THE WIT OF SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
From a book compiled by Dominique Enright (published in 2001)
'GLEAMING TOYS': ANECDOTES
'Anecdotes,' Churchill once remarked, 'are the gleaming toys of
House of Commons history.' Unsurprisingly, there are a great many
such 'gleaming toys' about him. In the selection that follows
some of the stories are definitely authentic, but there are no
doubt many that have been embellished; or have changed in details
such as date, location, even characters, as they have been told
and retold. But if the details are not always in accordance with
other versions of the story, they have been selected for their
A famous early indication of Churchill's defiant nature occurred
at Harrow when, aged thirteen or so, he was summoned before the
headmaster over some matter of ill-discipline or idleness. 'I
have very grave reason to be displeased with you,' intoned the
good Mr Welldon (for whom Churchill long retained an affection).
'And I, sir, have very grave reason to be displeased with you,'
rejoined the boy.
On another occasion at school, Churchill was asked by his Latin
teacher to decline "mensa" (table). The boy proceeded to do so,
giving the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative.
'The vocative?'prompted his teacher.
'But I don't intend ever to talk to tables,' Churchill replied
reasonably, if impertinently.
A few years before the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill
was at a diplomatic reception. An Italian military attache asked
a Luxembourgeois diplomat about a medal he was wearing. 'It is an
ancient order called the Royal Admiralty Cross,' the diplomat
replied stiffly. After he had stalked off, the Italian turned to
the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and remarked
how odd it was that Luxembourg should have this when it did not
even have a navy. 'Why shouldn't they have an admiralty?'
Churchill answered cheerfully. 'You in Italy, after all, have a
minister of finance - yet you don't have a treasury!'
Travelling across the United States in 1929, with his son
Randolph, brother Jack and Jack's boy, Johnny, Churchill's
itinerary took in Hollywood, where he met Charlie Chaplin. In
conversation with him, Churchill asked what film part he would
like to do next. In all seriousness, Chaplin replied, 'I'd like
to play Jesus Christ.'
Without batting an eyelid, WSC asked him: 'Have you cleared the
There is a taile that following the British withdrawal in I940
from Norway, it was proposed that the Royal Marines should all
have sheaths to protect the exposed muzzles of their rifles from
the sharp temperature changes for their next foray into Norway. A
pharmaceutical company that specialized in manufacturing condoms
was given the job. In due course the first box was delivered for
the Prime Minister's inspection. He looked at the box and
muttered, 'Won't do.' He drew a carton out of the box, shook his
head and muttered 'Won't do' again. He opened the carton and took
out a packet. 'Won't do,' he reiterated.
'What do you mean it won't do?' an aide asked him. 'They are long
enough for the muzzles - ten and a half inches.'
'Labels,' came the cryptic reply. 'Labels?'
'Yes. I want a label for every box, every carton, every packet,
saying "British. Size: Medium". That will show the Nazis, if they
ever recover one of them, who's the master race.'
Another story has it that while visiting a parachute factory,
Churchill absentmindedly took out a cigar. Immediately, the fire
officer came running up: 'Sir, sir, you mustn't smoke!' he cried
'Oh, don't worry, dear boy,' came the reply. 'I don't inhale.'
According to legend, during the late 1920s or early 1930s, at a
time when Churchill was speaking out against those who argued
that the League of Nations and the power of civilized negotiation
would secure peace, and calling for greater expenditure on
defence, he addressed the St George Society. His theme was how a
contemporary St George would save a maiden from the dragon.
'St George would be accompanied, not by a horse, but by a
delegation. He would be armed not with a lance, but by a
secretariat ... he would propose a conference with the dragon - a
Round Table conference - no doubt that would be more convenient
for the dragon's tail.
'Then after making a trade agreement with the dragon, St George
would lend the dragon a lot of money.' He continued in this vein
for a bit, until 'The maiden's release would be referred to the
League of Nations of Geneva, and finally St George would be
photographed with the dragon.'
Securing the wholehearted compliance of the Free French during
the war was not always easy, especially when it required the
co-operation of both de Gaulle and the Vichy French. Urged by a
diplomat to coddle de Gaulle's pride with flattery, Churchill is
said to have to have agreed: 'I'll kiss him on both cheeks - or,
if you prefer, on all four.'
