Unconventional Organizers

Abraham Lincoln’s Office

President Abraham Lincoln and Prime Minister Winston Churchill had unconventional working habits. Lincoln’s longtime friend, Joshua F. Speed recalled: “Mr Lincoln was so unlike all the men I had ever known before or seen or known since that there is no one to whom I can Compare him – In all his habits of eating, sleeping – reading Conversation & study – he was If may so express it regularly irregular.”1

Churchill also had his peculiarities. British stenographer Patrick Kinna wrote of Churchill at the White House during World War II: “One morning, the Prime Minister wanted to dictate while he was in his the bath – not a minute could be wasted – He kept submerging in the bath and when he ‘surfaced’ he would dictate a few more words or sentences. Eventually he got out of the bath when his devoted valet, [Frank] Sawyers, draped an enormous bath-towel around him. He walked into his adjoining bedroom, followed by me, notebook in hand, and continued to dictate while pacing up and down the enormous room. Eventually the towel fell to the ground but, quite unconcerned, he continued pacing the room dictating all the time.” Such events were part of the normal course of business for Churchill staffers. “Suddenly,” noted Kinna, President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the bedroom and saw the British Prime Minister completely naked walking around the room dictating to me. WSC never being lost for words said ‘You see, Mr President, I have nothing to conceal from you.”2 The prime minister liked his baths. Churchill did not appreciate any deviation from his usual routines. When at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, only cold water was available for his bath, Churchill blew up. “You might have thought that the end of the world had come,” wrote military aide Ian Jacob.3

Afternoon naps were particularly important to Churchill. Historian Gerald Pawle wrote: “At Downing Street the Private Secretaries, who dealt with all requests to see him, did their best to ensure that he was never disturbed at this time. They knew that after lunch he liked to retire to his bedroom, where he would fling all his clothes in a heap on the floor, put on a long vest, and get into bed, where he would sleep soundly until Sawyers called him. If I went in with a query just as he was about to take this afternoon nap he would often be fast asleep before I left the room. This short spell in bed deeply refreshed him, but when he was away from England it was far more difficult for him to snatch any rest at all during the day.”4 Private Secretary John Martin awakened Churchill on October 28, 1840 when Italy invaded Greece. Churchill grunted and went back to sleep. When Churchill later chastised Martin for interrupting his sleep, Martin responded that he expected Churchill might “summon the Cabinet. ‘What could they do? Just gape round the table.’ Then he told me never again to awaken him when Hitler invaded a new country.”5

Churchill and Lincoln were complex men. Lincoln’s needs were must simpler than the complex apparatus supported Churchill. Illinois attorney Henry C. Whitney wrote that Lincoln “was one of the most uneven, eccentric, and heterogeneous characters, probably, that ever played a part in the great drama of history; and it was for that reason that he was so greatly misjudged and misunderstood…” Both Lincoln and Churchill could exasperate colleagues and subordinates. Lincoln friend Whitney recalled of the Springfield lawyer with whom he had worked: “Mr. Lincoln had no method, system or order in his exterior affairs; he had no library, no clerk, no stenographer; he had no common-place book, no index rerum, no diary. Even when he was President and wanted to preserve a memorandum of anything, he noted it down on a card and stuck it in a drawer or in his vest pocket. But in his mental processes and operations, he had the most complete system and order. While outside of his mind all was anarchy and confusion, inside all was symmetry and method. His mind was his work shop; he needed no office, no pen, ink and paper; he could perform his chief labor by self-introspection.” Still, noted Whitney, “in measures which embraced a nation, Lincoln was the great organizer; and the truth was that he completely and cruelly circumvented, out-maneuvered and out-generalled [Secretary of William H.] Seward and [Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase on their own native heaths, as it were, of diplomatic strategy and finesse.” Whitney recalled a time when “Lincoln said to me, sotto voce, although no one was by: ‘[Norman] Judd and [Charles] Ray and those fellows think I don’t see anything, but I see all around them; I see better what they want to do with me than they do themselves.”6

Taking office in March 1864, Lincoln had to deal simultaneously with the apparent onset of war and the relentless onslaught of office-seekers hoping to replace Democrats in patronage positions. Robert L. Wilson, an Illinois friend who was in Washington for several months at the beginning of the Lincoln Administration, remembered: “The labor caused by the breaking out of the war at the commencement of his Administration, imposed on him more work than one man could do. He adopted no hours for business, but did business at all hours, rising early in the morning, and retiring late at night, making appointments at very early, and very late hours. He never had any time for rest and recuperation.”7 By March 1865, Lincoln said: “It is a great relief to get away from Washington and politicians. But nothing touches the tired spot.”8

“It would be hard to imagine a state of things less conducive to serious and effective work, yet in one way or another the work was done,” wrote Lincoln aide John Hay after the Civil War. “In the midst of a crowd of visitors who began to arrive early in the morning and who were put out, grumbling, by the servants who closed the doors at midnight, the President pursued those labors which will carry his name to distant ages. There was little order or system about it; those around him strove from beginning to end to erect barriers to defend him against constant interruption, but the President himself was always the first to break them down. He disliked anything that kept people from him who wanted to see him, and although the continual contact with importunity which he could not satisfy, and with distress which he could not always relieve, wore terribly upon him and made him an old man before his time, he would never take the necessary measures to defend himself.” Hay described the invasion at the beginning of the war by “youths who wanted commissions in the regulars, men who wished to raise irregular regiments or battalions without regard to their State authorities; men who wanted to furnish stores to the army; inventors full of great ideas and in despair at the apathy of the world; later, an endless stream of officers in search of promotion or desirable assignments. And from first to last were the politicians and statesmen in Congress and out, each of whom felt he had the right by virtue of his representative capacity to as much of the President’s time as he chose, and who never considered that he and his kind were many and the President was but one.”9

Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard wrote of the presidential office: “this large south-fronting room has been the business office of all the Presidents who have lived in this house. In one sense it is the nerve-centre of the Republic. It is a wonderful historic cavern to move about in. The hearts and brains of a great people are somehow in connection with it, and they send to this chamber their blind impulses, their thrills of hope, their faintnesses of disappointment, their shivers of fear, and even their sinking of despair.”10 Stoddard later wrote: “The President’s own room is just as he left it, and there is a map lying outspread upon his desk. Look at it. There is one pin at Fortress Monroe, and another at Williamsburg. Pin, too, at Yorktown, and he has stuck several in, along the James, all the way to Richmond. He has been studying that map, or somebody else has, for there are blue pencil marks dotting another line, between Washington and Richmond,” wrote Stoddard of a Sunday afternoon visit to Mr. Lincoln’s office in the summer of 1862. “There are many books in the Executive business office nowadays. They come and they go from this place and that. They litter the tables and they lean against the walls, and they look out from under the sofa, as they were asking if their turn for consultation had come. Nobody knows when the President finds time for reading, but he does find it, somehow, between times and between days, and he will shortly be able to write to General McClellan that he gave a certain order, under discussion between them, ‘on the unanimous opinion of every military man I could get an opinion from, and every modern military book – yourself alone [excepted].”11

“As a rule, Lincoln wrote his most important letters with his own hand,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “Some of these – perhaps most of them – were read over to confidential friends and were corrected, or modified, before being sent. He kept copies of all letters of moment, and even some of these copies he made himself with painstaking care. In his office in the public wing of the White House was a little cabinet, the interior divided into pigeonholes. The pigeonholes were lettered in a alphabetical order, but a few were devoted to individuals. Horace Greeley, I remember, had a pigeonhole by himself; so did each of several generals who wrote often to him. One compartment, labeled ‘W. & W., ‘ excited my curiosity, but I never asked what it meant, and, one night, being sent to the cabinet for a letter which the President wanted, he said, ‘I see you looking at my ‘W. & W.’ Can you guess what that stands for?’ Of course it was useless to guess. ‘Well,’ said he, with a merry twinkle of the eye, ‘that’s [New York Republican political boss Thurlow] Weed and [New York Democratic Congressman Fernando] Wood – Thurlow and Fernandy.’ Then he added with an indescribable chuckle, ‘That’s a pair of ‘em!’”12

President “Lincoln used to go to bed ordinarily from ten to eleven o’clock unless he happened to be kept up by important news, in which case he would frequently remain at the War Department until 1 or 2,” wrote aide John Hay. “He rose early. When he lived in the country at Soldiers Home, he would be up and dressed, eat his breakfast (which was extremely frugal – an egg, a piece of toast coffee &c) and ride into Washington, all before 8 o’clock. In the winter at the White House he was not quite so early to rise. He did not sleep very well but spent a good while in bed. Tad usually slept with him. He would lie around the office until he fell asleep & Lincoln would shoulder him and take him off to bed.”13 Sometimes late at night, President Lincoln in his night shirt had the habit of wandering down the hall on the second floor of the White House to talk to his young aides. In May 1864, Hay reported: “The President came in last night in his shirt & told us of the retirement of the enemy from his works at Spottsylvania & our pursuit. I complimented him on the amount of underpinning he still has left & he said he weighed 180 pds. Important if true.”14 He had little social life outside of occasional visits to the theater. “Mr Lincoln spent most of his evenings in his office, though occasionally he remained in the drawing-room after dinner, conversing with visitors or listening to music, for which he had an especial liking, though he was not versed in the science, and preferred simple ballads to more elaborate compositions. In his office he was not often suffered to be alone; he frequently passed the evening there with a few friends in frank and free conversation. If the company was all of one sort he was at his best; his wit and rich humor had free play….He had a singular discernment of men; he would talk of the most important political and military concerns with a freedom which often amazed his intimates, but we do not recall an instance in which this confidence was misplaced.”15

Meeting with visitors and petitioners was a regular habit for President Lincoln – unlike Churchill – and an important part of his daily life. “A long list of persistent visitors hung around the White House and waited for chances to see the President, even after they were assured that he could not and would not see them,” wrote Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard.16 Lincoln’s accessability is reflected in a note he sent to an Indiana man who abruptly asked for an appointment in November 1863: “I can-not comprehend the object of your despatch. I do not often decline seeing people who call upon me; and probably will see you if you call.”17 Lincoln was always meeting new people. (Churchill did not like to meet new people, much less new staffers.) Aide John Hay wrote in his diary in October 1863 that “Alabama businessman William Crawford “Bibb came in this morning with a couple of very intelligent East Tennesseans. They talked in a very friendly way with the President. I never saw him more at ease than he is with those rare patriots of the border. He is of them really. They stood up before a map of the Mountain Country and talked war for a good while. They were urging upon the President the importance of a raid through Georgia and North Carolina to cut the Weldon line of a railway which will at once isolate the Army of Virginia.”
They were full of admiration for the President’s way of doing things, and especially for that farsighted military instinct which caused him to recommend last year and urge ineffectually upon Congress the building of a railroad from Louisville to Knoxville and Chattanooga.”18

