Churchill and the Secret Serviceby David Stafford
Groundbreaking study of Churchill and the world of secret intelligence.
Featuring absorbing information about the secret world of agents, this groundbreaking work includes details from Churchill's days as a member of the Cabinet that established the Secret Service.
Groundbreaking study of Churchill and the world of secret intelligence.
Featuring absorbing information about the secret world of agents, this groundbreaking work includes details from Churchill's days as a member of the Cabinet that established the Secret Service.
- The Overlook Press
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When first in the dim light of early morning I saw the shores of Cuba rise and define themselves from dark-blue horizons, I felt as if I sailed with Long John Silver and first gazed on Treasure Island. Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.
The date was November 1895. Winston Churchill had just sailed into Havana harbour, dominated by the great El Moro fortress high up on the cliffs commanding the channel to the port. Cuba had begun its final and successful attempt to throw off Spanish rule. In the mountains of central Cuba a guerrilla army led by the veteran rebel General Maximo Gomez was holding down a Spanish army of some 250,000 men under Marshal Martinez Campos. It was already clear that the Spaniards could not crush the insurrection. Two years after Churchill left, the sinking of the US battleship the Maine in the same harbour brought the United States into the struggle. It also drew in Theodore Roosevelt who cut a spectacular figure with his `Rough Riders', a voluntary cavalry unit made up of cowboys, Ivy League footballers, New York policemen and Native Americans. The Spanish-American war won Roosevelt the Governorship of New York, the Republican Vice-Presidency and eventually the White House. It also destroyed the last remnants of Spain's once mighty New World empire, gave Cuba its independence, and brought the Americans on to the worldstage as a major power.
Here, indeed, was a scene of vital action and stirring world events. Churchill did not leave his bones in Cuba, but quite apart from discovering the joys of Havana cigars, rum cocktails and afternoon siestas, he first experienced the thrill of war, marched against an enemy, found himself under fire and witnessed violent death. For this instinctive soldier it was his first great adventure and he relished every minute.
Cuba also brought his first encounter with popular revolt against dictatorship, guerrilla warfare, and underground resistance and intelligence. If any single episode captivated the youthful Churchill with the adventure and mystery of secret service, it was his few weeks in what he romantically called `The Pearl of the Antilles'.
Nor is it irrelevant that it coincided with his first journey across the Atlantic. Despite his aristocratic origins and his own enduring fascination with his English heritage, he was half-American. His Brooklyn-born mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of swashbuckling New York lawyer and financier Leonard Jerome, founder of the American Jockey Club, part owner of the New York Times and creator of the Bronx racing track. A society beauty with many admirers, Jennie spent most of her life in Europe, squandered the Jerome fortune, neglected Winston, and left him with an obsessive need to make his own financial way in life. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, also left scars. The second son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, he briefly illuminated the political scene as the founder of `Tory Democracy' and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1886 he impulsively resigned and never enjoyed office again. He died just a few months before Churchill arrived in Havana. Arrogant, rude, impulsive, and known as the `Champagne Charlie of politics', he rarely saw his elder son and often treated him harshly. But Lord Randolph did him one service. After an unhappy time at Harrow, he was sent to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He had always been fascinated with soldiers, not unusual for a boy brought up in the heyday of Empire. His nursery was strewn with toy soldiers `all British, organised as an infantry division with a cavalry brigade' and the earliest surviving letter to his mother, written as a 7-year-old, touchingly thanks her for `the beautiful presents those Soldiers and Flags and Castle'. At Sandhurst he did well, graduating twentieth out of a class of 130 students. A successful military career beckoned. Early in 1895 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars cavalry regiment. In anticipation of several years' service in India he was given ten weeks' immediate leave.
Already he was exhibiting one of his major character traits: a horror of boredom. More importantly, he knew what he wanted: to enter politics and expunge the humiliation of his father's career. His strategy was simple, direct and unconcealed in its ambition. He would make his name in war, both as a soldier and as a war correspondent. The reward would be headlines and a record of personal bravery a sure ticket to Parliament. The strategy was astute, and it worked. Within five years he was in the House of Commons, launched on a fifty-year career that would take him to the summit of politics and the heroic leadership of his country during the Second World War.
