Richard Knott



January 2012

Sacked by Churchill

Sacked by Churchill: the Man From the BBC

John Reith and Winston Churchill could not have been more different: Reith was tall, puritanical, Presbyterian, while Churchill was round, hedonistic and untroubled by religion.   Separated in age by some fifteen years – the wartime leader was fifteen years the elder  − their paths first crossed in the Great War, though Churchill was unaware of it.  An officer with the 13th Hussars, he was eating what was undoubtedly a damned good lunch in a hotel in France, dressed in khaki.  Reith had just been to the dentist.  Subsequently he wrote: ‘I could not know that a quarter of a century later my fate was to rest in his hands.’

They went their separate ways: Churchill metamorphosed from soldier to government minister; Reith was wounded (it left him with a deep scar on his left cheek); lived for a while in Canada, and eventually applied for the Managing Directorship of the newly devised BBC.  His measured and supremely confident letter of application is dated 22 October 1922.   From the moment when the BBC began broadcasting in 1923, the two men’s paths were on a collision course.  Reith was on a career trajectory to the stars, it seemed, while Churchill would soon enter his wilderness years through the 1930s.

In time, the positions would be reversed: Reith would leave the BBC for the last time in tears and spend the rest of his life reflecting on what might have been, and bitter about missing out on the preeminence he felt he was owed – a poisonous  kind of regret – while Churchill emerged from the shadows just when it seemed his time had gone.  Given their fundamental differences in personality, their separate outlook on the world, and their places on different sides of the political divide, a simmering antipathy was always likely.  In the event, Churchill thought of Reith as ‘Wuthering Heights’; the tall Scotsman thought Churchill ‘a horrid fellow’ and ‘a bloody shit.’  When the war was over, Lord Reith of Stonehaven, as he had become, embarked on a correspondence with the former Prime Minister which bordered on the pathetic.  That it should come to this!

The General Strike of 1926 began the feud.  The BBC was exercised by the challenge of maintaining impartiality.  Reith believed that Churchill, as the responsible government minister, was trying to treat the BBC – his BBC – as ‘an offshoot’ of The British Gazette, the government sponsored newspaper designed to fill the void left by the country’s strike-hit newpapers.  The minister had tried to flatter the BBC man: ‘He said he thought I had about the biggest job in the country.’  Reith was programmed to warm to such words: he did not lack self-belief.  Indeed, before the outbreak of war in 1939, he believed himself fit to be ‘dictator of Britain’.

Reith was not a man it was easy to warm to: he admired aspects of Nazi efficiency and, once he had left the BBC, he believed he had ‘lost caste and gone down in the world’.  He was dismissive of many in this country with whom he dealt: Ramsay Macdonald was ‘very gaga’; Kingsley Wood was ‘a bally crook’ and a ‘self-seeking little cad’; Hore-Belisha showed ‘such conceit’;  Beaverbrook was ‘a dreadful man’.  For his own part, Reith was never popular – ‘a self advertising ass’  thought Sir John Simon; the diarist Chips Channon did not like him, while Harold Nicholson resented the fact that Reith had terminated his contract with the BBC because he had praised James Joyce’s Ulysses

Later, the dispute centred on India.  Churchill furiously opposed any suggestion of Indian self-government; Reith thought his views too political to be trusted to the radio waves – and the result was that Churchill resented the fact that Reith had ‘kept him off the wireless for eight years’.  The two men were on opposite sides during the Abdication crisis in 1936.  Churchill supported Edward VIII (as Roy Jenkins put it, ‘he was responsive to the new king’s boyish charm’), while Sir John Reith was on hand to soothe and calm the stuttering King George VI before his first nerve-racking broadcast to the nation, a looming presence checking the microphone and offering avuncular advice.

As war approached, Reith found himself cast loose in a troubled new world.  On 3 June 1938 he was summoned to 10 Downing Street to be told that he was ‘to go to Imperial Airways as chairman and “tomorrow” at that.’  The airline had been subject to a damning report by a government inquiry, and Reith was seen as the safe pair of hands to sort out the mess.  He was deeply unhappy, exchanging his plush BBC office for a scruffy, down-at-heel pad over a furniture warehouse near Victoria Station.  So this is Head Office!  His gloom was compounded when the first decision he was required to make in his new role was authorising the expenditure of £238 on passengers’ lavatories at Croydon Airport.

