Winston Churchill, 50 years on

Churchill by Karsh of Ottawa

Winston Churchill, the man who saved Britain

Fifty years ago this week, Britain and the world mourned the man who defied Hitler. Winston Churchill’s long and extraordinary life had ended after 90 years.

It was the end of an era. Few other people’s passing prompt or justify that hackneyed phrase. For Britain, it marked a moment in history perhaps only matched by Queen Victoria’s death 64 years earlier. (How appropriate that the last Briton born during Queen Victoria’s reign, Ethel Lang, died this very week.)

I’ve always been enthralled by Churchill’s life. When my O level history teacher Dr Davies set us an essay in 1979, I deliberately ignored the instructions so I could write more about WSC. I loved ITV’s 1981 Sunday night series on his Wilderness years starring Robert Hardy. Later, I read several Martin Gilbert volumes of the monumental official biography. 

Churchill's funeral train. Photo: Mike Morant

Churchill’s funeral train. Photo: Mike Morant

Inevitably, Churchill’s funeral was a landmark event, with the world’s leaders marking his passing. Looking back, it shows how 1965 was the end of more than just the Churchillian era. As Sir Winston’s body was conveyed down the Thames, the then abundant dockside cranes bowed in tribute. The funeral train was pulled by an express steam engine (appropriately, named Winston Churchill, one of the Southern Railway’s Battle of Britain Class). The locomotive was in everyday service with British Railways at the time, close to the end of the steam era.

While Martin Gilbert’s volumes of biography were captivating. I found one of Gilbert’s other Churchill books even more moving. In Search of Churchill documents Sir Martin’s pursuit of WSC. Two stories illustrate the search. Shortly after Churchill’s death, Gilbert was working for WSC’s son Randolph on the biography. He visited the New York Public Library to seek Churchill’s letters to an American politician. He was told they had none, just a few from the US novelist of the same name. He asked to see the archived letters for the novelist – and found they were actually from ‘our’ Winston Churchill, including some as a captive in South Africa during the Boer War.

Serious Churchill, by Karsh of Ottawa

Serious Churchill, by Karsh of Ottawa

Another story from In Search of Churchill was about the most famous Churchill photo, taken by Karsh of Ottawa in the Canadian capital in December 1941. Gilbert recounts that WSC was known as the smiling chancellor in the 1920s thanks to his Puckish grin. Yet as the years unfolded, he was associated with the grim visage of defiance. Karsh took several photos of the prime minister that December day after he gave a speech to Canada’s House of Commons. One shot became one of the best known in the world; it captured Churchill almost growling at the camera. Gilbert explained that Lady Churchill complained that she disliked it as misrepresenting her husband. She added that Karsh took a happy photo in the sequence but this was never used. Gilbert tracked it down and used it on the cover of In Search of Churchill. (I have used it to open this blogpost.) Karsh obtained the serious photo by snatching Churchill’s cigar as he smoked it and taking photographic advantage of the great man’s displeasure.

The other essential source of Churchill stories is John ‘Jock’ Colville. He served as private secretary to Churchill during and after the second world war. He kept a vivid diary that rivals Samuel Pepys as a witness to history. Colville became devoted to WSC, but as Chamberlain’s private secretary he didn’t welcome the prospect of Winston taking over. Characteristically, Jock heard the news of Germany’s invasion of the low countries as he dismounted from his morning ride in Richmond Park on 10 May 1940. That night, Winston became prime minister.

I recalled that extraordinary day in a blogpost 70 years later, on 10 May 2010 as Britain awaited a government after the 2010 election.

Colville describes Churchill’s essential unpredictability. In an introduction to the May 1940 diary entries about WSC’s first administration, he says a private secretary can usually predict his master’s reaction to a given proposition. “With Winston this was impossible, as even his wife found and admitted. I was often asked what the prime minister would feel about something and there were occasions on which I thought I knew the answer as a certainty. Sometimes I was right, but just as often I was wrong.” Jock Colville found his master exasperating but amazingly human; one day in June 1940 Colville took a telegram to WSC to meet the response, “Another bloody country gone west, I’ll bet!”

I recounted a few more Churchill tales in that 70th anniversary blogpost.

Rest in peace, Sir Winston.

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