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Reading: W. H. Thompson, Sixty Minutes with Winston Churchill, London: Christopher Johnson, a Review
A poignant Canadian reading
Reading: W. H. Thompson, Sixty Minutes with Winston Churchill, London: Christopher Johnson, 1953; reprinted 1961, [No ISBN number] p.p. 92
I have in my possession an autographed copy of this book — somewhat of a collector’s item — about Sir Winston Churchill, written by W. H. Thompson, formerly a Detective Inspector for several years in charge of Churchill’s security at the height of World War Two. Its stye is anecdotal, but, for all the attempts at lightheartedness on the part of the writer, some of the central events and considerations described can have the effect of weighing thoughtfully on the reader.
From a Canadian perspective, athough Canada is not central to the book's focus, the repeated references to Canada and Canadians bring out various poignant reflections.
It is only natural that the relationship between Churchill and William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose respective periods of Prime Ministerial office coincided throughout most of the years of World War Two, would be pivotal in so many ways. It is only to be expected that 'fly on the wall' reminiscences of the nature of Thompson's book would produce some interesting episodes between the two leaders and in relation to the Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort.
During the preparations for the Normandy Landings, Churchill and Mackenzie King visited Hastings, on the English Channel, on May 12, 1944 and Thompson records a discussion with the mayor of Hastings, who indicated that the coast of occupied France was only 60 miles away (1). British, American, Canadian and other Allied forces were to land in France just a few weeks later. I am reminded of accounts of the introduction of Conscription in Canada in World War One, when the British government, working in proximity to a Continent from which the booming sound of enormous, German guns could be heard at the Palace of Westminster, pressurized Prime Minister Robert Borden to introduce the measure with little realization of the effect this would have upon the internal dynamics of Canada. (Interestingly, as Churchill and Mackenzie King reviewed preparations for D-Day, Canada's substantial contribution was still within the context of volunteer forces, although this was also to change within a few months.)
It was the presence of Winston Churchill in Ottawa that marked some of the highly memorable moments of World War Two. The tragedy of the fall of Singapore in early 1942 was emphasized by record of a speech which Churchill had made in Ottawa to a press conference (2), at which he had suggested that Singapore was supposedly impregnable. Thompson goes on to record his impression that the fall of Singapore seemed to have been among the most traumatic events to have affected Churchill in the course of the war.
The Canadian House of Commons was also the venue, witnessed by Thompson, when Churchill made one of his most memorable speeches of the war in late 1941. Speaking of the fall of France the previous year, Churchill told the Commons of the former French government's view that the neck of of England would be 'wrung like a chicken'. 'Some chicken! some neck!' he went on to say (3).
The influential Quebec Conference of 1943, which planned the Normandy Landings, delegations to which were led by Churchill, Roosevelt and Mackenzie King, was the occasion of another poignant memory by Thompson. Accompanying the British party was Brigadier Orde Wingate, highly regarded by Winston Churchill; news of Wingate's death a few weeks later was regarded by Churchill as a very great blow (4).
One episode to which Thompson refers, while not referring directly to Canadian events, possibly sheds light on differing cabinet cultures between Great Britain in World War Two and contemporary Canada. In 1939 Thompson was protecting Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty in Neville Chamberlain's War Cabinet. He relates an event when he, along with one of Churchill's secretaries Mary Shearburn (whom intriguingly he later married), managed to loose confidential government papers at a railroad station during a trip to Cerne Abbas (5). In hindsight, somewhat amusingly, though then a serious matter in time of war, Thompson proceded to try to absolve Mary Shearburn from responsibility over the matter, while the latter also took the same stance over Thompson's responsibility. The papers were in due course retrieved from the station master who assumed that his hasty passengers would want the papers back. In turn, Mr Chamberlain was not recorded as having called into question Churchill's management of his own office.
In 2008, however, a strikingly similar event occurred in Canada when Maxime Bernier, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, managed to lose confidential government papers at the home of his former significant other Julie Couillard. The media proceeded to investigate and publish details of Julie Couillard's own former significant others and in due course Prime Minister Harper proved to be far less indulgent toward his hapless minister, firing him over the episode.
One may reflect also that, if Chamberlain had in fact fired Churchill for his office's serious lapse in 1939, it is possible that some months later it would have been less likely that Churchill would have been summoned to Buckingham Palace to form a government.
Not lacking in force and significance are many other memories and anecdotes recorded by Thompson in this short book.
April 26, 2013
(1) W. H. Thompson, p. 81.
(2) Thompson, p. 64
(3) Thompson, p. 61
(4) Thompson, p. 78
(5) Thompson, p. 39
MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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