Friday 3 February 2012

Churchill's War Lab

Before Christmas I revealed that one of the Dagenham Delvers, and fellow Blogger, Derek bought me a couple of books. I've just finished one of these and it was a darn good read. Churchill's War Lab by Taylor Downing looks at the circle of experts and scientists that Churchill brought into the inner circles of government during the war.

The book starts as most of these do with a broad biography of Churchill's early years and those formative events that would shape the war leader of the future. Most of this is standard stuff but it is written in a fast and energetic way that I think will appeal to even the well read Churchill fan. Most importantly it sets the scene for this most unlikely of leaders whose career went through many ups and downs before he claimed the Premiership.

Downing then goes on to looks at the various groups of adviser's that Churchill gathered together and relied upon during the six long years of WWII. These included - unusually for the time - key scientists and engineers who found in the Prime minister and willing and eager audience for their ideas. Churchill is portrayed very much as someone for whom new technology and new discoveries were endlessly fascinating.

Two facts in particular caught my attention. The first was the fact that the younger Churchill was bad at maths. He struggled with this discipline and indeed all academic subjects other than History and the Classics which means that he was far from being a scientific person himself. However he was able to see the application and value of scientific discoveries that some of his contemporaries were not able to do. The second interesting fact that leaped off the page to me was that Churchill liked to get his hands on new weapons (hence the cover picture shown above) and was almost childlike in his enjoyment of new technology. Having said that the author doesn't gloss over Winston's very conservative (with a small 'c') attitudes to Britain's place in the world.

This section of the book, looking at the power-play that developed between Britain and America as the war progressed was for me the most interesting. Churchill and Roosevelt appear to have developed a genuinely close friendship in which the British Prime Minister initially had the most influence. But as America joined the war and its commitment to defeating Hitler increased, so England's negotiating advantage as the brave-underdog was slowly and irrevocably eroded.

Its now a generally agreed fact that it was largely America that benefited from the fruits of British scientific and engineering developments in that period - development's so carefully fostered during Churchill's premiership. The Jet Engine and early work on splitting the atom are the most notable examples but there are many more. Similarly control of many colonial investments passed to the US in one form or another by the end of the war. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy and it was only through deals like the Lend Lease programme that Britain was able to continue in the fight to the very end.

Reading this book it is clear that although Churchill tried to mitigate the decline of the British Empire he also understood that if this was the price that had to be paid for victory, then it was a price he was willing to pay. When he first became Prime Minister has was asked in the house of Commons what his policy towards Germany would be. His answer not only roused the fighting spirit of a nation but it also foreshadowed the sacrifices to come.
"You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival." (Winston Churchill -13 May 1940)
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it wasn't quite the book I thought it would be when I started reading it. It looks in great detail at all the great and influential people that Churchill surrounded himself with - Scientists, Mathematicians, Engineers and Military men. He pushed them all hard, sometimes too hard, but he also relied upon their advice and ideas probably more than any Prime Minister before him. Above all this book is about Leadership and the ability of one man to galvanise a whole nation to extraordinary effort.


  1. Definately one to add to the ever growing tower of 'to read' books. Great review, many thanks.

  2. Having read a lot about the birth of the tank corps in WWI and the key role of Churchill in the development of the "landships" idea (originally from HG Wells) I'm not surprised at all of what this book describes. Thanks for the review Lee, excellent as always... another one for the "wish list" at Amazon's (hopefully it's also published for Kindle)

  3. It sounds interesting, we all know a little through documentaries but this obviously goes a lot further, see you tomorrow.....

  4. He was a warmongering old git, but he was EXACTLY the leader we needed at the time... endlessly fascinating life... it was almost like his whole life was a preparation for that one perfect role... and how lucky we were to have him..


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