by Martin Gilbert, M.A.
London, England, 17 September 1985
Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour for me to speak to you tonight. Three weeks ago exactly I was in Moscow, walking through the town house where Churchill met Stalin in October 1944; a magnificent building. I had hoped to bring a photograph of this fine building to show you tonight. Unfortunately my host on that occasion, as I produced my camera to take the photograph, tapped me gently on the shoulder and remarked: “My dear Professor, this is a high security building.”
Well, your tour of Churchill’s England, and my little tour of Churchill’s world tonight, have no security classification. While in London, I know you will visit many of the places associated with his life. I hope you will also find time to go and see some of the charming houses in which he spent his youth. The people who live in these houses, the first of which is 48 Charles Street, the second being 29 St. James’s Place, are puzzled that they cannot get blue plaques appended to the walls. Unfortunately the blue plaque policy is to select a few and abandon many.
Churchill lived such a long life that he had many London residences: it would be nice to feel that, as a result of interest such as yours, blue plaques will one day be put on all of them. For example, in the same street where Churchill spent several years as a child, there is a blue plaque on another house informing passers by that “from this house Chopin went to give his last concert.” Nor is there any plaque on 105 Mount Street, his first bachelor apartment, in which he lived from 1900 to 1905, and from which, incidentally, he went to the House of Commons to make his maiden speech; and in which he was living when he crossed the floor of the House from the Conservative to the Liberal benches.
There again, when you go along Bolton Street past his charming bachelor house at No. 12, the first house ever of his own, pay a thought, despite the absence of a blue plaque, to a strange drama that this house led to.
When Churchill purchased Bolton Street, his father had been dead for more than a decade, and he had no one to look after him. He himself had already become the breadwinner for his family. Sir Ernest Cassel came, as it were as a guardian angel, and furnished a room in this house for him. He also looked after Churchill’s small earnings financially and, in due course, turned them into quite substantial holdings.
Twelve years later Churchill found himself being denounced all over England by a brilliant lecturer, Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet friend of Oscar Wilde. Douglas claimed that Churchill had been in the pay and pocket of Sir Ernest Cassel, a Jew, to such an extent that after the Battle of Jutland in 1916, Churchill had concocted an incredible plot: the Government would announce a naval defeat (which indeed it did), British stocks would collapse on the New York stock market (which indeed they did), and Winston Churchill, centrepiece of this swindle, would then issue a statement (as indeed he did) saying, in effect, “Well, you know, it wasn’t such a defeat; our fleet is still on the seas and has a good chance of beating the German navy next time.” (His statement was issued at request of the Government for the sake of public morale.)
One result of Churchill’s reassuring statement was that the stocks went up in New York and several hundreds of millions were made by speculators. Lord Alfred Douglas claimed it was Churchill who had mastered this whole financial episode, which he portrayed as a deliberate swindle. He pointed to Bolton Street and the fact that Ernest Cassel had provided the furniture. So there, it was surely clear for all to see, these two were obviously fellow-conspirators.
In 1924 the newly elected Conservative Government decided to bring a criminal libel action against Lord Alfred Douglas: the Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, had just appointed Churchill Chancellor of the Exchequer, and did not like him being denounced all over the country for a major financial swindler. A case was brought, and Churchill told the court: “. . . ten years before the Battle of Jutland — not after it — Sir Ernest Cassel furnished for me a room in my house at 12 Bolton Street. Sir Ernest Cassel was a great friend of mine, and a great friend of my father’s before me. I first got to know him well about the year 1897. At the end of the year 1905, when for the first time I took a small house of my own in Bolton Street, he asked my mother whether he might furnish my sitting room for me. I accepted this gift from him as an act of spontaneous friendship. That is the sole foundation of truth which exists for these libels; and, as I have stated, it occurred ten years before the Battle of Jutland, and not after it.”
Churchill added, in connection with another of Lord Alfred Douglas’s accusations: “I did not spend the week-end with Sir Ernest Cassel before the Battle of Jutland occurred. It is only a detail, but is as untrue as the rest. I never at any time discussed any matter connected with the Battle of Jutland with him until after these libels had appeared, when I naturally drew his attention to them. He then in the last year of his life, although very ill, immediately offered to come forward and join in any prosecution which it might be thought right or necessary to institute.” Lord Alfred Douglas was found guilty, and sentenced to six months in prison. Perhaps 12 Bolton Street does deserve a plaque after all.
