No Ordinary Men

Review by C. P. Champion

Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite a Gentleman. Charles Williams. Biteback, 2019.

Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship. John von Heyking. St. Augustine’s Press, 2018.


SIR MAXWELL AITKEN, the 1st Baron Beaverbrook, was perhaps the most influential Canadian of the Second World War. As Churchill’s closest friend before and during the Battle of Britain, “Max,” the New Brunswick-born newspaper magnate and entrepreneur, British Conservative M.P., cabinet minister in two wars, and envoy to Stalin, was, at a key moment, the Prime Minister’s intimate daily companion over dinner or, later, brandy. He was Winston’s “tonic” who kept him buoyant, a “real help and spur,” his “foul weather friend” in the second half of 1940, which Churchill called “his hour” of triumph. “Some people take drugs,” he said, “I take Max.” In retirement they were joyous comrades again at Max’s villa La Capponcina, across the water from Monte Carlo.

Churchill appreciated Beaverbrook as a buccaneer rather like himself, an Imperial pirate-patriot in the mould of Raleigh and Drake, adventurers in Churchill’s own epic of the English-Speaking Peoples. He admired Max’s success in business, his brash “ability and ruthless will,” as official biographer A.J.P. Taylor put it. Beaverbrook understood in the same way as Churchill the mission of the world empire of liberty led by Great Britain, “her message and her glory,” endangered by the Nazi-Soviet pact of friendship of Aug. 1939, which heralded war. As against that evil alliance, which lasted until June 1941, Churchill and his loyal friends would save Britain and fulfil the Commonwealth’s great destiny to fight on.

Max was pals with magnates on both sides of the Atlantic. He had met R.B. Bennett when they were both nobodies in Miramichi. Their paths crossed again in Calgary, where “mischief maker” Max ran a bowling alley and billiards room across the street from the law offices of Bennett and his disapproving partner, James Lougheed, the Senator and future KCMG. Beaverbrook’s latest biographer, Charles Williams, a financier and life peer, says perceptively that the young Aitken, while working for John Stairs in Halifax, discovered “his true potential as a deal maker of something, leaving aside the morality, near to genius.” Hence the subtitle: “Not Quite a Gentleman.”

There has been much debate around whether Max was really the wizard of aircraft production that he, Churchill, and their apologists claimed. Churchill carved out the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) from the Air Ministry in May 1940 and put his friend in charge, where he remained until Apr. 1941. Taylor counted Beaverbrook, for a time his employer, “among the immortal few who won the Battle of Britain,” who, “at the moment of unparalleled danger … made survival and victory possible.” It was Max’s “personal force and genius,” Churchill wrote, that “swept aside many obstacles,” sacking and sidelining bureaucrats to get his way. Sir Hugh Dowding, in charge of Fighter Command, praised the Beaverbrook effect as “magical.”

In reality, the credit for success should be shared with Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air from May 1940 until 1945, and especially Sir Wilfrid Freeman, who ran production under Beaverbrook. Freeman quickly understood Max’s manic methods and overriding goal to produce five key aircraft,* at the expense of other models, spares production, and maintenance. Pre-1940 production and spares had been failing, and many of the changes credited to Beaverbrook were in fact recommended by Freeman, according to the latter’s biographer, Anthony Furse.+

[ * the five were the Wellington, Whitley, and Blenheim bombers and the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters.]
[ + Anthony Furse, Wilfrid Freeman: The genius behind Allied survival and air supremacy 1939 to 1945, Spellmount, 2001.]


FREEMAN MUCH ADMIRED Beaverbrook’s “ruthless way.” Max ordered that damaged aircraft be cannibalized for working parts rather than repaired, and that any materiel held up by supply chain bottlenecks be promptly expropriated. No one questions that he brought to bear private sector energy, hiring dynamic men such as Patrick Hennessy from Ford UK, Trevor Westbrook from Vickers, and G.C. Usher from International Combustion to pressure and often to go around the military bureaucracy. Beaverbrook took no salary, and many of his staff were kept on the payroll of his Express newspaper. 

When Beaverbrook was informed that several experienced engineers on Ludwig Loewy’s team were German Jews who had fled to England in 1938 but were now interned as enemy aliens, causing production delays, Beaverbrook sent a group of German-speaking Jews into the internment camps to obtain their release on his say-so, and put them to work in the MAP. 

