"The death of Winston Churchill was the day the Empire died"
Winston Churchill’s funeral 50 years ago gave rise to unprecedented scenes of public mourning - and the conviction that Britain would never be the same again
Mourners file past the flag-draped coffin of Sir Winston Churchill Photo: Hulton/Getty
The death of Sir Winston Churchill marked the finale of an epoch in British history that had been as glorious as it was long.
Churchill’s passing at 8am that Saturday morning – 50 years ago this week – at his home in Hyde Park Gate in London did not come as a surprise to anybody. He was 90 years old, after all, and he had suffered a massive stroke two weeks previously.
Yet it did seem a historically significant moment, coming at a time when the Labour government was considering withdrawing all troops from east of Suez and so closing down the last remnants on the British Empire. “Now Britain is no longer a great power,” said Charles de Gaulle when he heard the news.
Many commentators in the British press agreed with him, and saw in the ceremony at St Paul’s the end of the era of British greatness. With the uninspiring Harold Wilson in Downing Street – about as un-Churchillian a figure imaginable – wrestling with recurrent economic problems that were soon to force the government into a humiliating devaluation of sterling, it was natural to fit Churchill’s death into an overall narrative of decline and malaise.
“The day of giants is gone for ever,” the historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote in the Illustrated London News. Churchill’s own detective agreed, saying: “If the king dies you can say 'Long live the king’, but now Sir Winston’s gone, who is there? There’s no one of his stature left.” A L Rowse, the Oxford don, was equally pessimistic, writing: “The sun is going down on the British Empire.”
Another famous writer, the novelist V S Pritchett, thought he could discern, “an undertone of self-pity. We were looking at a past utterly irrecoverable.” (To what extent is illustrated by a 2014 survey of British teenagers, 20 per cent of who thought Churchill was a fictional character.)
On learning of Churchill’s death, the man responsible for organising his funeral, the Earl Marshal, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, put into effect a plan that was codenamed “Operation Hope Not”. Ever since Churchill had suffered a stroke while at No 10 in 1953, meticulous arrangements had been made for his funeral.
The Queen instructed Norfolk that the occasion should be “on a scale befitting his position in history”, thus guaranteeing that it would be the grandest state funeral for a commoner since that of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, even overshadowing William Gladstone’s in 1898.
The arrangements for the funeral had to be constantly updated due to Churchill’s great longevity. Lord Mountbatten joked of how “the problem was that Churchill kept living and the pallbearers kept dying”.
Churchill himself played relatively little part in planning the event, although he promised Harold Macmillan, “there will be lively hymns” and said to his private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne: “Remember, I want lots of military bands.” He got nine.
Churchill’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days and nights, his coffin draped with a Union Jack on which rested his insignia of the Knight of the Garter. No fewer than 320,000 people filed past the catafalque that was guarded by members of the Services who stood statue-still, their heads bowed in respect and homage.
Even more people might have come had the thermometer not dipped below zero. Indeed on the day of the funeral itself, there were even casualties among the police horses on duty. The Salvation Army and Women’s Volunteer Service handed out soup, tea and sandwiches, further inspiring memories of wartime.
Across the country, flags flew at half mast, newspapers printed lengthy obituaries, black armbands were worn, football matches were rescheduled, shops closed, the National Association of Schoolmasters even cancelled a strike. Nothing was allowed to spoil what everyone knew would be an extraordinary historical occasion.
No fewer than 28 wartime bombs had fallen on St Paul’s Cathedral, one of them a massive five-hundred-pounder, yet Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece miraculously survived, partly due to its courageous and committed fire-watchers. The famous photograph of its dome standing undaunted above the fire and smoke of the Blitz still has the capacity to move Britons, and the church that survived Hitler’s bombers was the obvious place to stage the ceremony.
One break with precedent was the decision of the Queen to attend personally, a special mark of royal favour as sovereigns do not usually attend non-family funerals. In all six sovereigns, six presidents and 16 prime ministers were present that day.
On the morning of the funeral, Big Ben struck 9.45am but thereafter remained silent for the rest of the day. The great procession left New Palace Yard on its slow journey via Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, the Strand and Fleet Street up to St Paul’s. The gun carriage on which the coffin rested was pulled through the streets by 120 Royal Navy blue-jackets, a reminder of Churchill’s two terms as First Lord of the Admiralty. The sight as it left the Palace of Westminster was likened by one spectator to that of a great warship leaving harbour. Other troops in the procession, which included detachments of no fewer than 18 military units, marched carrying their rifles reversed. It took four majors of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars to carry all of Churchill’s orders and decoration behind the gun carriage.
As the cortège passed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, 100 flags carried by men and women of the wartime resistance movements of France, Denmark, Norway and Holland were raised in a final salute. (After the coffin had passed, a group of Danish under-cover soldiers laid a wreath of lilies at the Cenotaph. When asked for their names by a journalist, one answered, before slipping back into the crowd, “We were unknown at war, it must be the same now.”)
