Churchill’s War Memoirs: Aside from the Story, Simply Great Writing

Churchill’s War Memoirs: Aside from the Story, Simply Great Writing

Excerpt­ed from “Trum­pets from the Steep: Churchill’s Sec­ond World War Mem­oirs,”  an essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes and more pho­tos, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

The Memoirs: An Appreciation

We were wel­comed here like peo­ple return­ing from the Promised Land of Utopia. A mil­lion ques­tions…. “What do they real­ly think?” “Do they think us pho­ny?” “Are they on our side?” “Why is the bet­ting going against us?”…. And weav­ing through the alarms was the con­vic­tion of Par­lia­ment and the peo­ple that Win­ston must take the helm of our scan­dalised ship. He must shoul­der our hopes and our efforts and imbue us with courage, or the ship would sink. —Lady Diana Coop­er, return­ing from Amer­i­ca, March 1940, Trum­pets from the Steep, 1960.


Let us begin by record­ing the main crit­i­cisms of Churchill’s The Sec­ond World War. It is not his­to­ry. Its grandiose prose was inflict­ed on apa­thet­ic read­ers who only want­ed peace and a qui­et life. It is biased—the author nev­er puts a foot wrong. He pub­lish­es hun­dreds of his own mem­o­ran­da and directives—but few replies to them. He mor­al­izes inces­sant­ly about dic­ta­tors and their empires—but not Britain’s. The impact of the war on Britain, the details of Cab­i­net meet­ings, are vague. Churchill alone con­fronts the French, Hitler, the Sovi­ets, the Amer­i­cans. “Every instance of adver­si­ty becomes an occa­sion for the narrator’s tri­umph.” Final­ly, Churchill didn’t write it himself—he relied on a team of researchers, mil­i­tary and political.

In the words of Arthur Bal­four, these indict­ments con­tain much that is true and much that is trite. “But what’s true is trite, and what’s not trite is not true.”

“This is not history—this is my case”

Pro­fes­sor J.H. Plumb referred to Churchill’s work as A His­to­ry of the Sec­ond World War —and then said it was not his­to­ry. Churchill him­self con­tributed to the con­fu­sion: “…it will be found much bet­ter by all Par­ties to leave the past to his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly as I pro­pose to write that his­to­ry myself.” He also referred to his “his­to­ry” in let­ters to Tru­man and Eisen­how­er. But it’s a mem­oir, not a history—like The World Cri­sis, his vol­umes on the First World War. There he had explained his approach:

I must there­fore at the out­set dis­claim the posi­tion of the his­to­ri­an. It is not for me with my record and spe­cial  point of view to pro­nounce a final con­clu­sion. That must be left to oth­ers and to oth­er times. But I intend to set forth what I believe to be fair and true; and I present it as a con­tri­bu­tion to his­to­ry of which note should be tak­en  togeth­er with oth­er accounts.

Some thought Churchill dis­sem­bled and was too mod­est. John Kee­gan called The Sec­ond World War “a great his­to­ry” of “mon­u­men­tal quality…extraordinary in its sweep and com­pre­hen­sive­ness, bal­ance and lit­er­ary effect; extra­or­di­nary in the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of its point of view; extra­or­di­nary as the labour of a man, already old, who still had ahead of him a career large enough to crown most oth­er statesmen’s lives; extra­or­di­nary as a con­tri­bu­tion to the mem­o­ra­bil­ia of the Eng­lish-speak­ing peoples.”

“Britain was led by a professional writer”

If that seems too pos­i­tive a view, con­sid­er Man­fred Weidhorn’s eval­u­a­tion: “a record of his­to­ry made rather than writ­ten…. No oth­er wartime leader in his­to­ry has giv­en us a work of two mil­lion words writ­ten only a few years after the events and filled with mes­sages among world poten­tates which had so recent­ly been heat­ed and secret. Britain was led by a pro­fes­sion­al writer.”

As a pro­fes­sion­al writer wish­ing to build a leg­end, goes anoth­er refrain, our author ignored or buried unpleas­ant facts, or twist­ed them to suit his pur­pose. I have yet to read a mem­oir that didn’t. Yet few mem­oirs are so mag­nan­i­mous, as illus­trat­ed by a prin­ci­ple Churchill adopts in his pref­ace: “Nev­er crit­i­cis­ing any mea­sure of war or pol­i­cy after the event unless I had before expressed pub­licly or for­mal­ly my opin­ion or warn­ing about it.” The effect, Kee­gan tells us, “is to invest the whole his­to­ry with those qual­i­ties of mag­na­nim­i­ty and good will by which he set such store, and the more so as it deals with personalities.”