In 1940 Alfred Douglas was to send Churchill a poem of praise and of hope for his war leadership. Churchill accepted this tribute with magnanimity. As he had written to a former constituency opponent in 1940: “As for me, the past is dead.”
As to Sir Ernest Cassel the “co-conspirator,” on Cassel’s death in 1921 Churchill wrote to his granddaughter (Lord Mountbatten’s wife):
“Your grandfather was a great man & he made a mark on his generation & on the world that will last long. He was also a good & just man who was trusted respected honoured by all who knew him. He was a valued friend of my father & I have taken up that friendship & have held it all my grown up life. I had the knowledge that he was vy fond of me & believed in me at all times — especially in bad times. I had a real & deep affection for him. I saw with sadness that he was approaching the end of his mortal span. The last talk we had — about six weeks ago — he told me that he hoped he wd live to see me at the head of affairs. I cd see how great his interest was in my doings and fortunes. I did hope he wd live to see a few more years of sunshine. The horrible period of the war had passed away. The two griefs wh dominated his life — yr grandmother’s death & yr dear mother’s were being softened by the new light wh yr coming into blossom & brilliancy cast upon his footsteps. He wd have had happier days than he had known for many a long year. It is vy sad & hard that this prospect shd be closed. I know how you will cherish his memory: & I hope you will find in yourself his strength & virtue.
“I have lost a good friend whose like I shall never see again.”
Take if you can a journey through Hyde Park. Go through the road that goes north-south, with Kensington Gardens on your left Hyde Park on your right. Where the road crosses the Serpentine, you will see facing you a rather beautiful low building with columns and portico— unguarded, rather innocuous. This used to be the magazine in which explosives and ammunition for the defence of London were stored. Take with you a copy of Volume I of The World Crisis. This was one of the very spots Churchill was so concerned about at the height of the international crisis in 1911, when it suddenly appeared that Germany and Britain might be at war over Agadir, a small and hitherto insignificant port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
Churchill was at a garden party at 10 Downing Street when he happened to meet Sir Edward Henry, the Chief Commissioner of Police. To Churchill’s surprise, he learned from Henry that as Home Secretary he, Churchill, was technically responsible for the safety of all the reserves of naval cordite, some of which were stored in magazines in London, including this magazine hard by the Serpentine. Churchill at once returned to the Home Office and telephoned to the Admiralty. The Admiral in charge refused, however, to accept any responsibility, and declined to send a detachment of marines to guard these hitherto neglected but vital magazines. Accordingly, Churchill telephoned Lord Haldane at the War Office and persuaded him to send a company of infantry to each magazine. This was “the first of many actions,” Randolph Churchill has commented, “which in a long life was to gain for Churchill the reputation in pussyfoot circles of being an alarmist. He always maintained that it was better to be alarmed before a catastrophe rather than after.”
In his mind’s eye — and this was one of his great attributes — Churchill had immediately conjured up during that garden party at No. 10, the possibility of a small group of Germans, possibly German agents in London, seizing this magazine, and destroying it. Churchill was now deeply absorbed in the Agadir crisis, and perturbed by it. On the one hand Britain was threatening war with Germany — enormous headlines, excitement all over the world. On the other hand, there was no guard on vital munitions needed for the Fleet, and no sense of urgency among those responsible.
One result of this garden party conversation was that Churchill emerged as a leading advocate of adequate defence. Two months later he was given the job of being in charge of the naval forces of Britain. This was the beginning of his career as First Lord of the Admiralty. So, when you go past this magazine in Hyde Park, it is worth looking at, and thinking what a change in Churchill’s fortunes, perhaps in Britain’s fortunes, arose from that place’s vulnerability.
