The lion in fall: How Churchill stumped in '45

September 22, 1996|By Hans Knight

WHENEVER I THINK of political campaigns -- a mental exercise not easy to avoid these days -- the ghostly contour of a stocky old man standing on the bed of a gray truck, a rain-softened cigar in his mouth, materializes on my memory's screen.

The time was June of 1945. The place was Halifax, Yorkshire, the war in Europe had just ended, and the British people were about to hold a general election.

The old man, whose name was Winston Churchill, had come to town to stump for the local Conservative candidate for Parliament, a tall and earnest chap named Corquodale. A Tory majority in the House of Commons would give Churchill another chance to steer the fortunes of the Empire on which the sun was supposed never to set.

Most of the world, myself included, was sure this would happen. For five years, at once dreary and heroic, the presence of Churchill had fortified the island with a seemingly impenetrable armor. There was no TV, of course. The only links most of us had with him were radio, newspapers and newsreels. It was enough.

The history books and the grainy documentaries still ring with his orations. Some were grim, as in "blood, toil, tears and sweat."

Others humorous, as in "We are waiting for the promised invasion. . . . So are the fishes."

No one who was not there, I still believe, could fully savor the truth that "This was their finest hour."

Halifax had come through it all unscathed, except for the sons and daughters who hadn't come home from the battle.

While London, Coventry and other cities reeled under the Blitz, just one load of bombs fell on the town; dropped by a frightened German flier, they bruised an abandoned farmhouse on the nearby moors and killed a few rabbits.

Horace, my foreman in the worsted mill in which I was working, had, of course, known all along that nothing could happen to Halifax.

"Buggers won't hit this bloody place because we're in a bloody hole and there's bloody air pockets, tha' knows. They'll be lucky to get away from the town. Bloody air pocket'll suck poor buggers down, like."

Some cynics maintained that there wasn't anything much worth bombing. They would quote the old saying, "From Hell, Hull and Halifax, O Lord deliver us," but Horace objected patriotically: "They'd hit us if they could because of t'mills. We're making yarn for half t'bloody British army, tha' knows."

By the day Churchill arrived, though, the mills had reverted from army khaki and air force and navy blue yarn to less bellicose, civilian colors. In fact, coal was scarce and mill work was slow because the plants had to save the steam that worked the machines.

Thus, with time on our hands, Horace and I walked down the lane and into the town center to hear what Mr. Churchill had to say. We picked up a bag of chips on the way at Kath's fish shop. A few people joined us, including Austin Davis, an articulate Welshman who was headmaster at Battinson Road School.

When we arrived in the square, it was black with people in grimy mackintoshes, and as we craned our necks we could see the great man on the truck. The wind tousled his thin white hair. He wore a silver-gray overcoat with wide sleeves and he looked pink and massive.

The Conservative candidate stood beside him, pleased and deferential, and Churchill smiled broadly and took the man's hand and lifted it in a victory gesture. There were friendly murmurs, but louder boos, because this was a working man's town and finest hours or no finest hours, people thought it was time for a change.

But they cheered when Churchill took the microphone and began to speak. A small boy climbed up a lamppost for a better view. It was a good speech, but the fire fanned by the Luftwaffe's propellers had died. Still, the Churchill S's came through with a grand hiss, and there were the pauses during which the master orator pretended to search for the right word.

Mr. Davis, the headmaster, turned to Horace and said, "Winnie talks like a man and thinks like a genius."

"Oh aye," said Horace. "But he won't win bloody election. He's a grand warhorse but people like Clem bloody Attlee 'cause they want better wages and a bit of best butter on table."

As for himself, said Horace, he wasn't sure whom to vote for. He liked the old man, but didn't trust the Tories because some of them once tried to give in to "yon bloody Hitler."

Churchill had now finished his speech and everybody on the truck shook his hand in turn. Then, suddenly, Winston Churchill stepped back to the microphone, fished a fresh cigar from his pocket and waggled it at the boy up on the lamppost.

"And tell that little fellow up there to be careful he doesn't fall off." The crowd burst into a happy roar. "Good old Winnie."

Churchill gave the V-sign as the truck rolled into the distance.

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