Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
By Randolph Churchill
My father, the younger Winston, like his father Randolph, was born during a tumultuous world war. He loved the fact that he was born on 10 October 1940, during the Battle of Britain, at the Prime Minister’s country house Chequers. The night before, his imminent arrival was foreshadowed by the delivery of a German bomb landing one hundred yards from the house. My father liked to say that he was the next bombshell to arrive at Chequers!
Thus began a life full of adventure, daring, and a role on the international stage, which lasted six decades. He inherited the energy and dynamism of his father—my grandfather—who in 1941 in the Libyan desert with SAS founder David Stirling talked his way into the Benghazi German naval base, remained there for twenty-four hours and succeeded in doing no damage to the enemy before they talked their way out. Randolph had an eventful life, full of political opinion and a good measure of drama. Winston’s mother Pamela, the irrepressible daughter of Lord and Lady Digby of Minterne, met Randolph in autumn 1939 on a blind date and married him three weeks later. Theirs was a generation where the cocktail of the war years provided impetus to getting married expeditiously.
Growing up Winston
It was never going to be easy growing up as effectively an only child (his half-sister Arabella was nine years younger) and also as the namesake and grandson of the legendary wartime Prime Minister. My father noted: “I had come to realise from an early age that the name of Winston Churchill, which I was so proud to bear, was both a lot to live up to and a lot to live down.” He was a young man in a hurry. He would often escort his mother on her travels and lacked the benefit of growing up with siblings and other young ones around him. He never liked structure or authority, and he did not enjoy his time at school. He wanted to get on and make his mark in life.
Winston gained a place to read modern history at Christ Church, Oxford, giving him the opportunity to explore a wider world. Before starting at Oxford he had a few months to spare and, whilst visiting the States, heard about a vacancy in Senator John F. Kennedy’s campaign office in Washington, which was in full swing preparing for his presidential bid. On 23 July 1959 my father sent a cable to his father:
WANT TO GET JOB HERE AUGUST STOP HAVE BEEN OFFERED ONE IN JACK KENNEDY’S WASHINGTON OFFICE ANXIOUS FOR YOUR APPROVAL STOP PLEASE REPLY SOONEST THE DRAKE NEW YORK
LOVE = WINSTON
This prompted, by return, the bluntest telegram my father ever received from Randolph, who—wrongly—assumed that the offer had come from Jack Kennedy:
DON’T THINK YOU SHOULD TAKE SIDES IN AMERICAN PARTY POLITICS STOP SINCE 1776 REVOLTING COLONISTS HAVE RESENTED US LIMEYS INTERFERING IN THEIR AFFAIRS STOP ASK JACK ABOUT BOSTON TEA PARTY AND WHAT HAPPENED TO BRITISH AMBASSADOR SACKVILLE WEST IN 1888 STOP SUGGEST YOU FIND SOMETHING LESS POLITICALLY AND CLIMATICALLY HOT THAN WASHINGTON STOP LET ME KNOW IF I CAN HELP, LOVE = FATHER
So Winston, aged nineteen, avoided politics and went straight into what he was to adore, journalism. He secured a job on the copy desk of the Wall Street Journal and reflected: “After years of drudgery cooped up in a classroom, it was wonderfully exciting and challenging at last to be doing a job of work in the real world.”
At Oxford, Winston enjoyed the company of his friends, as well as the Oxford Union. He was thrilled to join the Oxford University Ski Club and win his “HalfBlue.” During his time at Oxford, he distinguished himself primarily in the enjoyment of life, saying: “Having, in the spring of 1960, successfully put behind me my preliminary exams, and with my finals still two years away, I was able to start savouring to the full the joys and freedom of Oxford life. In retrospect I naturally regret that I did not address my studies with the same determination as I did my skiing and, later, my flying.” Winston finished Oxford as Captain of the Ski Team, he had a number of articles published in national newspapers, and he was fortunate to scrape a fourth-class degree.
