A romantic who saw his dreams of high adventure come true, Churchill was never happier than when, cigar in mouth, he stood in an open car amid the cheering people. But his bodyguard also saw him when he was deeply despondent and once when he thought he might die

W. H. THOMPSON November 15 1951


A romantic who saw his dreams of high adventure come true, Churchill was never happier than when, cigar in mouth, he stood in an open car amid the cheering people. But his bodyguard also saw him when he was deeply despondent and once when he thought he might die

W. H. THOMPSON November 15 1951




A romantic who saw his dreams of high adventure come true, Churchill was never happier than when, cigar in mouth, he stood in an open car amid the cheering people. But his bodyguard also saw him when he was deeply despondent and once when he thought he might die

WHEN I first went to work for Winston Churchill as his personal bodyguard—a position I held throughout the Second World War—it was with real trepidation. In the first two or three months I found it difficult to be at ease before his brusque, demanding manner. But every day I came to understand him better and it did not take me long to realize that I was working for a warm, affectionate personality.

His humanness constantly shone or glowered forth, according to his mood. One thing he simply cannot stand is whistling. When, some time after becoming prime minister, he moved from the Admiralty to the Annexe of No. 10 Downing Street he issued a firm instruction against whistling in the corridors. Many a time I have been given a sharp order to dash out of his room and warn some offender. One Sunday morning he was sitting up in bed working when the sound of loud whistling came through the windows from the Horse Guards Parade. Mr. Churchill said to his secretary : “Open the window and tell that man to stop his noise.” And he was most indignant at her obvious reluctance to interfere with an unknown member of the public on a public highway.

Another time the Prime Minister was walking along King Charles Street from Downing Street. Approaching him from the other direction was a boy of about fifteen, hands in pockets, whistling loudly and cheerfully. When the boy came near, Mr. Churchill turned his head and said in a sharp stern voice: “Stop that whistling!”

The boy looked up at the Prime Minister with complete unconcern and answered: “Why

should I?”

“Because I don’t like it and it’s a horrible noise,” growled Churchill.

The boy strolled on, and then turned to call out: “Well, you can shut your ears, can’t you?”

And with that he resumed whistling at full blast. Mr. Churchill was completely taken aback and for a moment he looked furious. Then as we crossed the road into the Foreign Office yard he began to smile. Quietly he repeated to himself the words, “You can shut your ears, can’t you?” and followed with one of his famous chuckles.

This was the same Winston Churchill W'ho at one of the busiest and most trying periods of the wTiole war was accosted by a stranger as he walked up Downing Street. I darted forward to intercept

the other man but the Old Man waved me aside: “May I speak to you, sir, on a personal matter?” asked the stranger.

“Yes, go ahead,” replied Mr. Churchill.

“I feel that I am entitled to an army gratuity, but I am unable to get any satisfaction at all from the authorities. They say that I failed to sign a paper when I left the service that gave me the right to lodge a claim. Is there anything at all that can be done to help me get my rights? If you can’t help me, nobody else can.”

Winston said, “I shall most certainly look into this. Give your name and address to the officer here and I shall have the whole mattei investigated. You might write to me, mentioning that you have spoken and be sure to send full details.”

After the man had turned away Mr. Churchill remarked: “You know, Thompson, please don’t

keep these people away from me. It is often the only chance they have of getting their cases some attention.”

This incident passed from my mind until about eighteen months later I paid my aunt a visit at Brighton. The first thing she said to me when I entered the house

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was, “There is a man to see you in the dining room.”

I went in and saw a face that was familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen it previously. He said, “You don’t remember me?”

I had to confess I was not clear who he was.

It was our friend from Downing Street who had gone to a good deal of trouble to call and express his gratitude and satisfaction. It transpired that, through the intervention of Mr. Churchill, he had not only received his gratuity but it had also been made clear to him that his acceptance of it would not prejudice a later application for a pension.

Anoth'”^ ne Mr. Churchill and I were wal Img from the Admiralty to Downing Street when a photographer appeared near the back garden gate of No. 10. This was a forbidden spot for pictures and I was just warning the cameraman off when Winston turned and saw him.

“Do you want to take a photograph?” he asked.

“Yes, please, sir,” answered the cameraman.

Mr. Churchill turned and posed. I said to him: “I thought photographs

were forbidden here, sir.”

“Ah well,” came the answer with that irresistible boyish grin, “after all he is one of God’s children, Thompson.”

There were a thousand glimpses of his kindness, his easy kinship with people, large and small. Once, as we drove through the 8th Army's forward lines near El Alamein, a cockney voice shouted from the dusty desert roadside: “Here’s old Winston, bloody hat, umbrella, cigar and all.” Before Mr. Churchill could decide whether his dignity had been affronted or army discipline violated another soldier shouted to him: “What about a cigar, sir?” Winston stopped, looked at him, and said: “Why not? Of course you

shall have one.” He gravely offered the soldier his case.