To an admiral who had protested that Churchill's suggested
provision of better conditions for ordinary seamen was 'against
the traditions' of the Royal Navy, Churchill is said to have
retorted: 'Traditions! What traditions? Rum, sodomy - and the
lash!' Anthony Montague Brown said of the phrase that Churchill
'liked it very much, but he had never heard it before'. Another
of his Private Secretaries, Jock Colville, on the other hand,
seems to think that Churchill did utter those words - to Sir
Dudley Pound, adding that 'Pound had a slow, wry sense of humour,
but this was going too far.'
On another occasion, Churchill was heard to remark of Pound,
'Dudley Pound's a funny old boy. People think he's always asleep,
but you've only got to suggest reducing the naval estimates by a
million and he's awake in a flash.'
In the early days of the Blitz, Churchill was driven to
Canterbury where he went to view the cathedral being bolstered
with sandbags. The Archbishop was gloomy, and the Prime Minister
attempted to bolster him up too: 'No matter how many close hits
the Nazis may make, I feel sure the cathedral will survive.' 'Ah,
close hits . . .,' said the Archbishop glumly. 'But what if we
get a direct hit?'
'In that event,' the Prime Minister responded, losing patience,
'you will have to regard it, my dear Archbishop, as a divine
When in Casablanca to meet President Roosevelt in 1943, WSC
expressed an interest in strolling through the Kasbah. This
caused alarm among his security guards who could not guarantee
his safety in such a place. Knowing, however, that Churchill
would not be swayed by considerations of his personal safety,
they earnestly pointed out to him that the Kasbah was an
unhealthy place where he might contract some terrible oriental
infection - which he might even pass on to the President of the
United States. Wickedly, the Prime Minister chose to play along
with them but also to carry matters a bit further. . . 'Ah ha! So
you think there's life in the old dog yet, do you? I assure you,
my friends, that even if I were to go to the Kasbah and contract
the disease which you have in mind, I should be most unlikely to
communicate it to the President.'
During the early years of the Second World War the First Sea Lord
was Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, elderly, earnest, conscientious,
slow, but an object of the Prime Minister's affection and esteem.
One summer night after dinner at Chequers they were walking in
the rose-garden when the Admiral - indisputably sober, but lame -
slipped on some steps and fell flat on his back. Gazing down on
him, Churchill admonished the poor man fondly: 'Try to remember
that you are an Admiral of the Fleet and not a midshipman.'
During his wartime premiership especially, Churchill was careful
to study all the letters, papers and articles that had been
considered worth his perusal by his ministers and other
officials. Those that he wished to follow up were passed on to
his Private Secretaries for action. On one occasion these
included a Washington press summary on which the Prime Minister
had scrawled 'Who is the author of these brilliant if somewhat
perfervid reports?' One of the Private Secretaries, Jock
Colville, made enquiries and then returned the paper with the
note: 'The author is Isaiah Berlin.'
Nothing more was said and time passed. Then, early in February
1944, the Churchills gave a luncheon party at 10 Downing Street.
Just before, Mrs Churchill mentioned to Colville, in some
puzzlement, that the her husband had insisted on her inviting, at
short notice, Irving Berlin, the popular American songwriter and
composer of musicals, whose arrival in London to entertain the
troops had been widely publicized.
Mr Berlin duly arrived and was introduced. He kept discreetly
quiet during the excellent lunch. Then, at the end of lunch, the
Prime Minister turned to him and asked, 'Now, Mr Berlin, tell us
what in your opinion is the likelihood of my dear friend, the
President, being re-elected for a fourth term.' Mr Berlin,
overcome, gabbled about how he was honoured and flattered . . .
'Gee, to think that Winston Churchill should ask me, Irving
Berlin, a question of that importance on which I am so little
qualified to speak.'
'Come, Mr Berlin. As the author of those brilliant if somewhat
perfervid reports, your impressions will be of great interest.'
As Irving Berlin launched into a rambling explanation of why he
thought Roosevelt would be re-elected, Colville suddenly twigged.
Fearing that this was leading to utter embarrassment all round,
he kicked Churchill under the table.
