Glimpses From Churchill’s Final Hours & Death

As Winston Churchill lingered for several days between life and death 50 years ago this month, the crowd near his home located at 28 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, seldom dipped below 250 people, even in the middle of the night, and no matter what kind of weather London in January had to offer. Beyond that, newspapers around the world had the story of Winston Churchill’s life-threatening illness on page-one.

BLOG+CHurchill+Dead+JJPresident Lyndon Johnson sent a message: “We are all very sorry for your illness and we are praying for a rapid and complete recovery. All of us continue to look to you for wise counsel and judgment.”

Meanwhile, the other Churchill news coming out of Washington, D.C. was an announcement, by the English-Speaking Union, that the proposed statue of Churchill that was to stand astride the dividing line between the British Embassy and American soil would indeed include a cigar. There had been strong opposition to this from some members of the society—but ultimately 80 per cent of them voted in favor of the familiar Winstonian appendage.

Former President Eisenhower sent word from his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, “Mrs. Eisenhower and I are deeply distressed to learn that our old friend has been stricken with another illness.” Charles De Gaulle’s message described his own “feeling of shock” at Churchill’s decline. And world leaders began to instruct their aides to begin making travel and logistical plans in the event of a funeral to come.

While the headlines each day tried to communicate the same news in different ways—“Sir Winston Losing Ground,” “Condition of Sir Winston Worsens,” “Churchill Clinging to Life,” it seemed as if the world stopped, or at least slowed down spinning on its axis.

Likely Churchill never knew that he had stopped a strike from his sickbed, but such was the case. School teachers in Great Britain had been prepared to walk off the job that day over a pay dispute, but cited the great man’s illness as the key to their decision to stage the protest “at a more suitable time.” Certainly, this move by labor would have amused the long time Tory leader.

The expressions coming out of the Soviet Union were predictably colder. Radio reports in Moscow tended to be terse and limited. For its part, the official newspaper for Soviet defense, Krasnaya Zvezda, included language calling Churchill, “the godfather of the Cold War,” and indicating that the Briton had not been forgiven for his 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, and the reference to an “Iron Curtain.”

By Thursday, January 21st, Dr. Moran was reporting that his famous patient was at a low point. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, told many that the great man was approaching death. By this time, however, the crowds were gone, due not to diminishing concern, but because Lady Churchill had requested it. Fresh fallen snow marked the area recently clogged by people on the narrow dead end street.

Even the press had been moved back a block or so, something Mrs. Churchill deeply appreciated. Anthony Montague Brown, one of Churchill’s secretaries and who had been the bearer of Lady Churchill’s request that everyone move away from the area around the house, walked over to where the reporters were now gathered and read an appreciative message: “I would like to thank you for the speed with which you complied with Lady Churchill’s request. She was very touched, She has been feeling the strain.” The journalists nodded affirmatively, almost bowing in respect.

The Friday news was more of the same, though there was a stir of sorts when the home directly behind 28 Hyde Park Gate caught fire. However, even the three fire engines responding to the blaze did their part to respect the need for quiet—they arrived at the scene without sounding sirens or bells.

Later that Friday, Lady Churchill was summoned to the telephone for a call from her grandson, Winston. Her face broke into a broad smile—the first for her in a long time—as she learned of the birth of their third great-grandchild, a boy born at Westminster Hospital. The child was premature but doing quite well, the proud father reported, adding that his wife, Minnie, was fine, as well. Clementine shared the joyous news with everyone and then went into her husband’s room and whispered it in his ear. But the great man, though breathing, was likely never aware of the blessed event. And soon Clementine’s smile was again absent from her face.

The next day was Saturday and someone noted that the next day would be the anniversary of the death of Winston’s father. The comment that he had made a dozen years earlier—about how he would die on the same date—was also recalled and rehearsed. Could it be, they wondered, that the great man was mustering all the courage and fortitude he had left to make it until the page of the calendar and hands of the clock moved to the point of his personal prophecy?

Long after the household went to bed that night, Clementine visited Winston’s room around 1:00 AM. She held his hand and sat silent next to him for a bit before heading back to bed. By the time she returned to his room about six hours later, it was clear than there had been a change for the worse. The family was summoned. Less than 30 minutes later, Randolph arrived with his son, Winston, joining Mary, Sarah, and Clementine in the drawing room. A few minutes later Lord’s Moran and Brain came in.

One of the nurses put out a tray of coffee. Everyone stood by in somber silence.

A little before 8:00 AM, Roy Howell appeared and cleared his voice while repeating, “I think you had all better come in.” They formed a line and one by one went to his bed, some knelt immediately, some whispered to him. Eventually all those in the room knelt prayerfully.

And just as a clock down the hallway finished pealing eight times marking the morning hour on Sunday, January 24, 1965, the Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill drew his last breath and, as the ancient scriptures often said, was “gathered unto his fathers.”

