Sir John Colville served three Prime Ministers as private secretary, most notably to Winston Churchill during the tumultuous years of World War II, and in this capacity had a front-row seat to some of the most consequential decisions and events of the 20th century. His diaries, meticulously maintained during this period, shed light on the complexities, challenges, and internal dynamics of the British wartime government and chart Colville’s strengthening relationship with Churchill, a man with whom he spent most of his waking hours. Colville wrote the following entry in August of 1940, three months into Churchill’s premiership and just days before the Battle of Britain began.
The Diary Entry
Saturday, August 10th
In a telegram to the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, promising that we will abandon the Mediterranean and send our fleet eastwards in the event of Japan attacking Australia or N.Z., Winston has written: “If Hitler fails to invade and conquer Britain before the weather breaks, he has received his first and probably fatal check.”
[A]t lunch, Winston gave me his own views about war aims and the future. He said there was only one aim, to destroy Hitler. Let those who say they do not know what they are fighting for stop fighting and they will see. France is now discovering what she was fighting for. After the last war people had done much constructive thinking and the League of Nations had been a magnificent idea. Something of the kind would have to be built up again: there would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this Federation with the new world and able to hold the balance between the two. “A new conception of the balance of power?” I said. “No,” he replied, “the balance of virtue.”
At dinner I sat between Mary and Jacob and, when not discussing bloodsports with the former, listened to Winston. He mentioned the numerous projects, inventions, etc., which he had in view and compared himself to a farmer driving pigs along a road, who always had to be prodding them on and preventing them from straying. He praised the splendid sang-froid and morale of the people, and said he could not quite see why he appeared to be so popular. After all since he came into power, everything had gone wrong and he had had nothing but disasters to announce. His platform was only “blood, sweat and tears”.
John Colville’s diaries were first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1985, edited by Colville and titled, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955. Other editions have since followed.