The Official Site of Best-Selling Author DAVID R. STOKES


The historian part of my brain is increasingly intrigued by moments in time when a dog did not bark. Of course, this is reference to a famous Sherlock Holmes story called, “Silver Blaze,” and how the fictional detective made a deduction based on the fact that a dog that should have barked at a stranger, did not. This told Holmes that the culprit was someone familiar to the dog.

So as a writer, I’ve wondered why certain people didn’t do the obvious thing. From there, my imagination takes charge. The book I’m currently working on—“The Churchill Plot”—is a great case in point. [READ MORE]

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In 1916, the late poet Robert Frost penned the famous lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

His metaphor has endured as testament to the importance of making choices based on factors other than superficiality and popularity.

President Kennedy and Robert Frost

President Kennedy and Robert Frost

Shortly after Frost’s death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where Frost had taught for many years, to deliver a eulogy about the famous wordsmith he had invited to participate in his inauguration. That day, Kennedy shared a line that, like the description of those fabled two roads, has since morphed into something beyond its original intent and focus. In my opinion, it was one of the best things Kennedy ever said:

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline. The two are intertwined. Thankfulness and remembrance are flip sides of the same precious cultural coin. On this Memorial Day, 70 years after the end of the war in Europe, we must reject the defeatism and cynicism so characteristic of our times and look back at heroes proved, and up at Almighty God in gratitude for them.

If the idea of gratitude toward God is off-putting to anyone—or seems somehow inappropriate, I would simply note how a famously liberal Democratic President approached matters on national radio seventy years ago. Roosevelt became America’s pastor for a moment and prayed:

“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith…”

He added: “And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.”

And he ended with: “Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”

Elisha “Ray” Nance, who died a few years ago, was well known around Bedford, Virginia, a picturesque town located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Peaks of Otter, where for years he delivered the mail on nearby rural routes. But it was for what he did before becoming a letter carrier that he is best remembered.

Ray was one of “The Bedford Boys.”

X-_Bedford_Boys-5He was the last of his town’s contingent in Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry – a group that waded ashore seven decades ago on a beach nicknamed Omaha in a far away place called Normandy in France. And of the thirty soldiers from Bedford (population then, about 3,200), he was one of only eight from his hometown who lived to tell the story.

Ray lost twenty-two Bedford buddies that day, nineteen of them in the very first moments of the battle. By the time he made it to the beach in the last of his company’s landing crafts, he saw “a pall of dust and smoke.” He could barely see “the church steeple we were supposed to guide on.” He couldn’t see anyone in front, or behind him—only that he “was alone in France.”

Mr. Nance was a hero “proved through liberating strife.”

On the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan captured the attention of history and honored some of the other “Boys” who did so much for all of us on June 6, 1944. He called them “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc,” and many of them were in his cliff-top audience in Normandy that day in 1984.

President Ronald Reagan salutes during a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-day, the invasion of Europe.

President Ronald Reagan salutes during a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-day, the invasion of Europe.

If you wanted to pick a more unlikely place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles west of Omaha Beach. More than a decade ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Normandy region for a speaking engagement. I stood on the spot where the Great Communicator spoke and tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day. Mr. Reagan honored those men there:

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of canon. Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe Du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

The boys of Bedford are now all gone. And noble ranks of the boys of Pointe Du Hoc have been thinned out by the course of time as well. Other heroes have taken their place and are equally worthy of our gratitude and honor.

Kennedy was right—how we remember heroes of the past, and how we treat heroes in our day, reveals the heart and character of our nation.

Reagan was right, too: “Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”  Amen.


THE OLD YANKEE STADIUM in the Bronx, located at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, was much more than a baseball park; it was America’s premier outdoor arena. If we were to pick a place that has been to us what the Coliseum was to Rome in days of glory, most would nominate Yankee Stadium, whether they liked the Yankees or not.

When it comes to sports, the stadium was not just a place for home runs, it was also the field of battle for gladiators of the gridiron and other team sports.

And, of course, there was the boxing.

Louis-schmeling-1938It’s been more than a generation since a championship fight was held at Yankee Stadium (Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in September 1976), and they were becoming rare events for the venue even then. But during the sweet science’s heyday in the 1920s-1950s, the stadium ring planted over second base was the scene of many epic battles.

Sugar Ray Robinson, often referred to as the greatest “pound for pound” boxer of all time, had already won welterweight and middleweight titles. On a dreadfully hot night in June 1952, he tried to win the light-heavyweight crown against champion Joey Maxim. And he was clearly winning when he succumbed to heat exhaustion in the fourteenth round. He did, though, last longer than the referee, who had been carried out two rounds earlier.

