The Second World War

by Winston Churchill
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Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Churchill's monumental book on World War II is, in short, a straightforward and detailed account of the events, both military and political, of the largest and deadliest conflict in history. Yet the story of war is amplified by Churchill's own personal viewpoint and direct involvement in these events. The manner in which he accomplishes this union of the external and internal provides the book with his individualistic stamp.

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The completeness of his coverage of the war is astonishing. In an almost conversational tone, Churchill makes all of this material accessible to the non-specialist. His own role in events threads through the book and holds together what might otherwise become diffuse and unfocused. Of special importance is his account of the factors that led to war. Much of the public consciousness today about World War II is probably due at least in part to Churchill's having articulated these causative factors as completely and clearly as he did.

The repeated failures of Britain and France to stand up to Hitler through the 1930s understandably form the bulk of the earlier portion of the book. Yet Churchill does not write in an accusatory manner. From the point in the narrative at which he becomes prime minister, in 1940, his emphasis is on the unity of Britain and the defiant, unyielding spirit of its people. Churchill is an unabashed flag-waver. His implicit theme is his belief in a kind of uniqueness of the English-speaking peoples as a whole, and this is one reason he emphasizes his admiration for, and friendship with, President Roosevelt. The entry of the US into the war is seen by Churchill as the decisive turning point that makes victory for the Allies over the Axis a near certainty.

Apart from coverage of every important battle and military action in both European and Asian theaters, beginning with the German invasion of Poland and concluding with the final defeat of Germany and Japan, Churchill examines what would seem secondary topics were it not for the bearing they had on the war's outcome. These include the "hidden war" of scientific research that led not only to the development of the atomic bomb but also to seemingly smaller technological factors involving radar and the success the British had in disrupting the guidance systems of German aircraft. Diplomatic events, too—including the wartime conferences involving FDR, Stalin, and of course Churchill himself—are dealt with extensively.

Churchill's book is written with such lucidity that the most complex and outwardly inexplicable events become instantly understandable to the reader. If there is a fault in the man that affects his writing, it is perhaps a paradoxical mirror—a negative one—of the very qualities that made Churchill a larger-than-life wartime leader. In 1945, with victory secured, Churchill was voted out of office and a Labour government took over. This fact is relevant because Churchill himself was not the kind of man to change with the times. For example, his ethnocentric mindset, in evidence throughout The Second World War, was becoming obsolete. But on balance, the positive qualities in both the man and his writings outweigh the negative.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323

Contemporary accounts by actual participants in great, climactic, or catastrophic events in world history often achieve tremendous popularity for a brief period. They are widely discussed in the light of other circumstances, but are then permitted to fall into the anomalous category of “source books” for infrequent reference on obscure detail. Because of the circumstances of authorship, the insights given, and the dramatic drive of the narrative itself, it is safe to say, however, that Sir Winston Churchill’s history of World War II will not soon fall into the category of forgotten books by the participant in the making of history.

Churchill brought to his monumental undertaking not only his intimate knowledge of military affairs and strategy dating back to the beginning of the present century, but also half a century of activity in parliamentary and international affairs. To these qualifications he added also the skill of a seasoned lecturer on world problems and the invaluable experience of an accomplished author of more than a dozen significant books. Moreover, as Churchill notes in the preface to the first volume, this history is intended as a continuation of the three books he wrote on World War I: The World Crisis, The Eastern Front, and The Aftermath. Together, the early three books and the six on World War II comprise an account of what might be called another Thirty Years’ War.

Within no more than six or seven years, Sir Winston Churchill produced the historical work which he calls simply THE SECOND WORLD WAR. The scope of the enterprise is suggested by the fact that it extends through a half dozen volumes averaging well over eight hundred pages each, and that it encompasses most of the significant occurrences from the close of World War I in 1919 until July 26, 1945—approximately a quarter of a century. Geographically, this history is global, since it concerns the far-reaching exploits of armed forces whenever there was conflict in both hemispheres.

Following the method employed in his history of the first world war, Churchill takes the personal-experience approach that Defoe used in his MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER. Concerning the second global war, Churchill writes with greater authority, since he was chief of His Majesty’s Government for more than five years. Despite the complexity of action and counteraction, the multitude of events and personages and decisions to be carried out, Churchill’s main purpose in his history is simply to show that the inevitability of war stemmed from the lack of a consistent and resolute policy among the democracies.

