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.
Years 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]