History is written by winners, and winners are glorified (often deified) by the history. Yet, when you take away the layers of glory and awe surrounding the historical figures we have idolized, we find that the men under it all are, after all… human.
The historical fiction Never Surrender by Michael Dobbs does just that to the great orator, writer and the greatest Briton of all times, Sir Winston Churchill.
The novel covers the first three weeks of WW-II, when the biggest empire of the times was almost brought to its knees by “a few panzers”. With peace efforts failing, Winston Churchill (later Sir) became the His Majesty’s First Minister.
But the odds were stacked completely against him, with Guderion and his panzer divisions routing the British Expeditionary Force, along with other European armies. U.S. President (advised by ambassador Joseph Kennedy) is loath to put any armament in the British hands for the fear they will definitely fall in German (and eventually Russian) hands when Britain surrenders. Not surprisingly, at home many people are thinking (and some are hoping) that Churchill will fail in his duty.
Interspersed among this story is the story of Donald Chichester, Nursing Orderly and non-combatant Conscientious Objector in the BEF. With his unit routed and in the retreat, he has to get himself and an injured French pilot back to friendly territory, which is shrinking day by day. Donald is also plagued by his fights with his father who served in WWI, and who disapproves of Donald’s choice of being non-combatant.
Donald’s story provides us with the on the ground picture of the historical defeat turned deliverance, when the expected evacuation figures of 30000 were exceeded ten times over, helped by luck, weather, courage and some unexpected manoeuvres of German troops. It also brings to light little known stories like that of Calais, where the garrison was ordered to fight until last man and last bullet, to give their comrades at Dunkirk a chance of evacuation.
Winston Churchill is also not the steadfast leader we have seen in the histories. Plagued by self-doubt and facing the ghost of his father, he is trying to get his hands around the disaster that is war. Within days, it seems the people calling for peace are right, as the BEF is completely cut off from their supply lines, the Royal Air Force is suffering heavy losses and Britain is in the danger of completely losing their Army.
Yet, aided by his friend and his reluctant secretary, Churchill stubbornly sticks to his guns. Fighting his War Cabinet, as well as Royal family, he has to keep Britain in the fight, if only to get better peace terms from Hitler later.
The biggest help Churchill gets in his war (both personal and national) is from a German refugee called Ruth Mueller. It is Ruth Mueller who helps him understand the enemy with the knowledge of Hitler she has gained earlier. It is she who keeps him fighting, reminding him of the Gestapo and what British people can expect if they surrender.
She exposes Churchill to the results of the decision he had made to incarcerate enemy aliens during the War. Last but not the least, it is she who tells him that the speech he made after Dunkirk (where he told Hitler the British Empire will keep fighting from beyond the seas, but will never surrender) is the beginning of the end.
I remember reading a book about the four leaders of WWII when I was in school. I remember thinking even then how similar Hitler and Churchill were, both great orators, great leaders who raised their people from defeat and delivered victory almost entirely backed by words and ideas. That may not be the most original idea of the century, as Ruth Mueller keeps reminding Churchill of the same throughout the book.
But if you are a history buff (especially WWII buff), you should read this book, not just because it shows the old, tired man at the base of giant shadow, and the dangerous times and adversaries he faced and won against. The book has also introduced me to Michael Dobbs , whose books I am going to hunt (and not just because of his political credentials, but the writing skills he displays in bringing the story to life).
Quote of The Day:
History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
– Winston Churchill