Sunday, November 19, 2017

My first day at No. 10

‘My first day at No. 10. It began at 9.30 a.m. and finished at 6.30. In the course of it I met the Prime Minister, who was shy but welcoming, Mrs Chamberlain (who looks utterly vague) [. . .] I read with interest the various drafts, by the Prime Minister, Churchill, Cadogan, Vansittart and Corbin, suggested for the reply to Hitler’s peace proposals. When the proposals are rejected it is thought likely that Hitler will launch a tremendous onslaught. For the moment calm reigns on land, sea and air.’ This is Sir John Rupert Colville, who died 30 years ago today, writing in his diary about his first day working for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a very young assistant private secretary. But, he would stay at No 10 to work for Winston Churchill during the war and then again in the 1950s. His diaries provide a detailed portrait of Churchill, ‘whose blazing presence and wealth of eccentricity’, according to one reviewer, ‘light up almost every page’.

Colville, the youngest of three sons, was born in London in 1915. His father, the Honourable George Colville, was a barrister, and his mother, Lady Cynthia Colville, was a lady in waiting to Queen Mary. As a child, he served as a page of honour to King George V. Educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the diplomatic service in 1937. After two years, he was seconded to 10 Downing Street to act as assistant private secretary to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He served in that same position at No. 10  under Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. However, after the outbreak of war, he was resolved to sign up, and, eventually, in October 1941 he overcame opposition from his employer, the Foreign Office, to join the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve. He trained in South Africa before being commissioned as a pilot officer and joining 268 squadron of the second Tactical Air Force, flying Mustang fighters. He remained with the air force until the end of 1943 (despite Churchill pressuring him to return to No. 10) and then was allowed to rejoin his unit for the invasion of France before returning to Whitehall in August 1944.

In 1947, Colville left the Foreign Office to become private secretary to Princess Elizabeth, but he only stayed two years before returning to the civil service and being posted to Lisbon as first secretary. Before then, however, in 1948, he married Lady Margaret Egerton, with whom he had two sons and one daughter (who became one of Queen Elizabeth’s many godchildren). In 1951, when Churchill returned to power, Colville left Lisbon to be his principal private secretary, and remained so until Churchill’s retirement in 1955. Subsequently, Colville took up various appointments in the private sector, was a trustee of the Churchill estates, and wrote biographical and autobiographical books, some of them about Churchill. He was knighted in 1974, and died on 19 November 1987. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Peerage, or Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required)

Colville kept diaries for at least 20 years, from the start of the war until 1957. These are held at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre, and all but one are publicly available. Colville himself edited these diaries which were published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1985 as The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955. They are considered particular valuable for the insight they give into Churchill. Indeed more recent editions (see Amazon), such as that in 2004 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, picture Churchill 
(not Colville, the author) on the cover .

Paul Addison’s review in the London Review of Books at the time of initial publication stated: ‘Some readers will enjoy [Colville’s] diaries mainly as a portrait of Churchill, whose blazing presence and wealth of eccentricity light up almost every page. But in the background a larger subject looms up. Three-quarters of the book depicts the Second World War as seen from the pinnacles of Tory and aristocratic society. Densely populated with characters major and minor, and echoing with the table-talk at White’s and the Turf, the Colville diaries are a unique record of a governing class still functioning with superb aplomb in the midst of the People’s War.’

Indeed, Churchill lights up the pages of many other diaries, see for example A third dose of pneumonia (Charles McMoran Wilson) and Went to see P.M. (in bed) (Alexander Cadogan).

Colville explains, in his introduction to The Fringes of Power, how he came to begin writing a diary, and then, eventually, to publish it: ‘On August 23rd I had been due to sail to New York on my first visit to the U.S.A. for a month’s holiday in Wyoming where some close Anglo-American friends had rented a ranch. I looked forward with excitement to seeing America; and I had a strong emotional incentive, which had been growing throughout the summer. Hitler put a stop to all that, for all leave was cancelled just before my ship was due to sail, so at the beginning of September 1939 I was waiting at my desk in Whitehall for war to be declared, twenty-four years old, a Third Secretary in the Diplomatic Service of two years’ standing and tempted to resign before, on my twenty-fifth birthday, my employment should become a reserved occupation from which there would be no escape while the war lasted. Unsure of what was going to happen next, I decided to keep a diary.

I have used extracts from it in several books I have written, and I lent a large part of it to Martin Gilbert for background information and quotation in the concluding volumes of his official life of Winston Churchill. Now, a long time after it was written, I present it in consecutive form, having eliminated a high proportion of the trivial entries which are of no general interest, but leaving in a few which may perhaps help to recapture the “atmosphere” of the time.’

Here are several extracts from the published diaries.

10 October 1939
‘My first day at No. 10. It began at 9.30 a.m. and finished at 6.30. In the course of it I met the Prime Minister, who was shy but welcoming, Mrs Chamberlain (who looks utterly vague), Sir Horace Wilson and Captain David Margesson. The latter said, “You know my daughters, I believe”, with a rather penetrating stare! [The penetrating stare was due to his knowledge that I was deeply in love with his younger daughter, who was beautiful, gay and intelligent.]

I sit in the same room as Miss Watson and Lord Dunglass. Miss Watson showed me how to deal with some of the enormous post which arrives every day now, and I also began looking into the question of the Ecclesiastical patronage with which I am to deal, and about which my predecessor, Jasper Rootham, came to talk to me in the morning.

I read with interest the various drafts, by the Prime Minister, Churchill, Cadogan, Vansittart and Corbin, suggested for the reply to Hitler's peace proposals. When the proposals are rejected it is thought likely that Hitler will launch a tremendous onslaught. For the moment calm reigns on land, sea and air.’