Springfield lawyer Thomas Lewis recalled being told by President Lincoln when he visited the White House in 1862: “You see the fix I am in I am kept here every night until nine to twelve o’clock, and never know when I can leave.”19 Another Lincoln friend, Robert L. Wilson, recalled: “The labor caused by the breaking out of the war at the commencement of his administration, imposed on Mr. Lincoln more work than one man could do. He adopted no hours for business, but did business at all hours, rising early in the morning, and retiring late at night, making appointments at very early and very late hours. He never had any time for rest and recuperation.”20 Like Churchill, “Lincoln’s qualities enabled him to corral his team,” wrote historian Ron J. Keller. “Ever cognizant of their strengths and service to the country in the crisis that the Union faced, Lincoln was willing to defend his cabinet against criticism from Congress, the newspapers, and from inside.”21 Cabinet members tried to outmaneuver President Lincoln at their peril. From the outset of the Civil War, Treasury Secretary Chase disapproved of President Lincoln’s style of leadership. Journalist Henry Villard visited Washington in November 1862; he wrote in his memoirs: “Secretary Chase I saw frequently, as of old. He spoke very freely of the past and present, and in confidence criticised without stint the mistakes that had been made in the civil administration and the conduct of the war. It was very evident that he was too confident of his own superiority, mental and otherwise, to get along smoothly with the head of the Government, and that sooner or later there would be an open breach.”22 Ohio editor Joseph Barrett wrote of his friend Chase: “Almost from the very beginning of his Cabinet service he had, in private conversation and correspondence, indulged in rather free criticisms of the President – no doubt really apprehending that under Lincoln’s guidance or lack of guidance affairs were tending badly.”23

In the Civil War cabinet, there was a great deal of cabinet jealousy about the amount of time that President Lincoln spent with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Stanton and Chase tried to oust General George B. McClellan in September 1862. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair tried to oust Stanton “to get this black terrier out of his kennel.”24 Others were bent on ousting Seward. “It’s plain enough what you want – you want to get Seward out of the Cabinet,” said President Lincoln to a New York delegation. “There is not one of you who would not see the country ruined if you could turn out Seward,”25 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles reported in his diary on a cabinet meeting a few days before Chase resigned in June 1864: “The President was in very good spirits at the Cabinet. His journey has done him good, physically, and strengthened him mentally and inspired confidence in the General and army. Chase was not at the Cabinet-meeting. I know not if he is at home. But he latterly makes it a point not to attend. No one was more prompt and punctual than himself until about a year since. As the Presidential contest approached he has ceased in a great measure to come to the meetings. Stanton is but little better. If he comes, it is to whisper to the President, or take the dispatches or the papers from his pocket and go into a corner with the President. When has no specialty of his own, he withdraws after some five or ten minutes.” Welles added: “Mr. Seward generally attends the Cabinet-meetings, but the question and matters of his Department he seldom brings forward. These he discusses with the President alone. Some of them he communicates to me, because it is indispensable that I should be informed, but the other members are generally excluded.”26 Historian Carl Sandburg wrote: “After one Cabinet meeting in March [1865] young Fred Seward heard Postmaster General [William] Dennison say of the little old leather-covered chair at Lincoln’s desk, ‘I should think the Presidential chair of the United States might be a better piece of furniture than that.’ Lincoln turned, let his eyes scan the worn, torn, battered leather, and [said] ‘You think that’s not a good chair, Governor,’ and with a half-quizzical, half-meditative look at it: ‘There are a great many people that want to sit in it, though, I’m sure I’ve often wished some of them had it instead of I.’”27

In World War II, the British government revolved unquestionably around the sometimes irascible prime minister. Churchill’s schedule became the government’s schedule. The government revolved around his working habits. Working at Chequers in October 1942, secretary Elizabeth Layton wrote: “I did most of the Old Man’s work….He was simply sweet all the time – never barked once. Except when he had said for the 40th time…’now I must get up’. So I finally thought he was going to and went to take the work he had done, out of his box. Immediately ‘what are you putting your fingers in my box for? SIT DOWN’, grumble grumble. So I sat, feeling (and I suppose looking) very crushed. A few minutes later ‘Now you may take the things out of my box. And don’t look so nervous – no one is going to bite you’ with a grin.’”28 Layton reported the challenges of working for Churchill as they drove from Chequers to Ditchley Park – ‘all the way there he spouted hard and I had an awful time trying to hear everything and get it all down – no joke you know, when the car goes swinging round a corner and your spare pencil falls on the floor and his papers (which you are holding) begin to slide off your knee, and his matches (which you are holding) rattle down beside you, and his spare cigar (which you are holding) makes a dive down behind you, and his box (which you are holding in position with your foot) slams shut and rushes across the floor of the car!”29

