“A second Gallipoli” was the phrase on many lips. “Considering the prominent part I played in these events,” Churchill conceded years later, “it was a miracle that I survived and maintained my position in public esteem.” Shakespeare clearly agrees. He has little time for Churchill’s own defence of it, set out in The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his war history. There Churchill claimed that Britain’s “machinery of war conduct” was quite unfit for purpose: for example, although chairman of the MCC he could not issue orders to the chiefs of staff of the Army or Air Force; and endless layers of consultation had consumed precious time. Seen in this light, Norway provided the short, sharp shock that any democratic society needs before it can abandon its normal habits to compete at war on equal terms with a totalitarian enemy.
Shakespeare is more convinced by the testimony of contemporary diarists such as General Ironside, the head of the Army, and Admiral Godfrey, who witnessed Churchill at close quarters in the Admiralty. According to Godfrey, the “battery of weapons” that Churchill used to get his way in the conduct of the campaign included “persuasion, real or simulated anger, mockery, vituperation, tantrums, ridicule, derision, abuse and tears”.
Some charges Shakespeare leaves hanging in the air without real evidence; for example the suggestion that the early capture of Churchill’s nephew at Narvik left him so “haunted” that it affected his judgment. Perhaps here the novelist momentarily eclipses the historian, keen to keep the mainspring of his drama taut. The picture of the campaign that Shakespeare otherwise paints so well is one of failures throughout the system – political direction, military planning and tactical execution. Churchill certainly lacked match-fitness; but so did everyone else at the top.