Intensely personal

So much for the non-trite and non-true. Oth­er crit­i­cisms are hard­ly crip­pling. That Churchill assigned pas­sages of mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal  his­to­ry to teams of spe­cial­ists should hard­ly sur­prise us. When he began the writ­ing he was over 70, not in the best of health, exhaust­ed after six years of strug­gle. How many sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans would take on such mem­oirs with­out help? Yet Churchill,  of course, signed off on every word. He cor­rect­ed mul­ti­ple gal­leys, demand­ing fresh ones, cor­rect­ing again, until beyond the last moment, to the exas­per­a­tion of publishers.

The Sec­ond World War is indeed intense­ly per­son­al, con­sid­er­ing the war from Churchill’s angle not Britain’s. He even gave the work its own Moral: “In War: Res­o­lu­tion; In Defeat: Defi­ance; In Vic­to­ry: Mag­na­nim­i­ty; In Peace: Good Will.” The mem­oirs are biased; they exag­ger­ate; they com­mit sins of omis­sions and a few coun­ter­fac­tu­als. All per­son­al mem­oirs do.

His own spin

Churchill had a right to make his case. Many times in his career he had been sec­ond-guessed or mis­judged. There was Antwerp and the Dar­d­anelles in the First World War. There was Bol­she­vismIrish inde­pen­dence, the Gen­er­al Strike in the 1920s. Then came the India Act, the Abdi­ca­tion, the Span­ish Civ­il WarMus­soli­ni and Hitler. That is a for­mi­da­ble assort­ment of grist for critics.

Dur­ing the war Churchill had attacked an ally’s fleet, fired gen­er­als, lost bat­tle­ships, stalled on launch­ing a sec­ond front, argued with Roo­sevelt and Stal­in, and car­pet-bombed Ger­many. He felt the need to defend his actions, know­ing that very soon he would be sec­ond-guessed by post­war crit­ics, for­mer col­leagues and his­to­ri­ans eager to seize on and empha­size his mis­takes. And the mis­takes were there.

In fact, “revi­sion­ism” had already begun as he wrote the sec­ond of six vol­umes. Churchill con­front­ed it:

In view of the many accounts which are extant and mul­ti­ply­ing of my sup­posed aver­sion from any kind of large-scale opposed-land­ing, such as took place in Nor­mandy in 1944, it may be con­ve­nient if I make it clear that from the very begin­ning I pro­vid­ed a great deal of the impulse and author­i­ty for cre­at­ing the immense appa­ra­tus and arma­da for the land­ing of armour on beach­es, with­out which it is now uni­ver­sal­ly recog­nised that all such major oper­a­tions would have been impossible.

Simply great writing

The mer­its of Churchill’s mem­oirs eclipse their evi­dent flaws. There is, first, what Robert Pilpel calls “the warm sense of com­mu­nion,” through which only a great writer can place the read­er at his side in the march of events. Those events are con­duct­ed like a symphony.

Or if you will allow the risk of hyper­bole, con­sid­er Man­fred Weidhorn’s com­par­isons of Churchill’s great­est scenes with those of a first class novel:

Such is the eerie sense of déjà vu and ubi sunt upon his return in 1939, as First Lord [of the Admi­ral­ty], to Scapa Flow, exact­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry after hav­ing, at the start of the oth­er world war, paid the same vis­it dur­ing the same sea­son in the same capacity….

The col­lapse of the ven­er­a­ble and once mighty France and Churchill’s agony are beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered by the sen­su­ous detail of the old gen­tle­men indus­tri­ous­ly car­ry­ing French archives on wheel­bar­rows to bonfires….

Near the end of the work appears one of the great­est scenes of all. On the way to the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence, Churchill flies to Berlin and its “chaos of ruins.” Tak­en to Hitler’s Chan­cellery, he walks through its shat­tered halls for “quite a long time”…. The great duel is over; the vic­tor stands on the site from which so much evil orig­i­nat­ed…. “We were giv­en the best first-hand accounts avail­able at that time of what had hap­pened in these final scenes.”

From the won­der­ful illus­trat­ed Bel­gian Sphinx edi­tion. For a fine arti­cle on this edi­tion by Antoine Capet, see:

Puck’s escape

Amid the pathos, humour bub­bles inces­sant­ly to the sur­face, Pilpel writes, “as if Puck had escaped from A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream and infil­trat­ed Par­adise Lost.” Few oth­er mem­oirs, let alone his­to­ries, leav­en their wis­dom with such mer­ry wit.

