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Churchill and Son by Sefton Delmer

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Sir Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill

Ever since I was a schoolboy during the First World War I have been a devoted admirer of Sir Winston Churchill. Like most Englishmen of my day - and most Dutchmen and Americans too - I regard him as far and away the greatest leader produced in the first half of the twentieth century.

I go further than that. It is my conviction that had Roosevelt and Eisenhower accepted his advice in the latter stages of the war we would not have the Russians in Central Europe today. Had the British electorate not given him the push in 1945 we in Britain would not now be facing the difficulties we are. Indeed, Asia and Africa would not find themselves in the chaotic strife-torn anarchy they are in today. For Churchill would not have scuttled from India and Burma as did his Socialist successors. He would not have helped the Americans to tie the hands of our Dutch allies in their defence of the East Indies against the rapacious terrorist bands who mouthed 'Freedom!' when all they meant was loot. For Churchill believed in the administrative, economic, and social benefits of the European colonialist system for the developing areas of Asia and Africa.

It is my personal misfortune however that with all my admiration for Churchill I found myself a little disappointed on the several occasions, when I, as a very minor cog in his war machine, had business with this great man. And the same, alas, goes for the only time I met him face to face.

That was in March 1933 at a dinner party in Stornoway House, the London home of Churchill's close friend Lord Beaverbrook. Churchill had joined us after dinner from some other festivity he had been attending. An enormous expanse of starched shirt-front and a surprisingly crumpled looking white waist­coat contrasted with the full blooded ruddiness of his face. I remember thinking as I looked at him 'That man could be very quick to blow his top!'

But at that moment with a glass of his host's brandy in one hand and a big cigar in the other, Churchill looked quite placid and cheerful. Frank Owen a former M.P. who wrote the leading articles in the Daily Express, took me over to Churchill and introduced me. Then the two of them talked about India, Churchill was a vehement critic of the government's attempts to appease the Indian nationalists with liberal concessions. I had no special experience of India to offer. I had never been there at that time. So I kept silent.

Then suddenly I thought there was an opportunity for me to contribute something to the discussion. "This aspect of the problem, sir," I chipped in "is something on which I have frequently heard the views of Adolf Hitler..."

Before I could utter another word the explosion which I had feared had taken place and I was its epicentre. Churchill swung round like some 18th century battleship and glowered at me, terrible anger blazing in his light blue eyes. "That imposhible fellow Hitler!" (Churchill had a defect in his speech which turned every 's' into an 'sh'.) "I don't want to hear anything about him." And he turned his back on Frank Owen and me and stumped off.

Believe me it was not personal pique on my part that made me wonder whether the great man was not perhaps a trifle too impulsive and intolerant. True enough, I was only an ignorant youngster of twenty-eight. But I was at that time the only Englishman who had met Hitler more than once, had travelled around with him, and had heard him expound his views both in public and in private. It was just possible that I might have been able to tell him something new.

I felt that a statesman who dismissed Hitler with a 'Don't talk to me about that ghastly man' was perhaps not as open to receiving intelligence as a statesman should be.

To me, however, the strangest thing about this incident was that I knew Winston Churchill had wanted to meet Hitler and talk with him when he and his family visited Munich a year earlier in April of 1932. Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler's adviser on Anglo-German and German-American relations, had told me the story, and Sir Winston's son Randolph, confirmed it to me many years later.

Winston Churchill, Randolph, Professor Lindemann, Churchill's scientific adviser who later became Lord Cherwell, Lord Camrose, the newspaper owner, and Mrs Churchill were all staying at the Continental Hotel in Munich. Randolph telephoned Putzi Hanfstaengl inviting him to dinner and suggesting he should bring Hitler with him to meet his father.

But when Hanfstaengl passed on the invitation Hitler produced one excuse after another - as he always did when he was scared of meeting somebody to whom he felt inferior. So Hanfstaengl went alone to dine with Churchill and his party. Churchill, so Hanfstaengl told me taxed him with Hitler's anti-Jewish views. "Tell your boss from me," he said "that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad sticker." In other words that it is easy enough to win votes by blackguarding the Jews, but it is a difficult doctrine to live with once you are in power.

After dinner Churchill took Hanfstaengl aside. "Tell me," he asked holding his brandy glass close to his lips so that his remarks should reach no-one but Hanfstaengl, "how does your chief feel about an alliance between your country, France and Britain?"