In those days, Churchill was not only a liberal, but a pillar of the Liberal Party. He was of course a member of the National Liberal Club, which you can also go past, between Whitehall and the River Thames. One day before the First World War, Churchill’s friend Lord Birkenhead, who, as you know, co-founded the celebrated Other Club in the Pinafore Room at the Savoy, was walking from the Temple, where he had his legal chambers, to the House of Commons. Suddenly he found that he had to do what I had to do just before I got up to speak here tonight. So he went into the National Liberal Club, which he was passing at that moment. Birkenhead being a prominent figure in the Tory Party, the club porter said, “Excuse me, Sir, but are you a member of this Club? Surely not!” To which Lord Birkenhead replied, “Club? I thought it was a public convenience.”
Now inside this Club, for it was indeed a Club, was a superb portrait of the great Liberal Winston Churchill, painted by Ernest Townsend in 1915, paid for by an anonymous donor. It was ready for presentation on 20 December 1915, when Churchill was already serving in the trenches of the Western Front. It was therefore hung temporarily in a Club Committee Room until such time as Churchill could unveil it. No opportunity was found for the ceremony. In 1921, when Churchill was no longer persona grata with the National Liberal Club, the Club decided that his portrait should be “packed and stored in some dry place.” During the Second World War it was taken out of storage and re-hung; almost immediately it was damaged by bomb blast. After being restored, it was finally unveiled by Churchill himself in 1941. You will be pleased to know that it is still there. So please look in at the National Liberal Club, at the portrait, even if you do not use the other facilities.
Clubs and dining and private moments in Churchill’s life are, of course, always fascinating. I try to describe them in my book when I can. But oddly enough, with due respect to Professor Schama’s encouraging review of my volume VI, I have nowhere described as yet the colours of Churchill’s siren suits.
I had been intrigued over the years to find the places where Churchill had wined and dined. And one of the most bizarre stories I came across was when I tried to find where he was on the night war was declared in August 1914.
It had, of course, in the Cabinet, been a long and difficult evening. The Cabinet had broken up at about 9-9:15, and Churchill and Lloyd George had a favourite restaurant within walking distance of 10 Downing Street — the Carlton Hotel at the bottom of the Haymarket, unfortunately later destroyed by Hitler’s bombs. (Its replacement is New Zealand House, a modern building.) At the Carlton Hotel they had supper together. And in the Churchill papers — such is their wealth —is the Carlton Hotel bill of what they ate and drank, a pleasant repast. But what is bizarre: the register of the staff at the Hotel survives, and among the vegetable cooks at the bottom, well under the chefs and anybody of culinary significance, was a recent recruit to the staff from French Indo-China: Ho Chi Minh.
Yes, Ho Chi Minh had been in London as a vegetable cook on the outbreak of war, when he had gone to the French Embassy in London to volunteer his services to fight, as a patriotic Indo-Chinaman (as they were then called). He was turned down, crossed the Channel to Paris, and began his career of disgruntlement and revolution.
You will wander many times, I’m sure, around Horse Guards Parade. It is a sort of spinning top of Churchill memories and events. Look particularly at the Admiralty — the great building in which he worked, and at Admiralty House, in which he lived. And look up at the main windows of Admiralty House.
Not only did Churchill write his great speeches of the early months of the First World War there, but also the first great speeches of the Second. “Fight on the beaches” was written in Admiralty House because, being a kind-hearted man underneath the gruff exterior, Churchill did not want to dislodge the sick and dying Neville Chamberlain precipitately from 10 Downing Street. He allowed Neville Chamberlain to remain in Downing Street, while he, as Prime Minister and also Minister of Defence, remained at Admiralty House, crossing Horse Guards Parade many times each day to go to the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.
It is curious how history suspends itself sometimes. One of Churchill’s innovations in the Admiralty building was to arrange some of the oak panelling so that it would open on a swivel. And behind it he put up maps of strategic positions of Britain’s ships at sea. The idea was that if someone came through the room, a well-meaning young naval officer, or, dare one imagine it, a politician, he could shut the panel and the naval dispositions would be hidden from view. This he set up in August 1914. In May 1915 he was thrown out. In September 1939, when he returned with his then secretary Kathleen Hill, he strode into the room. To her amazement — because hitherto she had only been on his staff at Chartwell — he went up to the panelling and pulled it open. And there exposed to view after 24 years, was the last of his disposition maps, still bearing the fleet dispositions in May 1915.
