March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 44

By Michael McMenamin


Summer 1888 • Age 13

“Phenomenal Slovenliness”

Winston’s early enthusiasm for Harrow was not reciprocated by the school. While he was allowed to return home for a visit in mid-July, his housemaster, Henry Davidson, wrote to his mother that “[H]e has not deserved it. I do not think, nor does Mr. Somerville, that he is in any way willfully troublesome; but his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way have really been so serious, that I write to ask you, when he is at home to speak very gravely to him on the subject.”

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Davidson gave examples: the boy was “constantly late for school” and frequently “losing his books and papers.” What frustrated Davidson about young Churchill was that “as far as ability goes he ought to be at the top of his form, whereas he is at the bottom. Yet I do not think he is idle; only his energy is fitful, and when he gets to his work it is generally too late for him to do it well.…I do think it very serious that he should have acquired such phenomenal slovenliness.…He is a remarkable boy in many ways, and it would be a thousand pities if such good abilities were made useless by habitual negligence.”


Summer 1913 • Age 38

“Not a bad performance”

Writing to his wife from the Admiralty yacht Enchantress on 23 July, Churchill sent his love to “you my sweet one and to both those little kittens & especially that radiant Randolph.” Immediately thereafter, he wrote that “Diana is a darling too; & I repent to have expressed a preference.” He closed the letter by telling his wife “you are vy precious to me and I rejoice indeed to have won and kept your loving heart. May it never cool towards me is my prayer, and that I may deserve your love my resolve.”

During August, Churchill became involved in a protracted dispute with the King over the names of new battleships. While the King approved Churchill’s proposed names of Hero, Agincourt and Raleigh, he vetoed Pitt and Ark Royal. His reasons for doing so were peculiar.

His Private Secretary, Frederick Ponsonby, explained on 3 August that Pitt was not “dignified” and that the ship’s crew might give it “nicknames of ill-conditioned words rhyming with it.” As for Ark Royal, the King opposed it because it would eventually be known as the Noah’s Ark.”

Churchill was not persuaded and replied the next day by sending the past history of vessels named Pitt and Ark Royal to Ponsonby, who replied just as promptly that the King was “well aware” of the history but still disliked the names. Two more longer letters from Churchill followed, including one suggesting that “the custom” of seeking Royal approval of the names of battleships “did not exist during the reign of Queen Victoria, the King’s grandmother.” The King remained obdurate.

Churchill also took up more weighty issues, writing a lengthy memorandum on what would be required to determine the War Fleet of 1920 (see Christopher Beckvold’s article, page 36). This was soon followed by another long memorandum to Prime Minister Asquith on the “general question of British trade protection in time of war.” Maintaining that the best naval strategy was a blockade of Germany, WSC wished to eliminate the long naval tradition of capturing an enemy vessel and distributing the value of its cargo as “prize money” to sailors on the British victor: “I see no reason why sailors at sea should do what it has long been considered dishonourable for soldiers on land to do, viz. enrich themselves by pillage.” Churchill proposed instead that in wartime all sailors should be given “a substantial quarterly bounty as compensation for the prize money they would have received.”

Home Rule for Ireland was still cause for hot debate. In August, the House of Commons was set to pass a Home Rule Bill for the third time, which the House of Lords could no longer reject. Ulster leader Edward Carson, supported by Bonar Law and most Tories, was again threatening civil war. Law urged the King to dissolve Parliament and order new elections, but Asquith believed the King had no right to dismiss an elected majority government.

Since Churchill was about to visit the King at Balmoral for a hunting holiday, Asquith deputized WSC orally to reiterate Asquith’s recent memorandum to the King on the “functions of a Constitutional Sovereign in regard to legislation,” emphasizing at the same time that “an ungovernable Ireland is a much more serious prospect” than rioting in four Ulster counties. Churchill did so with the King, and with Bonar Law, who was also a guest at Balmoral. He also shot four stags, “Not a bad performance,” he wrote to his wife, “for I have not fired a shot since last year.…I cd have shot more—but refrained, not wishing to become a butcher.”


Summer 1938 • Age 63

“Between War and Shame”

Churchill’s mood leading up to Munich was summarized by his 13 August letter to Lloyd George: “Everything is overshadowed by the impending trial of will-power which is developing in Europe. I think we shall have to choose in the next few weeks between war and shame, and I have very little doubt what the decision will be.”

