Book Review: Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War, 1895–1945


by Anthony Tucker-Jones

Oxford and New York: Bloomsbury / Osprey, 2021. Pp. vi, 384+. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1472847334

Churchill, Politician and Warrior

Another book about Winston Churchill? Aren’t there enough? A search for “Winston Churchill books” on Amazon reveals a list that stretches to 6,000 volumes and includes his own writings, many reissues of biographies about him, and many other books that mention him. This year alone two more biographies have been added: Stephen Mansfield and George E. Grant’s Never Give In, and The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Yet as his title suggests, Anthony Tucker-Jones takes a very particular approach to his subject, giving it a new and compelling focus. His thoroughly researched, well documented, and convincingly argued thesis is that Churchill was always driven by his two main passions: the military and politics. While Churchill’s political achievements were monumental and well known, much less has been written about his soldiering and his military interests. By carefully examining the way in which Churchill’s political career and the wars he experienced were inextricably entwined, as well as the effect each had on the other, Tucker-Jones sheds light on how Churchill came about his views on warfare and how he continued to press those views persistently throughout his long political career.

Churchill was born in 1874 at Blenheim Palace, the first Duke of Marlborough’s grand estate named for one of his most famous military victories. Although Churchill would never inherit the title or the estate – his father, Lord Randolph, being the third son of the seventh duke – he nevertheless grew up revering his ancestor. Tucker-Jones notes that from an early age Churchill saw himself destined for a military career, kicked off by joining the Harrow Rifle Corps soon after arriving at the school in 1888. An indifferent scholar who failed to apply himself, Churchill eventually did much better at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, graduating from there into the cavalry with a commission in the 4th Hussars. Steeped in the grand ethos of the Victorian empire, Churchill was also driven by what Tucker-Jones refers to as a quite remarkable “lust for military adventure” and a “quest for self-promotion and glory.” (p. 9). He spent the next four years engaged in every conflict he could talk his way into, serving, observing, and reporting from Cuba, the North-West frontier and the Sudan. And when his first attempt to be elected to Parliament failed in 1899, he managed to be hired as a newspaper correspondent and sent to South Africa where war had just broken out with the Boers. Surviving extraordinary adventures including capture by the Boers and escape, and memorializing these in dispatches, Churchill became something of a celebrity back home. His legend had begun.

Elected to Parliament in 1901 representing Oldham for the Tories, Churchill from then on pursued a political career. But it would be a mistake, Tucker-Jones argues persuasively, to believe that Churchill’s military career was over. He spends the next six chapters of the book pointing out exactly how involved Churchill continued to be in military affairs. This complements the much better-known part of Churchill’s career – his leadership in World War II – and sets up his military interventions in that war. Indeed, Churchill had learned much about warfare by then and he continued to rely on those lessons.

Switching away from the Tories and joining the Liberal Party in 1904, Churchill served a stint as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies where it was confirmed for him that the British Empire, as well as India, relied entirely on the Royal Navy for its protection. In 1910 Churchill was appointed Home Secretary foreshadowing his lifelong need to personally take charge of every crisis. He was criticized, unfairly according to Tucker-Jones, for insisting on the use of the army in the handling of a group of anarchists holed up in a house in London and, again unfairly, for quelling riots in Wales with the use of the army. But Tucker-Jones confirmed that what Churchill did gain as Home Secretary was reinforcement of what he had learned in the Boer War about the importance of intelligence. For the rest of his career Churchill remained fully supportive of MI5, responsible for counterintelligence, and MI6 responsible for intelligence gathering.

In 1911 Churchill built on his high regard for the Royal Navy when he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty but his reputation was tarnished during the First World War when he was blamed for the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles. Tucker-Jones absolves him of this also but points out that it taught Churchill the valuable lesson that combined operations should be run by a single commander-in-chief and never by committee, a lesson he would take to organizing for D-Day. Meanwhile, feeling disgraced, Churchill volunteered for service on the Western Front in November 1915, eventually commanding a battalion in France. After seeing trench warfare firsthand and surviving a number of close scrapes, Churchill returned to his seat in Parliament and in 1917 was appointed Minister of Munitions. In that position he greatly increased the strength of the Tank Corps and the Machine-Gun Corps, and increased the number of airplanes in service. He was also in charge of the production of poison gas and controversially though unsuccessfully advocated its use in the next war in spite of its banning in 1925.

In 1919, the Liberal Prime Minister made Churchill the Secretary of State for War and Air and he was largely responsible for securing the future of the Royal Air Force as an independent service. But this book is no hagiography. Tucker-Jones does not gloss over Churchill’s many errors, among them his mishandling of the Irish nationalist movement and of calls for Indian independence, and his antipathy to the Bolshevists and promotion of involvement in the Russian Civil War against them. In 1923 Churchill lost his Liberal seat, rejoined the Conservatives, and eventually became Chancellor of the Exchequer but at a time of deflation and great economic strife. When the Conservatives lost the next general election Churchill, while remaining a Member of Parliament, began what he called his ‘wilderness years’ during which he was offered no governmental or opposition responsibilities, in large part due to his imperial world view and his continuing intransigence with regard to India.

In the following chapters Tucker-Jones follows Churchill’s career in World War II, particularly focusing on his less-well-known military interventions and explaining how they stemmed from his lifetime experiences in and with the military. During these years, indeed, Churchill was both master and commander, both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, the new post he created for himself. Tucker-Jones argues that Churchill’s long preoccupation with the military prepared him uniquely to lead his country in war and he gives him enormous credit for his great accomplishments in helping to win the war. But he also unsparingly points out the times Churchill was glaringly wrong, for example with regard to Ireland, or when he antagonized Roosevelt with his Mediterranean strategy. Tucker-Jones’s thematic approach sometimes leads to confusion as he jumps around chronologically from topic to topic. This is particularly evident where he deals with the whole spectrum of wartime concerns in many different fields. On the other hand, this does reflect the vast globe-spanning issues with which Churchill had to deal.

One of the most interesting aspects of this part of the story is how Churchill’s need to be in charge and in the limelight caused enormous trouble for his generals during the war by his constant interference in their decision making. General Montgomery, in particular, had that cross to bear. Tucker-Jones writes of Operation Plunder, the crossing of the River Rhine, that “the reckless young lieutenant still trapped inside Churchill was not prepared to miss out playing a part in this.” (p.304) Indeed, one of the things Tucker-Jones does best is showing how Churchill pursued both his political interests and his military ideas with intensity, verve, extraordinary energy, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.

Anthony Tucker-Jones’s account of Churchill as master and commander is easy to read and absorbing. He documents the influences on the man in great depth and shows clearly how his experiences shaped him. This focus allows him to come up with some revelations that may well be new to most readers. Indeed, there is something here for everyone to learn and to enjoy.


Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, a military historian, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and sometime Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception and Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.


Note: Churchill, Master and Commander is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams   

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