As you have been in the Cabinet War Rooms, you may recall in his bedroom another of the maps, with a long curtain which can be pulled across to obscure it. This curtain was always drawn when people came in to see him. On it were marked the “vulnerable points” on the British coast, where, if the Germans did land, there was precious little that could be thrown against them.In May 1915, the Dardanelles crisis saw Churchill removed from his central position of authority. Have a look, when you go down the Strand toward Trafalgar Square, at the lovely station hotel on the left, it is the Charing Cross Hotel. It has been refurbished and is rather attractive inside.
The crisis of May 1915 took place because Lord Fisher, Churchill’s chief executive officer of the Admiralty, walked out. He simply left the Admiralty building and announced, “I’m going — I’m not serving under Churchill, and let there be a political crisis.” Of course, Fisher had informed the Conservative opposition of exactly what he was doing. But no one knew where he was going. The Prime Minister searched London for him: sent a messenger round London carrying a letter ordering Fisher to return to his post. I reproduced that letter in facsimile in Volume III. It read, curtly (and on 10 Downing Street notepaper): “Lord Fisher. In the King’s name I order you at once to return to your post. H.H.Asquith. 15 May 1915.”
Unknown to Churchill or Asquith, Fisher was, in fact, at the Charing Cross Hotel. But they did not send anyone there. The messenger went instead to the hotels near Euston Station, St. Pancras and Kings Cross, because they thought the old Admiral was going north to Scotland or to Norfolk. Actually, his lady friend, the Duchess of Hamilton, lived in the south of England, on one of the lines leading out of Charing Cross. And Churchill, who was a shrewd person, many years later met the Duchess and told her: “If only I had known about your friendship with Fisher then, I would have gone to see you. You were the only one who could have persuaded him to go back to the Admiralty.” So have a look at this hotel, which was in a way so disastrous to Churchill’s fortunes.
In 1915 Churchill left the centre of war direction, even though he remained in the Cabinet. It was then that he discovered Hoe Farm, which you will visit. No doubt Arthur Simon, who lives there now, and who has been so helpful to me in my researches, will tell you all about how Churchill did his very first paintings there, how Lady Lavery arrived in her Rolls-Royce and persuaded Churchill to “assault the canvas,” that marvellous moment recalled so vividly by Churchill himself in Painting as a Pastime. All that took place at Hoe Farm. Indeed, Churchill’s first two surviving paintings were of the pond and the little field there, which you will see.
In London, too, is the house at 41 Cromwell Road from which Churchill gave up politics in November 1915 and left for the trenches of the Western Front. This house belonged to his brother Jack. It, too, cannot get its blue plaque. But you can do down the Cromwell Road, just opposite the Natural History Museum, to see it, a fine corner house in which at one stage Lady Randolph Churchill, Jack and Lady Gwendeline Churchill, their three children, Churchill himself, his wife and their three children, all lived. Fortunately it is quite a large house! Now it is a Catholic education centre. You might just knock on the door and ask if you can have a look in there.
When he was at the Admiralty, Churchill had a young shorthand writer, Harry Beckenham, who travelled everywhere with him — one of the first of what were to become his staff of ever-ready, ever-patient, ever-devoted secretaries, one of whom, Elizabeth Gilliatt, is here tonight. Beckenham was there to take dictation, day and night. He has also to be left behind, when Churchill went to the trenches, at which point Churchill wrote in exasperation in a private letter, “God for a month of power, and a good shorthand writer.”
There is one extraordinary and moving letter which Churchill wrote to his wife from the trenches, one of those long letters which he wrote every day in his own hand — tender, loving, sad, determined letters about what was happening; very private letters which were never intended for publication. There is one which, it often surprises me, has still not become a part of the Churchill literature. Perhaps, as a result of my remarks tonight, you will put it in your own excellent publication Finest Hour.
It was 28 March 1916, a wintry day. The Germans were sending yet another methodical artillery barrage along the British front line. Churchill calculated that the fifth or sixth shell would hit the ground quite near to where he was standing. Indeed it did. As he wrote his wife: “Twenty more yards to the left and no more tangles to unravel, no more anxieties to face, no more hatreds and injustices to encounter. A good ending to a chequered life. A final gift, unvalued, to an ungrateful country, an impoverishment of the war-making power of Britain which no one would ever know, or measure, or mourn.”