21 October 1939
‘It was a day like summer, and although the leaves were by no means off the trees we could scarcely have had a better shoot. Pheasants were plentiful, the shooting was good, and we killed well over 250.

At lunch I sat next to an American girl called Gracia Nevill, who gave me a description of an hour’s conversation she had had with Hitler at Berchtesgaden and described the complete difference in him when he was talking of politics and when he was talking of other matters. In the former case he was a fanatic, in the latter a quiet and very impressive conversationalist.’

2 July 1940
‘Tomorrow at dawn we put into operation a plan called CATAPULT which entails the seizure of all French ships in British ports and, later in the day, an ultimatum to the big French capital ships at Oran.

The P.M. says that in the event of invasion London should be defended. To take it would cost the Germans many lives. Secret Service reports from Norway make it clear that invasion is being prepared from there as well as from other quarters. It is suggested that Iceland and the Shetlands may be among the first objectives, that a feint will be made against the East Coast, but that the real attack will be from the West.

Beaverbrook wants to resign because of his difficulties with the Air Ministry and, in particular, with the Air Marshals. Winston won’t hear of any such thing at the present moment and, of course, it does rather look as if B. wanted to leave now, at the peak of success in aircraft production, before new difficulties arise. It is like trying to stop playing cards immediately after a run of luck.

Brendan Bracken is apparently to be allowed to supervise the appointment of bishops - which I find a little hard to stomach. Brendan is all very well - intelligent, forceful and often sensible - but he is not the man to deal with bishops.

Winston returned about 10.45 p.m. from a tour of defences in the South and life became both hot and hectic.’

14 May 1945
‘At No. 10 I found everybody looking rather strained after a week of violent rejoicing and tumult. Mrs Churchill was just back from Russia where her tour has been a remarkable success.

The volume of work is if anything more pressing than when I left. Victory has brought no respite. The P.M. looks tired and has to fight for the energy to deal with the problems confronting him. These include the settlement of Europe, the last round of war in the East, an election on the way, and the dark cloud of Russian imponderability. In Venezia Giulia we stand on the brink of an armed clash with Tito, secure of Russian support, who wishes to seize Trieste, Pola, etc., from Italy without awaiting the adjudication of the Peace Conference. The Americans seem willing to stand four square with us and Truman shows great virility; but Alexander has alarmed them - and incensed the P.M. - by casting doubts on the attitude of the Anglo-American troops, should there come an armed clash with the Yugoslavs. Equally, as regards the Polish question, Russia shows no willingness to compromise and storm clouds threaten. Finally, as if we had not enough, de Gaulle sends a cruiser full of troops to Syria, where the position is delicate and the feeling against French domination strong, and there is a possible threat of a show-down, with British troops involved, in the Levant.

At 2.30 the P.M. went to bed, leaving almost untouched the voluminous weight of paper which awaits his decision. He told me that he doubted if he had the strength to carry on.’

23 May 1945
‘The P.M. went to the Palace at noon, as pre-arranged, and asked to resign. Then there was a pause, as the P.M. was anxious to emphasise to the public that the King has the right to decide for whom he shall send, and at 4.00 he returned to be invited to form a new, and a Conservative, Government. On the whole I think the people are on the P.M.’s side in this preliminary skirmish and it is generally supposed that many will vote for the Conservatives merely out of personal loyalty to W.S.C. Parliament will be dissolved in three weeks and the election will be on July 5th.

At No. 10 no work is being done by the P.M. We are all having to deal ourselves with many papers which ought to be submitted to him and I have persuaded the Foreign Office to send us the very minimum of minutes. I “weed” every day some sixty per cent of the Foreign Office telegrams. I suppose that three times as much paper comes to us now as in 1940 and that the P.M. sees half as much. But, of course, the problems, though more immediately grave then, were simpler in that the machinery of Government was far less elaborate and we had no Allies. Now there are boards and committees without number and two mighty Allies to be considered at every turn, apart from the host of lesser concerns such as French tactlessness in the Levant, Greek claims to the Dodecanese, internal Italian feuds, etc., etc. In 1941, when I left to join the R.A.F., I used often to be comparatively idle for days at a time and to think we were overstaffed. Now, apart from the Prof., Desmond Morton and Harvie-Watt we are six Private Secretaries (of whom Anthony Bevir, concentrating on Patronage, and Miss Watson on Parliamentary Questions, take no part in the routine of the office in current affairs), three male clerks, three eminently efficient women who look after the vast files of secret papers, and about sixteen typists, etc. Yet we seem to be understaffed.’

16 July 1954
‘Things came to a head today, at any rate within 10 Downing Street. Before luncheon Harold Macmillan came to see Lady Churchill and told her that the Cabinet was in danger of breaking up on this issue. When he had gone she rang me up and asked me to come and see her. I in fact knew more about the situation than she did and since she proposed to “open” the matter to Winston at luncheon, I suggested I should stay too.

She began by putting her foot into it in saying that the Cabinet were angry with W. for mishandling the situation, instead of saying that they were trying to stop Salisbury going. He snapped back at her - which he seldom does - and afterwards complained to me that she always put the worst complexion on everything in so far as it affected him. However, he did begin to see that Salisbury’s resignation would be serious on this issue, whereas two days ago when I mentioned the possibility to him he said that he didn’t “give a damn”. On the other hand it became clear that he had taken the steps he had, without consulting the Cabinet, quite deliberately. He admitted to me that if he had waited to consult the Cabinet after the Queen Elizabeth returned, they would almost certainly have raised objections and caused delays. The stakes in this matter were so high and, as he sees it, the possible benefits so crucial to our survival, that he was prepared to adopt any methods to get a meeting with the Russians arranged.’

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