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Minutes of the 337th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 17th November 2015

Speaker – Chris Robinson – ‘Churchill the Warrior’

Chris Robinson went to London University before becoming a teacher at a secondary school and a teacher trainer. He now organises guided military tours to France and Belgium. He is the Secretary of the Richmond Probus Society.

Chris started a riveting talk by explaining that he came from a family which revered Winston Churchill. A photograph of the former Prime Minister hung on the dining room wall next to a portrait of the Queen. In his early years he learned to regard him as a great man, but in his teens, thanks to a left wing uncle, he discovered an alternative view of the man as an enemy of the working class. Chris became fascinated with Churchill after learning of his role in World War 1. He decided that his subject did not have one or two sides, but was a multi-faceted character. Throughout his political career, it was always the warrior who was trying to get out.

From the beginning, Winston was a man in a hurry. He was born prematurely in the wrong place. He should have been born in the family home in Mayfair but was born at Blenheim Palace. He was immediately handed over to his nanny, Mrs. Everest, who had a major influence on his life. His parents largely ignored him. His father, Lord Randolph, was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Salisbury’s government until he resigned. He died in his 40s. His mother, an American heiress, lost much of her money in a stockmarket crash.

Winston was not sent to Eton but to Harrow, partly for health reasons. At school, he was only successful in English and History. He was much happier on a horse. He enjoyed war games and had lots of toys with a military focus. At the end of his time at school, his father arranged for him to go into the army, but he failed to get into Sandhurst twice. After tutoring, he scraped in at the third attempt, but his poor academic prowess meant that he could not get into a prestigious regiment, but had to join the cavalry. For this, he needed £650 per annum to pay for his horse and uniform, but by this time his father was dead and his mother had no money. He began to write to earn money.

He went to Cuba as an observer and survived a near miss. This led him to state his conviction that he would never die on a battlefield. He went to Bangalore, but yearned for more action. He joined Sir Binden Blood to fight Pathans on the North West Frontier with the Malakand Field Force. He was again nearly captured. When he got back to England, he felt that he had to join Kitchener to fight the Dervishes. Kitchener did not want Churchill, but he managed to cheat his way in. He escaped with his life from a cavalry charge.

Churchill had only joined the army on a 5 year commission. He then started to work as a journalist and decided to get into politics. He did creditably, but lost, in a by election at Oldham, before going to the Boer War with the Daily Telegraph. There he was a passenger on a train captured by the Boers. He escaped with 2 others, but caused bad feeling by abandoning them. This episode led to his writing another book.

In the following General Election, he was successful at Oldham and became, with Lloyd George, one of the outstanding performers in the House of Commons. He was given a post, but joined the Liberals on the issue of free trade. He then became First Lord of the Admiralty. His predecessor, Jackie Fisher had started major reforms in a very conservative Department and encountered fierce resistance. His changes included the procurement of submarines, torpedoes and dreadnoughts. Winston successfully won over the doubters and completed the reforms.

He remained as First Lord for 2 years and was in charge for two campaigns. The first, which was the naval campaign at Gallipoli, was a disaster. The second, the amphibious landing, for which he has been much criticised, was a failure of intelligence in assessing the Turkish gun batteries. He was responsible for the Royal Naval Division’s failure at Antwerp, the worst mistake he made according to Max Hastings. He resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty following an inquiry.

He went back into the army as a colonel in charge of a battalion of Scots Guards at Ypres. He brought energy, verve and a tin bath as well as waking up a quiet sector. He led at the front and took a delight in frightening visitors. Following the merging of two battalions, he went back to the Commons where Lloyd George made him Minister of Munitions. Aided by Max Aitken, who would become Lord Beaverbrook, he was very successful in this role.

In the early 1920s, he was out of office and out of the Commons. He came back in 1926 as Chancellor of the Exchequer and led the response to the General Strike. He cut public expenditure, including on the armed forces. Only in opposition in the mid 1930s, did he argue for rearmament.

In 1939, Chamberlain put Churchill back into the Admiralty. One of his early decisions was to mount a joint army and navy campaign at Narvik in Norway. He tried to micro-manage this and it became a complete failure. Ironically, it was the final blow to Chamberlain and Churchill became Prime Minister. As he entered no. 10, the Wehrmacht invaded France Belgium and the Netherlands.

He started as Prime Minister with several handicaps. Labour hated him after his role in breaking the General Strike and many Tories did not trust a man who had changed parties twice. He solved this by wooing the public in word and deed. In word, he was an absolute master of spin. In deed he fought back against the Nazis. He realised that the RAF was the key to winning. He put Beaverbrook in charge of building planes. Winston also persuaded people to join the SOE, one of his pet projects.

He wooed Roosevelt and courted him like Casanova - Eleanor Roosevelt hated him. If Churchill had not succeeded in his courtship, Britain might have been forced into suing for peace. However, the beautiful friendship did not last and by 1943, Roosevelt listened more to his own generals than to Churchill.

Responding to questions, Chris said that it was not known if Churchill was dyslexic. His love of taking a bath, sometimes up to 3 times in a day never left him. He used to dictate to female secretaries, while sitting in a bath in Downing Street. As a Prime Minister, he was very demanding.