In all, some 350 million people watched on television worldwide; indeed the American TV audience was larger than for President Kennedy’s funeral 15 months earlier. No fewer than 112 countries were represented at St Paul’s. Only China refused to send an envoy, while the Republic of Ireland chose not to broadcast the occasion live.
Laurence Olivier contributed to the ITV coverage, but it was Richard Dimbleby’s commentary on the BBC that won the most plaudits. After the ceremony, President Eisenhower and the Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies made impressive broadcasts to the American people and the Commonwealth respectively.
Just as Churchill had promised, there were indeed some “lively” hymns. Hymns were not sung at Wellington’s funeral because they were considered unsuitable for solemn occasions, but 113 years later they were a central feature in Churchill’s. His half-American parentage, as well as his belief in the potency of the English-speaking peoples, were reflected in the choice of The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, while his lion-hearted personal and political courage were recalled by Who Would True Valour See and Fight The Good Fight With All Thy Might. At the end of the service, the congregation sang the National Anthem, heard the Last Post and then the Reveille, and the Dead March from Handel’s Saul was played on the organ. The coffin was carried out of the Cathedral to the withdrawal hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past. The pageantry was solemn, superb, sublime.
One of the most evocative images of the day was of “the Captains and the Kings” standing on the West steps of St Paul’s watching the coffin of the Great Commoner being taken on to its next destination, Temple Pier on the River Thames. Charles de Gaulle standing tall in his military greatcoat and kepi, Prince Philip in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform saluting the coffin, the gorgeous gold uniforms of Garter King of Arms and his fellow heralds, the massed ranks of world statesmen: it all made an unforgettable historical tableaux. As one of the papers put it: “It was an act of history in itself.” (And one that cost the taxpayer £48,000, the equivalent of £650,000 today.)
Because, unlike Nelson and Wellington, Churchill had chosen not to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, the coffin was taken aboard the launch Havengore, to the booms of a 19-gun salute. As it set off upstream, pipers played the haunting lament Flowers of the Forest, and then 16 RAF Lightning aircraft swooped low in a fly-past. From Temple Pier, the coffin was taken to Waterloo station, and from there it travelled to Hanborough by train. The private burial took place in Bladon in Oxfordshire, near to Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born in 1874. (Lady Churchill had gently talked him out of his original intention, which was to be buried on the croquet lawn at his country house, Chartwell, in Kent.)
In 1965, London was still one of the world’s greatest seaports, its docks served by vast cranes stationed on innumerable quays. When the Havengore passed these giant structures at Hay’s Wharf, on the South Bank, their operators dipped the tops of each in turn, as even these enormous machines bowed their heads in tribute to the nation’s dead chieftain.
For many, it was the most moving moment of the day. When Noël Coward saw it he burst into tears – for him, the whole funeral was “a great and truly noble experience”. In his history of the funeral, Churchill’s Final Farewell, Rodney Croft records how the 36 crane drivers involved had willingly given up their time without asking for overtime pay. Sir David Burnett, the managing director of the company that owned the machines, arranged to cover their expenses anyway.
American visitors to Britain were shocked at the supposedly buttoned-up Britons crying in public. The writer Laurie Lee observed: “Not since the war has there been such emotion.” John Lukacs, an American historian who visited Britain specially for the spectacle, also recorded how, “in the crowd lived the spirit of 1940, there was a great democratic upsurge of Englishmen, with men in bowler hats and elegant women standing with the cockneys and stevedores”.
The pallbearers did not, in fact, carry the coffin at any stage – Clement Attlee was 82 years old at the time and several others were in their seventies – but they did march before it down the aisle. (The casket itself was hewn from English oaks on the Blenheim estate, and it took 12 white-gloved Guardsmen to carry it up the West steps of St Paul’s.)
The 10 official pallbearers included such important wartime figures as Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, General Lord Ismay, Marshal of the RAF Lord Portal, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Field Marshal Lord Slim and Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis.
The split-second timing of the ceremony left even De Gaulle impressed, who spoke with genuine feeling about the efficiency with which the Earl Marshal had organised the vast enterprise. Churchill’s widow, Clementine, in the opinion of everyone present and the words of one reporter, “carried herself like a queen”. As she retired to bed after that exhausting, hugely emotional day, she told her daughter, Mary Soames: “It wasn’t a funeral, it was a triumph!”
By the end of the week, no fewer than 100,000 people had filed past the grave at Bladon churchyard in Oxfordshire, an astonishing number considering how freezing it was. Buried between his parents and his brother in the Spencer-Churchill family plot, his grave is still visited by thousands of people from around the world every year.
Invited to mourn with the Spencer-Churchill family was Churchill’s last private secretary, Anthony (later Sir Anthony) Montague Browne. The whole occasion brought on in him, “black melancholy thoughts of the decline and decay of so much of what Churchill had stood for. Well might the nation mourn him.”
As if to underline this moral decay, when Montague Browne got back to London after attending the private family burial at Bladon, he discovered that his flat had been burgled.
For more information on Churchill 2015, visit www.churchillcentral.com; and on Winston’s living legacy: www.wcmt.org.uk