'What are you kicking me for?' the Prime Minister boomed
plaintively. As Colville muttered some lame excuse one of the
other guests realized that something was not quite as it should
be and deftly steered the conversation away from the presidential
(The story eventually reached the ears of Isaiah Berlin, the
historian, philosopher and writer, who was ecstatic.)
Shortly after returning from a tour of the Near East in 1940,
Anthony Eden presented to the Prime Minister a report on his
findings of such longwindedness that Churchill reportedly
returned it to his War Minister with a note reading: 'As far as I
can see you have used every cliche except "Prepare to meet thy
God" and "Please adjust your dress before leaving".' (Churchill
denied this story, but it has an undeniably Churchillian ring.
Anthony Eden was, incidentally, Jack Churchill's son-in-law.)
As Minister of Fuel and Power in 1947, Hugh Gaitskell, later
Attlee's successor as leader of the Labour Party, had advocated
saving energy by taking fewer baths: 'Personally, I have never
had a great many baths myself, and I can assure those who are in
the habit of having a great many that it does not make a great
difference to their health if they have less.' Churchill, famous
for having baths, responded: 'When Ministers of the Crown speak
like this on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the Prime
Minister and his friends have no need to wonder why they are
getting increasingly into bad odour. I have even asked myself,
when meditating upon these points, whether you, Mr Speaker, would
admit the word "lousy" as a Parliamentary expression in referring
to the Administration, provided, of course, it was not intended
in a contemptuous sense but purely as one of factual narration.'
When staying at the White House as a guest of President
Roosevelt, Churchill naturally had a bathroom to himself and
could have a bath whenever he wished. Roosevelt's son recalled
his father trundling into Churchill's room in his wheelchair to
see his guest, and being startled to catch a naked Churchill just
stepping out of his bath. He hurriedly set about reversing his
wheelchair but was stopped by Churchill: 'The Prime Minister has
nothing to hide from the President of the United States.'
Churchill was apparently none too good at speaking foreign
languages, and certainly seemed to refuse stubbornly to try to
pronounce words correctly (especially names - he himself said,
'Everybody has a right to pronounce foreign names as he
chooses'). Jock Colville recalled an instance in 1941 when as
Churchill's Private Secretary he was caught uncomfortably between
Churchill and de Gaulle. General de Gaulle was at the time being
a less than helpful ally and the Prime Minister, considerably
annoyed by his behaviour, summoned him to Downing Street.
(Perhaps it was this or a similar occasion that inspired
Churchill's comment, 'There is only one thing worse than fighting
with allies and that is fighting without them.') He informed Jock
Colville that he would not shake hands with de Gaulle and would
not speak with him in French but through an interpreter - and
that Colville himself was to be the interpreter.
The General arrived at the due time and was ushered into the
Cabinet Room. True to his word, Churchill did not shake his hand,
merely indicating a seat across the table from himself. 'General
de Gaulle, I have asked you to come here this afternoon,' he
started and looked fiercely at Colville, who translated: 'Mon
General, je vous ai invite. . .'
'I didn't say "Mon General",' objected Churchill petulantly, 'and
I did not say I had invited him.' Colville struggled on for a few
sentences, with many interruptions from his boss. Then de Gaulle
spoke and Colville interpreted - to be interrupted by, 'Non, non.
Ce n'est pas du tout le sens de ce que je disais.' At which
Churchill said that if he could not do any better he had better
find someone who could. A half-ashamed, half-relieved Colville
escaped and summoned someone from the Foreign Office whose French
was impeccable. The official arrived in next to no time and
Colville showed him into the Cabinet Room (in which not a word
had been spoken during the interval).
Within minutes the man from the Foreign Office came out
red-faced, and spluttering that they had to be mad: they had said
he could not speak French properly and they would have to manage
without an interpreter.
The soundproof double doors of the Cabinet Room were closed and
nothing could be heard. Over an hour passed and Colville was
beginning to get anxious - 'Perhaps they had strangled each
other?' But then the bell rang and he went in - to find the two
men sitting amicably side by side, smoking cigars and chatting -
The Queen Mother told Colville a rather curious tale about
Churchill's visiting Buckingham Palace shortly after the
Partition of India, which established Pakistan as an autonomous
nation. He stood in the doorway of the drawing-room where the
King and Queen (as the Queen Mother was then) were waiting for
him, bowed and said, 'I believe that this is the first time I
have had the honour to be invited to luncheon by the King and
Queen of Pakistan.'