Still, Freeman knew that Max’s exclusive focus on the “big five” would be disastrous in the long run, depriving the RAF of aircraft it would need later. By engaging in behind-the-scenes damage control Freeman was able to check Max, work the system, and build more types of aircraft, including training models without which, as Air Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder wrote, the RAF would have had aeroplanes without trained pilots to fly them. 

It is not that Freeman is the true hero behind the “Beaverbrook myth” but that success was a team effort energized by Beaverbrook’s “can do” approach. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to go on as he does, day after day,” with only six hours’ rest, Freeman wrote.

Biographer Williams is even-handed about all of this. Max’s dynamism in May 1940 can hardly be credited for the dramatic peak in aircraft production in June. That achievement, he writes, was “due to increases in capacity which had been long planned” even while Neville Chamberlain was still in power. Indeed production dropped sharply from September to December on Beaverbrook’s watch, partly due to effective German bombing of factories and airfields. But Williams says Max deserves full credit for the “surge in fighter production in the early months of 1941.”

Beaverbrook detractors included Lady Clementine, who recoiled at Winston’s “terrible B’s,” Birkenhead, Bracken, and Beaverbrook. Respectable Tories hated them as rash self-promoters and outsiders: Churchill, an unconventional half-American careerist, a calamitous failure until his great calling in 1940; Brendan Bracken the Australian huckster, “rarely sober after 11 pm” (wrote Bruce Lockhart); and Beaverbrook the rough-mannered Canadian and self-made man. They were highly individualistic, eccentric, members of the Other Club, Churchill’s “reptile satellites,” “carousing” “scum,” who inspired “horror” in “respectable” circles. Before the war, posh Tories thought them worse than Hitler’s conquests.*

[ * Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, p. 146.]


THE KING SAW FIT TO warn Churchill against bringing Beaverbrook on board, adding to the usual objections that “the Canadians do not appreciate him.” (By “the Canadians” George VI must have meant Mackenzie King and his envoy in London, Vincent Massey, the former president of the Liberal Party: Beaverbrook was simply not their man.) 

In contrast Churchill’s circle were loyal in the wilderness years, when even Max declared Churchill a “busted flush.” That loyalty meant a lot during the first 14 months of his premiership, when he remained surrounded by disloyal onlookers hoping he would fail.

Williams, who died in 2019 after completing this book, was better-equipped to come to grips with Beaverbrook than previous biographers like Taylor, the journalist-duo Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, or the novelist David Adams Richards, now a Senator from New Brunswick. Williams’ cv included British Petroleum, the Bank of London and Montreal, Barings’ Bank, the anti-inflation Price Commission, the Daily Mirror newspaper (as a senior executive), and the House of Lords, where he sat under the Labour whip from 1985 until his death. Max got his big start with the Royal Securities Commission and his career rocketed from there. If anyone could understand the tycoon without being in his shadow it was Williams.

Churchill “on politics and friendship” is the subject of John von Heyking’s compact and curious book, Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness. The professor of political science at Lethbridge University shares the universal fascination with Churchill, who held that friendship and leadership should go hand in hand. “The only foundation for good government,” Churchill wrote in 1932, to secure “happy results for the people” is “a high standard of comradeship and fellowship between those who are called upon to handle their affairs.” 

An earlier biographer, Kenneth Young,  had already described at length Churchill and Beaverbrook’s “liking” for each other and “undefinable sympathie.” Beaverbrook was “dazzled” by Churchill’s brilliance, Churchill enchanted by Beaverbrook’s “buccaneering” spirit. Von Heyking picks up on these themes. He devotes another chapter to Churchill’s friendship with President Franklin Roosevelt. A third topic is Churchill’s affinity for his 18th century ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, legendary victor of the Battle of Blenheim, who was known for having the common touch: one NCO called him the “Old Corporal.” Such men, von Heyking says, had the “spark of divine energy.” 

There are friends, and then there are friends. Max spent a small fortune spoiling in succession a “coterie of society ladies,” among them H.G. Wells’ ex-mistress, Rebecca West; the dancing twins known as the Dolly sisters; Venetia Montagu and Sarah Shaughnessy, the CPR baron’s amorous widow; film stars Louise Brooks, Dorothy Sebastian, and Jean Norton; the pianist Harriet Cohen; society lady Dorothy Hall; Lily Ernst and the exotic Catharina “Toto” Koopman; and plausibly or in passing, Diana Manners (the future Lady Diana Cooper, who thought him “a gnome with a certain genius”), Helen Fitzgerald (his wife’s sister), and possibly Edwina Mountbatten, Doris Delevingne, Daphne Weymouth, and Sibell Lygon, whose house was the model for Brideshead Revisited just as Beaverbrook was the prototype for Waugh’s caddish Canadian parvenu, Rex Mottram. An esteemed stable manager once described Beaverbrook as “a terrible man — dangerous and evil.”