Well, Churchill survived his time in the trenches, and was left with an enormous understanding of what soldiers went through; understanding which was substantially to affect his conduct of the Second World War, and his deep reluctance to throw men ashore in hopeless enterprises. It caused him to become a fierce critic of the policy of attrition which was to culminate in the Battle of Passchendaele, in 1917. It led Lloyd George, the wily, remarkable Prime Minister, to bring Churchill back into the Government, to use his energies to fight the Germans rather than to fight the Government: and to benefit from his caution and his mature view of events (he was then 43) as much as from his more publicly seen pugnacity.
So Churchill became Minister of Munitions, and worked in a requisitioned hotel, the Metropole. Today it is the Metropole Building, part of the Ministry of Defence. You can see it, a lovely structure really, of its type, in Northumberland Avenue. Look from the street and you will see the Minister’s room, rather an attractive window.
There Churchill was when the war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, sitting in that window. Let me read from his description of looking out of that window; you can bear these words in mind, or better still read them aloud on the pavement, when you look up at his window from Northumberland Avenue:
“Suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government Departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke of Big Ben resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy. I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me in our very headquarters, in the Hotel Metropole, disorder had broken, out. Doors banged. Feet clattered down corridors. Everyone rose from the desk and cast aside pen and paper. All bounds were broken. The tumult grew. It grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic. Streams of men and women flowed from the Embankment. They mingled with torrents pouring down the Strand on their way to acclaim the King. Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium.”
I often think that one should, when looking at Churchill’s London, try and look at the places where he was at important moments in history. Look not only at the famous houses and locations, but the actual places where he found himself on those particular moments, such as that window in the Metropole building. There are several other such locations. My ambition is to do an illustrated Atlas of them one day: Churchill’s London in Maps and Photographs.
The war ended, and Churchill was made Minister of War — not the only ironic moment in his career: the war over, the Ministry of War was his! He found himself responsible, not for fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia — which he was quite keen to do — but, by order of Lloyd George and the Cabinet, for pulling British troops out of Russia.
Those of you who know my Volume IV will remember those chapters where this man, so furious against the Bolsheviks, is given the responsibility of withdrawing British forces from every corner of the almost disintegrated Bolshevik empire: it is a curiosity of Churchill’s history; but within it there is an even greater curiosity.
In March 1918, Lenin and Trotsky were about to achieve their bittersweet triumph: peace with Germany — the famous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which the Bolsheviks gave up to Germany, in return for peace, vast areas of western Russia, including virtually the whole of the Ukraine, Russia’s breadbasket.
Everyone around the Cabinet table in London was alarmed about this. First, it meant that Germany would acquire enormous wealthy areas of Russia; secondly that, with no fighting left to be done against the Russians, the Kaiser could turn millions of armed men against us in the West. (Yes, America was in the war by then, and its troops on the line — or almost in the line.) And we knew that we could not withstand, or might not be able to withstand, this mass of new German troops.
It was then that Churchill proposed to Lloyd George: Why doesn’t somebody (he was too modest, of course, to say himself, and in fact proposed Theodore Roosevelt who was then in Europe) go at once to Russia, and join the Bolshevik government as one of its Commissars, as Commisar for the Allies in fact. Then, in return for Lenin’s Russia rejoining the war with Germany, Britain and the United States would guarantee the permanence of the Bolshevik Revolution!
Well, this was not the only thing in Churchill’s life that did not turn out as he proposed! And I must tell you that when I presented this little episode in Moscow three weeks ago, there was a certain tremor of excitement.
Looking back over Churchill’s career, I have often thought that one of the most neglected periods is the two years which he spent as Colonial Secretary. It is neglected, perhaps, because we think now, in post-Colonial Britain, that the colonies were somehow slightly disreputable, out-of-the-way places, ill-governed and rightly got rid of.
One of the main issues with which Churchill had to deal as Secretary of State for the Colonies was Ireland. It is my view that Churchill’s attempt to resolve the Irish question in 1920-21, his negotiation of the Irish Treaty, his bringing the Irish terrorists into negotiations with the British Government, was one of the greatest achievements of his life —the creating of today’s Eire and today’s Northern Ireland.
