Finale of Churchill trilogy details test of a war leader

Reid’s remarkable work shows actions – and personality

CorrespondentNovember 3, 2012 

  • Nonfiction The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 William Manchester and Paul Reid Little, Brown and Company, 1,232 pages

When word came in 1998 that William Manchester had suffered two strokes that left him unable to complete his trilogy on Winston Churchill, many thought they would be deprived of the final – and most important – aspects of Churchill’s fascinating and world-significant life.

We weren’t overly encouraged in 2003 when Manchester named Paul Reid to take the mostly finished research and write the book. Few outside the circulation area of Florida’s Palm Beach, where Reid wrote feature articles, had ever heard of Reid. Skepticism grew on websites and blogs as Little Brown and Company kept pushing back the publication date.

But when Reid, who now lives in Tryon, finally delivered the finished manuscript this year, he turned in a book that is well worth the wait.

A large part of Manchester’s popularity is the accessibility of his books. Reid has preserved that and ensured that Churchill’s personality – not just his actions – come through.

This volume is more complex than the first two, in which World War I, foreign adventures and the politics of the era served more to shape Churchill than the other way around. In this volume, we see how Churchill shaped World War II, British domestic politics and, to a large extent, the United States’ movement onto the world stage.

Reid reminds us that England still had substantial resources in its colonies around the world – resources of men, materiel and gold. These resources helped Churchill prosecute the war while waiting for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. to come on board.

When the Japanese began to target British outposts in Asia, Churchill feared a second front of the war in which he could barely fight on one front. When Roosevelt confirmed the bombing of Pearl Harbor to Churchill and uttered the words, “We are all in the same boat now,” Churchill knew the U.S. was committed. “So we had won after all,” Churchill wrote in his memoirs and proceeded to “sleep the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

Because of the vast amount of material available, both from Manchester’s research and other sources, Reid sometimes falls prey to something he observes about Churchill: “He thoroughly enjoyed his meanderings in the thickets of details.”

At times, the book bogs down with war strategy, accounts of jealousies among generals and admirals, troop movements and logistical details.

Some of the details, however, are illuminating. The size and scope of the D-Day invasion is hard to grasp for modern readers accustomed to the small sorties and drone attacks of modern warfare. Reid tells us there were almost 7,000 vessels, including 1,200 combat ships, 700 tugs and minesweepers, 800 large transports and 4,200 landing craft. They landed more than 132,000 young men on the beaches.

He likens the Poles’ loss of 6 million citizens to the World Trade Center attacks (although not by name). “A modern reader might form some idea of the enormity of the Polish slaughter if he imagined picking up the morning newspaper every day for five years and reading that three thousand of his fellow citizens had perished the previous day in terrorist attack.”

The Labour Party’s landslide triumph in 1945 (which The New York Times called “one of the most stunning electoral surprises in the history of democracy”) drove Churchill’s Conservative party out of power and Churchill out of office.

With Churchill no longer at center stage, Reid wisely compresses the next 20 years into 102 pages.

To a certain extent, Reid’s completion of Manchester’s project 14 years after his incapacitation is a literary application of Churchill’s admonition, “Never give in.”

Kenneth S. Allen, a former reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer, is editor of Greenville Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly.

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