October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
The great man’s daughter-in-law draws a portrait of the statesman at the top of his career and at the bottom
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.
The tongue-lashing came at the lunch table at 10 Downing Street. Clemmie and I had both been warned to be on our best behavior, because de Gaulle, at the morning Cabinet meeting, had been particularly difficult. Winston, hearing the voices raised in argument, learned across the table and said, in his terrible French accent, “Vous devez excuser ma femme, mon Général. Elle parle trop bien le français.” (Please forgive my wife, General. She speaks French too well.)
Clemmie would have no peacemaking. “No, Winston,” she shot back. “That is not the reason. There are certain things that a woman can say to a man that a man cannot say. And I am saying them to you, General de Gaulle.”
The next day an enormous basket of flowers arrived from de Gaulle for Clemmie. Later he gave her a beautiful crystal rooster by Lalique: the emblem of France, which she kept as her dinner-table centerpiece for the rest of her life.
The present that the prime minister received most often in those days was brandy. Knowing his tastes, his friends had given him enough Napoleon brandy to last through a twenty-year war. One weekend in 1942 another bottle arrived at Chequers along with its donor, Field Marshal Smuts of South Africa. There was no tension between the two men, as there was with de Gaulle, but still Clemmie was a little worried about how to present this particular bottle; it was—God forbid—South African brandy.
She waited until lunch on Sunday. As it was ending, Winston’s valet, Sawyers, brought round his big brandy snifter and gave it to the prime minister to warm over the little flame that was always produced. “Winston,” Clemmie said, “the Field Marshal has brought you a present.” And Sawyers dutifully poured the brandy into the warmed glass.
Winston swirled it around. He took a taste. There was a rather long silence. He looked down the table at his guest and finally said, “My dear Smuts, it is excellent, quite excellent. But it is not brandy.”
USUALLY CHEQUERS WAS A place that gave Winston some time for relaxation. The red dispatch boxes arrived, of course, but there were lulls and opportunities to rest, to play cards. One night— July 9, 1943—there were cards but no rest. It was the eve of the long-planned invasion of Sicily, and Winston, though far from the action, intended to keep watch.
Clemmie was terribly tired; she asked me to keep my father-in-law company as we waited. We started to play bezique, a six-pack card game that he loved. After an hour we were interrupted by his secretary, who reported that high winds were complicating the operation and slowing the landing. The hours dragged on. Finally, at 4:00 A.M. , we were told that the wind had dropped; the invasion was going smoothly at last, against little resistance.
It was a long night. Now and then during our play, Winston would put down his cards and talk. At one point I remember him saying, “Many thousands of brave young men may go to their death tonight. It is a grave responsibility.”
His mind, of course, was on the Allied convoy in the Mediterranean, making the first large-scale amphibious assault of the war. But his thoughts must also have been on the disaster of another such attack, twenty-eight years earlier: the operation against the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, which Winston had championed as First Lord of the Admiralty. That invasion had failed. The casualties had been tremendous, and Winston had been forced to resign.
The Dardanelles disaster haunted him for years because it meant that he lost the power to affect the course of the war, to redeem himself, and to impose his unwavering vision upon men, women, and events. In the summer of 1943 the possibility of another such loss of influence and responsibility weighed on him again.
IT DID NOT STRIKE until two years later. Then, on July 26, 1945, the British people decisively rejected Winston Churchill as their peacetime leader. He was plunged again into gloom. For myself, I was too angry at the election defeat to feel sorry for him. And I was having a hard time explaining to my young son Winston, who was then not quite five, just what had happened.
“Do I have a new grandfather?” he asked me.
“No,” I answered rather angrily, “why?”
“Well, because they tell me that the prime minister is Mr. Attlee. Does that mean he is my grandfather?”
It was at Claridge’s (to which Winston and Clemmie had moved twenty-four hours after the election ended) that Averell Harriman found Winston in early August that same year. Averell came, as a courtesy, on his way back to Moscow to tell Winston about the end of the Potsdam Conference. They talked of decisions that had been made after Churchill left the Big Three meeting. They talked then about events in England. “This,” admitted Winston, “has been the longest week of my life. But I am all right now.”
The depression into which he fell, in fact, lasted far more than a week. Even as he worked on his massive history of the war and on regaining power for the Conservatives and himself, his sense of rejection never fully lifted. I did not realize how deep it ran until years later when I read a short story—never published—that he had written in November 1947. He called it “The Dream.”
The story is a dialogue between Winston and his father, Lord Randolph, who appears to Winston in his studio at Chartwell, where Winston is working to copy a badly torn old portrait of the father he loved and felt he could never please. Their talk turns into a report from son to father on the twentieth-century world and English history. There are flashes of humor: Winston explains, for example, that the Socialists are in power but have been civilized enough to retain the monarchy. “They even go to parties at Buckingham Palace,” he tells his father. “Those who have very extreme principles wear sweaters.”
Later Lord Randolph exclaims in shock at the idea of women voting—and Winston says, “It did not turn out as badly as I thought.”
“You don’t allow them in the House of Commons?” Lord Randolph inquires.
“Oh, yes. Some of them have even been Ministers. There are not many of them. They have found their level.”
“So female suffrage has not made much difference?”
“Well, it has made politicians more mealy-mouthed than in your day. And public meetings are less fun. You can’t say the things you used to.”
They talk on, through a poignant passage where Lord Randolph recalls the young Winston as the boy at the “bottom of the school! Never passed any examinations, except into the cavalry! Wrote me stilted letters… I once thought of the bar for you, but you were not clever enough… . Old people are always very impatient with young ones. Fathers always expect their sons to have their virtues without their faults.”
The interrogation continues, with Winston able only to tell his father about the two World Wars, the loss of India, the rise of the United States as a world power. “What happened to the great states of Europe?” Lord Randolph asks. “Is Russia still the danger? Is there still a Tsar?”
“Yes, but he is not a Romanoff,” Winston answers. “It’s another family. He is much more powerful, and much more despotic. ”
“What of Germany? What of France?”
“They are both shattered. Their only hope is to rise together …”
“But wars like these must have cost a million lives,” Lord Randolph says. “They must have been as bloody as the American Civil War.”
“Papa,” Winston says, “in each of them, about 30 million men were killed in battle. In the last one, seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughter pens, like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin. Many of her cities have been blown to pieces by bombs. Ten capitals in Eastern Europe are in Russian hands. They are Communists now, you know—Karl Marx and all that. It may well be that an even worse war is drawing near. A war of East against the West. A war of liberal civilization against the Mongol hordes. Far gone are the days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order. But, having gone through so much, we do not despair.”
Lord Randolph then replies, “Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them. As I listened to you unfolding these fearful facts you seemed to know a great deal about them. I never expected that you would develop so far and so fully. Of course you are too old to think about such things, but when I hear you talk I really wonder you didn’t go into politics. You might have done a lot to help. You might even have made a name for yourself. ”
“He gave me a benignant smile,” Winston writes in conclusion. “He then took the match to light his cigarette and struck it. There was a tiny flash. He vanished. The chair was empty. The illusion had passed. I rubbed my brush again in my paint, and turned to finish the moustache. But so vivid had my fancy been that I felt too tired to go on. Also, my cigar had gone out, and the ash had fallen among all the paints.”
ONLY ONE NOTE in that conclusion rings false. Never, during the war years, did I see Winston Churchill “too tired to go on.” But never, until I read this story, did I sense in him the depth of his own doubts, particularly the feeling that the British people, by showing their lack of faith in him, had also reflected Lord Randolph’s early judgment of his son.
History’s judgment is different. So is mine.