Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Action This Day: Autumn 1887,1912, 1937, 1962
By Michael McMenamin
125 YEARS AGO Autumn 1887 • Age 12 “Very much astonished…”
September 27th found Winston again imploring his mother to send him a copy of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She: “I am afraid you have forgotten all about ‘She’ please remember as I am longing to read it.” Yet by October 11th, he wrote, “I no longer want ‘She’ as my time is sufficiently filled up now.” Perhaps he had by then found a copy locally.
Lord Randolph remained out of office, but that had not slackened demand for his autograph, which Winston was selling to fellow students at Brighton. On October 8th, after learning he was being sent next year to Harrow, he reminded Lord Randolph, “Please do not forget the autographs.” He added, “I am very glad to hear that I am going to Harrow & not to Winchester.” Three days later he wrote his mother that he was “very much astonished at the news about Harrow.” Since Winston was not shy about expressing his opinions to his mother, it is curious that he didn’t ask why his parents had chosen Harrow.
Cognizant that November 30th was approaching, he wrote his mother in late October, “I suppose you are coming down for my birthday, I also suppose that we are going to have a party; are we not?!!!!! I will not forget to get the addresses of all those boys whom I want to invite. I think there will be about a dozen.” A party did not seem to be in the cards, however, since on November 15th he wrote, “I am looking forward to a visit from you on that day.” His passion for She either sated or abandoned, he wrote “I should rather like ‘Gen Grant’s History of the American War’ (Illustrated).”
Winston was anticipating Christmas at home with his parents and brother when he learned from his headmistress Miss Thomson that Lord and Lady Randolph were leaving on a trip to Russia on December 19th. He wrote to his mother: “I am very disappointed at hearing that I must spend my holidays without you. But I am trying to make the ‘Best of a bad job’…I shall see you on Saturday and I have no doubt you will try your best to make me happy.”
100 YEARS AGO Autumn 1912 • Age 37 “…find you an appropriate leaf “
Churchill was defending his naval expenditure estimates to Lloyd George, chancellor of the Exchequer, and involved in a contentious episode with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman, whom he wanted to replace with the Second Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg.
Bridgeman, a notorious gossip, had shown disloyalty to his chief almost from the moment Churchill appointed him to replace Sir Arthur Wilson, who had resigned after refusing to support Churchill’s plan for a Naval War Staff. Bridgeman subsequently met with Conservative leader Arthur Balfour’s secretary, J.S. Sandars, criticizing Churchill and the manner in which he had replaced Wilson. Churchill’s letter to Wilson seeking his resignation, Bridgeman said, was “a fine example of what a letter ought not to be under such circumstances.” Sandars reported this to Balfour, saying Bridgeman characterized WSC as “exhibit[ing] great irritability and bad temper” and “break[ing] into tears and talk[ing] in such a melancholy manner about himself that Bridgeman thinks he must be ill.”
Bridgeman was himself ill, with bronchitis and appendicitis, so Churchill’s retirement request had a medical aspect. When Churchill wrote to the King, advising that he proposed to promote Battenberg in Bridgeman’s place, the King approved but Bridgeman manifestly did not wish to retire. A series of letters between Bridgeman and Churchill became more contentious after a 14 December Morning Post article had criticized Churchill with information that could only have originated with Bridgeman, or those in whom he had confided. Churchill called the Admiral to task in a letter Bridgeman said had a “threatening character.” After unsuccessfully seeking the King’s support, Bridgeman backed down and agreed a joint statement with Churchill repudiating the Morning Post.
Churchill’s troubles at this time extended to his wrong-footed attempt to name a new battleship after Oliver Cromwell. The King was adamantly opposed, ostensibly on political grounds, i.e., Irish sensibilities; but Churchill was surprisingly persistent, given his continuing role as the Liberals’ chief spokesman on Ireland. Three times he wrote to the King trying to persuade him and even discussed it with the King personally. He wasn’t even above a little polite blackmail as, in the midst of the letter exchange over the name, he sent a separate letter pointing out what he considered to be the King’s extravagant expenditures on the royal yacht! Inadvertently, Churchill was providing ammunition for his enemies’ claim that he lacked judgment.
