Winston Churchill's Great American Adventure
Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure

Larry Holzwarth - December 23, 2021

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure
Winston Churchil at the controls of RMA Berwick on the last leg of his trip home, January 16, 1942. Wikimedia

16. Both the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force scrambled to intercept Churchill’s airplane

During the flight from Bermuda, Kelly-Rogers’s navigation left something to be desired. Or perhaps it was Churchill’s piloting. For approximately twenty minutes of the return flight, Churchill took the controls of the airplane. At least, that is what he later claimed. A photograph exists which shows Churchill seated in the left-hand pilot’s seat, cigar clenched in his mouth, the wheel clenched in his hands. Churchill himself later declared the decision to return home by air, rather than aboard Duke of York, to have been rash. Considering the others of his party, he wrote, “I thought perhaps I had done a rash thing in that there were too many eggs in one basket”. As the plane drew closer to England, it appeared on German radar at the port of Brest, where an important submarine base and naval installation stood.

German Luftwaffe fighters were scrambled to intercept the airplane, though the Germans had no idea it was carrying Winston Churchill and several highly-ranked British officials. Regardless, the fighters failed to find the airplane before running short of fuel and returning to base. The aircraft flew on, maintaining radio silence. Churchill later wrote that in addition to the Germans, six Royal Air Force Hurricane fighters also scrambled to intercept the flying boat, and they too failed to spot the large aircraft. Given the state of the British radar and command and control system, which had contributed so much to the success of the RAF in the Battle of Britain, this seems unlikely. Shortly before ten o’clock in the morning of January 17, 1942, and after an eighteen-hour flight, Berwick landed in Plymouth. Winston Churchill’s American adventure had come to an end. He would have more as the war went on.

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure
Seated, Admiral Ernest King, Winston Churchill, and FDR at the Casablanca conference in 1943. Imperial War Museum

17. Churchill was re-examined by physicians after his return to London

When Churchill returned to London Dr. John Parkinson examined the 67-year old Prime Minister, giving him a full battery of the then available tests, in the presence of Dr. Wilson. His findings did not support the diagnosis than Churchill had a cardiopulmonary event in the White House. Nor did his findings support a diagnosis of angina. So, what had happened the night of December 26 in the White House? Several possibilities have been proposed in the years since, but Churchill never had another such attack. He came to believe he had strained a muscle overexerting himself in an attempt to open the window. Dr. Wilson remained firmly of the opinion he had suffered a mild heart attack, and he did not record Dr. Parkinson’s findings in the medical diary he kept regarding his patient. After Churchill’s death, the “fact” he had suffered a heart attack in 1941 emerged.

Churchill’s doctors did advise him to slow down. Shortly after his return to London, he began planning several other trips; to India to meet with Chiang Kai-Shek, and to Cairo, to address the situation regarding the British troops in the Middle East. In March he confided to Anthony Eden that he was considering a trip to Teheran, as it was then spelled, in order to meet with Joseph Stalin. He mentioned that he may consider going all the way to Moscow should Stalin hesitate to leave Russia during the critical counterstrikes that Spring against the German Army. Far from slowing down, Churchill increased his workload, entering into the detailed planning for the proposed invasion of North Africa, designated Operation Torch by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. And he maintained his extensive correspondence with FDR in Washington.

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure
American troops prepare to hit the beach at Oran during Operation Torch, November 1942. Wikimedia

18. Churchill returned to the United States in June, 1942

On June 17, 1942, Winston Churchill departed Stranraer, Scotland in another flying boat, operated by BOAC pilots under military orders. He arrived in the United States at Baltimore and departed by train for Franklin Roosevelt’s home on the Hudson at Hyde Park, New York. While there Churchill observed the mothballed fleet in the Hudson River and hit upon the idea of sinking some of the vessels to protect the landing sites of invasion troops. FDR like the idea and turned it over to the Navy for consideration. The Navy was not particularly enamored with the idea, but it eventually led to the development of the Mulberry Harbors used in the D-Day invasion two years later. Roosevelt and Churchill remained at Hyde Park for two days, before moving to Washington for the Second Washington Conference. The hastily arranged meeting planned the invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch.

Even at that late stage, FDR still supported the idea of an invasion across the Channel into France. He received continuous messages from Joseph Stalin demanding a second front in Europe, and the Russian had made clear he did not consider an attack on French North Africa a second front. At the end of the conference, FDR made a decision which had a tremendous impact on the rest of the war in Europe. Dwight Eisenhower was named to command all American forces in the European Theater of Operations. Later, Ike would be elevated to Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, placing the Free French under de Gaulle and the British Army, Navy, and Air Forces under his command. Churchill concurred with the idea, to the dismay of some of his own generals, including Montgomery.

