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Personal Memories

Personal Memories

On this page I have gathered some personal accounts of what people remember of their own experiences of WSC's funeral

The following is my own recollection of that day’s event and the days preceding – Mick Luxford (website editor).

At the time of his death on 24th January 1965 (the 70th anniversary of the death of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill), Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill (WSC) was the Honorary Colonel of 299 Field Regiment (RBY, QOOH, & Berks) RA (TA), a position to which he had acceded on the death of Queen Mary.  His selection for that role was due to his long service and association with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in which he had also previously served.  WSC began his association with the QOOH in 1901, serving as a Captain with the Woodstock Squadron.  Next, he moved to the Henley Sqn where he commanded the squadron as a Major until around 1913.

For myself and the selected officers and soldiers which formed part of the procession, it all kicked off on the morning of Sunday, 24th January 1965, whilst the QOOH Battery was engaged in a training weekend based at our Banbury Drill-Hall.

In the words of (the then) Maj Tim May (Battery Commander):

“The event was not unexpected, and I knew that a sealed envelope, entitled ‘Operation Hope Not’ and marked ‘To be opened only in the event of WSC`s death’ was in the safe at our Marston Road HQ in Oxford.  I sent for the envelope to be brought to us in Banbury.  It was only when I opened the envelope that the scale and significance of our involvement became apparent.”

299 Fd Regt RA (TA) was to provide a detachment of 3 Officers and 18 OR’s to march in the State Funeral procession, taking place in 6 days’ time.  Not only were we to march in the procession but, we would be the fifth detachment in the column, which was in effect a place of honour.  Our detachment was in front of the coffin and ahead of all the prestigious Guards regiments.  The CO, Lt Col Lawrence Verney, decided that because of the QOOH Battery’s historical connection, that they would form the majority of the detachment, with a single representative from each of the other Batteries.  On that Sunday morning Maj Tim May addressed the Battery and, following a respectful minute’s silence, we were informed of the arrangements.  Volunteers were asked for, with the proviso to attend drill rehearsals at Marston Rd Drill Hall, Oxford.

Front row L-R – Ray Gwynn,  Mick Luxford, Ben Bull,            Ron Chiddington, Hughie Blanc and Geoff Wakeham

Centre row L-R – GR Brooker, Ken Norton, Capt David Carter, Maj Tim May, Lt Ted Rose,     Don Biddle and WC Vince

Back row L-R – TA Lock,      Brian Higgs, Don Gilkes,      Tony Watson, Lynn Dick,  Charles Carrington, Dick Baker and Harry Kingsnorth

In Maj Tim May’s words: “Whoever had drafted ‘Operation Hope Not’ had been thorough.  The needs of a Territorial Army unit in these circumstances had been foreseen.  All of us had little, if any, idea of the foot and arms drills called for in a military funeral, particularly a State Funeral.”

A Guards Regiment Drill-Sergeant was allocated to us from the Guards Depot at Pirbright.  The drills to be learnt included resting-on and marching with arms reversed and, in the case of the three officers, doing these drills with swords with which we were very un-familiar.  We also had to practice marching in slow-time, and we did a lot of this around the streets near the Marston Road, Oxford, Drill Hall and carrying traffic-warning lamps !  This occurred over the evenings of Tues, Wed and Thur, 26, 27 and 28th January.

For the OR’s taking part, No2 Dress would be issued then tailored (our current uniform then was the Battle Dress). Greatcoats were sent for cleaning and pressing.  Boots would obviously be ‘bulled’ to a very high standard.

Two days before the funeral (Thurs evening), the ‘Rehearsal Party’ moved to Regents Park Barracks in London (our accommodation for the weekend) with the main party moving on the Friday evening.  At 2am on the Friday morning, the rehearsal party took part in a rehearsal for the whole procession with 3 Officers and 6 OR’s holding a tape to indicate the size of the full detachment.

Again, in Maj Tim May’s words:  “It was dry, but very cold, with more than adequate light from the street lights.  But there was no traffic and the only noise was the slow beat of the drum to time our pace, the sound of our boots on the tarmac and the fluttering of the surprised pigeons in the trees.  I think that, for those who took part in it, this ‘silent’ night-march was just as memorable as the funeral itself.  It was really extraordinary to have taken part in something as unique.”