At a reception the actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke was introduced to
Churchill. 'I am honoured to learn that I am your favourite
British actor,' he gushed. WSC did not like gushing. 'Yesh,' he
growled. And my fifth favourite actor: the first four are the
By 1953, Churchill was becoming somewhat deaf. The Italian
government, as is still its wont, had just fallen, and the ousted
Italian premier, a friend of WSC's told him, was planning to
retire and read the works of Anthony Trollope.
There was a long silence. Then: 'Tell me more about that
trollop,' said Churchill.
A few years later, an MP called Bernard Braine was speaking
during a debate in the House of Commons. WSC couldn't see him and
asked his neighbour, Julian Amery, a Conservative MP and son of
WSC's old friend Leo Amery, who it was speaking. 'Braine,'
answered Amery. 'James?' 'No, Braine.' 'Drain?' said Churchill.
'He can't be called Drain. Nobody's called Drain.'
Finding a scrap of paper, Julian Amery wrote the name down. 'Ah,
I see,' Churchill said, '... Is he well named?'
Child-like, Churchill believed that wherever he was his domestic
routine would be the same as at home. One day, when the Supreme
War Council were meeting at the Chateau du Muguet in June 1940 -
just after Dunkirk, with the fall of France imminent - General
Spears reported, two French officers, drinking coffee in the
dining room, were alarmed by the doors being flung open and 'an
apparition which they said resembled an angry Japanese genie, in
long, flowing red silk kimono over other similar but white
garments, girdled with a white belt' burst in, 'sparse hair on
end' and loudly demanded, 'Oo ay ma ban?'
It is said that on one occasion during the war Churchill, due to
deliver an address to the nation at eight p.m., for some reason
had to take a taxi to the BBC studio. As one drew up, WSC's aide
told the driver the destination. 'Sorry, guv, can't take you
there, I've got to get home quick to listen to the Prime
Minister's speech on me radio.'
This, of course, greatly pleased Churchill, who handed a
five-pound note to his aide to pass on to the cabbie, saying,
'I'm in a hurry to get to that address.'
Delighted with the five pounds (a lot of money in those days),
and hopeful of more to come, the cabbie quickly opened the
passenger doors: 'Get in, guv'nor. Frig the bloody Prime Minister
- what's that address again?'
The late Sir Robert Rhodes James, for many years a Tory MP and,
among much else, the editor of Churchill's speeches, liked to
tell two stories about WSC.
One evening during the war, probably in 1942, Churchill was
dining in the underground dining room of the Cabinet War Rooms.
With him (we have to assume) were General Sir Alan Brooke, as
well as the PM's secretary, possibly his daughter Mary, and one
or two others. As the meal began, WSC seemed in good form,
chatting and joking with his companions. At that point down the
stairs came, rather late, Admiral Lord Louis ('Dickie')
Mountbatten (later Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of
Burma), at that time Chief of Combined Operations, and an
important figure in that Combined Ops was responsible for
amphibious operations against German forces in Occupied Europe.
Mountbatten was as usual gorgeously turned out in a tailored
admiral's uniform, gold braid, medal ribbons, and all the other
trappings of high rank, and immediately began to exercise his
considerable charm upon the gathering, talking to everyone,
rehearsing interesting aspects of policy, retailing snippets of
gossip. He shone, in short (the word Robert used of his
conversation was 'coruscating'). Everyone responded to his warmth
and wit - except WSC, who became more and more silent, refusing
food, sitting slumped in his chair with a cigar and a glass of
brandy, saying nothing and occasionally glowering at the late
Mountbatten took no notice, but eventually rose, threw down his
napkin, announced that he had yet more important meetings to
attend that night, summoned his Wren driver, bid a gracious
goodnight to all, and made a dashing exit. As he neared the top
of the stairs, and while he was still just in earshot, WSC looked
up and finally broke his silence: 'Do I know that young man?' he
remarked loudly. Thereafter a rejuvenated Churchill once more
joined the party, and became the life and soul of the evening.
