March 15, 2009
by The Rt. Hon. The Lord Jellicoe, K.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., F.R.S.
I rise a little unsteadily, as is all too often my sorry wont after such a spiffing dinner as we have just had. I am reminded only too vividly of a little incident which befell this jaded old boy when he was a polished young gentleman in Paris some forty-eight years ago. One day in that summer of 1946, David Stirling, that marvellous chap, founder of the SAS, rang me out of the blue to ask if I would accompany him to Paris the following weekend to receive our French gongs. I dutifully replied that nothing would please me more. We arranged to meet early the next Sunday morning. David was a bit late as he had to climb into some accommodating lad’s flat to find his passport which he had left there the night before. We were still late when we arrived at Le Bourget and late too when we arrived at Les Invalides where the presentation was to take place.
I had asked David what was the dress for the occasion and he had replied that pinstripe and bowler hat was the order of the day. So when we arrived at Les Invalides, I was a bit put out to find a thin line of beautifully uniformed officers already drawn up. Indeed, we felt proper Charlies as we strutted all too conspicuously in our bowler hats and pinstripes across the square to join the line.
As we did so, a tall gangling figure, whom I assumed was General de Gaulle, came down the line dishing out gongs. As he drew opposite me I puffed out my chest proudly and expectantly, but nothing happened. There was a moment or two to me of anguished and embarrassed silence and then he went on, saying as he did so, “Je regrette infiniment, monsieur, mais je n’ai rien pour vous.“
Then the band struck up the Marseillaise followed by a tune which was familiar to me—the Greek National Anthem. Slowly the truth dawned on me. This was not a parade of British officers receiving French decorations from General de Gaulle. It was, rather, a parade of French officers, receiving Greek decorations from the Greek Prime Minister. We had arrived a week early!
Tonight I find myself, sadly, in rather the same position as the Greek Prime Minister forty-eight years ago, in that I have nothing, or very little, for you. I have, however, arrived on the right day.
My predicament is all the more painful since I am only too well aware that all you illustrious Churchillian connoisseurs will not be at all interested in what this opening batsman has to say. You are all waiting, and rightly so, for a real hard-hitter, in the person of Dame Mary; The Lady Soames. And so you should be. She is a great lady in her own right. She is also the widow of a great British Ambassador to Paris. Many indeed would claim that Christopher Soames was the best British Ambassador in Paris since the Duke of Wellington. Certainly all would agree that Mary Soames was the best-ever British Ambassadress in Paris. She is of course the daughter of the man whose arrival on this planet 120 years ago we celebrate this evening.
There are in fact two great anniversaries this week It is the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Nancy Astor in the funny old House of Commons, and the 100th anniversary of Winston Churchill arriving just by the Entrance Hall at Blenheim, appearing prematurely with typical impatience and a desire to get things moving.
Thank God he did so. It may now seem fashionable in the pseudo smart literary/historical set to decry Winston Churchill as it is now fashionable to decry all the best things in Britain and to concentrate almost entirely on the innumerable warts in our society; It is my pleasure, as I think the pleasure of everyone here present this evening, not to subscribe to this view Winston Churchill is certainly the greatest Englishman of my generation, indeed of this century, and he has a strong claim to be amongst the greatest Englishman, if not the greatest, of any century;
I cannot of course claim to have known him well. But I retain in my mind’s eye very vivid memories of contact with the grand old man when I was a young whippersnapper. The first was when after a little escapade in Crete in 1942, I received a telegram from the Prime Minister which read: “Your father would have been proud of you.” The second was when, later that year, having mucked up a knee and having been invalided back to England for a couple of months, I was accorded the honour for a young officer to being asked to lunch with Churchill and his wife, Clementine, at Number Ten.
I remember the luncheon well. We sat down to a table a trois. Winston asked me to tell him about our little raid. I started off I don’t suppose that I put the story very well. In any event, after I had been banging on rather tediously for sixty seconds or so it was quite obvious that the great man had lost all interest in my story, and was thinking (eyes closed) of rather weightier matters.
I have two other very vivid wartime memories indelibly inscribed in my recollections. Churchill, as you great historians all know, had been appalled by the human casualties of the First World War. He was determined, if humanly possible, to avoid a recurrence of those ghastly casualty lists. One way in which he felt that this could be achieved was by striking through the Aegean, up into the soft Balkan underbelly of the Axis Powers. Hence that rather sorry Dodecanese campaign in the autumn of 1943, in which this old gentleman was, as a young officer, involved in a rather minor way; I had managed to escape, after a few brief moments m German captivity, and to return after some vicissitudes to Egypt. As soon as I had arrived I found myself summoned to an audience with the P.M. in the house in which he was temporarily ensconced near the Pyramids.
I shall never forget that half an hour or so in his bedroom where, propped up amongst his pillows and surrounded by his secretaries and his papers, he quizzed me about what had gone wrong with the campaign. Nor shall I forget a huge dinner at the British Embassy a few evenings later. I was very nearly late for parade owing to the exigencies of a brief, albeit very enjoyable Cairene romance—by which I mean a romance in Cairo. I remember how, after the first course and a drink or two, Winston and Field Marshal Smuts held the floor.
Smuts was taking the line that France, though a considerable nation, was finished. I still recall the words with which Winston wound up his contrary argument. “It is a great mistake, Field Marshal, to judge a great nation by the temporary state of its technical apparatus.”
I hope the same applies to Britain today Likewise, I shall not forget the way in which he summoned four or five of us young officers after the port had gone round and he had polished off the Champagne, and asked our views on how best to support the resistance to the Axis Powers in Greece and Yugoslavia. All this was so typical of his encouragement of the young, and illustrated how he always wished personally to know, and at first hand, from those on the spot.