The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940–1965
by William Manchester and Paul Reid.
Little Brown and Company, 2012.
Hardcover, 1182 pages, $40.

At the end of The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill memorably reflected on the moment he assumed office as British Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. “I felt,” he wrote, “as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” With Britain’s only belligerent ally, France, under attack by the Nazi war machine, and Germany in control of much of Eastern Europe and allied to Soviet Russia, Churchill “slept soundly” because, remarkably, he was sure he would not fail.

Most British political observers and most of the world, however, were not so sure. Churchill’s political career up to that moment had been one of great promise marred by failure. The British Conservative establishment distrusted him for switching political parties early in his career. After a good start as First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, Churchill was forced to resign after the Dardanelles expedition that he championed ended in failure. In the 1920s he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but between 1929 and 1939 he languished in the political wilderness despite his prescient warnings of the dangers posed by Hitler’s Germany. Many in Britain considered him a warmonger, too dangerous and unreliable to be entrusted with ultimate power.

As William Manchester and Paul Reid note at the beginning of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940–1965, King George VI only reluctantly accepted the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and appointed Churchill to head an all-party government. There was no other plausible choice. Churchill had been right too often for too long to be denied the opportunity and power to wage war effectively against Britain’s enemies. “Defending Britain and her Empire” would be Churchill’s responsibility for the next five years, and it is this story that takes up the bulk of this lengthy book.

Manchester’s first volume of The Last Lion appeared in 1983 and vividly depicted Churchill’s life from his birth in 1874 through his school years at Harrow and Sandhurst, his exciting time as a war correspondent and soldier in India and Africa, his early political life, his political and military service during the First World War, his rise to a leadership position in the Conservative Party, to the midst of his wilderness years in 1932. Manchester ended that volume with Lady Astor remarking to Soviet leader Josef Stalin that Churchill’s political life was finished.

The second volume appeared in 1988. Subtitled “Alone,” it brilliantly portrayed Churchill’s political and personal life from 1932 to 1940, when he repeatedly and courageously warned the British people and the world about the growing menace of Hitler and urged Britain to abandon the failed policy of appeasement. After Germany invaded Poland, the appeasers had no choice but to bring Churchill into the government in his old post at the Admiralty. Winston was back, but not yet in a position to exercise mastery over events.

Manchester then set to work on the third volume. He completed his research and started to write, but his health declined. By 1998, according to his subsequent co-author Paul Reid, a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, Manchester had suffered two strokes that rendered him unable to write. Five years later, Manchester agreed to collaborate with Reid. Less than a year later, Manchester died, leaving Reid to finish Defender of the Realm. Facts and events, though important, are not the essence of good biographies. The very best biographers are great storytellers. Manchester was a great storyteller, and Reid does a commendable job completing his work.

Churchill, even at age 65, was “a human dynamo” who approached his work with “astonishing, unflagging energy.” He drank a lot, never exercised, worked outrageous hours, and was often self-centered and inconsiderate to others. He believed in God, but otherwise was not very religious. He loved tradition, ceremony, and pageantry; in many ways, he was a nineteenth-century man.

Churchill, the authors point out, cared little for political or social theories. He believed in Great Britain, her empire, and his ability to lead that empire in a great struggle. He loved and wrote prolifically about history—and the roles great men played in history. He believed in heroes and men of destiny: Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington, Pitt, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury. When the Second World War began, he was in the process of writing a four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which glorified the accomplishments of great statesmen. He firmly believed that he, too, was a “Great Man” and a man of destiny.

The authors make clear that for Churchill the war was the “supreme chapter in his life.” He did not glory in warfare like Theodore Roosevelt, but war, despite its horrors and tragedy, did energize him. “Danger, the evocation of battle,” said one old friend, “invariably acted as a tonic and stimulant to Winston Churchill.” The people around him, even those who had been his political opponents, recognized that Churchill was Britain’s indispensable war leader. They commented on his “ceaseless industry” and “indomitable spirit.” A naval commander wrote of the war and Churchill: “The hour has struck and the man has appeared.” One longtime opponent in Parliament wrote that Churchill was “the only man for this hour.” Charles de Gaulle, who often clashed with Churchill, nevertheless called him “the man of destiny.”

Throughout the early days of his premiership, especially after the fall of France, Churchill had to battle with many inside the British government, including the Foreign Secretary, who sought a negotiated peace with Hitler. The appeasers were not all gone. It was during these dark days, as John Lukacs has repeatedly pointed out, that Winston Churchill saved Western civilization.

Churchill set the tone for his approach to the war early on in a series of magnificent speeches to Parliament, the British people, and the world. He told the House of Commons on his third day in office that his goal was simple: “[V]ictory, 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.” Six days later,he spoke to the British people about the need to “rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.” A “long night of barbarism will descend,” he warned, “unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.” And later, after the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk, Churchill pledged that:

[W]e shall not flag or fail . . . We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender.

Unwilling to delegate military authority to others, Churchill served as his own Minister of Defense and dealt directly with the Imperial General Staff. The authors detail Churchill’s combative relationships with the chiefs, especially General Alan Brooke, his top military adviser. They quote extensively from Brooke’s wartime diary in which he revealed both his admiration for, and frustration with, the Prime Minister.

