Articles

I GUARDED WINSTON CHURCHILL

W. H. THOMPSON October 15 1951
Articles

I GUARDED WINSTON CHURCHILL

W. H. THOMPSON October 15 1951

I GUARDED WINSTON CHURCHILL

PART ONE OF THREE PARTS

Articles

W. H. THOMPSON

”1 do not intend to be taken alive,” Churchill told his bodyguard during World War IL And he kept his Colt .45 in easy reach* But his disregard of danger made the ¡oh of protecting him one of the most delicate old Scotland Yard ever tackled

THE TELEGRAM arrived on August 22,1939. It was terse, like all his urgent commands: MEET ME CROYDON AERODROME 4.30 P.M. WEDNESDAY—CHURCHILL.

It was a strange order for a grocer. For I was no longer Detective-Inspector Thompson of Scotland Yard. I had retired from the force in 1936 and the following year opened a grocery business at Beulah-Hill, Norwood, south of London. I was in the shop when I opened the telegram.

During my police service I had acted as personal detective to many famous men, including David Lloyd George. For eleven years—between 1921 and 1932—I had been Winston Churchill’s bodyguard and now some of the experiences through which we had passed together flashed once more through my mind. I remembered his tour as Secretary of State for Air through Egypt and the Middle East with the great Lawrence of Arabia. How we had met the uncanny Russell Pasha, who knew more about the dope trade than any man living and whose name was respected and feared in the underworld of five continents. I recalled the days of the Irish troubles when Churchill, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, was in daily danger of assassination from the Sinn Feiners, dangerous men at any time but now provoked beyond endurance by the work of the Black-andTans. I recalled the tragic day in Dundee when I stood by his side as he learnt that he had lost his seat in Parliament to a Prohibitionist! We had been to Italy together while Winston sized up Mussolini. I was with him in New' York as he lay near to death’s door in 1932 after being run over in the street by a motor car.

All this and much more came back to me.

So I was at Croydon Aerodrome the next afternoon, full of excitement and curiosity. The Paris plane came in, and out bounded Mr. Churchill. He was looking fit and full of energy as usual but his expression was grim. All he said was “Hallo, Thompson. Nice to see you. Get the baggage together and bring it on to Chartwell.”

While History Swirled Around

When at last he called me into conference at his country house in Kent he told me that war might break out at any moment. “The Germans believe I am one of their most formidable enemies,” he said abruptly. “They will not stop short of assassination.”

He went on to tell me how a leading French statesman had warned hilm that his life was in danger. He had immediately canceled a visit to the Duke of Windsor in the South of France and flown back to Britain.

“I can look after myself in the daytime,” he said. “Will you protect me at night?”

I agreed gladly. Churchill offered to pay me five pounds a week as his bodyguard in a purely private capacity. He gave me his Colt automatic to use—and I may say with pride that I am the only man Mr. Churchill has allowed to handle his guns. He is a first-class shot and takes a jealous pride in his personal armoury.

Then on Saturday, Aug. 26, a state of emergency was declared. Reservists of the Army, Navy and Air Force were being recalled to their units and for my part I reported in London for police duties.

When I got back to the shop at Norwood, the telephone was ringing. I picked up the receiver. It was the Old Man himself.

“I have already been through to the Commissioner,” he said. “You will now come to me officially.”

And so, a week before the war broke out, I was back at my old job as Winston Churchill’s shadow. For the next six years I was to remain at his side while history swirled around his portly figure, countries were won and lost and he strode through great dangers and great decisions to an imperishable place in the annals of mankind. Of these events and of his official and now well-recorded part in them I do not intend to speak at length in these articles. I think the best way in which I can add 'to the world’s Continued on page 78

Continued on page 78

Continued from page 11

understanding of that unique and magnificent man is to set down a few of the things I heard him say and saw him do in the lonely weary moments when history wasn’t watching.

I was not always, by the way, a personal admirer of his. When I first became his personal detective in 1921 I had found his manner brusque, offhanded, even as 1 thought then piggish.

But T soon began to see through the rough façade, to wait for the grimness to break up in that boyish smile. It did not take me long to like him. In a little while I came to love him. Most of his personal staff called him The Old Man. My own nickname for him was “Father” (which I need scarcely mention I did not use in his hearing).

He was not an easy man to work for, not at any rate in the particular capacity assigned to me. He hated any fuss about his protection. In general he approved of Scotland Yard’s methods, which aimed at being as discreet as possible, but be raised a quizzical eyebrow at me more than once when on our wartime travels the more ostentatious methods of some of our Allies in affording protection got on his nerves.

Flying Blind Over France

Although he recognized that some measures had to be taken for his security, he was confident that in any real pinch he, Winston Churchill, would probably be able to look after himself, personally. When we were at Chequers, the country home of Britain’s prime ministers, he often went to a nearby range and proved himself a first-class shot with his Mannlicher rifle, his .45 Colt automatic and a service .38 Webley. He was particularly deadly with the Colt and there would have been little chance for anyone who came in range of that weapon with unfriendly intent.

