Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

Ever since William the Conqueror, Anglo-French relations have been a major preoccupation on both sides of the English Channel. In 1940, when the Wehrmacht bypassed the Maginot line and was on the way to Paris, a crisis arose in this relationship such as had never occurred before. From the British side came a belated proposal to unite the two countries in a common citizenship. But it was too late; the French capitulated, and turned to their aged but greatly venerated Marshal Pétain, with the unsavory Pierre Laval at his elbow, to make the best terms he could with Hitler’s Third Reich, without reference to France’s obligations to its allies.

Much water has flowed under the bridges since this happened, but it remains an episode of great interest and importance, and books on and off the campuses continue to be written about it. For instance, End of the Affair, a well-researched study of the breakdown of the Anglo-French alliance in 1939-1940: highly readable, and a useful work of reference. The title, echoing a famous Graham Greene novel, is not quite apt in that, as things have turned out, the broken-off affair led to a shotgun wedding—common membership of the European Common Market—with ominous rumbles of a divorce to follow. Dr. François Kersaudy, on the other hand, in his book presents the same situation by way of its two leading characters—Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. Temperamentally, I find his treatment more to my taste than Eleanor Gates’s; people always interest me more than happenings. Even so, the two books together cover a fascinating piece of history which loses none of its luster with the passage of time.

The late Sir James (P.J.) Grigg in his early days as a civil servant was Winston Churchill’s secretary when he was chancellor of the exchequer; then, in 1942, he was made secretary of state for war in Churchill’s wartime government. It was he who related to me this curious incident. On VE Day when the Allied victory in Europe was being celebrated, he and Sir Alan Brooke, then chief of the Imperial General Staff, were looking out of the window of the War Office in Whitehall, and saw Sir Winston drive by in an open car, ruddy of face, making his V-sign, and bowing graciously to left and right. “Do you love him or hate him more?” Grigg asked Brooke. After careful consideration Brooke answered that he hated him more.

Probably most of Churchill’s associates, apart from the mere stooges like Lords Ismay and Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, would, if they were being honest, have answered similarly. Churchill was an inconsiderate and ungracious master, and the excitement of working with him scarcely compensated for the ardors and insults involved. Nonetheless, Grigg and Brooke would have had to agree that Churchill alone could have taken over the government in 1940 when Hitler’s panzers had swept into France, and were in a fair way to dominating the whole of Western Europe. In such circumstances, someone like Churchill was essential, with his rhetoric—a rather ghastly mix of Gibbon, the Authorized Version of the Bible, topped up by Macaulay—his unawareness that the days of the British empire were numbered, his dogged belief that the British lion was as formidable as ever, and that all he had to do as leader—as he put it himself in a subsequent broadcast—was to give tongue to the lion’s roar.

The alternative, anyway, would have been to follow France’s example and surrender, with Lloyd George as Pétain; there is good reason to believe that he was ready and poised to undertake this role. It was Stalin who, with understandable satisfaction, remarked that rarely had one man so influenced the course of history as Churchill had. What he meant was that without Churchill Hitler would have won the war, whereas with him Stalin could win it.

Curiously enough or perhaps, according to Blake’s concept of fearful symmetry, inevitably, there emerged on the other side of the Channel a corresponding leader—De Gaulle—epitomizing, as Churchill did, departed greatness; striving to uphold an empire that was already lost, and dreaming of restoring to France the power and influence that had been dissipated in the inglorious years of the Third Republic. What a brilliant idea, then, on the part of Dr. François Kersaudy to make a special detailed study of the relations and transactions between these two men, washed up together by the turbulence of the twentieth century, and managing up to a point to cooperate despite their so different temperaments and backgrounds—the one a veteran politician and the virtually unanimously chosen leader of a still undefeated country, the other, in the atrocious jargon of our time, a displaced person, claiming to represent a country that had designated him a traitor, with no money, no army, an apparat, only his own enormous will and undeviating purpose to lead France back to greatness, with himself directing its affairs and shaping its future destiny.


