Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Eye-Witness to Potsdam: He Enjoyed BeingWinston Churchill. I Saw Him Depressed Only Once…
By Neville Bullock
In June 1945 I was among a number of Royal Marines returning home after duty aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Venerable. We arrived at Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth, where we awaited our next posting. The barracks is a Georgian pile built in the 1700s, which has turned out England’s royal sea soldiers ever since.
A party of Royal Marines was needed to escort the Prime Minister on an undisclosed journey. We were called on parade, where the Adjutant and Regimental Sergeant Major lined us up in single file, asking for volunteers: “If you want to go, take one pace forward!” We were not told anything about the destination, nor how long the assignment would last. I and a few others volunteered.
The Adjutant and RSM walked up the line and, without saying where, asked each of us if we were sure. “Yes sir,” we replied. They asked again. We replied again. The Adjutant chose thirty of us, and the RSM marched us away. Later, wearing black battledress with “Royal Marines” shoulder flashes, we travelled by train to London where we were billeted at the Union Jack Club, which to this day hosts serving and ex-serving military personnel.
Here we were informed of the nature of our job: protection duty for the Prime Minister and the British delegation at the forthcoming Potsdam Conference with Stalin and Truman.
Churchill’s bodyguard, Scotland Yard detective Walter Thompson, came to meet us. I think because I came from a police family, he chatted with me about the PM, warning me to keep a safe distance and to exercise discretion. Thompson had looked after the “old man” for eighteen years (1920-32, 1940-45); he had left the Yard when the war started, but Churchill had recalled him: “I want you back; Hitler may try to kill me.”
Meeting Walter Thompson had a great effect on me; I was in awe of the tall, capable inspector from Scotland Yard. I expected he would be coming with us to Berlin, but in fact he had retired in May, and had just come down to brief us. I did not see him again.
In a large government garage at the back of Sloane Square, the delegation’s equipment was loaded by night and handed over to the Royal Marines. Awaiting departure, we remained at the Union Jack Club, causing many a raised eyebrow among other service personnel. One rarely saw a marine; to see a group of them in black battledress, keeping to themselves, piqued everyone’s interest.
In late June at Northolt Airport, we boarded a Liberator bomber fitted out with passenger seats. It was my first time in the air, a fine spring morning as we flew across France. Scores of buildings, farms and hamlets had been blasted to rubble during the German retreat. Looking down at the ruins and bomb craters, the landscape seemed like a well-worn pewter plate.
We landed at a Russian-held airfield—Gatow as I remember—in Spandau-Berlin. The Soviets told us we had one hour to get out. Two British army lorries appeared, and we and our equipment promptly departed. We entered Potsdam to the cheers of German civilians, mostly women and children, who had gathered on the sides of the road. It looked as though our secret was out.
The British were assigned to one square mile in Babelsberg, once an up-market Potsdam village, totally surrounded by the Red Army. Our access points were watched by Coldstream Guards, who were also on duty at the Prime Minister’s residence, the Villa Urbig on Kaiser Strasse. Billeted nearby, we prepared to take up our duties.
Churchill’s mansion, just down the street, had been confiscated from a German family. It was a handsome building, close to a river and lake. Mr. Churchill lived upstairs, and meetings of the British delegation were held in a ground floor room off the foyer. Stalin and Truman had their own villas elsewhere in the town. The plenary sessions were conducted at Schloss Cecilienhof which, like Villa Urbig, was on Kaiser Strasse (see Finest Hour 132: 20).
The Wreckage of Berlin
By the time I arrived, General Montgomery had lifted the “non-fraternisation” ban and British forces could openly associate with German civilians. In its early stages this usually meant answering questions from young German women. The only German men of any age I saw in the Berlin area were hobbling about on crutches: the war had taken a deadly toll of the male population.
Berlin was a sorry sight, typified by something I saw in the ruins near the Reich Chancellery: a bus, blasted up during the bombing, which had landed across the roof corners of a semi-demolished building. It hung there, fifty feet from the ground, a monument to the grim toll of war.
Women and children were walking about with little carts, picking up pieces of firewood and taking it back to the cellars where they lived. They came and went by tunnels burrowed through huge piles of rubble. German helmets, placed on small piles of bricks, covered the corpses of soldiers; from these piles rose the nauseous smell of death.
The survivors were terrified of the Russians. Apart from the looting and cruelty, there were 100,000 reported rapes. Upon capturing Berlin, Stalin had authorised the Red Army to do as it liked. The Russians were taking a dreadful revenge for what had happened to their countrymen at the hands of the Wehrmacht.
Russian infantrymen were good but largely illiterate soldiers who took what they wanted, even from their own women. Near the Brandenburg Gate, I saw a Red Army girl on a box, directing traffic with red and green flags. Five of her brother infantrymen pulled her off the box and dragged her, shouting and screaming, behind a bombed building. There was no doubt about their intentions, and no way to help. The day before, an American army sergeant who tried to intervene in a similar scene had been shot and killed. I have always had bad thoughts about not acting, but I am still here….