Churchill aide Norman Brook observed that Churchill thought “of those around him only as menials, they do not really count, He is not in the least interested in any of us or in our future. As long as we are devoted to him, and do not make bad mistakes, Winston will not think of anyone else.”30 But Brook later observed that Churchill’s “ mind was on other things of larger importance. In this sense he was self-centred and for much of the time, inconsiderate of others.” He added: “Though he seemed to take our work for granted, and might allow some time to pass without showing any special interest on it or in us, he would at intervals find time to say or write a few words of appreciation which showed a quite exceptional generosity and kindness. He was essentially a very human man, and no one who worked closely with him can have failed to be affected by the generosity of his temperament.”31

By the spring of 1945 after five years of war leadership, Churchill was worn out. “The PM’s box is in a ghastly state,” wrote aide John Colville in his diary. “He does little work and talks far too long, as he did last December before his Greek adventures refreshed him. This time, I think, it is the Polish question and the unsatisfactory conversations proceeding on that subject at Washington between [Foreign Secretary Anthony] Eden, [Secretary of State Edward] Stettinius and [Russian diplomat Vyacheslav] Molotov that are weighing him down.”32 Churchill biographer Roy Jenkins noted: “Most of his work was self-generated. It was not that he had to deal with a vast mass of paper which came up to him from subordinates. It was rather that he was constantly initiating, asking why programmes were not fulfilled, why there were so many on headquarters staffs, why so many more aircraft were manufactured than found their way into front-line service, why tank design kept on changing in a way that inhibited mass production, why the Admiralty could not appreciate that Britain needed good ships quickly rather than perfect ships which became available only when the war was over, and also taking up little examples of foolish bureaucracy which he gleaned from his voracious newspaper reading.”33

Such a fertile mind was not always appreciated. General John Ironsides noted on July 9, 1940: “It is difficult to tackle Winston when he is one of his go-getter humours.”34 Historian R. W. Thompson quote General Bernal Paget: “Often I wonder during the war where Churchill got some of his more outrageous strategic ideas from…He much preferred to seek and take advice from people like Cherwell, Harris, Wingate…than of the C. of S.” Thompson noted that as the war wore on, “Such fears were becoming widespread and many were especially distrustful of [Max] Beaverbrook. Churchill produced his own ideas, and was never open to the ideas of others unless he could be induced to believe they were his own. He loved an audience, especially if it could be relied upon to applaud at the right moments. The mutter was heard that the ‘Croney war’ had replaced the ‘Phoney war’.”35 Labor MP Hugh Dalton wrote on June 16, 1940 that others suggested “that Winston is surrounded by stimulants – his ‘Brains Trust’, Morton, ‘the Prof’ (Lindemann), Harrod, Brendan Bracken, etc. What he really needs, some think, are sedatives. He is always getting new ideas and collecting what is almost a Cabinet at short notice, and take sudden decisions of great importance. Most of these are probably very good, but the Chiefs of Staff live in a constant state of terror of what he may do, or decide, without consultling them.”36 In 1942 Admiral Andrew Cunningham wrote a relative about “a lunch at 10 Downing Street with two American Generals, and the Prime Minister being full of new ideas for confounding our enemies. The conversation switched to the battles of the American Civil War, about which Mr. Churchill’s knowledge was amazing. I confided to my relative that I thought him ‘an extraordinary man.’”37

The prime minister’s time was one of the government’s great resources. Churchill’s staff worked on a rotating schedule. Secretary Layton recalled: “There is nothing in the world he hates more than to waste one minute of his time! So even if you sit beside him for an hour and do nothing at all, you feel not altogether wasted as I think he likes to feel someone is there and that if he does want anything he won’t have to wait for it.”38 In April 1945, Personal Secretary John Peck observed the smell of smoke coming from the prime minister and noticed: “Great puffs of smoke were rising from the collar of his bedjacket. He was so completely absorbed in the papers he was reading that he was completely oblivious both of the smoke and the large hole he had burned in his bedjacket by dropping lighted cigar ash.” Peck said to Churchill: “You’re on fire, Sir. May I put you out?” Churchill responded: “Yes, do.”39

There was a structure to Churchill’s day – which he could change on a moment’s notice. Biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “In a private letter to General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Clementine Churchill referred to her husband’s ‘chronic unpunctuality’ and ‘habit of changing his mind (in little things) every minute?’ For example, his Private Secretariat was caused endless vexation as to whether he would receive some important visitor at 10 Downing Street, at No. 10 Annexe a hundred yards away, or in the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons.”40
General Hastings Ismay wrote of a morning in Washington when Churchill was editing a speech which he was to give shortly to Congress: “Suddenly Leslie Rowan came into the room in a state of agitation. ‘Do you realise, sir,’ he asked, ‘that you are due at Congress in twenty minutes?’ Churchill shot out of bed, and papers flew in every direction. ‘Mind you get the pages in the right order. My life depends upon it,’ was his parting shot as he disappeared into the bathroom.”41

Those who did not daily work with Churchill were less tolerant of Churchill’s demands, eccentricities, and inconsiderateness. Alexander Cadogan, a top Foreign Office official, noted that in September 1943 diary: “Summoned to White House at 10.30. Went round and found PM not available. He was not available at 11.30. I told Martin I would wait till 12 and then go home. I don’t know what sort of message he gave to PM, but later turned up at 11.58 with apologies which I received in silence. It’s really too much. What he wanted was to give me instructions about drafting two messages to Stalin about the Mediterranean Commission and the Three Power meeting.” Private Secretary Martin remembered: “The PM was watching a film with the President and would not come out, though he had summoned Sir Alec. The latter said that none of his predecessors would have put up with that sort of thing.”42

