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. 1940 was the  year when 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.  In the opening chapter he recaps events from the end of the first World War to Hitler’s rise. He conveys the 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. Kelly concentrates on the men and women whose decisions determined the fate of their nation. He skilfully weaves the details of this political story with behind the scenes colour. In this way, he colourfully illustrates 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 shows 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. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in Churchill and Britain’s WW2 history.

Never Surrender is an extensively annotated work. Despite the meticulous detail, however, the annotation in no way distracts from a fascinating read.

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.

Gorey in WW1 : Local history by Brian and Mary Kenny

This history of Gorey in WW1 is a local history publication by Brian and Mary Kenny. It examines the impact of the first world war on Gorey, County Wexford and the rural town lands that surround it.

2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 and this is one of number of publications — local, national and international — reflecting on the Great War.

Although many young Irish men enlisted in regiments such as the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Field Artillery, the Irish Guard, the Connaught Rangers to name but a few,  it is only in recent times that their service is being recognised in Ireland. And yet, as Brian and Mary Kenny demonstrate in their account of Gorey in WW1 North Wexford, many Irish families suffered the loss of their young men who were killed in action.

History of Gorey men in WW1

In News from the Front: Gorey and the Great War Brian and Mary Kenny draw on local newspapers, letters home from the soldiers and various other sources to produce a short, illustrated and highly readable account of how ordinary families were affected. Through a series of poignant glimpses into the lives of young men — mostly aged 19-40  who were ‘called to the colours’ in 1914 — they show the extent that local townlands were seeing their young men join up and head to the trenches. For a contemporary reader, it is shocking that so many of the young men of Gorey in WW1 who served and lost their lives and whose stories are included in this book were still in their teens. Among them is the story of a boy by the name of John Henry Gratten Esmonde who, aged 15, in January 1915 in a letter to his father, the MP Thomas H Esmonde set out a detailed and very well written description of an encounter between the Invincible, and a German ship, the Scharnhorst, off the Falkland Islands on December 8th 1915 which resulted in the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Like so many of the young men who signed up and served this Esmonde boy was killed in action before he had reached his eighteenth birthday. The book includes a casualty list giving the name, regiment, date of death and home townland of the individuals listed. It also provides a regimental index. For anyone with an interest in the history of County Wexford — particularly the Gorey area — this is a book to add to your collection. At the time of writing News from the Front : Gorey and the Great War is available from some local Gorey retailers.


Highclere Castle and the real family story behind Downton Abbey

My great-grandfather was a butler at the end of the nineteenth century. I like to think of him as a kind of Carson, the wise if somewhat stern Downton Abbey butler nostalgic for the traditions of yesteryear. So, when I was invited to read Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, I was intrigued.
For anyone who enjoys period drama like Downton Abbey, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona J M Aitken, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, is an interesting and  accessible read with many parallels between the Carnarvon and Grantham families.

It is an account of the life of an Anglo American — Catherine Wendell — who, through marriage, became the fifth Countess Carnarvon and for a time presided over Highclere Castle, now best known as the setting for Downton Abbey.

Catherine’s father in law, Lord Carnarvon, ran through a fortune funding Howard Carter’s archaeological exploits in Egypt and is remembered for the remarkable discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. His death left Catherine’s husband Porchey liable for massive death duties putting the castle and estate at risk.

Porchey and Catherine were both close to her brother Reggie who seemed to play a role in keeping the marriage stable. When Reggie died in 1928 their marriage hit a rocky patch. Porchey was frequently away from home and associated with other women, including a member of the Irish Guinness family. Perhaps not surprisingly the distance between Catherine and her husband ultimately led to divorce.

She had to leave Highclere Castle and subsequently married Geoffrey Grenfell in 1938 but was widowed just three years later when Grenfell lost his life in the war. Porchey also remarried but the two seem to have parted on amicable terms and remained friends throughout their lives.

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey is a gentle family account of life from another era and is nicely illustrated with photographs. I enjoyed it.

[Disclosure: An advance reader’s copy (ARC) was provided by the publisher free of charge for the purpose of this review.]