Posts Tagged ‘Johnson’

Boris Johnson: The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 13th, 2014

What I mean is that Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. We rightly moan today about the deficiencies of the European Union – and yet we have forgotten about the sheer horror of that all too possible of possible worlds.

We need to remember it today, and we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe – from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East – we see traces of his shaping mind.

At several moments he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940.

Churchill was in the chair at that meeting. On one side was Neville Chamberlain, the high-collared, stiff-necked and toothbrush-moustached ex-Prime Minister, and the man Churchill had unceremoniously replaced. Rightly or wrongly, Chamberlain was blamed for fatally under-estimating the Hitler menace, and for the failure of appeasement. When the Nazis had bundled Britain out of Norway earlier that month, it was Chamberlain who took the rap.

Then there was Lord Halifax, the tall, cadaverous Foreign Secretary who had been born with a withered left hand that he concealed in a black glove; he had been Chamberlain’s choice of successor. There was Archibald Sinclair, the leader of the Liberal Party that Churchill had dumped. There were Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood – representatives of the Labour Party against which he had directed some of his most hysterical invective. There was the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, taking notes.

The question before the meeting was very simple, and one they had been chewing over for the last few days, as the news got blacker and blacker. No one exactly spelled it out, but everyone could see what it was. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation – let alone my children’s generation – are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal; how Britain could have discreetly, and rationally, called it quits in 1940. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only twenty-two years old – less distant in time from them than the first Gulf War is from us today.

There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point: the argument he had been making for the last few days.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. Contemporary accounts say he was by now showing signs of fatigue. He was sixty-five, and he was driving his staff and his generals to distraction by his habit of working on into the small hours – fuelled by brandy and liqueurs – ringing round Whitehall for papers and information, and actually convening meetings when most sane men were tucked up with their wives.

He was dressed in his strange Victorian/Edwardian garb, with his black waistcoat and gold watch chain and his spongebag trousers – like some burly and hungover butler from the set of Downton Abbey. They say he was pale, and pasty, and that seems believable. Let us add a cigar, and some ash on his lap, and a clenched jaw with a spot of drool.

He told Halifax to forget it. Britain was at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be invisibly raised over Britain, and the will to fight on would be gone.

So he said no to Halifax, and some may feel that ought to have been enough: the Prime Minister had spoken in a matter of national life or death; in another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the Prime Minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been Prime Minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But their voices could not be decisive. The Tories were by some way the largest party in Parliament. It was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and though he at one stage (rather splendidly) mistook the Führer for a footman, we must concede that he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. Both men loved fox-hunting, and Goering nicknamed him “Halalifax” – with emetic chumminess – because halali is a German hunting cry. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled – or at least conspicuously weevilled – with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Britain’s home-grown would-be duce, fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the 1930s your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communists’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been to Germany, and been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British Prime Minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had actually sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column, on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, G. B. Shaw – were lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had unsurprisingly hardened and grown much more widespread. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the Prime Minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7 p.m. He then convened the full cabinet of twenty-five, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as Prime Minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: ” I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7 p.m., the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

(Hodder & Stoughton, rrp £25) is available at £20 + £1.95 p&p from on 0844 871 1514 or at . Text © Boris Johnson 2014.

Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of The Churchill Factor) and are available from

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Boris Johnson: the woman who made Winston Churchill

October 12th, 2014

He would behave like a spoilt child; by the age of 14, he had already persuaded one of his schoolchums to take down his dictation while he reclined in the bath. As Churchill’s sister-in-law Lady Gwendoline “Goonie” Bertie put it, he had a tendency to “orientalism”, and was never so happy as when a servant was pulling on his socks.

He may have shown outstanding bravery when he went to the trenches, but his luxuries were astonishing. To the Front with Churchill went a private bathtub, large towels, a hot-water bottle, food boxes from Fortnum & Mason, large slabs of corned beef, Stilton cheeses, cream, ham, sardines, dried fruit, and a big steak pie, not to mention peach brandy and other liqueurs.

“You must remember,” his wife once told his doctor, “he knows nothing of the lives of ordinary people.” He never took a bus in his life, she said, and had only once been on the London Underground. He got lost, and had to be helped to find his way out.