With the chiefs of staff as well as civilian leaders, Winston Churchill sought to manage by memo. As the central gear in the British government, the prime minister was determined to keep up its momentum and drive. Aide John Colville wrote that Churchill “was not just a critic of their deliberations and an instigator of decisions. He would dictate ‘directives’ for them to consider. These were masterly documents, well thought out, original in content, clear and to the point. Like papal encyclicals they were known in central government circles by their opening words. Thus a long and detailed one which began, ‘Renown awaits the Commander who first…’ was in frequent demand and was simply called ‘Renown Awaits.’ They were the instruments by which Churchill sought to direct the conduct and strategy of the war.”43 Historian Geoffrey Best argued that it was “not his war machinery as such that the critics were really aiming at, it was how he dominated and used it. He interfered with parts of it where he was not really needed. He used it in self-indulgent ways that suited him and suited no one else. His normal inconsiderateness showed itself here as much as anywhere.”44 Without Churchill’s leadership, particularly early in the war, decisions would have been delayed or gone unmade. Even Churchill critics like historian John Connell wrote: “Churchill’s strategic ideas have been amateurish, his judgment on people and events often mercurial, and his attitude towards senior commanders ambivalent; but his courage and his zest in a dark time were matchless.”45

Churchill’s leadership was largely exercised through the relatively small War Cabinet and the Defence Committee and its oversight of the Chiefs of Staff. On June 25, 1941, Churchill himself admitted: “I do not think, and my colleagues will bear me witness, any expression of scorn or severity which I have heard used by our critics, has come anywhere near the language I have myself accustomed to use, not only orally, but in a continued stream of written minutes. In fact, I wonder that a great many of my colleagues are on speaking terms with me. They would not be if I had not complained of and criticised all evenly alike. But, bound together as we are by a common purpose, the men who have joined hands in this affair put up with a lot, and I hope they will put up with a lot more. It is the duty of the Prime Minister to use the power which Parliament and the nation have given him to drive others, and in a war like this that power has to be used irrespective of anyone’s feelings. If we win, nobody will care. If we lose, there will be nobody to care.”46 Anthony Eden, who served as foreign secretary for most of World War II, wrote: “The War Cabinet which Churchill assembled came to function with the sense of authority and power which this crucial period demanded. It was the combined creation of the Prime Minister’s leadership and the men he chose. The Labour members, Attlee, Bevin and in the later years Morrison, though so diverse in character, added up to a total of efficiency and were unshakeably reliable in crisis.”47

The reorganization of military operations that took place when Churchill took over as prime minister. “made Churchill supreme director of the war on the military side,” wrote Historian A. J. P. Taylor. “The three service ministers were excluded from the War Cabinet and lost their directing powers. They became little more than superior civil servants.”48 Churchill himself wrote: “I had never intended to embody the office of Minister of Defence in a department….There was however in existence and activity under the personal direction of the Prime Minister the military Wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat, which had in pre-war days been the Secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence. At the head of this stood General Ismay, with Colonel [Leslie] Hollis and Colonel [Ian] Jacob as his two principals, and a group of specially-selected younger officers drawn from all three Services. This Secretariat became the staff of the office of the Minister of Defence.”49 General Ismay wrote that Churchill made two crucial organizational changes – changed the “Military Wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat” into the “Office of the Minister of Defence” and changed the “Ministerial Committee for Military Co-ordination” into the “Defence Committee” chaired by the prime minister.

General Ismay was the central gear that allowed the part of the Churchill war machinery to mesh. Ismay wrote: “Perhaps my principal function was to be a two-way channel of communication on military matters between the Prime Minister and everyone in Whitehall who was concerned with military business.” General Ismay wrote: “I made it my business to express, and if necessary explain, Churchill’s views to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and to inform him of their reactions. Now and then a certain amount of tactful expurgation was necessary. To have passed on the identical language used by either party in unguarded moments would have led to trouble.”50 John Colville wrote that it was Ismay “to whom Churchill owed more, and admitted that he owed more, than to anybody else, military or civilian, in the whole of the war.”51

Churchill “practised a system whereby the departments were prodded up with vigour and in unexpected places, upon subjects ranging from the supply of cut flowers to the prompt payment of compensation for damage caused by air raids,” wrote historian David Dilks.52 Historian Maxwell Philip Schoenfeld wrote that four principles governed “Churchill’s approach to and conduct of his administration”:
∙ “The first was that his administration derived its ultimate sanction from Parliament as was constitutionally proper.
∙ “A second principle of administration (to Churchill of equal importance with the first) was that the ultimate responsibility for coordinating the many and varied aspects of military policy in a time of war rested squarely upon the shoulders of the Prime Minister.”
∙ “The third of Churchill’s administrative principles was his insistence on the unity of supervisory and executive functions….In practice this meant that members of Churchill’s administration, particularly some of the ministers in the War Cabinet, had to carry very heavy administrative duties.
∙ “Closely associated with this position was Churchill’s fourth administrative principle – that the administrative structure must be clear and precise.”53