The route of the procession was from Horse Guards, along Whitehall, the Strand, Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral.  After the service in St Pauls the procession continued along Cannon Street, Eastcheap, Great Tower Street, Byward Street, and Tower Hill.  Here at the Tower of London Pier, the coffin c/w bearer party and mourners of the Churchill family were transferred onto the Port of London Authority motor-launch Havengore for the short voyage across and up the Thames to Festival Pier.  At this stage the coffin was transferred to a hearse and carried to Waterloo Station and placed in a carriage pulled by a steam locomotive named Winston Churchill for the 72-mile trip to Handborough station, then by hearse to complete the journey to St Mary’s Church at Bladon for a private family burial.

The Officers and men who made-up the detachment were – Maj Tim May, Capt David Carter, Lt Ted Rose, WOII Hughie Blanc, WOII GR Brooker (RBY), SSgt Ray Gwynn, Sgt Charles Carrington, Sgt Ron Chiddington, Sgt RFM Gates (REME LAD), Sgt Don Gilkes, Sgt Brian Higgs, Sgt Harry Kingsnorth, SGT TA Lock (HQ Bty), Sgt Reg Shirley, Sgt WC Vince (Berks Yeo), Bdr Dick Baker, Bdr Don Biddle, LBdr Ben Bull, LBdr Lynn Dick, LBdr John Scales, Gnr Mick Luxford, Gnr Ken Norton and Gnr Tony Watson.  Two of the OR’s were reserves.

As a last comment, Maj Tim May had this to say of the day’s events:  “While the funeral itself was no anti-climax, my personal highlight was the appearance of an officious Guards Staff Officer who wanted to change the disposition of our officers.  He was told that our way was the way the QOOH always did State Funerals and he disappeared.  Our main regret is that among all the enormous media coverage of the event, we have been unable to find any picture of the QOOH actually marching in the funeral.  Did we dream it ?  I think not !!”

By decree of HM Queen Elizabeth, Churchill’s body lay in state for 3 days in the Palace of Westminster.

The funeral procession passed many sites familiar to Sir Winston – St Margaret’s Church, where he had married his beloved “Clemmie” (Clementine Hozier);  The Houses of Parliament, where he had made history;  No 10 Downing Street, where he had lived as Prime Minister;  The Admiralty, where he had served as First Lord in 2 wars;  Fleet Street, where he had published many articles;  and St Paul’s which stood, like Churchill, defiant against everything Hitler had thrown at them.

Whilst researching for all the information about WSC’s funeral, I was reminded of just how cold the day was.  Everytime the order to ‘Change Arms’ was given I, and probably others in our detachment, began to panic.  We were carrying the SLR rifle in the ‘Reverse Arms’ position, this is with the rifle carried upside down (barrel pointed to the ground and at the side of the body, butt facing to the front) and one arm held behind the body to clasp the barrel.  When the order to ‘Change Arms’ is given one releases the grip on the barrel (by the arm behind the body) allowing the weapon to swing down and held by the opposite hand (held out in front of the body) gripping the buttstock.  After a pause, the rifle would be thrown across to be caught by the opposite hand (which had been previously held behind the body).  The rifle would then be swung back under the arm and the barrel would then be held again by the opposite hand, changing the
position of the rifle from the right side of the body, to the left side.  In general, this is not an easy drill movement, especially when wearing a greatcoat and woollen gloves (the dress for the day) and the fear was of dropping the rifle whilst throwing from one hand to the other. Holding the rifle in this position ones arms are not in a normal position for marching (normally swinging front to rear), and tend to get quite stiff and cold due to lack of blood circulation.  I would also like to point out that the SLR’s we carried were of the early manufacture, when all the non-metal furniture of the rifle was made of walnut wood (shiny and slippery), not the later adoption of a nylon and fibreglass composite.  To add to this worry was the fact we were doing a ‘slow-march’ which doesn’t exactly help with keeping one warm.  In the days building up to the event, we learnt and practised this drill movement numerous times, but without wearing our greatcoats (sent away for cleaning and pressing).

Saying this, at least we were marching and moving (except for when the parade halted whilst the coffin was taken into St Paul’s Cathedral for the service – we halted outside Cannon St tube station and only allowed to break rank for a comfort break), so how the soldiers, sailors and airmen, lining the procession route, kept themselves warm, supposedly standing still, I do not know.

Having taken part in many ‘parades’ in my TA career of 28 yrs, through the streets of London for the Lord Mayor’s Parade, in other towns including Oxford, Banbury, and Devises, the one thing I remember about WSC’s funeral was the presence of the on-looking crowds – how quiet they were.  Normally one would expect waving and cheering, plus the odd non-flattering comment.  But with this funeral parade the crowd was showing their reverence for Churchill with their silence.