[I am currently working on a novel set against the backdrop of Churchill’s death and funeral. It’s titled, “THE CHURCHILL FUNERAL PLOT.” Coming soon — stay tuned! – DRS]

Operation Hope Not

When Winston Churchill was winding down his second tenure as British Prime Minster in 1951, he was shaving one cold January morning. While he worked the razor, the image of his private secretary, Jock Colville, came into view in the mirror. Winston put the instrument down for a moment and turned to Colville and remarked: “Today is the twenty-fourth of January. It is the day my father died. It is the day I shall die, too.”

That is exactly what happened 50 years ago this weekend—January 24, 1965.

Churchills-Funeral-1965Years earlier, Queen Elizabeth II began the discreet discussion of what should happen in the event of the death of Sir Winston. She gave word to her staff that in the event of Churchill’s death during her absence from England, “he should be given a public funeral of a scale befitting his position in history.”

A full state funeral would require a request from the Queen to House of Commons after Churchill’s death and an affirmative vote, but Elizabeth was clearly indicating early on that such a grand farewell would be her recommendation.

So the wheels were set in motion for Winston’s send off a dozen years before his death. The Queen’s initial directive was soon enhanced and over time it was formalized into a working plan. Over the years, ideas were discussed, mostly out of Churchill’s view, and by the late 1950s a detailed blueprint was in place.

It was called, appropriately, Operation Hope Not.

Fourteen months before Churchill died, America and the world had paid respects to a fallen president—John F. Kennedy. There were no plans in place for such an event because it was unexpected and unimaginable. Sometime on the evening of November 22, 1963, the President’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, with her sense of history and ever-present grace, garnered her thoughts and asked for a quick, but thorough, review of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln that took place nearly 100 years earlier. She wanted to use it as a reference for the farewell to her murdered husband.

In somewhat the same way—though with years of preparation—the model for much of what would transpire during the last week of January in 1965, was yet another famous funeral. That one was back in in 1898, when Great Britain said goodbye to William Ewart Gladstone.

That was also first time a funeral became a global media event.

The parallels between Gladstone and Churchill resembled those often drawn between Kennedy and Lincoln, including the way they were laid to final rest. But there was one notable distinction. Queen Victoria detested Mr. Gladstone, who was known around the royal court as, “the man the Queen most loves to hate.” Victoria ignored Gladstone in death as much as she despised him in life. She was silent on the matter of a State Funeral for him and only agreed when it was clear that Parliament overwhelming approved. Her son, the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VII upon his mother’s passing in January of 1901, was embarrassed by his mother’s behavior, and personally apologized to Gladstone’s widow as she was leaving the service at Westminster Abbey.

Of course, things were completely different when Winston Churchill died. Queen Elizabeth II had great affection for him, and her recommendation for a full State Funeral made its way to the House of Commons on Monday, January 25th, at two-thirty PM. Such an expression was the ultimate sign of respect and honor. It was quickly approved and the House postponed all other business until after Churchill was buried.

He would be the first “commoner” to be so honored since Mr. Gladstone.

[I am currently finishing a novel set against the backdrop of “Operation Hope Not.” It’s titled, “THE CHURCHILL FUNERAL PLOT” — coming soon! – DRS]

Race, Roe, & Dr. King

[The following appeared in the Washington Post six years ago this month, in January of 2009. I discussed the annual calendar convergence of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday — DRS]
This week’s sermon is by the Rev. David R. Stokes, senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, marking Sanctity of Human Life Sunday on Jan. 18. President Ronald Reagan established a National Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in 1984, to be held the Sunday in January that falls closest to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.


The recent passing of theologian Richard John Neuhaus brings to mind a passage from the book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

As Michael Gerson mentioned in his recent tribute to Neuhaus in The Washington Post, there was a time when “the footsteps of theologians shook the land.” These days, he laments that the great thinkers who “provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and civil rights movement are gone and the nation’s hungry sheep now look up to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra for spiritual nourishment.

Neuhaus was, according to Gerson, “first a man of the left, then a man of the right — yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most.” He walked with King for civil rights, and later “found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement.”

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the address for which he is best known. Long remembered as the “I Have a Dream” speech, he said things like, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”

Slightly less than five years later, the Dreamer was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, hastening our societal slide toward a culture far too comfortable and familiar with violence and death. The legacy of Dr. King and the fallout from that 1973 legal bombshell sail very close to each other again.

Some see this as an awkward convergence. But it really isn’t. Back in the ’60s, while black preachers were mobilizing masses in the pursuit of civil rights, conservative evangelicals stayed largely on the sidelines. They weren’t all that interested in changing anything. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear white fundamentalist-evangelical preachers of the day, with voices animated by indignation, decrying the very idea that preachers should be activists in the streets, mocking them to get back to their pulpits where they belonged.

Many, if not most — some notably — would later change their minds. What was the catalyst bringing change to how conservative, white clergymen viewed and lived out their roles? What issue convinced these dogmatic men of the cloth to be willing to scramble out of the pulpit-pocket and into a measure of political involvement after decades of silent separation? Well, the winds of change began to blow in the aftermath of that landmark 1973 decision.