Churchill’s system extended to matters large and small. Churchill secretary Mary Shearburn declared: “Idiosyncrasies which in more ordinary men are petty and annoying seem in a man of Churchill’s stature to become acceptable and not a little amusing. He cannot tolerate paper clips of any sort and he simply abominates pins. Any documents which came in by post were always subjected to searching examination, the offending pins, etc., removed and replaced by green tags, of which we always had an assortment of sizes and lengths. A paper punch was used to make holes of these tags and my very first evening with him he astounded me by looking up from the pages of a letter I had just handed him for signature and saying the one word: ‘klop.’ He was obviously asking me to give him something but I had not the remotest idea what it was. Seeing my bewilderment he explained that he meant a paper punch. ‘When I say ‘klop,’ Miss Shearburn, that is what I want.’ He was obviously amused but I came to know that, although he was always ready to explain anything once, he did not like being asked for the same explanation a second time.”54 Secretary Elizabeth Layton told a similar story: “Mrs. [Kathleen] Hill told me how when she had first worked for him at Chartwell he had told her “Gimme Klop’, whereat much to his astonishment she had brought in fifteen volumes of an encyclop[e]dia by a gentleman named Klopped which she had noticed in his library, when he merely wanted the paper punch.”55 Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted that Mrs. Hill “had been his residential secretary since 1936” and “[h]er contribution to Churchill’s war leadership was silent, unnoticed and essential.”56

Churchill’s impatience with his staff was legendary. Another secretary recalled the prime minister dictating about the naval base Trincomalee on Ceylon: “Unfortunately I had never heard of it, and I wrote a horrid-looking word beginning ‘Chink…’. “Where on earth were you educated? Haven’t you ever heard of TRINCOMALEE? Why don’t you learn some geography? Why don’t you read some books?’” When Churchill once asked Elizabeth Layton if she were tired, and got the standard reply that she was not, he responded: “We must go on and on like gun-horses, till we drop.”57 Churchill’s impatience was not confined to secretaries. He was equally impatient with generals. In August 1940, Hugh Dalton wrote in his diary: “P.M. says that all the Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals are useless and that he will have his own Planning Committee, containing bright and rather more junior lads drawn from the three Services.” A few days later, Dalton wrote that he went to see Churchill to make a report: “But I don’t get much chance! He is much more anxious to talk than to listen, and walks up and down the room pouring forth a flow of his usual vigorous rhetorical good sense.”58

Churchill’s personality fueled the entire enterprise. Layton noted that Churchill “was of course, in possession of boundless self-confidence – without it he could never have been the man he was – and his background (combined with the British caste system) made him a person who expected to be approached with great respect by those who worked for him. He was careful to keep each stratum in its proper place. I cannot imagine, for instance, that he was ever troubled with cheeky servants or secretaries – no one would have dared – but at the same time he always remembered to respect the position of each one of us. He might order his valet about; to us he said ‘Please’, or ‘Would you’.”59 Aide John Colville wrote: “Under [John] Martin’s leadership, which lasted four years, the Private Office was both cheerful and effective. It was so well attuned to Churchill’s personal predilections and his unusual methods of work that none of its members succumbed, though they may occasionally have wilted, beneath the stresses and anxieties of war.”60

Most of Churchill’s successful aides required a strong sense of humour. Colville wrote that Martin and Leslie Rowan “found Churchill’s eccentricities, and sometimes even his chronic lack of consideration for those attending him, entertaining, especially as his inconsiderate behavior was combined with generosity and affection to all who served him.”61 In June 1940 John Martin observed: “The chief difficulty as a novice is understanding what he says and great skill is required in interpreting inarticulate grunts or single words thrown out without explanation. I think he is consciously odd in these ways. Anyhow he is certainly a ‘character’ and I shan’t soon forget an interview with him in his bedroom walking about clad only in a vest.”62 Military aide Joan Bright recalled that General Leslie “Hollis had a highly developed sense of humour and was the best mimic on the second floor of the War Cabinet Offices. His imitation of the Prime Minister asking him one Sunday, at a particularly pregnant period of the war, where the three Chiefs of Staff were, and Mr. Churchill’s reaction to General Hollis’s reply ‘They’re fishing’, was one that could be repeatedly heard and never tired of.”63 Fishing did not qualified as an approved wartime activity in Churchill’s book.

“The first person he usually saw when he ran his bell [in the morning] was Charles Barker, an imperturbable, bespectacled Civil Servant who brought him the telegrams which had come in overnight,” wrote historian Gerald Pawle. “Often the Prime Minister would begin dictating before Sawyers, his valet, had even removed his breakfast tray. He had brought dictation to a fine art, rarely going back on anything he had already said, but to the shorthand writers this morning session was always an ordeal. The Prime Minister worked at high pressure, and they could not afford to relax for a moment; but the atmosphere in the small room soon became so heavy with cigar-smoke that they had difficulty in breathing and there were constant distractions – phone calls to Mr Eden, who invariably had to be fetched from his bath; the comings and goings of Sawyers; interruptions from secretaries and staff officers; and the arrival of the ‘C’ boxes containing the latest Top Secret messages.”64 Biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “He saw no point in rising if there was no need to do so. His Private Office and his typists were used to him working in bed and adjusted their activities accordingly: there was certainly no falling off of effort and productivity. Each afternoon, usually at about five o’clock, he would return to bed, burrow inside the sheets, and have an hour or so of deep sleep before he got up and embarked on his work again, refreshed. By this means he effectively created for himself a two-day working day.”65

