Churchill Remembered on the Hillsdale College Cruise (2): Scotland, 1939
“It was like the others a lovely day….On every side rose the purple hills of Scotland in all their splendour…. I felt oddly oppressed with my memories…. No one had ever been over the same terrible course twice with such an interval between. No one had felt its dangers and responsibilities from the summit as I had, or, to descend to a small point, understood how First Lords of the Admiralty are treated when great ships are sunk and things go wrong.”
Northern Britain: Churchill Connections, June 4th to 7th
The 2019 Hillsdale College Cruise around Britain offered a unique opportunity to recall the Churchill saga by passing or visiting key places, starting with English Channel and North Sea venues from Southampton to Yorkshire to Edinburgh and the north of Scotland. Such places shaped and affected Churchill’s thought and engaged his pen. Continued from Part 1….
Herein we highlight Scapa Flow and Loch Ewe, where Churchill—First Lord again, twenty-five years later—visited the Grand Fleet in 1939.
Scotland and the Hebrides (June 4th)
From Edinburgh we sail past Dundee, Churchill’s constituency for most of his years as a Liberal MP (1908-22). Next, Invergordon, a naval base, and his preferred site for the July 1945 “Big Three” meeting with Stalin and Truman. (The chosen site was Potsdam, outside Berlin.) In the far north we pass between the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Scapa Flow, Orkney, was one the World War II fleet anchorages in Scotland. Churchill visited both Scapa and Loch Ewe in mid-September, 1939.
U-47 sinks HMS Royal Oak
A month after Churchill’s visit, Lt. Günther Prien, commanding the German U-47, crept into Scapa and sank HMS Royal Oak. Prien also managed to escape—through a narrow channel cluttered with block ships. It was a brilliant piece of seamanship. The channels were quickly filled with stone blocks, known as the “Churchill Barriers.” Today they serve as motor causeways.
Hosting a Churchill tour in the 1990s, we were accompanied by the late Lord Jellicoe, son of the World War I naval commander. “George” to one and all, he made possible a unique experience. The Orkney pilot boat took us out to the wreck site. On color sonar, we could see the sunken battleship’s outline on the bottom. Like USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Royal Oak is a designated war grave. Every year, Royal Navy divers mount a new White Ensign on her stern.
Glasgow-Greenock (June 5th)
On his 1939 visit, Churchill sailed on HMS Nelson from Scapa Flow to Loch Ewe in the Hebrides. There he inspected the rest of the battle fleet before motoring to Inverness and a train back to London. Our sea route takes us through the Hebrides, passing the Isle of Jura. Churchill never visited this beautiful, barren isle, home to only a few hundred people and much larger numbers of red deer. (And a fine scotch distillery!) Unknown to him, George Orwell would rent a cottage on the northern tip of Jura, where he wrote 1984. His chilling novel of a future totalitarian world claimed Churchill’s close attention. He read it at least twice.
Greenock, near Glasgow, was the main port for Churchill’s wartime transatlantic voyages, 1941-44. The Scottish historian Gordon Barclay has exploded another myth about sending tanks against strikers. Read his piece on the so-called “Battle of George Square.” We look forward to lunching with Dr. Barclay in Edinburgh.
Belfast (June 6th)
Churchill and Ireland intertwined for forty years. In Belfast in 1886, his father, defying Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule bill took the part of unionist Ulster. “Ulster will fight,” Lord Randolph Churchill exclaimed, “and Ulster will be right,” In this same unionist stronghold in 1911, his son Winston defended the Third Home Rule Bill, promising Ulster freedom of choice. Mobs stormed and rocked his car, pelted him with missiles—without scoring a hit!
The numerous myths surrounding Churchill and Ireland are part of one of my onboard lectures. One of these involves Belfast, but not Home Rule. Visitors to the city may take the Titanic Trail, to the birthplace of the ill-fated liner, which Churchill’s negligence is supposed to have sunk. We shall take care of that one at sea. No icebergs are in sight.
Remembering Scotland, 1939:
I felt it my duty to visit Scapa at the earliest moment…. I stayed with the Commander-in-Chief in his flagship, Nelson, and discussed not only Scapa but the whole naval problem with him and his principal officers…. The rest of the Fleet was hiding in Loch Ewe and the Admiral took me there on the Nelson…. It was like the others a lovely day…. On every side rose the purple hills of Scotland in all their splendour.
My thoughts went back a quarter of a century to that other September when I had last visited Sir John Jellicoe and his captains in this very bay, and had found them with their long lines of battleships and cruisers drawn out at anchor, a prey to the same uncertainties as now afflicted us…. An entirely different generation filled the uniforms and the posts….
“No one had been over the same terrible course twice…”
It seemed that I was all that survived in the same position I had held so long ago. But no; the dangers had survived too. Danger from beneath the waves, more serious with more powerful U-boats; danger from the air, not merely of being spotted in your hiding-place, but of heavy and perhaps destructive attack!
I motored from Loch Ewe to Inverness, where our train awaited us. We had a picnic lunch on the way by a stream, sparkling in hot sunshine. I felt oddly oppressed with my memories. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
* * *
No one had ever been over the same terrible course twice with such an interval between. No one had felt its dangers and responsibilities from the summit as I had, or, to descend to a small point, understood how First Lords of the Admiralty are treated when great ships are sunk and things go wrong.
If we were in fact going over the same cycle a second time, should I have once again to endure the pangs of dismissal? Fisher, Wilson, Battenberg, Jellicoe, Beatty, Pakenham, Sturdee, all gone!
I feel like one
Who treads alone,
Some banquet-hall deserted
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed.
And what of the supreme, measureless ordeal in which we were again irrevocably plunged? Poland in its agony; France but a pale reflection of her former warlike ardour; the Russian Colossus no longer an ally, not even neutral, possibly to become a foe. Italy no friend. Japan no ally. Would America ever come in again? The British Empire remained intact and gloriously united, but ill-prepared, unready. We still had command of the sea. We were woefully outmatched in numbers in this new mortal weapon of the air. Somehow the light faded out of the landscape.” —WSC, 1948
Continued in Part 3…