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The greatest 20th century beneficiary of popular mythology has been the cad Churchill

IT was mildly entertaining to hear a spokesman for the Russian government declare on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War that the peoples of Russia of Poland had at that time stood together against the evils of the Third Reich. The good burgers of Warsaw must have choked on their vodka when they heard that one.

For what the Poles know of Russia in 1939 was its complicity in the destruction of their country, followed by the murder of over 20,000 of its army officers by NKVD executioners, on general warrants signed by the Soviet foreign minister, the Russian VM Molotov.

To be sure, the Russian people themselves were not consulted on any of this, and cannot be held responsible for what their Soviet masters did, but the official Russian statement, about the essential historical brotherhood of the Russian and Polish peoples, is now probably part of the emerging mythology of Russian nationhood.

You'll be hearing a lot about the Second World war over the coming months: take most of it with a pinch of salt. That's because most popular knowledge -- including that of journalists -- is no more than largely empty legend, largely held together by a couple of historical facts. The greatest 20th century beneficiary of this popular mythology has been the man who this day 70 years ago was called in from the political hinterland where his inconstancy and his ineptitude had properly placed him: Winston Churchill.

The effective destruction of his prior record by the events which unfolded over the six years from September 1939 must constitute one of the greatest historiographical acts of amnesia and revision of all time.

When later contemplating the epitaph on his headstone, Churchill said: "Why not, simply, 'Soldier'?"

Here's why. In 1916, Churchill used his many contacts in high places to wangle his way out of the trenches, during his brief time on active service with the Royal Scottish Fusiliers, to a safe civilian billet in London. Private soldiers were being put before the firing squad for enacting their own personal interpretation of this ambition. Once back in Britain, he remained true to his caddish self. Concerned about the threat to his family of the Zeppelin attacks on London, he bought a country house at Lullenden, in Surrey, where the nasty Germans couldn't get at him.

It was around this time that he uttered these imperishable words to the House of Commons: "My only purpose is to help defeat the Hun, and I will subordinate my own feelings so that I may render some assistance."

And this from the man who had just fled the trenches. Shortly afterwards, he boasted laughingly to friends that he often used precious petrol -- issued to him for ministerial purposes only -- for social trips. He soon moved political heaven and earth (successfully) to prevent his parkland at Lullenden from being ploughed up to produce food, even as the U-boat threat came close to throttling Britain.

As Lloyd George -- no slouch himself in the ego-department -- acidly commented: "You will one day discover that the state of mind revealed in (your) letter is the reason why you do not win trust even where you command admiration. In every line of it, national interests are completely overshadowed by your personal concern."

Quite. As he was to show in 1923, when he secretly accepted £5,000 -- the equivalent of perhaps millions in today's money -- from Burmah Oil to lobby the British government to allow Burmah to collar Persian oil resources.

Churchill was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty 70 years ago today, and over the next few months he presided over a series of naval disasters unprecedented since he had last been First Lord of the Admiralty 25 years before.

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THESE fresh calamities cost the Royal Navy more lives and ships than the US Navy were to lose at Pearl Harbour. Yet you won't read this in any biographies of Churchill, because the power of popular mythology on 1940 has mesmerised even professional historians.

All great men are also crooks and rogues. Churchill's great wartime ally, Roosevelt, was not an exception to the general rule that he who climbs to the top of the tree has used the the corpses of finer men as footholds.

To take up from an earlier column, he embedded corruption in his Democratic Party when he took Joe Kennedy (and Joe Kennedy's $20,000) to his bosom as part of his grand campaign to seize the presidency.

For Ireland, the real war came with Britain's very first blow, when Flt Lieutenant William Murphy of Mitchelstown, Co Cork, aged 23, was shot down and killed in the opening RAF air raid on the German naval port of Wilhelmshaven, 70 years ago tomorrow.

And I'd prefer to hear about simple men like Billy Murphy than grandiloquent and egotistical liars like Churchill and Roosevelt. Why? Because the real truth of war is about the boy-dead who were finer by far than their leaders.

For this is the tale of warfare, as old as the tale of Troy: the man who wins the laurels, isn't half the man of the boy.