By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Winston Churchill's 1895 journey to Cuba was far more formative than has been previously understood, a new book purports, saying Cuba is where the 20-year-old junior officer discovered he had courage under fire and confirmed his own sense of greatness.
In "Churchill Comes of Age: Cuba 1895," author Hal Klepak traces characteristics that made Churchill famous to his 18 days in Cuba, where he was on loan from the British army to observe colonial Spain's defense against independence fighters.
History previously recorded that Churchill saw combat in Cuba and discovered the siesta, which would later help him keep long hours as British prime minister during World War Two.
But Klepak, a former Canadian military officer, argues previous works overlooked how influential the Cuban venture was, including the months of maneuvering Churchill needed to land his assignment.
With his Cuba experience he became a war correspondent, political analyst, strategist and liaison with a foreign army, all for the first time. His writings start to show legendary humor. He discovers rum and Cuban cigars' breadth and quality.
Inspired by observations from local historian Lourdes Mendez, Klepak believes he became the first to scrutinize and cross-check the Cuban, British and Spanish archives, discovering for example that Churchill was fired upon by no less than Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez, two of Cuba's greatest independence leaders.
"Very quickly when I looked at it from a historical perspective it was pretty obvious that this was an amazing story which for some reason had never been told," Klepak said.
Churchill is admired for wit, grit and leadership at war, remaining in London during the Blitz. He also had failures, such as championing the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign as head of the Admiralty in World War One and losing re-election as prime minister in 1945.
Upon graduating from Sandhurst military academy, the young second lieutenant desperately wanted a war to test his courage and make a name for himself. His father had just died, and he tells his American-born mother about his plans to go to Cuba rather than ask her permission.
Once there, he finds he passes the test, not shirking when the Spanish army columns he accompanies are attacked by Cuban independence fighters.
"It's his baptism of fire and it's also his 21st birthday," Klepak said. "He literally comes of age and in all these dozens of senses he comes of age as well."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta Editing by W Simon)