Fifty years ago this week, all eyes were on London as carefully crafted preparations for Winston Churchill’s funeral were announced and put in motion. He died on January 24, 1965, and the grand farewell several days later on January 30, would be watched by more than 350 million people via television, the largest audience in history at the time, surpassing even the size of the viewing audience for the funeral of John F. Kennedy fourteen months earlier.
Winston and Clemmie wept as they watched Kennedy’s funeral on their small television from their London town home on November 25, 1963.
Down through the years, Winston Churchill inspired hundreds of young politicians, including Jack Kennedy. In the late 1930s, when JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain (the Court of St. James), appeasement was all the rage, and Joe Kennedy was a big fan of anything that would keep his sons from going to war with Hitler. The Ambassador’s eldest son, Joe Jr., agreed with his father, but younger brother Jack saw things differently. He admired Churchill, who at that time was doing his best to awaken his sleeping nation.
That admiration continued over the years, and in 1963 Mr. Kennedy oversaw the unique process of having Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill declared an honorary citizen of the United States. The only other foreigner ever so honored was the Marquis de LaFayette, who had helped George Washington during the American Revolution.
However, by the time of the White House ceremony on April 9, 1963, Mr. Churchill’s deteriorating health prevented his travel to America. Instead, he was represented by his son Randolph at the event that included numerous luminaries, including the three sons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, and Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who by that time was confined to a wheel chair by the devastating effects of a massive stroke.
Winston and Clementine watched the ceremony live on television at 28 Hyde Park Gate via satellite hookup, one more sign of how much the world had changed since Churchill’s Victorian childhood.
Late the next morning, there was a knock on their front door. The caller was David Bruce, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. He was there on official business.
“Mr. Ambassador, so kind of you to call on me today,” Churchill said as he greeted the diplomat.
“It is my pleasure, Mr. Churchill. I bring greetings from President and Mrs. Kennedy.”
A tear developed in Churchill’s eyes and he replied, “Mr. Bruce, please convey my deep appreciation to the President and his lovely and charming wife. I am honored by his greeting and your visit.”
Ambassador Bruce then presented Churchill with his official United States passport.
Several months later, and while still grieving the death of their own daughter, Diana (by her own hand), Winston and Clementine watched the same small television, via the same satellite hook up, as the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was told. Roy Howells observed the scene that sad night as the great man who had accomplished so much sat staring into the fire, clearly pondering the magnitude of Kennedy’s death.
Now Winston Churchill was dead and the long laid and frequently revised plan called Operation Hope Not was coming to life, as details of what was to transpire over the next few days were beginning to be made public.
The great man would lie in state in Westminster Hall from Wednesday through Friday. This 250-foot long hall adjoined the House of Commons, where Churchill spent his political career. When William Gladstone’s body laid in state there in 1898, more than a quarter of a million people walked by to pay respects. No one dared to try to estimate the number who would course by over the upcoming three days.
Saturday morning, the casket bearing Churchill’s body would be placed on a gun carriage for the journey to St. Paul’s Church, the site of the funeral service. Following the service, the body would be taken to a pier near the Tower of London. It would travel by barge to Festival Pier on the south side of the river, in view of the Houses of Parliament. From there the casket would be taken to Waterloo Station and loaded onto a special funeral train for the 70-mile journey to Churchill’s ancestral home—Blenheim Palace, where a burial would take place in a nearby church yard. Churchill would be joining his father and mother who were buried there decades before.
That was the basic plan. But the real drama would be in the details.
The entire initiative would involve a cast of thousands. In a sense, it would be a theater production writ large—very large. And overseeing all of it would be the Earl Marshall—a 56-year old man named Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, 16th Duke of Norfolk.
He was an old hand at big events, having overseen the coronations of George VI in 1936 and Elizabeth II in 1953. His role actually dated back to medieval times, serving as one of the seven Great Offices of State. And since ceremony was his main job—really his only job—he spent a lot of time waiting and preparing for ultimate moments, like an army general in peacetime. He loved cricket and had recently managed the English team in Australia, but he had been watching Churchill’s health over the past few years, not in a morbid way, but out of the very real desire to be ready to give the great man the send off he and the nation deserved.
The Earl Marshall had been the guardian of Operation Hope Not, the funeral plans for Churchill, from its inception. Now he was set to produce and direct an unprecedented and unparalleled event. He was also determined that his nation and its long held and practiced traditions, sometimes scorned and mocked in the modern age, would, through civility and ceremony, impress—even rebuke—those who embraced what he saw as degenerative cultural change. And since more than 100 nations would be sending delegations, including many actual heads of state, he knew that it would all be watched and analyzed by several hundred million people.
The eyes of the world would be on his masterpiece. More eyes than had simultaneously watched anything ever before.
[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]