The wars he encountered deeply coloured his military outlook and strategic thinking, for these were not the great clashes of European armies. They were frontier battles on the edge of empire where the regular forces met their match at the hands of guerrillas, and science and technology could not win the hearts and minds of rebellious peoples. Churchill knew where his loyalties lay as an ardent patriot sworn to defend Britain's imperial power. At the age of 11 he had shared the national dismay at news of Gordon's death at Khartoum, he had stood in the crowd to celebrate Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, and had avidly read the adventure stories of Rider Haggard and G. A. Henty. But from personal experience he learned a profound respect for the rebellious and an acute awareness of the damage they could inflict on imperial rule. All this was to play its part in his fascination for the secret world.
Casting around for the first small war, he heard news of the Cuban revolt. This, combined with curiosity about his mother's birthplace, drew him across the Atlantic. Before leaving England he contracted with the London Daily Graphic to publish his dispatches from the front, gained accreditation with the Spanish Army, and persuaded friend and fellow subaltern Reginald Barnes to go with him.
The two young men sailed from Liverpool. Typically, Churchill barely endured the boredom of several days at sea. In New York things changed dramatically. They were regaled for a week by Bourke Cochran, a wealthy Irish-American lawyer and congressman who had challenged Grover Cleveland for the Democratic nomination in 1892. They met Supreme Court judges, were received by the Vanderbilts, dined at the Waldorf and visited West Point military academy. They also encountered a vibrant and bustling democratic energy that deeply impressed Churchill. `This is a very great country, Jack', he wrote to his younger brother. `Not pretty or romantic but great and utilitarian.'
From New York Churchill and Barnes travelled by train to Key West and embarked for Havana. Their visit had been well planned. They met the British Consul-General in Havana and the next day set off by train for Marshal Campos's headquarters at Santa Clara. For the next two weeks they observed guerrilla war at first hand.
Churchill's main task was to provide readers of the Daily Graphic with dramatic copy and a name to remember. But he also had another mission. Before leaving London he had paid a visit to Colonel Edward Chapman, the Director of Military Intelligence and a veteran of the Afghan and Burmese wars. Chapman briefed Churchill on the situation in Cuba and provided the two young men with maps. He added that it would be helpful if they could `collect information and statistics on various points and particularly as to the effect of the new bullet its penetration and striking power', thus giving their visit a quasi-official status. Thus, Churchill's first overseas mission fell into the well-established tradition of the British amateur spy sent overseas with instructions to keep his eyes and ears open.
The elusive nature of the war quickly impressed him. `Where are the enemy?' he asked the young Spanish officer delegated to escort them. `Everywhere and nowhere' came the response. His first report for the Graphic captured the mood. His attempts to reach Campos's headquarters at Santa Clara were severely hampered by rebel attacks on the railroad. One of their favourite tricks was to derail passing trains by pulling on wires fastened to loosened rails. They were also using dynamite. The Spaniards responded by attaching pilot engines and armoured cars to the trains. This offered no guarantee. A train carrying Campos's Chief of Staff was blown off the tracks and Churchill's journey had to be diverted via the coast. The alternative route was little safer. Again the line was cut when the rebels destroyed a small bridge and Churchill had to wait for a day while it was repaired. `These thirty miles of railway are the most dangerous and disturbed in the whole island', he told Graphic readers. `Twenty-eight separate little forts and over 1,200 men are employed in the railroad's protection, but in spite of all these precautions communication is dangerous and uncertain ...' Only the week before, the rebel leader Maximo Gomez had personally led a raid on one of the forts and forced the garrison to surrender. The luckless Spanish officer in charge faced an official firing squad.
The countryside was littered with evidence of the insurrection. Churchill saw burned houses, broken-down fences, and occasionally sighted on the spur of a hill or on the edge of the forest some lone horseman spying on the Spaniards. Ten days into their visit, after sleeping in the fortified village of Arroyo Blanco, news arrived that Gomez and 4,000 rebels were encamped a few miles to the east. The column set off in the early-morning mist. Suddenly at the rear firing broke out. Churchill could see smoke and flashes, but it was all some distance away and soon died out. It was the first time that he had heard shots fired in anger. It was also his twenty-first birthday.
