19 Sep 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk
It was a wet Friday afternoon last year, and I was about to take the train back to London when it happened. The Churchill Archives in Cambridge were preparing to close, and I had finished working on the files I’d requested for my research on my new book, about the grand strategy of the Second World War.
I’d love to pretend it was archival genius, or undue diligence, that encouraged me to take down the catalogue for the papers of Lawrence Burgis, but to be honest it was sheer serendipity. That and curiosity, because the name meant nothing to me in an archive that is otherwise stuffed with the papers of the political and military giants of the twentieth century.
The catalogue stated that Burgis had been an assistant to the deputy secretary to the War Cabinet between 1939 and 1945, a junior post that mainly consisted of taking notes at meetings, which were then drawn up for the cabinet minutes before being burnt in the grate of the War Cabinet offices in Whitehall. Because the staff at the Churchill Archives are super-efficient, I decided to order up a file that simply stated December 1941, to see if it had anything interesting to say about the attack on Pearl Harbour that month. At best I was expecting copies of the opaque, deliberately uninformative Cabinet minutes that for decades have been publicly available at the National Archives at Kew.
When it arrived soon afterwards, the brown file tied up with string contained scores of yellow pages written in a crabby calligraphy, employing a shorthand code and hieroglyphic-like marks throughout. The stain of rusty paper-clips and general mustiness of the documents implied that historians had worked through these obscure papers of a minor civil servant since they were deposited at the archive on Burgis’s death in 1971.
'WC: address entirely new sit: to wh: existed last week,’ I read under a large '10/XII’ on a page opened at random, 'disaster in Pac. Pearl Har taken by surprise – maltreated. J complete control Cape Town to Van.’ It was at that moment that I realised that Lawrence Burgis had broken the 1911 Official Secrets Act, and had kept his verbatim notes of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. '10/XII’ meant the Cabinet of Wednesday, 10 December 1941, when 'WC’ – ie Winston Churchill - reported the events of three days earlier at Pearl Harbour. He was telling his colleagues that they had to address an entirely new situation to that which existed last week, for what was at stake was nothing less than Japanese control of the whole area between Cape Town in South Africa and Vancouver in Canada.
If Burgis had kept the verbatim report for December 1941, I wondered, had he also kept them for all the War Cabinets in which he had sat in as a note-taker? The catalogue seemed to suggest as much, so there could be thousands of such pages, detailing word-for-word what everyone, not just the Prime Minister, had said in Britain’s most senior decision-making body [+italics] throughout the Second World War. [-italics]
Lawrence Burgis (pronounced 'Burgess’) was, according to the diarist James Lees-Milne, 'the last serious attachment of Lord Esher’s private life’ (although it was unreciprocated). When Esher and Burgis first met – it is not known how – Burgis was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at Ing’s School, Worcester, and the fifty-seven-year-old Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher, was a former courtier to Queen Victoria and perhaps the best socially connected man of Edwardian England.
Burgis was 'alert, intelligent and eager to learn’, and it was down to Esher that he secured a place on the staff of the Cabinet Office before the end of the Great War. That he knew he was breaking the law in not destroying his notes is evident from his unpublished autobiography, also amongst his papers, in which he explicitly stated that he kept his actions secret.
Burgis certainly had an eye for history. 'To sit at the Cabinet table at No 10 with Churchill in the chair was something worth living for,’ he wrote. 'Perhaps some would have paid a high price to occupy my seat, and I got paid for sitting in it!’ He was proud to have been the only person besides Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts to have been present at the War Cabinet meetings of both world wars. He certainly hugely admired Churchill, and was certain that had the Germans invaded Britain in 1940, the prime minister 'would have mustered his Cabinet and died with them in the pill-box disguised as a WH Smith bookstall in Parliament Square’.
Burgis’s verbatim reports tell us a great deal about the way the War Cabinet worked, about why Churchill could dominate it and about how the soldiers and politicians interacted as decisions were made upon which the lives of tens of thousands depended. Speaking openly because they never expected their annotated remarks to survive the Cabinet Office fireplace, ministers argued passionately - and on occasion vehemently - for their view of grand strategy to prevail. Now, sixty-five years later, we can finally know what they said word-for-word. Our appreciation of many key decisions of the Second World War now need to be reassessed.
