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Book review: The Gathering _Storm [Book II]. by Winston S. Churchill

Note: This is the first volume of Churchill's six-volume memoir of the Second World War. It is in two parts. Book I describes events in the years preceding the outbreak of war, and Book II deals with the start of the war. This review is of Book II; a review of Book I is also available.

Book II begins with Churchill's appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty (the post he had held previously during the first world war) and ends with his becoming Prime Minister in 1940. He refers to the early months of the war as the twilight war, usually known today as the phoney war (which Churchill describes as an Americanism). At this time life in Britain went on much as usual, which was fortunate because it gave Britain the chance to start to catch up with the military preparations that had been neglected in the interwar years. As well as his naval responsibilities, which included taking measures to counteract German mines and submarines, as a member of the War Cabinet Churchill was closely involved in the government's planning of the war as a whole.

Although the war was making little difference to life in Britain at this stage, things were very different in eastern Europe, where Hitler was carrying out his plan to attack Poland. This resulted in huge suffering and destruction and ended in the partition of the country between Germany and Russia. There was nothing Britain or France could do about this, but Churchill and Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, made a number of visits to France to coordinate plans for the expected attack from Germany. These didn't go well; the French refused to agree to Churchill's plan for mining the Rhine, fearing German reprisals.

This idea of not irritating the enemy did no commend itself to me.…Good, decent, civilised people, it appeared, must never themselves strike till after they have been struck dead.

In late 1939 occurred the famous naval engagement with the pocket battleship Graf Spee at the River Plate off Montevideo. This British victory lifted spirits at home and reduced the threat to British shipping in the Atlantic from German surface warships. But soon afterwards matters took a different turn when the Germans invaded Norway and Britain attempted to recapture two strategic Norwegian ports, an enterprise that ultimately failed. The description of this episode makes up a major part of Book II. Troops were landed in two locations but were unable to establish their positions. Churchill was assured that in the prevailing conditions the Germans would be unable to counter-attack, but this proved wrong. "In this Norwegian encounter some of our finest troops, the Scots and Irish Guards, were baffled by the vigour, enterprise and training of Hitler's young men."

Eventually the British forces had to be withdrawn; fortunately the evacuation was carried out without major losses, but Churchill thinks he was lucky to survive politically after this failure.

The Government received a lot of criticism at home in the aftermath of the Norwegian campaign. And matters became much worse on 10 May 1940, when the Germans launched their long-anticipated attack on Holland and Belgium. After a tense debate in Parliament Chamberlain decided he must resign as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by Churchill as head of a Government of National character, which the Labour Opposition agreed to join.

I acquired the chief power in the State, which I held for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.

Churchill says that during this momentous time his pulse had not quickened at any moment and he slept well.

The impressive readability that characterised Book I is maintained or even increased in Book II. Appendix M provides an interesting account of the techniques that were used to counteract the dangers from magnetic and acoustic mines.


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