He was also a tyrant with his staff. Churchill would not only keep them up all night while he dictated; he could get quite testy if they got things wrong. “Where were you educated?” he would shout. “Why don’t you read a book?”

What is worse than being a spoilt and irascible bully? How about the general charge that he didn’t really have real friends – only people he “used” for his own advancement? Or what about the charge of ratting on his friends – in many people’s eyes, the ultimate crime? When he made his famous escape from the Boer jail in Pretoria, there were two men who were meant to go with him, called Haldane and Brockie. The suggestion was that Churchill had welched on the agreement, and scooted off by himself.

A spoilt, bullying double-crosser: what else can we add? The final charge is that he was too self-interested, too wrapped up in himself to be properly human. Suppose you were a young woman ushered into a dinner party, and found yourself sitting next to the great man. The allegation was that he was really fascinated by only one subject, and that was himself. As Margot Asquith put it: “Winston, like all really self-centred people, ends up by boring people.” So that is the case for the prosecution, Your Honour.

Let’s now call the counsel for the defence – a role I am also happy, for the sake of argument, to play myself.

Take first the assertion that he was a bully. Yes, of course he pushed people hard, and it is certainly true that poor Alan Brooke, his military adviser, was driven more or less round the bend in the war – silently snapping pencils in an effort to control his feelings. But think of the stress that Churchill was under, co-ordinating a war that we showed no sign of winning.

Yet on the death of Violet Pearman, one of his most faithful and put-upon secretaries, he made sure that her daughter got money from his own pocket. He also sent money to the wife of his doctor, when she got into difficulties. And when a friend of his was injured in the Boer War, Churchill rolled up his sleeve and provided a skin graft himself – without anaesthetic.

Was this the action of a selfish tosser? “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults,” said Pamela Plowden. “You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.”

Let us turn now to the allegations of his luxury amid the squalor of the trenches. It is true that there was a certain amount of dudgeon when he arrived at his command in January 1916. Who was this politician? grumbled the Scots Fusiliers. Churchill began by launching a savage rhetorical attack on the louse, Pulex europaeus. He then organised for unused brewery vats to be brought to Moolenacker for a collective delousing – and it worked. Respect for Churchill climbed.

He reduced punishments. He dished out his luxuries to all who visited the mess. Read With Winston Churchill at the Front, published by “Captain X” (in reality, Andrew Dewar Gibb), who saw what happened with his own eyes.

If a man left that mess “without a large cigar lighting up his mollified countenance, that was because he was a non-smoker and through no fault of Col Churchill”. He did the same with the peach and apricot brandy. Yes, there was a bath – but plenty of other people used it.

Churchill got the troops singing music-hall songs. He urged them to laugh when they could. One young officer, Jock MacDavid, later recalled that, “After a very brief period, he had accelerated the morale of officers and men to an almost unbelievable degree. It was sheer personality.”

Did Churchill really “rat” on his friends? Regarding his conduct towards Haldane and Brockie, his two would-be fellow-escapees from the Pretorian jail, it is clear from all the diaries and letters that when it came down to it, on the night, they just wimped out. Churchill went into the latrine and jumped over the wall, and then waited for them for an hour and a half in the garden, risking detection. But they never came: he can’t be blamed for that!

Let us deal lastly with the general charge of selfishness: that he wasn’t much interested in other people, that he wasn’t much fun at parties – except when bragging about himself. Of course he was self-centred and narcissistic – a fact that he readily acknowledged. But that does not mean he had no interest in others.

Read his letters to his wife, Clementine, worrying about such things as whether the baby is going to lick the paint off the Noah’s Ark animals. Think of his kindness to his mother, who had actually cheated him of his £200,000 inheritance. Note his endless generosity towards his younger brother Jack, who lived with Churchill in Downing Street during the war.

All the evidence suggests that Churchill was warm-hearted to the point of downright sentimentality. He blubs at the drop of a hat. He weeps at the news that Londoners are queuing to buy birdseed to feed their canaries during the Blitz; he weeps when he tells an ecstatic House of Commons that he has been forced by fate to blow up the French navy. He was openly emotional in a class and society that was supposed to be all about the stiff upper lip.

He had what the Greeks called megalopsychia – greatness of soul. Churchill was not a practising Christian. He never believed in the more challenging metaphysics of the New Testament. His abiding interest was in glory and prestige – both for himself and for the “British Empire”. But he had a deep sense of what it was right and fitting for him to do.

