The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

“If necessary, alone”…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The first book in Churchill’s massive six-volume history of the Second World War, this covers the period from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the day when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. The series, among his other writings, won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature, although the liberal intellectual snobberati like to suggest that that was out of gratitude for his wartime leadership rather than for its literary merits. The snobberati, as usual, are wrong. This is a superbly written account of the period from one man’s viewpoint – that man happening to be one of the handful of important men who decided the fate of the world for the second half of the twentieth century at least.

Despite recent attempts at revisionist history, it is still, I think, generally accepted that the conditions that allowed for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis were seeded in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War, and then fertilized by the failures of the Allies, mainly the US, France and Britain, to act at an early stage to prevent Germany from re-arming. Exhausted from WW1 and with no appetite for further war, appeasement seemed the easier option, and the old men who ran the world dithered as Hitler began to forge a massive fighting machine and revived German pride and resentment at their treatment by the victors of the 1914-18 war. Churchill was the main opponent of appeasement, arguing consistently that Germany must be dealt with before they became too powerful for the Allies to control. Alas! How different history may have been if only his views had prevailed in the mid-1930s.

Of course, in this book Churchill shows that Churchill thinks Churchill was right all along, but I tend to agree with him about that so his bias in his own favour didn’t become an issue. He is remarkably personally generous to those individuals with whom he disagreed, even as he condemns their weakness and failure to act. He tries to give their side of the arguments as fairly as he can, considering that they were proved wrong time and time again.

But he is pretty brutal about failures of the national policies of the WW1 allies, especially the US’s self-interested and isolationist position of neutrality. He points out that the Allies reluctantly agreed to Wilson’s League of Nations after WW1, only for the American government then to refuse to ratify it, immediately making it a toothless tiger. He talks about the damage done, economically and politically, by the reparations forced on Germany, and how the US was unwilling to cancel debt to allow the German economy to recover, not to mention the economies of America’s erstwhile allies.

But France and Britain come in for plenty of criticism too, for continuing to attempt to mollify and compromise with Hitler’s Germany long after, in Churchill’s opinion, such attempts were obviously dangerous. He talks in depth about Germany’s open and secret build-up of their army, naval power and, most frighteningly, air force, while Britain and France lagged behind, hoping that somehow war could be avoided. He barely hides his disgust at the Munich agreement and the betrayal of the Allies’ commitment to Czechoslovakia.

For the French Government to leave her faithful ally Czechoslovakia to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences. Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honour, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration. Great Britain, who would certainly have fought if bound by treaty obligations, was nevertheless now deeply involved, and it must be recorded with regret that the British Government not only acquiesced but encouraged the French Government in a fatal course.

He shows how he argued forcefully for the Allies to take a military stand before Germany overtook France and Britain in terms of military force, but to no avail. And therefore, when even the appeasers finally agreed that Germany must be stopped, the Germans had built up a huge military advantage; and the British, quickly left alone as one ally, France, was defeated, and the other, the US, sat on its haunches doing nothing, had to try to fend off an invasion long enough to allow for a massive expansion in manpower, munitions, and the vital air power – defensive and offensive – that had been allowed to fall so badly behind.

Although the story is told from a personal perspective, with Churchill more than most the personal is political, and so this reads like a formal history far more than a personal memoir. Churchill claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that he asked other people to rigorously check the facts in the book, so that there is a solid historical foundation below the upper layer of Churchill’s own opinion. One sees his mastery over detail, his ability to look at the full chessboard of war, his willingness to throw away a pawn or two to capture the queen, his courage to be open about the dangers ahead, his inspirational belief in Britain’s eventual ability to prevail which meant so much to the national psyche during the war’s darkest days. We see him pull all the political levers at his command, all the contacts and loyalties he had built up over his already long lifetime in the spotlight on the world’s stage, to bring people and nations round to his views – a long task and often seemingly futile, but he never weakened or turned away, never decided to let his reputation rest on his past achievements as many men of his age may have done. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. Opinionated, demanding, a risk taker, an imperialist to the core – I imagine the people around him found him maddening and exhausting. But he also commanded deep personal loyalty and respect from those who worked closely with him, and was admired and increasingly revered by a large majority of the general public for his steadfastness and patriotism in these early days of the war. He was the right man at the right time, and how often does that happen?

A few feet behind me, as I sat in my old chair, was the wooden map-case I had had fixed in 1911, and inside it still remained the chart of the North Sea on which each day, in order to focus attention on the supreme objective, I had made the Naval Intelligence Branch record the movements and dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet. Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation. Once again defence of the rights of a weak State, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it.

I really thought this might be a turgid read, but it’s actually a first-rate history with just enough of the personal to bring out the emotional drama of war. I also realised while reading it how influential it must have been on the early interpretations of the history of the period, since it chimed in almost every particular with what I was taught about the war in school in the 1970s. I will certainly go on to read the other five volumes in the series.

