M R-D-Foot

The grandest of old men

Mr Gladstone’s career in politics was titanic. Mr Gladstone’s career in politics was titanic. He sat for over 60 years in the Commons, was in the cabinet before he was 35, was four times prime minister, almost solved the Irish question, set new standards for the conduct of public business and of foreign policy, and

Macabre success story

Any bright schoolchild could tell, from a glance at his or her atlas, where the Allies were going to land next, after they had conquered Tunis in 1943: it would have to be Sicily. The deception service persuaded the German highest command that Sicily was only the cover for an attack on southern Greece, after

An unlikely hero

This sparkling biography of a small-part actor who did two missions into Nazi-occupied France as a radio operator for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) begins with a rather iffy 60 pages on his identity and pre-war stage career; much of what the agent said about himself was contradictory, much was exaggerated, and little of it

Stage-effects in earnest

Churchill’s Wizards, by Nicholas Rankin Deception plays a large part in war, just as feinting plays a large part in sport. The British excel at it, and used it with much success in both the 20th century’s world wars, particularly in the second. That war’s conspiracy theorists are fond of suggesting even more deceptions than

The Marlborough touch

Geoffrey Best has written a formidably good book about Churchill’s military core. He begins with the hussar sub- altern, as well as the great Duke of Marlborough his ancestor, before he goes near politics. He reconstructs the standards of conduct that were common form among the aristocracy and the officer class with whom the young

Letters from the Front

A wide gap has opened up between British military historians who work on the world war of 1914-18 and the mass of British schoolteachers who take it in school history classes. The teachers, impressed by the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, follow what may be called the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ school of Alan Clark,

Our deadliest secret

This book shows how successive cabinets have handled the deadliest secret of modern times, what to do about nuclear bombs, since the first ones went off in 1945. As the subject was so secret, not much has ever been allowed out into the public domain; but Hennessy’s scholarly skills have been such that he has

Jealous neighbourhood watch

M. R. D. Foot on the new, English translation of Simon Kitson’s book  This short, telling book — it has barely 160 pages of actual text — first came out two years ago in French. It takes a fresh look at Pétain’s French state, which tried to govern defeated France from Vichy from 1940 to 1944;

Decryption and deception

Two books just out from small publishers throw interesting light on the more secret corners of the British handling of the world war against Hitler’s Germany. Each covers a subject that was deadly secret at the time, but of critical importance for winning the war. Joan Bright Astley’s war autobiography, published to much less acclaim

The supreme double-crosser

The formidable Colonel ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, who ran MI5’s inmost interrogation centre, once recorded that ‘fiction has not, and probably never will, produce an espionage story to rival in fascination and improbability the true story of Edward Chapman, whom only war could invest with virtue, and that only for its duration’. If Ben Macintyre had

Triumph and tragedy

The 90th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme falls on 1 July. Several books mark it; it made a scar on the nation’s memory that is still severe, and it is still often called the day when the army suffered its worst casualties. Strictly, this is not true, for General Perceval

One who got away

Listing page content here Rather late, we have here the recollections of a then young German army staff officer, who saw Hitler almost daily for the last nine months of the second world war. As Guderian’s ADC, it was Freytag von Loringhoven’s duty to attend the daily Leader’s Conferences at which Hitler continued to direct

The Drang nach Osten

Listing page content here Two good books both cover the fighting between Germany and Russia in 1941, a brief historian’s summary of the strategic issues involved and a much longer ex-diplomat’s account of the tactics of the greatest land battle ever fought. Each author is used to explaining himself clearly, one in lectures, the other

One of Vichy’s vilest

This is a ghastly story, powerfully well told. Lives of criminals form an accepted part of biography; within it, lives of con men are more difficult, because conmen cover and confuse their tracks so carefully. Carmen Callil triumphs over innumerable difficulties to make clear the career of Louis Darquier, one of the villains of the

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Most of this powerful book was written nearly 60 years ago. It was then rejected by two London publishers as too anti-Soviet in tone, and a few years later by two more as too anti-German. It consists of the war recollections of a Polish countess of notable ancestry and equally notable courage, who describes exactly

A man in a million

Of the making of books about Churchill there seems to be no end. His own output was large, and largely self-centred. We already have an official life in eight volumes, with several volumes of supplementary papers, a number of single-volume lives, long and short, books by supporters, books by opponents, books by those interested in

The still unwithered laurel wreath

In the reviewer’s childhood, Scott was a national hero, almost as revered as Nelson. Revisionists did what they could in the 1960s and 1970s to cut him down to size; generations have been brought up to despise him. David Crane’s new life seeks to restore the balance, to show the man as he was and

A woman in a million

Of all the extraordinary secret careers that have gone public since the end of the world war against Hitler, one of the most dashing and farthest out of the ordinary was that of the woman the SOE called Christine Granville. Her father, the Polish Count Jerzy Skarbek, died when she was a child; her mother

Recording secrets under orders

This book is a goldmine of once highly secret intelligence material: the diary kept, night by night, by the head of the counter-espionage branch of the security service, MI5. Diaries were forbidden to British combatants (though, luckily for historians, the chief of the general staff, among others, broke his own rule, and kept a long

Far beyond the call of duty

On the 150th anniversary of the first deed for which a Victoria Cross was awarded, this admirable book recounts some of the tales of those who have won it. The earliest, a young naval officer called Charles Lucas, ran forward instead of taking cover when a bomb landed, sizzling, on the deck of HMS Hecla