During his last year at Oxford, he caught the flying bug, learning to fly at the little Oxford aerodrome. Winston and his friends flew wherever they felt they might enjoy a good lunch, dinner, or an Armagnac. In 1962, as a newer world opened to him after university, my father and one of his fellow skiing companions, Arnold von Bohlen, set their hearts on flying round Africa in a single-engine plane. Winston’s grandparents were most concerned. Clementine wrote to remonstrate with young Winston, and he was summoned to join his grandfather for lunch at 28 Hyde Park Gate. Sir Winston did not conceal his anxiety: “It is a very hazardous enterprise,” he declared, “I am not at all sure that I approve.” My father noted: “I had long since learned by experience that the only way to deal with Churchills—whether my grandfather or my father—was to stand up to them. It was the only language they understood and respected. To hesitate or show weakness was fatal and guaranteed one would lose the argument.” So Winston rejoined: “How dare you, Grandpapa….When you were my age, you had already come under fire in Cuba, fought on the North-West frontier of India and were on the point of charging with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman!” His grandfather paused for a moment’s reflection before replying: “I think you have a point,” adding, as they parted, “You have my blessing!”
The journey around Africa went amazingly well despite many incidents. The conspirators returned unscathed, together with their plane, and with broader horizons. On his return from Africa, Winston bumped into Minnie d’Erlanger, and it was not long before romance blossomed. In the spring of 1964, Winston proposed, and they married a few months later on 15 July 1964. They celebrated at Hyde Park Gate with Sir Winston and Clementine, who had put on ice some Pol Roger champagne and where the proud grandfather had arranged for the famous photographer Yousuf Karsh to fly over and take their wedding photographs.
Having had his adventures and now married, the younger Winston needed a sustainable career. With the help of my mother Minnie doing the typing, he published his first book First Journey, which directly led into a job at BBC radio as anchorman of This Time of Day, the forerunner of The World at One. Aged twenty-five, he was where he wanted to be: a new-generation Churchill talking about, debating, and participating in issues of the post-war world. This led him to a mammoth lecture tour for which he was completely unprepared and only modestly daunted, taking Minnie but leaving me, their seven-month-old baby son, at home.
My father spoke in forty-seven cities in fifty-six days, in the course of which he and Mother drove 12,000 miles. The lecture tour, although nerve-racking, gave Winston the ability to speak with brilliance and confidence wherever he went. He was never daunted by people he met or those he interviewed. Shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday, he was invited to travel to Southeast Asia for Look magazine to report on the Vietnam War. On the scene, he managed to talk his way onto a strike mission with the US Air Force in a Super Sabre fighter plane. He waddled out onto the tarmac in a flight suit weighed down with a parachute, life jacket, dinghy, G-suit, emergency radio transmitter, strobe flashlight, miniature flare gun, two daggers, survival rations, jungle survival kit, fishing tackle, and water purification tablets. “I felt about as ungainly as any medieval knight in armour preparing to enter the lists. Before I climbed into the navigator-bombardier’s seat to the rear, the pilot, Major John Sercel from Cleveland, Ohio, handed me a holster and the butt end of a Colt .45 with the query: ‘Mr Churchill, if we are shot down, do you want to try explaining to the VC [Viet-Cong] that you’re only an English roundeye rather than an American roundeye? Or would you sooner have this?’” He took the gun.
During the summer of 1967, when Winston was twenty-six, there was a by-election for the northern industrial working-class constituency of Gorton, which is near Manchester and where there was already a considerable Labour majority. Winston resolved not to stand for an easy shoehorn constituency but chose to fight for an industrial constituency in the northwest, as he wished to represent an area that had real challenges. He wanted to make an impact and win a working-class constituency from the Socialists. The Guardian described the area as a “no twilight zone; the dark came down over most of it a long time ago…its main shopping street would need little alteration to fit into a film about the Great Depression.” The campaign was lively, and Winston made a great impression upon the constituents. Although not elected, he reduced the Labour majority from 8,308 votes down to just 577. Though but two-and-a-half years old, I remember this campaign very fondly, as I have a distinct memory of our family renting a flat with a railway line going straight past the bedroom window. What more does a young boy need?