Churchill’s lack of inhibition in appearing naked is well known, thanks mostly to the bath episode involving FDR during Churchill’s 1941 visit to the White House. His family was aware of this trait much earlier, as evidenced by a 9 November letter from his cousin the Duke of Marlborough, announcing the premature Christmas present of a bathrobe: “I have been shocked at the manner in which you display your person when travelling to and from the bathroom, and I am making an effort to find you an appropriate leaf.”
75 YEARS AGO Autumn 1937 • Age 62 “Alarming accounts…of the RAF”
Sir Martin Gilbert writes: “By the autumn of 1937 Churchill’s sources of information on defence had become widespread, regular and of high quality. One of these sources was Group-Captain Lachlan MacLean, who had been introduced by Wing-Commander Torr Anderson, one of Churchill’s sources.
For reasons which defy explanation even today, the Chamberlain government had honored a request by Luftwaffe General Erhard Milch for an inspection tour of the RAF. In MacLean’s words, Milch had previously reported on “the backward state of our air development.” But Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg had visited England early in 1937 and received a different impression. Now Milch wished to verify his earlier impressions. MacLean wrote to Anderson before Milch’s arrival: “How we have been let in for this visitation at the present moment is beyond imagination….Everyone must realize that the impression created on these people now must inevitably influence German policy with regard to us and foreign policy generally.”
MacLean attached to his letter notes from a conference that day at Bomber Command, with an ominous observation: “The Chairman opened the proceedings by saying that we should have to comb the country in order to produce sufficient aircraft to put up any sort of show.” MacLean added: “…we are bluffing with the sky as the limit without holding a single card and we have then invited our opponents to come round and see what cards we hold, trusting a sleight of hand to put across a second bluff. We know that Milch heads the group which suspects the real state of affairs and that the mission is to find confirmation of their suspicions.”
Anderson passed MacLean’s notes to Churchill who in turn sent them to Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee on Imperial Defence, who he believed shared his concerns. He asked Hankey not to probe its origin, saying it was “one small installment of the alarming accounts I have received of the RAF.”
Hankey replied with an eight page letter more concerned with Churchill’s sources than the RAF’s unpreparedness:
“It shocks me not a little that high Officers in disciplined forces should be in direct communication with a leading Statesman who…is regarded as a critic of the Departments under whom these Officers serve…I feel in my bones that these unofficial communications are all wrong, that the thing is infectious, and subversive to discipline and that the damage done to the Services far outweighs any advantages that may accrue….”
Churchill replied: “I certainly did not expect to receive from you a lengthy lecture when I went out of my way to give you, in strict confidence, information in the public interest…[Y]ou may be sure I shall not trouble you again in such matters.”
The German mission duly fulfilled its objective, proving Milch right in his analysis of RAF inferiority, as MacLean wrote in a detailed account which made its way to Churchill: “Wherever the [German] Mission went the standard equipment was of the biplane type… (including) the DH 86 in which they themselves were transported [and] must have shown clearly that we were still in the biplane era with all that implies.”
50 YEARS AGO Autumn 1962 • Age 87 “The message shines through”
Churchill was recovering from surgery to mend his broken hip. On 15 October, his private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, wrote to Lord Beaverbrook that Sir Winston was “in very good spirits” and was “in many ways intellectually better than before his accident, but his mobility is not increasing and he is very bored.” To alleviate boredom Churchill attended Other Club dinners on both 1 November and 6 December, on the latter occasion braving what Roy Howells called “the worst smog of the year.” With the bad weather only eleven members attended, Churchill being the second to arrive. Howells thought his boss had made “a most remarkable recovery.”
Mary Soames, in her collection of her parents’ letters, also calls her father’s recovery remarkable, but she goes on to add, “…it marked a definite further stage in his slow decline. A sad remaining witness to this are his letters: from 1961; his handwriting at times is noticeably less confident—and there are fewer and shorter letters—but after breaking his hip Winston’s handwriting became very wandery. The short notes are full of affection and concern, if occasionally muddled—but the message shines through.”
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