(It was WSC who appointed Mountbatten to his post as Chief of
Combined Operations - and remarked of him 'He is a triphibian -
equally at home on land, sea or air; and he has experienced a bit
of fire too.')
Some years later - presumably after 1955, when he ceded the
premiership to Eden - Churchill was sitting in an armchair in the
Members' Bar of the House of Commons. He was alone. Three young
Tory MPs entered and, failing to see the old boy slouched in his
armchair, began to chatter loudly. It soon became clear that the
Member for Epping was the subject of their talk.
'You know,' one remarked, 'it's very sad about old Winston. He's
getting awfully forgetful.'
'Shame, isn't it?' said another. 'He's really very doddery now, I
'Not only that,' added the third, 'but I've heard that he's going
a bit - you know - gaga.'
'Yesh,' rumbled a deep voice from the nearby armchair, 'an' they
shay he'sh gettin' terribly deaf, as well!'
Sitting in the House of Commons in 1956, listening to Hugh
Gaitskell speaking on economic issues, Churchill suddenly began
rummaging through his pockets, and then bending down to search
the floor and under his seat. Gaitskell, completely thrown
off-track, stopped speaking and asked if he could help. 'I was
only looking for my jujube,' WSC answered in a small voice, loud
enough to be heard by the whole House. (The following day the
newspapers wrote this up under the heading 'the Fall of the
Churchill didn't tolerate fools much - or, indeed, at all - but
at various times during the war was saddled with aides, usually
young, who were not always as quick-witted or perceptive as they
might have been. One day one of these aides, a junior officer,
found Churchill reading the paper at breakfast, looking decidedly
down in the mouth.
'I say, sir,' remarked the young man, 'you look rather glum.'
'I am. I've just read here' - jabbing the paper - 'that the Duke
of Wellin'ton's son has been killed.' 'Oh, rotten luck! You mean
the young duke, sir?? 'No! I mean the hero of the Peninshula!'
(Apart from Waterloo, the first Duke of Wellington's greatest
victories were over the French in the Peninsular War of 1808-14.)
On another occasion the PM was in the garden at 10 Downing
Street, taking a stroll on a fine summer's evening in the company
of another young aide (or perhaps even the same one).
Spotting something among the flowers and shrubs, the young man
cried, 'I say, sir, look at this!' and rushed towards whatever it
was, only to trip over his own feet and fall head first into a
rosebush.(Prime ministerial rose gardens seem to have attracted
WSC sighed, looked up at the sky and said loudly, 'O Lord, the
foolzh Thou shendesht me to win thish war!'
In the Great Hall of Chequers is a large Rubens painting of the
Aesop fable in which a lion caught in a net is rescued by a mouse
nibbling at the rope binding the net to a tree. According to
Harold Wilson, Churchill decided late one night: 'Can't see the
moushe', and called for his paints and brushes. He then set about
painting in the mouse.
Whatever the truth, some time later the painting was lent to a
fund-raising exhibition for Churchill College, Cambridge, and was
cleaned - if mouse there had been, it came off.
Churchill did not like Aneurin Bevan - not because of his
politics; WSC had the wisdom not to let such matters interfere
with friendships - and the sentiment was reciprocated. In
parliamentary debates between them, Churchill usually came out on
top - even if only because he could make the House laugh. One day
they had a rather different confrontation. In June 1953, on the
occasion of Elizabeth ll's coronation, Lancaster House, newly
refurbished, was the location for the Foreign Secretary's
Coronation Banquet at which Churchill acted as host since Anthony
Eden was ill. The guests included the entire royal family and the
representatives of many foreign countries, all magnificently
After the banquet, they all repaired to Buckingham Palace where
there was a State Ball.
The company presented a stunning spectacle, the military and
naval in full dress uniform, others decked out in fine court
dress, or at the very least white tie and tails, many garlanded
On arriving at Buckingham Palace, Churchill quickly nipped into a
lavatory. When he emerged through the fine mahogany door he came
face to face with Bevan - wearing a blue serge suit. 'I think,'
admonished the Prime Minister, 'that at least on this occasion
you might have taken the trouble to dress properly.'
Bevan gave a crocodile smile: 'Prime Minister, your fly buttons
(Churchill might have pointed out, echoing another exchange, that
in a couple of minutes his fly buttons would be done up, but
Bevan would still be unsuitably dressed.)
