BOOK REVIEW / Finding ten thousand Dervishes in a melee: Hugo Barnacle on two lives of Churchill, who was the right monster at the right time
Saturday 07 May 1994
Over here another two books on Churchill have appeared. Norman Rose (Churchill: An Unruly Life, Simon & Schuster, pounds 20) gives a good, balanced account; Clive Ponting (Churchill, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20) has produced a malign catalogue of Churchill's mistakes and misdeeds which diminishes the author more than the subject.
When he became Prime Minister in May 1940, as the Allied front collapsed, Churchill expected to be seized and shot by the Nazis 'in three months'. It did look that way. Lord Halifax, the only other possible candidate, refused every plea to take the job, saying his stomach churned at the thought of it.
In the War Cabinet on 28 May, Halifax, as Foreign Secretary, insisted that Britain should at least find out through the Italians what peace terms Hitler would accept. Churchill, presiding, said no. He would 'jump at the chance' if it were genuine, but it was not. Even if Hitler pretended to settle for recognition of Nazi conquests plus, say, Malta and Gibraltar, he would soon be back for the Navy, and then for everything else.
Churchill told the country on 18 June, 'if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known or cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age . . .' No one else thought the stakes were quite that high, and a more common view even now is the one put by Oxford's Professor Stone. 'We would have won anyway,' because of the American atomic bomb.
But without British bases America would have been helpless. Her first transatlantic nuclear bombers, ready only by 1947, were the size of the Queen Mary and not much faster. Germany had jet fighters and radar; without British technology, America would have had neither for some time. So no bomb on Berlin. Unless Russia had fought through alone, which is not overwhelmingly likely, the Third Reich might well still exist.
In that event, at least Clive Ponting's book would be shorter. It would need few other changes to pass a Nazi censor. This is the kind of thing Ponting gets up to: as is well known, Churchill rode with the 21st Lancers against the Dervishes at Omdurman in 1898, and Ponting remarks, 'Churchill's contribution was, after the charge, to shoot down five men in cold blood with his Mauser pistol.' It is after a charge that cavalry engages the enemy. This is called the melee. At Omdurman the melee was especially fierce because the 21st fell into a dry riverbed they had not spotted, and found 10,000 Dervishes at the bottom of it. The Dervishes set to with spears, swords and rifles and killed a quarter of the regiment in ten minutes. Lt Churchill was surrounded on several occasions and, having a pistol with him for personal defence at close quarters, not unnaturally used it. 'I am sorry to say I shot five men for certain and two doubtful,' he wrote. 'In cold blood' is not the most obvious phrase to cover this.
To make Home Secretary Churchill's publicity-grabbing personal appearance at the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 seem as ridiculous as possible, Ponting calls the gunmen 'a gang of burglars (believed to be Latvian)'. This is like describing the IRA unit cornered at Balcombe Street in 1975 as a gang of car thieves believed to be Irish. The Latvians, their identities recorded on Special Branch files, were Bolshevik terrorists who had murdered three Metropolitan Police officers during a jewel raid intended to raise Party funds. Their modern automatic weapons included the Mauser type that Ponting finds so alarming. Their ringleader Jacob Peters escaped to become a secret police chief under Stalin.
In 1945, says Ponting, 'Churchill's request brought 'Thunderclap' into operation - the attack on Dresden on 13-15 February.' Operation Thunderclap was a whole series of Anglo-American air raids across eastern Germany, designed to upset rail traffic and civil order in support of the Russian offensive. Most of these attacks did scant damage because of the dense February cloud. At Dresden the cloud broke just as the RAF arrived; the previously unbombed city had no fallen buildings to act as firebreaks; and the Luftwaffe controller, refusing to believe Dresden was the real target, failed to scramble his fighters. The resulting fireball was mainly fortuitous. Churchill had never suggested bombing Dresden: the idea belonged to Air Marshal Harris. Churchill's responsibility for the overall policy of strategic bombing is another matter - German officers were jailed for less at Nuremberg - but Ponting scarcely tackles it.
Churchill's character escapes Ponting altogether. 'He could never understand people who thought that their schooldays had been the happiest time of their lives.' Who can? 'He continued to spend money lavishly on a vast retinue of servants, large quantities of alcohol and food and entertaining at Chartwell.' Good. As Aristotle has observed, the noble mind inclines to magnificence in spending. 'Without servants he was at a loss how to pack his own clothes.' Not a talent any gentleman would cultivate, packing.
Norman Rose goes further, noting that Churchill was not even accustomed to pulling his own socks on of a morning, but where Ponting tut-tuts prissily at the man's self-indulgence, Rose remains amused and intellectually curious about it. He also includes every piece of political and personal folly listed by Ponting - Gallipoli, the 'ten-year rule' on defence budgets, India, Norway, the attempts to block Overlord, and all the rest - but gives them context in a well-written narrative with warmth and life to it, and does this at half the length of Ponting's book.
Ponting cannot write. 'After a disastrous failure at Arnhem, the allies, after liberating France and Belgium, settled down for the winter . . .' He keeps turning out sentences like that. It must take some sort of inverse artistry; which, rather than any neo-Nazi beliefs like David Irving's, is what lends his work its poor tone. Technically unable to achieve pace, proportion or subtlety, he has lumbered himself with a crude method of one knock per paragraph, on and on, hoping for the iconoclastic best. But everyone already knows Churchill was a bit of a monster, vain, erratic, domineering. That is not the point.
He was the right monster in the right place at the right time. Ask a Frenchman who remembers what a peace deal with Hitler actually amounted to. Norman Rose shows us through the dark woods and the open landscape of an extraordinary life. Clive Ponting just walks into one damn tree after another.
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