In 1938 and 1939, Winston Churchill was neck deep in the research and writing of his mammoth History of the English Speaking Peoples. He was under pressure from the publisher to deliver a manuscript, the advance from which would keep paying the bills for Chartwell, his beloved home in the Kent countryside that he had bought in 1922. He was also earning money by writing articles for British and foreign newspapers, and though he held no office of state (he was simply the Member of Parliament for Epping) his strident warnings about impending war were increasingly noted, if an irritation to the pacifist government of Neville Chamberlain.
As Jonathan Rose has noted (The Literary Churchill), this huge and important output as a writer (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953) became overshadowed by his fame as a leader. Yet Churchill would never have been so successful without his literary sweep of mind and skill with words. His speeches in the House of Commons and radio broadcasts were compelling, and it was Churchill's six volume series, The Second World War, which won him the Nobel.
Written between 1948 and 1954, the first volume, The Gathering Storm, covers the years 1919 to 1939, and the second the first few months of the Second World War from September 1939 to May 1940, and carries the brilliant subheading, "How the English-speaking people through their unwisdom and carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm".
The axiom that the further you go back into history, the more you can see the future, never found a more apt expression than in Churchill, who could put Hitler's terrifying rise into some context. He was steeped in Britain's past as a nation which had often stood up to apparently superior forces - and won. His multivolume Life of John Churchill Marlborough (1650-1722) describes his ancestor's unlikely victory against Louis XIV's forces at Blenheim. Now, history seemed to be repeating itself, and he would be at the centre of the action.
Watching with alarm
The events of Hitler's 1934 Night of the Long Knives, when 5,000-7,000 people were 'liquidated', combined with vicious anti-Semitic pogroms, sent a chill through Churchill's spine. He started agitating in parliament for Britain to bolster its air power, as Germany's Air Force seemed to be reaching parity with it (it would soon outsize it). But at this time Churchill was a private MP with no power. "To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one's country", he writes in The Gathering Storm, "and not be able to make Parliament and the nation heed the warning... was an experience most painful."
Even when Baldwin subsequently admitted that Britain had been misled on Germany's air force, the nation still seemed to be fixated on a new age of peace and disarmament under the League of Nations. The idea of rapidly rearming Britain and doing something about Germany was seen as the agenda of bellicose Tories. Meanwhile, in 1935 Hitler announced compulsory military service and was building 26,000 ton battle cruisers. By the late 1930s Germany would have 57 U-boats.
In these wilderness years Churchill threw himself into increasing his technical military knowledge, including the state of Britain's weapons systems. Through the Air Defence Research Committee he learned of the country's development of radar. Clausewitz's statement, "Amateurs focus on strategy, experts on logistics" could not have been more apt for Churchill; what Britain should be doing, he felt, was as clear as day. The question was how it could properly put the fight to Hitler when the time inevitably came.
In 1935 he hoped to be made First Lord of the Admiralty in the new government of which Baldwin was prime minister, but in a sop to the pacifists Churchill was not given any post at all. Baldwin was still asserting that Britain must keep peace at any price, but in the same year, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and had joined up with Hitler, marking the end of the illusion of 'collective security' under the umbrella of the League of Nations. Britain's diplomats were learning of the German hierarchy's contempt for 'soft' Britain, portrayed in the German press as preferring a comfortable life over war glory.
In retrospect, Baldwin's keeping Churchill out of the government was a blessing in disguise, as he would not be associated with its pacifist, appeasing outlook. And it allowed him, he notes, to keep writing his beloved History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Ever the historian, Churchill observes that for four hundred years the foreign policy of England was to "opposed the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power." It had previously thwarted Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon. It didn't matter who or what the force, the policy had unconsciously remained the same. Now it would surely do for Hitler, too.
In the summer of 1939 there was a sea change in opinion in the British press and public. There appeared thousands of hoardings urging "Churchill Must Come Back". Meanwhile Churchill was still ensconced at Chartwell, working day and night to meet his book deadline and writing articles.
When in May 1940 Churchill was finally invited by Chamberlain into the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, his knowledge of the Royal Navy was crucial. Indeed, he was the only member of the government who had held high office in the Great War. In a telling aside, he relates that when the Great War had ended he had ordered a barrage of heavy artillery to be safely stored in case it was ever needed again. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about these big guns, but he had them brought out and reconditioned for use. On entering the War Cabinet he also started up a statistical department of his own which could crunch all the data on the war effort. Again we see his focus on logistics, not just strategy, and his knowledge of military hardware coming to the fore when it was needed.
Seeing the future
Churchill would be prime minister for five years and three months before being dumped by the British public in the 1945 election. Though in his 70s, remarkably Churchill chose to fight on as Opposition Leader for the next six years. It was during this period, in 1946, that he made his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri:
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere."
What would be Britain's role in the postwar landscape? Churchill saw Britain's future not as part of Europe but as special partner to the United States in an 'Anglosphere' marked by commitment to democracy, capitalism, limited government and personal liberty. This view now seems either farsighted or naïve, depending on your position on the EU referendum, but either way Churchill came up with a phrase ('Iron Curtain') that perfectly encapsulates and foretells geopolitics in the decades to come.
Churchill's ability to capture the public imagination, his capacity to put the Hitler offensive into a grand historical perspective, and his qualities as a seer, each had something to do with his being, at heart, a writer. Yet ultimately it was his deep knowledge of Britain's military capacities, both its strengths and weaknesses, that informed the strategies which proved decisive in the war. The caricature of the British bulldog suggests that what we most prize about Churchill is, in the face of evil, stubbornness and immovability. Yet his literary and technological intelligence were equally important in the path to victory. Amusing as it is, the bulldog caricature doesn't do Churchill justice.
Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of 50 Politics Classics: Freedom, Equality, Power (Nicholas Brealey).