The Last Lion

Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

By William Manchester and Paul Reid

Little Brown, 1,232 pp. $40

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Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


With this third volume of William Manchester's

The Last Lion

, one of the two truly epic multi-volume 20th-century political biographies still at sea has finally been finished.

That other, greater white whale of the great man theory of history, Robert Caro's four-books-and-counting The Years Of Lyndon Johnson, is still ongoing. But thanks to Paul Reid, the newspaperman Manchester handpicked before his death in 2004 to finish it, this massive life of Churchill has been told in full.

Manchester began his life of the World War II prime minister, voted the greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll (Princess Diana came in third), with 1983's Visions Of Glory, 1874-1932. But the author, who had written best sellers on Douglas MacArthur and John F. Kennedy, stalled after the second volume, Alone, 1932-1940, was published in 1988.

He was brought low first by writer's block, and then the cancer that killed him.

Manchester considered several authors to bring The Last Lion through its climactic years as Churchill heroically led a Britain standing alone against Nazi aggression in the early 1940s and then alongside the United States and Soviet Union.

Russell Baker and Diane McWhorter were candidates. But Manchester settled on Reid, a Palm Beach Post feature writer and fellow military history buff protege. With the research and 100 pages completed, the gargantuan task of bringing Churchill to life at the center of a multi-front war was left to the novice author.

It took him a while, and drove him into debt, but Reid has done a more than respectable job.

He does not write with the narrative flourishes that were a Manchester trademark. This stage-setting passage from Visions of Glory, which flashed forward to the moment when the combative, cigar-smoking 65-year-old Churchill was set to take over as prime minister in 1940, is typically Manchesterian.

"Like Adolf Hitler, [the new prime minister] would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue . . . an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people . . . In London there was such a man."

Reid's style is more mundane, wont to bog down in detail about tanks and divisions and bomb tonnages. He occasionally suffers from poor word choice, as when he says a 1943 Royal Air force bombing of the German city of Hamburg that killed 40,000 and left 800,000 homeless "made up for" the entirety of London's casualties during the Blitz.

Still, Reid has an incredible tale to tell, and a colorful quote-machine central figure to tell it through. He keeps the 1,000-plus pages turning.

The book purports to cover the years from Churchill's first ascendancy as prime minister, when he replaced appeaser Neville Chamberlain in 1940, through his second term in the 1950s and ending with his death in 1965.

But 90 percent of the tome is dedicated to the war years, and that's OK because it's what we want to hear about anyway. The most riveting parts come in the first half, when Hitler had his way with virtually all of mainland Europe, and the dread of what at first seems like inevitable German invasion gives way to the Luftwaffe's punishing aerial bombardment.

Reid cites Churchill's military errors and points out that Churchill was a 19th-century man at heart, a lifelong war-making servant of the Empire born to the nobility - he never rode a bus in his life - who remained a colonialist to the end. "That old humbug Gandhi" is how he referred to his peace-loving adversary on the Asian subcontinent.

But though Reid mentions his protagonists' flaws, he doesn't dwell on them. He's smitten, and who can blame him? Chronicling the life of a figure as central to history as Churchill is a subject any biographer would die for. In these pages, he's a whiskey and red-meat-loving omnivore who prowls the London streets on mornings after German bombardments in his John Bull hat, carrying his walking stick, bucking up his fellow Britons with a never-say-die stiff upper lip.

It's in those trying times, in which the iconic image of the bulldoglike British leader, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature, was forged. The lisping orator saw it as his task, as newsman Edward R. Murrow put it, "to mobilize the English language and send it into battle," as he did with phrases like "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," referring to Royal Air Force airmen.

Reid shows us Churchill doing everything he can to cajole President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring the United States into the war, knowing full well British survival depended on American might. That, along with Hitler's rash decision to go east and risk the Russian winter rather than forge ahead across the English channel.

The irony, as Defender of the Realm moves toward its denouement, is that the Americans and Soviets wound up pushing Britain aside, and the empire Churchill spent his life defending crumbled. Churchill sees the new world order coming - "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind," may be his most farseeing quote - but he's powerless to stop it.

In 1941, Churchill gave one of his most famous wartime speeches. "Never give in. Never, never, never," he told Londoners. "In nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense."

With Defender of the Realm, the author has heeded the words of his subject, and brought the decadeslong project begun by his mentor to a dignified conclusion.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.