Not that he was armed constantly or even frequently. In the main he was content to rest his last line of defense on the .32 Webley which I carried in a chamois leather holster of my own design on the inside and between the two buttons of the left breast of my suit-coat. But once, in June, 1940, not long after he had become Prime Minister, there came an occasion when I was as glad as he to remember those hours he had spent on the practice ranges.

In his desperate efforts to prevent the fall of France, he had flown several times across the Channel and on the thirteenth day of that fateful June we were actually flying blind waiting for instructions as to where we could find the French Cabinet. What strange, what incredible days those were! The Prime Minister of Great Britain, thousands of feet up in the air, trying to discover the whereabouts of the leaders of our principal ally! It was like some terrible fantasy.

We landed eventually at Tours. The roads were choked with the inevitable refugees, but we arrived at last at the local police station where contact was made with the French Government. I have heard of people seeking a lost purse or a lost dog at a police station, but this was my first experience of enquiring for a lost government at one. We were told that Mr. Churchill could meet the French Ministers after lunch.

Mr. Churchill was taken into neighboring offices for the conference. A hysterical woman (who knows what the poor soul had been through?) tried to hit Mr. Churchill, as he left the meet-

ing. Winston Churchill came out with Reynaud and both of them had tears in their eyes when they said good-by.

Throughout that trip he had known that he was up against personal danger and that it would be difficult to get in and out of France in the last days of that country’s resistance. Before we left he said to me, suddenly: “Thompson, bring me my revolver.”

And when I brought him his favorite Colt .45 automatic he added: “One

never knows, I do not intend to be taken alive.”

From that time onwards, on every trip he took abroad throughout the war, his revolver was always handy.

But when danger threatened him on his native soil, he was a different man. During the Blitz and the Battle of Britain it was almost impossible to persuade him to pay even a minimum heed to his own safety. In this his attitude during those exciting days was typical of many thousands of others. His interest in what was going on during the bombing was infinitely greater than his fear of what might happen to him. He simply would not allow his mode of living to be altered to suit Adolf Hitler. Throughout the raids he worked on until the early hours of the morning. I had to be on hand with his respirator and steel helmet. I do not think he would ever have entered an air raid shelter except that he thought he ought to give an example to others.

He was in the London flat with Mrs. Churchill on the morning of Sept. 3, 1939, when war was declared. As soon as the first air raid warning sounded, immediately after Mr. Chamberlain’s broadcast speech, Mr. Churchill stalked to the entrance of the flats and stared up into the sky like a war horse scenting battle.

It took some time to persuade him to go to the air raid shelter. Finally he grabbed a bottle of brandy and set off, leading the little party down the street to the basement which had been prepared. In the shelter he prowled around like a caged animal. Nor did his affinity for air raid shelters increase with the importance of his position. Shortly after we had moved to No. 10 Downing Street—-a deathtrap in my opinion—a bomb fell nearby while Mr. Churchill was dining in a basement room with Sir Archibald Sinclair, Oliver Lyttelton and Lord Brabazon. The Old Man left his guests, stalked into the kitchen and ordered the staff to go to the shelter immediately. Then

he returned to the table. Soon afterward another bomb crashed down between the Treasury and No. 10, wrecking the kitchen and demolishing a nearby Army hut. Not until then did Mr. Churchill and the others adjourn to the shelter.

At last he was persuaded to use a safer building. Even then he would never leave No. 10 until the guns had started; then he would walk through the barrages around St. James’s Park to No. 10 Annexe, which was at the Park end of the Board of Trade Building. It was not far, but it was dangerous enough for the Prime Minister to be about unprotected. Once we had only been in the building a very short time before I was startled by the noise of a terrific explosion. On going outside we found that a bomb —later identified as a thousand pounder—had been dropped on the very spot over which we had passed a minute or two earlier.

A Bawling Out From the Boss

Another night Mr. Churchill stood with Sir John Anderson in the doorway of No. 10 Annexe, watching the shellbursts and the searchlights. At this entrance were double doors, one of which was closed. Mr. Churchill was standing in front of Sir John on the open side. Suddenly, I heard something whistling through the air.

“Something’s coming this way,” I shouted.

In the same second one of our shells hit the railings opposite and exploded. I flung my arms round the Prime Minister and swung him bodily behind the closed door. He was horrified and indignant. “Don’t do that,” he roared at me.

It may have been lucky that I did for some of the shrapnel flew through the open doorway, and a colleague of mine in the rear of the party was hit, but it still took Mr. Churchill a little while to recover from his anger.

On one occasion Mrs. Churchill made him promise to go down below when the raid started, and requested me to see that he carried out her wishes.

So when I made my usual report to him about the approach of enemy bombers and gave him all the information available about the strength of the enemy, he gathered up his papers and we marched down to the basement room. I was mystified by the docility with which he went downstairs and noticed with some apprehension the Continued on page 80

Continued on page 80

Continued from page 78

Continued from page 78 cynical smile on his face. When I had seen him into bed and arranged everything ready for him at the bedside I went to turn out the light.

