Never Surrender | John Kelly on Churchill and Britain in 1940

Never Surrender : Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 is popular historian John Kelly’s account of a critical year during which Hitler advanced across Europe and Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as British Prime Minister.

Drawing extensively on official and private sources, Kelly captures the confusion, disbelief, doom and stoicism of the time.  Never Surrender is an extensively annotated work but the meticulous detail in no way distracts from a compelling and fascinating read.

In the opening chapter Kelly recaps events from the end of the first World War to Hitler’s rise. He conveys a sense of stillness before a storm. We see ordinary people going about every day tasks, alert to imminence of war. The Great War is alive in their memory and adds to their fear for the future.

Political focus

After the first chapter, Never Surrender zones in on the decisions that faced Britain in 1940. It largely focuses on the politics of the period — the men and women whose decisions determined the fate of their nation. Kelly skilfully weaves the details of this political story with behind the scenes colour on the process that led to Churchill succeeding Chamberlain as Prime Minister.

Kelly allows the sources — official and private — to convey the views of Churchill’s supporters and detractors. This gives the reader an insight into Churchill’s motivation and decision-making.

In the later chapters, the inclusion of brief quotes from Churchill’s speeches illustrates how skilfully the Prime Minister used language to influence and lead opinion. It was perhaps not surprising that in 1953, Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature.

While the events of 1940 will be broadly familiar to many readers, as indeed are many of the personalities — Chamberlain, Churchill, Lloyd George and Joe Kennedy to name but a few — Kelly’s detail and storytelling ability make Never Surrender a fascinating read that should appeal to anyone with an interest in Churchill and Britain’s WW2 history.

Never Surrender
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Never Surrender : Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly i published by Scribner, October 2015

[Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Never Surrender via Netgalley]

If you like Never Surrender, you might also like The Graves are Walking by John Kelly.

The Graves are Walking: The great famine and the saga of the Irish people by John Kelly

John Kelly’s insight and commentary together with his use of primary sources gives an immediacy to The Graves are Walking that makes it one the best and most readable accounts of the Irish famine that I have come across.

The famine began in 1845 when the potato crop was hit by a bacterial infection thereby depriving the Irish poor of their food source and leading over the following five years to a disaster that saw the country’s population decline through death and emigration by a third with roughly 1,000,000 dying and a further 1,000, 000 emigrating in the years between 1847 and 1851.

“If the famine has any enduring lesson to teach, it is about the harm that even the best are capable of when they lose their way and allow religion and political ideology to traduce reason and humanity.”

Statistics quoted by Kelly speak eloquently to the sheer scale of the disaster –“only one in three Irishmen born in Ireland around 1831 would die in Ireland of old age”, “between 1847 and 1851, the eviction rate rose by nearly 1,000 percent, overwhelming the Irish Poor Law system” and “between 1847 and 1851, 848,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York”.

But Kelly goes beyond the statistics using contemporary news reports and journals to tell the stories of real people and the sources he draws on provide sometimes surprising insights into day-to-day life in the 1840s from transport to public works programs such as road building to the use of private militia by landlords seeking to evict their tenants.

There are also surprisingly contemporary parallels to be drawn in respect of public policy making and the desperate consequences of poor decision-making. On famine, for example, Kelly observes: “In modern famines, starvation often arises not from an absolute shortage of food, bur from access to food — and among the things that govern who has access and who does not is the cost of food.”

The Graves are Walking  is very accessible to general readers — Kelly’s research and writing are excellent and he lets the sources and facts speak for themselves.  Books like this should be compulsory reading for public policy makers.

 The Graves are Walking by John Kelly is published by Henry Holt & Co and is available for Kindle. ISBN 978-0-571-28443-6.