Saturday, May 23, 2015

Winston and Aristotle on the island of Tenerife


Looking back on things, or remembering epic or even minute historical events and the reasons they came about is never a waste of time. Indeed past moments are always worth reflecting upon as they can often explain the present.

To the Canary Islander, whose known history dates just over six hundred years, any event, however small in a world context, is naturally framed as vitally important. Rightly proud they should be indeed, for these islands have played a huge part, due to their stategic geographical situation, in world affairs, not least in the discovery and conquest of America. 

As Columbus discovered, the Canaries were strategically positioned for conquest and trade

But this incidental account touches casually on one of those minute historical events which, because of the characters they involved, attracted my attention. It is a very personal description of Sir Winston Churchill's brief visit to the island of Tenerife in 1959 and I can't help thinking that the old man must have amused himself, and perhaps his companion Mr Onassis, remembering that only 18 years earlier, in September 1941, he had contemplated invading the Canary Islands. This possible invasion plan, codenamed Operation Pilgrim and which was drawn up with the Americans, might have taken place had General Franco done a deal with Mr Hitler and accepted Germany's assistance to take Gibraltar. Luckily, it was a suspicious Franco who met Hitler at Hendaye in the Pyrenees, and his considerable demands and his reluctance to enter the war on the Axis side, led to seven hours of fruitless negotiations.

The smile did not hide General Franco's mistrust of Hitler

In 1956 Randolph Churchill introduced his father to Aristotle Onassis, the Greek tycoon. Churchill, who was relaxing on the Côte d’Azure at the time, described his encounter with Onassis to his wife Clementine in a letter. I like him. He is very pleasant and domineering and told us a lot about whales. He kissed my hand!

Aristotle Onassis, whom Churchill described as pleasant and domineering

Onassis so impressed the old statesman that he told his secretary he would like to meet the Greek again. That is how their relationship, which many people frowned upon, developed. Churchill gave Onassis important international prestige although it is believed Onassis never actually used the Englishman’s contacts for business interests. In return, Onassis offered Sir Winston a great deal of Mediterranean luxury and comfort. Churchill is known to have said, I have simple tastes. I am satisfied with the best.

Actually the two men had a number of interest in common. One was oil. Churchill, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, had pushed to have every Royal Navy ship running on oil rather than coal. Onassis owed most of his enormous fortune to the maritime transport of oil. 

The Christina

As a result of their friendship Onassis invited Churchill to accompany him on his yacht, the Christina, on eight cruises in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic between 1958 and 1963. Celia, Sir Winston’s granddaughter, observed that he had aged considerably and was wonderfully happy on the yacht and those pleasurable holidays appeared to give him renewed life. Onassis, apart from being one of Churchill's great admirers, was an intelligent and civilized man who did all he could to make life as enjoyable and easy as he could for the old, valiant leader. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, described how Aristotle Onassis never stopped caring for his friend. In one moment he would be giving Churchill a whisky. In another, when Churchill felt chilly on deck, Onassis would cover him with a blanket.

Onassis, his wife Athina and Churchill, playing cards on deck during their Canary Island cruise

In 1959, when the Christina made her first voyage to the Canary Islands, Churchill was 84. He was still a member of the House of Commons and in good health. Sir Winston had been spending a few week’s holiday at the Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech with his wife Clementine and daughter Diana. Morocco was one of his favourite places to which to escape and sketch.

Inside the Mamounia, a splendid, palacial Hotel in the heart of Marrakech

The Christina was at Casablanca and on the 17th February Aristotle and his wife Athina, daughter of shipping tycoon, Stavros G. Livanos, got into the ship’s seaplane and flew to Marrakech where Churchill was giving a farewell dinner. On the following day Churchill and his party made their way to Safi, on the Atlantic coast, where Onassis took them aboard for a cruise to the Canary Islands. This was not part of an invasion plan but a peaceful visit and they were joined by Sir Anthony Montague Brown, from the Foreign Office, Sergeant Edmund Murray of Scotland Yard, and Arthur Sheppard, Churchill’s personal nurse.

