Win­ston Churchill slept here?


Win­ston Churchill, the great­est English­man of the 20th cen­tury, vis­ited New­found­land sev­eral times dur­ing his long po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. But only once did he stop the night here, and even then, he slept aboard a ship moored in our waters and not in a build­ing on shore.

In­deed, for many years there was a heated de­bate among those in­ter­ested in such mat­ters as to whether he ac­tu­ally set foot on our soil.

Churchill wasn’t in New­found­land as a tourist, to look at our scenic won­ders or even to sam­ple the hos­pi­tal­ity for which we are famed. It was the Sec­ond World War that brought him here. For us, and for Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth and Em­pire, the war broke out in Septem­ber 1939.

But it wasn’t un­til Dec. 7, 1941 that the United States en­tered the war. That’s the day that the Ja­panese at­tacked Pearl Har­bour, wreak­ing mas­sive dam­age on the United States Navy ships, and killing sev­eral thou­sand Amer­i­can ser­vice­men and civil­ians. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent, called it “a day of in­famy.”

Al­though Churchill and Roo­sevelt had met only once over the years, they had been in close con­tact with each other by tele­phone, cable, letter and through per­sonal emis­saries since the war be­gan. (Their one pre­vi­ous meet­ing had been in Lon­don, in July 1919; Churchill was Bri­tain’s Colo­nial Sec­re­tary, and Roo­sevelt was a lowly As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of the US Navy. Churchill, much to Roo­sevelt’s dis­plea­sure, didn’t re­call their din­ner to­gether when they met in Pla­cen­tia Bay).

By Septem­ber 1940, the Royal Navy was des­per­ately short of war­ships. New­found­land played an im­por­tant part in the first Amer­i­can ef­fort to help Bri­tain. Roo­sevelt and the United States came to its res­cue by trad­ing out­dated First World War­era de­stroy­ers for the right to build Amer­i­can bases here and in Ber­muda.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Churchill and Roo­sevelt grew to the point where the two men de­cided they should meet, to dis­cuss war aims and com­mon strat­egy. They agreed to do so in Pla­cen­tia Bay, close by the US Navy ’ s then-un­der­con­struc­tion base at Ar­gen­tia.

Both men came by sea, in the great­est se­crecy. Churchill crossed the At­lantic aboard the bat­tle­ship HMS Prince of Wales, and Roo­sevelt — who let it be known to the Amer­i­can pub­lic that he was on a fish­ing va­ca­tion off Maine — trav­elled aboard the USS Au­gusta, a large heavy cruiser.

Each ar­rived at the ren­dezvous point on Aug. 9, 1941, and each was ac­com­pa­nied by his se­nior mil­i­tary, naval and diplo­matic ad­vis­ers. They met sev­eral times. All but one of the meet­ings took place aboard the Amer­i­can ship, be­cause Roo­sevelt’s po­lio pre­vented him from walk­ing prop­erly, and made it dif­fi­cult for him to move about.

Roo­sevelt did come aboard HMS Prince of Wales on Sun­day, Aug. 10, 1941 to take part in a church ser­vice. The ser­vice was fol­lowed by lunch, with short speeches by the prime min­is­ter and the pres­i­dent. Roo­sevelt then re­turned to the Au­gusta.

That af­ter­noon, Churchill made his one foray into New­found­land. Sir Alexan­der Cado­gan, Per­ma­nent Un­der-Sec­re­tary of State for For­eign Af­fairs (and thus his se­nior of­fi­cial ad­viser on for­eign pol­icy); Fred­er­ick Lin­de­mann, his sci­en­tific ad­viser; John Martin, one of his Pri­vate Sec­re­taries; Tommy Thompson, his Per­sonal De­tec­tive; and Averell Har­ri­man, a se­nior ad­viser to Roo­sevelt, joined him.

Two of those who wit­nessed the event wrote first-hand ac­counts.

Cado­gan, in his di­ary, said: “ I changed and went ashore on a shingly bay with the PM (in his rompers), Har­ri­man, the ‘ Prof ’, [ Lin­de­mann] John Martin and Tommy Thompson. We clam­bered over some rocks, the PM like a school­boy, get­ting a great kick out of rolling boul­ders down a cliff. We soon re-em­barked and landed on a spit fur­ther along, over which we walked and found a turf clear­ing — an ideal place for a pic­nic. But it clouded over and we were caught in a short, but ex­tremely vi­o­lent shower.

“ Back about 5.45 and soon changed into a din­ner jacket. We gave a din­ner on board to Amer­i­can gen­er­als and ad­mi­rals, and Sum­ner Welles (the Amer­i­can Un­der­sec­re­tary of State).”

Of the ex­pe­di­tion ashore, John Martin re­called: “ We went about like the first dis­cov­er­ers, with not a soul to meet, the PM col­lect­ing a fist­ful of flow­ers.”

H.V. Mor­ton, a well-known Bri­tish au­thor who had been asked by Churchil l t o a ccom­pany him aboard the bat­tle­ship and to ob­serve the meet­ings at first­hand, con­firmed in the book he pub­lished sub­se­quently that Churchill did in fact go ashore : “A whaler was brought round to the gang­way [of PRINCE OF WALES] towed by a mo­tor launch. Mr. Churchil l ap­peared on deck dressed again in his siren suit in com­pany with Mr. Averell Har­ri­man, Sir Alexan­der Cado­gan, Com­man­der Thompson and Mr. Martin. We watched them de­part and an hour or so later we saw them re­turn­ing. Mr. Churchill was sitting in the whaler hold­ing a bunch of pink wild flow­ers he had col­lected on the beaches and the hills.”

Churchill him­self, left no record, as far as is known. But it is ob­vi­ous from those who did that the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter thor­oughly en­joyed his brief stay in New­found­land — even if he didn’t meet any of our peo­ple.

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