Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Churchill Series – Apr. 4, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

I often quote Sir Martin Gilbert, one of the twentieth century’s greatest historians and Churchill’s official biographer. So I thought you’d be interested in reading something of Gilbert’s own WWII experiences, including what he says about how he missed a chance to hold one of Churchill’s letters in his hand:

In the summer of 1940 my father, who was then serving with an anti-aircraft gun battery on Hampstead Heath, took advantage of a British Government scheme to send children across the Atlantic to safety.

My parents were not well off, and it seemed to them that I would be better cared for there. That July, a month after the fall of France, when the German Army was on the cliffs between Calais and Boulogne, I sailed in the care of an aunt with several hundred other children, to Canada.

Our boat, the Duchess of Bedford, was in a convoy of fifty ships. In mid-Atlantic, after the destroyer escort had turned back, the convoy was attacked and five ships were sunk by the Germans. The Duchess of Bedford sailed on safely, via the iceberg-dotted sea off Labrador, to Quebec. Those icebergs, marvelous for a child to behold, are among my first memories. Shortly afterwards another boat with child evacuees on board, the City of Benares, was sunk and seventy-seven children drowned. The scheme was then abandoned.

I was only three years old. Many years later I learned that at the time of the sailing of the Duchess of Bedford Churchill had been asked by the organizers of the scheme to give the oldest child a letter to Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, thanking him for receiving us. He was so opposed to any children being evacuated to Canada (he saw it as a “scuttle”) that he refused to write the letter, telling the minister concerned: “I will not send any message through the eldest child, or through the youngest child either.”

Thus I missed the chance to hold a Churchill letter in my hands, and to deliver it, though there were, I suppose, several children on board even younger than myself.
Gilbert goes on to say he hated his years in Canada, not because of the country and its people, but because he was separated from his parents. In Summer, 1944, just weeks after the Normandy landings, Gilbert got to return to England. Churchill had something to do with his return. That story and a bit about the evacuation of children from London during the 1940 /41 Blitz make up tomorrow’s post. _____________________________________________________

Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey. (John Wiley & Sons) pg. 1-2


Larry Kryske said...

Having a father who served during the war in Hampstead must be especially significant to Sir Martin since the eminent historian now lives in that posh North London suburb. I had the pleasure of spending several weeks there in 2005 and 2006 during two research trips my wife made while getting background for her new novel. John Constable, who lived and died in Hampstead, painted several large landscapes there in the early 1800's. Hampstead has a picturesque village atmosphere that is blessed by a large green area known as the Heath. The view of downtown London from Parliament Hill is spectacular (on a clear day. There are several nicely priced restaurants there, like Cafe Rouge. Sir Martin is indeed fortunate to live in such an attrative location that is only 5-6 miles from downtown London via the Tube.