The very appearance of the two men expressed their differences—Churchill plump, loquacious, with that special kind of vulgarity that aristocrats develop when they take to demagogy; De Gaulle tall, withdrawn, solitary, with a professional soldier’s contempt for the parliamentary democracy in which Churchill had gloried and thrived. Initially, metaphorically speaking, they fell into each other’s arms. To Churchill, De Gaulle was the perfect antidote to the spectacle of Marshal Pétain coming to terms with Hitler; to De Gaulle, Churchill represented the will to carry on the war against Nazi Germany which he had found so tragically lacking in his native land. “Quel grand artiste!” Professor Kersaudy quotes De Gaulle as saying of Churchill after one of his ardent dissertations on how the war should be conducted. It was a correct appreciation of Churchill’s qualities; in war, as in peace, he operated romantically rather than with cool calculations and resolve. In other circumstances, he might well have been a successful writer of adventure stories—in fact, his only published novel, not a great work, is in this genre.

Most of his plans and projects were as disastrous as the Gallipoli campaign in the 1914-1918 war and the invasion of Norway in the 1939-1945 war, for both of which campaigns Churchill was largely responsible; his great contributions were his ebullience, his droll sayings, his clowning. Once, near the end of his life, when he was out of office but still a member of Parliament, I happened to be in the House of Commons press gallery when he made his entrance. His mere presence virtually brought the proceedings to a full stop. As soon as he was settled in his place, he began to search through all his pockets for a lozenge with the eyes of all honorable members on both sides of the House focused on him. At last he found his lozenge in one of the upper pockets of his waistcoat, put it in his mouth, and at once fell asleep. While he slumbered on, honorable members proceeded with their business, but still with half an eye on his dozing figure.

Again, on a previous occasion, I have a vivid memory of how, when the egregious Ramsay MacDonald was prime minister in a minority Labour government, and had been accepting a whole series of Tory amendments to a government bill, Churchill rose to his feet and recalled how, when he was a child, his nurse had taken him to a fair. There he had seen an announcement outside a tent that on show within was the Boneless Wonder, but his nurse considered he was too young to be allowed to go inside and have a look at it. “I have waited all these years,” he went on, “and now, at last”—pointing to the prime minister—“I see the Boneless Wonder.” Everyone present, including the MPs on MacDonald’s side of the House, burst into fits of helpless laughter.

It was this capacity to mesmerize and amuse that was the basis of Churchill’s leadership, especially welcome in times of crisis. De Gaulle had no such gift; his strength lay rather in his total confidence in his own authority, which enabled him to impose it on others, and make it acceptable to others. Thus as an exile in London without an army—apart from a few demoralized troops who had come over to England from Dunkirk—money, or weapons, he was still able to establish himself as the authentic leader of the Free French—those, that is to say, who had not accepted the Pétainist setup in Vichy. At this time there were all sorts of émigré governments and missions knocking about in London from German-occupied countries. Today only a few specialists would remember they ever existed, let alone their names; but no one, writing about this period, will ever be able to forget De Gaulle. Out of his own resolution, his own arrogance even, his sense of history and his abounding love for his country and its people, and inexhaustible egotism, he carved a unique place for himself; a reputation that will always be controversial but can never be overlooked.

Relations between Churchill and De Gaulle were initially most amicable. Churchill’s memories of the 1914-1918 war, not to mention his visits as a young man to Paris, led to his glamorizing France and the French, and the arrival in London of a French officer resolved to represent his country and continue the war against Germany on its behalf greatly appealed to Churchill’s romanticism; the more so because De Gaulle’s very dependence on the British for arms and other facilities would, he calculated, mean that he could manipulate De Gaulle, especially in his struggles with President Roosevelt. Professor Kersaudy shows with chapter and verse, sometimes very amusingly, how Churchill came to realize that, far from having a young and respectful disciple on his hands, he was dealing with someone stronger and more obstinate than himself.


One of the weapons Churchill employed in their rows was to insist on speaking French that De Gaulle could not understand; nor could he bring himself to suffer gladly such a slaughter of his mother tongue. A device De Gaulle used was to disappear into some remote part of the French empire and leave Churchill guessing what he was up to. Or he would involve himself in an imaginary struggle to salvage French colonial interests—for instance, in Syria—on which he believed the British had cast envious eyes. He and Churchill were both preoccupied with safeguarding the future of empires that to all intents and purposes no longer existed, and they were fated not just to witness, but to accept as inescapable, the dismantling, in Churchill’s case of the British Raj in India, in De Gaulle’s of French North Africa.

