A storm gathers

In recent months, I’ve been re-reading Sir Winston Churchill’s monumental, six-volume history, The Second World War.

At present, I’ve just passed the halfway mark in Volume V, Closing the Ring, which is – like the penultimate volumes of many works – a bit of a slog.  It’s late 1943, and here’s the situation:

On the Eastern Front, the Soviet Army – which has, for two-and-a-half years, been absorbing most of the energies and manpower of Hitler’s Wehrmacht – has turned the tide and is slowly rolling westward.  Soviet premier Josef Stalin – pointing to the extraordinary burden being borne by his country’s army and people – ceaselessly demands a “Second Front Now” in western Europe.

In the Pacific, American and Allied navies have gained the upper hand over Japan’s Imperial Fleet, but – as the Allies have declared Europe’s priority – the process of recapturing the islands and Asian territories conquered by Japan has just begun.

In Southeast Asia, Britain and the U.S. are scraping together troops and landing craft for a campaign to liberate Burma and restore supply lines to Chinese troops under Chiang Kai-shek.

In Italy, British and American armies have bogged down south of Rome, unable to press forward as elite units and landing craft are withdrawn in preparation for Operation Overlord – the D-Day invasion of France.

Finally, U.S., British, Canadian, French and Allied armies are gathering in England for D-Day – the massive, high-stakes invasion across the Channel to open the “second front” Stalin has been urging.  The assault is scheduled for May.  It will ultimately begin on June 6.

All this preparation will lead to stirring events – and hundreds of war movies in many languages.

Not that many movies have been made about the stuff in Volume V.  This is a story of long months of careful planning; painful debates about priorities; and the portentous gathering of the Big Three – Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt – in Tehran, to plan the final campaigns of the European war and begin negotiating the shape of the post-War world.

For history lovers, Churchill’s The Second World War remains a touchstone.  Historians have uncovered much new information in the seven decades since Hitler’s downfall.  In some particulars, Churchill’s version has been challenged.

But, as the man at the heart of these huge events, Churchill writes authoritatively – and largely in the first person.  This is more than great historiography.  It’s a chance to be present at the summit when decisions are taken which will save the world from the most malevolent tyranny ever faced.  

Churchill is a master of English prose.  Of the historians whose work I’ve read – and their names are legion – only Gibbon ranks with Sir Winston.  And not that many people will tackle Gibbon’s eight-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Besides, where Gibbon’s wit is incredibly dry, Churchill can be downright funny.

For those who find the prospect of a six-volume history daunting, I offer this indulgence:  Only a true history geek would plow through the whole thing.

But everyone over the age of eighteen should read The Gathering Storm.

In it, they will follow Churchill – one of the few major statesmen to understand the true dangers inherent in Hitler’s rise to power – as he vainly attempts to persuade Britain, France and the United States to take action to prevent a second world war.

Churchill’s first volume is still the best thing in print about the risks run when free peoples choose to ignore – or encourage their leaders to ignore – dire threats that simply will not go away.

The Gathering Storm is a warning to every generation – and particularly to the citizens of democracies.  Throughout history, self-governing nations have a terrible track record when it comes to seeing peril on the horizon – or even much closer.

Churchill’s first volume is also a study of the difficulties faced by any politician who seeks to warn a public which is unprepared to face bad news or to pay the price of dealing with it sooner – rather than later.

Finally, it is a wonderful guidebook for leaders and ordinary citizens who decide to prepare for the worst – even as their colleagues and fellow citizens continue to deceive themselves.

From my perspective, in today’s world, The Gathering Storm has its greatest application in the field of climate change – or, to be more accurate, anthropomorphic global warming (AGW).  AGW is, I feel certain, the single greatest danger facing our own society and human civilization in general.

But that’s a topic for another time.  

Churchill’s lessons are, first and foremost, a guide to dealing with military aggression by autocratic states.

At this moment – when Vladimir Putin’s Russia has boldly invaded the Crimea, the lovely Black Sea peninsula which is the sovereign territory of Ukraine – we face a situation familiar to anyone who has read The Gathering Storm.

More on that next week.


There is no connection

There is no connection between Hitler and Putin. Until recently Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Russia has vital defense interests in Ukraine, especially around Yalta.

The U. S. should say nothing. It is not our business.

If you might be interested in seeing a recently discovered daguerreotype of Winston Churchill, let me know.

WW2 diary

It was fascinating to hear these comments about Churchill. It has inspired me to make the effort to start reading some of the large number of Churchill books in my late Dad's collection.
My Dad, Bill Cheall, was a batman, despatch rider, No 1 on Bren and mortar at various times and fought in bloody episodes at Dunkirk, North Africa (Wadi Akarit), Sicily and was in the first wave landing on Gold Beach on D-Day, ending his war in devastated Hamburg in the regimental police. Anyone interested in D-Day might like to read an extract from my Dad’s first hand account below.

“It seemed to be a hell of a long way to the beach, then I saw a landing craft next to ours slow down. A bullet must have hit the helmsman. Swiftly, somebody took over control but the boat was now a little out of line with the other assault craft and in the blinking of an eye, the front of the boat had been hit by a shell or a mortar, or probably a mine. The explosion lifted bodies and parts of bodies into the air and the stern of the craft just ploughed into the sea. All those boys, laden with kit as they were, didn’t stand a chance of survival.
There was so much happening now and so swiftly. Every second was vital; let’s get out of this coffin! We were getting so near now and felt so helpless, just waiting for our fate one way or another and at that time we were keeping our heads down. Enemy shells were now landing on the shoreline and machine gun bullets were raking the sand. Then, at the top of his voice, the helmsman shouted: ‘Hundred to go, seventy-five to go, all ready, fifty to go!’ He was now fighting hard to control the craft, avoiding mined obstacles showing above the water, as well as the ones just beneath the surface. One boat had already met disaster on the approach. ‘Twenty five yards’, and suddenly, ‘Ramp going down – now!’ And the craft stopped almost dead in three feet of water and our own platoon commander shouted, ‘Come on, lads,’ and we got cracking. That was no place to be messing about. Get the hell out of it. Jumping off the ramp we went into waist-deep water, struggling to keep our feet. We waded through the water looking for mined obstacles, holding rifles above our heads. I was trying to keep a very cumbersome two-inch mortar and bombs dry as well as making certain I didn’t drop it.
Some of the lads were shot as they jumped. Two of them were a bit unfortunate because as they jumped into the boiling water the craft surged forward on a wave and they fell into the sea. I dare say they would fight like hell and recover but we were not hanging about, that had been our instructions from the start; we must not linger.”
Anyone interested to read more might like to read my Dad’s memoir at the link below. It starts with Dad meeting American troops for the first time.

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