From June 1940 to June 1941, Britain fought on alone, battling the U-boat threat in the Atlantic, waging war against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain and the English Channel, planning for the expected German invasion of the British Isles, and suffering bombardment in the Blitz. Through it all, the authors note, Churchill was confidant that England could “take it.” To the British people and the world, Churchill defiantly exclaimed: “Hitler knows that he must break us in this island or lose the war.” His hope and belief was that Britain and the empire could hold on long enough until, in his words, “the New World, with all its power and might, steps forward to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Thus began his courtship of Franklin Roosevelt. Throughout the rest of 1940 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Churchill pleaded with, implored, and begged Roosevelt to help Britain’s war effort. FDR, however, was unwilling to get too far ahead of American public opinion, which initially wanted nothing to do with another European war. Churchill persevered. Roosevelt cautiously moved the United States toward belligerent status, especially at sea, sometimes by extra-constitutional measures.

Britain, alone, held on long enough for Hitler to commit two strategic blunders that ultimately doomed the Third Reich: the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the declaration of war against the United States shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill, who had sought to destroy the new Bolshevik regime when it seized power in Russia in the fall of 1917, now pledged to help Stalin’s Soviet Union in their common struggle against Nazi Germany because, as he said, “The Russian danger is . . . our danger.” In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

After Pearl Harbor, Churchill journeyed to the United States to plot war strategy with his new ally. He had two main goals: to defeat Germany and preserve the British Empire. Roosevelt shared the goal of defeating Hitler, but he was not waging war to extend a lifeline to British imperialism. These divergent strategic views, the authors point out, affected how and where the war in the West was fought, with consequences for the post-war world.

Churchill’s strategic views guided Anglo-American war strategy as long as Britain and her empire’s military contribution exceeded or equaled America’s. “The Mediterranean,” the authors note, “lay at the center of Churchill’s strategic vision.” That was not true of the Americans. While Churchill looked to Malta, Sicily, Italy, Greece, Crete, the Balkans, Egypt, Suez, all of North Africa, India, Burma, and Singapore to wage war and promote British interests, American leaders from the outset looked across the English Channel to northwest Europe and across the central Pacific toward mainland Japan as the most direct route to victory.

The authors detail the often tense and testy relationships among the British and American military chiefs that lasted right up to the end of the war. The British viewed most American military leaders as amateurs at strategy and most American soldiers as untested in battle. Churchill, for his part, focused on developing good relationships with U.S. political leaders such as FDR, Averell Harriman, and Harry Hopkins, but he did not neglect such high-level U.S. soldiers as Marshall and Eisenhower. Gradually, as America’s contribution to the war effort outpaced Britain’s, Anglo-American strategy, despite Churchill’s best efforts, shifted toward U.S. preferences. By the end of the war, write the authors, “[n]ot only was the slow but relentless transfer from Britain to America of command of the war nearly complete, so, too, was the transfer of global supremacy from London to Washington.”

Equally disconcerting for Churchill was FDR’s decision toward the end of the war to refuse to develop an Anglo-American strategy for shaping the post-war world with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. While Roosevelt placed his post-war hopes in an international organization to be run by the great powers, Churchill understood that the balance of power in post-war Europe would be determined by where on the continent the Anglo-American armies met up with Soviet troops. The authors note that as early as September 1943, Churchill remarked to South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts that “‘Russia will be the greatest land power in the world after this war’ and that a continuation of the Anglo-American alliance and its overwhelming air power would supply the necessary ‘balance with Russia . . .’” Much to Churchill’s chagrin, the war was producing two superpowers and Britain was not one of them.

By war’s end, Britain was victorious but financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted. The British public, after years of sacrifice and hardship, turned inward and voted the great war leader out of office in the midst of the Potsdam Conference. Churchill became leader of the opposition, “in which role,” the authors write, “he enthusiastically took his seat in the front row of the opposition bench in the commons and proceeded to oppose.” Churchill also traveled, made important speeches, and embarked on writing a six-volume history of the Second World War. He spoke out about the dangers of socialism at home and the threat posed by communism abroad. In the 1951 elections, the Conservatives gained a narrow majority in the Commons and Churchill once again became Prime Minister. He was now in his early 70s and, as Dean Acheson remarked, “the old lion seemed to be weakening.” His health began to fail, but he clung to power, remaining Prime Minister for four years.

The Last Lion devotes only one hundred pages to Churchill’s post-war life. This is the greatest flaw in an otherwise excellent biography. By contrast, Martin Gilbert’s authorized biography covers the same period of Churchill’s life in more than 1360 pages. Perhaps Reid and the publishers should have stopped volume three at the war’s end and dealt fully with Churchill’s last twenty years in a fourth volume.

Churchill died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90. He had a state funeral and was buried in a small churchyard in Bladon, a short distance from Blenheim Palace where he was born. He led a remarkably eventful life as a brave soldier, prolific writer, great statesman, and defender of Western Civilization. Those of us who still benefit by the survival of that civilization should, like Alan Brooke, “thank God . . . that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.”  

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.