In 1970 my father won the constituency of Stretford near Manchester. Upon election, he was the youngest Conservative Member of Parliament. He remained an MP for almost twenty-seven years, standing down in 1997 when his constituency was abolished. Between those years, he made his mark as a dedicated constituency MP who was always happy to take up the issues of individuals who had a cause in which he believed. From his travels in Africa and Asia, he knew about the real world, and he campaigned vigorously against sanctions on the minority white government in Rhodesia led by Ian Smith. He believed that Smith and his ministers were steadily moving towards full enfranchisement for Africans and that sanctions would only bring on a dictatorial form of government. Mrs. Thatcher, as Leader of the Opposition, had a policy of transferring former colonies to independence as soon as possible. For his beliefs, Winston lost his position as Shadow Defence Spokesman. When Mrs. Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979, she remembered what she saw as Winston’s disloyalty, and he did not gain high office in her administration. My father came into further conflict with her when he supported keeping open some parts of the coal mines during the protracted miners’ strike. This was his hallmark; he was never afraid to speak up for things he felt passionately about, even if it affected his political career. He was always determined to do the right thing. Winston had a very loyal coterie of friends who were also not afraid to say what they believed. There was a buzz of excitement wherever my father was, always with great projects, schemes, and adventures taking place.
A Big Heart
Winston loved sailing, and, with my mother Minnie and siblings Jennie, Marina, and Jack, we had many eventful times on board his thirty-foot Contessa, which was kept at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. With his flying, too, there were often challenging situations. On one occasion in a big Alpine winter storm, our twin-engine plane was accumulating a lot of ice. With the hundred-knot headwind, we were barely making ground over the snowy white peaks. Winston had the engines at full throttle, and yet we were losing altitude the whole time. The danger below was all too visible. Fortunately we made a miraculous landing at Zurich, where—an hour later—the slabs of ice were still crashing off the wings of the plane!
Winston was involved in many charities, including the British Kidney Patient Association. For several years he was also a volunteer pilot for the St John’s Ambulance Air Wing. My mother and he would be called without warning, sometimes in the middle of the night, to deliver organs for transplant to hospitals throughout Western Europe. This was exactly the sort of excitement my father thrived on. It exhausted most of us, but he loved playing his part.
Winston had a big heart and was always keen to help others. With a parliamentary delegation, he visited a small British military hospital in eastern Nepal nestled in the foothills of Everest. At Dharan some six months previously, there had been a dreadful earthquake, and here, in the hospital, my father met a young, smiling girl named Manmaya Karki, whose leg had been severely crushed by a boulder falling down the mountain and landing on her while she slept with the cattle in the shed adjoining her small family home. Winston asked the British nurse, Major Maggie: “How can this girl survive without a proper functioning leg?” The matron was very clear that the girl’s whole leg needed rebuilding and that it would take considerable resources, not available in Nepal. Winston immediately arranged with friends to raise a large sum of money to cover the medical bills. Eventually, the Royal Masonic Hospital at Chiswick agreed to cover a good part of the expenses, and the young girl’s leg was rebuilt over the following year. Afterwards, my father supported her education in Kathmandu, as she could not live in the mountains. He continued to support her with her career and eventually provided a house for her and her young family when she became a mother.
When my father’s constituency was abolished by the Boundary Commission in 1997, he was keen to head to the European Parliament. Due to his tussles with the Conservative Party, however, he was unsuccessful. In the remaining thirteen years of his life, Winston continued his love of debating and sparring with friends. He enjoyed his time in America with his second wife Luce, who had many friends in Palm Beach, where Winston loved the energy and the entrepreneurial zest of the American people. In 1955, when Sir Winston was standing down as Prime Minister at the age of eighty, he had two insights for his ministers: the first was “Man is spirit,” and the other maxim was “Never be separated from the Americans.” My father, like his grandfather, felt strongly the American blood in our veins that came from our American ancestry—through Jennie Jerome, her flamboyant father Leonard Jerome, and, of course, through our ancestors who served alongside George Washington. This American blood, combined with the Marlborough genes, provided the spark to create strong, independent-minded Churchills, who understood that you had to win the goodwill of the ordinary person to achieve great things. My father may have grown up in his grandfather’s shadow, but he pursued his own career in his own very Churchillian way.
Randolph L. S. Churchill is President of the International Churchill Society.