The success of the movie Darkest Hour has prompted many to look up other film and video presentations of the Churchill saga. One of these is the 2005 series on Walter Thompson, Churchill’s Bodyguard, which a colleague tells me is a useful documentary. It is. All thirteen episodes are on YouTube. I watched several without complaint—rare for me.
Walter Henry Thompson
…was Winston Churchill’s protection officer and detective, on and off between 1921 and 1945. They had many adventures together, and Thompson wrote four books about his experiences. The first, Guard from the Yard (1938, now very rare) involved Churchill and others whom Thompson protected.
After World War II, Thompson published I Was Churchill’s Shadow (1951), Sixty Minutes with Winston Churchill (1953), and Assignment: Churchill (1956). He promoted them enthusiastically, with many book signings. As a Churchill bookseller, I used to describe a pristine copy of Sixty Minutes as “the rare unsigned edition.”
In 2005, Sixty Minutes was recently republished as Beside the Bulldog. Simultaneously there appeared Churchill’s Bodyguard: The Authorised Biography, which intersperses some new material with a large number of factual errors. The earlier works are pure Thompson and therefore worth seeking out.
Thompson’s first Churchill assignment was the statesman’s Cairo Conference of 1921. Around the same time he was seconded to Churchill during negotiation of the Irish Treaty. When Churchill set out on a North American lecture tour in December 1931, Thompson was again assigned. The detective was resting after twenty-six-hours’ duty on December 13th, when Churchill was struck and nearly killed by a car on Fifth Avenue. Thompson always regretted that he had not been present, and perhaps able to prevent the accident.
Walter Thompson’s tall, angular features are frequently seen on Churchill photos during World War II. From 1939, when recalled to guard duty, he was rarely absent on the Prime Minister’s travels. Along the way, he accidentally shot himself while cleaning a weapon, and lost son in the RAF. He did however romance and later marry Mary Shearburn, one of the PM’s secretaries.
The Bodyguard Mini-series
I approached this production with doubt. The Authorised Biography contained so many howlers that I feared they would reappear in the video. But the episodes avoid this—and any hindsight moralizing, thought so necessary by producers today. It is, in the main, straight reporting from Thompson’s memoirs. Though I disliked Thompson’s steady references to the boss as “Winston,” I found no serious errors. Please advise if the episodes I didn’t watch contain some awful clanger!
The series does speculate in places. One such involves the actor Leslie Howard, “Ashley Wilkes” in one of Churchill’s favorite films, Gone with the Wind. The story goes that Howard and his bodyguard—shot down by the Luftwaffe in the belief they were Churchill and Thompson—were intentional decoys. This is of course nonsense.
The great strength of Churchill’s Bodyguard is its visuals. Some photos aren’t chronologically accurate, but most are little-known and fascinating. The producers cleverly applied the right poses to go with the dialogue, presenting what is almost a motion picture.
The synopses suggest that Thompson saved Churchill’s life in every episode. But I have no doubt that many potential threats did preoccupy him. And to his credit, he disregarded no possibility.
Churchill’s Bodyguard Synopsis (IMdb)
Click on titles for YouTube links:
Introductions. Here we learn how two very different characters met, and how Thompson, born in the East End, saves his boss from an IRA assassination attempt. Ten years earlier, they had both been present, unknowingly, at the Siege of Sidney Street.
Middle East, 1921. Walter Thompson gets the challenge of keeping his boss alive during a visit to the Middle East. A leading British politician is the natural target for assassins, and on several critical occasions, Thompson is helped by the enigmatic Lawrence of Arabia.
The 1920s; travels in the New World 1929-32. Churchill buys cars and a house. In 1929 ceases to be Chancellor of the Exchequer and Thompson’s duties end. Within two years, Churchill’s outspoken views gain him new and deadly enemies, and Thompson is recalled.
North American Lecture Tour 1932. Thompson keeps Churchill safe during his lecture tour, but then leaves the police force. It seems that Churchill’s career is over, too. But a sinister new force is rising which sees him as an implacable enemy. Threats to his life bring the two men together again.
* * *
From Wilderness to War 1932-40. Despite being out of office, Churchill’s enemies prove dangerous. With war imminent, French Intelligence hears of a German assassination plot. Thompson returns from retirement. Britain goes to war in September 1939, and Churchill is back at the Admiralty.
Dangerous Travels and the Fall of France 1940. Sent to the Admiralty in September 1939, Churchill becomes Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, as Hitler invades the Low Countries. He embarks on a campaign of personal diplomacy, with travels including six trips to France. To Thompson’s concern, they are often within range of Luftwaffe fighters.
Surviving the Blitz, 1940-41. The early days of the war prove difficult and dangerous. The Luftwaffe bombs London. The Prime Minister walks the streets among the people, watches air raids from rooftops, and visits anti-aircraft batteries. Often only Thompson is with him.
Meetings with FDR, 1941-42. Running a gauntlet of U-boats in the North Atlantic, Churchill sets out for meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt. On one return journey, as the PM prepares to board a flying boat for the trip home, a gunman lurks nearby.
* * *
Turning Point, 1942-43. A precarious trip to Moscow to visit Stalin is followed by victory for the Eighth Army in North Africa. Aware that Churchill is traveling, the Germans at least twice try to shoot down his plane.
Teheran, 1943. After two Atlantic crossings and two trips across the Mediterranean, Churchill grows increasingly frustrated with Allied planners and suspicious of Stalin. When the Big Three meet in Tehran in 1943, the Germans launch Operation Longjump, in which commandoes plan to parachute into the city.
The Kiss of Life, 1943. Returning from the Tehran Conference, a sick and exhausted Churchill survives a dangerous illness, Thompson keeping vigil at his bedside.
Athens, 1944. Flying to Greece to forestall a civil war, Churchill plans to stay at a hotel where communist guerrillas had placed dynamite. He changes quarters to HMS Ajax in Piraeus harbor, while guerrillas fire at the ship.
Victory in Europe, 1945. Churchill and Thompson make several journeys through jubilant crowds. Churchill wants to walk among them. Instead Thompson pulls him onto the roof of his car, accidentally breaking a woman’s arm in the process.