Blood, Sweat and Arrogance, by Gordon Corrigan

A debunker debriefed
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The Independent Culture

At the start of this aggressively debunking volume, Gordon Corrigan sets up a series of Aunt Sallies. Britain entered the Second World War to defeat dictatorship and defend the rights of man. The Germans had more tanks during the Battle of France and more aircraft during the Battle of Britain. After initial setbacks, British leadership was well-nigh impeccable. "There is no God but Churchill, and Montgomery is his prophet."

Such claims are easy to knock down. The war was not a moral crusade; it was fought to protect British interests. The Blitzkrieg succeeded thanks to brilliant tactics rather than weight of metal, and the legend that the Few were assailed by the many has long been exploded. Finally, from the Norwegian fiasco to the disaster at Arnhem, the blunders of ministers and generals were legion.

Thus Corrigan establishes himself as a hatchet man before trying to demolish more problematic "myths of Churchill's War". However, his allegations are seldom original and sometimes spurious.

Corrigan follows other revisionists such as John Charmley and David Irving, who feature in his bibliography to the exclusion of authorities such as Zara Steiner, Richard Overy and David Reynolds. And his tone, occasionally sneering, often patronising and always cocksure, is particularly tiresome in someone so prone to error. He makes the elementary mistake of asserting, for example, that a Russian declaration of war against Japan "never came".

Corrigan's first charge is that Churchill bore as much guilt as appeasers for Britain's military unreadiness in 1939 because he had supported the so-called "Ten Year Rule", whereby governments estimated that there would be no major war within a decade. The indictment is unsound. Britain spent as much as any other state on armed services throughout the 1920s, which were years of hope.

Subsequently, as Churchill argued in opposition, the need for rearmament became acute. But it was not because he had lost office that Churchill underwent "a conversion that makes the Black Death seem like a minor outbreak of the sniffles". It was because Japan had invaded Manchuria and the Nazis had risen to power.

Of course, Churchill got things wrong during the 1930s, and Corrigan could have made a better case against him than he does. His rearmament campaign was flawed and inconsistent. By himself he might have built an armada of obsolete bombers. He was a late convert to radar. He neglected the needs of the navy and, even more, the army. Although he could claim its authorship, he possessed little comprehension of the tank. Yet Churchill had a far shrewder understanding of Hitler and how to vanquish him than Chamberlain, whom Corrigan champions. In 1940, as even his detractors admit, Churchill was "the essential man".

A number of Corrigan's strictures on Churchill as war leader are true but few are new. He remained a rogue elephant, a spiritual subaltern of hussars who craved to grapple with the enemy in person. He had tunnel vision yet was easily distracted by adventures. He drove subordinates like General Brooke frantic by late-night monologues and pertinacious interference. Yet he inspired the nation, galvanised the war effort and, unlike Hitler, he never pursued a course that would lead to defeat.

Corrigan's aversion to Montgomery, whom he dubs "the Messiah", is more understandable. Indeed, Churchill sometimes expressed his own distaste. Of Monty's vainglorious habit of inviting defeated German generals to dine, the Prime Minister remarked: "No worse fate could befall an enemy officer."

However, Corrigan's criticisms of Montgomery's arrogance, rudeness, dishonesty, and so on, are standard stuff. And his attack on Monty as a commander, which echoes that of the American top brass, notably Patton, is sometimes unfair. Corrigan does not give Montgomery proper credit for his strategy after D-Day, which concentrated the bulk of German forces in front of Caen and enabled Omar Bradley to execute his successful "right hook".

Corrigan was once a regular officer in the Gurkha Rifles, and when writing straight military history he does a fair job. But he can't resist the temptation to iconoclasm and his book smacks of a mess polemic, with bread rolls for premiers and pepper-pots for generals.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley' is published by Pimlico