it is abundantly clear that sooner or later he would be running the war - because he believed in it, because he could articulate the reasons for the war, and because he could make others believe with him that it could be won. He was the only man in that Cabinet who could do that.

This book covers only the first eight months of the war - from its beginning to the day when the defeat of France brought German armies to the far side of the English Channel and forced the resignation of Chamberlain from the prime ministry. Not even the publisher yet knows how may more volumes it will take to finish the war.

But this first volume is in one sense the most important of all, because it covers the period when Churchill, by sheer weight of his own talent, forced himself into the leadership against a most reluctant establishment. The principal leaders of the dominant Conservative Party - Chamberlain, Halifax, and Sir John Simon, - were appeasers. They would have avoided the war had it been possible.

The story comes through marvelously in this comprehensive collection of the documents of the time. The facts are all there. Gilbert correctly calls himself an editor, not an author. His contribution is the collection and arrangement of the documents, plus generous footnotes that identify the actual authors and, where necessary, explain references in the text.

Other than the footnotes, this is history told by those who were there in the words they spoke or wrote at the time. This book is a must for all who care about how Winston Churchill led Britain into World War II and kept it there.

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