Never enthusiastic about his role at Imperial Airways, his time there was fraught, not least because the much vaunted Empire flying boat fleet was regularly decimated by crashes and mishaps.  Trouble always seemed a moment away.  Just before the war broke out,  Reith was in Canada with his family and, while visiting the World’s Fair in New York, he was summarily presented with a subpoena in connection with the ongoing court case about the loss of the flying boat Cavalier which had crashed into the sea near Bermuda  Soon after, with the war about to start, Reith left his family on the quayside in New York and sailed back alone across the Atlantic in the Aquitania.  He agonised about whether he was doing the right thing and ‘knelt down in the bathroom and asked God to show me the way’.  The war had already begun when he arrived in England, and civil aviation was virtually dead.  So therefore was his job.  Later in the year, and against advice, he returned across the Atlantic to bring his family home.

Reith became a member of the Chamberlain government (as Minister of Information), was parachuted into a safe seat (Southampton, unopposed).  He fumed at what he saw as the decline in his fortunes.  This would-be ‘dictator’ had dreamed of Cabinet status.  At other times he had seen himself as Ambassador in Washington, governor general of South Africa − even Prime Minister.  When Churchill came to power in May 1940, his fate was sealed.  ‘They tell me you’re difficult to work with,’ Churchill said.  He survived for a while, shunted into Transport, but eventually he was sacked on 21 February 1942, by letter brought by a courier on a motor bicycle (‘I am very sorry to tell you…’).   His reply was terse, eloquent in what it left unsaid.  ‘I wish,’ Reith concluded, ‘I could have been of more help to you personally in your tremendous and splendid task.’

When the war ended he wrote to Churchill a much longer letter which spoke of his huge sadness at the way he had been treated.  Churchill was conciliatory – ‘I am unfeignedly sorry for the pain which you felt,’ he wrote, reminding the grief-stricken Reith that he himself had been out of office for 11 years.   Reith, however, was inconsolable: ‘Here’s someone who worked faithfully and well for you, but whom you broke and whose life you ruined,’ he wrote.  He even regretted his pre-war career: ‘I am sorry I ever had anything to do with broadcasting.  And I am sorry you have disliked me.’  His letters, written in the throes of bitter regret, give a rare insight into the wounded heart of a man who could not forgive the world for giving him less than he believed he deserved.  Churchill, no doubt would have shaken his head, refilled a glass and blown cigar smoke at the ceiling, without a glimmer of doubt that he had treated Reith fairly and honestly.

Richard Knott is the author of ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ and ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’.  This article is the first of a planned series focused on the men Churchill fired during the Second World War.











The Saga of Flying Boats




Flying Boats?  Do you or your relations have memories of flying boats in peace or wartime? If so, please write to…


This inquiry in the October 2008 issue of Saga Magazine was tentative, proffered in hope rather than expectation.  It appeared under the ‘Seeking’ subheading in the Reunions section and felt like throwing a message in a bottle into deepest ocean.  I had planned that my book about the Empire Flying Boats would focus on the people whose lives were touched by the existence of these remarkable aircraft: pilots and passengers, aircrew and aviation pioneers.  I wondered how many of them scoured the small ads in Saga.  Or whether I was too late and the time for detailed memories had passed.


The response was heart-warming: some 125 replies fell through my letterbox, two or three a day for months after the notice first appeared.  The last of them arrived in July 2009.  Often, the response was from someone who had chanced upon a copy of the magazine in a doctor’s waiting room, or who had been passed it by a solicitous friend (‘Didn’t you once travel by flying boat?’)  With many of them, a protracted correspondence followed.  Photographs – invariably black and white –  arrived: of Sunderland flying boats flying over the China Seas in the 1950s; of someone’s mother perched coyly on the wing of an Empire Flying Boat in Durban before the war; of the earliest flying boats looking unnervingly fragile, and sometimes just plain broken.  There were diaries and letters too, describing flights from Southampton to Karachi via Marseilles and the Sea of Galilee in October 1939, a month after war had broken out in Europe; to Sydney on board the converted Sunderland Henley with Captains Powell and Mackenzie starting in November 1947; and a journey to Hong Kong in the same month.

My father-in-law had been a navigator with BOAC flying to the Far East at the same time, and I imagined him passing leaflets describing speed, weather conditions and expected times of arrival to these very same people all those years ago.