There is Churchill’s famous desert con­fer­ence with his Gen­er­als, “in a tent full of flies and impor­tant per­son­ages.” We read his court­ly let­ter to the Japan­ese Ambas­sador, signed “your obe­di­ent ser­vant,” announc­ing “with high­est con­sid­er­a­tion” that a state of war exists between Britain and Japan. “When you have to kill a man,” he adds, “it costs noth­ing to be polite.”

All this lev­i­ty “some­how sits well with the cat­a­clysmic and lugubri­ous mat­ter of the sto­ry,” Wei­d­horn adds, “for Churchill does not allow the humor to take the sting out of events or reduce war to a mere game. He sim­ply refus­es to over­look the light side…. Such a tone, marked­ly dif­fer­ent from the histri­on­ics of the oth­er side, may well be a secret of sur­vival. As Shaw said, he who laughs lasts.”

Telegrams, directives, harangues

Churchill also adds lengthy appen­dices of per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions and direc­tives to mil­i­tary and civil­ian offi­cials. Here again he has been accused of bias, selec­tiv­i­ty and an air of infal­li­bil­i­ty. Some of the mes­sages were trivial—even unwor­thy of him. But in the main they had a pow­er­ful effect: they kept everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Eliot A. Cohen has described a vivid exam­ple of one of these, in vol­ume 3, The Grand Alliance. It fol­lowed the inva­sion exer­cise called VICTOR, in Jan­u­ary 1941, which pre­sup­posed that the Ger­mans land­ed five divi­sions on the Nor­folk coast and estab­lished a beach­head. Churchill wrote its com­man­der, Gen­er­al Alan Brooke:

I pre­sume the details of this remark­able feat have been worked out by the Staff con­cerned. Let me see them. For instance, how many ships and trans­ports car­ried these five Divi­sions? How many Armoured vehi­cles did they com­prise? How many motor lor­ries, how many guns, how much ammu­ni­tion, how many men, how many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first 48 hours, how many men and vehi­cles were assumed to have land­ed in the first 12 hours, what per­cent­age of loss were they deb­it­ed with?

What hap­pened to the trans­ports and store-ships while the first 48 hours of fight­ing were going on? Had they com­plet­ed emp­ty­ing their car­goes, or were they still lying in shore off the point pro­tect­ed by supe­ri­or ene­my day­light Fight­er for­ma­tions? How many Fight­er air­planes did the ene­my have to employ, if so, to cov­er the land­ing places?… I should be very glad if the same offi­cers would work out a scheme for our land­ing an exact­ly sim­i­lar force on the French coast at the same extreme range of our Fight­er pro­tec­tion and assum­ing that the Ger­mans have naval supe­ri­or­i­ty in the Channel….

* * *

Brooke game­ly replied, Churchill rebutted, and the debate went on until it final­ly petered out in May. What is its sig­nif­i­cance? Pro­fes­sor Cohen explains:

It is note­wor­thy, first, that the com­man­der in charge of the exer­cise, Brooke, stood up to Churchill and not only did not suf­fer by it, but ulti­mate­ly gained pro­mo­tion to the post of Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff and Chair­man of the Chiefs of Staff Com­mit­tee. But more impor­tant is Churchill’s obser­va­tion that “It is of course quite rea­son­able for assump­tions of this char­ac­ter to be made as a foun­da­tion for a mil­i­tary exer­cise. It would be indeed a dark­en­ing coun­sel to make them the foun­da­tion of seri­ous mil­i­tary thought.”

By no means did Churchill always have it right, but he often caught his mil­i­tary staff when they had it wrong. Churchill exer­cised one of his most impor­tant func­tions as war leader by hold­ing their cal­cu­la­tions and asser­tions up to the stan­dards of a mas­sive com­mon sense, informed by wide read­ing and expe­ri­ence at war.

“Trumpets from the steep”

Space is run­ning out, and I haven’t told you the half of it. The mem­oirs remind us of Trum­pets from the Steep, Diana Cooper’s death­less title (from Wordsworth). The Sec­ond World War is indeed a trum­pet call—from heights the read­er might not oth­er­wise glimpse. A prose epic like The Riv­er War and Marl­bor­ough, it belongs among the first rank of Churchill’s books. Flaws and all, it is indis­pens­able read­ing for any­one who seeks under­stand­ing of the war that made us what we are today. As Man­fred Wei­d­horn con­cludes, “this is not just a unique rev­e­la­tion of the exer­cise of pow­er from atop an empire in duress, but also one of the fas­ci­nat­ing prod­ucts of the human spir­it, both as an expres­sion of a per­son­al­i­ty and as a some­what anom­alous epic tale filled with the deprav­i­ties, mis­eries and glo­ries of man.”

