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Churchill’s Funeral

Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill's Funeral

The anniversary of the death and funeral of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS, RA, 1874-1965, falls in January (died 24th January 1965).

Many of you, many years ago, will have watched Sir Winston’s State funeral on TV; some of you will be too young to have watched, but may have read or been told about it.   A few of us, still alive today, even took part in that procession in London !

But how many will remember that on Tuesday, 30th January 2024 will be the 59th anniversary of this momentous occasion ?

Anyone who lived through the Second World War remembers Winston Churchill.  The generation of war babies, to which I belong, remembers his funeral and post WW2 exploits.  Now, however, there is a new generation, to whom Churchill is only a name in the pages of history, like Nelson and Wellington, Napoleon and Julius Caesar.  While there are still people living who were inspired by his speeches, knew him, worked with him, just shook his hand, queued for hours in the freezing cold to pay their last respects, or simply loved him, he cannot be allowed to rest on a dusty bookshelf.

The funeral was the largest state funeral in world history up to that time.  By decree of the Queen, his body lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days (allowing many hundreds of thousands of his adoring public the opportunity to pay their respects) and a state funeral service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 January 1965.  One of the largest assemblages of statesmen in the world was gathered for the service.  Unusually, the Queen attended the funeral because Churchill was the first commoner since William Gladstone to lie-in-State.

The Planning

“Operation Hope Not” had been meticulously considered ever since the great wartime leader suffered a stroke in 1953.

Representatives of more than 110 nations were in attendance and crowds estimated at over a million lined the path of the funeral procession.  350 million people across the globe watched on television.  Nine military bands played, and the procession included troops from 18 military units, not forgetting to mention a flight of fighter jets.

The logistics of this were mind-boggling.  It took a full committee with military-style planning to implement what became known as “Operation Hope Not”.  The man responsible for the funeral’s organisation, the Duke of Norfolk, Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, had an enormous task in making sure the elements came together on the day.  The funeral involved more than 1,000 people, from the various branches of the military and the police to local authorities, all playing key roles.  The procession was planned so that it passed by major locations which played a role in Churchill’s life.  It passed St. Margaret’s Church, where he got married to Clementine Hozier in 1908, and the Houses of Parliament, where Churchill’s oratory echoed for the better part of a century.

The complexities of funeral planning were compounded by the fact that the itinerary was timed to the second, including the planes flying overhead.  The instructions concerning Churchill’s coffin being placed on the Havengore and taken along the Thames detail every aspect of the journey, including allowing two minutes and 35 seconds for gun salutes.  There were even instructions for how the music should be directed, with pipers beginning to play and fading out after exactly two minutes and 45 seconds.

The planning for Churchill’s funeral really began in 1953, during his second term as prime minister, when he suffered a stroke.  Though he made a remarkable and surprising recovery, the need to develop a plan was clearly highlighted to those around Churchill, including the Queen, who let it be known that when the final moment came, he should be commemorated “on a scale befitting his position in history”.

The Churchill papers illustrate that by January 1958 planning for the funeral was well under way.  Harold Macmillan, the then prime minister, took a serious interest in the funeral planning and even commissioned research into the state funerals of Nelson, Pitt the Younger, Wellington, and Gladstone.  A letter from David Stephens, a civil servant at No 10, reported a conversation with Sir Michael Adeane, the Queen’s Private Secretary, in which they discussed consulting Lady Churchill.  By March 1958, protocols had even been drawn up which were to be followed by various Government departments in the event of Churchill’s death, and by 1963, an official committee was formed with the Duke of Norfolk as its chairman.

However, some plans had to be rewritten over time owing to the fact that Churchill, according to Lord Mountbatten, “kept living and the pallbearers kept dying”.  This was further complicated by Churchill’s requests.  Though he played a small role in the planning, he did occasionally make the odd request for certain hymns.  For a long time, he wanted to be buried in his croquet lawn at his country-home of Chartwell, in Kent, but in the end, he had to bow to reality.  Since he was receiving a state funeral, he had to have a proper burial, so he was laid to rest at St Martin’s in Bladon near Blenheim Palace.  To commemorate this, St Martin’s has commissioned a new stained-glass window which features the Churchill coat of arms.

Honorary pallbearers were – The Right Honourable The Earl Attlee KG OM CH PC FRS (Clement Attlee); The Right Honourable The Earl of Avon KG MC PC (Anthony Eden); The Rt Hon. Harold Macmillan FRS; The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, KT, CH, FAA, QC, MP (Australian PM); Field Marshal Sir Gerald Walter Robert Templer, KG, GCB, GCMG, KBE, DSO; Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC, KStJ; Field Marshal Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis, KG, GCB, OM, GCMG, CSI, DSO, MC, CD, PC; The Rt Hon. The Lord Bridges GCB GCVO PC FRS (Edward Bridges); Norman Craven Brook, 1st Baron Normanbrook, GCB, PC; General Hastings Lionel Ismay, 1st Baron Ismay, KG, GCB, CH, DSO, PC, DL; Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Frederick Algernon Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford, KG, GCB, OM, DSO & Bar, MC, DL; Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS.

Pallbearers who actually carried the coffin came from two different regiments – The Grenadier Guards carried the coffin, at intervals during the procession, and the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars carried the coffin to the funeral train and off again and lowered it into the ground at St Martin’s Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire.

In the end, the success of “Operation Hope Not” was a triumph of planning.  But more than anything, it was a fitting tribute to the prime minster who helped save the world from fascism – and whose legacy endures today.

Readers may care to note that in 2002 the BBC broadcast a series of programmes depicting the 100 Greatest Britons.  It was based on a television poll to determine whom the UK public considered the greatest British people in history.  Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill not only made it into the top 100 and the top 10 positions, but he actually achieved the No 1 slot.  Winston Spencer-Churchill also received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

Please also look at the further pages which depict :-

As It Happened, a list of chronological events of the day; Personal Memories (of the event); MV Havengore, the motor vessel which carried the coffin up the River Thames; Funeral Train which carried the coffin to Handborough station, nr Woodstock; St Martin’s Church, Bladon, where Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill is buried.

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