A Memory of Churchill

Memories are made of this. And there is no more THIS than Winston Spencer Churchill.
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Winston with his Darling Clementine.

Major events are said to leave a thumb print on everyone’s life. Most people off the nipple when Kennedy was killed on November 22 1963, can remember exactly where and what they were doing when they heard the news. The page marker of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, or CIA extermination plot, your choice, a little over a year earlier on 5th August 1962, is regularly mulled over by time grown wiseacres to this day. “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind’ might not have been exactly what Neil Armstrong had rehearsed when he put his boot print on the lunar surface but it was near enough for the millions waiting for that historic event throughout the world to know that Science fiction had become Science Fact. More recently we have the tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York being destroyed by Terrorists on 9th September 2001. I doubt that there has ever been a more indelible imprint vividly stamped on the mind than first one then the other tower slowly collapsing in on itself. I was too young to be able to remember the outbreak of the war in 1939 so missed Chamberlain’s, “Peace in our Time” embarrassment in March or the glum “……. our country is at war with Germany” announcement in September. But the end of the war – that’s another country.

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I could have been that girl. If I had been In England. If I had been at London Airport in 1959.

I had been hiding out in the forests near Stutfhof Concentration Camp with my mother for over a year. We were lucky to survive the break up of the camp and manage to stay alive during the freezing winter that followed. I was eight years old. Skinny, whiny with a constantly running nose and cold sores around my mouth. My mother was as thin as a rake and always shaking with the cold. Never the less she managed to bring some order to the ramshackle living quarters and shambolic structure of the little community. When we arrived there were about thirty people hiding out in an old charcoal burners hut surrounded by lean-tos and ‘tented’ accommodation. These were mainly deserters, escaped prisoners, Jews and those unfortunates who had for some reason or another fallen foul of the Nazis but managed to get away before they were picked up. The population was constantly changing as new refugees arrived and then for one reason or another moved on. We stayed put. Not because we particularly liked the place but because my mother was too ill to set off on a journey which would drain what little strength she had left. Probably the prospect of me whining and complaining as we searched for somewhere better to lay our heads was also a consideration.

Whatever, after a while we became part of the establishment. When we first arrived we hadn’t been exactly welcome. Two more mouths to feed wasn’t something easily undertaken. My mother had shown that she was worth her stew by taking over the cooking and generally organising the routine of the camp. I was made a baby sitter for the younger children and general dogsbody. I was helped out in these duties by a boy a few years older than me, probably 13 or 14, called Yuri. I adored him although his attitude towards me ranged from stoic suffering to downright hostility. After a while he allowed me to drudge along after him when he went out to inspect the usually empty traps set to try and provide a little protein for the cooking pot. My memories of him are heroic. Tall, handsome, wearing layers of cast-off clothes that he had salvaged along the way and toting a rifle that was as tall as he was. I never actually saw him fire it but he was always telling me stories about what he had shot when I wasn’t with him. He also claimed there was price on his head because of the number of Nazis he had killed. I believed every word of it.

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Just one of Churchill’s countless and well deserved biographies.

Yuri’s grandfather had made a little cart out of some old pram wheels he had found and we used it to gather whatever we felt might be successfully put in the pot or add a tad of comfort to the living quarters. It was on one of our foraging expeditions with the handcart that my defining moment occurred. For the last week or so the sounds of battle had been getting nearer. It caused a lot of speculation in the camp. The optimists were expecting to be freed by the Americans or even the British. The pessimist thought they might be found by the Russians. The depressed were sure that the Germans would win and the nightmare we had been suffering for the last five years would carry on indefinitely. I had no reference points to decide on anything so continued to moon around after Yuri. Occasionally planes would fly overhead offering a momentary glimpse through the canopy of trees. Yuri claimed to be able to tell what aircraft they were by the sound of their engine. A huge plane swooped overhead. Lower than anything we had seen before. Before Yuri could identify it there was the sound of branches being snapped off followed by the plane crashing through the trees. We were both terrified. I started to cry and wanted to run back to the camp. Yuri was made of sterner stuff. He ran off through the trees in the direction of the crash. I could do nothing but follow.

The plane sprawled like a crumpled tube in a nest of splintered trees. It was shocking to see. Yuri felt it too. He stopped and stared. I begged him to come away. The wrong thing to do. He inched slowly forward but before he could look into the fuselage, others from the camp arrived. They stood around and discussed what they should do. Before they could come to a decision a very human voice came from the wreckage. Nobody moved for a while and then a couple of the men moved cautiously forward. They found the only survivor from the crash – Mike. He had a broken leg and a mass of cuts and bruises but nothing life threatening. The men loaded him on my little handcart and pulled and half carried him back to camp. My mother quickly took over. She was the only one there who could speak English.

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Winnie accepts a light from a delighted Frenchman in Cherbourg 1944.

The following day the men went back to the broken plane and stripped it of anything they thought might be useful. Perspex windows, seats, batteries, thermos flasks and other bits and pieces. Among the pile of salvage there was a radio. To while away the time Mike fiddled with it. I was mesmerised by the airman. A man is uniform who was kind and considerate was a new experience in my short life. I was sitting with my mother one day when the radio suddenly crackled into life. It was like a miracle. A gruff, emotional voice spoke and I could tell it was saying something important. Mike and my mother strained forward devouring every word.

“Yesterday morning at 2:41 a.m. at Headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea, and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command.”

As abruptly as the radio came to life it died. My mother and Mike stared at each other for and moment and then started laughing. My mother picked me up and held me tight, balling her eyes out. As the others crowded round she told them what she had heard. The war was over. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. The radio never functioned again. And I have often been told that what I remember is a false memory. Well the bit I have quoted probably is. I just grabbed that from a book. I have also been told that the type of radio used in an aeroplane could not function on the wavelengths that are use in general broadcasting. I don’t care. I heard what I heard. Later I found out that the voice belonged to Winston Churchill. It was a lovely name and from that time on I wanted to meet this great man who single handedly changed my life. I never managed to do that. The closest I came was meeting Eartha Kitt in a theatre dressing room. She had been a great favourite of Churchill’s and I pumped her unmercifully for scraps of information. As I’ve grown older and seen the world change I’ve become more and more enamoured of Churchill. I’ve got his books, an array of busts and statuettes, even an autographed photograph. They are all wonderful reminders of the day the great man spoke and my world opened up.

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