June 4, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 11

Riddles, Mysteries, Enigmas

Uniform vs. Mufti

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Why did Churchill so often appear in military uniform during World War II when he was Prime Minister? PMs since have not to my knowledge been so inclined. —Joshua Wasylciw

The general answer is that he was proud of his military career and titles, including honorary titles, and often wore uniform at meetings with Stalin, Roosevelt and Truman. Stalin, of course, never appeared in mufti, while the American Presidents always did.

Senior Editor Paul Courtenay replies:

Although he did not serve as a commissioned officer in WW2, Churchill had several military titles, including Honorary Air Commodore of 615 (County of Surrey) Fighter Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force; Colonel, 4th Queen’s Own Hussars; Honorary Colonel of three Royal Artillery units, of 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, of a battalion of the Essex Regiment (his Epping and Woodford constituency was in that county); and—notably—of 5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. He sometimes chose the RAF uniform when abroad, e.g., Teheran and in France from 1944.

In 1947, his wife argued that he should wear civilian dress in Paris to receive the Médaille Militaire, instead of his RAF Honorary Air Commodore’s uniform. But an on-the-spot photograph, taken on the day and published in Finest Hour, indicated that WSC had for once rejected her advice, choosing the uniform of The 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, his old regiment.

British Army regiments (and some battalions) each have a Colonel of the Regiment or Honorary Colonel. This is an unpaid position and not in the military chain of command; that is to say, he does not give orders to anyone and does not command his men in the field. The post is an honour for the individual and the regiment or battalion concerned. He has the role of a father figure, protecting the regimental ethos, and can often help his regiment with advice on regimental finance and personnel matters. He is consulted on which applicants are accepted for commissions, but plays no part in military training or operations, and is usually concerned with the welfare of retired members (i.e., “old comrades”).

A typical Colonel of Regiment will have spent much of his early period of service in the regiment concerned and become a Commanding Officer within it. He may then have been promoted above the regimental level and perhaps become a General. He may hold the post of Colonel of the Regiment whether he is still on the active list and filling a senior post somewhere in the army; or he may have retired from the army and started to follow a civilian career.

Churchill was not a typical Colonel of Regiment. He was appointed to anumber of colonelcies, most especially two, whose uniforms he frequently wore during World War II.

The first of these was Colonel, 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, the regiment in which he had spent four years as a junior officer in 1895-1899.It was a great thrill for him (and for 4th Hussars) when he was appointed Colonel of the Regiment in 1941. He rarely is shown in this uniform.

The second was Honorary Colonel, 5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. This appointment was also made in 1941, soon after he had become Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in that year. The post of Lord Warden is a great honour, bestowed on someone of exceptional distinction.

The Cinque Ports were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich, later supported by Rye and Winchelsea. The 5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment, was a Territorial Army unit (part-time reservists mobilised for war service), many of whose men came from the Cinque Ports area. He wore this uniform in Italy, Moscow, Yalta, the rhine Crossing, Berlin and Potsdam.

Following army tradition, part-time squadrons in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force acquired Honorary Air Commodores. In 1939 Churchill was appointed Honorary Air Commodore, 615 (County of Surrey) Fighter Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The probable reason is that the unit was based at Kenley, only about ten miles from Chartwell; Churchill FH 110, Summer 2001 could easily visit them and often did so. This was the RAF uniform he sometimes wore.

This letter is in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8, “Never Despair” (London: Heinemann, 1988), 328-29:

I would like to persuade you to wear Civilian clothes during your Paris visit. To me, air-force uniform except when worn by the Air Crews is rather bogus. And it is not as an Air Commodore that you conquered in the War but in your capacity and power as a Statesman. All the political vicissitudes during the years of Exile qualified you for unlimited and supreme power when you took command of the Nation.

You do not need to wear your medals to shew [sic] your prowess. I feel the blue uniform is for you fancy-dress and I am proud of my plain Civilian Pig.

Sir Martin Gilbert writes: “Churchill seemed to accept his wife’s advice, instructing his valet: ‘I shall wear civilian clothes and take no uniform at all.’ Before leaving, Churchill invited to Chartwell, and greeted there, members of the Guinea Pig Club, a club consisting of burnt and disfigured air crews. ‘I believe it was the highlight of their visit,’ wrote Archibald McIndoe, the plastic surgeon who had done so much to heal their wounds. But at the Médaille Militaire ceremony, he showed up in uniform.”

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