Tuesday, January 8, 2019

DAY 14: Winston's Near-Death Experiences

For a man who lived to the age of 91, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill had a lot of brushes with sudden death.

There was the bout of pneumonia when he was a schoolboy in Brighton, aged twelve, which in 1886 was untreatable by anything except prayer. Hastily-penned notes from Winston's doctor, Robson Roose, held in the Churchill Archive testify to the round-the-clock anxiety of that illness. Winston would suffer repeated episodes of pneumonia throughout his life--most seriously in January 1944, at the age of seventy, when he was put to bed for weeks at the Hotel  Mena in Egypt. He'd been returning to England from the Tehran Conference with FDR and Stalin, where the details of D-Day were coordinated; the bronchitis besetting the entire British delegation turned far more serious for the Prime Minister. Most people in Britain were never told how close he came to dying.

Weak lungs never deterred him from smoking cigars, however.

Equally interesting were the episodes of sheer risk-taking that nearly ended in disaster.

I'm referring NOT to Churchill's military service in Cuba and Sudan, or his exposure to battle while a journalist in South Africa, but to his penchant for jumping.

At age 17, on holiday from Harrow and visiting one of his aunts, Winston was playing tag with his brother Jack and a cousin. The two younger boys deftly trapped him in the middle of a bridge over a chasm in the parkland of his aunt's estate--one boy at each end of the bridge. Winston glanced left, glanced right, saw a tantalizing tree a dozen feet beyond the bridge railing--and leapt straight into the air, reaching for the trunk.

He missed.

Fell three stories to the ground, breaking his ribs, rupturing his spleen, and concussing himself so severely he was unconscious for over two days. 

Once conscious, he was forced to withdraw from Harrow for the rest of the term and spend three months convalescing at home--the result, in part of the effects of traumatic brain injury. He spent the period of enforced inactivity attending sessions of Parliament, a teenager suddenly captivated by a glimpse of one possible future.
courtesy Penguin Random House

Then there was the insanely risky escape from a South African POW camp, requiring him to scale the prison-yard fence guarded by guns and dogs; and the even wilder trek that followed, across hostile Boer territory on foot and by train, hidden in a freight car full of hay bales. It's a harebrained survival story worth reading in Candice Millard's Hero of the Empire.

Churchill standing next to a plane

Barely ten years after the invention of the aeroplane, Churchill became one of the first people in England to learn to fly (and the first politician.) He was passionate about flying, going up sometimes ten times a day with instructors while learning the controls. 

He crashed at least twice, episodes he recounted as near-fatal in a 1924 magazine article, "Why I Gave Up Flying."  He abandoned the hobby in 1913, after one of his trainers, Captain Lushington, died in a plane crash in Kent. Winston's wife Clementine was terrified that he, too, would be killed.

His intimate knowledge of flying makes one of his most famous quotations about RAF pilots during World War II's Battle of Britain--Never has so much been owed by so many to so few--all the more poignant to me.

a toy model Bleriot plane Winston broke while flying it with his cousin's son at Blenheim, 1911

(We should note here that Jennie Churchill also went up in a plane with a young British daredevil pilot prior to World War I, and found the experience utterly fascinating. Neither Jennie nor Winston seems to have been afraid of anything.)

Winston in the trenches, 1916
Leaving the relative safety of Parliament in 1916 to reenlist in the British Army and fight in the trenches, at the age of 42, was perhaps also a risk of Winston's life--but he would have argued that point. When so many people he knew were dying in that hideous conflict, he would have hated a dispensation for fame or age. Indeed, to be personally safe would have embarrassed him. 

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.   

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