With the Allied landings in North Africa, and the setting up in Algiers of an Allied forces headquarters, teeming with British and American officers, De Gaulle’s position was greatly enhanced despite the efforts of President Roosevelt to replace him by General Henri Giraud. I was myself present there as a liaison officer with the French Securité Militaire, and was able to watch De Gaulle forge ahead and Giraud fall by the wayside despite his powerful sponsor. In the exchanges of letters between Roosevelt and Churchill* there was a certain amount of bad-taste badinage about their two French protégés, De Gaulle and Giraud; “In regard to De Gaulle,” Roosevelt wrote to Churchill, “I have hitherto enjoyed a quiet satisfaction in leaving him in your hands—apparently I have now acquired a similar problem in brother Giraud.” As Professor Kersaudy intimates, Churchill knew better than this, and did truly recognize in De Gaulle outstanding qualities and vision which would give him a role in the history of the years ahead, but his own, as he considered, necessity to ingratiate himself with Roosevelt led to his ostensibly falling in with the president’s patronizing and often facetious attitude.

Now that De Gaulle’s position as France’s authorized leader was established, his rows with Churchill and with Roosevelt via Churchill, grew even more bitter and furious. Syria was a source of strife. De Gaulle believed that the British were engaged in undermining French influence there with a view to taking over themselves, when in fact neither country had any kind of imperialist future in Syria, or indeed in the Middle East. Then there was De Gaulle’s exclusion from the Yalta Conference, and Roosevelt’s patronizing invitation by way of compensation to come for a chat aboard his ship on his way home. In declining, De Gaulle remarked that it was like being excluded from a dinner party and then asked to drop in for coffee.

Actually, De Gaulle’s presence at Yalta might well have prevented some of its more appalling consequences; Roosevelt was a dying man who, according to Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, felt he had made a big step forward when he managed to slip “Uncle Joe” into a conversation with Stalin, and Churchill was bent upon defending at all costs a lost empire. The document he handed Stalin on which he had scribbled down the degrees of British and Russian influence in this and that country (as: Greece—Britain 90 percent, Russia 10 percent; Yugoslavia, the other way round) must surely be one of the most fatuous even in the archives of the Foreign Office, De Gaulle could have been relied upon to introduce some element of realism into the Yalta deliberations, for which reason, of course, Stalin would never have agreed to his being invited.

The exclusion that, understandably, enraged De Gaulle most was from the two Allied landings in France—a completely useless one in the south under General Alexander Patch, and the decisive D-day one under Eisenhower in Normandy. Furthermore it had been agreed, at Roosevelt’s insistence, that after the landings had taken place an Allied Military Government in Occupied Territory (known as AMGOT until it turned out that by ill chance in Turkish the word meant “shit”) should be set up pending arrangements for holding elections and putting the democratic process in train. De Gaulle countered this plan by the simple expedient of making his way to France and to Paris; and wherever he went, without any kind of referendum, manifesto, or appeal, he was accepted as being in charge, as being the government, with the result that the AMGOT arrangement just faded away and was forgotten.

I saw something of all this myself, since I went to Paris with two French intelligence officers at just about the same time as De Gaulle. It was quite extraordinary; Pétain and his Vichy regime might never have been and the spotlight settled on De Gaulle as the true and unmistakable custodian of France’s destiny. The situation was perfectly expressed at the great thanksgiving service in the cathedral of Notre Dame when someone—accidentally, as it turned out—fired a pistol shot, and the whole vast congregation, including all the notabilities, with one accord fell flat on their faces. The single exception being De Gaulle, who, standing alone, seemed taller than ever, more remote than ever, upright despite the pistol shot, as, metaphorically speaking, he had remained upright when the distracted French gathered round their aged and largely gaga Maréchal four years before.

Later, he and Churchill drove together to the Arc de Triomphe, and then walked side by side down the Champs-Elysées. At celebratory occasions—including Churchill’s funeral—they were always at one; once again De Gaulle saw Churchill as ce grand artiste rather than as a treacherous friend, and Churchill saw De Gaulle as “the symbol of the soul of France and of the unbreakable integrity of her spirit in adversity” rather than as a squalid nuisance.