Jack Dempsey, on the comeback trail seeking a rematch with Gene Tunney, fought at Yankee Stadium in 1927. Tunney fought there, too. In fact, there were 30 championship fights held on that field.

Calling something the best, or most significant, is always subjective and therefore risky. But I think I’m right when I suggest that Yankee Stadium’s greatest moment did not involve Babe Ruth or even Reggie Jackson. It wasn’t even a baseball game.

It was the fight of the century.

The 20th century.

Long before even the parents of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were born, two boxers climbed into the famous stadium’s ring on June 22, 1938 and squared off in the most historic boxing match of all time.  Max Schmeling and Joe Louis had fought in the same ring two years before, and the former world heavyweight champion from Germany had somehow, some way, found a flaw in Louis’ style.

The Brown Bomber from Detroit (the Yankees would soon be called “Bronx Bombers” as a take off on Louis’ nickname), as he was called, had been well on his way to pugilistic immortality, easily dispatching opponents—even former champions – hardly breaking a sweat. He seemed to be invincible. But the first fight with Max ended with Joe on the canvas in the twelfth round trying to remember who and where he was.

It was the 1930s and the world was becoming a very ominous and confusing place. Hitler’s Nazi-Germany was on the move, and the dictator was beginning to look invincible himself.

Schmeling, as a German, was blocked from fighting James J. Braddock for the title, even though he was clearly the number one contender. It fell to Louis to fight the Cinderella Man in 1937. Braddock was defending his title for the first time. Louis went down in round one of that fight – only to come back strong and knock Braddock out in the eighth.

Yet, though he was the champion in name, Louis knew that he wouldn’t be able to think of himself that way until he could settle his score with Mr. Schmeling. Most fight fans felt the same way.

In ancient times there was something called representative warfare, where one man from an army would do battle with an opponent sent by the enemy, and the larger conflict would be decided by this “one on one” ordeal.  The Philistine giant, Goliath, who taunted the ancient Israelites, proposed this kind of settlement to the issues of his day. Then he met a boy named David.

In 1938, as the world was becoming increasingly polarized in the face of impending war and as it was becoming clear to all people of freedom and good will that the Nazis were evil, the situation was ripe for a representative battle of sorts. And the rematch of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fit the bill.

51sD86yfPZL._SY300_So, on that night in 1938, veteran referee Arthur Donovan gave his ring instructions to two determined boxers as nearly 70,000 Yankee Stadium spectators looked on. More than 100 million radio listeners tuned in from around the world. This was the largest broadcast audience ever up to that time and included just about half of the American public. That morning, the New York Journal-American had a large cartoon in the paper, one that showed a stadium and two figures in a boxing ring.  Hovering above the ring was the image of an immense globe bearing the face of a man. He was looking down on the scene on behalf of all humanity.

Yes, it was that big of a deal that night.

Author David Margolick, in his definitive account of that evening entitled Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink, wrote: “The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing on his shoulders more than any athlete ever had. One didn’t need to be an anthropologist to know there had never been anything like it, or a soothsayer to know there would never be anything like it again. If Louis won, no rivalry on the horizon could possibly generate as much excitement. And with Europe and, inevitably, America, on the brink of war, the world would soon enough have more than prizefights on its mind.”

If you ever get a chance to see a film of the fight that night, try to find the audio of the radio broadcast by NBC’s Clem McCarthy as well. His gravelly voiced blow-by-blow description turns the ear into an eye. Joe Louis was ready this time – he knew what he was fighting for, and he didn’t want to waste any time.

Seven seconds into the bout, Joe Louis snapped the head of his opponent back with a left-jab, then another, and another. Later opponents would suggest that Louis’ jab wasn’t a Muhammad Ali-type flick but more like putting a light bulb against your face, then breaking it. Thirteen seconds later he had Schmeling on the ropes. McCarthy could hardly keep up: “And Louis hooks a left to Max’s head quickly! And shoots over a hard right to Max’s head! Louis, a left to Max’s jaw!  A right to his head! Louis with the old one-two! First the left and then the right! He’s landed more blows in this one round than he landed in any five rounds of the other fight!”

You get the picture.

In two minutes and four seconds it was over. But no one felt cheated. There were no catcalls that might usually accompany a lop-sided battle. Referee Arthur Donovan later said: “A referee lives a lifetime in two minutes like that.” 