That is why I am here at this graveyard in east London. The lady before and beneath me is Churchill’s nanny. “Erected to the memory of Elizabeth Ann Everest,” says the inscription, “who died on 3rd July 1895 aged 62 years, by Winston Spencer Churchill and John Spencer Churchill.” The story of how it came to be here is in some ways an awful one, but also a physical testimonial to the fundamental goodness of Churchill’s nature.

Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was a remote and glamorous figure, swishing in panther-like in her skintight riding gear to kiss him goodnight; otherwise not much involved. It was Mrs Everest, a largish and middle-aged woman from the Medway towns, who gave Churchill the unstinting love he craved.

“My nurse was my confidante,” said Churchill. “Mrs Everest it was who looked after me and tended all my wants. It was to her I poured out my many troubles.” He called her “Woom” or “Woomany”, and we have many lovely letters from her to him: urging him to take heroin for his toothache, to watch out for the east wind, not to try to get on moving trains, to avoid the hot weather, and debt, and bad company.

On one famous occasion, neither of his parents could be bothered to come to his Speech Day at Harrow; so Mrs Everest came, and Churchill walked around town with her, arm proudly in arm, while the other boys snickered. That showed moral courage; and more was to come.

When Churchill was 17 and Jack was 11, it was decided that the nanny was no longer needed; and though there were plenty of posh English families that retained their superannuated nannies, Churchill’s mother made no provision for Mrs Everest. She was to be out on her ear.

Churchill was incensed and protested. As a compromise, work was found for her at the London home of his grandmother, the Duchess. But two years later that job, too, came to an end. Again Churchill was angry that she was being treated in this way – dismissed by a letter! He accused his mother of being “cruel and mean”.

It was no good. Mrs Everest went to live in Crouch End, and Churchill helped to support her from his own relatively meagre income. She continued to write to him, and while he was at Sandhurst she sent him some encouragement. “Be a good Gentleman, upright, honest, just, kind and altogether lovely. My sweet old darling, how I do love you, be good for my sake.”

By 1895, Mrs Everest’s health was failing, and on July 2 he received a telegram saying that her condition was “critical”. He arrived at Crouch End, to find her only concern was for him: he had got wet on the way there. “The jacket had to be taken off and thoroughly dried before she was calm again.”

He found a doctor and a nurse, and then had to rush back to Aldershot for the morning parade – returning to north London as soon as the parade was over. She sank into a stupor and died at 2.15am, with Churchill by her.

It was Churchill who organised the funeral and the wreaths and the tombstone, and indeed it was Churchill who paid for them all, out of his own exiguous resources. He was only 20.

It is hard to know exactly how much the world owes Winston Churchill’s nanny. But if anyone taught him to be good and kind and by and large truthful, it was surely her.

Once, at the age of seven, he was walking with his nanny in the grounds of Blenheim. “We saw a snake crawling about in the grass,” he wrote to his father. “I wanted to kill it but Everest would not let me.”

She it was, I reckon, who helped him to that vast and generous moral sense.

‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515; Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of ‘The Churchill Factor’) and are available from

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Boris Johnson: ‘Churchill wrote to keep the black dog of depression at bay’

October 11th, 2014

They were his Nibelungen, his elves, the tinkling dwarves in the smithy of Hephaestus. Or, to compare them with their modern equivalent, they were Winston Churchill’s personal search engine – his Google. When they needed more books, they would pad down the corridor to the library, with its 60,000 mainly leather-bound volumes. When he needed some fact or text, he would summon them, and up they would go – only one at any time. They would go into the study, and there they would find him in the act of composition.

One of the many reasons for feeling overawed by Churchill is that he could not only discharge his duties as a minister of the Crown by day. He would then have a slap-up dinner, with champagne, wine and brandy. Only then, at 10pm, refreshed and very jovial, would he begin to dictate. Wreathed in tobacco and alcohol – and perhaps wearing his monogrammed slippers and the peculiar mauve velvet siren suit made for him by Turnbull?&?Asser – he would walk the wooden floorboards and growl out his massively excogitated sentences.

