Monday, June 11, 2012

An intimate encounter with Winston Churchill

The recent Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth brought historical Britain sharply into focus again, literally, with the usual perfectly executed pomp and the Thanksgiving Service which BBC cameras covered with their usual breathtaking precision. Some, people, like syndicated columnist William Saunderson Meyer, think it’s all a load of poppycock, but for many of us ex-colonials it still brings up some nostalgia from the days when we stood at our seats in the bioscope while God Save the Queen was played at the end of every movie.

This and my current reading matter on the subject of Winston Churchill (read with genuine interest, though perhaps to some extent influenced by Boer-Brit conditioning which goes with having a surname like mine) took me back to a visit to Britain in 2005.

The Dunnotar Castle in which Churchill sailed to
South Africa.
 I have read Churchill’s book My Early Life which includes his time in South Africa during the Boer War, but only recently came across the book on that same period by his granddaughter Celia Sandys called Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive which describes his controversial escape from the Boer POW camp at the Staats (State) Model School in Pretoria. She insists on calling it, in English, the States Model School, but we can forgive her for that. The picture of the Dunnotar Castle aboard which Winston sailed to SA is actually circa 1950s and not the one pictured here. But we can forgive the editors for that.

Sandys’ personally researched book, which took her to many actual locations in South Africa, meeting many relatives of the people involved in the story, is an interesting expose of Churchill as the young man with a special gift for overseeing and reporting on armed conflict, which excited and activated him. He was not a big man and spoke with a slight lisp. In his early twenties, as many boy-officers did, he tried to cultivate a moustache. At a dinner party, apparently irritated by his youthful outspokenness, one of the guests reportedly told him she didn’t like his politics and didn’t like the moustache he was trying to grow. Replied Winston: “Madame, I can see no earthly reason why you should come into contact with either.”

Young Winston at the wreck of the British
armoured train where he helped to save
several British lives under intense Boer fire.

Arrogant, intelligent, “clever”, as he was sometimes called by those who benefited from his quick thinking, especially under fire – young Winston was supremely self-confident to the extent that he routinely told very senior officers what he thought of their actions or inactions, and had his heart set on becoming a Member of Parliament as soon as possible after returning to Britain, which he did. As a war correspondent for the Morning Post (and concurrently, by his own special arrangement with General Buller, a Lieutenant in the South African Light Horse regiment), he would knock off 2000-word reports in long-hand without hesitating, bringing vivid and shocking accounts to his readers at their breakfast tables in London.

Winston Churchill was a remarkable man by anybody’s standards, named by some as the “greatest Briton ever”. As a politician with a surgical wit, a prolific writer and painter, a family man and a statesman, to this day his life continues to capture the imagination with a montage of images, from the rousing speeches of World War II to the handyman building his own garden wall and the loving husband sitting beside his wife near the dam in the grounds of his “most beloved place on earth”, his country home, Chartwell in Kent.

I travelled to Britain partly as a guest of Visit Britain, the tourism authority, to revisit Chartwell and to see the then new Churchill Museum in London, adjacent to the Cabinet War Rooms, which I had visited before and looked forward to seeing again. These places offer a feast of insights into Churchill’s life. The museum was opened in 2005 on the 40th anniversary of his death and the 60th of the end of World War II, a war that could have turned out badly for Britain and the world had it not been, in large measure, for Winston Churchill’s courage and determination in the face of an imminent invasion by Hitler’s enormous Nazi war machine.

I motored down to Chartwell from East Sussex to Kent along leafy avenues, happily in the company of the driver, a former girlfriend. There were neat paddocks populated with fat sheep and cattle, and plenty of beautiful flowers in bloom. Along the way I spotted a fox darting along a hedgerow, which confirmed that I was in the English countryside.

The tranquil grounds of Chartwell in Kent.
Chartwell, now a museum administered by the National Trust, is a large family home in rural surroundings. The pictures and ornaments in every room all have a personal story to tell. The drawing room has a lived-in feel and was the place where the Churchills met their guests. Winston was fond of playing bezique and his card table over near the window is set for a game. Among the ornaments is a crystal cockerel, the symbol of France, given to Lady Churchill by General de Gaulle. In the library, often used by Churchill’s research assistants, there is a model of the floating “Mulberry” harbour called Port Winston at Arromanches, Normandy as it was on D-Day plus 109 (September 23, 1944). There is an impressive portrait of Sir Winston over the fireplace, painted by Frank O Salisbury in 1942. It shows him wearing one of his self-designed “siren suits” (a kind of zip-up overall made of a comfortable fabric) which he liked to wear during the war years.

