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Reviewed by:
  • Churchill and His Generals
  • David French
Churchill and His Generals. By Raymond Callahan . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7006-1512-4. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. x, 310. $34.95.

In 1991 John Keegan published an edited collection of essays, Churchill's Generals, with a title deceptively similar to Professor Callahan's book. A comparison of the two works shows the ways in which the study of the British army's combat capability in the Second World War has developed in the intervening years. The approach of Keegan and his collaborators was resolutely biographical. Callahan's book reflects the structuralist approach which has become more common over the last decade. Although he certainly does not ignore the significance of personalities—how could he when two of his main protagonists were men of such titanic egos as Churchill and Montgomery—he places them firmly in the context of the bigger problems that faced the British army.

Churchill's relations with his generals were often acrimonious. His cables, conversations, and minutes were replete with criticisms of them. Callahan defends Churchill from the charge that his views about the conduct of war had not proceeded much beyond those of the subaltern who had fought on the North West Frontier of India in the 1890s. But he has to admit that there were gaps in his knowledge and understanding. He was too ready to believe that brave officers would automatically be able strategists, and he had little patience with, or understanding of, logistics. But fundamentally what divided him from many of his generals was their differing perceptions of what the British army could or could not be trained and equipped to do. Callahan shows that the army suffered from two overriding structural problems. After 1918 it never had a single, clearly defined mission that might have shaped its doctrine, training, organization, and equipment. And in 1939 it was pitchforked into a war in the very middle of a hasty and ill-thought-out expansion and reequipment programme. It did not emerge from the resulting period of trial, error, and many defeats until late 1942, and then walked into a second major set of problems caused by Britain's dwindling manpower reserves. Callahan's conclusions, that the British army's story was one ultimately of successful institutional transformation under extreme stress, is one which most recent historians of the army will probably accept.

This is not a work of original scholarship. But it is a work of fresh insights in at least two significant respects. Some of Callahan's footnotes are mini bibliographic essays that highlight gaps in the literature that still need to be filled. As he correctly suggests, for example, we do not yet have convincing biographies of either Sir Claude Auchinleck or Sir Harold Alexander. [End Page 1290] But even more important, Callahan has bridged the gap in much of the recent literature between the British and the British-Indian Armies. He has shown how they developed in parallel in the course of the war, until by 1945 Sir William Slim's XIV Army could do what Churchill had never intended should be done, and did not think could be done, and reconquer Burma overland.

David French
University College London
London, United Kingdom


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Print ISSN
pp. 1290-1291
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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