So does a nation.

The rest is history. The defeat of the German in the ring didn’t slow the world’s long slide into war – nor could it have. Louis went on to fight again and again and again, defending his title successfully fifteen more times before December 7, 1941. Schmeling went home in disgrace. Nazis didn’t like it when someone from their master race got beaten up by a black man.

A few months after the fight, on November 9, 1938, as Nazis terrorized Jewish businesses and houses of worship during Kristallnacht, Max Schmeling sheltered two Jewish young people in his hotel suite in Berlin.

Joe Louis served his country in uniform during the war and emerged after to continue his career, though the clock was running out on his days of glory. He died in 1981. His former foe helped pay the cost of Joe’s funeral. Max Schmeling, who lived to be just seven months shy of a hundred years old, died in 2005.

Their brief, but explosive meeting in June 1938 at Yankee Stadium captured the attention of the world and the imagination of our nation. — DRS






SEVERAL YEARS AGO, David Cornwell (better known by his nom de plume John Le Carré) told an interviewer that “espionage was not really something exclusive and clandestine. It was actually the currency of the Cold War. Spies were the poor bloody infantry of the Cold War.”

They still are, though these days we are in a different war and battling another pernicious ideology. I have read Cold War spy novels for years and even written a couple of my own. They make for entertaining reading, but the more we learn about the nuts and bolts of what actually went on back then, the better we come to understand that truth is, in many ways, even more dramatic than fiction.

kuklin-smConsider the case of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski. He was a Polish patriot who may have saved his nation, the whole continent of Europe, and maybe even the world, from massive suffering at the hands of a Soviet war machine which was once poised to race from behind Warsaw Pact borders to the Atlantic Ocean.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium at Langley on the life and work of this remarkable, unsung hero who risked life, limb, and loved ones to pass along vital information at a crucial moment during the Cold War.  Under the watchful eye of then DCIA General Michael V. Hayden, and as part of a very real social contract with this country, voluminous declassified materials were being made available to researchers and the public at large. General Hayden was a history major back in college days and this passion clearly informed his directorate.

That particular historical symposium corresponded with the release of materials relating to Rsyzard Kuklinski and his work on our behalf, as well as that of his beloved Poland. In fact, Kuklinski (who died in 2004) did not see himself as working for “us” – rather he consciously recruited America, via the CIA, to work on behalf of Polish freedom during a dark and difficult time.

In August 1972, Kuklinski sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, establishing contact with our intelligence operatives.  Signing it “P.V.” (Kuklinski later said this stood for “Polish Viking”), this singular act began a relationship that would bear the fruit in the form of thousands of vital documents and much crucial information helping us to understand Soviet doctrine and intent.

The definitive account of the Polish spy’s fascinating story was written in a book by Benjamin Weiser, a reporter for the New York Times, titled, A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country.

SecretLifeWesier described Rsyzard Kuklinski at the time of his espionage work as “a small man with tousled hair, penetrating blue eyes and the gestures and mannerisms of a man within whom an unbounded supply of energy is bottled up.”  He focused that energy on doing everything he could to prevent his country from being sacrificed during the Cold War as it had been in so many ways during the Second World War.

Kuklinski was motivated by patriotic fear.

His role as a high-ranking staff officer made him privy to information about what a major Soviet offensive in Europe would look like.  Though always framed via lip service as defensive in nature, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact war plans, in fact, were entirely designed to be offensive operations.

The salient point, as far as Kuklinski was concerned, had to do with the so-called Second Strategic Echelon – a massive potential Soviet offensive involving roughly two million soldiers and at least a million armored vehicles.  Rsyzard, and others in a place to know about these plans, discerned accurately the only real response NATO’s forces would have to counter such a massive Soviet mobilization would be nuclear. And those bombs would not fall drop in Moscow or Western Europe; they would obliterate Poland, the perpetual twentieth century European pawn.

In fact, the materials passed to us by this highly effective Cold War spy enabled the United States and NATO to effectively plan for such a scenario.  And the other guys never knew we had the information. But even beyond the role he played for us strategically, Kuklinski also became our eyes and ears during those turbulent months in 1980 as the world watched Solidarity, a fledgling political movement led by Lech Walesa, begin to achieve political traction in Poland.  The world also wondered if and when the Soviets (with the complicity of their puppets regime in Warsaw) would intervene as they had in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968).