It is impossible to continue to argue, for example, that Franklin Roosevelt was merely naïve about the true nature of Stalinism during the Yalta Conference of February 1945, whereas Churchill was much more nuanced and doubtful. In fact Burgis records Churchill telling the first War Cabinet after his return from the Crimea that, 'Stalin I’m sure means well to the world and Poland. Stalin has offered the Polish people a free and more broadly based government to bring about an election; I cannot conceive any government has the right to be treated like that. Stalin about Poland said, 'Russia has committed many sins about Poland – pacts and partitions – it is not the intention of the Soviet Government to do such things but to make amends.’ Stalin had a very good feeling with the two Western democracies and wants to work quite easily with us. My hopes lie in a single man, he will not embark on bad adventures. Re: Greece – Stalin was jocular.’ Words that would have embarrassed Churchill deeply by the time of the Berlin airlift three years later were to stay hidden for six decades.
On 26 October 1942 the War Cabinet discussed the rumour that had appeared in the Press that Rudolf Hess had had 'friends in the War Cabinet’, who had persuaded him to make his dramatic flight to Britain in May 1941. In reply to calls from the South African premier Jan Smuts and Sir Stafford Cripps to publish everything the Government knew about the flight, Churchill said: 'Hess arrived, hot from Hitler’s entourage, and came to do great service for Germany at great risk. He wanted to be conducted to the King to say that we had no backing here and get a Government of the pro-Munich complexion installed. Hess was suffering from melancholia. We tried to make him talk. He gave us last chance for peace with Germany and the chance of joining Hitler’s crusade against Russia. But he never said a word about his Cabinet friends who he had come to see. He had once met the Duke of Hamilton.’
A minister then suggested that the Government should 'Make [the] records available’, to which Churchill’s answer was 'No’. As a result, conspiracy theories about the Hess flight therefore swirled around until the papers were finally released somewhat piecemeal half a century later in the 1990s.
On another occasion, Churchill told Smuts: 'You are responsible for all our troubles in India – you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: 'When I put him in prison – three times – all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’ When the Mahatma went on hunger strike during the war, Churchill told the Cabinet: 'Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting. We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.’ Grigg then said that Gandhi was getting glucose in his orange juice, and another cabinet minister said 'he had oil rubbed into him which was nutritious’, allowing Churchill to claim that 'it is apparently not a fast merely a change of diet.’
Churchill usually wanted to adopt the most extreme option. In response to the Lidice massacre in Chelmno, Czechoslovakia – in which the Nazis had killed hundreds of villagers in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – the prime minister 'suggested wiping out German villages (three for one) by air attack’, proposing that one hundred bombers would be required to drop incendiaries from low levels in bright moonlight on three unprotected German villages, with the reason announced afterwards. If it was 'thought worthwhile’, Churchill would give the RAF discretion to carry out such a raid 'to fit it in when they can’. On this occasion the Cabinet blocked him, and the prime minister concluded: 'I submit (unwillingly) to the view of the Cabinet against.’
On 30 March 42 Lawrence Burgis took down Churchill’s comment about Hitler’s invasion of Russia, after Brooke estimated that it would cost Germany as many as two million German casualties, 'It came from God – we did nothing about it.’ He added that the 'War can’t end in 1942, but optimistically in 1943.’ Far too optimistically, as it turned out, but in the end the Eastern Front was to cost Germany over three million casualties and was to break the back of the Reich. The bombing of Germany in June 1942 encouraged Churchill to observe that he could not see why 'the disgusting stertorous slumber of the Boche should remain undisturbed,’ and on another occasion, urging that the size of bombs to be dropped on Germany be increased, he complained: 'We might as well drop roasted chestnuts.’
Whether the question was of sparing Heinrich Himmler after the war, or using gas against Germany, or describing Poland as, 'These heroic people dogged by their maladroitness in political affairs for three hundred years’, or explaining why he never parachuted – 'I would break like an egg’ - Churchill always occupied centre stage. Suddenly literally hundreds of new Churchill quotes, anecdotes, apercus and jokes have appeared, courtesy of the diligent note-taking of a man few people had ever heard of before today.
Through Lawrence Burgis’ shorthand emerge fine and moving speeches that we never before knew that Churchill ever gave. On his return from Washington in January 1942, for example, having conferred with Franklin Roosevelt, the prime minister reported to the War Cabinet how 'the last thing the President said when he came to see me off was “To the bitter end, trust me.” We are suffering heavy blows but the United States is setting about the war with great vigour. They have jumped right into it. There is a sense of resolve to fight it on. They have tactical ideas of war, Hitler is the enemy, they will do what can re: Japan, but nothing will get in the way of defeating Hitler.’