Book Report: “Closing the Ring”

Winston Churchill’s Closing the Ring

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Epic with a capital ‘E.’ You are there, in the moments that changed the world, peering out from inside the head of the peerless leader of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Any review of this book should begin with the author’s name, not the title, because the source makes the material matter more.

“Closing the Ring” is a masterpiece for which my (lengthy) explanation is no substitute for the experience of reading the actual words by the actual man who lead the actual effort against Germany in World War II. If the size of the book is daunting, know that each chapter has its own table of contents so each topic can receive the focus the reader wishes to give it.

Churchill wrote six volumes to recount World War II for posterity. I’m confident you can start with any of them because I began my walk with Winston right here, in the fifth.

Reading this work before visiting Normandy, I yearned to know those events that preceded D-Day. I learned, I laughed, I felt, and I’d have few fears in the hands of this confident master of words, wisdom, and war. History is here, stunning in its depth even if you have studied the era.

“Closing the Ring” walks the reader through parts of the Pacific campaign. It measures the Mediterranean fight and tallies the Italian invasion. Burma and India are not buried or ignored. Russia’s resolve on the “First Front” with Germany is germane to the struggle and a critical driver of the war’s direction and timing.

Many monumental theaters of war remarkably overlap. There is great detail in the fascinating accounts of the air war in Europe. The battle for southern Italy (the Third Front) is a study unto itself, where Allied troops fought their way into Rome a mere four days before the invasion of northern France, known to Churchill as the “Second Front.”

The constant thread through these hundreds of pages is that of preparing for the Normandy invasion. June 6, 1944 marks the end of this book. Never has the journey to the destination been more interesting, more fact-filled, more clear, or more complete. Maps were crisp and highly readable on the Kindle edition.

I now sense what the “Overlord” invasion required. The list was long, beginning with the struggle to wrest Atlantic shipping lanes from the terror of U-boats. That tide was turning even as the horror of losses continued through 1943: “In the last three months of 1943 fifty-three U-boats were destroyed, while we lost only forty-seven merchant ships.” And that’s the good news!

Wartime production of materials on both sides of the Atlantic built toward the invasion. Bombing and fighting raged. Losses reached mind-numbing figures, in cold, calculating fashion: “It pays us anyhow to lose one aircraft for every German machine shot down.” … “When at length the blow fell upon us we were able … to ward it off, albeit with heavy loss in life and much damage to property, but without any effective hindrance to our war-making capacity …”.

Little happened without great measures of planning. “Major tactical needs must always have priority over strategic policy.” Adequate preparation would “thus render possible the landing and sustained advance of armies of a million rising to two million …”.

There was broad agreement at the top between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. The teamwork of the upper echelon extended to the lines of battle, apparent even to the opposition: “The commander of the German Tenth Army in Italy has since stated that the harmonious co-operation between our [combined Allied] Army, Air, and Naval forces under one supreme command was regarded by the Germans with envy.”

In the midst of ‘broad agreement’ it appears Charles de Gaulle was a less agreeable sort:

  • “During the summer of 1943 the relations of the British Government with de Gaulle deteriorated”
  • “The Americans reached the point where they might refuse to recognise any provisional [French authority] if they thought that de Gaulle would be the dominating influence.”
  • “The result of our year of effort to bring about a united policy founded upon a true sense of comradeship between the United States, Britain, and the Free French leaders had been disappointing.”

This work contains text of telegrams and letters between leaders as well as to some field commanders. Nothing is more illuminating than those between President Roosevelt of the U.S.A. and our host (while living in these pages) Prime Minister Churchill. The two sustained a strong relationship that seemed as critical to winning the war as any battle.

Curious why the PM signed his wires to FDR “Former Naval Person,” I found via other sources that their bond began September 11, 1939, the date Germany’s invasion into Poland precipitated England’s declaration of war, when Roosevelt sent a communique across the Atlantic. It was in this exchange that the Brit, presently Lord of the British Navy and not yet PM, signed his letter “Naval Person” to note his professional brotherhood with the American, already President but hitherto the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I.

