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The agony of Winston Churchill

Sir Henry Tizard was an Oxford educated physical chemist, mathematician and inventor. His work on the composition of fuels led to the octane numbers that are used today with gasoline.

Sir Henry Tizard was an Oxford educated physical chemist, mathematician and inventor. His work on the composition of fuels led to the octane numbers that are used today with gasoline. He chaired the British Aeronautical Research Committee from 1933 to 1942. In September 1940, at the direction of the War Cabinet, he headed the Tizard Mission to the United States. This mission sought resources to assist in developing radar and the jet propulsion engine and the atomic bomb. (The U.S. was a non-combatant at that time and was doing no work on the bomb).

Some historians report that while the Tizard Mission was a success, Sir Henry’s job subsequently disappeared, thus inferring the withdrawal of Churchill’s support. Such was not the case. Sir Henry’s account on his leaving, as told to his son Sir Peter Tizard, tells a different tale. This is the story Sir Peter passed onto me when I was doing a PhD under his supervision at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London.

The Battle of Britain was over and attention had turned in 1942 to finding ways to weaken German civilian morale. Professor Frederick Lindemann, Churchill’s chief scientific advisor, promoted mass bombing of Germany. Tizard was appalled and advocated a more strategic bombing policy with enough aircraft committed to protect Britain’s convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill chose the Lindemann option. Sir Henry resigned.

Shortly afterward, Churchill asked to see Sir Henry in his bunker. He expressed his disappointment on losing Sir Henry’s support and told Sir Henry the following tale.

When Churchill was a student at Harrow, he had a master whom he disliked intensely.

He took an oath that upon graduation he would thrash that man within an inch of his existence. When the day came, Churchill found he was not quite big enough and thought he might lose. He swore that when he got bigger he would return. Upon graduating from Sandhurst he revisited Harrow but found the master looked ill so he decided to wait until the man had recovered his health. A few years passed until Churchill’s return from the Boer War where he had been captured, imprisoned and escaped. He travelled to Harrow to carry out his promise only to find that the gentleman in question, in his words, “had had the impertinence to die on me.” From that day hence, Sir Winston informed Sir Henry, he decided that he should never put off until tomorrow that which should have been done today.

I have thought of this tale from time to time — wondering why Churchill made that crucial military decision in what would appear to have been a self-pressured manner. For surely Sir Henry’s proposal makes considerable sense militarily and strategically. Why would a civilized man, who Churchill undoubtedly was, decide to bomb women and children, churches and schools, hospitals and playgrounds? And why do so within the framework of the above anecdote?

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that he was a politician who might not have survived in the House of Commons and in the mood of the country if he had been more humane.

Makes our agonizing over DARP seem rather petty.

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician and chair of the Arts and Heritage Foundation of St. Albert.