De Gaulle soon wearied of presiding over a government that was busily, as he considered, reenacting all the worst features of the Third Republic, and in 1946, out of the blue, to the amazement of his colleagues, stalked into a cabinet meeting, banged the table, and muttering “J’en ai marre!” stalked out again. It was his way of announcing his own and his colleagues’ resignation. This was the lowest point in De Gaulle’s political fortunes; his party—the Rassemblement du Peuple Français—had shrunk to very few, mustered in the Assemblée by Jacques Soustelle, a prominent figure in De Gaulle’s équipe in London and Paris, and later a member of his government until they quarreled over Algerian policy. For some mysterious reason Dr. Kersaudy does not so much as mention Soustelle, and describes Colonel Passy—real name André Dewavrin—as having “set up and command[ed] General de Gaulle’s ubiquitous and highly efficient intelligence service.” As a liaison officer with this service in London, Algiers, and Paris, I was given to understand that Soustelle was the head man, and this, to the best of my knowledge, was the opinion throughout MI6.

In my experience, men of action are always more interesting and informative when their fortunes are very low; when they are riding high they tend to be vainglorious and deranged, if not downright mad. Thus it seemed like a good time to interview De Gaulle, more particularly as most of the foreign journalists at the Hotel Scribe seemed convinced that his day was done. Soustelle kindly arranged for him to see me at his office in the rue Solferino. It was a modest enough setup; De Gaulle was seated at a desk too small for him. Likewise his uniform—he seemed to be bursting out of it—and his head perched on the top of so elongated a body. Though in a way his appearance was grotesque, there was also something great and noble about him; unlike so many of his fellow rulers, he used no makeup—whether actual for television purposes, or conveyed in attitudes and postures. This, as it were, moral eminence found expression in a remark he made as he stood by the grave of his mongoloid daughter, whom he had tried to see every day however busy he might be, and who had died in her early twenties—“Maintenant elle est comme les autres” (“Now she’s like all the others”). I cannot imagine Churchill finding words, so simple and sublime, on a comparable occasion.

Interviewing De Gaulle was inevitably more an exercise in listening than in talking. Words rolled out of him, one of them—pourriture, meaning putrefaction or corruption—in some profusion, and obviously relating to fellow politicians irrespective of party. There was one question I wanted to put, and at last I managed to get it out—Why, if present arrangements were so unseemly and frustrating, had he not changed them when, at the end of the war, he found himself for a while all-powerful in France? He looked at me with a kind of wonder, as though I had behaved in a manner that was totally unexpected and out-of-the-way; muttered something to the effect that it would not have been appropriate to act just then, and resumed his outpouring of words, each one spoken very clearly, but the total effect Niagara-like.

As, of course, it turned out, after spending some three years in retirement at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises working on his memoirs, De Gaulle did come back into power, and stayed in power during a critical postwar period. This enabled him to arrange another love-feast with Churchill on the occasion of presenting him with the prestigious Croix de la Libération. There were the usual tears on Churchill’s part—politicians cry easily. I remember that when I was a newspaper correspondent in Washington and had occasion to sit in the press gallery on Capitol Hill, the senators needed their handkerchiefs almost as much as their spittoons. Dr. Kersaudy quotes De Gaulle as saying to General Eisenhower when he was on a presidential visit to Paris: “I knew how much he [Churchill] liked medals. When I returned to power, I bestowed the Order of the Liberation upon him, and I did it under the watchful eye of Napoléon!… How he cried, but what a great artist!” These protestations of affection did not prevent De Gaulle from subsequently blocking Britain’s entry into the Common Market, to Churchill’s great chagrin.

The two men undoubtedly held each other in genuine affection and esteem, but in their attitude of mind and temperament they were very different. Churchill really did not understand the twentieth century at all; De Gaulle understood it all too well. A good example of how they differed is provided by their reactions to the news that the Wehrmacht had invaded the USSR. Churchill delivered a fulsome oration on the theme that now we should let bygones be bygones, and stand shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy, etc., etc. De Gaulle, on the other hand, after hearing Churchill’s speech, remarked ruminatively to the little group of officers with him that the problem now would be how to prevent a communist takeover of Europe (“qu’il faudra desormais songer aux moyens d’arrêter la progression communiste en Europe“). Churchill’s ebullient temperament enabled him, at one and the same time, to speak in the House of Commons about his old comrade in arms Stalin, who when he gave his word could be relied on to keep it, and then to deliver his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, in militant cold war terms.