It seemed like only a matter of time.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was uniquely positioned in those days to report what was happening, enabling America, in the waning days of the Carter presidency, to effectively warn the Soviets off.  At one point, he sent a sixteen-page letter to the CIA describing high-level meetings, during which the Polish government discussed the possibility off a Soviet invasion of their country.

It became clear in 1981 that the Polish government led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was preparing to declare martial law in the land, Kuklinski kept us informed in great detail.  Kuklinski despised Jaruzelski, writing in one covert dispatch that the strongman was “unworthy of the name Pole.”

In a dramatic moment on November 2, 1981, Rsyzard Kuklinski was summoned to a meeting in the office of one of his bosses. Six men sat at a T-shaped table and learned that there was a “mole” among them – someone had been leaking information to the Americans.   Somehow managing to keep his composure, Kuklinski joined the chorus of voices in the room denouncing such an act of “treason.”

But he knew his days were numbered and soon found a way to communicate this message to his handlers: “I urgently request instructions for evacuating from the country myself and my family.  Please take into consideration that the state border is possibly already closed for me and my family.” For several days, CIA personnel in Warsaw tried to carry out a plan to evacuate Rsyzard, his wife, and their two sons.

Eventually they were spirited away for the long drive to Berlin.

At a reception following that symposium I was attending a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak one on one with the driver of that car during a reception.

We stood just a few feet from the iconic CIA floor seal in Langley’s lobby.  He told me that they had managed to get through three checkpoints en route and that he still got chills when thinking about that perilous trip.

Life in America was no picnic for this Cold War hero and his family.  They had to live under an assumed identity and avoid outside relationships, particularly with Polish-Americans, for years.  The two Kuklinski sons met with untimely accidental deaths less than a year apart, breaking the hearts of Mom and Dad.

Questions were raised about the nature of the deaths – one in a boating accident (the body never found) and the other on a college campus, felled by a hit-and-run driver. But no evidence (beyond the circumstantial) was ever discovered pointing to anything conspiratorial or sinister.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was tried in absentia in 1984 in Poland, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death.  After the Cold War ended, his sentence was commuted to 25 years (which hurt Kuklinski deeply). In 1995, the chief justice of the Polish Supreme Court annulled his sentence. All charges against him were revoked in September of 1997, enabling him to return to Poland a free man.

In April-May 1998, Rsyzard Kuklinski made an eleven-day tour of several Polish cities. He was greeted by some as a hero on a level with Pope John Paul II.  Others, however, protested that he was—and would remain—a traitor.

Lech Walesa, for all his good work in the cause of freedom, never completely accepted Kuklinski’s account of things – even suggesting publicly that Rsyzard was a “double-agent” working for the Soviets as well as the Americans. No such evidence exists. In fact, as new information comes out, the argument that Kuklinski was a Polish patriot and one of the good guys gets stronger.  But Walesa’s remarks highlight the tension that occurs when “state” becomes synonymous with “country.”

Frankly, Rsyzard Kuklinski’s work – his willingness to risk it all for what he believed was right – left the world a better place.  The Soviet Union eventually fell apart and freedom broke out in his beloved Poland.  Neither would have happened had Warsaw Pact nations acted on clearly defined plans for continental – even global – hegemony.

When Kuklinski died in February 2004, then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said: “This passionate and courageous man helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot, providing the CIA with precious information upon which so many critical national security decisions rested.  And he did so for the noblest of reasons – to advance the sacred causes of liberty and peace in his homeland and throughout the world.”

Long before that statement by Tenet, Rsyzard Kuklinski had reflected, “I am pleased that our long, hard struggle has brought peace, freedom, and democracy not only to my country but to many other people as well.”

So are we.

[Check out David’s spy novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN: The Spy Who Betrayed Kennedy — now in development as a major motion picture starring BLAIR UNDERWOOD]


Blair Underwood is heading to Camelot.

buheadshot2010_a_pThe actor’s production company, Intrepid Pictures, has acquired the rights to David R. Stokes‘ spy novel Camelot’s Cousin: The Spy Who Betrayed Kennedy. Intrepid will partner with Little Studio Films to adapt the thriller into a film with Underwood in the lead role.

Set amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, Camelot’s Cousin centers on the discovery of a long-lost journal that indicates one of President John F. Kennedy‘s closest friends was a Soviet spy. In the present day, scholar and media personality Templeton Davis (Underwood) decides to investigate the journal’s contents, which draw him into a decades-old international conspiracy…


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]

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]

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