Churchill Clairvoyant, 1891: Confidence or Realism?
Q: Confidence in 1940
I am a psychologist writing a manuscript on the biological basis of self-confidence. When Churchill became prime minister, few were as optimistic as he that victory could be won. I would like to verify something he said that illustrates both his confidence and clairvoyance. He mentions this in The Gathering Storm movie, to Ralph Wigram. He tells Wigram of a youthful conversation with a schoolmate. One day, he predicted, Britain would be in great danger, and it would fall to him to save London. —B.J.S
A: Public confidence, private doubts
Privately the Churchill of 1940 was not so confident as his speeches proclaimed. Just after he kissed hands and accepted the King’s commission, he said to his bodyguard, Walter Thompson: “I hope I’m not too late.” (He also purportedly said something like that to his cat!) Later he confided to Roosevelt that the Germans might invade and install a puppet government. He assured FDR that no such government would be run by him. But he suggested they might install the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley “or some such person.”
As France was falling in May-June 1940, Churchill adamantly opposed an armistice with Germany. But Neville Chamberlain’s diary for the end of May records him as saying that “if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he would jump at the chance.” Historians have generally concluded that he was throwing a bone to his foreign minister. Lord Halifax was arguing for an approach to Hitler through Mussolini’s “good offices.” (The mind boggles—but the thought was shared by others beside Halifax at that grim time.)
To Murland Evans, 1891
Nevertheless, the screenplay in The Gathering Storm about foreseeing the future has its origins in fact. It came at Harrow School when Churchill was 17 years old, as quoted in Sir Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill, page 215. Sir Martin had the story from Churchill’s Harrow schoolmate, Sir Murland Evans. It was 1891, Evans recalled: A summer’s evening “in one of those dreadful basement rooms in the Head Master’s House, a Sunday, to be exact, after chapel evensong. We frankly discussed our futures. After placing me in the Diplomatic Service…or alternatively in finance, following my father’s career, we came to his own future. ‘Will you go into the army?’ I asked….
“I don’t know, it is probable, but I shall have great adventures beginning soon after I leave here.”
“Are you going into politics? Following your famous father?”
“I don’t know, but it is more than likely because, you see, I am not afraid to speak in public.”
“You do not seem at all clear about your intentions or desires.”
“That may be, but I have a wonderful idea of where I shall be eventually. I have dreams about it.”
“Where is that?” I enquired.
“I see into the future…”
“Well, I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London.”
“How can you talk like that?” I said. “We are for ever safe from invasion, since the days of Napoleon.”
“I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but [warming up to his subject] I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.”
“Will you be a general then, in command of the troops?”
“I don’t know; dreams of the future are blurred, but the main objective is clear. I repeat—London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.”
Sir Martin Gilbert…
…told me it was one of those experiences a historian receives rarely. “It was a stunner,” he recalled with feeling. An expression of confidence? Certainly. A fluke? Perhaps. It ranks with Sir Winston predicting he would die on January 24th—12 years before it happened. He had a way of seeing ahead. To Murland Evans, he saw half a century ahead.
Review of The Gathering Storm starring Albert Finney as WSC.