Alphen, Netherlands. 30 January. It is not often I can say where I was standing exactly fifty years ago but today is one of those days. At 2pm on a freezing 30 January, 1965 aged seven I was standing with my parents and a multitude of other Britons alongside the Waterloo to Reading railway line at Feltham in the county of Middlesex. We were awaiting the arrival of Winston Churchill’s funeral train as it made its laurel-laden way towards the great man’s final resting place at Bladon in Oxfordshire close to the mighty Blenheim Palace, his ancestral home. Having left Waterloo Station at 1.30pm half-an-hour later Feltham Station’s massive wooden level crossing gates began to swing shut on their iron-fisted hinges. In the distance came the doleful, respectful sound of a steam whistle. In no time at all Battle of Britain class steam locomotive No 34051 Winston Churchill flashed by in charge of six Pullman coaches the second of which contained Churchill’s coffin draped appropriately in the Union flag. Even today I can still remember “V for Victory” made out on the front of the locomotive and the people all around me dipping their heads in deep, reverential, albeit momentary respect.
Fifty years on from Churchill’s passing what if anything remains of his legacy? Certainly, the country and indeed the Europe he helped free from the threat of Nazi tyranny would be unrecognisable to him. He would probably have been grateful for the adulation he still receives in many quarters but equally wary of it. Churchill became progressively aware of his own failings and was haunted by the 1915 disaster at Gallipoli when his massive gambit to end World War One by removing Turkey from the war ended disastrously in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
And yet it was precisely the kind of big thinking that made him a successful war leader. He was able to imagine the most grand strategic of grand strategic pictures and act on the decisions he believed necessary. He could be ruthless when he believed demonstrations of power were necessary. For example, there is no evidence he objected to the February 1945 obliteration of Dresden by 800 RAF and RCAF Lancasters. Given the attack’s proximity to the Yalta Conference it is likely Churchill wanted to demonstrate the power of RAF Bomber Command to Stalin.
Equally, that very ruthlessness was applied to his own analysis of Britain, however hard the conclusions for a patriotic Englishman and imperialist. In February 1946 Churchill even admitted to US President Truman that Britain’s day was done and that had he been born then he would have preferred to have been born American. Through his mother he was already half-American.
Churchill was also capable of real political vision. In September 1946 in a speech to the University of Zurich Churchill called for the creation of a “kind of United States of Europe”. Euro-federalists have suggested Churchill would have been a fan of the EU and a European super-state. Far from it! What he foresaw was what he said, a united STATES of Europe. In May 1953 Churchill rejected British membership of the first attempt to create a European Army. “We are with Europe, but not of it”, and, “We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a federal European system”. That said, today’s Europe would have thrilled him even if Russia’s aggression against Ukraine would no doubt have elicited a very Churchillian growl.
Churchill was ultimately a political realist. Even in 1940 he knew Britain possessed the finest air defence system in the world, the world’s pre-eminent navy and an empire that promised almost boundless reserves. However, he also knew the war would end Britain as a major world power even if victorious. And, as World War Two dragged on he saw at first hand Britain’s steady marginalisation at the hands of Roosevelt’s America and Stalin’s USSR. It pained him deeply and led at times to errors of judgement of which he was more than capable. The infamous “Naughty Note” scribbled during a meeting with Stalin in Moscow in late 1944 imagined the respective influence of the West and the Soviets in post-war Central and Eastern Europe. It was wrong and he knew it even as he scribed the note,
In fact Churchill had no illusions about Stalin and wanted to constrain the Soviets. That it proved futile became obvious at the February 1945 Yalta conference at which Churchill fought for hour after hour for a free Poland only to be over-ruled by an ailing Roosevelt who really cared little for the fate of Central and Eastern Europe and simply wanted to “bring the boys home”. Then US Chief of Staff George C. Marshall acknowledged after the Summit that Churchill was right. It is therefore scandalous that Britain and Churchill should be blamed by so many for Yalta even today.
Eventually, Churchill won the argument. Less than a year later on 5 March, 1946 Churchill made his famous “Sinews of Peace” speech during which he warned of the “Iron Curtain” that was descending across Europe. Together with George Kennan’s analyses from Washington’s Moscow embassy that speech marked the start of the Cold War for it helped confirm in the American mind the need for a new defensive alliance in Europe. In 1949 NATO was created.
Above all, Churchill was a politician who led by example and had the personal courage to lead from the front. He had fought on the North-West Frontier at the height of Empire, taken part in the last great cavalry charge of the British Army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, been captured (and escaped from) the Boers in the South African War, and commanded a battalion in the Flanders trenches during World War One. He can even claim to have invented the tank.
That courage was apparent even as ‘PM’. Churchill flew to Egypt on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 to speak to the commanders and troops and only King George VI prevented him from landing with the troops on D-Day. His 1945 trip to Greece undoubtedly stopped the Communists from gaining power in Athens (which is not without some irony today).
However, it was his inspirational war leadership of the British people for which he is most remembered and rightly so. Back in the dark days of 1940 victory over Nazi tyranny seemed impossible but he alone convinced the British to fight on. His former political adversary Labour’s Barbara Castle said quite simply that Britain’s defiance was Churchill’s defiance. It was that defiance that stopped the rot and slowly at first created the political platform upon which the Grand Alliance that defeated Hitler was eventually stood up.
And yet Churchill’s relationship with the British people was a bit like his view of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe; he was with ‘us’ but not of ‘us’. Direct descendant of the First Duke of Marlborough, conqueror of Louis XIV’s French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was very much a product of the high Victorian age and his high Victorian class. Born in Blenheim Palace in 1874 he was a scion of an aristocratic class in its last great age that simply assumed the right to rule.
However, unlike many of his peers he could recognise change and adapt to it. With studied practice he became a modern politician with a common touch, able to relate to and inspire ordinary people. Indeed, it was his very (many) human foibles and peccadilloes that made his so appealing to so many.
Had World War Two not happened Winston Churchill would have counted for no more than a grumpy footnote in history. However, World War Two did happen and cometh the hour the man came. Passing before me on that grey, bitterly cold January day fifty years ago was not just another great man, but a pillar of civilisation and I was honoured to have been there, even if I little understood it at the time.