The central idea that runs throughout the book is that the war was avoidable. It happened because we—meaning the victors in the First World War, especially Britain—believed what we wanted to believe rather than what was happening. Time and again opportunities were lost. The main reason for this was the understandable wish for peace, which was what led to the establishment of the League of Nations. Germany was supposed to be disarmed, but so too were the victorious nations. During what Churchill calls the Locust Years (1931–1935) British security was neglected shamefully, principally by the Conservatives but also by Labour and the Liberals. The result was "a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even as far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience".
Churchill traces Hitler's seemingly inexorable rise to power after 1933 and shows time and again how he thinks this could have been at least checked for a time and possibly completely prevented. The German invasions of the Ruhr, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were all gambles; in all of them resolute action by Britain and France could easily have called Hitler's bluff, but nothing was done. I was familiar with this in outline but there were many surprises. For example, it seems that the German generals were so appalled by the risks that Hitler was running in his plan to invade Czechoslovakia that they were plotting to arrest him.
I was also surprised at the complexities of the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler; the two dictators were initially not as cooperative or friendly to each other as they became later. And I hadn't realised how close Russia had come in 1938 to forming an alliance with Britain and France against Germany; this might have happened if the Western powers had been less lukewarm to the idea, although Poland and the Baltic states were also unwilling to allow Russian troops to traverse their territories
Statesman are not called upon to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself. Having got ourselves into this awful plight of 1939, it was vital to grasp the larger hope.Throughout the period he describes in Book I Churchill was a Member of Parliament but not a minister, so his role was that of a spectator and adviser but not an actor. That was soon to change. We leave him in his home at Chartwell, accompanied by a retired Scotland Yard detective; they are both armed and taking it in turns to sleep, in case one of Hitler's Nazis, of whom there were known to be twenty thousand in Britain, should come to assassinate him.
Although the war was making little difference to life in Britain at this stage, things were very different in eastern Europe, where ijjHitler was carrying out his plan to attack Poland. This resulted in huge suffering and destruction and ended in the partition of the country between Germany and Russia. There was nothing Britain or France could do about this, but Churchill and Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, made a number of visits to France to coordinate preparations for the expected attack by Germany. These didn't go well; the French refused to agree to Churchill's scheme for mining the Rhine, fearing German reprisals.
This idea of not irritating the enemy did not commend itself to me.…Good, decent, civilised people, it appeared, must never themselves strike till after they have been struck dead.
In late 1939 occurred the famous naval engagement with the pocket battleship Graf Spee at the River Plate off Montevideo. This British victory lifted spirits at home and reduced the threat to British shipping in the Atlantic from German surface warships. But soon afterwards matters took a different turn when the Germans invaded Norway and Britain attempted to recapture two strategic Norwegian ports, an enterprise that ultimately failed. The description of this episode makes up a major part of Book II. Troops were landed in two locations but were unable to establish their positions. Churchill was assured that in the prevailing conditions the Germans would be unable to counter-attack, but this proved wrong. "In this Norwegian encounter some of our finest troops, the Scots and Irish Guards, were baffled by the vigour, enterprise and training of Hitler's young men."
Eventually the British forces had to be withdrawn; fortunately the evacuation was carried out without major losses, but Churchill thinks he was lucky to survive politically after this failure.
The Government received a lot of criticism at home in the aftermath of the Norwegian campaign. And matters became much worse on 10 May 1940, when the Germans launched their long-anticipated attack on Holland and Belgium. After a tense debate in Parliament Chamberlain decided he must resign as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by Churchill as head of a Government of National character, which the Labour Opposition agreed to join.
I acquired the chief power in the State, which I held for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.Churchill says that during this momentous time his pulse had not quickened at any moment and he slept well.
Not the least remarkable thing about this opening volume is its sheer readability. Before starting on it I had expected to find it rather hard going, but quite the opposite. I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time and tend to alternate between them according to my mood, I soon found myself returning to this one in preference to anything else, as I might to a thriller—which, in a sense, it is.
Appendix M provides an interesting account of the techniques that were used to counteract the dangers from magnetic and acoustic mines.