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Posted on Jul 1, 2011 in Books and Movies

Churchill’s War Lab – Book Review

By Steven M. Smith

Churchill’s War Lab: Code-breakers, Boffins and Innovators: The Mavericks Churchill Led to Victory. Taylor Downing. The Overlook Press, 2011. 355 pages, 16 pages. 25 photographs. Paperback. $30.00.

At the end of the Introduction, the author describes his book as presenting “a new take on the remarkable years of Churchill’s war leadership. It is partly about the technology of war, partly about how Churchill was forged into the sort of war leader he was, and partly about how he inspired the mavericks and innovators to go out and influence the course of the Second World War …  But Churchill himself rightly occupies centre stage throughout.” This is a brief biography of Winston Churchill focusing on why and how he encouraged military technology.


Downing covers Winston’s birth to pre-military years in three pages. Churchill’s life in the army and as a correspondent is also dealt with briefly. These summarizations provide context for the focus of the book, Churchill as champion of military innovations during World War I and II. Interestingly enough, while Churchill’s birth is mentioned, the book says nothing about when he died. When I reached the end of the book with the last sentence being “At a time of a national, European, and world crisis, when leadership mattered, Britain for once had the right man in the right place doing the right job.” I had the feeling that Churchill passed from being Prime Minister straight to legend.

I have mixed feelings about this book. From the title, subtitle, and Introduction (see the quote in the first paragraph of this review) I had the expectation that the book would be about the scientists who created and developed the war-winning technologies for Churchill. Instead, it is a brief biography of Churchill. The code-breakers, boffins, and inventors are only discussed in the context of their relationship with Churchill.

Then there is the cover depicting Churchill as a Prohibition Era gangster (he’s actually posing with a tommy-gun sent by the U.S. for British forces). Couldn’t they have found a picture of him with some of the British technology he championed, such as reviewing the first armored vehicles, or at a costal radar station?

Multiple readings were required to get past those expectations. Once I did, the book’s brevity and straight forward narrative brought out two themes about Churchill: he was a risk-taker and welcomed new ideas.

I knew from other biographies that Churchill liked to be personally in the middle of the action when he was in the army and as a correspondent. What I hadn’t realized is how much he loved taking risks later in his life. Three examples that struck me are flying lessons, D-Day, and Operation Varsity.

He started flying lessons in 1913, when he was 39 and First Lord of the Admiralty. Planes weren’t all that reliable and even though his wife, family and friends begged him to stop, he only relented after his instructor died in a crash. For D-Day, Churchill (age 70) planned to be on one of the British cruisers bombarding the beach. It took a direct instruction from the King to keep him in England. Operation Varsity was the British airborne drop behind the Rhine. He came under sniper fire when returned to the Allied-held west bank. When the commanding general told Churchill to leave the battlefield, “[General] Brooke remembered that ’The look on Winston’s face was just like that of a small boy being called way from his sandcastles on the beach by his nurse!’”

Downing goes through an impressive list of technologies that Churchill supported. Before World War I he supported naval aviation and a new battleship class. One of his non-technology innovations was to ensure a future supply of oil for the Royal Navy. During World War I he pioneered Naval Intelligence in breaking the German codes. When the Army showed no interest in armored vehicles, Churchill took up the technology with naval funds for “land ships” which went under the code name “tank”. World War II brought Churchill to his most widespread influence, in such areas as radar, breaking the German Enigma codes, Percy Hobart’s specialty tanks, and many others.

The brevity of the book leads to people other than Churchill having their lives summed up in a few paragraphs. As the author says, “Many of the characters who appear in this book deserve books of their own.”

Most of the time the book’s style reminds me of Dragnet’s Joe Friday: “Just give me the facts.” Consider this sentence as an example “[But] Singapore’s land defenses were left almost non-existent, and it was from the land, down the Malayan peninsula, that the Japanese came. Without a doubt, this was a disastrous lack of foresight and planning, a blunder of historic proportions.”

This direct style at times leads into more descriptive narratives such as the paragraph on the bombing of Hamburg. Part of it reads, “The fires reached temperatures of a thousand degrees centigrade, and as the heat rose it sucked in more oxygen, creating whirlwinds or hurricanes of flame in a deadly, blazing inferno. Buildings disappeared in the firestorm.”

As I said earlier, I have mixed feelings about this book. One the one hand, it created expectations it did not meet. On the other, it does present a focused overview of Churchill and military technology, which has not been done by other Churchill biographies. While the author may not have intended it, he did highlight Churchill’s attraction to taking personal risks well into his later years.

I recommend this book for those looking for an easy-to-read overview of Churchill’s life up to the end of World War II. High school students in particular would find this a good first biography of Churchill. Those who have read other biographies of Churchill will find little new here.

About the author:
Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.

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