Winston
Churchill

Conducting a War
From the Bedroom
Ian Jacob, a very great admirer, wrote:

    One is bound to question whether Churchill could be classed as a strategist at all. He was certainly not the calm, self-contained, calculating personality that is usually brought to mind by the term, nor did he weigh up carefully the resources available to us, the possible courses open to the enemy, and then, husbanding and concentrating his forces, strike at the selected spot. His mind would never be content with such theoretical ideas He wanted constant action on as wide a scale as possible; the enemy must be made continually to "bleed and burn," a phrase he often used.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that between June 1940 and December 1941, Churchill carried the world on his shoulders. The burdens he bore, and the anxieties he endured, would have crushed many a lesser mortal. When Auchinleck was summoned home to explain why he had not yet taken the offensive, Ismay took him aside and briefed him about the Prime Minister. "Churchill," he explained,

    could not be judged by ordinary standards; he was different from anyone we had ever met before, or would ever meet again. As a war leader, he was head and shoulders above anyone the British or any other nation could produce. He was indispensable and completely irreplaceable. He was a child of nature. He venerated tradition, but ridiculed convention. When the occasion demanded, he could be the personification of dignity when the spirit moved him, he could be a gamin. His courage, enthusiasm and industry were boundless, and his loyalty was absolute. No commander who engaged the enemy need ever fear that he would not be supported.

Conversely, Churchill could be ruthless in his treatment of commanders he deemed lacking in offensive spirit. He warmed to the dash and charm of Alexander, and the maverick qualities of Wingate, but the self-effacing and the inarticulate found little favour. Dill he described as "the dead hand of inanition." Of Wavell he remarked: "It may be my own fault, but I always feel as if in the presence of the chairman of a golf club." Of his dealings with admirals Captain Roskill wrote: "Churchill wielded the executioner's axe so indiscriminately, and with so little attempt to ascertain whether his intended victims really were incompetent, that the injustices perpetrated were not few." "I wonder" mused Brooke in August 1943,

    whether any historian of the future will ever be able to paint Winston in his true colours. It is a wonderful character --- the most marvellous qualities and superhuman genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision at times, and an impetuosity which if not guided must inevitably bring him into trouble again and again.

When Chamberlain was Prime Minister, the business of government was conducted through formal meetings at prearranged times. Under Churchill, the formal business was only a small part of the story. As Bridges, the Secretary to the War Cabinet, recalled:

    There were no frontiers between home and office, between work hours and the rest of the day: work went on everywhere, in his study, in the dining-room, in his bedroom. A summons would come at almost any hour of the day or night to help with some job. Minutes would be dictated, corrected, redictated. One might find oneself unexpectedly sitting in the family circle or sharing a meal while one took his orders.

Within the intimacy of the inner circle, he was a man of transparent emotions and changeable moods. Another civil servant who observed him at close quarters describes how, when he took the chair at a meeting, "that child-like face became the reflection of the man --- the set bulldog look, the sulky look of a pouting child, the angry violent look of an animal at bay, the tearful look of a compassionate woman, and the sudden spontaneous smiling look of a boy ."

Churchill usually began the day's work in his bedroom, where he would read through the newspapers and begin to deal with the latest boxes of official papers. Visitors would find him sitting up in bed in a dressing gown emblazoned with dragons, top-secret papers strewn over the bedclothes and a favourite cat "Nelson," or "Munich Mouser" --- curled up at his feet. From time to time he would summon people to see him or dictate minutes for despatch to all corners of Whitehall. The more urgent, which caused great alarm to the recipients, carried a label with the instruction ACTION THIS DAY printed in red.

If there were no meetings of the War Cabinet or other appointments he would sometimes stay in bed all morning. Over lunch, at which friends and family rubbed shoulders with politicians and military chiefs, Churchill would discourse on the war, or anything else that came to mind, with a bottle of champagne --- he had been a customer of Pol Roger since 1908 --- followed by brandy. At some point in the afternoon he would undress and retire to bed for an hour's sleep, awakening like a giant refreshed for a bath and more meetings, accompanied by iced whisky and soda. Dinner would follow with more champagne and brandy.

There is, writes Warren Kimball, "no credible testimony of Churchill's being drunk, in the falling-down slurred-words sense, while he was Prime Minister." His early training as a soldier had taught him to abhor drunkenness. Yet he was clearly dependent on alcohol, and capable on occasion of absorbing quantities that would have rendered lesser men incapable --- a feat that stood him in good stead at Kremlin banquets.

He seems to have drunk more heavily in the later stages of the war in order to fight off exhaustion. During the Casablanca conference of January 1943 Harry Hopkins was disturbed to find Churchill in bed enjoying a bottle of wine for breakfast. "I asked him what he meant by that," Hopkins recorded, "and he told me that he had a profound distaste on the one hand for skimmed milk, and no deep-rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had reconciled the conflict in favour of the latter."

In February 1945, when Churchill gave a banquet in the desert in honour of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, he was told that the King could not allow smoking or drinking in his presence. Churchill replied that he was the host, and if it was the King's religion that made him say such things, "my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, and if need be, during all meals and the intervals between them."

If Churchill were spending the weekend at Chequers the guests were often invited to join him in watching a film. On learning in May 1941 that Hitler's deputy, Rudolph Hess, had landed in Scotland, he replied: "Hess or no Hess, I'm going to watch the Marx Brothers." Later on in the war he ordered Donald Duck to be interrupted in full flow so that he could give his guests the news that Mussolini had resigned.

His favourite movie produced in Hollywood by his friend Alexander Korda was That Hamilton Woman, with Laurence Olivier as Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton. The battle scenes were few but Churchill was riveted by the eloquence of Olivier and the beauty of Vivien Leigh. By the time the film show was over it was nearly midnight and Churchill was ready to return to work. Struggling to keep their eyes open, his advisers would be summoned to a meeting at which key strategic or operational issues were discussed and informal decisions reached. Churchill's "midnight follies," as they were known in Whitehall, caused much resentment among the exhausted officials who were compelled to attend them. Often Churchill would work until 3 or 4 in the morning before taking his sleeping capsules and retiring to bed.

--- From Churchill: The Unexpected Hero
Paul Addison
©2005, Oxford University Press
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