Churchill Remembered on the Hillsdale College Cruise (2): Scotland, 1939

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

Yorkshire ScotlandThe 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege Cruise around Britain offers 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, and­his 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

Scotland
Prien’s route through nar­row Kirk Sound wrig­gled past sunken block­ships, allow­ing him to loose his tor­pe­dos.

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 1984His 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

 

Scotland
Scapa Flow, Scot­land, with the Churchill Bar­ri­ers, 2009. (Robinson3048, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Con­tin­ued in Part 3…

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