Brendan Bracken: “Winston’s Faithful Chela”

Brendan Bracken: “Winston’s Faithful Chela”

Stan­ley Bald­win, show­ing an unex­pect­ed famil­iar­i­ty with Indi­an phras­es, described Bren­dan Brack­en as ‘Winston’s faith­ful chela,‘ wrote the biog­ra­ph­er Charles Lysaght. “This is what gave Brack­en his place in his­to­ry, a minor but still an impor­tant one.”

The Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project has pub­lished two arti­cles on Bren­dan Brack­en, Churchill’s loy­al ally and friend for four decades. The first begins with a mem­oir by the late Ron Rob­bins, a Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist who ear­ly on cov­ered the House of Com­mons, where he met Brack­en. The post­script is by me, fol­lowed by reviews of the two Brack­en books by George Gale and A.J.P. Tay­lor.  A sec­ond feature—Bracken’s defense of Churchill’s fre­quent vis­its to war fronts—is also published.

Excerpts fol­low. For the full arti­cles click on “Great Con­tem­po­raries:  Bren­dan Brack­en” and “Nec­es­sary Risk: Churchill at the Front.”

Bracken Observed

There was no more enig­mat­ic fig­ure in Churchill’s life than Bren­dan Brack­en, who cloaked his birth and upbring­ing with mys­tery while hint­ing broad­ly that he was the great man’s ille­git­i­mate son. Close friend­ship, not errant father­hood, encom­passed their rela­tion­ship. But Churchill, with char­ac­ter­is­tic imp­ish­ness, appar­ent­ly nev­er gave the direct lie to Bracken’s implied claim. This annoyed Churchill’s wife and peev­ed his son, Ran­dolph, who spoke satir­i­cal­ly of  “my broth­er, the bas­tard.” To quell the noi­some rumor Churchill quipped: “I have looked the mat­ter up, but the dates don’t coincide.”

By the time I encoun­tered him, he was a for­mi­da­ble fig­ure in cor­ri­dors of pow­er and Lon­don finan­cial cir­cles. The Labour Par­ty came to pow­er in July 1945. Bracken’s arch oppo­nent was the Min­is­ter of Health, Aneurin Bevan, a fiery Welsh­man. Bevan was steer­ing the Nation­al Health Bill, the first large-scale nation­al heath ser­vice, through morn­ing com­mit­tee meet­ings. I wrote “run­ning reports.” A copy boy would come in every five min­utes or so, col­lect what I had writ­ten, and phone it to the agency.

* * *

Brack­en would thrust at Bevan, jolt­ing him in a tough fight over every clause in the Bill. Brack­en always attacked in time to catch new edi­tions of the evening papers. This ensured him head­lines, espe­cial­ly in the Evening Stan­dard, owned by Lord Beaver­brook, an inti­mate friend of his and Churchill’s.

One morn­ing as I hur­ried to the com­mit­tee, Brack­en caught up with me and com­pli­ment­ed me on my cov­er­age. No jour­nal­ist worth his salt likes to feel exploit­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly by a politi­cian. So I said: “You have a great knack of talk­ing in head­lines just in time to catch every edi­tion.” He roared with laugh­ter and pro­duced a pock­et diary. He flaunt­ed a page on which he had writ­ten the edi­tion times of all the Lon­don papers. Smil­ing rue­ful­ly, I said: “I didn’t imag­ine that you were rely­ing sole­ly on chance.” “No,” he replied, “it’s a trick I learned ear­ly on from Churchill.”

Brack­en died of can­cer in 1958 at the age of 57. Churchill react­ed sor­row­ful­ly to the news of his death. Churchill mourned for him with a father’s grief. —Ron Cynewulf Robbins

Bracken postscript

We have a mem­o­rable glimpse of Bren­dan Brack­en on 11 May 1940, Churchill’s first full day in office. One of the first axes fell on Chamberlain’s toady Sir Horace Wil­son, a civ­il ser­vant pro­mot­ed far above his sta­tion. He was an arch appeas­er, both indi­rect­ly (as an advis­er) and direct­ly (as an emis­sary to Hitler).

With his usu­al cour­tesy, Churchill told Wil­son he would oblig­ed if Sir Horace left Ten Down­ing Street by 1pm. Wil­son char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly took this as a “nego­tiable demand” and tod­dled off to lunch. Return­ing, he found Brack­en and Ran­dolph Churchill seat­ed on his office sofa, smok­ing huge cig­ars and glar­ing at him. They exchanged no words. Wil­son turned and fled. Lat­er he sent for his effects. He nev­er appeared at Num­ber Ten again.