So, here we are again in another January, decades after a killing and a ruling, still marching about Roe v. Wade and honoring Dr. King — but seldom in the same room. The two constituencies, both fierce about the importance of faith, seldom find — much less look for — ways to reach out to the other choir. On Sunday, Jan. 18, some churches highlighted the Sanctity of Human Life issue. Others talked a lot about Dr. King and his dream to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was celebrated Jan. 20. Usually it was one or the other. Some of us, however, tried to do both, because there ought to be an affinity between the two.

When Martin Luther King talked about a dream he had for his four little children and how he longed for them to grow up in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” beyond the amen and applause of the crowd around the Lincoln Memorial, far too many Americans ignored what he had to say. Or worse, some mobilized to polarize and oppose.

Those opponents were wrong. No matter how much they went to church, read their Bibles or professed the religion of Jesus, they were wrong. It was wrong for good, God-fearing Americans not to see how important it was, from a faith-based point of view, that this nation truly walk the walk it had long talked about.

And it is wrong for some people of faith today not to see the pro-life cause as very much a civil and human-rights issue.

We should have a dream that welcomes all to the table. And we should have a dream that welcomes all to life itself.

The calendar gives us a near-miss each year as these issues come close to collision. But social justice and embracing life itself as profoundly precious should not be either/or issues. They are very much both/and. And until we find a way to bring them together, it is not likely that anyone can really bring us together.

At this transitional moment in our country’s history, there are great and grave issues before us. Some wrongs have been righted. One great wrong — one that has been a hurtful wound for generations, since even before our nation’s founding — is being righted by an inauguration. Other wrongs are yet to be righted. We should celebrate the victory of wrong over right when it happens. And we should mourn when wrongs left untouched cry out for justice and mercy.

The ultimate way for us to see wrongs righted is for us to look back 2,000 years ago, to a great and grievous wrong inflicted on Christ himself. And it is through that wrong, the great finished work on the cross, that we can know what it is to be made right and whole. When our brokenness is taken to His brokenness, healing happens. And that healing transforms us into agents of light — to work for righteousness in a world of woe.

Man with Fedora Hat in the Ring

Saturday, July 8, 1967 is a date etched in my memory. My father took my two brothers and me to Selfridge Air Base just outside of Detroit to see the famous Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron perform.

But Dad also had another agenda.

Before the aerial show, we sat in the stands listening to a few speakers. Boring stuff, actually. Dad wanted us to see someone. After what seemed to be an eternity waiting for the jets to roar, he said, “There he is, right down there.” I looked and saw a group of men walking. They were in military uniforms.

tumblr_l9tubqMet41qdblneAll except for one man.

This one older man wore a dark suit and what I later learned was a fedora hat. Dad said that the man always wore a fedora hat.

The occasion for the air show at Selfridge turned out to be the 50th anniversary of what was called “The Hat in the Ring Squadron,” a band of pioneer American aerial warriors who complicated things for the Kaiser in The Great War.

And their leader was that man in the fedora hat-Eddie Rickenbacker.

This story came to my mind recently with the release of the powerful film, ‘UNBROKEN,’ based on the story of Louis Zamperini, who died last Summer at the age of 97. In the film, Rickenbacker’s name is referenced a couple of times.

He was a race car driver before World War I and made a lot of money at it. When America mobilized to go “over there,” Rickenbacker pitched the idea of training drivers like him to fly airplanes in combat, but was rebuffed. So he just drove bigwigs around.

Then one day he had the chance to chauffer an officer named Billy Mitchell, and Rickenbacker’s idea found fertile soil.

Eddie was America’s top ace, shooting down 26 enemy aircraft during this nation’s comparatively brief participation in the European war. He then went into business and became one of the country’s top boosters of commercial aviation.

A few months before Pearl Harbor, he was in a fiery airline crash. He broke several bones and nearly died. But by late 1942, he had sufficiently healed so that President Roosevelt recruited him to carry a secret message to Douglas MacArthur, who by then was in Australia beginning to scrounge and plan for an eventual return to the Philippines.

The message from FDR was verbal. No record of it exists, which indicates its important and the confidence the President had in Rickenbacker.

1-25-43But en route to Australia, his plane went off course and they had to ditch in the South Pacific. He and a few others were adrift for 24 days.

He was wearing a suit and that fedora hat.

They ran out of food on the third day.

A natural leader of men, Rickenbacker made sure he and the men prayed and had scripture reading each day. On the eighth day, one of the men read from the Gospel of Matthew about how the Lord watches over the lilies of the field and the birds in the air. Following the reading that day, Eddie pulled his fedora down over his face to catch a nap.

About twenty minutes later, he was awakened by something on his head. He looked at the men and saw that they were looking at what was on his head. Rickenbacker slowly reached up with his hand and grabbed a big bird, which became Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter rolled up into one.

They then used the “insides” of the heaven-sent bird as bait to catch fish for days to come, ensuring that they would have sufficient nourishment for the duration.

The man in the fedora hat was convinced ever after than an angel had sent that bird. – DRS