More escapades followed. The horse behind him was felled by a shot from a guerrilla sniper. Rebels attacked while he and Barnes were swimming in a river half-dressed; they were forced to scramble away from the bullets. That night a shot came through the thatched roof of the barn in which they were sleeping, while outside several Spaniards were killed or wounded. On the final day there was a small battle with the rebels which Churchill watched from the safety of horseback a few hundred yards away. After much noise and a few wounded, the rebels slipped away into the impenetrable jungle. The insurgents, Churchill concluded, could never be caught or defeated. At the rate Campos was proceeding, he guessed, it would take even the Kaiser and the entire German army twenty years to crush the revolt.
The enemy, indeed, was everywhere and nowhere. Churchill was now witnessing what history had taught him. Napoleon had come to grief in Spain at the hands of guerrillas who sapped the morale of the French armies. Now the Spaniards were suffering: they could rarely pin down the rebels, but the guerrillas always knew where to find them. The reason was good and comprehensive intelligence, due largely to the sympathy of the population. `Hence they know everything', Churchill observed, `the position of every general, the destination of every soldier, and what their own spies fail to find out their friends in every village let them know.' Moreover, the rebels were able to paralyse the economy. The sugar cane was ripe and combustible they only had to give the word and the plantations would go up in flames.
Churchill's youthful heart was with the rebellion, but he also feared it. On the one hand the entire Spanish administration was utterly corrupt. Yet reluctant to dismiss the rebels, as did the Spaniards, as mere banditti, he deplored their tactics and feared their victory might bring a bankrupt government, racial violence and revolution. He desired the end, but flinched from the means. He could only hope for a compromise that would produce a free, prosperous and law-abiding island.
This first great adventure left an indelible mark. Back in the somnolent heat of Bangalore he wrote a revealing novel entitled Savrola, at once a typical Victorian Ruritanian romance, a perceptive biographical confession and a revealing glimpse of his political views. Savrola, a young and dashing aristocrat, leads a popular revolt against the aged and autocratic President Molara of the Republic of Laurania. The revolt succeeds and the President is killed, but then Savrola is rejected by the people and leaves the country with Lucille, Molara's beautiful young widow, the only woman he loves. Eventually when order is restored they return, and peace and prosperity descend on Laurania.
Savrola is clearly advertising copy for Churchill. To his brother Jack, Churchill described him as `the Great Democrat, a wild sceptic with an equally powerful imagination'. But what drives the character is the inner demon of ambition and a spirit that knows `rest only in action, contentment only in danger, and in confusion [finds its] only peace'. Churchill had already diagnosed the `Black Dog' of depression that would plague him throughout his life. Politically, the novel echoes the liberal views on rebellion of his Cuban reporting.
Yet there is a rarely noticed sub-plot. Amongst the rebels moves the extremist revolutionary Karl Kreutze clearly an outsider in this Latin-cum-Balkan paradise who heads a secret society manipulating the people's discontent for sinister socialist ends. It is Kreutze who murders Molara and, although he in turn is killed, the extremists succeed in forcing Savrola into exile. Here, as in real-life Cuba, Churchill raises the spectre of `bad' rebels who threaten peace and prosperity. During the Second World War he would lend his enthusiastic support to movements of national revolt against Nazi occupation, such as the Yugoslav partisans and the French Maquis. But he adamantly opposed those he considered to be `extremists', such as the Greek partisans. Significantly he regularly condemned them as `banditti' the contemptuous term used fifty years before by his Spanish hosts.
In the summer of 1897, as Britain celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Afghan rebels rose in revolt on the North-West Frontier of India to threaten British control of the Malakand Pass, the gateway to Chitral. The aptly named Colonel Sir Bindon Blood was placed at the head of a punitive expeditionary force and Churchill again rushed to the scene of action. Armed with commissions from the Daily Telegraph and the Allahabad Pioneer he was soon in the thick of things.