I could not understand why a man who had asked a question like that before Hitler came to power should be shutting his ears to everything about Hitler now that he was chancellor.

Even so I would have dismissed the whole thing as being due to a momentary mood, had his unreceptiveness at Lord Beaverbrook's party remained an isolated incident. But during the war, too, on occasions connected with my own special field of psychological warfare Churchill manifested a similar unwillingness to accept information that ran counter to his preconceptions. His ministerial colleagues, Anthony Eden foremost among them, made the same complaint.

As far as my own experiences were concerned the most important instance came on July 20, 1944, when Count Stauffenberg exploded a bomb under Hitler's map table in the Führerhauptquartier and some of the German generals tried to put an end to the Third Reich with a Putsch.

Richard Crossman, who is today the Minister of Housing in Harold Wilson's Labour Government, was at that time directing the open propaganda to the Germans while I was in charge of the covert side. Dick was spending the evening with me at the secret British headquarters of the so-called 'Soldatensender Calais', a radio run by me which pretended to be a German station. When the news of the coup came through Dick wanted to issue an immediate directive instructing the BBC to react to the news with a declaration of sympathy and encouragement to the rebels.

Before however he could do so he had to obtain ministerial authority. Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, was, we were told, dining with Winston Churchill at Chequers, the official country house of the British prime ministers.

"Excellent", said Dick "Brendan and the P.M. will be able to consider the news together. We should be able to get quick action."

Alas, when the result of the combined deliberations of Churchill and Bracken at length came through it was shattering.

"The minister" (i.e. Brendan Bracken) ran the message "wishes Mr. Crossman to know that he is amazed that a man of his experience should have fallen for this all too obvious Goebbels cancard, and will he please never again disturb him with such nonsense. Please tell the BBC to refrain from saying anything that could suggest we accept the story that there has been a revolt by the generals."

And not even when heads should have been clearer the following morning were those instructions changed. Crossman and the BBC were ordered to announce that His Majesty's Government was not prepared to absolve the German army from its responsibility for the war or to differentiate in any way between Germans and Germans. All were responsible. The only terms on which Germany could have peace were - as before - unconditional surrender.

When Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland on May 11, 1941, and presented Britain's psychological warriors with a priceless opportunity for doing mischief among our enemies, Churchill's reaction had been similar. First he refused to believe that "Captain Horn" was indeed the Führer's deputy. But even when irrefutable proof was provided that the unbelievable was true he still adamantly refused to allow the BBC to exploit the news. We psychological warriors were as starved of facts as were the newspapers.

I concede however that this decision to play down Hess's flight was not strictly comparable to his 'Don't talk to we about Hitler' tantrum of 1933. Churchill may have had weighty reasons for wishing to give as little publicity as possible to Hess's arrival in Scotland.

For Churchill, with the perception that marked his real greatness as a political leader, had decided as early as March 1941 that Hitler was going to invade Russia. (The British chiefs of staff, incidentally, did not accept the probability and imminence of invasion until May 31, 1941, while the Joint Intelligence Committee, which combined the intelligence resources of the Foreign Office, the Special Operations Excutive, and the fighting services, did not concede it until June 5, 1941!)

It is conceivable therefore that Churchill was afraid that if the Russians suspected the British were negotiating with Hess, this might undermine their readiness to resist Hitler when Hitler attacked. As it turned out, Stalin did suspect precisely that, and it did not make one halfpenny worth of difference to the vigour and determination with which the Russians fought the invader. We propaganda merchants, however, as on July 20 three years later, had to allow a great opportunity slip by unused.

Fundamentally I think Winston Churchill was allergic to our psychological warfare because he thought 'these long-haired propaganda fellows were all of them much too soft with the Germans.'

There was for instance the occasion towards the end of 1944 when Churchill, spending a weekend in Eisenhower's HQ at Rheims, read in a copy of the U.S. Soldiers' newspaper Stars and Stripes that the allied radios were advising the German population to 'stay put' in their homes when the allied troops entered Germany.

