Winston Churchill : Wartime Traveller

This essay was written in the early 1990s as part of preparatory work for a project on Churchill. It is based largely on Martin Gilbert's magisterial biography and Churchill’'s own writings on the Second World War. It is included among Martinalia because the many studies of Churchill as a war leader do not seem to focus precisely upon the effect of his love of travel.


Winston Churchill was Britain's prime minister through five years of war in Europe, from 10 May 1940 to VE Day on 8 May 1945. In that time, he made a remarkable 25 foreign trips, spending no fewer than 369 days -- more than one year of the five -- out of the country. Even if we discount short cross-Channel excursions -- five in May and June 1940 to stiffen French morale and seven more to Normandy and the advancing front into Germany in 1944-45 -- we still have an itinerary of foreign travel astonishing in a man who turned 70 in the last year of the War.

Churchill crossed the Atlantic six times to meet Roosevelt, whom he also met at Casablanca in Morocco. There were two journeys to Moscow to see Stalin, both involving long and cumbersome detours through the Mediterranean, the second undertaken in October 1944 to assure Uncle Joe that Britain and the United States were not plotting against him. Then there were the meetings of the Big Three at Teheran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. (A third gathering, of Churchill, Stalin and Truman at Potsdam, is excluded from this survey as it took place after the Nazi surrender.) In addition, Churchill flew from Casablanca in January 1943 to beg help from the Turks and in Christmas week 1944 travelled to Athens to preach peace to the Greeks -- noble but hopeless excursions. The mobile premier sought to mediate between Serbs and Croats, monarchists and Communists, and Charles de Gaulle and the rest of humanity. To an amazing degree, Churchill's wartime leadership was peripatetic.

Winston Churchill had always been a great traveller. He had spent his 21st birthday in Cuba, and before turning thirty he had seen warfare in India, the Sudan and South Africa. His political career had never been Whitehall-bound. Within months of receiving his first political job, at the Colonial Office, he was off to inspect Britain's empire in East Africa. In 1914, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he tried to take charge of the defence of Antwerp. Yet his World War II travels were unprecedented. By September 1943, Churchill's staff calculated that he had travelled 111000 miles, and spent 339 hours in the air. Public opinion had admired Chamberlain's courage -- if not his diplomacy -- in flying across Germany to meet Hitler in Munich. In five years of war, Churchill notched up the equivalent of a journey three-quarters of the way to the Moon.

Many of Churchill's journeys were vital for the waging of war. One of the earliest politicians to win pilot's wings, it was fitting that Winston Churchill should become the world's first practitioner of summit and shuttle diplomacy. Churchill came as close to persuading the French to fight on in 1940 as any outsider could have done. His meeting with Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941 was far-reaching in its consequences, in demonstrating the determination of the United States to resist the Nazis, and in committing both countries to the principles of the Atlantic Charter. Churchill's personal partnership with FDR remains one of the key elements of the story of World War II. Churchill's attempts to win the trust of Stalin were bold and his epic journeys to meet "Uncle Joe" were perhaps the only way that the dictator's suspicions of the Western Allies could be blunted.

Churchill did indeed build personal relationships. On his first visit to the White House, Churchill stepped from his bath and -- as was his habit -- began dictating memoranda to a secretary (male, of course). Unexpectedly, Roosevelt entered the room to find his guest utterly naked. "You see, Mr President," said the nonchalant Churchill, "I have nothing to hide from you." Roosevelt once said that it was fun to live in the same decade as Churchill. Stalin, too, could give the impression of entering into the spirit of comradeship. When someone at a Moscow dinner in 1944 referred to the leaders of the three Great Powers as the Holy Trinity, Stalin joked that Churchill must be the Holy Spirit. "He flies around so much."

Churchill's epic journeys were also part of his inspirational hold on the British people. Learning of his intention to fly to Cairo in 1942, Oliver Harvey was moved by the "energy and gallantry of the old gentleman". On his return, Punch -- in an allusion to the popular film, The Lion Has Wings -- published a cartoon of him as a flying bulldog. "It will make a great effect that Winston at the age of 70 should fly out on Christmas Day to Athens," wrote Harold Nicholson -- not always an admirer -- of the mission to Greece in 1944. There is plenty of evidence, too, that the unexpected appearance of Churchill put heart into servicemen and embassy staffs as they did their bit for Britain far from home.