He was immediately struck by the parallels with Cuba. The military problem facing the Spaniards differed little from that presented by the wild Afghan landscape: `a roadless, broken, and undeveloped country; an absence of any strategic points; a well-armed enemy with great mobility and modern rifles, who adopt guerrilla tactics.
Everything about the Malakand Field Force engaged his romantic spirit: the breathtaking grandeur of the western Hindu Kush the high mountain passes and lonely valleys, the snow-covered peaks, the steep and rugged slopes gouged out by the rains as well as the rugged tribesmen with their ancient carbines. Here for a brief moment he was able to play the Great Game, a world of intrigue where every man was a warrior, every house a fortress, every family waged its vendetta and every clan nourished its feud. Agents and informers for the Indian Army, like Kipling's Kim, provided eyes and ears throughout the land, and political officers exploited enmities between rival factions to maintain an uneasy imperial peace.
This time, however, advance intelligence had failed the Indian Army. Partly this was the understandable result of discounting mere rumour, as Churchill noted in The Malakand Field Force, his published account of the affair. `The bazaars of India, like the London coffee houses of the last century, are always full of marvellous tales the invention of fertile brains. A single unimportant fact is exaggerated, and distorted, till it becomes unrecognisable. From it, a thousand wild, illogical, and fantastic conclusions, are drawn. So the game goes on.' The secular minds of Western intelligence officers were also to blame for failing to appreciate the depth of religious feeling amongst the Muslim population. To the very last, none had expected more than a skirmish. It was Churchill's first lesson in the inevitability of surprise and the fallibilities of even the most experienced intelligence officers.
He learned a good deal more about the intricacies of the Great Game from Captain Henry Stanton, one of Blood's intelligence officers, who proved an invaluable friend and guide, `a good fellow and full of knowledge of all sorts'. He was certainly an important figure in Churchill's introduction to intelligence work. Long forgotten, Stanton's official report on the work of the Intelligence Department with the Malakand Field Force still resides in War Office files. It is notable for its generous tribute to the intelligence work of local agents such as Abdul Hamid Khan, `of good Afghan refugee family which for three generations has been conspicuous for its loyalty in Government service'. Fluent in English, Persian, Hindustani and Pushtu, he was, Stanton noted with satisfaction, both intelligent and discreet, and his knowledge of frontier peoples proved crucial to the British. Churchill borrowed some of its conclusions. It was a practice in the Indian Army for political officers under civilian control to be attached to field forces to conduct local negotiations and collect information. Echoing the identical criticism from Stanton's report, Churchill concluded that intelligence should be the exclusive preserve of the Army's Intelligence Department. The collection of information was one of the most important of military duties, he noted, and civilian officers could hardly be expected to understand what a general required. In short, he concluded from his Malakand experience that intelligence and operations were intimately linked, and that the former should be firmly controlled by those who had to act on it.
A different kind of war presented itself in 1898. Sir Herbert Kitchener and the Egyptian Army had been advancing up the Nile towards Khartoum since 1896 and Churchill was desperate to join the expedition. After pulling every string conceivable he arrived in Cairo with a commission in the 21st Lancers and accreditation as a war correspondent from the Morning Post. He caught up with Kitchener's army a week before the battle of Omdurman. He found himself in the thick of it, his journalist's eye hard at work. `The whole scene flickered exactly like a cinematograph picture', he wrote, `and besides, I remember no sound. The event seemed to pass in absolute silence.' He was appalled by the scenes of carnage. Three days later he reconnoitred the battlefield. Heaps of bodies lay festering in the desert heat, while hundreds of the wounded and dying begged for help and pleaded for water. Here, he realised, was no glory. His massive and compelling two-volume history of the expedition, The River War (1899), he aptly described as `a tale of blood and war'.
