Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill.
Recently on a trip to the UK, a friend and I visited Blenheim Palace, seat of the Duke of Marlborough and the place where Winston Churchill was actually born (although the then Duke of Marlborough was his uncle). There is a remarkable museum honouring the various military successes of Churchill’s great (five times) grandfather and 1st Duke of Marlborough John Churchill. Indeed John Churchill’s success at defeating the French at the Battle of Walcourt and various successful campaigns in the War of Spanish Succession led to King William persuading Parliament to appropriate funds to build the splendid Blenheim Palace just north of Oxford.
A separate but more modest museum on the site contained a variety of fascinating memorabilia from the life of Winston Churchill – items that are unique to this museum. To me the standout was a rather obscure item and yet one that went to the heart of why Churchill was later to prevail in the Battle of Britain. It was a school exercise book that was confiscated from Churchill by a teacher at Harrow when he was only 13. The reason for the confiscation was because Churchill spent time in the classroom recreating (by way of military style sketch diagrams) many of the famous battles his illustrious ancestor had won. Churchill had memorized the details of all these battles and recreated them for his class mates!
Like many sons of aristocrats, Churchill lived and breathed all aspects of war from celebrating the various famous British military victories to his arduous training at Sandhurst, his participation in the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 (the last horse mounted charge undertaken by a British Calvary regiment in battle), his capture and escape as a war correspondent in the Boer War and of course his ignominious role in the fateful Gallipoli campaign as First Lord of the Admiralty in Lloyd George’s Cabinet. All of these experiences prepared Churchill for his most revered role – that as the victorious wartime Prime Minister of Britain.
There is one remarkable and little know incident in this much studied role that to me illustrates the essence of Churchill. He assumed the Prime Ministership from the hapless Chamberlain at possibly one of the lowest points of the war for Britain. Just days later, almost 400,000 soldiers of the British Army had to be hurriedly and desperately evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk by the Royal Navy and a flotilla of almost 800 private vessels which plied the English Channel over 4 days rescuing the core of the army (that had previously failed to prevent the fall of France) from certain capture or annihilation.
As Hitler amassed an invasion force of over 500,000 troops and the necessary invasion barges, a few in the British government thought that a German invasion and victory was imminent and began secret backchannel negotiations with the Germans. This effort was led by high profile Cabinet member Viscount Halifax the then Foreign Secretary. Churchill, upon discovering these efforts, engaged in a war of memos with those favourable to negotiation as well as other members of the inner War Cabinet. After three days of heated debate in the War Cabinet, Churchill vowed to head off and terminate these efforts without delay and decided to confront Halifax at the first meeting of the full Cabinet he held as PM on the evening of the 28th of May 1940.
Churchill’s impassioned plea on this subject was recalled by Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up…” Churchill apparently paused and looked directly at Halifax and said “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Churchill’s belligerent and defiant challenge to the waverers in his Cabinet and his fighting words had an immediate and electrifying effect. Not only was any talk of potential surrender stopped dead in its tracks but Churchill recalls in his diary: “Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back…It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.”
Churchill went on soon after this fateful meeting to deliver the series of famous speeches in the House of Commons that rallied the nation behind the war effort for the crucial Battle of Britain that lay ahead:
1 – “Blood Toil Tears and Sweat”: 13th May 1940
2 – “We shall Never Surrender”: 4th June 1940
3 – “This was their finest hour”: 18th June 1940
I’ve spoken to my various English relatives (some now deceased) about how they felt about the imminent threat of German invasion at that time. All were unanimous in describing that they felt utterly reassured by the demeanor of Churchill who seemed to never countenance defeat.
Let us honour this great indomitable leader and the pivotal role he played in the defeat of Nazi Germany and may we never forget the various lessons in courage, clarity and devotion to purpose that Churchill taught us.