Once I was invited to an official evening with the famous Cossack Regiment, intended to engender fraternal friendship. The Cossacks were a kind of cross between our Military Police and the Waffen SS. They were smart, efficient, and better educated than the infantrymen: the Soviet military “shop window.” But the evening was an awkward affair, in part because of the atrocities we had witnessed. There was a deep feeling of mistrust on both sides.
The Conference Begins
The conference started on 15 July. Its chief purpose was to agree on the administration of postwar Germany, settle border questions, establish the postwar order, plan for the peace treaty to come, and counter the effects of war. Each of the allied leaders was accompanied by bodyguards. Stalin was surrounded by six huge OGPU (NKVD) men; I could barely see him through the spaces between his guards, who guarded him closely. Truman had four large FBI men who also kept close formation around him. Churchill, much more at ease, walked across the foyer without fuss, although there was always an overlap of Royal Marines who were on continuous double-shift duty.
Passing through the foyer of the Villa Urbig was an impressive array of dignitaries: the Prime Minister, Eden and Lindemann, generals and admirals, regimental colonels and adjutants, senior officers and interpreters, journalists and security guards. Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, whom Churchill had courteously brought along in the event of a Labour victory in the concurrent election, was an observer. Churchill’s daughter Mary was her father’s aide-de-camp. General Slim was not able to attend because of his commitments to the “forgotten” 14th Army, still fighting the Japanese in Burma.
I was assigned to the Churchill/Lindemann team: the Prime Minister, his scientific adviser Professor Frederick Lindemann, along with a Mr. Clarke and a Mr. Brown. “The Prof” was an established friend of the Churchill family, and I once heard Mary, the PM’s daughter, greet him with “Hello, Uncle.” He did not smoke, drank very little, and had no apparent interest in women: a serious man, 100 percent loyal to his boss.
I became aware that in my circumstances one got to “know things,” but had to keep them to oneself. In any case, we were bound by the Official Secrets Act. Messrs. Clarke and Brown intimated that they were “back room boys.” Clarke, the senior, was very quiet, but Brown was more open and gave me a good insight as to what occupied “the Prof” and the Prime Minister.
It was hot in Potsdam, but conventional summer recreation was risky. One day a member of our staff, sitting on the river’s edge and dangling his feet in the water, was surprised when a shot rang out and a bullet thudded into the bank three feet away. It came from Soviet patrols on the opposite bank. Everyone was told to stay out of the river.
On another day a tornado hit. Off duty in the Royal Marines house, I saw a large greenhouse fly across the garden, twenty feet off the ground. There was damage to trees, but the buildings seemed unscathed. It was noisy but short-lived.
The Prime Minister, now into his 71st year, was still the anchor man of freedom. His health seemed remarkably good for his age. He was buoyant, walked with a cheeky swing, and did not give two hoots for any possible danger. We had no difficulties securing his safety in the villa, but our job was more hazardous when he wanted to look round.
Twice he went on walkabouts in Berlin, plainly unworried at being what I saw as an open target. He enjoyed being Winston Churchill, and demanded all the consideration that went with his job; but he also believed he could look after himself. It was a relief when we returned to Babelsberg and the comparative safety of Villa Urbig.
The PM never showed any signs of fatigue, and always wanted to “get on with it.” His spirit carried our entire delegation. I did see him depressed once, when he looked totally fed up. More of this anon.
Although there were journalists from all three allied nations, I found the Americans aggressive in their attempts to find news—as did WSC. Once, walking across the foyer, an American reporter tried to ask him something I could not catch. The old man snarled, “Get him out,” and he and his comrade were ejected; they did not appear again whilst I was on duty.
This was another instance of Mr. Churchill’s moods. He could change very quickly but was able to compensate just as fast. Here, I thought, is a man who does not suffer fools gladly—who radiates concentration. Even his chief of staff, General Ismay, was very careful not to speak unless spoken to first.
Mr. Churchill would sometimes joke with Lindemann about the Prof’s abstinence, which reminds me of a particularly annoying myth. It was started during the war by the German propaganda minister Goebbels, but some historians still repeat the notion that Winston Churchill was a drunk.
I was there and the historians were not. Mr. Churchill was no more a drunk than anyone who likes a drink. He did have his favourite tipples, brandy or whisky, topped up with champagne, and he pleased himself when he fancied a glass, which helped him work. Incidentally, our own Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, always kept a bottle of gin or whisky handy, and he never appeared to suffer from scurrilous remarks.
On July 25th Churchill and Attlee returned to London for the election results, and I was left in Babelsberg with General Ismay and other military staff. We all expected a few days’ relaxation before Mr. Churchill returned. To our shock came the unbelievable news of a Labour landslide. With a strained face, Gen. Ismay told us: “Mr. Churchill has resigned, Attlee is in. We shall have to stay in the bloody army now.” (Of course I didn’t “hear” that—and neither has anyone else, until now.)
Clement Attlee, now Prime Minister, duly returned, accompanied by Ernest Bevin, our new Foreign Secretary. They started to tidy up the conference paperwork, signing off on Poland, whose fate was not their fault. It had really been settled by the onrushing Red Army and the Yalta Conference, although Churchill had hoped, vainly as it turned out, that Stalin would allow a Polish democracy.