I was by no means uncritical of some of our official propaganda myself and I sympathised with Churchill. But the thinking behind this advice seemed to me perfectly sound. In the first place civilians moving along the roads would be as much of a hindrance for the allies as for Hitler's armies. More so perhaps, because we would be less callous about running over women and children. But secondly, and far more important; by telling the Germans to keep off the roads we were indirectly giving them an assurance that contrary to what Goebbels was telling then the victorious allies did not intend to extermine the Germans.

Churchill however was immediately up in arms. "Pray General," he addressed Eisenhower, "what nonsense is this?" and he pointed an accusing finger at the Stars and Stripes story. "Surely we should be doing our best to drive the German civilians out on to the roads so that they impede the communications of the Hun armies just as the fleeing French obstructed theirs in 1940?"

Eisenhower, anxious to throw a sop to Churchill, whom he had opposed in his strategic demand for a concentrated push through north Germany cancelled the directive for the 'Stay Put' campaign. And as the BBC and the other allied official broadcasts had already gone on record with the 'Stay Put' advice the job of stampeding the German civilians out on to the roads was given to my disavowable covert propaganda.

I carried out a series of intruder operations, broadcasting on temporarily vacated German frequencies, and gave evacuation orders to the German population in the name of their own authorities. The Germans were completely deceived. They accepted our broadcasts as genuine and obeyed our orders. Churchill, so Brendan Bracken told me, was delighted with the success of this trick.

Churchill's foibles and obstinacies, however, while momentarily irritating to those who felt themselves obstructed by them - Anthony Eden at one time was on the point of resigning from sheer frustration - do not in the least detract from the heroic stature of this man whose courageous outspokenness, strategic vision, and tenacity in the face of disaster twice saved Europe from being enslaved by evil men. They only serve to make him more human and lovable.

Sir Winston Churchill, son Randolph and grandson Winston. Image source: U.S. Library of Congress, gift of photographer Toni Frissell.

Sir Winston Churchill, son Randolph and grandson Winston

In the vast legacy he has bequeathed to the British people - of books he has written, speeches he has delivered, pictures he has painted, and phrases he has coined - people rarely mention what I consider one of the most fascinating gifts a giant like Churchill can leave behind: his family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

For my perhaps prejudiced taste - we are friends and neighbours in East Anglia - the most interesting of them is his now 54-years-old son Randolph.

Sir Winston named him Randolph after his own father Lord Randolph Churchill. He did so in the hope that young Randolph would continue in the family tradition and become a fearless and independent minded member of the mother of parliaments. Perhaps even a minister. He did his best to educate him to that end.

From his earliest teens young Randolph was allowed to dine at his father's table when he was entertaining such political giants as F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead), Asquith, Lloyd George, or Austen Chamberlain. Randolph was encouraged to take part in the conversation.

Sir Winston took him with him on his trips abroad, even as far as the then still very far away United States. Randolph was not stopped from talking to foreign states­men with the same self-confident opinionativeness his father's British friends had encouraged at home.

As a result Randolph grew up even more fearless and independent minded than his fearless and independent minded father and grandfather. Alas, too much so for the taste of the new British electorate.

Only once, in 1940, was he elected to the House of Commons. At all other attempts he was defeated.

So, like others rejected from their chosen career, he made his way into journalism. And there the qualities that displeased his electors have won him great success - undiminished even by his tendency to resign in a rage if an editor cuts his copy or does not display it to its full advantage.

I had not seen Randolph for twenty years when the Korean War threw us together. There stumping through the paddy fields, his tropical khaki bush-shirt almost black with sweat, was the now white-haired Randolph looking very much the son of his father. He had the same stance, legs planted wide apart, shoulders hunched forward. His blue eyes glinted with the same piercing magnetism, whether he was asking questions, grinning with good natured humour, or exploding in a rage. He exploded all too often, as he himself admitted with chagrin.

But what gallantry and what an almost Victorian sense of what is honourable and what is not Sir Winston has handed down to his son. I shall never forget the shattering occasion when we were sitting with a colleague's wife in the lounge of a Tokyo hotel having a gin before dinner, when Randolph was called to the telephone and told that the colleague had been killed at the front that morning.

Randolph beckoned to me to come over to him. His face was as white as his hair. "Christopher has been killed. Ran over a landmine in his jeep. How are we going to tell Cecilia?"

I suggested we should get her up to her room on some pretext and then tell her.

"That would be cowardly" declared Randolph, "We must tell her at once."

