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“Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.”
– Winston Churchill
In a video marking the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death last week, Prime Minister David Cameron hailed him as “Britain’s greatest ever prime minister” and said: “We owe him everything.” So on goes the whitewashing propaganda of the great paternal warrior to cover up the venal reality.
In Winston Churchill’s only novel, ‘Savrola’, written in 1899, and dedicated to the officers of his regiment the 4th Hussars, the title character is described as ‘vehement, high and daring’, the sort of man who could ‘know rest only in action, contentment only in danger, and in confusion find their only peace… Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it’. Young Winston could have been describing himself.
In her diary, Beatrice Webb recorded sitting beside Churchill at dinner: “First impression: restless, almost intolerably so… egotistical, bumptious, shallow minded and reactionary but with a certain personal magnetism… More of the American speculator than the English aristocrat. Talked exclusively about himself and his electioneering plans…”
Having changed political parties four times during his career, Churchill was clandestinely known by some MPs in the House of Commons as ‘the shit house’ – an abbreviation of his initials WC.
In 1974, the actor Richard Burton was banned from working with the BBC for what he wrote in an article about the experience of playing Winston Churchill in the biographical film ‘The Valiant Years’:
“In the course of preparing myself for the role, I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history… What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, “We shall wipe them out, everyone of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of the earth”? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.”
Just a few of the interesting facts and anecdotes I’ve learned since my essay ‘Winston Churchill: the Imperial Monster’ was published in CounterPunch last week. I’d written it in a couple of days, gleaning facts and quotes I found on the web, wanting to get it finished before the fiftieth anniversary of the man’s funeral on Sunday, but I should have been more careful in my proof-reading, as I noticed some embarrassing typos when I saw it published, and, unforgiveably, that I’d put his year of birth as 1847, not 1874. These were not my only mistakes, according to some readers who wrote to comment on the article.
There was dispute about the number of civilians killed in the mass Allied bombings of Dresden ordered by Churchill just weeks before the end of World War 2. My figure of 500,000 was considered inflationary compared to the ‘official’ toll of 25,000-35,000; but given that the population of Dresden at the time had been increased with several hundred thousand refugees, and the number of planes that attacked that defenseless city for three days and nights, the number of deaths might have even been as high as 600,000, a figure which I found on another site. Either way, the saturation bombing of Dresden was a war crime of the highest magnitude.
My figures regarding Churchill’s suppression of the ‘Mau Mau rebellion’ were considered way too low. According to Harvard historian Caroline Elkins (“Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”) the numbers incarcerated were upwards of a million; and the number killed was approximately 300,000…(under conditions equally comparable to the Nazi death camps). And I learned that Obama’s grandfather was of the Luo tribe, not a Kikuyu, as I had written. Regardless of clan, he suffered two years of torture in prison without trial for resisting Churchill’s empire.
I was pulled up for referring to T.E. Lawrence as a “pal” of WC – “It simply is not the case,” a reader wrote. “While Lawrence could hardly have escaped entirely from the English imperialist and colonialist mindset of his era, the scholarly consensus is that he went somewhat “rogue” in the Hijaz, truly supported Arab independence, budding nationalism and self determination, and was emotionally crushed by the English and French total betrayal of the Arab Revolt after the war.”
Other readers suggested I should be more specific in my references and sources to the information in the article, and I guess I should, as I add more to my lengthening list of Churchill’s callous inhumanity.
“War has always fascinated him; he knows in surprising detail about the campaigns of the past captains; he has visited nearly all the battlefields and he can pick out, in a particular battle, the decisive move that turned the day,” Churchill’s physician Lord Moran wrote in his diary. “But he has never given a thought to what was happening in the soldier’s mind, he has not tried to share his fears. If a soldier does not do his duty, the P.M. says that he ought to be shot. It is as simple as that.”
In an interview at his ministry in London, war poet Siegfried Sassoon quotes Churchill, the man responsible for the slaughter at Gallipoli, as directly saying: “War is the normal occupation of man.”
It was Churchill who coined the famous term ‘Iron Curtain’in 1946 during a speech entitled “The Sinews of Peace” at Fulton College, Missouri, only months after the Soviet Union had been Britain’s staunch ally during the war. He advised that the great powers of the “English-speaking world”, Great Britain and America, should increase their military power and unite against the Communist menace. There was “nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness,” he said. Thus began the Cold War.
But it would have been a hot one for the Russians, if, according to secret FBI files, (When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, by Thomas Maier), Churchill had succeeded in persuading right-wing Republican senator Styles Bridges to help pressure old pal US President Harry Truman (whose use of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaski he had supported, killing some two hundred thousand civilians), to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia in 1947 to win the Cold War. Russia did not possess nuclear arms at that time. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens would have been killed. Churchill believed that it was the only way of stamping out socialism and stopping the spread of communism to the west.
He pointed out that if an atomic bomb could be dropped on the Kremlin, wiping it out, it would be a very easy problem to handle the balance of Russia, which would be without direction.
“The argument is now put forward that we must never use the atomic bomb until, or unless, it has been used against us first,” Churchill said. “In other words, you must never fire until you have been shot dead. That seems to me a silly thing to say and a still more imprudent position to adopt.”
Asked if he worried what God might say about the atom bomb, he argued: “I shall defend myself with resolution and vigour. I shall say to the Almighty, why when nations were warring in this way did You release dangerous knowledge to mankind? The fault is Yours—not mine!”
Rabidly anti-communist, Churchill is quoted as saying: “The strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race. Bolshevism is not a policy; it is a disease. It is not a creed; it is a pestilence.”