Fly buttons feature in another story about Churchill - it is said
that on one occasion, when advised that his fly buttons were
undone, he replied, 'Dead birds don't fall out of their nests.'
Surveying the destroyers sent to Britain by the USA under the
Lend-Lease Agreement set up in 1940, Churchill gazed at the
barely seaworthy vessels and mumbled to himself gloomily, 'Cheap
and nasty.' 'Pardon me?'asked Roosevelt's envoy, standing next to
him. Quick-thinking, the Prime Minister amended his remark:
'Cheap for us, and nasty for the Germans.'
It is possible that the envoy was Harry Hopkins, special adviser
to Roosevelt and administrator of the Lend-Lease programme, a man
as unlike Churchill himself as was possible - and with whom he
struck up an instant friendship. In autumn 1941 Churchill
travelled by destroyer with Hopkins to Newfoundland to have a
meeting with President Roosevelt. At dinner the first evening,
WSC opened a pot of caviar, a present from Stalin, saying, 'Ah,
Mr Hopkins, it is good to have such a treat, even if it means
fighting on the side of the Russians to get it.'
On that same trip, Churchill had enough time to himself to read a
book for pleasure - this was Captain Hornblower, RN, which had
been sent by a friend. He greatly enjoyed C.S.Frester's novel,
and when security permitted he sent a signal to his friend, at
the time at GHQ in Egypt: 'Hornblower admirable.' This caused
great consternation and confusion at GHQ - clearly a codeword,
they told themselves, but why did nobody have a clue as to what
it might mean?
One evening in the 1950s, Churchill was spending a quiet evening
with a group of close friends. One of them remarked upon how
ironical it was that the countries that had lost the war -
Germany and Japan - were now the most prosperous in the world,
while the victors, Britain and the United States, seemed to be in
an increasingly poor economic state.
'Well,' suggested another light-heartedly, 'we might fight
another war and lose it?' After a few moments' silence, Churchill
rumbled into life. 'Um,' he said. And whom do you propose we
should fight it againsht?'
'I thought that we might declare war on the United States ..'
came the mischievous reply.
A few more moments' silence before the rumble: 'Um, well . . .
Yesh, but, you shee, we wouldn't lozhe.'
On Churchill's eightieth birthday, in 1954, a young man was sent
to take his photograph. Full of awe, he breathed, 'Sir Winston,
it is wonderful to take your photograph on your eightieth
birthday and I do look forward to taking it again on your
hundredth birthday.' Kindly, the great man replied, 'Young man,
you appear to me to be in good health and sound in wind and limb.
So I see no reason why you should not.'
Referring to Churchill's 'puckish approach to solemn occasions',
Anthony Montague Browne described an instance when the Crown
Prince of Japan was lunching at Number 10 during Churchill's
second premiership, when relations between Japan and Britain were
doubtless somewhat stiff and formal. In a bid for diversion,
Churchill sent for two fifteenth-century Japanese bronzes that
his mother had brought back from the Far East. They were of a
stallion, gazing at a mare in season. Passing them to the Crown
Prince he remarked that these epitomized to him 'sex in bronze'.
The Crown Prince turned them over and over, inspecting them
closely. 'You won't find it there,' muttered Churchill.
There is a story that on a parliamentary paper that was being
circulated, someone scribbled in the margin against a statement
with which he disagreed the words 'Round objects!' He was
probably congratulating himself on his wit, and thinking how the
PM would appreciate his droll comment, when the paper made its
way back to him - beside his words was scrawled in Churchill's
handwriting: 'Who is Round? And why does he object?'
Anthony Montague Browne in his account of his years as
Churchill's Private Secretary wrote of how much Churchill
disliked being interrupted while he was at work. On one occasion
in the 1950s, as he worked on a speech in bed, the Foreign
Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Eden and Butler)
arrived to see him urgently. They followed his secretary upstairs
and stood outside the bedroom door while Montague Browne went in
to announce their visit to the Prime Minister. 'Tell them to go
and bugger themselves,' they heard. Then, as Montague Browne was
coming out: 'There is no need for them to carry out that
You may not get all the wit of Churchill from some of the above,
you have to be a "Brit" to understand it fully.