churchills war two

Winner of Canada's ANTOR Award for Excellence in Travel Writing 2006 (Pam's third annual Canada ANTOR award). - Excerpts from the illustrated article

CHURCHILL'S LONDON: SIXTY YEARS LATER LONDON CELEBRATES "OUR WINNIE", AND THE END OF WORLD WAR11

by Pam Hobbs

"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds,

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender" - Prime Minister Churchill,

addressing the British Parliament, June 4 l940.

Had he asked it of her, my mother would have willingly laid down her life for the man she called "Our Winnie" and who the rest of us living through World War ll knew as Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Luckily no such gesture was requested, so instead she queued and knitted socks for soldiers, wrote weekly letters to her scattered family, made carrot jam and meatless stews and heeded posters telling her to Dig For Victory. Then she queued some more.

"Winnie will see us through" she assured us during those nights we sat shivering in our damp garden shelter. At the Odeon cinema she hushed anyone who dared to talk when he appeared in Pathé Newsreels. She returned his V for Victory sign whenever that impish face with a cigar clamped between its lips grinned down from the screen, and could quote from his most famous speeches. My father, who didn't share his wife's love of Winston, was happy to see Clement Attlee elected Prime Minister in 1945. Churchill the war- monger, he said, was yesterday's news.

Well my father was dead wrong. In a BBC poll conducted two years ago Sir Winston Churchill was voted the "Greatest Briton ever". This year the nation celebrates both the 60th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe), and the 40th of his death with new exhibits in its London museums, street parties, parades - and a brand new Churchill Museum devoted to the life and times of Sir Winston.

Here's what you can see:-

BOMBED OUT AT THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" - Churchill, May l940.

Of all the World War ll's exhibits in The Imperial War Museum, I find the Blitz Experience a little too real for comfort. Here in a dug-out shelter we sit in darkness on plank seats listening to the sounds of an air-raid outside, while warden George Barker tells us that between September 7 1940 and May 16 1941, London was attacked on 57 consecutive nights, and in the first two months alone 41,000 civilians were killed. An explosion causes our seats to shake. Two young boys giggle, but their grandmother doesn't so much as smile and neither do I. For some of us it is a nightmare from the past.

The Blitz Experience and the l940s house are but a small part of an extraordinarily rich exhibition dealing with the Second World War. Numerous displays recall important battles and campaigns. There are personal mementoes of the major players, photographs of prisoner-of-war camps, and details of daring escape plans. Posters remind us to Keep Mum and that Careless Talk Costs Lives. Weapons cover a whole range from rifles to the "doodlebugs" we so dreaded. ("If you see it's tail flame extinguish" our headmistress told us in school assembly, "run fast in the direction from whence it came.")

I am not the only one here with memories. Some visitors are accompanied by their children and grandchildren, who listen gravely to first-hand accounts of what it was like in a submarine or the Women's Land Army or as an evacuee sent to the country. In the gift shop a Londoner ahead of me buys a C.D of Churchill speeches and a cookbook containing recipes for meatless soups and pies and stinging nettle tea. She says that she and her neighbours are going to re-live their VE street party on May 8, with Vera Lynn singing wartime favourites. They will wear red white and blue as they did sixty years ago, serve spam sandwiches but probably drink something a little stronger than they had back then. I tell her of our street party where kitchen tables were set up end-to-end in the road and dancing to worn records on the gramophone continued late into the night..

THE CABINET WAR ROOMS

" If the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men

will say "This was their finest hour." - A speech to the House on June l8 l940, following the fall of France.

Created in 1938 from a storage basement of what is now Her Majesty's Treasury, this was the most important of Churchill's several wartime bunkers. On becoming Prime Minister in May 1940, he visited these underground quarters and announced "This is the room from which I will lead the war." Upon the declaration of war nine months earlier, it had been hastily enlarged and reinforced to withstand a 500 lb bomb, and here ten feet below ground some 200 men and women worked for days and nights on end.

Churchill held his first meeting in these quarters at 5 p.m. on October 18, l940. Today, all these years later, everything needed to run a war is still in place for curious visitors to see. There are convoy charts, a Chiefs of Staff conference room, colour-coded telephones and a pool of typewriters, (typewriters were adjusted to make the minimum of noise because the boss couldn't stand their clatter.) Of particular interest is the broadcast room which allowed the Prime Minister to give his rousing speeches to the nation without air-raid interruption. We sense the stress as well as excitement as he says of Hitler, "Little does he know the toughness of the British....This wicked man...."

At Chartwell, the Churchill family home, Winston often dictated to his secretaries while he soaked in the bath. No such luxury here, but he would dictate from his bed, usually at two or three in the morning. For these sessions a special lap-top table was built, with a semi-circle cut out to accommodate his belly. The secretary, sitting across from him would type directly onto a noiseless Remington, made especially for the task.

THE CHURCHILL MUSEUM

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it" - Churchill,

preparing to write his memoirs after the war.

Finally.... four decades after his death, there's a museum focusing on the genius of Churchill in the many different facets of his life. Adjoining the Cabinet War Rooms, it opened with great fanfare earlier this year. When I was there in late Fall it had received its first exhibit, the budget box made in 1859 for William Gladstone and used by Churchill as Chancellor. The new museum is divided into five chapters of his life, starting with his birth and early childhood at Blenheim Palace, and ending with his years as a cold war statesman to his death in 1965.

Churchill was an excellent artist, developing his skills at first as therapy during times of acute depression which he described as "the black dog". He was also a great master of the English language. Although report cards and letters from teachers show him to be a poor student, a bully and a trouble-maker, his letters to his parents show a skilful use of words at an early age. (His descriptions of school life, and misery experienced as a boarder at the tender age of seven, could make you weep.)

Modern technology introduces us to audio-visual and interactive displays, each with their own film, photo and sound content. All are destined to keep Churchill fans here for hours. They have finally done "Your Winnie" proud, Mum. You would love it all.

(Sidebar)

CHARTWELL, WHERE CHURCHILL'S SPIRIT LIVES ON

"A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted." - Churchill, speaking

of his family home in Kent.



Located in the quiet Kentish countryside just 40 km south-east of London, Chartwell is The National Trust's most visited property. This was Churchill's much-loved home where he lived with his family for forty years. It was his oasis in times of political drought, a calm harbour during storms. From here he used to write and paint, build things, and generally recover from devastating blows dealt him in the political arena. He was very much in tune with nature here, where robins and fish would eat from his hand, and even a fox became his friend. There is enough land that he could plan and build endlessly, which he did with the same gusto he showed for everything he turned his hand to.

Churchill was 48 years old in 1922 when he purchased this property. He used to say he bought it for the view. I can see why. Following his additions and alterations, almost every room offers a view of green fields sloping down to ponds and lakes, great sheltering trees, sheep and horses grazing in the meadows.

Decor and furnishings are elegant, but never at the cost of comfort. In the drawing-room, settees and armchairs are grouped cosily around the fireplace while a card table is set for a game of bezique, which Churchill is said to have played with characteristic intensity. Dozens of his paintings are hung on the walls, most of them landscapes and still lifes in bold strokes and bright colours.

For more information on these and other Churchill sites in Britain, contact www.visitbritain.com Tel: 1-888-VISIT UK