December 2, 2023

1943, The Year Churchill Almost Died

Eighty years ago Prime Minister Winston Churchill was returning to Britain from his meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt and Marshal Joseph Stalin at Teheran when he was taken seriously ill. Churchill had turned sixty-nine during the conference and had been hard at it since the start of the war. He was flying in stages from Iran, but, after stopping on 11 December in Tunis, he was overcome with exhaustion and taken to a villa near sea level being used by Gen. Eisenhower and his staff to direct Allied operations in Italy. The doctor, Lord Moran, soon diagnosed pneumonia.

Churchill was “in poor shape to face an infection,” Moran realized. “If he is going to be ill, we have nothing here in this God-forsaken spot—no nurse, no milk, not even a chemist.” The Prime Minister had already been through one bout of pneumonia earlier that year. That had been serious enough. This time was worse. His temperature reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

Moran and the Allied commanders mobilized the medical resources of the British and American armies. The only x-ray machine in North Africa was brought to the scene. Specialists were flown in from London, and Churchill’s daughter Sarah sat with him reading at his bedside. “So here I was at this pregnant moment,” Churchill later wrote, ”on the broad of my back amid the ruins of ancient Carthage.”

Fortunately, Churchill made a steady recovery, but he did not get out of bed until Christmas Eve. Characteristically, it was to chair a meeting about the direction of the war. The Allies were mulling over the problem of the planned landings at Anzio. On Christmas morning Churchill held another such meeting, this time with Eisenhower and the other Commanders-in-Chief on the scene. This was followed by “a soporific lunch of turkey and plum pudding.” Churchill had recovered enough, one of his secretary’s noted, that cigars had returned.

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“It was indeed an odd way of spending Christmas,” recalled Harold Macmillan, who had been summoned from Algiers. “Clothed in a padded silk Chinese dressing-gown decorated with blue and gold dragons…the PM proposed a series of toasts with a short speech in each case.” The feast lasted a good three hours. After a late-afternoon nap, Churchill was back in form hosting a cocktail party that evening, “through which,” a secretary noted, “the PM walked as if in perfect health.”

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