I have had many moments to be proud of, during my TA career, with being part of this detachment amongst my best, and only just over two years after I had signed up as a young ‘Gunner’ – Mick Luxford (website editor).

Another participant in our detachment, Sgt Charles Carrington, had this to say of his involvement :-

“I was very glad to have your reminder of 299’s part in Winston Churchill’s funeral.  As someone who could easily negotiate a special day off work, I was a member of the advance party who carried out that skeleton rehearsal early on the Friday morning, and I agree entirely with Maj May, that it seemed very special.  The rest of that day was free, while we waited for the main body to arrive, and that meant I could go through the Lying in State in Westminster Hall as a member of the public, something else pretty memorable.”

A further memory from one of the QOOH archivists at SOFO – taken from a newspaper article published in the Oxford Mail (31st January 2015) :-

For years Mike Cross was confused about why a football match he was playing in, as a 16-year-old, was suspended as a train went past.

Now 66, the Eynsham resident has realised the significance of the moment was when Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin was transported 50 years ago yesterday to be buried at St Martin’s Church in Bladon later that day.

Mr Cross was inspired by his great-grandfather and great uncle, both of whom served in the First World War, to volunteer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum (SOFO), in Woodstock, where he realised the importance of the events on January 30, 1965.

The retired banker, who went to Chipping Norton School and played for Chadlington Reserves FC for many years, said:  “It’s a memory I’ve fought to recall for many years.  When I remember it, how it was, the referee stopped the game, the train went by and then the referee restarted it.  When I started at the museum, I spoke to people and they said that the train came from London and it seemed like too much of a coincidence.  I know his funeral was at St Paul’s Cathedral, then they put his body on a barge down the Thames and took it to Waterloo Station.  The train would have then gone to Kingham Junction, then to Long Hanborough, so it all makes sense.  Where exactly was I playing, I can’t remember, but I think it was near Chadlington.  It must have been pre-planned but how was I supposed to know ?”

Mr Mike Cross works in the archives at SOFO and helps families to trace their ancestors who served in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, the regiment in which both his great grandfather and Sir Winston served.

A story published by the Oxford Mail, 23 February 2015 about one of the ‘soldier pall bearers’ of WSC’s coffin.

Malcolm Surman’s proudest moment as a Grenadier Guardsman was to be a pallbearer at Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral.

He was seen by millions of television viewers carrying the coffin of the wartime leader into and out of St Paul’s Cathedral before it left London for burial at Bladon, near Woodstock.

He stumbled as he and his seven fellow Guardsmen descended the steep cathedral steps after the service, but without flinching, he quickly regained his balance and catastrophe was averted.

Speaking later, he said he had no idea why he, as a 20-year-old lance corporal, had been chosen for the bearer party.
He recalled: “Sixteen of us were told to report to the sergeant-major’s office and we all thought we had done something wrong.  He lined us up and began eliminating people.  Then he told the eight of us who were left that we would be carrying Sir Winston’s coffin.

“It was an unforgettable experience. I was very proud and honoured to be chosen. We carried the six-hundredweight coffin for hundreds of yards and slow-marched behind it for several more miles. I think how lucky I am to have taken part in such a memorable occasion.”

He and his fellow pallbearers were awarded British Empire Medals after the funeral.

With the help of a friend, he later started writing a book on his experiences, entitled The Day I Slipped.  It was incomplete when he died in 1985 and his daughter Joanne, with help from one of her father’s fellow guardsman, has vowed to finish it.

Mr Surman, a talented swimmer in his younger days, grew up at the Harcourt Arms, Jericho, Oxford, went to St Barnabas School and after a spell as a police cadet, joined the Grenadier Guards in 1962.

After three years as a Guardsman, he re-joined Oxford City Police.  In 1966, after marrying pharmacist’s assistant Christine Day, he became the second youngest landlord in England when he took over the Bullingdon Arms in Cowley Road at the age of 21.

After a spell in insurance, he decided to return to the pub trade.
He met Tony Worth, assistant managing director of Morrells Brewery in Oxford, but was told there were no vacancies.  Just as he was leaving the office, the phone rang and the landlord of The Lamb at Bladon said he was having to give up because of his wife’s ill health.
Mr Surman was called back and offered the tenancy of a pub just 200 yards from Churchill’s grave.  Sadly, he was forced to give up after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

His widow Christine and their three children, James, Joanne and Richard, have been reflecting on the important role he played during the recent 50th anniversary commemoration of Churchill’s funeral.
Mrs Surman, of Wroslyn Road, Freeland, said:  “We watched the four-hour film on TV and it brought back lots of memories.”

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