These more lurid friendships make Beaverbrook a slightly strange choice for Professor von Heyking’s theme, which is the elevated and virtuous friendship of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, drawing on biblical sources and Eric Voegelin. The Homeric connection is Odysseus’ tribute to friendship as “the crown of life” and lionizing the story-teller: “What a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard,” King Alcinous declares. Churchill’s “dinner table diplomacy and policy-making,” his late night story-telling, for von Heyking embody the Greek ideal of “living together and sharing conversation and thinking,” a love of “shared inquiries into the truth of practical matters” and “virtue-friendship.” Von Heyking posits a shared mind or “nous in the best practical regime,” the English-speaking tradition of constitutional government, and a “common vision of the good, their sunaisthesis.” 

Such terms of Greek philosophy are squeezed into the text at intervals and, to this ignorant reader at least, feel a little forced. Churchill and the Beaver sharing each other’s unfinished writings is a case of “sunaisthesis.” The trip to Marrakech that ended the Casablanca summit, with FDR and Churchill admiring the Atlas Mountains at dusk, is “Sunaisthesis at Sunset.” In describing Harry Hopkins’ “gleaming eye” and “soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body,” as Churchill wrote of Roosevelt’s right-hand man in The Second World War, von Heyking says: “Churchill appeals to the classical language of gloria, the language of daimonism and heroism,” a “daimonism he saw in Roosevelt as well,” as it was the mark of “great statesmen,” the “same categories he used to describe Moses.” (An allusion to Churchill’s younger reflections on Moses as a “Leader of a People” and on the “genius, the daemon in man.”)


"Beaverbrook may be a slightly strange choice for von Heyking’s theme, which is the elevated and virtuous friendship of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle."


There is some irony in von Heyking’s conflation of buccaneering friendship, honour among thieves, cads, and bounders with the highest Hellenic ideals. In Brideshead Waugh captured the “flavour of ‘Max’ and ‘F.E.’ [Birkenhead] and the Prince of Wales, of the big table in the Sporting Club, the second magnum and the fourth cigar, of the chauffeur kept waiting hour after hour without compunction.” Also Churchill, Beaverbrook, and Roosevelt had virtú in the Machiavellian sense, “calculating risk and acting decisively,” as opposed to the Christian sensibility that the pitiless Florentine did so much to undermine. They were loveable rogues, bullies or pagan idols akin to Gibbon’s favourite emperors, at once Olympian and post-Christian.

“There are no true friends in politics,” wrote Alan Clark, the diarist and Thatcher loyalist. “We are all sharks, circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water.” As it happens, Clark’s “old friend and standby for many a dirty trick” was one Jonathan Aitken M.P., Max Beaverbrook’s great-nephew, later jailed for perjury. But that connection is of little use to von Heyking, whose edifying study respectfully suggests that Machiavellian back-biting and blood-letting need not be the way.


"Churchill strengthened the hand of the pre-war socialists, ushering in the Beveridge Report and the ever-expanding entitlement state." 


Churchill and Roosevelt’s leadership was a mix of patrician talent and tribune-of-the-plebs demagogy. Dazzled by their rhetoric of heroic liberty we may forget that they ruled the modern administrative state with increased powers seized during wartime. Churchill presided in a coalition that strengthened the hand of the pre-war socialist generation and ushered in the Beveridge Report and the ever-expanding entitlement state. Roosevelt, too, used the Great Depression and the war to expand state intervention and distortion of the economy, his eloquence driving public expectations inexorably toward fantasy as against reality,  the New Deal and “freedom from want” leading to the Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, and the risible Audacity of Hope. 

Von Heyking compares his subjects’ democratic statesmanship to that of the “Classical Prince whose command pushes the boundaries of parliamentary government.” Indeed it did. Those boundaries have expanded ever since — making the minimally-interventionist state a thing of the past. Will we ever get it back?


Originally published in print in the 25th edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2023, pp. 97-100. C.P. Champion, Ph.D., F.R.C.G.S. edits The Dorchester Review.



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