Winston churchill

The circus provides perfect cover for espionage

The hall was before me like a gigantic shell, packed with thousands and thousands of people. Even the arena was densely crowded. More than 5,600 tickets had been sold. Cyril Bertram Mills started his circus career accompanying his father to European horse fairs in the 1920s. The two of them were soon familiar faces on the German circus scene, travelling between shows to recruit acts for London. The Munich Circus was a particular draw; but sometimes they hired out their circular wooden building to other local acts. The opening quote of this review comes from Adolf Hitler. Mills was at first dismissive of the Munich Nazi party leader, pointing out

The dirty war of Sefton Delmer

There is an obvious problem with trying to judge who ‘won’ a propaganda war. Unlike its physical counterpart, there is virtually no real-world evidence either way, and everyone involved has spent years learning how to spin, manipulate and outright lie about reality to try to shape it into what they want. As a result, it remains the conventional wisdom – among those who think of such things, at least – that despite their eventual and total defeat in the second world war, it was the Nazis who won the propaganda war of their era. Fake letters from dead German soldiers to their parents reported thatthey had survived, deserted and were

Why was the British army so ill-prepared to fight the second world war?

Conflict comes highly recommended. Two former chiefs of the defence staff, Generals David Richards and Nicholas Carter, praise it for identifying key lessons from the past appropriate to the future. A former MoD strategic adviser, Sir Hew Strachan, says it will ‘challenge the professional and enlighten the generalist’. The US marine corps general and former secretary of defense James Mattis, ‘the warrior monk’, says it is ‘a clear-sighted assessment of war’s future’. And the late Henry Kissinger called it ‘an exceptional book, written by two absolute masters of their profession’. Kissinger had been General David Petraeus’s champion since the latter’s fall from grace as head of the CIA following the

In the dark early 1960s, at least we had the Beatles

‘These things start on my birthday – like the Warsaw Uprising – and spoil my day,’ wrote the understandably self-pitying Barking housewife Pat Scott in her diary on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. ‘And then to spoil it more, Ted [her husband] took his driving test for the second time and failed.’ It is clashes like these, of the personal and humdrum against the political and global, that make David Kynaston’s close surveys of Britain in the second half of the 20th century such fascinating and lively documents. Yes, the world might be about to end, but that was no excuse to spoil Pat’s

Bill Stirling – the brains behind the wartime SAS

‘The boy Stirling is quite mad, quite, quite mad. However, in a war there is often a place for mad people.’ Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was referring to David Stirling, the man largely credited with raising the Special Air Service (SAS) in the summer of 1941. Myth has always surrounded the formation of the SAS and one of the most abiding legends is that it was down to one man alone, David Stirling, whose L Detachment of six officers and 60 men grew into 1SAS. Gavin Mortimer’s vivid and meticulously researched book, 2SAS, does a good deal to redress the balance. It acknowledges the importance – too long overlooked –

‘We cannot turn back’ from the League of Nations, said Woodrow Wilson – but did just that

It was a vision that President Woodrow Wilson could not resist. The Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations founded during the negotiations, were meant not just to end the first world war but all future wars by ensuring that a country taking up arms against one signatory would be treated as a belligerent by all the others. Wilson took his adviser Edward ‘Colonel’ House’s vision of a new world order and careered off with it. Against advice, Wilson attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in during negotiations Against advice, he attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in with him during

The secrets of London by postcode: SE (South East)

Our tour of the trivia behind London’s postcode areas has reached SE, where we find rock stars being embalmed, P.G. Wodehouse reporting on cricket and Westminster Bridge being painted green for a very specific reason. Oh, and Winston Churchill gets a hat-trick of mentions…

The £6m country house that was home to Churchill’s secret army

The high-risk, adrenaline-fuelled operations dramatised in recent BBC1 mini-series SAS Rogue Heroes left viewers gripped. Not quite as attention-grabbing, but no less fearless (or dangerous), were the activities of another special forces unit, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – a volunteer force set up in 1940 to wage a secret war. Famously ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’, this band of brave agents were often dropped by parachute into Nazi-occupied territory, tasked with sabotage, subversion and helping local resistance movements. Many of them were serving soldiers with commando training; others had been drawn from civilian life. In Lonely Courage, a biography of the 39 women who

The lost art of the bow tie

Whatever you think about Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab – whether you think he’s bully or a tomato-thrower, and whether you couldn’t care less if he is or isn’t – there is something you ought to know about him. Apparently, he can’t do up a bow tie. That’s according to the Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne and his forthcoming book about the last days of Boris Johnson’s government. He tells the story of Raab arriving to counsel the Prime Minister during his last hours in Downing Street, dressed in white tie. ‘Raab awkwardly told Number 10 staffers he had to attend a white-tie dinner at the Mansion House in the

Churchill and the house that saved the world

A short train journey from London, in the outer reaches of suburbia in Kent, sits the house that saved the world. Or rather: it’s the house that saved the man who saved the world. The property in question, of course, is Chartwell, which 100 years ago this month was bought by a certain Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP. Back then his career was in ascendance: in 1924, with Churchill having crossed the floor, Stanley Baldwin made him Chancellor, a post he retained until 1929. But then, rather suddenly, he was out in the cold. That was when Chartwell – and the 81 acres it sits in – came to

Why I love Her Majesty

I’ve often wondered whether Her Majesty the Queen glances through The Spectator from time to time. And if she does, I wonder whether her kindly eye lights on this column. And if it does, I wonder what she thinks of what she reads there. ‘Philip, there’s a man here writing about going to the Cheltenham Festival and messing his pents.’ ‘Very easily done at Cheltenham, my dear. I’ve often wondered why nobody has written about it before.’ Or, ‘Philip here’s that man again, the one who messed his pents at Cheltenham, assisting the ferret-judging at a country show. It’s frightfully interesting. The judge takes so long to judge each class,