Typists would struggle to keep up, but on he jawed, even into the small hours of the night, licking and champing his unlit cigar. Sometimes he would take them with him into his tiny and austere bedroom, and then while they blushed and squeaked he would disrobe and submerge himself in his sunken Shanks bath and continue to prose on, while they sat on the floor and pitter-pattered away on the specially muffled keyboards that he preferred.

The sheaves of typewritten paper he would then correct and amend by hand – and we have innumerable examples of his cursive blue-inked marginalia – and the results would be typeset as they would appear on the page; and even that was not the end.

He would fiddle with the text. He would switch clauses around for emphasis, he would swap one epithet for another and, in general, he would take the utmost delight in the process of polishing his efforts; and then he would send the whole lot off to be typeset again.

Churchill’s desk, with items including his spectacles, a cast of his mother’s hand and a bust of Napoleon.

It was a fantastically expensive method of working, and yet it enabled Churchill to produce not just more words than Dickens, or more words than Shakespeare – but more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined. Go into so many respectable middle-class English homes, especially of the older generations, and you will see them there, bulking out the bookshelves next to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: The World Crisis; A History of the English-Speaking Peoples; The Second World War; Marlborough: His Life and Times, and many others – and then ask yourself which have actually been read.

There are some people, faced with this vast quantity of text, who may be tempted to dismiss or downplay the virtuosity of Churchill as a writer (a writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature, no less). Indeed, he has always had his detractors. Evelyn Waugh, that inveterate Churchill-basher, said he was a “master of sham-Augustan prose”, with “no specific literary talent but a gift of lucid self-expression”. After reading Churchill’s Life of his father Randolph, Waugh dismissed it as a “shifty barrister’s case, not a work of literature”.

Why did Evelyn Waugh sneer at Churchill’s writings? Is it that he was a bit jealous? I think so; and the reason was not just that Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was 25, but that he had made stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison.

By 1900 he had not only written five books – some of which had been bestsellers – but also had become just about the highest-paid journalist in Britain. For his Boer War coverage he was paid £250 per month – the equivalent of £10,000 a month today. He was commissioned to write the Life of his father in 1903, and given a staggering payment of £8,000. To give you the scale of those riches, consider that there were then only a million people in the country who had the privilege of paying income tax, and that was because they earned £160 per year.

These publishers didn’t pay him this kind of money because they liked his blue eyes. They paid him handsomely because he was popular with the public, and helped boost circulation, and the reason he was popular was that he wrote so well, with a rich and rollicking readability. He was a superb reporter. Try this account from the Morning Post of April 1900. We take up the story as Churchill and his fellow mounted scouts are trying to beat the Boers to secure a kopje, a rocky outcrop in the South African plain:

It was from the very beginning a race, and recognised as such by both sides. As we converged I saw the five leading Boers, better mounted than their comrades, outpacing the others in a desperate resolve to secure the coign of vantage. I said, “We cannot do it”; but no one would admit defeat or leave the matter undecided. The rest is exceedingly simple.

We arrived at a wire fence 100 yards – to be accurate 120 yards – from the crest of the kopje, dismounted, and, cutting the wire, were about to seize the precious rocks when – as I had seen them in the railway cutting at Frere, grim, hairy and terrible – the heads and shoulders of a dozen Boers appeared; and how many more must be close behind them?

There was a queer, almost inexplicable, pause, or perhaps there was no pause at all; but I seem to remember much happening. First the Boers – one fellow with a long, drooping, black beard, and a chocolate-coloured coat, another with a red scarf round his neck. Two scouts cutting the wire fence stupidly. One man taking aim across his horse, and McNeill’s voice, quite steady: “Too late; back to the other kopje. Gallop!”

Then the musketry crashed out, and the “swish” and “whirr” of the bullets filled the air. I put my foot in the stirrup. The horse, terrified at the firing, plunged wildly. I tried to spring into the saddle; it turned under the animal’s belly. He broke away, and galloped madly off. Most of the scouts were already 200 yards off. I was alone, dismounted, within the closest range, and a mile at least from cover of any kind.

One consolation I had – my pistol. I could not be hunted down unarmed in the open as I had been before. But a disabling wound was the brightest prospect. I turned, and, for the second time in this war, ran for my life on foot from the Boer marksmen, and I thought to myself, “Here at last I take it.” Suddenly, as I ran, I saw a scout. He came from the left, across my front; a tall man, with skull and crossbones badge, and on a pale horse. Death in Revelation, but life to me.