The port of Santa Cruz, quite a few years ago

Three days later, on a glorious morning and with a crowd gathering to catch a glimpse of Churchill, the Christina docked in Santa Cruz. Churchill spent the morning aboard and lunched early with Mr Bill Lucas, Director of Miller and Co., shipping agents in Tenerife and Las Palmas. His wife Clementine, Athina and Mary Lucas went exploring. 

It was not the first time Lucas and Churchill had been together aboard a ship. During WW2 William Lucas was an MI6 agent in the Carribean. In 1944 both he and Churchill returned to Britain from New York aboard the Queen Mary, which was transporting support troops destined for the already launched Normandy invasions. Winston Churchill had been to the Quebec Conference and to his meeting with Roosevelt.

Clementine and Athina were so enthusiastic about the beauty of the Orotava Valley and the charms of Puerto de la Cruz that Churchill and Onassis decided to have an excursion themselves. In fact Churchill's visit to Tenerife really began after his lunch with Lucas and simply involved a drive to Puerto and back along the winding roads of the 1950s.

Onassis had a convertible version of the Fiat 500 with wicker seats on his yacht and it was lowered onto the harbour in Santa CruzIt was a tiny car, with tiny wheels, low on the ground and had a rear engine which sounded rather like a lawn mower. To everyone's surprise Sir Winston Churchill was eased into the little car and Aristotle, the powerful millionaire, drove them off out the harbour at a dizzy speed in the direction of Puerto de la Cruz.

When there were still banana plantations in Puerto de la Cruz

They made various stops on the way but from the Taoro Hotel, close to All Saints Anglican Church, the two men were able to admire the beauty of the Orotava Valley, undeveloped as it was then with acres of banana plantations. I wonder if Churchill was aware that when his plans to invade the Canaries during the war were drawn up, Thomas Reid, the British Vice-Consul in Puerto de la Cruz  was issued with a giant Union Jack and was given orders to drape it over the roof of All Saints Church, where British and other allied residents would be safely gathered in the event of an airborn raid. Sadly it is thought the flag, along with documents of immense historical value, were destroyed when the British Vice-Consulate in Puerto closed down in the early 1970s.

All Saints Church, built by the British community and completed in 1892

Rio Reid, who inherited the position of Honorary Vice-Consul in Puerto de la Cruz from his father Thomas, was unwell that day in 1959. So the Mayor, Isidoro Luz Carpenter, sent a message to his brother Noel Reid, who was in the middle of his usual game of bowls at the British Games Club, to inform him that Mr Churchill had decided to pay a visit to Puerto. Noel Reid collected Isidoro Luz and took him to meet the great statesman and Churchill was received by the Mayor at the Lido San Telmo, together with an enthusiastic and applauding crowd of British residents, tourists and local people, all of whom were squeezing each other to get as close as possible to Mr Churchill. This was indeed a minute historical event of enormous importance to this Atlantic community. In his diary Noel Reid recalled, Churchill was smiling all around and making the V sign. It was very pleasing. Isidoro Luz was as thrilled as I was.

Sir Winston Churchill, leaving the Lido San Telmo, with Isidoro Luz wearing dark glasses, just behind

They didn't take little Fiat 500 back to the Christina. Churchill had rightly complained that he had found the drive over, especially through La Laguna in a convertible car, frightfully cold! Instead he and Onassis were chaufeured back in a large, black saloon in time for an early dinner aboard the Christina. It might well have been the magnificent, black American Pontiac which belonged to the Mayor of Puerto de la Cruz.

However brief, this was an intense and memorable visit which Sir Winston Churchill made to Puerto de la Cruz and to Tenerife and before the Onassis yacht departed for Las Palmas in the early hours of the morning, the Churchills were presented with orchids, Canary drawn linen work, a box of fat cigars, oranges, and two dozen bottles of local Malmsey wine.
    
(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales, a collection of short stories.

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