Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Never Surrender by Michael Dobbs

This stunning historical novel brings you deep inside Winston Churchill's mind and heart as he becomes Prime Minister and takes on the terrifying challenge of halting Hitler's murderous invasion of France, Holland and Belgium with only his wits and his magnificent words. Only his courage stands between the people of the British Isles and advancing enemy armies as they drive his retreating soldiers onto the beaches of Dunkirk and into the English Channel. You will live at Churchill's side as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy while contending with his fellow ministers, who plot to throw him out of office. And you will be the fly on the wall of history as he matches wits with Hitler in the most crucial battlefield of all, the battlefield of the mind.

Whilst I have read a number of books set in WWII where the main characters interact with many of the famous real life figures, this is the first time that I remember reading a book where the main characters are the real life historical figures. One of the advantages of this is that even though I have not read much about Churchill, for example, I very much already had a picture in my mind of the character, of what he looked like and yes, that also means some preconceptions about some of his characteristics.

This book is actually the second book in a series of four that concentrates on a number of incidents during the war to give us a picture of the man who led Britain during the darkest days of WWII. This book concentrates on the days just after Churchill finally became Prime Minister, and then follows the events as they unfold over the next three weeks, a period which includes the evacuation at Dunkirk, and the famous speech that was given in the House of Commons following the evacuation:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

There were a number of things within the book which surprised me. I did not know that Churchill was so universally disliked by his political opponents, and yet it seemed that the tenaciousness that made him a challenging personal opponent was the very thing that Britain as a country needed to lead them against the deadly foe that was Hitler.

Don't get me wrong...this book is not some rosy eyed look at Churchill. This is a man who is portrayed as thinking nothing of giving a briefing to his staff whilst in the bath. A man who wanted to attack at all cost despite the disobedience of his generals, when in the end, it was only in retreating that the British even managed to live on to fight another day.

Whilst it is primarily a book about Churchill and WWII it is also a book about fathers and sons. Churchill seems haunted by his father - his political life and his personal relationship with him - always trying to act in such a way as to possibly exceed his father's seemingly low expectations for him.

In addition, threaded throughout the story, there is also a relationship between another father and son. Don Chichester is a non combatant stationed initially in Belgium, working in the Royal Ambulance Corp. As Churchill makes decisions as to where the troops must go, Don is the human face that portrays the effect of those decisions. He had joined up as a non-combatant, much to the shame of his vicar father, Henry, and the two have parted barely on speaking terms. Truth be told, this storyline was the weaker of the two major plotlines, but it did enable us to be part of the defense of Calais, the mad scramble to get to Dunkirk, and then to be on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting to see if the Navy was going to be able to rescue the thousands of troops there, who were basically sitting targets for the German fighter pilots.

I very nearly said that I didn't want to review this one when I was offered it last year, but definitely am glad that I said yes. Not long ago I was offered the fourth book in this series (which I will review in the next few days), so I thought I should hurry up and read this one, despite the fact that it isn't the first book! I am definitely planning to pick up the other books to fill in the gaps. Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing me with a copy of this book.

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