In This Review

Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939-1941
Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939-1941
By Martin Gilbert
Heinemann/Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983, 1274 pp

A tome hard to hold, harder still to put down: an enthralling account of Churchill's conduct of the war during the bleakest years of Britain's history. The odds were heavily in Hitler's favor; after the fall of France, the British had few assets, save the RAF, Churchill's spirit, and the scientific genius that at Bletchley had led to the deciphering of enemy codes. All the uncertainties and adversities of war are sketched; Churchill emerges as unsurpassed wartime leader and sustainer of morale, but also as the restless military planner, ever prodding, ever demanding. In this masterpiece of Gilbert's many-volumed biography, some themes receive special attention: Churchill's concern with the occupation of Narvik as early as the fall of 1939, the talk of a mediated peace amidst the battle of France, the role of deciphered intelligence in Churchill's decisions. But this is above all a brilliant study of leadership when England was close to defeat and when Churchill "awoke with dread in my heart." Gilbert presents a monument to greatness-and is awed by it.