No Empire Flying Boats exist now: the first was launched in 1936 and all but one of the 42 built had been scrapped – or destroyed by wartime action or peacetime catastrophe – by 1947.  In the pre-war years, flying Imperial Airways in an Empire was unparalleled luxury: slow and stately progress at a height from which the detail of the landscape could be tenderly scanned.  An aura of imposing grandeur surrounded the pilots who looked down on the world from a capacious flight deck.  Passengers strolled the promenade deck and wondered at the game galloping on the African veldt below, spooked by the thundering leviathan in the sky.  This was travel as it should be: slow enough to savour the experience, an easy rhythm to the day, with languid descents for lunch, tea and dinner on a series of lightly disturbed stretches of water, and a night stop in a Nile houseboat in Cairo or a fort in Sharjah on the Persian Gulf.


Behind the apparent ease and elegance of the flights to Bermuda, India, Rangoon or Australia, there was danger too.   By May 1940,  less than four years since the first flying boat, Canopus, was launched, 11 Empires had been lost, in a series of mishaps.  Flying boats crashed with unsettling regularity: one hit a French mountain in a snowstorm;  another came to grief in the Atlantic, downed by a loss of power caused by icing; a third careered into the water when alighting, its pilot confused by the glassy nature of the surface; a fourth hit debris as it tried to take off … Behind the façade of effortless travel, politicians fumed, lawyers rubbed their hands and Imperial Airways’ Chairman, Sir John Reith, was issued with a subpoena on his visit to the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.  A further 15 were destroyed in the war years, ten of them during 1942.   One of my correspondents was the daughter of the Radio Officer aboard a flying boat lost off the coast of West Africa in September of that year.  She sent me copies of papers relating to the loss of that aircraft and eventually we met in a coffee bar in Sheffield where she loaned me two precious photographs, one of her father and the other of the monument in Bathurst – now Banjul – that commemorated the loss of the poor souls on board Clare. 


My correspondents were not confined to passengers or crew.  One letter was from Cyril Harrison, an ‘apprentice detail fitter’, working at the Short Brothers’ Rochester factory in the 1930s.  His job was to help finalise the flying boat’s construction; because of his slight boyish figure he could clamber over the wings, in slippered feet,  avoiding any damage to the nearly completed aircraft.    I received letters from three members of the same family, all of whom were ex-Short Brothers’ workers.    Later I received a photograph of a painting that Cyril had completed illustrating one of the Rochester flying boat workshops, a hive of industrial activity, all pulleys, lathes and cacophonous noise.    He had subsequently sold the painting and lost touch with its whereabouts.  We later met at the Medway Archives in Rochester and he was reunited with his lost artwork.

Another lost artwork provided my book’s cover.  One correspondent wrote to me about a picture by the war artist R Vivian Pitchforth.  It shows Sunderland flying boats at Mount Batten in Plymouth during the war.  I loved it – so evocative of an age.  I had some difficulty in tracking down the original and finally discovered that the War Artists’ Advisory Committee had commissioned it in 1942, and then, when the war was over, had despatched it – with a harking back to imperial largesse – to the art gallery in Bendigo, Australia.   Now my book had a cover, thanks to Bendigo Art Gallery’s warm-hearted curator, and, of course, my Saga correspondent.


I never failed to be excited when a Saga letter arrived.  Opening the envelope I wondered what the story would be: a wartime flight from Durban to Cairo; an awed description of the moment of take-off (white water past the windows); a scribbled note commenting on the great age of both correspondent and aircraft – on a 1932 photograph of a flying boat; a set of newspaper cuttings from the daughter of the Chief Steward on the SS Kensington Court, rescued by flying boat after being sunk by a U boat early in the war…


The publication of Flying Boats of the Empire came too late for some correspondents.  While some were relatively young, others were less so, and several passed away before they could set their eyes on what their collective memories had contrived, the book itself, with Pitchforth’s arresting illustration on the cover.  After all, well over two years had passed since I had first sought help from those with stories of flying boats to tell.


Frequently I was moved by the determination to tell stories from the past, moments in personal histories that meant so much.  I became used to, but never bored by, those statements which recalled what seemed to many, the most golden of times, when the preferred way to travel was at ten thousand feet above the Murchison Falls, or the Bay of Corinth, in what was, for a brief decade, the cutting edge of aviation technology.    For those voices from the past, I am indebted to the living archive that is Saga’s readership.  It was that collective experience and humanity which breathed life into my book.



Richard Knott’s book Flying Boats of the Empire was published at the end of January 2011 by Robert Hale. 






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