BOOK REVIEW – Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys

Brian Lavery, Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007. 392 pp. Illustrations, photographs, notes, bibliography, index.

Review by Timothy J. Demy
U.S. Naval War College

Brian Lavery’s name and works are well known to naval and maritime enthusiasts and historians.  Lavery is the author of more than thirty books, covering marine architecture, ship construction, and naval warfare from its infancy to the present day.  He is perhaps best known as a leading expert on the career of Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy of Nelson’s era.  In the present volume he puts his pen to the travels of Winston Churchill during the Second World War and provides readers with a well-written, enjoyable and informative study of Churchill’s journeys to meet with Roosevelt, Stalin, and other wartime leaders. Churchill always preferred face-to-face meetings over telegraph, telephone, and written means of communication, and was the person who in the 1950s coined the term “summit meeting.”

Travelling by air and sea, Churchill covered thousands of nautical and air miles to and from fourteen major leadership summits.  He was by far the most-travelled of the wartime political leaders.  Always craving danger and excitement, Churchill combined his enthusiasms with advances in transport capabilities to meet face-to-face with Allied leaders. And the dangers were very real for Churchill.  In the air, there was the threat of attack from the Luftwaffe, and on the sea there was the potential for sinking by U-boats.  Yet, Churchill was undeterred, travelling thousands of miles in fourteen major trips outside Western Europe beginning in August 1941 aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales to Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, then a British colony, and ending with a flight to Potsdam in July 1945.  In January 1942, returning from Washington, D.C., via Bermuda, Churchill was the first prime minister to cross the Atlantic by air.  Lavery provides an excellent reconstruction of the reminiscences and accounts of Churchill’s Boeing 314 Clipper being lost in fog and nearing German anti-aircraft batteries at Brest, showing that the danger was not as close as Churchill and others reported.

Viewed frequently through the eyes of those who accompanied Churchill, the narrative skillfully shows the amazing amount of detail involved in the preparations for and mechanics of each trip.  The narrative of the journies gives the reader a sense not only of Churchill, but of the atmosphere surrounding him and the significance of each journey for the Allied cause.  During each trip, Chruchill continued to work sending messages, writing letters and memos, and always thirsting for more news and information. Lavery presents a well-crafted narrative in which the reader can easily sense each mission, whethere airborne, ashore, of afloat.  The feats of the air travels were remarkable for the era and Churchill embraced air travel as a means of both expediency and adventure.

Naval literary enthusiasts will appreciate knowing of Churchill’s reading of books from C. S. Forester’s series Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN during the Placentia Bay trip.  Details such as this, along with Churchill’s playing darts and backgammon are skillfully woven into the narrative of each trip presenting readers with information about Churchill and his entourages but also giving important information about the activities and accomplishments of each journey.   Lavery’s work puts a very personal face on the meetings that shaped Allied strategy for the war.

Although previous works have discussed Churchill’s wartime leadership in great detail, what has been missing is a study of his journeys during the war.  This volume admirably fills that void.  It is much more than a book of travel trivia; it is a work that shows aspects of Churchill’s leadership and wartime efforts that were previously known, but lacking in critical evaluation.  Lavery provides such evaluation very well.  His concluding pages evaluate Churchill as a trendsetter for future leaders for whom transatlantic travel would become normative.  He also provides a brief postwar account of the aircraft and ships in which Churchill traveled as well as a brief summary of members of the traveling parties.  The book fills a needed void in naval studies of the Second World War and naval historians and Churchill enthusiasts will not be disappointed.  The volume has excellent maps detailing the course of each journey and a nice selection of photographs.  It is an informative and most enjoyable read.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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