Beyond FDR, Americans earned respect from Britain’s leader that shines throughout this book:

  • “I became increasingly impressed with the very great preponderance of American troops that would be employed after the original landing … and now at Quebec [planning Normandy] I myself took the initiative of proposing to the President that an American commander should be appointed for the expedition to France.”
  • “The extraordinary prowess of the United States engineers transformed the port of Naples from ruin into a first-class harbour.”
  • “For our air superiority, … full tribute must be paid to the U.S. Eighth Air Force, once it gained its long-range fighters.”

Despite the grim topic of war, the author provides bits of humor and memorable quotes to lighten the text. Writers will recognize the angst of authorship felt by this man while working to compose a radio speech to the American people after feverishly debating war then trying to enjoy a few days relaxation: “[Writing for] the broadcast made progress, but original composition is more exhausting than either arguing or fishing.”

I also enjoyed gems such as (regarding the Allied landing at Anzio, south of Rome) “I had hoped that we were hurling a wild cat on to the shore, but all we had got was a stranded whale,” and particularly “In the Grenadier Guards, with whom I once had the honour to serve, all orders are received with the one word ‘Sir’. However, all kinds of inflections may be given to this monosyllable.”

This book allows me to understand the complexity of the war era. I was not aware the RAF of Britain flew missions from a base in northern Russia, or the Americans endeavored that China be integral to the war effort.

It is easy to forget that this was a period of strong Communist activity. Spain and Russia were dominated by Communists or by its influence, not to mention China. Plus, “Tito was waging war as a Communist not only against the German invaders but against the Serbian monarchy …”.

Churchill kept his eye on the prize, which meant defeating Germany: “We should not be able to agree here in attacking countries which have not molested us because we dislike their totalitarian form of government. I do not know whether there is more freedom in Stalin’s Russia than in Franco’s Spain. I have no intention to seek a quarrel with either.” … “I do not want to enforce any system on other nations. I ask for freedom and for the right of all nations to develop as they like.”

Much has been made, including a film “The Ghost Army” (2013) of efforts to deceive the other side regarding plans for the invasion. Churchill also gives it due credit: “The feet [sic] that such a complex series of movements could be accomplished without detection by a wary and determined enemy is a remarkable tribute to the work of the Allied Air Forces and the excellence of our deception plans.”

But perhaps this reader has been the one kept in the dark. I did not know these tactics bore fruit first for the Soviets: “Stalin explained that the Russians had made considerable use of deception by means of dummy tanks, aircraft, and airfields. Radio deception had also proved effective.”

Remarkably, while this book preps the reader for invasion, the leaders had been preparing for the aftermath of not just the battle to come, but also post-war Europe. In the middle of 1943, a year before D-Day, Churchill writes, “During these busy days I thought it right, now that our ultimate victory appeared certain, to dwell upon what would descend upon us at the same time as victory.” Thus the allied leaders began to discuss future borders for middle-Europe countries. Was that simply preparatory or preposterously presumptuous? I found it surprising, particularly the early date and depth of such discussions.

Recognizing that Germany wasn’t the only major opponent, the Prime Minister was ready and even eager to focus more fight on the Far East enemy: “Very large naval forces would be needed, but only in the final phase would great armies be required, and by then Hitler would be overthrown and the main strength of Britain and the United States could be hurled against Japan.” … “the dispute between the British and American Chiefs of Staff was on the issue that Britain demanded a full and fair place in the war against Japan from the moment when Germany was beaten.”

I harbor no doubts this is but one man’s version of events. The author acknowledges some others, and wishes to state the record in his favor. Still, I choose to trust and wholly recommend Churchill’s first-hand account with its vivid detail and exceptional insight.

“Closing the Ring” opens the mind to history, war, and character. Thank you, Mr. Winston Churchill, for skillfully sharing, and shaping, these moments of history for us.

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