In August 1944, Churchill had written a “Personal and Top Secret” memo to US president Franklin Roosevelt to say that: “The War Cabinet and Foreign Secretary are much concerned about what will happen in Athens, and indeed Greece, when the Germans crack or when their divisions try to evacuate the country… it seems very likely that EAM and the Communist extremists will attempt to seize the city.”
Thanks to British intervention at Churchill’s instigation, postwar Greece was the only country in Europe where collaboration with the Nazis went unpunished while participation in the wartime resistance movement, along with the Communist-led National Liberation Front, brought imprisonment and even execution. The British were determined to eradicate the influence of the left and restore the pre-war authoritarian monarchy with constitutional trappings that protected foreign investment and acknowledged British supremacy.
On December 3rd 1944 Greek government gendarmes, with British forces standing by, opened fire on a massive unarmed pro-democracy rally in Syntagma Square, killing 28 demonstrators, mostly young boys and girls, and injuring hundreds, a prelude to the bloody Greek Civil War, which lasted until 1949, and included the enforced placement of more than 25,000 homeless children in special ‘reform camps’ under the immediate control of newly restored monarch, ex-Hitler girl guide, Queen Frederica.
In 1910 Churchill sent a squadron of the 8th Hussars onto the streets of the Welsh town of Pontypridd to control striking miners. The following year during a dock and railway strike he sent troops to several parts of the country with instructions to fire if army commanders thought fit. Two unarmed strikers were shot dead by the army in Wales, and two striking dockers were killed at a protest in Liverpool.
During the Blitz Churchill’s government attempted to stop the public from using the tube stations as shelters but the people refused to give them up and the government was forced to back down.
On July 4, 1945, Churchill was booed when he delivered his final election speech in Walthamstow Stadium before a crowd of 20,000. Working class hecklers chanted, demanding new housing. He lost re-election as prime minister, at least in part because he opposed creation of the National Health Service (NHS).
According to declassified diaries, after the war Churchill wanted Nazi leaders to be executed and others imprisoned – instead of going through the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals. He was said to have been swayed against the idea at the ‘Big Three’ conference in 1945 by US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who thought proper trials would provide good propaganda. The British agreed to the hearings.
From the beginning Churchill had taken a close interest in the development of poison gas and germ weapons. In a previously unpublished memorandum written to Chiefs of Staff in the early forties he argued that perhaps the time had come to use them:
“If the bombardment of London really became a serious nuisance I should be prepared to do anything that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I do not see why we should always have all the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. It may be several weeks, or even months, before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas and, if we do it, let us do it one hundred percent. In the meantime I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing, uniformed defeatists which one runs across now, here and there. Pray address yourself to this.”
And so they did. A remote and uninhabited Scottish island, Gruinard was surveyed, deemed suitable and requisitioned from its owners by the British Government. Bombs with a highly virulent type of anthrax strain were exploded near groups of tethered sheep which became infected and began to die within days of exposure. The experiment was recorded. Scientists concluded that a large release of anthrax spores would thoroughly pollute German cities, rendering them uninhabitable for decades afterwards. Although not used on Germany, Gruinard Island was dangerously contaminated by the experiment, and not deemed safe until 1990, after 48 years of quarantine.
On a lighter note, as well as quaffing copious amounts of brandy during the day, Churchill was also taking large amounts of chemical stimulants supplied by his personal physician Lord Moran. In the 1950s he became totally dependent on barbituates, often mixing them with alcohol. Churchill had names for his drugs – majors, minors, reds, greens and Lord Moran’s. His diaries reveal that he sometimes took heroin in rectal suppositories.
On being told that the fly of his trousers was open (on several occasions), Churchill is said to have replied: “No matter. A dead bird doesn’t fall out of it’s nest.” But it hadn’t always been dead.
In 1896, Churchill brought a writ of libel against a man called Bryce who charged that while with the Fourth Hussars, Churchill had “engaged in ‘gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type,’ the ringing of horses, the horse-troughing of subalterns, and the blackballing of officers to the point where they were forced to leave the regiment because they did not have large enough private incomes and were not of the ‘correct’ class.” Churchill was cleared of the charges (for lack of proof?), but for a long time the stench of scandal surrounded him.
It was alleged by W. Somerset Maugham that Churchill confided in him that he had once been to bed with the popular entertainer Ivor Novello. When asked what it was like, he is said to have replied: “Musical.”
Richard Burton said that Chuchill would attend plays and read the dialogue aloud as the actors performed. Burton said this was terribly disconcerting for those on stage, and so once when he was performing Shakespeare, he purposely left out some dialogue at certain moments to throw Chuchill off and get him to stop. Burton said that every time he did this he could hear Churchill pause for a moment and then let loose with a tirade of obscenity in frustration.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1965, just a few months after his state funeral, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, at the request of the Queen and Parliament, placed a sixty-by-seventy-six-inch polished green-marble slab in the floor, just a few feet inside the great west doors. Engraved upon it are the words:
With his abominable attitudes about so many other things: Africans, the Boers, the Iraqis, the Indians, the supporters of an independent Ireland, is there another historical figure so lionized who has so many debits against his actual record and behavior?
Apparently, one of Churchill’s last directives was that any statue erected in his honor must have an electric heater installed in the head so that London’s pigeons would not be inclined to perch and crap there.
It might be worth investigating if those orders were carried out, once we’ve toppled his statue from its plinth in Parliament Square.
Off with its head!
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at email@example.com