Behind the camera:
Where: Tour of the coastal defence positions near Hartlepool, UK
Photo Summary: Winston Churchill with a Tommy Gun Imperial War Museum, photo no. H2646A
Picture Taken: July 31, 1940
With France and its other European Allies out of the war, the UK and its Empire stood by itself against a triumphant Hitler. A defiant Churchill instead of bowing down to Germany famously promised during his June 4, 1940 speech to the house of commons, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” Trying to pass on his never-give-up attitude he sought to back up British morale with some public tours of the UK’s coastal defences. During one of these tours on July 31, 1940, he was photographed trying out an American 1928 Tommy Gun or Thompson SMG (Submachine Gun) at defence fortifications near Hartlepool in Northern England.
Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels saw the image as a god send and used it extensively domestically, with the other Axis countries, the few remaining neutral countries and even in air drops over the UK during the Battle of Britain with the text in English “WANTED,” and at the bottom, “for incitement to MURDER.” The reverse of the leaflet is all text:
This gangster, who you see in his element in the picture, incites you by his example to participate in a form of warfare in which women, children and ordinary citizens shall take the leading parts. This absolutely criminal form of warfare which is forbidden by the Hague Convention will be punished according to military law. Save at least your own families from the horrors of war!
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill
As noted in what has been called the most famous portrait in history the Canadian, Churchill Portrait, Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 into a famous English aristocratic family, the Spencer-Churchills. He spent much of his childhood at boarding schools where he had little if any contact with his parents. He went onto the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and graduated eighth out of a class of 150 in December 1894.
As an officer in the British Army, he fought in a number of colonial wars where he showed courage on the front lines. In 1900 he started his political career and spent much of the rest of his life in British politics. In the run-up to the second world war, he fiercely opposed the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. When Chamberlain was forced out of office Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty was chosen as a successor on May 10, 1940. During the difficult war years, Churchill is credited with having to give the United Kingdom the strength to fight on against the Axis onslaught. This defiance is captured perfectly in the Tommy Gun picture.
Although not the same gun as in the picture, in the World War II London Underground Headquarters, now a museum, there is a display of a similar Tommy Gun that Churchill planned to use if the Nazis came to London. If they had successfully invaded he is quoted as planning to:
to light a good cigar, take a sip or two of his favorite brandy, and go out in the streets and take as many German troops with as he could, perhaps fighting alongside the Queen and the royal family when the end came.
This determination made it possible for the UK to win the war but the country didn’t see him as a man of peace and after the war he lost the 1945 election but was returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 1951 before then retiring in ’55. When he died in 1965, his state funeral was attended by the one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history.
Other people in the picture
The men in the image have not been identified but the man wearing the grey pin-striped suit behind Churchill might be his bodyguard, Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson, as he is wearing the same suit in the picture to the right of Churchill firing a Sten gun in 1941.
From between 1921 to 1945 Thompson was Churchill’s on and off again bodyguard. Churchill hadn’t needed Thompson for a long time until in 1939 when he was about to vacation in France. Churchill, even though he was not part of the government at that time, was worried about a possible Nazi assassination plot and called up Thompson for protection duty with a telegram from on August 22, 1939, simply reading “Meet me Croydon Airport 4.30pm Wednesday.” While there were no incidents that trip Thompson claims to have saved Churchill’s life countless times, often because the Prime Minister recklessly putting his life in danger.
After the war, the bodyguard tried to publish a book about his experiences travelling the world protecting the Prime Minister’s life but was blocked by the police department. It wasn’t until 2005 that the full version was published as Churchill’s Bodyguard: The Authorised Biography of Walter H. Thompson