I shouted to him as he passed: “Give me a stirrup.” To my surprise he stopped at once. “Yes,” he said, shortly. I ran up to him, did not bungle in the business of mounting, and in a moment found myself behind him on the saddle […] Judging from the number of bullets I heard I did not expect to be hit after the first 500 yards were covered, for a galloping horse is a difficult target, and the Boers were breathless and excited. But it was with a feeling of relief that I turned the corner of the further kopje and found I had thrown double sixes again.

Churchill could do action reporting better than many of the greatest modern exponents, but he could do the meditative passages as well: the evils of Islamic fundamentalism; the horrors of war. Sometimes he was angry – and angry at his own side.

His description of the aftermath of Omdurman, where he made that famous charge, is one that lives in the eye and in the nostrils: the machine-gunned corpses lying three deep, men still living but already putrefying.

It has long been a theme of imperial writing – since the ancient Romans – to dwell tearfully on the sufferings of the subject peoples, and thereby to intensify the triumph of the conquering race. But Churchill takes it a stage further, actively bashing the British authorities and their bland assurances. “The statement that ‘the wounded dervishes received every delicacy and attention’ is so utterly devoid of truth that it passes into the realms of the ridiculous,” he wrote.

He publicly abuses Kitchener for his conduct of the war. He slates him for desecrating the tomb of the Mahdi, and for keeping his head as a trophy, allegedly in a tin of kerosene. Churchill’s criticism was justified, but it was outrageous and hubristic.

Kitchener was not some has-been; he was his Commander-in-Chief and would go on to command British forces in the First World War. Yet here he was – being rubbished by some jumped-up young officer in his own army. Churchill infuriated the generals because he was using his military status to get into the action – and then slagging them off. Thus he passed the first and most important test of a journalist. He put the reader first.

I say: stuff his snobbish detractors. When did Evelyn Waugh write a dispatch that was half as good as Churchill’s reports from Malakand or Sudan? The reason Churchill has lasted, and the reason his phrases are still on people’s lips, is that he could deploy so many styles: not just the pseudo-Gibbonian periods, but Anglo-Saxon pith.

Some chicken, some neck. Fight them on the beaches. Blood, toil, tears and sweat. Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

The phrases for which he is remembered are masterpieces of compression. He loved new words as much as he loved new machines. He was one of the great linguistic innovators of recent times. When world leaders meet to discuss a crisis they might have a “summit” at which they discuss the “Middle East” or possibly the risk that Russia will create a new “iron curtain”. All three are neologisms either invented or championed by Churchill. Sometimes he could be Gibbonian; sometimes he was more of a funky Gibbon; but he was always fertile, and he was fast.

Unlike any other young hussar, he could ensure that there was a long and gripping account of his bravery, because he would supply it. And like his father, he could use his facility with words to deal with a financial position that was almost always precarious.

The Churchills were not poor. That description would be absurd. But as ducal families go, they hadn’t much ready income – the fortune being more or less tied up in Blenheim. In spite of her long list of male admirers (her conquests have been reckoned to number 200, though Roy Jenkins thinks this number “suspiciously round”), his mother, Jennie, was not especially good at converting their attentions into cash; and at one stage Churchill was forced to take legal action against his mother to stop her squandering his – and his brother Jack’s – inheritance.

Sure, his income from writing was vast by the standards of the day. But his outgoings were epic.

The bill from his wine merchant alone was three times the earnings of a male manual worker of the time. He had to pay for the upkeep of Chartwell, whose comforts included a Neronian circular outdoor pool that he kept heated, all year round, to a temperature of 75 degrees – a feat that necessitated a coke-fuelled boiler on the same scale as that of the House of Commons.

Sometimes, he was driven to all kinds of hack work, just to pay the bills. At one stage the News of the World commissioned him to condense and rehash a series of classic novels, under the title Great Stories of the World Retold.

It was not, as he himself confessed, an “artistic” success. But what the hell: he was paid £333 per piece; or rather, he was paid £333, while his long-suffering secretary Eddie Marsh, who really did them, was paid £25. And then there were the awful depredations of the taxman – and here the scholarship of Peter Clarke has unearthed some spectacular manoeuvres.

