CHURCHILL, Sir Winston Spencer, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts

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'Don't take this letter with you through Germany'

CHURCHILL, Sir Winston Spencer (1874-1965).
Highly important Typewritten Letter Signed with autograph heading and subscription, to William Deakin, 1 page 4to (rustmarks from paper-clips), Chartwell, Kent, 4 April 1938. Giving instructions for Deakin's private mission to Czechoslovakia in the interval between Hitler's occupation of Austria and the Munich Agreement. With a related letter from Churchill's office.

'... You should call at the Embassy, and ask the best way of getting in touch with the President. Remember he is the head of a State. You should encourage him, or anyone he puts you in touch with, to talk to you confidentially for my information about their position, and what they think we can do to help ... [autograph subscription:] Don't take this letter with you through Germany.'

Churchill poses four specific questions which he requires Deakin to ask of Beneš, regarding Czech fortifications opposite the Austrian front, communications into Russia, their relations with Romania and Yugoslavia, and whether they think it worthwhile to work out his plan for 'a block of Danubian States planned for economic and ultimately military purposes'.

The accompanying typed letter, signed ?'VP' (presumably by one of Churchill's secretaries, probably Violet Pearman) and ending with 'please take care of yourself in Nazidom', quotes the letter of introduction sent to President Beneš in advance of Deakin's visit: 'Mr. Deakin is a young man of the highest character and intelligence and shares my outlook on European affairs. For this reason I send the letter direct to you through the Embassy bag rather than leave him to carry it himself on his journey through Germany.' (the original letter of introduction is held by the Churchill Archives in Cambridge).

Following the German occupation of Austria in the previous month's Anschluss, the position of Czechoslovakia in relation to Hitler's ambitions for expansion became a crucial one. This letter reveals an important decision taken by Churchill, in defiance of the British government's appeasers, to find out for himself how prepared Czechoslovakia was to counteract the Reich's threats to absorb the Sudetenland and ultimately occupy the whole country. He sent Deakin, then a twenty-five-year-old Oxford don who was also Churchill's literary assistant, on a private mission to President Beneš. Deakin was to collect his letter of introduction to the President from the British embassy but, as he later recounted, was prevented from doing so by Basil Newton, the British minister in Prague, who was a supporter of Chamberlain's appeasement strategy and whose staff tried to sabotage Deakin's mission. Deakin was nevertheless able to find the President's residence without the help of the legation staff and reported back to Churchill on his conversation with Beneš (for Deakin's memories of the mission see Milan Hauner, 'Could Prague Have Defied Hitler? What Churchill's Courier Learned', World Policy Journal, vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring 2004).

This letter is an important example of how Churchill used his own resources to gather ammunition for his arguments against appeasement at a crucial stage of pre-war diplomacy.

William Deakin (1913-2005) was a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and as Churchill's research assistant in the mid- to late 1930s worked on Marlborough: his Life and Times and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He soon became a close friend of Churchill's as well as his political confidant. As a special operations officer during the war he led the British military mission to Tito in Yugoslavia and parachuted into Montenegro in May 1943; he and Tito were wounded by the same bomb which killed his fellow officer. He returned to academia after the war, and was appointed chief researcher in the team which assisted Churchill in the writing of The Second World War. In 1950 he became the first head of St Antony's College, Oxford and in 1975 he was knighted.

Most of the text of this letter is printed in R.S. Churchill & M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, The Coming of War, 1982, p.930. A copy is held by the Churchill Archives in Cambridge.

Provenance: Sir William Deakin and by descent.
[No: 25501]

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