On Thursday, December 20,1945, the editor of the Sunday Dispatch, Charles Eade, lunched with Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine at their new home in Knightsbridge in London. Eade was editing the former Prime Minister ’s wartime speeches for publication, and they were due to discuss the latest volume.
Before lunch, Eade had waited in what he later described as ‘a beautiful room with bookshelves let into the wall and carrying superbly bound volumes of French and English books’, which Churchill called his ‘snob library’. The walls were adorned with pictures of Churchill’s great ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and a portrait of Churchill painted by Sir John Lavery during the First World War.
The lunch re›ected post-war British rationing: an egg dish, cold turkey and salad, plum pudding and coffee. They drank a bottle of claret that the Mayor of Bordeaux had just sent over. Churchill told the trusted journalist, who had lunched with him several times during the war, that he ‘had got very drunk’ at a dinner at the French Embassy the previous night, adding with a chuckle, ‘drunker than usual.'
Over several glasses of brandy and a cigar – whose band Eade took away as a souvenir – Churchill got down to discussing the best way to publish the wartime speeches he had delivered when the House of Commons had been in secret session during the war. In the course of their hour-long talk, he showed Eade the sixty-eight volumes of minutes, messages and memoranda that he had sent to various Cabinet ministers and the Chiefs of Staff between 1940 and 1945, allowing him to open them at random.
When Eade naturally expressed surprise at the sheer volume of work that Churchill had managed to get through as prime minister, ‘He explained to me that he was able to handle all these affairs at the centre, because his whole life had been a training for the high office he had filled during the war.’ It was a sentiment that Churchill had expressed two years earlier to the Canadian Prime Minister, William Mackenzie King, during the Quebec Conference in August 1943. When King told Churchill that no one else could have saved the British Empire in 1940, he replied that ‘he had had very exceptional training, having been through a previous war, and having had large experience in government.’ King rejoined, ‘Yes, it almost confirmed the old Presbyterian idea of pre-destination or preordination; of his having been the man selected for this task.’ This idea was reiterated by the Conservative politician Lord Hailsham, who had been a junior minister in Churchill’s wartime government, when he said,
‘The one case in which I think I can see the finger of God in contemporary history is Churchill’s arrival at the premiership at that precise moment in 1940.’
Churchill put his remarks to King and Eade far more poetically three years later in the final lines of his book "The Gathering Storm," the first volume of his war memoirs. Recalling the evening of Friday, 10 May 1940, when he had become prime minister only hours after Adolf Hitler had unleashed his Blitzkrieg on the West, Churchill wrote, ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial . . . I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail.’
He had believed in his own destiny since at least the age of 16, when he told a friend that he would save Britain from a foreign invasion. His lifelong admiration of Napoleon and his own ancestor, John Church- ill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, coloured his belief that he too was a man of destiny. His aristocratic birth, as the holder of the two famous names of Spencer and Churchill, gave him a tremendous self-confidence that meant that he was not personally hurt by criticism. In the courageous and often lonely stands he was to take against the twin totalitarian threats of Fascism and Communism, he cared far more for what he imagined would have been the good opinion of his fallen comrades of the Great War than for what was said by his living colleagues on the benches of the House of Commons.
The memory of his friends killed in war or by accidents (such as Lawrence of Arabia) or alcoholism (such as F. E. Smith) very often moved Churchill to tears, but so did many other things, as this book will relate. Churchill’s passions and emotions often mastered him, and he never minded crying in public, even as prime minister, in an age that admired the stiff upper lip. This was just one phenomenon of many that made him a profoundly unusual person.
This book explores the extraordinary degree to which in 1940 Churchill ’s past life had indeed been but a preparation for his leadership in the Second World War. It investigates the myriad lessons that he learned in the 65 years before he became prime minister – years of error and tragedy as well as of hard work and inspiring leadership – then it looks at the ways that he put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour and trial. For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping.
Excerpted from "CHURCHILL: WALKING WITH DESTINY" by Andrew Roberts, published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, © 2018 by Andrew Roberts.