The Second World War (book series)

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Churchill's The Second World War first edition in 6 volumes
Churchill's The Second World War 1960s paperback edition in 12 volumes

The Second World War is a history of the period from the end of the First World War to July 1945, written by Winston Churchill. It was largely responsible for his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.[1] Churchill labelled the "moral of the work" as follows: "In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill".[2]

Churchill wrote the book, with a team of assistants, using both his own notes and privileged access to official documents while still working as a politician; the text was vetted by the Cabinet Secretary. Churchill was largely fair in his treatment, but wrote the history from his personal point of view. He was unable to reveal all the facts, as some, such as the use of Ultra electronic intelligence, had to remain secret. From a historical point of view the book is therefore an incomplete memoir by a leading participant in the direction of the war.

The book was a major commercial success in Britain and the United States. The first edition appeared in six volumes; later editions appeared in twelve and four volumes, and there was also a single-volume abridged version.


When Churchill assumed office in 1940, he intended to write a history of the war then beginning. He said several times: "I will leave judgements on this matter to history – but I will be one of the historians." To circumvent the rules against the use of official documents, he took the precaution throughout the war of having a weekly summary of correspondence, minutes, memoranda and other documents printed in galleys and headed "Prime Minister's personal minutes". These were then stored at his home for future use. As well, Churchill actually wrote or dictated a number of letters and memoranda with the specific intention of placing his views on the record for later use as a historian.

These arrangements became a source of controversy when The Second World War began appearing in 1948. Churchill was not an academic historian, he was a politician, and was in fact Leader of the Opposition, still intending to return to office,[3] so his access to Cabinet, military and diplomatic records, which was denied to other historians, was questioned.

What was unknown at the time was the fact that Churchill had done a deal with Clement Attlee's Labour government which came to office in 1945. Recognising Churchill's enormous prestige, Attlee agreed to allow him – or rather his research assistants – free access to all documents, provided that no official secrets were revealed, the documents were not used for party political purposes and the typescript was vetted by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Brook took a close interest in the books and rewrote some sections himself to ensure that nothing was said which might harm British interests or embarrass the government.[4]

Churchill's privileged access to documents and his unrivalled personal knowledge gave him an advantage over all other historians of the Second World War for many years. The books had enormous sales in both Britain and the United States[5] and made Churchill a rich man for the first time.[6]

While Churchill's name appears on the books' covers as the author, much of the series was actually written by a team of researchers.[1]

It was not until after Churchill's death and the opening of the archives that some of the deficiencies of his work became apparent. Some of these were inherent in the position Churchill occupied as a former Prime Minister and a serving politician. He could not reveal military secrets, such as the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, or the planning of the atomic bomb.[7]

As stated in the author's introduction, the book is focussed on the British war effort.[2] Other theatres of war are described largely as a background. The descriptions of the fighting on the Eastern Front, and, to a lesser extent, of the Pacific War, are sketchy. Although he is usually fair, some personal vendettas are aired – for example, against Sir Stafford Cripps, at one time considered by some the "only possible alternative wartime Prime Minister" to Churchill.[8]


The Second World War can still be read with great profit by students of the period, provided it is seen mainly as a memoir by a leading participant rather than as an authoritative history by a professional and detached historian. The Second World War, particularly the period between 1940 and 1942 when Britain was fighting with only the support of the Empire and a few Allies, was after all the climax of Churchill's career and his personal account of the inside story of those days is unique and invaluable. American historian Raymond Callahan, reviewing David Reynolds's book (In Command of History) about Churchill's The Second World War, writes that "The outlines of the story have long been known—Churchill wrote to put his own spin on the history of the war and give himself and his family financial security, and he wrote with a great deal of assistance." Callahan concludes that as far as the war is concerned, any changes to historian's understanding of the book (now that what Churchill wrote has been compared in detail to the released archives) "remains the arresting figure he has always been—dynamic, often wrong, but the indispensable leader" who led Britain to "its last, terribly costly, imperial victory." But Churchill was, writes Callahan, guilty of "carefully reconstructing the story" to suit his postwar political goals.[9] As historian John Keegan notes in his 1985 introduction to the series, some deficiencies in the Churchill accounts are due to the lack of still secret Ultra intelligence. Keegan also notes the uniqueness of Churchill's account, since none of the other major leaders – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler – wrote a first-hand account of the war. Churchill's books were put together collaboratively, as he actively solicited others involved in the war for their papers and remembrances.[7]


The Second World War has been issued in editions of six, twelve, and four volumes. Some of the volumes in these editions share names, such as Triumph and Tragedy, but the contents of these volumes are necessarily different, covering as they do differing portions of the whole book.

The Second World War is also available in a single-volume abridgement.

See also[edit]


  • Best, Geoffrey. Churchill: A Study in Greatness. London:Continuum, 2002.
  • Gilbert, Martin. Churchill: A Life. New York: Macmillan, 1992. p. 879.
  • Reynolds, David. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. New York:Basic Books, 2007.


  1. ^ a b Dugdale, John (8 October 2011). "The curious laureates club". The Week in Books (The Guardian. Review). p. 5. Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Churchill, Winston (1948). The Gathering Storm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-41055-X. 
  3. ^ Best, 2002. p. 270
  4. ^ Reynolds, 2007. pp.86–89
  5. ^ Gilbert, 1992. p. 879
  6. ^ Wheatcroft, Geoffrey (18 July 2012). "Winston Churchill, the author of victory". Review of 'Mr Churchill's Profession' by Peter Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2012. Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Keegan, John. Introduction to The Second World War, Volume 1, The Gathering Storm. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985.
  8. ^ Harold Nicolson (1967), The War Years, 1939–1945, Vol. II of Diaries and Letters, Atheneum, New York, p. 205 (diary entry dated 14 January 1942).
  9. ^ Callahan, Raymond (April 2006). "In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (review)". The Journal of Military History 70 (2): 551–552. doi:10.1353/jmh.2006.0082. 
  10. ^ Liner notes for BBC Audiobook