As he was perfectly entitled to do, Churchill believed in keeping up the writing even when he was a minister of the Crown. He kept working on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, for instance, even when he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924. But he none the less decided (or some brilliant accountant decided) that for tax purposes he had ceased, at the moment of putting on his father’s Chancellor’s robes, to be an “author”, and that the huge payments he was receiving, totalling £20,000, should be classified not as income but as “capital gains”.

That had the preposterous result that he didn’t pay a penny of tax. Pol Roger all round!

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, he would often say, quoting Dr Johnson; but, of course, in his case that was far from true. He also wrote because his temperament demanded it.

His creative-depressive personality meant that writing (or painting, or bricklaying) was a way of keeping the “black dog” of depression at bay. He wrote for that sensation of release that comes with laying 200 bricks and writing 2,000 words a day.

Above all, he wrote his journalism, history and biography because for Winston Churchill writing was – to adapt Clausewitz on war – the continuation of politics by other means. These torrential literary efforts were his most potent weapons in his campaigns, whether against Indian independence or against complacency about Hitler.

By the time he came into Downing Street in May 1940, he had written and read so much history as to have a unique understanding of events, to see them in context, and to see what England must do.

There are two final ways in which his literary exertions made Churchill the only man for 1940. There is something orchestral about Churchill’s ability to deploy and coordinate his material: switching from Holland to Paris to London and to the Seven Seas. He knew instinctively which subject needed attention and when, while driving the central narrative along. Which was more or less how he ran the war.

Finally, let us go back to that figure in the study in Chartwell, pacing up and down and dictating to Mrs Pearman or Eddie Marsh. It takes prodigious mental effort to assemble the right words in your head, and then ensure that they are loaded on to the conveyor belt of the tongue so as to emerge in an order fit for printing.

Surely it was that endlessly repeated oral discipline which improved him not just as a writer but as a speaker. We may not read enough of his books today, but his speeches galvanised the nation.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (Hodder & Stoughton, rrp £25) is available at £20 + £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books on 0844 871 1514 or at Text © Boris Johnson 2014.

Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of The Churchill Factor) and are available from

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George ‘Johnny’ Johnson remembers the Dambusters mission, 1943

May 9th, 2014

My crew and I were with the 97 Squadron before we moved over to the new 617 Squadron for a special mission in March 1943. In the front row are me, the bomb aimer; Len Eaton, wireless operator; Joe McCarthy, pilot; Ron Batson, front gunner; and behind us are Dave Rodger, rear gunner; Don MacLean, navigator; and Bill Ratcliffe, flight engineer. Joe was the big man and I thought of him as an older brother. We had a friendship that was beyond that of pilot and bomb aimer, and when we first met we just seemed to gel.

We had no idea what we were training for until the day of the briefing. I was young enough and stupid enough to not think too much about it. The general conjecture had been that it would be against the German battleship Tirpitz, but the next day, May 16 1943, we discovered how wrong we were when we went to the briefing with Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and the inventor of the bouncing bomb, Barnes Wallis. That was the first indication we had of what the target was going to be – three dams within Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

It is difficult to say what the mood was when we found out. At that stage, most people were concerned with their own crew, because the crew were a family, always. But I do know there were one or two who had a nasty feeling they weren’t going to come back.

Gibson was a strict disciplinarian and his big problem was that he could not bring himself down to lower ranks. He had no verbal connection with the air crew except to tell them off when something went wrong. But the true essence of the man as a leader was portrayed in the actual raid, where he made the first attack on the Möhne. We knew it was the only dam that was defended. As he called each aircraft in, he flew alongside them to attract some of the defence. He said, ‘You’re doing this, I’m doing this, we’re doing this together.’ That to me is the essence of good leadership.

The scale of the raid didn’t hit most of us until we saw the outcome and the number of crews we’d lost – we lost eight of our 16 attacking planes that night and only three of the aircrew from the downed Lancasters survived. We lost 53 crew in total. It was pretty devastating.

I’ve talked to school children about the raid and I can see the interest in their eyes. That makes it for me. It’s a relief to know that they’re teaching Second World War history in junior schools. There’s been an increase in the interest over the last three or four years, and I enjoy it.

The Last British Dambuster by George ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Ebury Press, £17.99) is out now

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