Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Churchill Series – Oct. 2, 2008

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

Today the second post in the two-post series within the Series.

Yesterday’s post introduced us to what was both a serious and amusing problem Churchill’s staff and others in Government dealt with: protecting “the Old Man” from Nazi agents who might try to kill him by sending poisoned cigars allegedly from admiring individuals and organizations.

Our story as told by Churchill scholar Allan Packwood continues - - -

In the spring of 1941 Churchill was offered two large consignments of cigars from Cuba, one set from the pro-British paper called "Bohemia" and the other, complete with a decorative cabinet (which now adorns the painting studio at Chartwell), from the Cuban National Tobacco Commission.

This clearly caused some consternation among his own staff, and led to the following minute of 22 April from [Private Secretary] John Colville to [Principal Private Secretary] Eric Seal:

"When these arrive, I think it will be very difficult to do as Mr Bracken suggested and suppress them! The Prime Minister is quite likely to ask what has become of them and in any case they represent a gift of considerable value. Would it not be best for you to ask Mr. Bracken and Mrs. Churchill to represent strongly to the Prime Minister that they should not be smoked?"
Eric Seal was worried enough to raise the matter the following day with Professor Lindemann, Churchill's close friend and adviser in all things scientific. In a hand-written note to the professor he concludes: "In short, is there any watertight examination by means of which we could make sure the cigars are OK?"

Professor Lindemann's, response was to contact Lord Rothschild at M.I.5.

Rothschild agreed that "some security measures ought to be laid on" and offered to make the necessary enquiries without anyone knowing as he imagined that "this is the sort of thing which the Prime Minister would not like very much if he knew about it."

We know from Jock Colville's diary that a conference to discuss this matter then took place in Desmond Morton's room at Downing Street on 29 May with both Lindemann and Rothschild in attendance.

First contact with the security services had been established, and on 2 June Colville wrote to Rothschild asking whether in future, it would be desirable for small boxes of cigars and chocolates "and other things of the same kind" to be sent to M.I.5 instead of Scotland Yard.

Colville wryly observed that "we might stand a better chance of getting them back if they were innocuous!" …

The cabinet of cigars from the National Tobacco Commission of Cuba did not arrive until late September. In the meantime, Colville had sent three minutes to the Prime Minister, on 22 April, 18 June and 23 September, all warning him about the potential risk of poisoning from such gifts and advising him not to smoke anything. M.I.5 finally took possession of one cigar from each box on 24 September and proceeded to examine them for bacteriological and toxicological contamination. …

The conclusion was that the sample was innocuous. Although, as Lord Rothschild observed in a letter of 9 October to Churchill's office, nicotine was itself "very poisonous indeed and there are few things which the smoking end of a cigar could be treated with which might be more harmful". The report may have been reassuring, but it was not conclusive.

Only a small percentage of the Cuban cigars had been tested and M.I.5 now recommended that all those remaining should be visually examined for puncture marks and stains.

Churchill's trusty bodyguard Inspector Thomson agreed to perform this time-consuming task.

Lord Rothschild returned the tested cigars to Downing Street with the technical report as an exhibit to prove that he had not just smoked them, "after the number of jokes that Colville and I had about Special Branch eating No.10's chocolates".

The supreme irony in all of this is that there is evidence that Churchill, ignoring Colville's anxious minutes, had already smoked some of the cigars before they had even been received by M.I.5.

Lord Balfour of Inchcrye wrote an article for The Times in September 1965, quoted by Martin Gilbert in the official biography, describing a meeting of the Defence Committee on 19 September 1941. According to Balfour, who was then an Under-Secretary of State at the Air Ministry, Churchill took all the committee members to see his new Cuban cigar cabinet:
"Turning to the waiting Ministers, he addressed us thus: 'Gentlemen, I am now going to try an experiment. Maybe it will result in joy. Maybe it will end in grief. I am about to give you each one of these magnificent cigars.' He paused. He continued with Churchillian rolling of sound and digestive enjoyment of the spoken word. 'It may well be that these each contain some deadly poison.'"...

There’s more to this story. You can find it in this account at the Churchill Centre’s site by Allan Packwood, archivist of the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.