Magazine article The Spectator

No Reason to Pull Down the Statue

Magazine article The Spectator

No Reason to Pull Down the Statue

Article excerpt

BLOOD, SWEAT AND ARROGANCE by Gordon Corrigan Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 495, ISBN 029784623X . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

CHURCHILL'S SECRET WEAPONS by Patrick Delaforce Pen & Sword, £19.99, pp. 256, ISBN 1844153444 . £15.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The title of Gordon Corrigan's book tells us it is not going to be a Churchillian panegyric, so it comes as almost a disappointment to find no new revelations needful for the dethroning of the former national hero. All we are given is an emphasised reminder that Churchill's history, The Second World War, was biased, that he was prone to indulge in disastrous expeditions, notably, in the first war, Gallipoli and, in the second, Norway and that he unreasonably pestered his generals to mount offensives before they were ready to do so. But none of this, of course, is news and it certainly gives no ground for taking down the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square nor, indeed, for revising his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. It is, therefore, fortunate that there is more to Corrigan's book than the establishment of the obvious.

He tells the story of how Britain threw away her arms in 1919, failed to replace them and consequently found herself in desperate straits when Hitler put his head over the parapet less than 20 years later.

True, this story has been told many times before but it gains substantially from this retelling of it. Perhaps through the process of filtering and reconsideration, some of the key episodes are made clearer than they seemed to be before. For example, the steps by which the Royal Navy was reduced from a position of pre-eminence to one of competitiveness and those by which Hitler rose to power are in both cases brilliantly described and lucidly explained. Corrigan also peppers his narrative with an engrossing array of military knowledge such as, for example, that today's infantryman carries about 60 pounds weight of equipment on his back, which is the same as that carried by his predecessors in the second world war, the first world war and, indeed, in all wars for the past 2,000 years or more. The content changes; the total weight does not.

The identifiably contemporary British military sense of humour, with which the author is well endowed, also helps one to bear the almost unbearable. For example:

The political head of the navy -- the navy minister anywhere else -- is the First Lord of the Admiralty, who may be a lord but often is not. The professional head of the navy -- the chief of naval staff anywhere else -- is the First Sea Lord, who is rarely a lord when he starts the job, but often is when he ends it.

Or again:

While the influence of Liddell-Hart on military thinking is much exaggerated (largely by Liddell-Hart), he did, as early as 1919, advocate integrated infantry and armour units, with infantry moving in armoured carriers.

Why then does Corrigan come to grief in Norway? Unlike so much else in the book, this account is muddled and confusing and we are left without any clear description of the muddle and confusion which characterised that disastrous expedition or of the hopelessly contradictory and impracticable orders that were sent to the military commander, Major-General Mackesy. Perhaps if Corrigan had read the uniquely informed article on the subject by the distinguished historian Piers Mackesy, a son of the general, he might have made a better fist of it.

From Norway, we pass to Dunkirk and from Dunkirk to Greece and Crete and, in North Africa, the British retreat to within a military stone's throw of the Nile. …

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