Man­fred Weidhorn’s “Sword and Pen” (1974), still the best book there is on Churchill’s writings.

Bibliography: Books on the Book

Arranged chrono­log­i­cal­ly: All of these works con­cen­trate in part or whole on Churchill mem­oirs, often dis­put­ing them on spe­cif­ic points. For notes, edi­tions and links to reviews see my Anno­tat­ed Bib­li­og­ra­phyHills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2021. Look for copies on or Amazon.

Fab­re-Luce, Alfred. La Fumée d’un Cig­a­re [The Smoke of a Cig­ar]. Paris: L’Élan, 1949, 246 pp., soft­bound, text in French; an Ital­ian edi­tion was also published.

Kwas­niews­ki, Tadeus. An Open Let­ter of a Chica­go Wait­er to Win­ston Churchill. Chica­go, pri­vate­ly pub­lished by the author, 1950, 20 pp., soft­bound. On the half-title: “Let’s Face the Truth, Mr. Churchill.”

Neil­son, Fran­cis. The Churchill Leg­end. Apple­ton, Wis.: C. C. Nel­son Pub­lish­ing Co., 1954, 470 pp. Repub­lished as The Churchill Leg­end: Churchill as Fraud, Fakir and War­mon­ger,  Brook­lyn, N.Y.: Revi­sion­ist Press, 1979. Also list­ed as Churchill’s War Mem­oirs, 1979.

J.H. Plumb, “The His­to­ri­an,” in A.J.P. Tay­lor, ed., Churchill: Four Faces and the Man (Lon­don: Allen Lane, 1960); Churchill Revised. New York: Dial Press, 1969, 274 pp.

Vicuñia, Ale­jan­dro. Win­ston Churchill a través de sus Memo­rias [through His Mem­oirs]. San­ti­a­go, Chile: Edi­to­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­dad Catôli­ca, 1961, 398 pp., text in Spanish.

Graeb­n­er, Wal­ter. My Dear Mr. Churchill. Boston: Houghton Mif­flin; Lon­don: Michael Joseph, 1965, 128 pp. Trans­la­tions: Ger­man, Finnish, Norwegian.

Ash­ley, Mau­rice. Churchill as His­to­ri­an. Lon­don: Seck­er and War­burg, 1968, 246 pp.

Wei­d­horn, Man­fred. Sword and Pen: A Sur­vey of the Writ­ings of Sir Win­ston Churchill. Albu­querque, N.M.: Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co Press, 1974, 278 pp.

Wei­d­horn, Man­fred. Sir Win­ston Churchill. Boston: Twayne Pub­lish­ers, 1979, 174 pp. “Twayne’s Eng­lish Author” series.


Alldritt, Kei­th. Churchill the Writer: His Life as Man of Let­ters. Lon­don: Hutchin­son, Ran­dom Cen­tu­ry Group, 1992, 168 pp.

Woods, Fred­er­ick. Artillery of Words: The Writ­ings of Sir Win­ston Churchill. Lon­don: Leo Coop­er Pen and Sword Books, 1992, 184 pp.

Gilbert, Mar­tin. Win­ston Churchill and Emery Reves: Cor­re­spon­dence 1937-1964. Austin, Tex.: Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Press, 1997, 398 pp.

Val­i­u­nas, Algis. Churchill’s Mil­i­tary His­to­ries: A Rhetor­i­cal Study. Lan­ham: Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2001, 192 pp.

Reynolds, David. In Com­mand of His­to­ry: How Churchill Waged the War and Wrote His Way to Immor­tal­i­ty. Lon­don: Allen Lane, 2004, 600 pp.

Rose, Jonathan. The Lit­er­ary Churchill: Author, Read­er, Actor. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014, 528 pp.

All­port, Alan. Britain at Bay: The Epic Sto­ry of the Sec­ond World War, 1938-1941. New York: Knopf, 2020, 608 pp.

One thought on “Churchill’s War Memoirs: Aside from the Story, Simply Great Writing

  1. As Churchill put it only after his unin­ter­rupt­ed achieve­ment of much lit­er­ary suc­cess to an acquain­tance of his in the year 1946, “If I had to make my lit­er­ary will and my lit­er­ary acknowl­edge­ments, I should have to own that I owe more to Macaulay than to any oth­er Eng­lish writer.” Thank you, Mr Lang­worth, for shar­ing char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly an essay that is going to be a plea­sure even to reread.

    Thanks for the kind words. —RL

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