Among the many excellent books released to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War – Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War, Richard Overy’s 1939, Carlo D’Este’s Warlord – the one I have enjoyed most is Max Hastings’ Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 (Harper Press). Highly critical but ultimately admiring of the great man, it is like all Hastings’ books extremely well written. It’s full of little insights into the character of the man.
Churchill’s prodigious memory has been noted before, but it’s what he remembered, passages of poetry and prose, that take us deeper into his character. Always aware of destiny unfolding and of the judgement of history, Churchill would repeat Marvell’s lines on the conduct of Charles I as he faced execution: ‘He nothing common did or mean upon that memorable scene’. Having heard the brilliant 28-year-old scientific intelligence officer R.V. Jones tell him all he knew about the technology that allowed the RAF to block the Luftwaffe’s electronic guidance systems, a hugely encouraged Churchill instantly recalled a line from the 19th-century folklore collection, The Ingolds by Legends: ‘But now one Mr Jones/ Comes forth and depones/ That 15 years since, he had heard certain groans’. It was the kind of wit that softened the hearts of the many close to Churchill who had to endure his punishing demands, his irascibility and, not infrequently, the outpourings of depression. As the war dragged on, Churchill, always sentimental, became increasingly tearful. Even during the early days of the war, Hastings recounts that Churchill, being driven past a queue of civilians, asked what they were queuing for. ‘Birdseed,’ came the reply, at which point Churchill wept. For all Churchill’s faults, Hastings portrays him as a leader of immense humanity enhanced by his failings.