Book Review: Churchill's War Lab: Code-breakers, Scientists, and the Mavericks Churchill Led to Victory

Churchill’s War Lab: Code-breakers, Scientists, and the Mavericks Churchill led to victory. By: Taylor Downing. (Overlook Press, New York. 2011. 397 pp.)

Reviewed By: Benjamin Sparks

Taylor Downing’s book Churchill’s War follows the already well covered topic that is Sir Winston Churchill during World War II. This book follows his life and his leadership record, from his adventures in Africa at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign to World War I and onto World War II. As the title suggests however this book focuses on Sir Churchill’s rather hands on approach to his countries war with Nazi Germany over occupied Europe from 1939-1945. This book looks to construct the image of Churchill as not just the stoic leader of Britain’s wartime government but as a forward thinking “outside the box” strategist who was ahead of his time in many regards. Downing’s account starts slow explaining the childhood and early record of Churchill, the reader is quickly reintroduced to this ambitious, if not reckless young man who seemed destined for some greater future.

The author devotes much of the first part of his book to Churchill’s rearing and his personality, too much perhaps, though not enough is devoted to his time in South Africa and later Sudan as a journalist and soldier. The first 150 pages of this book serves as a narrative of his wilderness years and eventual ascent to Prime Minister as the war with Nazi Germany looms on the horizon. One of the best chapters in the first half is The Wizard War, detailing Churchill’s early interest in military intelligence and observation studies. It sets the stage for the last half of the book which details the Army, RAF, and Navy intelligence which Churchill propagated and oversaw throughout the war. Downing begins his explanation from Churchill’s perspective of the conflict, a new type of war, a modern war of “soldiers, sailors, airmen, [spies]-a Wizard War.” This book features a bevy of fabulously recreated photographs mainly of Churchill during his War years. The best photo is used for the cover also; Churchill stands with a cigar dangling out of the side of his mouth, holding a Thompson submachine gun with a drum magazine, posing for the camera with a slightly coy look on his face.

This book details the first attempt at covert special operations, highlighting the early days of the ‘Circus’, the main British intelligence agency which began as a group of scientists linked to RAF squadrons in Britain and overseas, in theatres such as North Africa for instance, in the early portion of the war. The work of the ‘Wizards’ at secret headquarters ‘Ultra’ was the most critical, this of course was vital in cracking the Enigma codes of the Germans during the war. After the war they were the first line of defense in the Cold War with the Soviets.

Indeed this was the stuff of Ian Fleming’s James Bond or John le Carré’s George Smiley. Churchill’s insistence on the creation of the Special Operations Executive or SOE, marks the birth of Cold War special operations and Special Forces groups superseded only by their Germanic counterparts who had operated before 1939. The SOE which Churchill himself nicknamed the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and when in its infancy he ordered its leadership to “set Europe ablaze”, was a fascinating bi-product of early 20th century military thinking, as Downing draws attention to in his book. He keeps the focus however on Churchill’s aspirations and desires, not necessarily the real world effectiveness of these covert and clandestine operations.

Though he is missing some explanation as to why the SOE and the Commandos brigades, also created at Churchill’s directive, were generally not that effective, Downing makes a very good argument in Churchill’s favor in regards to his progressive insight into military matters at a time when most leaders were not keen on Special Ops. Downing also doesn’t mention the British orchestrated assassination of SS Lt. General and governor of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, in the mission codename Operation Anthropoid of 1942, interestingly, because that relates directly to Churchill and the SOE. The author does explain several other projects related to the “scientists and mavericks” under Churchill’s ministers directive, but only in passing, including information on the Hedgehog anti U-boat mine and the PIAT (anti-tank) gun, omitting however the development of the Sten gun or any references to the famous picture of Churchill test firing one in 1941.

The historiography behind this topic and interest with the covert ops branches of World War II remains popular and as the title of this book suggests, there is a certain amount of mystique and dashing heroism linked to the study of Churchill’s wartime leadership. From his appearance in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglorious Basterds, where he is depicted ordering an SOE mission into Nazi occupied France, to a popular computer game franchise Commandos, and endless other books, movies, and popular media, the covert, cloak-and-dagger portion of the Second World War remains ever popular. Downing’s book Churchill’s War Lab, code-breakers, scientists, and the mavericks Churchill led to victory certainly deserves a place among the varying popular history interpretations of this period.

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