Winston and Clementine at Chartwell.

Upstairs, Lady Clementine Churchill’s bedroom, with its four-poster bed, is full of pictures of her forebears, and on her mahogany kneehole desk is one of the last photographs taken of her husband and one of their much-loved daughter Marigold who died in 1921 at the age of two. The adjacent bedrooms were converted after Churchill’s death to display a selection of his many uniforms – as seen in familiar press photographs and newsreels - and many of the gifts and awards presented to him. These include his Nobel Prize for Literature and Oratory awarded in 1953, his honorary citizenship of the United States and the Order of the Garter, the foremost of the English Orders of Chivalry, with which he was invested also in 1953.

For me, the most interesting room is Churchill’s study. This is where he conducted his affairs and did most of his writing. He found it easiest to think while standing up, dictating to his secretary as he strode up and down the room. He laid out his reference material on a lectern along one wall. The large mahogany writing desk inherited from his father is covered with portraits of his family and his particular heroes. There are little busts of Nelson and Napoleon among the items, and a sketch of South African Field Marshal Jan Smuts.

Churchill was not the natural successor to Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was the preferred choice of the Conservative Party, the King and the Queen, and Chamberlain himself. But Halifax recognised that he lacked the necessary qualities to lead Britain in war. Churchill was the only possibility once Halifax had ruled himself out.

And so it came to pass that Churchill was the man who sat in the wooden round-backed chair in the centre of the cabinet room in what is now known as the Cabinet War Rooms during World War II, the secret underground facility not far from No 10 Downing Street.

The Cabinet War Room: Churchill sat just in
front of the map at back.

Facing Churchill across the table, within an arm’s length of him, sat his three Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force. There is no way any of them could have escaped his probing questions or avoided a face-to-face confrontation when they disagreed with him. The rest of the cabinet sat at the extended table right around the rather claustrophobically small and, in those days, smoke-filled room. And Churchill was stubborn and argumentative. When his advisors voiced their doubt about a plan he had proposed he would sometimes pretend he couldn’t hear clearly, or didn’t understand their objections.

The Central Map Room.

Among these rooms are the map rooms and communications rooms vital to tracking and planning the war effort, with large world maps and pins marking fleets of ships and strategic locations. In another there is a bank of telephones, including a “hot line to the PM”, all with lifelike models of the staff who would have worked there. There is a small dining room and a kitchen which provided Churchill and his wife or senior staff with three meals a day. The bedrooms of Churchill and his staff are virtually as they would have been at the time, with personal effects like neatly folded pyjamas in place.

At the entrance to the Cabinet War Rooms there is a 350kg German bomb hanging from the ceiling - a rather innocent looking contraption with a piggy-bank shape. It was these bombs that rained down on London above ground while the Prime Minister presided over the affairs of war, protected in his secret hideaway by thick concrete - though it is estimated that a direct hit might have broken through. But Churchill didn’t allow himself to lose contact with reality. Apart from his personal visits to bomb-devastated areas, he would regularly go up to a vantage point where he could watch the bombing himself.

Inside the Churchill Museum.
The adjacent Churchill Museum, opened as part of a multi- million pound project, is the first national museum dedicated to Winston Churchill and provides an intimate and multifaceted look at his life. It is divided into five “chapters”: Young Churchill (1874 to 1900), Politician and Statesman (1900 to 1929), Wilderness Years (1929 to 1939), War Years (1940 to 1945) and Cold War Statesman (1945 to 1965). These sections are arranged around the edges of the new museum, with the “Lifeline Interactive” down the centre. Here, at the touch of a panel you can view any of the thousands of scanned documents and photographs covering every aspect of his life.

I contented myself with the details of the static and interactive displays. Here you can see everything from baby Winston’s rattle to the pistol he acquired during his escape during the Boer War; his trench periscope used on the Western Front during World War I and his red velvet siren suit worn during World War II. From time to time the shadows of German warplanes pass across the room, with wailing sirens, the scream of Stuka dive-bombers and the genuinely loud crash of a bomb exploding nearby.

The interactive displays include a series of enlarged and back-lighted black-and-white photographs. Each time you stop in front of one you hear the voice of Churchill speaking words that are pertinent to the picture. At one showing a group of smiling young RAF fighter pilots – wearing collar and tie under their flying kit, with a Hurricane fighter in the background – one hears the famous words: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”, spoken by Churchill after the Battle of Britain which finally turned the Germans away from their designs on invasion. One wonders if those magnificent young men in their flying machines would have prevailed so successfully without the outstanding wartime leadership of Winston Spencer Churchill.