A Taunt to the Hun

Often there was an engaging boyishness about him, something of the romantic who sees his dreams of high adventure coming true—and is having the time of his life. Once, soon after D-Day he had planned one of his many trips to Normandy. Weather conditions prevented our plane from landing and we had to return to Portsmouth. Winston was furious. He jumped out of the plane and turned to one of his staff. “My blood’s up,” he said. “1 will fly tonight. Get on to the Air Ministry and find out the weather forecast. I mean to go.” We got to Montgomery’s headquarters early the next day.

A few weeks before that, on our first trip to Normandy, six days after the beachhead was established, we sailed on the destroyer Kelvin. On the return trip, instead of setting course for home we sailed along the coast, about six miles out, until we were opposite the German artillery defenses. An order rang out and we fired several salvos into the German position. No reply came and at last we turned for Portsmouth. As we were walking from the ship to the train General Jan Smuts, who had accompanied the party, said to the Prime Minister: “I

think the captain of the ship was rather cross with you for ordering him to fire on the German batteries.”

“Why?” asked Mr. Churchill.

“Because the destroyer was well within the range of the German guns

and they might have fired at us.”

“That’s what 1 did it for. I wanted them to fire!”

Only because I have known him to be a forgiving man can 1 be entirely sure that Mr. Churchill has fully forgiven me for unwittingly robbing him of some of the pleasure and excitement to which he was so richly entitled when the war in Europe ended in victory. On VE-Day itself I had one of my toughest jobs protecting him from his friends. The crowds knew that the Prime Minister was to visit the Commons and they waited in their tens of thousands to see him. At 3 p.m. he broadcast from 10 Downing Street and then drove to the House. The car was literally forced along by the crowd. Everyone seemed determined to shake his hand. In Parliament Square the cheering thousands closed right in. Mr. Churchill came forward to stand on the front seat of the open car with me while mounted police cleared a way. Eventually we reached the House after a terrible struggle which Mr. Churchill, looking very happy, thoroughly enjoyed.

Next day, in the morning, I was asked to map out a drive through the West End taking in the American and Soviet embassies and a visit to the French ambassador. I did so and we left at 4 p.m. in an open car accompanied by an escort of mounted police. When we returned at 6 p.m. I thought that the rejoicing in public was over for the day and dismissed the open car. At 8.30 p.m. Winston decided to go out again. He looked down his nose at the saloon and said: “Where is that

open car?”

I said, with some trepidation, “It has gone, sir."

Angrily Mr. Churchill retorted, “All right then, 1 shall just walk.”

“Impossible, sir,” I objected. “The crowd is too dense.” He took no notice.

When he reached Whitehall he realized that he could not get through, so he announced: “I shall walk between

the two cars.” But the crowd at once closed in. I begged him to wait for the mounted police but he refused. He was taking no notice of anything I said that evening. He was still peeved because I had sent the open car away. We had a terrific struggle to keep the crowd from him. They were all trying to pat him on the back or shake hands. Then he climbed on the rear bumper of the car, which helped us to protect him.

Finally he decided to climb on the top of the car, which I felt he might have done earlier with advantage. 1 assisted him up. Then after a while he climbed along the car roof on all fours until he could sit in the front with his legs dangling over the windscreen. He looked very funny and very happy and the crowds cheered their heads off. These two days he had enjoyed like a schoolboy on an outing. But for those few hours I felt like an ogre who had done my best to spoil the outing.

A Saturday In Sadness

Small annoyances usually make Mr. Churchill difficult, but in times of real trouble he is at his most human and most pleasant to ail those who surround him and serve him. In all my years of working for him I have never known him so shaken as he was by the fall of Singapore. He was dumbfounded. For days afterwards he was miserable and despondent. I believe the blow was felt by Mr. Churchill more than the loss of France. He shared the impression generally held in Great Britain that Singapore was impregnable. He had, I remembered, expressed this view without qualification

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at a press conference when I was present in Ottawa some six weeks previously. The news shook our Dominions and colonies. It left Australia wondering where her hopes of defense lay. When friends asked the Prime Minister what had happened at Singapore he would shake his head dismally and say: “I really don’t know.”

His staff tried to take his mind off the disaster but all efforts seemed useless. Soon afterwards he visited Ditchley Park, one of the mansions that had been initially earmarked for the Cabinet in the case of evacuation, for the week end. He did not take his valet but asked me to look after his clothes with the house valet provided by his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Tree.