Though out of power, Churchill was exerting every effort, publicly and privately, to secure a positive outcome. The government was not. Hitler was watching with interest. He told General Keitel on 18 June that he would take action against Czechoslovakia only if he was “firmly convinced…that France will not march, and that therefore England will not intervene.” He was soon convinced.

Churchill intuitively understood Hitler in a way that Chamberlain did not. On 23 June in the Daily Telegraph, he wrote that a German attack on the Czechs would draw in help from France, Russia and Britain. He followed that with a 6 July article on “The Rape of Austria,” documenting Germany’s oppression of 300,000 Austrian Jews: “The tale of their tribulation spreads widely throughout the world, and it is astonishing that the German rulers are not more concerned at the tides of abhorrence and anger which are rising ceaselessly against them throughout the heavily-arming United States.”

On 18 August he wrote optimistically of “a practical working compromise” to give “the Sudeten-German a free and equal chance with other races inside a more broadly based Czechoslovak Republic.” But he also warned that “the trampling down of Czechoslovakia by an overwhelming force would change the whole current of human ideas and would eventually draw upon the aggressor a wrath which would in the end involve all the greatest nations of the world.”

Churchill conveyed his message to the Nazis privately through the channels available to him. One occasion was on 14 July, when he met with the Nazi Gauleiter of Danzig, Albert Foerster, and his interpreter, Professor Ludwig Noe. Foerster assured Churchill that nobody in Germany was thinking of war and that the Nazis had “immense social and cultural plans which would take them years to work out.” Unconvinced, when Noe wrote Churchill to thank him for the Foerster meeting, WSC reiterated the message he had personally delivered earlier to the Sudeten leader Conrad Henlein: “I am quite certain that any crossing of the Czechoslovakian frontier by German troops would lead to a general war. The French would certainly march and, in my opinion, England would be drawn in. Such a war would be a most terrible catastrophe, as it would last until all the great nations were utterly ruined and exhausted.”

Unknown to Churchill at the time, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) had conceived a plan to send a secret message to the British that the only way to prevent war was to persuade Hitler that Britain would fight if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. The envoy chosen was an anti-Nazi lawyer, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin (hanged by Hitler in 1945 in the wake of the Stauffenberg assassination plot), who was briefed personally by General Beck, chief of the German General Staff. Beck told  Kleist-Schmenzin that if he was assured Britain would fight for Czechoslovakia, “I will bring about an end to this regime.”

Kleist-Schmenzin travelled to England on a false passport provided by Canaris. Alerted by Nevile Henderson, British ambassador to Berlin, Foreign Minister Lord Halifax ordered that “no government official should take the initiative to see him.” But Robert Vansittart did meet with Kleist-Schmenzin on 18 August, as did Churchill the following day at Chartwell. The secret envoy told them an attack on Czechoslovakia was imminent, but that only Hitler wanted war. The Army opposed it, but needed assurances that Britain and France would fight. With Halifax’s acquiescence, Churchill wrote a letter entitled “Dear Sir,” to protect the German’s identity:

“I am sure that the crossing of the frontier of Czecho-Slovakia by German armies or aviation in force will bring about a renewal of the world war. I am as certain as I was at the end of July 1914 that England will march with France….Do not, I pray you, be misled upon this point. Such a war, once started, would be fought out like the last to the bitter end, and one must consider not what might happen in the first few months but where we should all be at the end of the third or fourth year.”

Churchill sent a copy of the letter and notes of his meeting to Halifax, who replied: “I think, if I may say so, both your language in conversation and your letter are most valuable.” Alas no British official ever made such a comparable public statement at any time.  On September 15th, Neville Chamberlain announced he was flying to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden.


Summer 1963 • Age 88

“A Great Pity”

Churchill took his last cruise on the Onassis yacht Christina in late June, accompanied by his son Randolph and his grandson Winston, Anthony Montague Browne, Jock Colville and their wives. He suffered another mild stroke on 12 August, which left him bedridden for the rest of the month. To Beaverbrook on the 23rd, Montague Browne wrote that Churchill was doing much better mentally and that it was “a great pity that his physical condition does not march with it.” By early September, however, Churchill was up every day and watching films after dinner. On September 12th the Churchills marked their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary with Clementine writing a note (“My darling Winston… Today we have been married 55 years”) which was waiting for him when he awoke that morning.

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