The first volume, titled THE GATHERING STORM, begins with a swift appraisal of the twenty-year period from 1919 to 1939, termed in retrospect, “From War to War.” In this account Churchill decides that the principal folly of the victors in World War I was their failure to keep Germany disarmed. The victors pursued their universal hope that peace would reign, and their designation of the first conflict as “the war to end wars” reveals their ideal. But the scheme of reparations did not work; the League of Nations was rendered impotent; and world-wide economic dislocation followed the collapse of the American stock market in 1929. Meanwhile, General von Seeckt was secretly rebuilding the armed might of Germany and almost unnoticed by war-weary European nations, Adolf Hitler was emerging with his grandiose notions of German superiority and destiny. Soon Austria was taken, the Saar united with the Fatherland; then the fateful Munich conference provided Hitler with a year of breathing space to ready his forces. Next, Churchill recounts how war was declared on September 3, 1939. Poland was taken; Norway was occupied; and Belgium and Holland were invaded. When the Chamberlain government fell, Churchill took over as Prime Minister.

In this volume, as in the five succeeding parts, Churchill deals not only with events political, strategic, diplomatic, and military; he also sketches in significant background fact, characterizes major personages in the struggles that take place, and pauses to assess the importance of civilian activities. For this is the whole story as Churchill sees it. He views it not dispassionately but with all the understanding and insight of one who was forced to weigh conditions; to bully and build and negotiate; to cope with crisis, catastrophe, and, ultimately, a bewildering array of problems of allied joint action.

Volume II, THEIR FINEST HOUR, covers the grim days from May, 1940, until early January, 1941. During those momentous months, the battle of France was joined and lost; Dunkirk was evacuated; and home defense of Britain became a shocking necessity. Next, the German air assault attempted to paralyze London and the entire island. President Roosevelt worked to provide the means of assistance through the Lend-Lease Bill, passed by Congress in March, 1941. In the meantime Hitler turned his thoughts to the subjugation of Russia. London and England were saved for the time being, but the conflict grew more and more extensive as German might exerted itself in several directions.

In the third volume, THE GRAND ALLIANCE, the horror that Churchill once decried as “the unnecessary war” became truly world-wide. The year 1941 presented shocking and tragic events which culminated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the toll of merchant shipping continued to rise in the Atlantic, war grew in intensity on land. Rommel began his counterattack in the desert. Hitler planned to bomb and starve the English and to invade Russia. Meanwhile, the Germans turned their attention to the Balkans, and Yugoslavia, Greece, and Albania fell. However, not all the news was completely disheartening: German sea power was drastically limited by the destruction of the Bismarck; Hitler’s attack on Russia brought the Soviets into the war; and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor forced American participation in the struggle.

Volume IV, THE HINGE OF FATE, covers the next year and a half, from January, 1942, to the end of May, 1943. During this period material losses continued mountainous and casualty lists were long, but the “hinge of Fate” had turned in favor of the Allies, as Churchill sees it. With the defeat of Rommel and the American landings in Morocco, threats in the Mediterranean abated. Japanese forces swept southward, but United States victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway Island foretold the turning point of war in the Pacific. Moreover, Operation Torch put the Allied forces in position to achieve the fall of Italy. As German and Japanese power was committed to a last effort, the Allied potential continued to grow.

Volumes V, CLOSING THE RING, (June, 1943-June, 1944), and VI, TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, (June, 1944-July 26, 1945), deal with the final twenty-six months of the struggle. During a single year following June, 1943, Japan was put on the defensive, the invasion of Italy moved as far as Rome, the Germans were in retreat before Russian power, and preparations for a cross-Channel landing were complete. In spite of postponement and the danger of bad weather, D-day became a reality on June 6, 1944. With relentless force, during the succeeding fourteen months, victory followed victory in France and Italy, the Pacific, Germany, and finally Japan itself.

These are the broad outlines of history’s greatest military undertaking. But Churchill concerns himself also with high-level conferences, hard-won decisions on strategy, agonizing losses, and finally the terms of surrender in Europe. He refers to this account as his “personal narrative” of the war period. So it is; but it is, in addition, a magnificent retelling of the events of consequence during eight of the most tempestuous years of modern time.

To some academic historians or partisans with a reluctance to accept Churchill’s point of view and judgments, he may appear to slight or neglect particular causes, conditions, and effects which were perhaps of considerable importance at the time. None the less, in the appropriateness of style to circumstance and subject matter, in the selection and interweaving of significant detail with major occurrence, in scope and sweep and conception, Churchill’s THE SECOND WORLD WAR is a truly memorable piece of writing.

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