Dur­ing the war, Brack­en enabled Eve­lyn Waugh to obtain leave so that he could write Brideshead Revis­it­ed. Waugh unkind­ly wrote Brack­en into the sto­ry as Rex Motram, a boor­ish, mon­ey-grub­bing exploiter of the colonies. That was typ­i­cal of Waugh, but unde­served. As Lord Beaver­brook said: “To know Brack­en was to like him; those who didn’t know him did not like him.”

Bracken in biography

The Brack­en biogra­phies may be viewed in sim­i­lar light. (Click here and scroll to “Fur­ther read­ing.”) Boyle’s Poor Dear Bren­dan is the more showy and brash, Lysaght’s Bren­dan Brack­en the deep­er and more reveal­ing. “Above all,” wrote Charles Lysaght,

Brack­en was great fun. He found appro­pri­ate names for every­one. Bald­win was “the iron­mon­ger,” Neville Cham­ber­lain“the coro­ner.” Eden was “Robert Tay­lor,” or “the film star at the For­eign Office.” He described Har­row, Churchill’s old school, as “that bloody old Borstal of yours.” Only Churchill him­self was exempt from Bracken’s darts. His descrip­tion of Aneurin Bevan, enjoy­ing Beaverbrook’s cham­pagne, is of clas­sic qual­i­ty: “You Bollinger Bol­she­vik, you ritzy Robe­spierre, you lounge-lizard Lenin! Look at you swill­ing Max’s cham­pagne and call­ing your­self a social­ist.” Bevan lis­tened to this tirade with delight.

After the war Brack­en seemed to burn out like a fall­en mete­or, con­tem­plat­ing a future with, alas, all too accu­rate a vision. He said of Keynes: “He will be best remem­bered as the man who made infla­tion respectable.” He said of him­self: “I shall die young and be for­got­ten.” His­to­ry will not for­get him. —RML

Necessary risk: Bracken’s defense

Dur­ing World War II, Churchill’s fre­quent excur­sions to var­i­ous fronts caused crit­ics to com­plain that he was tak­ing unnec­es­sary risk. Crit­i­cism mount­ed when Churchill hied to France only six days after D-Day.  He revis­it­ed the front sev­er­al times through March 1945.

Cap­tain Alec Strat­ford Cun­ning­ham-Reid DFC (1895-1977) was a dis­tin­guished fly­ing ace in World War I. In 1922-45 he served peri­od­i­cal­ly as a Con­ser­v­a­tive Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. Pep­pery and con­tentious, he engaged in numer­ous argu­ments, which in 1943 result­ed in fisticuffs with anoth­er MP. Both apol­o­gized the next day, but in Amer­i­ca the Los Ange­les Times head­lined, “Eng­land Grins as Mem­bers of Com­mons Trade Punches.”

Churchill went to France in mid-June 1944. Cun­ning­ham-Reid com­plained: “The Prime Min­is­ter should not risk his life unnec­es­sar­i­ly…. Was there ever such a good tar­get as the one pre­sent­ed by our not incon­spic­u­ous Prime Min­is­ter perched up high on a Jeep? Nobody could have mis­tak­en or missed that mas­sive fig­ure, com­plete with cig­ar to iden­ti­fy him…. Sub­se­quent­ly, the Prime Min­is­ter, Gen­er­al Mont­gomery, Field-Mar­shal SmutsGen­er­al Sir Alan Brooke, and, in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, the Supreme Com­man­der [Eisen­how­er] and oth­er key men got into a hud­dle…. The Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion will, no doubt, cor­rect me if that is not so.”

* * *

The Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion was Bren­dan Brack­en, who did indeed respond. In a bril­liant few min­utes, Brack­en deliv­ered a superb defense of Churchill’s vis­its to the front. Because it has not been pub­lished, even in The Churchill Doc­u­ments, we thought it worth bring­ing to the atten­tion of read­ers. Here is an extract:

I think it is a good thing for prime min­is­ters that they should go into the front line and see the troops, and the sol­diers, who mat­ter most, like to see them. I dare­say some hon. Mem­bers of this House remem­ber that, in the last war, some sug­ges­tions were made by timid French Min­is­ters to M. Clemenceau that, owing to the Ger­mans hav­ing a big gun that shelled Paris, they should leave that city for a safer place. They dis­cov­ered for the first time that the old Tiger was amenable. He said, “Yes, let the Gov­ern­ment leave Paris. Let it go to the front.” It was a very sound piece of advice. If men like Clemenceau lived in this gen­er­a­tion, France would not be in its present predicament.

Click here for Bracken’s com­plete speech.

Churchill’s Secret“: good film por­tray­al of how Brack­en and two oth­er Press Barons dekat­ed the news about Churchill’s 1953 stroke.

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