Churchill went out of his way to credit Egyptian Army intelligence for its role in Kitchener's victory. In part this was no more than politic. During the march up the Nile he had received generous hospitality from Colonel (later Sir Reginald) Wingate, head of the Intelligence Branch, while in London the Directorate of Military Intelligence provided the maps and plans for his book. Its Handbook of the Soudan 1898 and Report on the Nile 1898, prepared by leading intelligence officer Lord Edward Gleichen, provided him with essential background. But Churchill's praise extended to an enthusiastic appreciation of what intelligence and espionage could contribute to the efforts of regular forces. `Up the great river', he wrote, `within the great wall of Omdurman, into the arsenal, into the treasury, into the mosque, into the Khalifa's house itself, the spies and secret agents of the Government disguised as traders, as warriors, or as women worked their stealthy way.' He was not merely referring to Wingate's espionage on the Nile in the abstract. Twenty-five miles north of Omdurman, and two days before the battle itself, he had had an extraordinary encounter with a spy.
He was on reconnaisance with a squadron of the 21st Lancers amongst dense bush. A few men armed with carbines dismounted to proceed ahead on foot. After a mile or so, the group halted to take bearings. While they were waiting, Churchill spotted a man in a patched jibbah and armed with several fish-hook spears emerge from the bushes. He immediately ordered a soldier to thrust at the man with a lance, which he skilfully avoided. Then Churchill ordered him to lay down his spears, which he did, and he was marched to the rear. Churchill returned triumphantly to camp with his prisoner. His pride quickly turned to embarrassed humiliation. His captive whom he had almost had killed, it transpired, was no ordinary native but a spy working for Army intelligence in Omdurman. The episode sparked considerable amusement amongst his fellow war correspondents and it took all his persuasion to prevail on the Reuters man not to cable an account of the affair back to London. Not surprisingly, he omitted this misadventure in spy-catching from his later popular memoirs of this period, My Early life. But a year later another escapade brought him headlines and world fame.
War broke out between Britain and the Boers in October 1899. Immediately Churchill sailed for Cape Town. By this time, his ambition clearly set, he had resigned his Army commission and unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat in Parliament. Now, with a lucrative contract from the Morning Post, he was headed for Natal and Ladysmith where British troops had been surrounded by the advancing Boers. He got no further on the railway from Durban than Estcourt, where he met an old friend from North-West Frontier days, Captain Aylmer Haldane, who had just been ordered to take an armoured train and reconnoitre up the line in the direction of Ladysmith. Churchill reluctantly agreed to accompany him, and at dawn they set off into Boer territory.
Subsequent events became legendary. Boer saboteurs derailed two of the train's trucks with a boulder laid across the line. Churchill, under heavy fire, succeeded in clearing the line, but then he, Haldane and about fifty men got separated from the engine, were taken prisoner by the Boers and ended up in an officers' camp housed in the State Model School in Pretoria, capital of the enemy Transvaal. After his attempts to win freedom as a war correspondent failed, Churchill joined an escape attempt by Haldane and an Afrikaans-speaking man called Sergeant Brockie. Churchill succeeded in scaling the wall, but his two companions gave up their efforts after the sentry became suspicious.
Without maps, compass or food, and with no knowledge of Afrikaans, Churchill decided to go it alone and headed for the border with Portuguese East Africa and its capital Lourenco Marques, some 300 miles through enemy territory. Making his way through Pretoria's night-time streets and guiding himself by the stars, he found the railway line to the coast. By jumping on and off goods trains and encountering a sympathetic manager who hid him down a mine until the hullabaloo over his escape had died down, he finally reached freedom. By this time the Boers had put a price on his head and the British newspapers had blazoned his escape across the headlines. His arrival back in Durban was greeted with hysteria in the popular press.