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure
Eleanor Roosevelt, here with Churchill’s wife Clementine, had a long and and often contentious relationship with Winston. Wikimedia

19. Eleanor Roosevelt’s opinion of Churchill evolved over time

In March 1965, two months after Churchill’s death following a series of strokes, Eleanor Roosevelt published an article in Vanity Fair discussing her relationship with the famed Englishman. It was decidedly mixed. In it, she made several comments of a less than complimentary nature. “I have to confess I was frightened of Mr. Churchill”, she wrote. “I was solicitous for his comfort, but I was always glad when he departed…” She referred to his working hours late at night as “unconscionable”. The article also revealed the fact that Churchill had long expected and planned for a visit to Britain by FDR. Eleanor was on a trip to that country when Churchill showed her the rooms, modified to accommodate Roosevelt’s wheelchair, in Number 10 Downing Street. Further modifications were made at his country residence, Chartwell.

Though Eleanor made several trips to Great Britain during the war, FDR never did. He traveled to Casablanca, Teheran, and Yalta, to meet with Churchill and Stalin, but for British trips he preferred to send his trusted aide Harry Hopkins, or another aide, to represent him. He also made long trips to the Pacific to meet with Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur. But though Churchill invited him several times, and suggested they meet in Great Britain, FDR never accommodated him. He preferred their meetings to occur in the White House, or on neutral territory, as at Casablanca, in then American-controlled Morocco. The reason was political, FDR reasoned there could only be one head man, and that was he, as far as the Allies were concerned. Churchill and Stalin’s war efforts were dependent on American aid, not the other way around.

Winston Churchill’s Great American Adventure
FDR, Churchill, and entourage at the Quebec Conference in 1943. Wikimedia

20. Churchill’s 1941 trip to Washington altered the course of the war

When Churchill arrived in Washington just before Christmas, 1941, America was a long way from being on a war footing. Coastal cities opposed the idea of a blackout, rationing had not yet begun, and the extent of the disaster at Pearl Harbor remained hidden from the public. Jingoism over the fate of Japan drowned out harsh reality. Churchill’s visit changed much of that. Though he exhorted America and Britain to work for the ultimate victory, he also frankly acknowledged it would present a long, hard, and frequently discouraging war. His soaring oratory and frank assessments endeared him to the American people, even those who just three weeks before had opposed American aid to Britain. After Churchill’s visit, the Anglo-American partnership never wavered through the course of the war. That had been his most important goal.

Churchill and Roosevelt met several more times during the war and maintained a lengthy correspondence in letters, notes, telegrams, and official documentation. As the war went on he visited Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home, the Presidential retreat at Shangri-La, later known as Camp David, and several other sites in the United States. Yet none of these communications and visits carried the importance of his December 1941, journey, across a stormy Atlantic crawling with German U-boats. It was that visit which established the United States and its Allies would concentrate on the complete destruction of the Nazi’s power and ability to make war, to the detriment of the Pacific effort. That war began in earnest in 1942, with American bombers striking targets in Europe, and Allied troops landing in French North Africa in November, the first step on their journey to the Rhine.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Christmas at the White House with Winston Churchill”. Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES. Fall, 2016.

“Churchill’s Character: A Rigid Daily Schedule”. Cole Feix, The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College. February 6, 2019. Online

“Mr. Churchill in the White House”. Robert Schmuhl, White House Historical Association. Online

“Operation Torch: Invasion of North Africa, 8 – 16 November, 1942”. Article. Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“1941-1953 National Christmas Trees”. Article, President’s Park. National Park Service. Online

“Allied visits to Mount Vernon during the Second World War”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Winston and Washington: Remembering Churchill’s romance with wartime Washington DC”. Michael E, Ruane, The Washington Post. October 27, 2016. Online

“‘My Day, 12-27-1941′”. Column, Eleanor Roosevelt. Reprinted at the White House Historical Association. Online

“Churchill Addresses Congress”. Article, Art and History, US Online

“Did Winston Churchill suffer a myocardial infarction in the White House at Christmas 1941?” J. Allister Vale, John W. Scadding, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2017. Online

“Winston Churchill”. Article, Yousef Karash (photographer). Online

“Winter 1942” Article, International Churchill Society. March 12, 2015. Online

“FDR’s White House Map Room”. Article, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Online

“Getting There: Churchill’s Wartime Journeys”. Christopher H. Sterling, International Churchill Society. May 1, 2013. Online

“The Most Daring Flight of the Whole War”. Article, Pan American Historical Foundation. Online

“Medical mystery: Winston Churchill’s most secret battle”. Allan B. Schwartz, Philadelphia Inquirer. November 24, 2017

“The Second Washington Conference”. Papers, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“The ‘Special Relationship’. Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Emergence of the Anglo-American Alliance”. Article, FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Online