Churchill motivated his staff by alternately acting as a gruff billy goat and a cuddly teddy bear. Secretary Elizabeth Layton wrote: “You might think that seeing such a person at close quarters might lessen one’s admiration and respect, or make him seem more commonplace. But not so in this case; he is just as amazing and terrific and full of character in his private life as he is over the radio or in the H of C.” She added: “He bullies his servants, but then completely makes up by giving a really charming smile. On the rare occasions when a brave soul has expostulated at his treatment he has been told ‘Oh don’t mind me, it’s only my way’. So that is the way one has to look at it. Last week everything I did seemed to be wrong and there were some truly healthy swear-words flying. I felt a bit upset once but he afterwards said goodnight so sweetly I couldn’t bear any malice! And so he gets away with it!’”66 The work recalled a calm disposition. Layton noted that one secretary “had a nervous breakdown – she was a nervous type anyway; yet another was put off by an initial error in her work.”67

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin exaggerated when he noted that Churchill’s “private personal private office was run in a sharply disciplined manner. His habits, though unusual, were regular. He believed in a natural, a social, almost a metaphysical order which it is neither possible nor desirable to upset.”68 Churchill’s order was imposed on others, but not himself. Both he and Lincoln could move suddenly in ways that disrupted their staffs. Secretary Elizabeth Layton noted: “The Prime Minister always seemed at his most approachable and considerate and easier to work for when there was a crisis on, and one would have a feeling of sharing a tremendous experience with him. In calmer times, when there was less to worry about, he would sometimes be irritable and easily upset.” On one occasion after Churchill criticized her errors, driving her to tears, the prime minister told Layton: “Good Heavens, you musn’t mind me. We’re all toads beneath the harrow, you know.” On another occasion after Layton corrected him, Churchill said: “Quite right, quite right, take a good mark. Or rather, cancel the last bad one I gave you.”69 Many secretaries came and went, but Layton and Shearburn remained. Shearburn called: “He is a charming man; charming in the way of saying the right thing which makes you respond. One evening down at Chartwell we had been working very late. Goodness! I was tired, and so was he. He said ‘Good night to me as I was leaving, and then he suddenly called, ‘Are you tired, Miss Shearburn?”
I said, ‘No, because of course I could not admit it. There was a little silence; then, not looking at me any more, he shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t be. You are a soldier’s daughter.’
Nothing would have made me admit I was tired. I would have gone on until I dropped. He always said the right thing, and he has a superb way with people too.70

Without such an efficient and hard-working staff, Churchill would have been unable to function. “It has been generally acknowledged, not least by Churchill himself, that the efficient working of the Cabinet Secretariat was indispensable to the prosecution of the war,” wrote historian David Dilks. “The division between its military and civil sides, instituted by Chamberlain in 1938, was retained. The double-banking of the Chiefs of Staff by Vice-Chiefs continued. Despite the pressure for a War Cabinet composed of members not responsible for big departments of state, Churchill moved steadily in the other direction, so that most of his colleagues had not time to indulge in exalted brooding.”71 General Hastings Ismay wrote: “Men of genius are unpredictable, and Mr Churchill was never amenable to regular routine.”72 Foreign Secretary Eden noted on November 22, 1944: “Further long Cabinet in afternoon which I left about 6.30 p.m. though I believe it went on much longer. Someone has only to start any new hare and W. Cannot resist chasing it himself across many fields by which time it is pretty difficult to pull up others.” Eden later added: “A Cabinet as conducted by Mr. Churchill could be a splendid and unique experience. I might be a monologue, it was never a dictatorship The disadvantage to those with specific duties to perform or departments to run, was the time consumed. All the same, none of us should have grudged these Cabinets, enlivened by the seep and dive of the Prime Minister’s discourse.”73

Churchill’s life was ordered by the daily red box of papers to be reviewed. Biographer Martin Gilbert wrote that “a system had been devised to draw Churchill’s attention to this mass of paper in some sequential way, based upon its urgency and importance. That system centred upon Churchill’s box: a box which went with him wherever he went, whether at 10 Downing Street or the Annexe, the Central War Room, Chequers, or any of the journeys by train or car to army, navy or air force units, to factories, or to research establishment. The folders in order of importance were Top of Box, Foreign Office Telegrams, Service Telegrams, Periodical returns (statistical summaries), Parliamentary questions, For signature, To see, General Ismay, Answers other, Ecclesiastical, and R Weekend (requiring further study).”74 Aide John Peck wrote that “Top of the Box contained the material culled from the other folders which the senior Private Secretary on duty considered to be really urgent.”75

Churchill secretary Leslie Rowan recalled that one Sunday morning at Chequers, Churchill was working in bed as usual. Rowan had delivered his box of papers to the prime minister, aware that one proposed telegram offering a peerage. Rowan was distinguished hockey player but he trembled at conflict with his boss. Rowan knew that the peerage offer had to be clearly by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. Informed by a colleague that he must confront the prime minister on the issue, Rowan “told Churchill the position and received in return a considerable blast broadly to the effect that his job was to direct the war, which took all
his time; mine was to be helpful and not to hinder him, especially in matters of this kind. He, however, had the draft telegram in his hand, and as I could not think of anything else to do, I stood still and silent. His toes twitched under the bedclothes, always a bad sign. Finally he said, ‘What would you do?’ I said I would put it to the Committee with a request that it be considered urgently, as I thought it a pity to disregard them and raise unnecessary trouble, when a few days’ delay could not really matter. There was another silence on both sides; he went on with some other paper and finally looked up and said rather crossly, ‘And what are you waiting for? Have you no work to do? I thought the moment had come to depart; so I cleared the box (the draft telegram still on his bed-table) and left. Before lunch I fetched the box. The telegram was in it; still “ACTION THIS DAY’, but on it in his red ink ‘Refer to P.H.S. Committee for advice.’”76