In his years of office De Gaulle acquired some of the tricks of contemporary demagogy. For instance, when he prepared a televised speech he practiced delivering it in front of a mirror with a man from the Comédie Française standing by to advise him on gestures and postures. It must have been an awesome sight. Also, when crowds assembled to cheer and stare at him, he took to diving into them and shaking hands with everyone within reach, so that when he emerged his hands were liable to be bruised and swollen—the stigmata of universal-suffrage democracy—and his uniform torn, with some of his buttons missing. When he finally retired, he went for a holiday in Ireland; at the hotel where he stayed, as a special favor, an elongated bed was provided for his comfort. At about this time, I ventured to write suggesting to him that since his great political career began with a BBC broadcast, he might care to have a last word on the same channel. He replied, very characteristically, saying that it was not his intention any more “to utilize the waves” (utiliser les ondes) for the purpose of transmitting any message whatsoever. I cannot think of anyone else in the world to whom broadcasting would be thus seen as “utilizing the waves.”

Churchill, too, to his own and most people’s surprise, found himself out of office in July 1945, and settled down to writing his war memoirs at his country house, Chartwell, near Westerham, where he gathered round him a bizarre collection of experts and specialists, secretaries, and other miscellaneous helpers. As it happened, in my capacity as deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, for some reason or other that I never quite understood, I was summoned down to Chartwell when Operation Memoirs was in full swing. It was a weird and unforgettable experience. Churchill himself, zipped up in his siren suit, looked more than ever like an enormously inflated baby sucking at a cigar instead of a teat. Seated among his aides, he might have been the conductor of an orchestra, calling upon the big bassoon, the flute, the drums and cymbals, and other instruments as and when required. That particular afternoon he was quite delighted with the title of the section of the memoirs they were working on—The Hinge of Fate; repeating it over and over with the utmost relish. Then a tray was brought in; I expected tea, but it turned out to be highballs.

Later, he took me into the garden, and showed me with great pride some miniature waterworks he had fixed up; also some goldfish in a pond, pointing out that they would only come to him when he scattered food on the water. Weren’t they, in that case, rather like his constituents? I asked. This amused him, and he agreed that they were. After the goldfish, he took me to a sort of outhouse whose walls were decorated with, as I thought, not very good pictures by a nephew, John Churchill, of episodes in the life of his great ancestor Marlborough. Then, back in the house, he showed me a leaflet issued in the South African war, and offering a reward for his capture.

Up to this point, it had all been like a trip through a rather unusual Disneyland, but when we sat down I desperately wanted to raise a serious matter—What about Yalta? At this, he dropped his voice to a whisper, and, looking very mysterious, said that if he were to let out what truly happened on that occasion it would have terrible repercussions, and probably bring down the Truman administration—his exact words. This, of course, was quite absurd, but I was unable to pursue the matter further because he abruptly changed the subject, and launched out on an account of how he had been asked to address a meeting in Cologne. There would be, he said, a huge turnout, and he would get an enthusiastic reception. Then, walking up and down, he went over what he proposed to say with appropriate gestures. It was most strange—the old familiar rhetoric, but whereas in the war years it had been directed toward the destruction of Germany, now it was directed toward Germany’s rehabilitation. Driving back to London, I brooded over his everlasting rhetoric, with different words, but set always to the same music.

He never did deliver his speech in Cologne; in England there was a general election, the Conservatives were returned with a narrow majority, and Churchill was back in Downing Street, his positively last appearance there. His memory had gone, he often fell asleep, and at last his colleagues summoned up their courage and persuaded him that it was time for him to go. I caught one last glimpse of him—at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where he was staying at the guest of its then proprietor, Aristotle Onassis. He came into the dining room in a wheelchair which he operated himself, and, as had happened in the House of Commons when he was searching for his lozenge, all the diners broke off whatever they were saying or doing and fastened their gaze on him as he maneuvered his way to his place; a forlorn, rather vacant old man, but still, as De Gaulle said, un grand artiste.

This Issue

October 7, 1982