By John David Olsen
The 28th International Churchill Conference was held in London the last week of October 2011 to glowing reviews. “A triumph!” exclaimed one participant.
The overarching theme of the two-day conference was the “Special Relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. Opinions of the speakers on the various panels ranged in views from “it is actually a ‘special’ relationship,” to others arguing that while it’s an “important” relationship, its not actually “special” and further afield, it was argued that its existence is a complete myth.
The evening before the conference began a dinner was held to present the “Churchillian of the Year” award. The award was presented to the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards (accepted on his behalf by his deputy) and presented by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Nearly 350 people, including His Excellency The French Ambassador Bernard Emié, who also accepted an international award on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attended the dinner. (The French President was a bit tied up on matters of Greece and the Euro.)
Mr. Johnson in his entertaining and machine-gun style of delivery couldn’t help making a few jokes at the expense of the Frenchmen present, all taken in good humor of course and détente between old allies was reached by the end of the evening. The Pol Roger may have helped!
The conference panels included some most outstanding guests, on one of which both the participants actually worked for Mr Churchill; Lady Williams of Elvel and Mr Hugh Lunghi, moderated by The Churchill Centre’s and Churchill Archives Allen Packwood. Lady Williams was one of the small team of personal secretaries who looked after Sir Winston in shifts, many times into the early hours of the morning as she recounted. Mr Lunghi was one of Churchill’s Russian translators during the later years of WWII.
Lunghi was at the first of the “Big Three” wartime conferences, the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and later at the Yalta Conference in 1945, sometimes working directly between Churchill and Stalin, and able to observe all the principals. Hearing first-person accounts of the exchanges that took place some seventy years ago was truly remarkable.
There is a rather famous story from the 1943 Tehran Conference, in which Churchill presented Joseph Stalin with a specially commissioned ceremonial sword as a gift from King George VI. The “The Sword of Stalingrad,” crafted in Sheffield, was to commemorate the Soviet victory over the Germans in that city in 1943. It was presented to Marshall Stalin as a gift to the people of Stalingrad and all of the citizens of the Soviet Union. As Lunghi tells the story, Stalin was visibly moved by the very personal gesture of HRH. Stalin kissed the scabbard and handed the sword to Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who was standing next to him at the time. As Stalin handed over the gift at this especially moving moment, the sword fell straight out of its scabbard and crashed to the floor with a loud clang, to the extreme embarrassment of all involved, most deeply Marshall Voroshilov.
As Mr Lunghi gave his personal account the story, Marshall Voroshilov approached him the next day and asked if he might have a few private words with the PM, to which all was agreed. The Soviet Marshall then personally apologized to Churchill for the regrettable incident, for which in Stalin’s own army he may well have lost his head with the very same sword.
Other conference speakers included eminent historians Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, and Sir Max Hastings, both giving accounts from their vast historical knowledge.
Director of the Churchill War Rooms, Phil Reed hosted a Champaign reception (Pol Roger of course) on Thursday evening at the War Rooms. Lady Soames was kind enough to be on hand to sign copies of her new book, A Daughter’s Tale, which has just been released in the UK. (It will be available in North America in the spring of 2012 but can currently be ordered from Amazon.co.uk for overseas delivery.) At the reception, Churchill Centre Chairman Mr Laurence Geller presented Celia Sandys with the Blenheim Award.
Friday’s conference was again full of debate over the UK/US relationship and whether or not one actually exists. Sir David Manning, former British Ambassador to the United States, began the debate as the morning keynote, then the question continued to be argued with a panel of The Rt Hon Lord Howard of Lympne, Dr Irwin Stelzer, and Sir Robert Worcester. The arguments of the panel ranged from “there is no special relationship at all”, to “it’s an important relationship, but not a ‘special’ one”, to “it is the most important and special of all relationships”. A very lively debate and excellent questions ensued; some of the most thoughtful and provocative ones being from the students in attendance.
The afternoon took a much different and not quite so serious turn. Several performers were invited to stage for a look at bringing Churchill to the masses on stage and screen. Rohan McCullough kindly provided a special one-off performance of part of her one-woman show, My Darling Clemmie, in which she gave a very convincing performance of Clementine Churchill. She then joined an all star panel that comprised: Mr Robert Hardy CBE, who played Sir Winston in Winston Churchill, The Wilderness Years, Hugh Whitmore, playwright for the film, The Gathering Storm, and Jeremy Clyde, who is currently playing Lord Halifax in the new play Three Days in May. The formalities concluded, the conference ended in traditional style, with a black-tie dinner, national anthems, and an after dinner speech by Dr Rob Havers of the Churchill Memorial and Museum at Fulton, Missouri.
At the chilly and brisk but sunny weekend, optional tours were conducted to ebullient reviews. Randolph Churchill was kind enough to conduct tours of Chartwell, Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill of Blenheim Palace, and Sir Martin Gilbert a walking tour of Churchill related sites around London.
Churchill Centre Chairman Laurence Geller remarked, “Allen Packwood and his team did an incredible job on the conference. All their hard work has clearly paid off and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.”
As a microcosm, the “Special Relationship” was clearly in evidence among the conference delegates, all of who seemed to be having quite a delightful time.