Yet there is another side to the story of Winston the wartime traveller. Churchill as historian portrayed his relationship with Roosevelt as the almost idyllic partnership of the Grand Alliance of English-speaking peoples, a view that Sir Martin Gilbert largely endorses. Other scholars, such as Warren F. Kimball and Christopher Thorne, see a less sentimental marriage of convenience, with Roosevelt battling to overcome a personal dislike for the "Former Naval Person" which went back to his own days as Assistant Secretary for the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. Amiable or not, nobody can doubt that their relationship was one between needy client and powerful patron, as Churchill himself admitted. "No man ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt," he recalled in 1948. Stalin, too, the half-oriental despot, made sure that Churchill came to pay court at the Kremlin, turning a deaf ear in 1942 to suggestions that they meet in the Caucasus, and so adding 1600 miles to the round trip from Cairo. Even the argument that the winged Winston was an inspiration to his people can be questioned: was this really the best use of a leader's time? It is, after all, the task of generals and ambassadors to keep up the morale of soldiers and diplomats overseas. Had Churchill been killed on one of his foreign tours, the effect on morale would have been devastating.

Churchill's wartime travels were certainly dangerous. U-boats were a threat on the North Atlantic: in 1943, Churchill insisted on having a machine gun fitted to his lifeboat so that he might resist capture if torpedoed. Even without the Germans, bad weather could make an Atlantic voyage unpleasant: Churchill described his crossing on Duke of York, in December 1941 as "the longest week I have lived since the war began", and he suffered even more from hot weather in September 1944, when on the Queen Mary, was forced to take a southerly route to avoid U-boats.

There are some amusing glimpses of Churchill running the war from the high seas. D-Day was rehearsed in a bath in his suite on the Queen Mary, in 1943, with senior officers churning the water to simulate waves. One of the most bizarre scenes of the war occurred on HMS Ajax, off Athens on Christmas Day 1944. Archbishop Damaskinos, seen as the only possible peace-maker among the Greeks, was ushered aboard in his full canonicals, including a mitre which reminded one of Churchill's staff of a chef's hat. There was an awkward moment when the Archbishop ran into a party of sailors celebrating Yuletide in fancy dress, who thought that the prince of the Church had come to join in the fun.

On his transatlantic voyages, radio silence often kept Churchill out of contact with London for days at a time, which would have been highly inconvenient in a sudden crisis. Although Churchill had assured the King that it would be possible to fly home "in a few hours", his first transatlantic flight took over 26 hours. The first generation of airliners were neither comfortable nor very safe. They were not pressurised, and en route to Cairo in 1942, Churchill insisted that his oxygen mask be adapted to accommodate a cigar. Key personnel were lost in air crashes on their way to or from Newfoundland in 1941, Casablanca in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. Brooke, Tedder and Wavell had a close escape from disaster on the way to Moscow in 1942 and Harold Macmillan was seriously injured in a crash-landing in North Africa. Churchill's Boeing flying boat survived a lightning strike in mid-Atlantic in 1943.

Returning without fighter escort from France in June 1940, Churchill had a brush with the Luftwaffe. The pilot of the de Havilland Flamingo -- it shook passengers like "salad in a colander manipulated by a particularly energetic cook" -- dived to wave-top height to avoid two German fighters. Others were not so lucky. In August 1942, Churchill flew into Cairo, again without escort, to put General Gott in command of the Eighth Army. Two days later, Gott was killed when his plane was shot down as it tried to land at the same airfield. On the day Churchill flew home from Gibraltar in June 1943, the actor Leslie Howard was killed when a Boeing Clipper was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

Returning from Bermuda in January 1942, Churchill was briefly at risk from both friend and foe. His flying boat strayed from its route, an error only noticed five minutes' flying time from the coast of occupied France. The plane was turned north for Plymouth, only to be identified by radar as a hostile bomber. Six Hurricanes were scrambled to shoot down the intruder. "However", Churchill curtly noted, "they failed in their mission."

There were huge security risks in Churchill's travels, and several near disasters. Teheran was a nightmare choice for a summit: the Shah's government lined the road from the airfield with uniformed cavalrymen, whose presence attracted large crowds whom they were unable to control. The danger of assassination was enormous, not only there but at Malta in 1943, when thousands turned out to welcome Churchill, or in any of his five visits to Cairo, where the British proconsul, Lord Moyne, was murdered by nationalists in 1944. When Churchill was taken out to visit the Blue Grotto at Capri in 1944, nobody seemed to have realised that the tourist trade had continued in full swing throughout the war, and the location had been especially popular with the occupying Germans.

Security precautions were often lax and sometimes non-existent. The French prime minister, Reynaud, referred to Churchill's plans to fly to Tours in June 1940 over an open telephone line. British codes were less than ingenious: "Christmas" for Turkey and "Mr Cocktail" for Molotov were little more than schoolboy efforts, while "Abraham" for Quebec would hardly have fooled any intelligence operative who knew that General Wolfe had captured the city on the Heights of Abraham. Churchill's own staff thought the device of sending telephone messages to General Ismay in Hindi "Pug" was an old India hand was too clever by half, especially when peppered with allusions such as "Lord President Sahib". Nor were the risks imaginary. German radio broadcast news that Churchill and Roosevelt were about to meet somewhere in the western hemisphere the day before their rendezvous off Newfoundland in 1941. Yet Churchill could make light of elementary precautions. "I mustn't tell you on the open line how we shall be travelling," he said to Roosevelt as he telephoned to announce his return from Florida in January 1942, "but we shall be coming by puff-puff."