He was downcast. He was overtired and sleeping little. He was more worried than I have ever known him. On the Saturday afternoon he decided to go to bed. He asked me to stop all telephone calls to him and see that there was complete quiet while he tried to sleep. Half an hour later he sent for me. The phone had awakened him. 1 found later that a switch from the secretaries’ room had been left off and that a call had gone straight through to him. It would have been a relief to me if this had been the occasion of a round of Churchillian invective. He was not angry. He was pathetic. He said in a miserable voice: “Sleep for me is finished. I shall do some work.”

Next morning I took in to him some Sunday newspapers. He was sitting up in bed eating his breakfast and wearing a beautifully colored dressing gown. Although he spoke to me his thoughts were far away and his face was blank.

“Don’t you think, sir,” I suggested somewhat apprehensively, “that if you took a trip next week end to see some service establishment it would do you good and help you to sleep?” He was looking straight at me with his head slightly on one side but he did not answer.

I tried again: “You always sleep

well after these trips. They seem to put new life into you. Why don’t you make one, sir?” Still he stared into space.

1 was determined to rouse him, even if it brought his wrath upon my head, and went on: “Is it not a fact, sir,

that these trips do you good and make you sleep better?”

He suddenly looked straight at me and said: “Yes, you are quite right.”

“Then why not take one next week end, sir.”

“I will,” he answered, and it seemed as though a great weight had been lifted from his mind.

Work prevented him from keeping his promise, but he did make the excursion a fortnight later. He made several such visits within the next few weeks.

Tuckered Out In Tunis

If the news of Singapore had shaken him, it did not affect his confidence in ultimate victory. More than once in those dark days I heard him say: “We must hold on. All will come right if we have patience.”

Much as I felt drawn to him then, it was during his critical illness in the winter of 1943-44 that my heart went out to him most of all.

On his way back to England from the Cairo and Teheran conferences he had planned a one-night stay in Tunis as the guest of General Eisenhower. After the excitement of these meetings dealing with matters of the highest policy, reaction seemed to set in. In the plane on the way to Tunis he

appeared tired and listless. There Was nothing very surprising in this after the long round of consultations and urgent business. Long before we reached our destination he was impatient to be there. There was an irritating delay when we were at first diverted from Tunis airport. We had to land on a small airfield some miles away. When he climbed out of the plane the Old Man looked exhausted and drawn. I told Lord Moran, his physician and friend, that I thought he was ill.

“I think he is only tired,” he answered, “but I will watch him.”

“Well, sir,” I pressed, “I have been with him many years, and I believe he is ill.”

When the Snoring Stopped

Later we took off' for Tunis where the Prime Minister was met by General Eisenhower. As soon as we arrived at the White House in Tunis, Mr. Churchill went straight to bed. He slept for some hours. Then it was discovered that he had a temperature. He was developing pneumonia. 1 was asked to take a turn in the night watching over him. I suggested that I should stay up for the whole night as I was used to doing so in my job, and Mr. Churchill would not be disturbed at seeing me around. Before I went on duty at 11 p.m. Lord Moran told me to listen to the tempo of the Prime Minister’s breathing and, if there was any sudden alteration, I was to call him immediately.

I sat outside the bedroom door and I could hear distinctly Mr. Churchill’s fast stertorous breathing. About two o’clock in the morning the sound ceased.

I opened the door and crept into the bedroom. All was silent. I reached the bedside. Still silence. I was sick in my stomach. I don’t remember in the whole of my life such a feeling of shock and fear. I leaned over the bed and brought my head down almost to Winston’s pillow. He was breathing quietly and steadily.

With a feeling of terrific relief I went to report to Lord Moran. He came to the bedside, listened and said, “He is breathing better now. You were quite right to call me.”

What Better Place to Die?

1 resumed my vigil outside the door. A little while later I heard Mr. Churchill moving about in the bedroom. I went in and found him groping around the dressing table. He looked at me with heavy eyes and asked for his sleeping tablets. I knew that they had been removed and played for time by pretending to look for them.

“Can’t you find them, Thompson?” he said.

“No sir,” I answered. “Shall I call your valet?” I knew he would not permit the valet to be disturbed.

“No, it doesn’t matter,” he said, and climbed back into bed. I went over to see that he was comfortable. He lay back on the pillow and said drearily, “Thompson, I am tired out in body, soul and spirit.”

“No, not in spirit, sir,” I answered. “You are just very tired after a strenuous time. Now that the conferences are ended I hope that you will be able to get a little rest.”

He lay back for a few minutes with his eyes closed. Then he looked at me and repeated: “Yes, I am worn right

out. But”with returning animation —“all is planned and ready.”

Suddenly he sat straight up in hed and flung out his arms, crying: “In

what better place could I die than here, in the ruins of Carthage.”