“Leave it on, Thompson,” said the Old Man.

I retired to my own room, but I did not undress. Sure enough, not long afterward Mr. Churchill rang his bell. I tapped at the door and went in. He had put on a dressing-gown and was gathering up his papers.

“Well, Thompson, I have kept my word,” he said with a chuckle. “I came downstairs to go to bed. Now I am going upstairs to sleep.”

One night the King dined with Mr. Churchill at No. 10 Downing Street. When the raid became heavy they adjourned to the shelter.

Air Raids From the Rooftops

Mr. Churchill would keep leaving the shelter to walk round the garden just to see how things were getting on. His Majesty tried to restrain him several times but Winston insisted on going.

Once when he was walking out without his steel helmet, I moved to the doorway and clapped it on his head. Winston, with an absent-minded gesture, flung it off. Later I did manage to persuade him to wear the helmet when he went out into the garden.

His worst habit, from my point of view as his bodyguard, was of going onto the roof of the Annexe to watch the raids. The harder the Germans hit, the more often he would go up there and nothing would dissuade him.

He would stand on the roof in his thick siren suit, an RAF greatcoat and steel helmet, smoking a cigar and watching intently as explosions and fires lit up the battered city. On these occasions I used to take him to the top floor in the elevator. Then with much exertion he would climb the winding staircase to the roof.

One night, after the bombs had come particularly close, he said: “I’m sorry to take you into danger, Thompson. I would not do it, only I know how much you like it.”

“I am not at all sure about that, sir,” I answered. “But what I am concerned about is your safety. I do think that you should stop going on the roof and risking your life unnecessarily.”

Firmly and sincerely came the reply that overruled all my protests: “When my time is due it will come.”

I sometimes suspected that he had an almost superstitious belief that no harm could come to him so long as he was in the England he loved and whose destiny rested so much on his stalwart shoulders. At any rate, on our numerous trips outside England -—as in our trips across the Channel while France was falling he was inclined to be much more prudent. During his trip to Ottawa in 1941 he so far relaxed his usual antipathy to large guards that he astonished me, his permanent bodyguard, by asking to see Inspector R. S. Wilson of the IICMP and telling him gravely: “I am honored to be under the surveillance of your famous force.”

Nor did he object, during a secret visit to Turkey soon after the Casablanca conference, when a Scotland Yard colleague and I sat outside his railway coach all one night with our

guns at the ready, even though armed Turkish troops were guarding the railway sidings. Turkey was then neutral and our Ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, had advised him on his arrival that the Germans knew he was in town. During a visit to Greece, with civil war hovering, in the winter of 1944-45 a few sniper’s bullets splattered near the armored car from which we alighted in Athens, and later three-quarters of a ton of German dynamite was discovered in a sewer near the hotel at which Churchill was believed to be staying. That night he slept aboard the British cruiser Ajax -—and I slept too.

And at the momentous Teheran conference in 1943 Mr. Churchill was as security conscious as the most scrupulous policeman could have asked. On our drive from the air strip to the British Legation I was worried by the seemingly casual measures that had been taken for the protection of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, There were far too many people strolling around within “potting” distance.

I was not surprised when Mr. Churchill sent for me. “We have information that German agents have been dropped by parachute,” he said. “They will try to assassinate one or all of us.”

The Prime Minister was due to visit President Roosevelt at the American Embassy, which was about a mile away. At the last minute he decided not to go, but sent me alone on a “dummy run.” As a result of what I saw, new and better positions were arranged for the standing guards.

Winston in the Buff

The Old Man was at his most amusing and co-operative best one morning in Palm Beach, Fla., where he had stolen a brief holiday after his visit to Ottawa and Washington. He expressed an urge to go for a swim near the private villa in which we were staying. I asked him what kind of swim suit he would like as I was going out to get one for myself.

“I don’t think I need one,” he said. “It is entirely private here. Nobody knows I am staying in this place and I have only to step out of the back door into the sea.”

“You could be seen through glasses, sir,” I suggested.

“If they are that much interested, it’s their own fault what they see,” Winston growled.

The morning before we left Palm Beach it was raining and Winston decided to take his last bathe. When he was undressing there came a shout from the beach. Mr. Churchill was told that a fifteen-foot shark had just swum by within a few yards of the shore, but it was thought to be a harmless sand shark.

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Winston with a smile. “I want to see his identity card before I trust myself to him.”

As he sat down in the shallows by the water’s edge he asked me to keep a look out. “Let me know if that ‘inoffensive’ shark comes back,” he said. But we saw no more of it and when he left the water, Mr. Churchill remarked: “My bulk must have frightened him away!”

In the second installment of his story Detective-Inspector Thompson tells how Winston Churchill, at an age when most men are taking it easy, started his hectic day with a cigar at breakfast and worked right through till morning with a whisky and soda at his elbow. This will appear in the next issue of Maclean’s. iç