Far from avoiding danger, Churchill seemed to seek it out. Observers noted his excitement at any prospect of danger by sea or air. Only a firm royal veto prevented him from taking part in D-Day. By way of compensation, Churchill positioned himself off the south of France to watch the Anvil landings two months later, even though he disapproved of the sideshow. His visits to Normandy in the weeks after D-Day were high-risk exercises in fact-finding. On D + 6, he was lunching with Montgomery just three miles from the fighting when a casual enquiry revealed that there was in fact no continuous front line. On his third visit, as the Germans counter-attacked at Mortain, on 7 August, even Churchill sensed that his presence was inopportune, and he left after an hour. By the end of the year, he had managed to get himself close to fire in both Italy and the Vosges. Entering one Italian village to find rubble strewn about, his host, General Alexander, asked when the bombardment had stopped. Churchill was delighted with the reply: "About a quarter of an hour ago."

In March 1945, a pardonably triumphant Churchill was determined to be among the first across the Rhine. Montgomery escorted him to the west bank the day after the first troops had crossed. "Why don't we go across and have a look at the other side?", Churchill asked, and Monty unexpectedly agreed. For half an hour, in bright sunshine and accompanied by a mere handful of armed men, the Prime Minister and the Field Marshal strolled along the east bank, happily unmolested. Later, the American General Simpson took a firmer line, telling Churchill that he could not guarantee his safety from sniper attack. Churchill was "like a small boy being called away from his sand-castles on the beach".

Churchill's wartime travels were not only a risk to his safety but also a danger to his health. He was not a young man and his life-style was massively unhealthy. When he became prime minister in May 1940, cabinet ministers insisted that he accept Sir Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran) as his personal physician. Moran soon found that his "thankless task" involved not simply medical but political decisions. At the White House on 26 December 1941, Churchill reported pains in his chest. In a split second, Moran diagnosed an angina attack and decided to say nothing. Professionally, this was very risky, for if Churchill succumbed to a heart attack, Moran would be held responsible for failing to advise him. On the other hand, the obvious treatment was six weeks of total rest, which would torpedo the Washington mission and announce to the world that Britain's leader "was an invalid with a crippled heart and a doubtful future". "Forget your damned heart", he told his patient when the subject came up again after their arrival in Ottawa three days later. Churchill went on to make one of his finest speeches ("Some chicken! Some neck!") to the Canadian parliament.

Moran's political gamble did not make him sympathetic to amateur intrusions into the medical sphere. When Churchill went to Italy in August 1944, Moran was determined that he should take the anti-malarial drug, mepracine. His defiant patient invoked first the King who had recently visited Italy then Alexander, who rated the risks of infection as slight and warned that the pills had unpleasant side-effects. Moran replied that refusal to take mepracine in Italy was a court-martial offence, adding that "General Alexander's views on medical matters have the same value as mine on military affairs". Churchill disarmingly "hoisted the yellow flag", but the pills which had to be continued for four weeks after the visit were still making him groggy as he travelled to the second Quebec conference.

By 1944, however, Moran was right to lay down the law. Repeated travelling had taken its toll. Churchill's return from Casablanca in February 1943 was followed by a bout of pneumonia. On Moran's advice, he travelled by sea to Washington three months later rather than subject his lungs to the hazards of flying. None the less, Churchill was briefly felled by a fever and ran a temperature of 103. At the end of the year, returning from Teheran, he collapsed at Eisenhower's headquarters in Tunisia with a further bout of pneumonia. Moran ("that bloody old man", his patient called him) was soon summoning specialists from Britain, fearing a heart attack. With an eye to history, Churchill pictured himself "stranded among the ruins of Carthage". His practically minded wife, Clementine, who flew to join him, was more concerned that he was within two hours' flying time of German bases in Italy. After a dangerous flight through the Atlas mountains, Churchill convalesced at Marrakesh. In total, he was away from Britain for over two months.