Attlee took over the British Delegation on 28 July, and from that day to the end of the conference on 2 August, he never spoke a word in my hearing. From what I picked up from the “internal telegraph,” he was a cultured man, extremely quiet, and had only one friend: Mr. Bevin. Attlee gave the impression that he wanted the conference over as quickly as possible, and there was no fuss abut him, compared to the frenzied daily activities of Churchill.
In the foyer the day Attlee returned I recognised Ernie Bevin. He had been Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition government, which had broken up in late May, when Churchill had formed a “caretaker” Conservative government until the election. After the Labour victory (and much to his surprise), Attlee had asked him to be Foreign Secretary, and on July 27th he had resigned as General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, a position he had held since it was created in 1922.
I was rather taken aback when Bevin came right up to me and said, “How are you, lad?” in his distinctive West Country accent. “All right, sir, thank you,” I replied. He smiled warmly and continued: “Come on lad, how are you really?” I was not supposed to speak unless it concerned the job at hand, so I hastily said, “I really am all right, sir!”
Undeterred, Bevin asked where I came from, and got me talking. I found him to be a most friendly man. He stopped briefly over the next few days and I began to pick up his socialist leanings, which he explained as “looking after people and doing away with poverty.”
I thought Ernie Bevin had singled me out because of my working class background. I was pleased, because until then I’d thought the Labour Party was all “black beards and cellars.” In fact, as I later learned, he was looking for me, because he had brought something for me from England— of which more shortly.
I came to Bevin’s aid one day in an encounter with the Russian Minister for Employment. They were speaking through interpreters, and Bevin had heard something about the treatment of Russian workers, which upset him. He shouted at the Russian to the effect that he would not get away with that in England. This was badly translated, and fists were nearly flying—all because of their interpreters!
Having had friendly chats with Bevin, I felt safe to interrupt the argument by telling him there was an important message for him. It worked, fortunately. “Right, thank you,” he said, and left the foyer with a very long face.
The conference wound up on 2 August and we returned home the next day as I remember—this time aboard a twin-engine C-47 Dakota, a modified Douglas DC-3 used for transport. I remember asking one of the Canadian pilots if it was normal to see oil streaming out a portside engine; to my relief he said it was.
Poland, Churchill and Bevin
I mentioned seeing Churchill really depressed only once. Indeed I remember the date: the evening of July 23rd. The Potsdam agreement was still being finalised, with arguments over Poland’s border; but the cause of his anguish was deeper than that. Even in my lowly rank, I had picked up the word: Polish freedom was being extinguished, and Mr. Churchill was devastated and angry.
Over Poland he had had only lukewarm support from Truman, and he felt humiliated by Stalin. I know this because I had to burn Churchill’s meeting notes on July 23rd. One sentence stands out in my memory: “Poland will be divided and further subdivided into areas of collective farming, and the Polish peasants will be put to work in these areas.” This certainly depressed him.
At the 1995 International Churchill Conference, one of the panelists, Dr. Larry Arnn, compared “British interests” in Greece (trade and support of British foreign policy) with “Soviet interests” in Poland—which, he said, were “everything Poland had.” Indeed, Stalin used Poland as his pantry; he took almost everything it produced. And Churchill knew what was coming on 23 July 1945.
That evening the Prime Minister managed to slip unaccompanied out a back door of the villa into the courtyard. An ATS kitchen girl saw him and alerted me. I ran after him down the path. He had gone about twenty yards. As I caught up, he swung round with an angry look.
“Do you have to follow me everywhere?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Well, you’re a bladdy nuisance.”
Momentarily I felt as though I had been electrocuted but characteristically, he immediately put it right: “Oh, come along. I’ve been a bladdy nuisance for years.”
Back at the door, I stood aside to let him through. He stopped. There was a sad, questioning look on his face as he said to me very seriously: “There’s a cold wind coming, you know. We are going to have to keep warm.” He turned to go, I said good-night, he gave a grunt, and that was that.
Soon after Ernie Bevin arrived in late July I realized why he had sought me out. Before one of the plenary sessions he said, “I have something for you,” and at lunch the next day he handed me a creamy, buff-coloured envelope. I looked in surprise at the large letters written on it:
“Do you know who that’s from?” Mr. Bevin asked.
“I think so, sir.”
I opened it and found three one pound notes—equivalent to three weeks’ wages. There was nothing else.
Mr. Bevin nodded and left. I am sure he knew all about it. Later I told him of my July 23rd conversation with Churchill, saying, “I’m afraid he was upset.” Bevin smiled and said, “That’s something to tell your grandchildren.”
What did I do with the envelope? Nothing. It was a welcome closure of a most unusual and unique experience. As Mr. Bevin recommended, I have indeed told my two grandsons, aged 23 and 24. They have shown much interest in what I did at Potsdam.
In answer to them, and many others who have asked me what Churchill was like, I always give the same answer. He was the man for England at the right time.
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