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45 thoughts on “The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

  1. Churchill was a brilliant historian: his books about the Duke of Marlborough are superb. He could have been forgiven for being biased towards his own ancestor, but, again, he tried to give every side to the story. Nothing changes: people still call for huge cuts in defence spending, and never mind what’ll happen if a big threat emerges from somewhere!

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    • I’ve always been interested in reading about him but this is the first time I’ve read anything he wrote himself – what a great writer he was! I must read the Duke of Marlborough ones sometime. Yes, indeed, I often find myself wondering what Churchill would think about whatever current event is in the headlines. I expect he’d be chomping on his cigar and lecturing all our politicians… 😉

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  2. Churchill really was a deep thinker and a wonderful historian, FictionFan. I’m so glad you read and reviewed this. I’m not surprised that you found it very well-written, too. He once wrote that when he went to school, he was placed in the lower-skilled classes, and he was grateful. Why? Because while the ‘clever’ boys were learning Greek and Latin, he was learning how to put English sentences together. His writing reflects that. I’ve always loved his renaissance outlook, too.

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    • Interesting background! His writing is certainly more approachable than a lot of highly educated writers of that era, and yet it’s far from simple – a bit like Dickens, in fact, though more modern. He seemed to be one of those lucky people with boundless mental and physical energy and a curiosity about everything – he must have been a complete nightmare to live with! 😉

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  3. This sounds brilliant – as you’ve suggested, I had sort of assumed this would be very dry and perhaps somewhat navel-gazing, but I’m pleased to hear that it is thoughtful and that he does his best to be fair. I’m definitely much more interested in picking this up now than I was.

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    • I love the level of courtesy politicians used to show to each other in memoirs back in those days – none of the spite and cheap shots we’re so used to now. His writing is wonderful, and he includes enough anecdotes to stop it from being dry – it was quite an emotional read at points. If you do decide to go for it, I hope you enjoy it!

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    • Ha, thank you very much! I suspect you earn more from your law practice than I do from my reviews though… 😉

      I hope you enjoy it if you get to it, Matt – I love the mix of factual history and personal memoir.

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    • Yes, I always like the facts to be factual too, which is why in general I prefer history to memoirs. This had the perfect balance for me – proper history, but with his personal recollections and opinions overlayed. 😀

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  4. We have this set of books (1950 edition) sitting on our shelf. I never thought I’d want to read them, but now you have me reconsidering.

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      • Hahaha, now I’m trying to imagine what Churchill would think of Harry Potter! 😂 I must say that I found this not at all as dry as reading a history book usually is – there was enough of Churchill’s personality and opinions to make it a good mix of history and memoir. If you go for it, I hope you enjoy it – those books deserve to get off the shelf… 😉

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  5. This sounds like a fascinating read, FF, though I don’t know if it’s your enthusiasm for the era or the idea of filling in what history I recall from school that makes it more intriguing! Well done!!

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    • I must admit I’m a bit of a Churchill fan – wartime Churchill at any rate. Peacetime Churchill and I probably wouldn’t have got along too well… 😉 But this really does fill in the dry facts and brings it all to life. 😀

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  6. I wouldn’t have thought I especially wanted to read about the buildup to WWII before seeing your review, but your enthusiasm has made me consider giving this a go. I reckon Churchill was probably entitled to be somewhat smug or arogant considering what happened, but its encouraging to think his account is reasonably balanced.

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    • I’m always more interested in the build-up and aftermath of wars than in the actual war itself, though from the bit of this that covers the war it seems Churchill could make even that interesting! Yes, he was very sure of himself and never really considered that he might be wrong, which made it all the more surprising to me that he took the time to be nice about the people who opposed him. Magnanimous in victory! There is an Audible version – I was thinking I might listen to the second volume rather than reading it, but I haven’t decided. Wouldn’t it have been great if he’d recorded them himself in that voice?

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      • An excellent volume on the first part of WWII is Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn”, all about D-Day and the Americans training for it in Dorset. I read the second volume, “The Day of Battle” as well, about moving into Sicily and italy. All great writing. I’m not suggesting for a moment that reading good writing by a contemporary on these events is anything like reading Churchill himself on it, which I look forward to, especially given the British perspective and the unique personality delivering it.

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        • Sounds good, and I think it’s important for people to recognise that the war looked very different depending on where people were. My school education only covered WW2 from the British perspective – it was long afterwards before I was really aware of the war in the Pacific as anything more than just a small side issue – not how Americans view it, I imagine!

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  7. I never would have thought I would be interested in one of Churchill’s histories of World War II, but you have convinced me to try this one. I did purchase an ebook copy after reading your review, although that would not be my preferred mode of reading. But it will be easier to hold on to. I am reading a 700 page book right now and it is a pain.

    I will agree with Mathew Geyer, if I could write reviews as well as you do, I would be very pleased.