Why men of a certain age love to get naked

Something very strange happens to men as they get older: they like to go nude. I don’t mean they become practising nudists who seek out and enjoy the company of others of their kind. But unlike most younger men, they feel no embarrassment or regret at being seen naked. Consider the recent battle between one nude man and his neighbour. Simon Herbert (54) was in his Oxfordshire garden mending a fence when he spotted his next-door neighbour — Air Marshal Andrew Turner (54), the RAF’s second-in-command — strolling naked in the paddock of the cottage Turner shares with his wife. Herbert says that his partner and stepdaughter caught an eyeful

British horse racing’s debt to the Middle East

A joyful Saturday at Ascot recently reminded me that when the old Hurst Park Racecourse (near Hampton Court Palace) closed to become a Wates housing estate, the turf was taken to Ascot to form the basis of the jumping track then being established there. It was living beside Hurst Park — where the seven-furlong start abutted the Thameside Upper Deck swimming pool and jockeys focused on bikini-clad local lovelies sometimes missed the off — that turned me in my boyhood into a racing enthusiast, standing on the saddle of my bike perched against the boundary fence to watch the horses flash by or goggling at Prince Monolulu in his headdress

Is Cambridge university ashamed of Winston Churchill?

When I first started at Churchill College, Cambridge, I was proud that I had joined an institution whose very existence was a testament to the legacy of a personal and national hero. As I walked around the college grounds, I felt that I was now part of a community that was much bigger than myself; a community partly defined by the life and times of our country’s greatest leader. Standing for the college toast at my first formal dinner, the words ‘To Sir Winston, and the Queen’ almost made me believe that my own life was now, in a small but important way, linked to the life of the great

How Starmer can beat Boris

How should Keir Starmer deal with a problem like Boris Johnson? Despite the Prime Minister’s mistakes in the handling of the pandemic – and a string of embarrassing stories about his private life and finances – Boris seems unassailable. Johnson is seen as best suited to be Prime Minister by 40 per cent of voters compared to just 23 per cent for Starmer; most surveys give the Tories a double digit lead over Labour. Party leaders receive much unsolicited and often useless advice. Starmer is not alone in that. Over the years, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been scoured for helpful aphorisms, while Machiavelli’s The Prince is still

The sweet smell of success: the story behind Chanel No 5’s popularity

This is a curious book, by turns profound and whimsical. Karl Schlögel, a professor of Eastern European history at Frankfurt, begins by stating he didn’t know anything about his chosen subject of perfume beyond going into department stores and duty-free shops to encounter a ‘peculiar mélange of scents… the light and sparkle of crystal, the rainbow of colours, mirrors and glass’. Although he always felt this to be an alien environment, he was also repeatedly captivated. Then by chance he discovered a link between Chanel No. 5 and the Soviet perfume Red Moscow. Intrigued, he went on an intellectual journey to find out the shared and distinctive histories of France

Churchill’s enigma: the real riddle is why he cosied up to Stalin

Dresden. Tonypandy. Gallipoli. Bengal. Winston Churchill’s reputation has withstood an array of charges, made by each generation with their own prejudices. Whereas in the 1970s it was Richard Burton and Jim Callaghan accusing him of a vendetta against the Welsh miners, today it’s racism, imperialism and white supremacy. The words ‘Was a Racist’ were scrawled on his statue in Parliament Square during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Earlier this week police protected the statue at a rally as protesters chanted ‘Protect women, not statues’. Last month Cambridge academics held a panel on ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’, in which the country’s wartime leader was attacked for his ‘white

The campus Churchill delusion

Was Winston Churchill a racist? For students like me who attended Churchill College, Cambridge, it’s a question which barely even merits an answer: of course he wasn’t. But some Cambridge academics appear to take a different approach when it comes to assessing the record of Britain’s most famous prime minister. Churchill College recently announced a ‘year-long programme’ into Sir Winston’s allegedly ‘backward’ conceptions of empire and race. As part of this review, the college has held events such as ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’. Many students are simply bemused. Academic debate is, of course, no bad thing. It is something to be encouraged at any university. But a problem arises

Why you can’t trust supermarket cheese

We were celebrating the end of lockdown by talking about war and deer stalking — over a business lunch, naturally. My friend David Mathew, from a distinguished legal, military and political family, told a story about Churchill’s arrival in Athens at Christmas in 1944. David’s father, Robert, then a young officer, was sent to meet the great man, who was grumpy and preoccupied, with good reason. He had come to save Greece from communism, with little guarantee of help from the Americans, let alone left-wing opinion in Britain. The sucking-up to ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin may have been necessary to win the war. It would not be helpful for winning the

Watch Andrew Marr stare at places where stuff happened: New Elizabethans reviewed

Congratulations, everyone! It turns out we’re much better than those bigoted old Brits of the 1950s. After all, they were ‘class-obsessed, overwhelmingly white and Christian, and deeply conservative about the role of women’ — whereas we ‘accept difference and diversity in a way that would have been almost unthinkable in 1953’. This was the reassuring message in the first episode of New Elizabethans by Andrew Marr, where Marr surveyed Britain’s changing social attitudes since the Queen came to the throne, and liked what he saw. These days, needless to say, the ‘great man theory’ of history has rather fallen out of fashion — so instead Marr brought us a sort