Of course if you read the correspondence, the Treaty itself, the negotiations, you will see that this was intended as a temporary expedient, until the passions could subside. Well, it still may prove to be a temporary expedient. We simply have to define “temporary” in a somewhat elastic way.
Churchill worked exceptionally hard on the Irish settlement, and it did really — and has — maintained the peace, albeit at times an uneasy one. His advice to the terrorists surely remains true today: “Quit killing, and start talking.”
Hard though he worked, and late into the night — late into so many nights — on the Irish settlement, Churchill also understood that Ireland could not be wholly governed by treaties and negotiations. When he introduced the Irish Treaty in the House of Commons he made a marvellous speech — one of four major speeches, each of more than two hours that he made on Ireland during that period. His conciliatory speeches had to soothe irate Tories who did not like the idea of an independent Catholic southern Ireland, and the even more irate Liberals to whom the breaking up of Ireland with a separate Protestant entity in the north was a thing they had nearly gone to war about, just before the “real” war, in 1914.
I would like to read to you this fine passage, spoken when Churchill was confronted, as so often in his Ministerial as well as his Opposition days, by a hostile House. As so often in his life, he could look back, farther back than many of his listeners, to a period in which he had been even then at the centre of dramatic events:
“I remember,” he said, “on the eve of the Great War, we were gathered together at Cabinet in Downing Street, and for a long time, an hour or an hour and a half, after the latest Irish conflict, we discussed the boundaries of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Both of the great traditional parties were at each other’s throats. The air was full of talk of civil war. Every effort was made by us to settle the matter and to bring them together .
“The differences had been narrowed down, not merely to the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone but to parishes and groups of parishes inside the area of Fermanagh and Tyrone. And yet, even when the differences had been so narrowed down, the problem appeared to be insuperable as ever.
“Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires were overturned. The whole map of Europe had been changed. The position of every country had been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook of affairs, the grouping of political parties, all had encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Permanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”
The year 1922 saw the fall of Lloyd George, and Churchill went into his first political Wilderness. Indeed for the first time since 1900 he was without a seat in Parliament. To his surprise, after having fought a Conservative Government in two by-elections and done very well against them, and finally been re-elected, he was summoned by the new Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, as he thought to be offered a minor post in the Government, perhaps Minister of Local Government, or Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: and he was firmly resolved not to accept it.
Yet it was a chance to get back. The question was: how small, how derisory this offer should be to be rejected. Somewhat to his disappointment, Baldwin said to him, “I’d like you to be Chancellor.” Churchill assumed that he was to be Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the sinecure he had held briefly in 1915. He was willing to do it, he said, if he could have some influence on social policy.
It was in fact more, much more, that Baldwin was offering; it was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the number one post after Prime Minister. Churchill had the wit to ask in reply: “Will the bloody duck swim?”
One young man whom Churchill spotted in 1925 was Harold Macmillan, a recently elected Conservative whom Neville Chamberlain had somehow failed to encourage. Churchill gave Macmillan a room in the Treasury, and encouraged him to set down his ideas on how the economy should develop: the human face of Tory economic policies. It was the basis of a long and eventually intimate relationship.
Churchill also, as you know from your own bibliographic work, began even before his return to Conservatism, to write his war memoirs, The World Crisis. He had already been 30 years in politics, 30 years at the centre of events. Very few people have such a long political career in the centre. And he was to have more than 20 more! Churchill had become a wise old bird by 1930. Other people sent him their books; one of these was his friend Lord Beaverbrook, who sent him his account of what had happened in 1914 and 1915, Politicians and the War.
Churchill read it. He enjoyed it. He always enjoyed Beaverbrook’s hard hitting style. In his thank-you letter Churchill wrote, “What a tale. Think of all these people, decent, educated. The story of the past laid out before them: what to avoid, what to do, etc. Patriotic, loyal, clean, decent, trying their utmost: what a ghastly muddle they made of it. Unteachable from infancy to tomb, that is the first and last characteristic of mankind.”
It is interesting, too, that on the bottom of his letter to Beaverbrook, Churchill added: “No more war.”
