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Sir Martin Gilbert- An Obituary

(Sir Martin Gilbert was a Churchill Biographer and former guest speaker at the Churchill Society of Edmonton's 1987 Annual Banquet.)

Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert immersed himself in history


The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Feb. 20 2015, 9:00 PM EST

The most prolific historian of our time, Sir Martin Gilbert, published 89 books, often two a year. An eminent public figure in England and an adviser to prime ministers, he also had many Canadian connections.

At the age of 3½, he escaped the dangers of wartime England when he was evacuated to Toronto in 1940 aboard the Duchess of Bedford. The ship was part of a 50-ship convoy, escorted by a destroyer. After the destroyer turned back, the convoy was attacked and five ships sank, but the one carrying the children made it to safety.

He attended Palmerston Public School in Toronto and though he missed his parents terribly, he told this writer in 2002 he had fond memories of Canada, because “Canada was where I learned to read.” Four years later, he returned to England aboard a troop ship sailing out of New York.

At 32, he took over the huge task of writing the official biography of Sir Winston Churchill from Winston’s son, Randolph Churchill, and almost half of his amazing output consists of the biography (six volumes by him, each more than 1,000 pages), its many companion volumes, and books that grew out of that project such as Churchill and the Jews, Churchill: A Photographic Portrait, and In Search of Churchill. No piece of his voluminous research was wasted.

Historian Simon Schama called the Churchill biography “a great tidal wave of information” which you don’t so much read as immerse yourself in.

He also wrote about Russian history, Jewish history, the Holocaust, Israel, the two World Wars, and published a dozen map books including Atlas of the Holocaust, American History Atlas, Russian History Atlas, The Arab Israeli War: Its History in Maps, a form he pioneered and greatly enjoyed. He named his house outside Oxford the Map House.

Sir Martin (he was knighted by the Queen in 1995) died in a London hospital Feb. 3, at the age of 78. According to his wife, Esther Gilbert, he died of a sepsis infection. “He had been in a compromised condition due to an hypoxia brain injury in 2012,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Martin John Gilbert was born Oct. 25, 1936, the first of two children of Peter Gilbert, a north London jeweller, and his wife, Miriam. His Orthodox Jewish grandparents had immigrated to England from Poland and Lithuania (the original family name was Goldberg). His parents lived in such straitened circumstances, they seized the chance to send their little boy to Canada, hoping he’d be better cared for there.

Back in England, he attended Highgate School in North London, a prestigious grammar school where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was buried in the school chapel. He won a scholarship to attend Magdalen College, Oxford, after doing his national service in the intelligence corps. At Magdalen, he fell under the left-wing spell of his tutor, A.J.P. Taylor. He was accepted at Oxford’s St. Antony’s College for graduate work, then invited to be a Fellow of Merton College, where he was free to research and write with no expectations that he would teach.

He later lectured as a visiting scholar at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and University of South Carolina. In 2006, he was appointed adjunct research professor in the history department of the University of Western Ontario.

In his early 20s, he wrote his first book, The Appeasers, about the errors of pre-war British diplomacy, with Richard Gott, after the two visited Poland during summer holidays. He came to the attention of the hard-drinking Randolph Churchill on the recommendation of Lady Diana Cooper, whose husband, Duff Cooper, had resigned from Neville Chamberlain’s government in protest against the ignominious Munich agreement. Randolph then had charge of his father’s papers – an estimated 15 tonnes worth – at his home, Stour House, in Suffolk, and was working with a team of much put-upon researchers and secretaries on the multi-volume biography.

In the years just after the war, with the economy in shambles and Britain still under rationing, Sir Winston Churchill was a divisive figure, voted out of office in the first post-war election. In his most personal book, In Search of Churchill (1994), Sir Martin wrote that throughout his years at Oxford studying British history, from the Romans to the 20th century, his tutors never mentioned Churchill’s contributions: “When, in 1962, Randolph Churchill invited me to join his research team on his father’s biography, my knowledge of Churchill was abysmal … close to nil.”

Working as a “ghost” three days a week for Randolph, he wrote notes for him on events, issues and individuals mentioned in Sir Winston’s papers and travelled around the country to consult archives, find private letters from the great man, and interview those who had known him. Randolph pursued him with frequent phone calls, often in the middle of the night, demanding to know if he had found any “lovely grub.”

“Lovely grub was Randolph’s phrase for all our discoveries,” he wrote in In Search of Churchill. “History was for him a feast, full of delicious morsels. And so, despite his unpredictable rages, it became for me.”

In early 1967, exhausted by Randolph’s constant de