Churchill had little doubt what was needed for victory: greater flexibility, more imagination and unorthodox military methods, as well as more men. More irregular corps should join the fight. As for himself he arranged a commission in the South African Light Horse, just the sort of force he had in mind, with whom he experienced the bloody battle of Spion Kop and witnessed the relief of Ladysmith a campaign he described as one of the happiest memories of his life. The siege over, he hastened to join the final triumphant march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. By this time the Boers had launched a campaign of partisan warfare, forming hundreds of small commando groups to harass the British. Joining General Sir Ian Hamilton's forces, the next six weeks of adventure provided vivid memories that endured a quarter of a century later. The climax came when Churchill entered Johannesburg even before the Boer forces had left. In advance of the main force, and in the company of a young Frenchman who knew the way, he bicycled into the city. Dusk was falling, but the streets were still crowded with armed and mounted Boers. It occurred to him that once again he was behind enemy lines, but this time he was a British officer holding a commission and disguised in plain clothes. If caught he could be tried and shot as a spy. Preoccupied by these thoughts, and pushing his bike up a steep incline, he suddenly became aware of being slowly overtaken by an armed Boer on horseback. Looking as casual and unconcerned as possible, and talking French to his companion, he steadily met the Boer's curious gaze. It seemed like an eternity as the three of them climbed the hill, then the horseman finally galloped off. Churchill was not, after all, to be unmasked as a spy. Four days later Pretoria capitulated and he personally helped liberate his old prison at the State Model School. Two weeks later he left South Africa to fight a General Election.
He left behind a protracted campaign that was to drag on for two more years. For Churchill, the war simply confirmed the lessons of Cuba and the North-West Frontier. Armed guerrillas fighting with the support of the people could thwart the ambitions of even a great and powerful empire. The conviction had a lifelong effect on his strategic thinking. Some forty years later, when creating the Special Operations Executive, images of heroic Boer resistance helped animate his vision. And in personally meeting its secret agents, he relived his adventures behind enemy lines in the golden days of his youth.
Queen Victoria died at Windsor Castle in January 1901. Several thousand miles away Churchill heard the news in Winnipeg, on the last leg of a North American tour lecturing on his wartime adventures. He had met President McKinley in Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, the soon-to-be President, in the governor's mansion in Albany, New York. Mark Twain and his American namesake, the novelist Winston Churchill, had chaired meetings in New York City and Boston. Christmas he spent in Ottawa with the Governor-General of Canada and his wife, Lord and Lady Minto. He had already been elected as Conservative Member of Parliament for Oldham and he left New York for London on the day of the Queen's funeral. At 26 he was a celebrity, eager to embark on the political career of which he had long dreamed.
Churchill's rapid climb to the top of British politics over the next decade left observers breathless. G. W. Steevens, war correspondent of the Daily Mail who had sailed with him back to England from the Sudan, dashed off a character sketch describing him as `the youngest man in Europe'. At the rate Churchill was advancing, he predicted, `there will hardly be room for him in Parliament at thirty or in England at forty'. This was not far from the mark. Four years after entering Parliament Churchill deserted the Conservatives for the Liberals. Their election victory in 1906 saw him appointed Under-Secretary for the Colonies. Two years later, aged 33, he entered the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. Within two years he was Home Secretary, the youngest to hold the position since Sir Robert Peel some eighty years before.
How did his contemporaries see him? J. B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian, who sailed with him to South Africa, caught his physique well: `slim, slightly reddish-haired, pale, lively, frequently plunging along the deck ...' Added to that was a slight lisp and stammer, as well as a physical awkwardness, that made for an unprepossessing figure. His open admiration for Napoleon, his palpable ambition and his father's reputation all made him deeply suspect. Controversy accompanied his meteoric rise and opinions ran deep and divided. For his desertion of the Conservative Party Tories excoriated him as `the Blenheim rat'. Leo Maxse of the National Review styled him as `a violent and reckless political adventurer'. The Spectator denounced him as `weak and rhetorical, a true demagogue'. Even Liberals distrusted him. Asquith thought he had no real convictions, although he admired him as `a wonderful creature, with a curious dash of schoolboy simplicity ... and, what someone said of genius "a zigzag of lightning on the brain"'. But Margot Asquith, his wife, complained of Churchill's `noisy mind'. Nearly all critics believed he was too much in love with the limelight, unstable, lacking in judgement, with an excessive yearning for excitement, action and melodrama. An emblematic moment that helped seal this image came with the siege of Sidney Street.
Late in 1910 the police surprised a gang of burglars attempting to break into a jeweller's shop in the East End of London. Three policemen were shot and two badly wounded. One of the criminals was killed and it emerged that he was a member of a gang led by one `Peter the Painter', a Latvian. Two of its members were traced to a house at Sidney Street in Stepney, who began to fire wildly at the police.