Then came Churchill’s ten-year Wilderness. Some of you may have seen the television program which was made on the basis of that section of the Biography, “The Wilderness Years:” focusing on his warnings; his isolation; the devotion of the very small circle of people around him. That is something which you should never forget; the devotion of this small band of people who brought him information, of people who believed in him, and encouraged him to go on against an almost totally hostile Parliament; together with his small Secretariat and his secretaries, who were absolutely loyal to him.
Churchill gave his warnings. He warned above all that weakness in the air would give the Germans the ability to dominate Europe; that if we neglected our air power, they would simply gobble up country after country.
Britain did neglect its air power. When Hitler invaded Poland, she was powerless to do anything but see Poland destroyed; partitioned between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. She was powerless too when Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway, though Churchill, who had returned to Government, did try to anticipate the Norwegian invasion. Even France could not be saved, the great France which had so often fought Germany but had never been conquered by her; despite Churchill’s incredible exertions and three visits across the Channel even as the German armies were thrusting forward to Paris, and beyond.
Then Britain began in her small way to try to fight back. Even at the height of the massive German air bombardment, she was able to mount several small bombing raids on Germany. The intensity of the Blitz was such that on one occasion an account of it, which Churchill sent to Roosevelt, was suppressed by the British Embassy in Washington —on the grounds that if Roosevelt read it, he would conclude that there was no way in which Britain could survive such an onslaught.
Gradually Britain was able, with great difficulty — and with the loss by 1945 of more than 55,000 pilots and air crew, enormous numbers— to reverse the balance of destruction. Then of course the protests began, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was opposed to the bombing of Germany. I would like to quote you Churchill’s reply to the critics of air bombardment.
“This air power,” he pointed out, “was the weapon which Germany selected as its main tool of conquest. This was the sphere in which they were to triumph. This was the method by which all the nations of Europe were to be subjected to their rule. I shall not moralise further than to say there is a strange, stern justice in the long swing of events.”
Britain exacted her toll on Germany. She also watched while the Red Army gained enormous military and political advantage as it advanced in the East, by far the largest single military factor in Hitler’s defeat. One evening, a year after Churchill’s defence of the Government’s air policy (the policy of the Labour Ministers as well as his own), Churchill was at Chequers, where “Bomber Harris,” head of Bomber Command, had come, as he often did, with his charts. They showed the destruction of German cities, something of which Harris was rather proud.
Instead of Churchill being excited and impressed by the charts, as he often was, he looked sombre. Then addressing Harris in the third person, something quite unusual, he said:
“What I want to know is this: when Air Marshal Harris has finished the destruction of every German city, what will then lie between the white snows of Russia, and the white cliffs of Dover?”On another occasion, watching a film of the fierce bombardment of a German city by the Royal Air Force, Churchill turned to the person next to him and asked: “Are we beasts?” One of the most exciting elements of piecing together Churchill’s story is meeting and getting to know those who worked with him from day to day: those who really served with him at Number Ten, or at Number Ten Annexe, just above the Cabinet War Rooms. When you next go to the War Rooms, or find yourself going past them, stand in the street opposite in St. James’s Park. Stand on the Park side. Cast your eye from the entrance on the War Rooms slightly to the right. You’ll see a doorway well above ground. To the right of that doorway you will see a set of six windows ending in a curved window at Storey’s Gate.
Those are the actual rooms in which Winston Churchill slept and worked during the second World War. Not underground, where he spent, it seems, a mere three nights of the 1,562 nights of the war. But those six rooms which are well and truly above ground. If you look closely you will even see the holes where the metal shutters were affixed: he did not want, after all, to be blasted out of his rooms, so the shutters were there to be closed during the bombing. Those effectively were the rooms from which the war was conducted, the war and the secret war: Number Ten Annexe (that is, when he did not slip back, as he so often did, to No. 10 Downing Street itself, where most of the Cabinets were held).
From those above ground rooms of No. 10 Annexe came many of Churchill’s great speeches. Almost all his directives and instructions were dictated in those rooms. Next time you go by, have a look up at them. Again; there is no blue plaque.
But history, after all, is not a muse who points the way. It is we, her historians and her devotees, who must do that. And I can think of no one keener than you of the International Churchill Society to carry the twin torches of truth and enquiry.
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