- Historic Sites
The great man’s daughter-in-law draws a portrait of the statesman at the top of his career and at the bottom
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
FOR A SHORT, fierce time during the war, I knew Winston Churchill very well. After the war and until his death, I saw him less often. But my memories of him at the height of his power have never left me. Winston Churchill was, above all, a romantic whose power lay in his capacity to shape the world to his vision. He led men and women to outdo themselves, to accomplish far more than they had thought they could. He did it by insisting on the reality of the impossible and, through the force of his character and eloquence, brought others to share his belief.
Yet doubt sometimes overcame him: doubt not of his own mission or of his people’s strength but of his own worth. In defiance he was glorious. But when rejection followed triumph, he lost that central confidence for a time—a longer time than most people know—and almost foundered in uncertainty.
I remember him best when he was at his best. It was then, in his early weeks as prime minister, during and after the deliverance at Dunkirk, that the world first saw his power to recast grim truths into splendid promises. Nine years later Isaiah Berlin recalled that period when he wrote of Churchill: “He does not reflect a contemporary social or moral world in an intense and concentrated fashion; rather he creates one of such power and coherence that it becomes a reality and alters the external world by being imposed upon it with irresistible force… . He does not react, he acts; he does not mirror, he affects others and alters them to his own powerful measure…. He created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain, not by catching the mood of his surroundings … but by being stubbornly impervious to it…”
Even with his family he did not drop the pose of determination, because it was not a pose; it was the man. One weekend in the summer of 1940, when it seemed to everyone in England that the Germans were about to invade, he looked very seriously around the lunch table at Chequers and said to the family, “If the Germans come, each one of you can take a dead German with you.” This is not mock heroics. He was in dead earnest, and I was terrified.
“I don’t know how to fire a gun,” I told him.
“You can go into the kitchen and get a carving knife,” he said.
One Sunday afternoon at the end of that summer— September 15 to be exact—he took me with him to the headquarters of No. 11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge. It controlled the twenty-five fighter squadrons that were England’s main defense against the Luftwaffe’s daylight bombing raids. We went fifty feet underground into a two-story room, like a small theater, where we were given seats in the front row of the balcony. Below us was a map table on which young men and women used sticks, like croupiers at a casino, to shift disks around showing the movements of the German bombers and of our Spitfires and Hurricanes. On the wall opposite us was a huge blackboard representing the six British fighter stations in Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. Its display of light bulbs told us which squadrons were in combat, in the air, on the ground, or heading home.
When we arrived, the room was quiet and still. But within fifteen minutes the first reports came in: a wave of forty or more German bombers was heading across the Channel. The bulbs began to glow, and in ten more minutes it was clear that a massive attack was under way. These air battles, on which England’s fate hung, lasted only a bit more than an hour; soon all the bulbs were lit, except those on the bottom row, which showed the squadrons being held in reserve. The bulbs there remained dark—because there were no reserves. None.
It was a terrifying moment, and it seemed to last forever. Within five minutes all our planes were on the ground, unprotected as they refueled and rearmed. If another wave of German bombers had come in during those twenty minutes, all of England’s air defenses could have been wiped out.
But no attack came. On the map table we could see the disks that stood for the Luftwaffe assault being turned around, flying back. In another ten minutes, the action was over; when we climbed back above ground, the “all clear” sirens were already wailing. Winston was exhausted, almost as though he had used his own willpower to turn the Germans back. In the car on the return drive to Chequers he spoke very little, but I recall one sentence that he used later in writing the history of the Battle of Britain. “There are times,” he said, “when it is equally good to live or to die.”
Winston was not the only fighter in the family. I remember vividly a fluent tongue-lashing that my mother-in-law, Clemmie, administered to General de Gaulle. The Royal Navy had sunk a part of the French fleet in North Africa to keep it from being taken over by the Germans. In the aftermath de Gaulle had infuriated Clemmie by remarking that the surviving French sailors would probably be happy to fire on British ships.