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Winston Churchill slept here?


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Transcontinental Media columnist Ed Roberts

Winston Churchill, the greatest Englishman of the 20th century, visited Newfoundland several times during his long political career. But only once did he stop the night here, and even then, he slept aboard a ship moored in our waters and not in a building on shore.

Indeed, for many years there was a heated debate among those interested in such matters as to whether he actually set foot on our soil.

Churchill wasn't in Newfoundland as a tourist, to look at our scenic wonders or even to sample the hospitality for which we are famed. It was the Second World War that brought him here. For us, and for Britain and the Commonwealth and Empire, the war broke out in September 1939.

But it wasn't until Dec. 7, 1941 that the United States entered the war. That's the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, wreaking massive damage on the United States Navy ships, and killing several thousand American servicemen and civilians. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American President, called it "a day of infamy."

Although Churchill and Roosevelt had met only once over the years, they had been in close contact with each other by telephone, cable, letter and through personal emissaries since the war began. (Their one previous meeting had been in London, in July 1919; Churchill was Britain's Colonial Secretary, and Roosevelt was a lowly Assistant Secretary of the US Navy. Churchill, much to Roosevelt's displeasure, didn't recall their dinner together when they met in Placentia Bay).

By September 1940, the Royal Navy was desperately short of warships. Newfoundland played an important part in the first American effort to help Britain. Roosevelt and the United States came to its rescue by trading outdated First World War-era destroyers for the right to build American bases here and in Bermuda.

The collaboration between Churchill and Roosevelt grew to the point where the two men decided they should meet, to discuss war aims and common strategy. They agreed to do so in Placentia Bay, close by the US Navy's then-under-construction base at Argentia.

Both men came by sea, in the greatest secrecy. Churchill crossed the Atlantic aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and Roosevelt — who let it be known to the American public that he was on a fishing vacation off Maine — travelled aboard the USS Augusta, a large heavy cruiser.

Each arrived at the rendezvous point on Aug. 9, 1941, and each was accompanied by his senior military, naval and diplomatic advisers. They met several times. All but one of the meetings took place aboard the American ship, because Roosevelt's polio prevented him from walking properly, and made it difficult for him to move about.

Roosevelt did come aboard HMS Prince of Wales on Sunday, Aug. 10, 1941 to take part in a church service. The service was followed by lunch, with short speeches by the prime minister and the president. Roosevelt then returned to the Augusta.

That afternoon, Churchill made his one foray into Newfoundland. Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (and thus his senior official adviser on foreign policy); Frederick Lindemann, his scientific adviser; John Martin, one of his Private Secretaries; Tommy Thompson, his Personal Detective; and Averell Harriman, a senior adviser to Roosevelt, joined him.

Two of those who witnessed the event wrote first-hand accounts.

Cadogan, in his diary, said: "I changed and went ashore on a shingly bay with the PM (in his rompers), Harriman, the 'Prof', [Lindemann] John Martin and Tommy Thompson. We clambered over some rocks, the PM like a schoolboy, getting a great kick out of rolling boulders down a cliff. We soon re-embarked and landed on a spit further along, over which we walked and found a turf clearing — an ideal place for a picnic. But it clouded over and we were caught in a short, but extremely violent shower.

"Back about 5.45 and soon changed into a dinner jacket. We gave a dinner on board to American generals and admirals, and Sumner Welles (the American Undersecretary of State)."

Of the expedition ashore, John Martin recalled: "We went about like the first discoverers, with not a soul to meet, the PM collecting a fistful of flowers."

H.V. Morton, a well-known British author who had been asked by Churchill to accompany him aboard the battleship and to observe the meetings at firsthand, confirmed in the book he published subsequently that Churchill did in fact go ashore: "A whaler was brought round to the gangway [of PRINCE OF WALES] towed by a motor launch. Mr. Churchill appeared on deck dressed again in his siren suit in company with Mr. Averell Harriman, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Commander Thompson and Mr. Martin. We watched them depart and an hour or so later we saw them returning. Mr. Churchill was sitting in the whaler holding a bunch of pink wild flowers he had collected on the beaches and the hills."

Churchill himself, left no record, as far as is known. But it is obvious from those who did that the British prime minister thoroughly enjoyed his brief stay in Newfoundland — even if he didn't meet any of our people.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

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