"Here in the lounge?"

"Yes!"

Ever ready to agree that I am being a coward I diffidently agreed.

We walked back to our table. Randolph took Cecilia's hand.

"Cecilia, my dear. I have bad news."

"Christopher?"

"Yes. He has been killed."

Cecilia swooned. We had to carry her to the lift and then to her bedroom. Doing the honourable thing, I thought, has its drawbacks from the purely practical point of view.

There and then Randolph decided that he must take the dead Christopher's place at the front.

Christopher and he were working for the same newspaper. It was his duty, he said. "If anything should happen to me, Tom" he added with a slight quaver in his voice, "will you see that the story is cabled to London?"

I promised, although I thought Randolph was being a little over-dramatic. But his presentiment proved to be only too well justified. Two days later I was called to the telephone and told that Randolph had been wounded. He had gone out on a patrol behind the enemy lines and had been shot in the leg. They would be flying him to Tokyo from Itazuki the following evening. I undertook to make the necessary arrange­ments to meet him at the airfield.

But when Randolph hobbled down from the Transport Dakota he refused to enter the ambulance I had laid on for him or to go to the U.S. officers' hospital which was expecting him. He wanted a taxi to take him to the hotel. There was no arguing with him and taxi to the hotel he did. Three days later however his leg had got so bad that he had to go to hospital after all. This time an ambulance took him there.

Every time I visited Randolph at the hospital I found he had been moved to another room. Finally I asked a sister why.

"He always quarrels with the others" she said. "He is so terribly forthright and outspoken." In the end, just before he was able to move back to the hotel the hospital staff hit on a brilliant device for keeping the peace. They turned Randolph's bed round so that he could not face the other patients.

At the bottom of Randolph's somewhat old-fashioned and Kiplingish attitudes - that is no sneer from me, I like them - lies I think a typically Churchillian loyalty and reverence for his father. Just as the young Winston Churchill when entering the House of Commons in 1900 at the age of twenty-six loyally championed the causes of his Tory rebel father, so did Randolph wish to emulate the derring do of father Winston who had been a war reporter for the Morning Post in the South African war.

Not that Sir Winston was altogether encouraging to him about it. Randolph told me with a chagrined chuckle at his own expense how before he set out for Korea his father asked him what be was being paid. Randolph told him. "Faugh!" growled the old man, "They paid me more than that for reporting the Boer War!"

Randolph's son Winston, who is amazingly like pictures of both Randolph and Sir Winston at the same age, has already begun to follow the same course, piloting his own four-seater aircraft to Omdurman, Malakal and other historic spots connected with his grandfather's early adventures. In young Winston's case however I fear it is not so much a pious grand-filial pilgrimage as a young man's wanderlust combined with journalistic panache. "Winston in the footsteps of Winston" is just the stuff for the American illustrated magazines.

Randolph Churchill lives only fifteen miles from my little homestead on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. I sometimes drive over to visit him in his beautiful Regency house overlooking undulating green slopes running-down to the river Stour. If it is a fine summer day I will as like as not find him on the terrace surrounded by politicians and political journalists all eagerly discussing the latest piece of behind the scenes news. At the drop of a hat Randolph will read aloud to the company his latest political column. Did I say read? Declaim is what I should have said. He declaims his pieces with the same rotund Ciceronian rhythm which his father used for his wartime broadcasts to the nation.

Everywhere in the house are memories of his father - paintings, photographs, books, trophies. Even the flowers in the garden, in which Randolph takes a vigorous personal interest, are reminiscent of his father's garden at Chartwell.

After lunch Randolph, the new head of the Churchill family, becomes the high priest at the shrine of his father, custodian of his name before history. For before his death Sir Winston decreed that Randolph was to receive the massive collection of papers and diaries he accumulated during his long life and that he should have the job of editing them. Do not imagine that this decision was a foregone conclusion. Sir Winston only reached it after long and careful deliberation. Randolph regards the trust his father has put in him as the highest honour paid him in his fifty-four years of life.

From a lectern in the library one of the team of young university historians Randolph has engaged to help him, reads aloud from the papers. Randolph listens thoughtfully. Every now and then he interrupts the reading to dictate a comment, order a piece of research to elucidate some point which is obscure or in need of checking, or to record an idea that occurs to him. Then the reading goes on.



 

 

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