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Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert immersed himself in history

Historian Sir Martin Gilbert, whose latest book examines the battle of the Somme, stands in front of the memorial to the fallen Canadian soldiers of the First World War at the University of Western Ontario.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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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 demands, Mr. Gilbert told him he could not go on. But a year later, Randolph was once again entreating him to do various tasks. Then, while Mr. Gilbert was on holiday in Portugal, Randolph died suddenly at 57. To that point, he had taken his father's story only to 1914, the start of the First World War. Several historians were jockeying to head up the project, but in the end the publisher Heinemann, who had contracted for the biography, felt that only Martin Gilbert had the requisite energy and organizational ability to see it through.

The Churchill papers were trucked from Stour to Oxford under police guard and deposited in the basement of the Bodleian Library, where Mr. Gilbert assembled a fresh team of secretaries and research assistants, including Susan Sacher, who became his second wife in 1974.

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Once, when a group of Russian scholars was being shown around the Bodleian, one lagged behind and whispered to him urgently: "Have you a copy of the Nazi-Soviet pact?"

Until almost 1990, the Russians did not admit that the Nazi-Soviet pact existed, but Mr. Gilbert happened to have a photocopy at hand.

Randolph had produced the first two volumes using extensive quotations from his father's papers stitched together with his own commentary, dictated to a secretary, in between the quotes. Mr. Gilbert was determined to write a less choppy chronicle in his own voice. When his Volume 3 appeared in 1971, covering the years 1914-1916, reviewers were ecstatic and the book sold out in two weeks. Five more volumes appeared at regular intervals, the last one, Never Despair, in 1988.

According to Holocaust historian Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto, Sir Martin was less admired by professional historians than by the general public "because he basically avoided all the issues and controversies around Churchill." (These included the bombing of Dresden and his unyielding opposition to Indian and Kenyan independence.)

However, Hugh Segal, Master of Massey College and an active member of the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy, says: "He was not a sycophant or apologist in my view. He merely tried to ensure that readers understood why Churchill did what he did in the context of the times. His work was seminal."

In the 1980s, Mr. Gilbert became deeply involved in the plight of Soviet refuseniks, who were prevented from immigrating to Israel, and wrote two books in their support. He increasingly turned his attention to the Holocaust, publishing The Holocaust: the Jewish Tragedy, Auschwitz and the Allies, The Righteous, about non-Jews who saved Jewish lives, The Boys, about 732 young concentration camp survivors, and other volumes.

"Auschwitz and the Allies was a serious book," Prof. Marrus comments. "The Holocaust broke no new ground. He was a chronicler and a document collector but no one goes to Martin Gilbert for analysis. With the Holocaust material, there are issues of interpretation."

He was always generous with his knowledge of facts and sources, answering letters and e-mails from other scholars. A young researcher in London, Ont., Esther Poznansky, compiling a book of extracts from Holocaust writings, started corresponding with him about historical matters and eventually met him at a Toronto launch party for The Boys in 2002. She became his third wife in 2005, and they divided their time between the two Londons for several years.

They also made regular trips to India to visit the mother of one of his old Oxford classmates, Fori Nehru, wife of a prominent Indian diplomat. The woman whom he called his adopted aunt, although appearing to be every inch Indian, revealed to him late in life that she was born a Hungarian Jew, but knew nothing about her original faith. He explained the history of Judaism to her in 140 weekly letters, which gave rise to one of his most charming books, Letters to Auntie Fori (2002).

He assisted former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson with his memoirs and later advised Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and John Major. In his last years, he was made member of the Privy Council and appointed to the five-person Chilcot inquiry into the British role in the 2003 Iraq war. The inquiry's report has yet to be made public.

He leaves his wife, Esther Gilbert; his daughter, Natalie (by his first wife, Helen Robinson); sons, David and Joshua (by Ms. Sacher); and his sister, Margaret Gilbert, a philosopher.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect surname for the mother of one of the subject's Oxford classmates. It should have read  Fori Nehru, not Nehu as published. Also: A book he wrote about her was titled Letters to Auntie Fori, not Dearest Auntie Fori as published.

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