Churchill’s attention to detail always amazed. In early August 1940, Churchill wrote a memo: “I am impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the emplacement for the 14-inch gun at Dover has been prepared and the gun itself mounted. Will you tell all those who have helped in this achievement how much I appreciate the sterling effort they have made.77 In 1944, Churchill issued another memo that demonstrated his attention to the dirtiest detail: “Just off the main road between Amersham and Uxbridge, at a place called Chalfont St. Giles, there is a rubbish heap or salvage dump where for the last three years work has been going on. I pass it every time I go to Chequers. Are tins and metal objects being recovered from what was a dump in past years, or are they being thrown down there together with other rubbish? Is it being sifted or extended? It is impossible to see as one passes. The one thing that is evident is that the work is endless, and apparently makes no progress.”78

Ultimately, the nation decided to end the prime minister’s work. Even Churchill realized that the nation required others to find their own way. After Churchill was defeated in 1945, he counseled one of his private secretaries: “You must not think of me any more; your duty is now to serve [Labour Leader Clement] Attlee, if he wishes you to do so. You must therefore go to him, for you must think also of your future.”79 Whatever they did, however they did it, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were thinking of the future.

For Further Reference

1 Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors Lincoln’s Informants, p. 498 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, December 6, 1866).
2 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 28.
3 Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 316.
4 Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden, p. 396.
5 John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 29.
6 Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 147, 122, 153.
7 Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 207 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
8 Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, p. 50.
9 Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 396-397.
10 Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 11.
11 William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, pp. 151-152.
12 Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 264.
13 Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 109 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Herndon, September 5, 1866).
14 Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 196 (May 14, 1864).
15 Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 401.
16 William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 92.
17 Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VII, p. 10 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Milderborger, November 11, 1863).
18 Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 97 (October 21, 1863).
19 Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 131.
20 Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 207.
21 Paul Finkelman and Martin J. Hershock, editors, The Political Lincoln, p. 105 (Ron J. Keller).
22 Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 340.
23 Joseph R. Nightingale, “Lincoln’s Friend and Biographer: Joseph Hartwell Barrett, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2003.
24 Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 127 (September 12, 1862).
25 Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 195.
26 Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 58 (June 24, 1864).
27 Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, Volume IV, p. 99.
28 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 238 (Letter from Elizabeth Layton, October 12, 1942).
29 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 357 (Letter from Elizabeth Layton, March 17, 1943).
30 Lord Baron Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries, p. 650 (November 28, 1954).
31 John Wheeler-Bennett, editor, Action This Day: Working with Churchill, p. 25.
32 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1309.
33 Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Life, p. 644.
34 Time Unguarded: The Ironside Diaries, 1937-1940, p. 383 (July 10, 1940).
35 R. W. Thompson, Winston Churchill: The Yankee Marlborough, p. 285.
36 Ben Pimlott, editor, The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton 1940-45, p.41 (June 16, 1940).
37 Viscount Andrew Browne Cunningham, A Sailor’s Odyssey: The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, p. 476.
38 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 359 (Letter of Elizabeth Layton, March 17, 1943).
39 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1322 (April 30, 1945).
40 Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 8.
41 Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 171.
42 John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 117.
43 John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 187.
44 Geoffrey Best, Churchill and the War, p. 175.
45 John Connell, Wavell, Scholar and Soldier, p. 454.
46 Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour, p. 1112. Charles Eade, editor, Secret Session Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill, OM, CH, MP, p. 34-35 (London, 1946).
47 Anthony Eden, The Reckoning; the Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon., pp. 639.
48 A. J. P. Taylor, The Oxford History of English, p. 479.
49 Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, Volume II, p. 19.
50 Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 159-160, 169, 171.
51 John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, pp. 161-162.
52 David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 46.
53 Philip Schoenfeld, The War Ministry of Winston Churchill, pp. 61-63.
54 Charles Eade, editor, Churchill by His Contemporaries, pp. 195-196 (Mary Thompson).
55 Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 14.
56 Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 9.
57 Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, pp. 40,16.
58 Ben Pimlott, editor, The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton 1940-45, p. 79 (August 29, 1940).
59 Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 30.
60 John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 78.
61 John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 77.
62 John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 11 (June 2, 1940).
63 John Colville, The Fringes of Power, p. 285 (November 3, 1940).
64 Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden, pp. 164-165.
65 Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 15.
66 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1141.
67 Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 17.
68 Isaiah Berlin, “Winston Churchill,” The Atlantic, September 1949.
69 Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, pp. 21, 32, 59.
70 Richard Hough, Winston and Clementine: The Triumphs & Tragedies of the Churchills, p. 291.
71 David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 42.
72 Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 175.
73 Anthony Eden, The Reckoning; the Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon., p. 575.
74 Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War, pp. 12-13.
75 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, pp. 891-892 (John Peck, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1965).
76 John Wheeler-Bennett, editor, Action this Day: Working with Churchill, pp. 247-248 (Leslie Rowan).
77 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 659.
78 Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring, Volume VI, p. 610.
79 Max Hastings, Winston’s War, p. 476.

Posted in Essays