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    • Aw, thank you! I get inspired when I love a book… or hate it! 😀 It had never occurred to me to read one of Churchill’s histories either until, would you believe, I read Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution and loved the intensity that came from him having been a participant as well as a historian. And that made me wonder about Churchill’s history. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did! I found I wasn’t referring to the notes or having to look at the indexes often, so it should work fine as an e-book, I think.

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  8. Excellent review! You make it sound quite appealing. And if I had the will (and the ability to speed read) to power through such an enormous tome, I’d take it on, but right now, I’ll have to live vicariously through your review.

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  9. It’s funny, how you describe both in this book, and in some historical fiction I most recently read, that Americans were depicted is sort of dithering, and reluctant to get involved or stir the pot, when now, they seem quite the opposite (or at least, with the previous President who shall not be named). I know so very little about history, did American go through a really obvious transformation in terms of their foreign policy after the two world wars?

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    • Well, this is only my own opinion, but it seems to me the Americans only ever act when they’re directly attacked. They didn’t come into WW1 until it was nearly over, in 1917, and only because the Germans started sinking American merchant ships And they only finally came into WW2 when the Japanese directly attacked them by bombing Pearl Harbour in, I think, 1942 or 3. (Though they now pretend they were fighting against the evils of Nazism – history rewritten!) They keep leaving wars unfinished, like Vietnam and North Korea, and now Afghanistan, and they make threats (like against Iran) and then don’t follow through. But after 9/11, just like after Pearl Harbour, they started blowing up the world! They are the only country to have used nuclear bombs, because they preferred that to actually fighting the Japanese. As you probably notice, I don’t admire America as a fighting force and I don’t consider them a good ally. But don’t tell them I said so… 😉

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  10. I’ve had this set in the house for decades but never thought of actually reading it. I might well do so after reading your thoughts on it. Thanks.

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  11. Although I appreciated your review, I’m not tempted to take on six volumes myself, instead, I’ll wait and read your reviews! Maddening and exhausting is a great description, but isn’t it wonderful that someone you’ve described in this way was also able to inspire other people to their best.

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    • Haha, you may have a long wait then! 😉 Yes, his unshakeable confidence in himself and in the British people was just what was needed at the time, but would have been intensely annoying at other times, I imagine. His speeches are still enough to stir up the patriotic spirit – good for wartime, dangerous for peacetime maybe…

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  12. I’m fascinated by your review of the book and can see what would make it such an engaging read. I’d love to read it but I’m not sure if I’ve got the commitment at this time. I tried to find audiobooks of Vol 1 and then 2, but all I could find were very much abridged versions narrated by Michael Jayston. Let me know if you find any unabridged audiobooks.

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    • I was sure I’d seen this on Audible, but I’ve just checked. It seems that Churchill later condensed the six volumes into one huge one, which Audible have now released in four parts narrated by Christian Rodska. That must be what I saw. Not sure whether I’d go for it myself now – Christian Rodska has a habit of mispronouncing names and places and it tends to drive me crazy, although otherwise he’s very good. I think I’ll have to stick to paper…

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  13. Hah, I can see your alter ego must be NonfictionFan, this is a beguiling review. My parents long had a set of his History of the English-speaking Peoples but I only dipped into it as a teenager and I’ve no idea what happened to the volumes. When it came to History A Level I did the Tudors and the 19th century, not the 20th century, so really I had no call to refer to him.

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    • Ha, yes, and every time a troll on Amazon hates one of my non-fiction reviews, they always make the same comment – “Stick to fiction, FictionFan!” 😉 My school education about WW2 was pretty superficial – I think it was too soon after the war for any really objective study to have been done. So we were basically taught that we were the goodies, the Germans were the baddies, and we won! Came as a big surprise to me to discover years later that other people had been involved too… 😂

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  14. As I read your review, I had a similar thought as in your last paragraph. That this echoes everything I learned in school about WWII and the lead up to it. Our textbooks and teachers were pretty scathing about the ideas of appeasement and I wonder if that is Churchill’s influence or simply enough time passing to see that he was right. My impression of Churchill has always been that he was probably unpleasant on a personal level but politically and historically, the world is fortunate he was there.

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    • I’m reading The Splendid and the Vile at the moment, by Erik Larson, and funnily enough he’s making Churchill seem quite endearing – dancing about the place humming and singing, and so on. Mind you, that might have got a bit irritating too after a long day in his company… 😉 It is odd that we all get taught that appeasement is so dangerous and yet we seem not to have learned from it. Not that I’m suggesting we should start more wars all over the world – there are enough already – but we do sit back and do nothing until lunatic dictators have managed to build up massive armouries – often supplied by us – and then wring our hands when they become too powerful to be controlled. You’d think we’d learn! I often find myself wondering what Churchill would say about a particular subject… like what he’d have said about Trump, for instance!

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