Churchill received the news in his bath and within an hour was at the scene dressed in silk hat and astrakhan coat. Eager for a direct view he took shelter from the shooting in a doorway. One bullet pierced the coat of Patrick Quinn, head of the police Special Branch. Seven hundred police and Scots Guards armed with rifles surrounded the house joined by a horde of journalists, photographers, newsreel cameramen and curious bystanders. One report described Churchill `moving restlessly hither and thither among the rather nervous and distraught police, a professional soldier among civilians, talking, questioning, advising ...' The image was caught in countless newspaper photographs and cinema newsreels.
Eventually the house caught fire. Churchill, alarmed for the safety of the fire brigade, instructed it to hold back until the shooting had stopped. When police finally kicked their way into the burned-out interior they found two bodies, one asphyxiated by smoke, the other shot by a police bullet. They were identified as Fritz Svaars, a Latvian, and William Sokolow, a Russian.
The Tory Opposition poured scorn on Churchill's appearance at the scene and his search for headlines. He later accepted he should have stayed away, but this affair exposed more than his impetuosity. It also revealed his fascination for the mysterious world of anarchists and revolutionaries, the darkness that lurked beneath the surface of Edwardian society. He termed the Sidney Street gang `a germ cell of murder, anarchy, and revolution ... pursuing their predatory schemes and dark conspiracies'. Peter the Painter was `one of those wild beasts who, in later years ... were to devour and ravage the Russian state and people'. Again, this is typical Churchillian language, but also not so far from the truth. Peter the Painter or Peter Piatkow, a Latvian painter of street signs was never caught and was probably far less significant than legend affords. But the larger group comprised mostly Latvian Bolsheviks carrying out `expropriations' to finance their crusade against Tsarist Russia. Fritz Svaars, one of the Sidney Street dead, was a proven activist, while the man who in fact shot the police at Houndsditch and who miraculously escaped imprisonment was Jacob Peters. He was another Latvian Bolshevik who after 1917 became known as the `Robespierre of the Revolution' as right-hand man to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of Lenin's secret police the Cheka, where he indulged in an orgy of killing and executions of enemies of the regime before himself falling victim to Stalin's purges.
The Sidney Street siege guaranteed there was no ignoring Churchill. The first biography, written as early as 1905 by Alexander MacCallum Scott, predicted greatness based on his will, courage, originality and magnetism. Discerning men, wrote Scott, predicted that `he will make history for the nation. The youth of thirty is confidently spoken of by his admirers as a future Prime Minister ... he is of the race of Giants. In the tempestuous gambols and soaring ambitions of his youth, we read the promise of a mighty manhood.'
As a minister Churchill demonstrated dynamism and concentration, refused to be browbeaten by civil servants, was a powerhouse of original ideas and successfully pushed his legislation through Parliament. He took risks, showed considerable moral and political courage, and deferred to few. On the eve of the First World War Alfred Gardiner, the influential editor of the Liberal newspaper the Daily News, drew a complex portrait.
He is always unconsciously playing a part, in that fervid and picturesque imagination there are always great deeds afoot ... He flashes through life taking impressions, swift, searching, detached ... his mind once seized with an idea works with enormous velocity round it, intensifies it, enlarges it, makes it shadow the whole sky. In the theatre of his mind it is always the hour of fate and the crack of doom ... [He was] the man of action simply, the soldier of fortune who lives for adventure, loves the fight more than the cause, more even than his ambition or life.
None the less, Gardiner was deeply impressed by Churchill's uncontestable assets. Here was `a singularly daring and far-sighted man a mind that sweeps the field with the eye of the strategist, weighs the forces, estimates the position, and when the hour has come strikes with deadly sureness at the vulnerable place'. This also captures his approach to secret service.
Adventures with Saul Bellow
By Harriet Wasserman
FROMM INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHING CORPORATION
Copyright © 1997 Harriet Wasserman. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
David Stafford, a former diplomat and Project Director of the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is the author of Spies Beneath Berlin and Secret Agent, published by Overlook.
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