Tuesday, 05 September 2017

A Daughter's Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill's Youngest Child

I've read a great deal about Winston Churchill, from biographies to historic accounts of the period to memoirs by family and cabinet members and employees to Churchill's own books that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. My latest discovery is this memoir by Mary Soames, Churchill's youngest daughter. It is a charming, intimate and very revealing look at her father. These sorts of books give a much more rounded impression of the great man, one of the twentieth century's most important figures.

Mary was younger than her other siblings by a considerable number of years. She came on the scene several years after the loss of her parents' other youngest daughter to illness at the age of two and a half. This was a terrible blow to all the members of the family and so Mary was considered a great gift. Born in 1922, she spent most of her young life growing up at Chartwell, Winston's much loved country home outside of London. It was a magnificent, rambling, brick Victorian house set in the beautiful countryside with great views of the weald on all sides. Churchill spent a good deal of time refining his artistic abilities by painting the home and its surroundings. He also spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to make enough money to maintain and, indeed, keep the home. For Mary, it was an idyllic childhood surrounded by loving family and great numbers of animals and pets. As she grew older, she became aware of her father's unusual standing among figures of government. Chartwell, and later Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence, became thriving gathering places for a large number of famous guests who descended with great regularity. Famous artists and politicians were everywhere. Guests ranged from the financier and advisor to American presidents Bernard Baruch, Harry Hopkins and Averill Harriman, who worked for Roosevelt, generals, admirals, the actor Charlie Chaplin, Lawrence of Arabia and on and on.

As World War II approached, Mary had a ringside seat to the approaching storm across the English Channel. She overheard many secret conversations held by her father as he rose to First Lord of the Admiralty and finally to Prime Minister. This book is steeped in the history of the period and even those who know a great deal of this history will find much intimate detail and background to the overarching story of world war.

Mary writes about the "fevered activity and commotion" as the home front geared up for the impending conflict. She mentions the impact on the very first night of the war, September 3, when a German U-boat torpedoed the liner Athenia en route from Glasgow to Montreal with heavy loss of life. The Athenia was considered the first ship lost in the war.

I have a personal connection to the sinking of the Athenia. My former brother-in-law, Arch Miller, was a passenger on the ship. He was about eight at the time. Along with his mother and brother, they were traveling to visit relatives in Canada. I've spoken at great length with Arch about the incident, which he remembers vividly even now, almost eighty years later. He had been wandering alone on the ship when it was struck. He remembered a strange booming sound and the shudder of the ship. Then everyone was running around in a panic. He stumbled about for some time before managing to finally locate his mother and brother. They made it onto a lifeboat and watched as the ship sank. Hundreds lost their lives. I hadn't thought about this incident in some years until there it was, mentioned by Winston Churchill's daughter, no less, in her memoir. What a strange feeling to learn of the impact this incident had on the Churchill family. It certainly had an impact also upon my brother-in-law.

I later looked online at pictures of the Athenia's lifeboats being picked up by other ships. Any one of those childrens' cold faces could have belonged to Arch.

Mary would go on to play a role in the war, serving as a gunner in the women's auxillary, helping to shoot down German V-1 rockets then landing in London. She later served in Europe and rose to the rank of Captain, in command of more than two hundred battery soldiers at the age of 21. She also played a unique fly-on-the-wall roll during her father's rise to power, describing the momentous debate in Parliament in which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was driven from office, paving the way for her father's rise. She spent time at luncheons with the likes of Lord Mountbatten and attended the Potsdam Conference as her father's aide-de-camp, arranging an historic dinner between her father, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, whom she remembers as "small, dapper, and rather twinkly." Hitler reportedly hatched a plan, never consummated, to hire spies to seduce Mary in order to gain access to secret British war plans.

One has to wonder how all of this must have affected her. Mary was just seventeen at the outbreak of the war and twenty-two at its end. That's quite an introduction to adulthood. But thanks to this fascinating memoir, we now know exactly how she felt about it all. The book is a real treat for WW II history buffs like me. 

 

 

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