What did Churchill achieve in his travels? As already argued, in his dealings with Roosevelt and Stalin, he was doing no more than accept the responsibilities of leadership. Sometimes his personal diplomacy came unstuck, as with the "half-sheet of paper" which he offered to Stalin in October 1944 as a basis for dividing eastern Europe. The "Percentages Agreement" (or "naughty document") was a genuine attempt to agree policy between Britain and Russia on a post-war Europe from which the Americans were expected to withdraw. Yet there were risks in carrying on negotiations far from the support of civil servants and their files. At Quebec in 1944, Churchill had to be briefed in his bath before talking to Roosevelt about the division of Germany into zones of occupation. There is something charming about the vignette of Churchill aboard HMS Renown on his way home from Halifax in 1943, using a box of matches to re-fight the battle of Omdurman, where he had served under Kitchener in 1898. It is less pleasant to think of Churchill also using matches in a late-night talk with Stalin at Teheran, to demonstrate how the frontiers of Poland might be moved westwards. Away from home, Churchill was apt to push some of his pet ideas for an invasion of northern Norway or the seizure of a foothold in Sumatra and fall under the influence of travelling companions such as Beaverbrook or even his son Randolph, "a dreadful young man" as Cadogan called him after an encounter in Cairo.

Churchill the traveller could control neither the agenda nor the events around him. His last-gasp visit to France in June 1940 was actually turned against his own intentions: Churchill was not told that the divided French cabinet had gathered at a nearby chateau in the hope of meeting him. On learning that their ally had flown home without seeing them, the French ministers felt abandoned and swung towards surrender. Similarly, on his last night in Moscow in 1942, Churchill had planned to talk to the Polish leader, General Anders. Stalin, however, threw a surprise feast and ensured that there was no time for a proper discussion. Roosevelt was full of sympathy when news of the surrender of Tobruk reached Churchill in the White House in June 1942. Stalin, we may be sure, would have been less generous had news of such a disaster accompanied Churchill to Moscow.

Face-to-face meetings did not in themselves guarantee effective communication. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King were both part of the English-speaking world (although community of language did not ensure agreement with Australia's John Curtin). Talking to Stalin was a different matter, and there were interpretation problems at their first meeting in 1942. Churchill's confidence in his own ability to speak French could be a complication. On one occasion in 1940, the distracted French prime minister Reynaud actually called for Churchill's comments which had been delivered in French to be translated.

Translation problems reached high farce in January 1943, when Churchill met the Turkish cabinet in a railway carriage at Adana. Churchill had prepared a survey of the world scene, which a member of the British Embassy staff was briefed to translate into French, still the language of international diplomacy. When the young diplomat converted 1500 miles into 2500 kilometres, he was silenced by Churchill who launched into a gallant attempt at a literal translation delivered in an English accent. The mystified Turks were too polite to laugh.

The half-comic episode at Adana is a key to assessing Churchill's wartime travels. He was right to accept the responsibility and face the dangers of journeying to meet Roosevelt and Stalin, to ensure the effective functioning of an alliance of Great Powers. Only the leaders, for instance, could have authorised work on the atomic bomb. Yet his almost demonic mobility devalued the Churchillian currency. Shuttling through North Africa, he could not avoid entanglement in the petty quarrels of the Free French, even to the point bizarre though it may seem of leaving himself open to a snubbing from de Gaulle. Had Churchill like Stalin stayed at the centre of his empire and forced lesser chieftains to come to him, such a nonsense could never have happened.

The author of the Dardanelles campaign was hardly likely to persuade the Turks to enter the war against Germany, and even his own cabinet tried to dissuade him from the attempt. Faced in that railway carriage with one of the world's greatest statesmen, it is little wonder that the Turkish cabinet felt important enough to wait for a better offer. When Churchill and Anthony Eden tried to solve the Greek quarrels in the thick of Athens street-fighting, even the devoted Brendan Bracken likened them to two housemaids, scurrying to answer every bell. The Greek Communists had come reluctantly to the negotiating table an achievement in itself, as one of them had to be persuaded to part with his Mauser rifle at the door of the conference chamber but, if anything, they raised their terms "astonomically", as one observer put it. If the mighty Churchill had come to meet them, surely they should not sell themselves cheap?

The Conservative Chief Whip consoled himself with the hope that if the party had to fight a general election while Churchill was away at Potsdam, voters would be encouraged to support him as a world leader. If anything, Churchill's frequent wartime journeys probably conveyed the message that Britain was safe in the hands of his deputy, Labour leader Clement Attlee. By the last year of the German War, party politics were returning, and Churchill's private comments show that he was well aware that an election was close, and that he was in combat with both "Atler" and "Hitlee". Yet from mid-July 1994 to the end of March 1945, only once did Churchill spend as much as five consecutive weeks in Britain. Both his personal staff and his cabinet ministers worried that he was losing his grip on government business.

From 1943 onwards, as the tide turned against the Nazis, both on national and on party grounds, Churchill might well have heeded the wartime austerity slogan: "Is your journey really necessary?" Yet for many, the spirit of Churchill the wartime traveller will be summed up in the story that Harold Nicholson gleefully recorded of that Christmas visit to strife-torn Athens. On being shot at by a sniper, Winston Churchill's characteristic comment was, "Cheek!"
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