Paul Addison’s top 10 books on Churchill

Paul Addison is director of the centre for second world war studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is a former visiting fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and the author of Churchill: The Unexpected Hero recently published by Oxford University Press.

1 My Early Life by Winston Churchill

My top 10 have not been arranged in order of merit – but if they had been, this would still be number one. The best source on the making of Winston Churchill is still Churchill himself. Written in late middle age, his autobiography recalled his unhappy childhood and his youthful quest for glory as a soldier and war correspondent. A classic adventure story, it was also a lament for a vanished age of aristocracy and empire.

2. Churchill: Four Faces and the Man (Various)

First published in 1969, this sparkling collection of essays anatomised Churchill’s qualities as a statesman (AJP Taylor), politician (Robert Rhodes James), historian (JH Plumb), military strategist (Basil Liddell Hart) and depressive human being (Anthony Storr). Research has moved on since then, but as an analysis of the essential Churchill the book has never been surpassed. It founded the British school of Churchillians who admire him ‘warts and all’.

3. In Search of Churchill by Martin Gilbert

Political biography was a gentlemanly affair of delving into one or two archives until Martin Gilbert came on the scene. As Churchill’s official biographer he set rigorous new standards of research, working through scores of manuscript collections and travelling far and wide in search of new material. The six volumes of his life are a towering achievement but not many people have the leisure, this side of retirement, to savour all 7,285 pages. In the meantime there could be no better introduction than Gilbert’s highly entertaining account of his methods of writing, and his search for buried treasure: eye witnesses whose recollections had never been recorded, and caches of documents that had lain hidden for decades.

4. Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter by Mary Soames

Denis Healey used to say that every politician needs a hinterland – an absorbing outside interest beyond the world of Westminster. Churchill found it in painting. He seldom travelled without his brushes and oils and the moment he set up his easel he was lost to the world. Churchill never claimed to be a great artist but he delighted in the landscapes he saw on his travels, domestic scenes from his home at Chartwell, and portraits of his family and friends. The story of his life as a painter, delightfully told by his daughter Mary Soames, is a revelation of the private self who kept the statesman human.

5. Churchill and Secret Service by David Stafford

Churchill’s lifelong fascination with secret intelligence is the theme of this riveting book which covers everything from his first encounter with the ‘Great Game’ on the north-west frontier to his involvement in the Anglo-American inspired coup that led to the overthrow of Mussadiq in Iran in 1953. Though Stafford is at pains to disprove some of the conspiracy theories which implicate Churchill in episodes like the sinking of the Lusitania or the attack on Pearl Harbor, he shows that Churchill played a crucial part in the development of the intelligence services and was no mean hand with a cloak and dagger.

6. Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his Legend since 1945 by John Ramsden

Ramsden has added a new dimension to Churchill studies with a richly detailed analysis of the growth of his legend since 1945. His book sets out “to understand how that fame was created, perceived, marketed, spun and in some cases even fabricated.” In the course of a fascinating conducted tour of perceptions of Churchill around the English-speaking world, Ramsden identifies the publicists and politicians who constructed the legend and the monuments and memorabilia which celebrated him. Such is his eye for detail that he even remarks on Churchill’s unassailable lead in commemorative Toby jugs: 22 different designs compared with two each for Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lloyd George.

7. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds

In writing his war memoirs Churchill had two main aims. The first was to make a fortune for himself and his family while protecting it from the taxman. The second was to create a useable past that would vindicate his judgment as a war leader and assist his activities as a postwar statesman. In a masterly feat of sustained scholarly analysis Reynolds explains how Churchill achieved a triumphant success on both counts. In anyone else Churchill’s profiteering, manipulation of the documents, and unacknowledged use of ghost writers would look disreputable, but all is forgiven the saviour of his country.

8. Churchill: The End of Glory by John Charmley

The furore over the so-called ‘Charmley thesis’ – the case for a compromise peace with Hitler in 1940 – has distracted attention from an otherwise perceptive political life grounded in a coherent critique of Churchill’s flaws, and a far from ungenerous appreciation of his abilities. Charmley adopts the sceptical view of Churchill held by most of his contemporaries before 1939, and extends it to apply to his conduct of the war – a debatable but stimulating exercise.

9. The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America and the Origins of the Cold War by Fraser J Harbutt

It is no secret that Churchill is revered by many Americans as a philosopher king and role model for leadership. Whereas in Britain we see him as a man of the past, he is admired in the US as a guide to the present and future. Churchill’s unique stature on the other side of the Atlantic owes something to his wartime alliance with Roosevelt, but as Fraser Harbutt shows in a powerfully argued book, the decisive factor was the part Churchill played, while he was out of office, in facilitating the entry of the US into the cold war. The tipping point was his ‘iron curtain’ speech at Fulton in March 1946.

10. Churchill by Roy Jenkins; Churchill: A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best

The competition for the title of best one volume life of Churchill is intense and the result, it seems to me, is a tie between Roy Jenkins and Geoffrey Best. Both authors are comprehensive, accurate, and stylish, but in different ways. Jenkins brings to the subject a veteran politician’s feel for office and power, a worldly appreciation of Churchill’s love of the good life, and an encyclopaedic appetite for detail. His account is richly descriptive but tends to stick to the surface of events. Best is a more reflective and speculative writer with a historian’s flair for the insights that lie just beyond the tangible evidence. By different routes both authors come to the same conclusion, or as Best puts it: ‘His achievements, taken all in all, justify his title to be known as the greatest Englishman of his age…in this later time we are diminished if, admitting Churchill’s failings and failures, we can no longer appreciate his virtues and victories.’


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