In the summer of 1941, legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill shook hands with my favorite Canadian veteran, whose name is Winston Churchill Parker. Then the two had a little chat.
The impromptu encounter occurred at 10 Downing Street in London, headquarters of the United Kingdom’s government and residence of the prime minister.
The 23-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force Wireless Air Gunner was on his first leave following his arrival in England. Winston, who had been posted to a permanent Royal Air Force station in Oakington near Cambridge, traveled by train to heavily bombed London.
After checking into the Russell Square Hotel, Winston went in search of Reginald Parker, an uncle he’d never met.
“After my parents emigrated from Britain to Calgary, Canada, in the early 20th century, they made a great effort to keep in touch with the family they’d left behind. Before my brother, sister and I were old enough to write letters, we’d draw pictures and scribble as small children do, and Mom would send them to England with her Christmas letters,” says the 101-year-old retired Alberta rancher and community leader.
“Then, when we got older and could write letters, we did so. One of the family members we wrote to was my dad’s brother, who was Prime Minister Churchill’s personal chauffeur.”
Winston Churchill Parker on a mission
Winston walked to the London address his mother had given him for his uncle. However, the woman who answered the door told Winston that his uncle had moved to Scotland Yard, the home of the London police force.
At Scotland Yard, Winston explained to the sergeant at the front desk who he was and why he was there. He was instructed to proceed to a car lot near 10 Downing Street protected by barbed wire and guarded. There Winston should look for a Daimler with a certain license number.
“The sergeant said if I waited at that car my uncle would be coming round to get the prime minister’s vehicle later that afternoon.”
When Winston found the nearby enclosure and didn’t see a guard, he walked in and started looking at license plates.
Suspicious, very suspicious
Suddenly, a big hand clasped Winston’s shoulder, and a uniformed London Bobby demanded, “What are you doing in here?”
When Winston explained, the London metropolitan police officer demanded to know if the young man knew whose car he was seeking.
“Yes,” Winston said, “it belongs to the prime minister.”
The police officer bristled with suspicion. “Where did you get that car number from?”
When Winston replied that the sergeant at the desk at Scotland Yard had given it to him, the Bobby didn’t buy the story.
“Did he now?” the officer replied. “Well, we’ll go and see about that!”
With that, he marched Winston back to Scotland Yard where the sergeant on duty confirmed that, indeed, he had given the prime minister’s car number to the young Canadian. About that time, another Bobby stepped forward.
“I know Jimmy Parker,” he said. “I’ll take this chap to number 10.”
Inside the legendary premises
“I was surprised that this prominent address didn’t have a bigger, more impressive front door,” Winston recalls.
Tucked inside the world-famous entryway was a little office. It was staffed by Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson, who was Mr. Churchill’s personal bodyguard and a former Scotland Yard detective, and Winston’s uncle, Reginald.
Just after Mr. Churchill took office and met Reginald Parker, he asked his new chauffeur his name. After learning it was Reginald, the prime minister made a quick and far-reaching decision.
He informed Winston’s uncle, “From now on, your name will be Jimmy,” and it was for the rest of his life.
Winston recalls the sequence of events.
“I was having a visit with my uncle and Detective Inspector Thompson when Mr. Churchill came walking through the foyer. My uncle stepped out and said, “Sir, I’d like you to meet the boy whom my brother named after you.””
Winston’s father, Herbert Garfield Parker and his mother, Amelia Emily “Milly” Churchill Parker, had chosen that name for their elder son because of a family connection. Milly and the career British politician Winston Churchill were distant cousins.
Meeting his famous namesake
“The prime minister stopped and I was introduced. That’s how I met Prime Minister Winston Churchill,” Winston remembers.
“I had always pictured him as a big man, but he wasn’t and he was well into middle age. Nevertheless, in his dark suit, he was most impressive. Winston Churchill had a presence.”
Mr. Churchill spent a few minutes in conversation with Winston, who was smartly dressed in his dark blue Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. As one of the very first men to go through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the young airman’s experiences interested the prime minister.
He also asked Winston if he had seen any debris during his ocean crossing because it hadn’t been long since Germany had sunk the British battleship HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, between Greenland and Iceland.
When Mr. Churchill had satisfied his curiosity, he turned to Winston’s uncle and told him to take his nephew downstairs to see the war room.
“I was honored,” Winston says. “It was a great privilege to see the top-secret war room, which was set up for a banquet for 30 or 40 people that night. Different colored pins were stuck here and there on the large maps covering the walls. I suppose they defined various aspects of the war.”
As Winston was leaving 10 Downing Street after the tour, the prime minister and Mrs. Churchill were getting in the Daimler driven by Winston’s uncle. Winston Churchill and Jimmy Parker raised their hands to acknowledge the young Canadian aviator and he waved back.
Winston’s official private tour
Mr. Churchill had issued another edict earlier that afternoon.
“Bring me in tomorrow,” he told his chauffeur. “Then you can take the day off and use my car to show Parker around London.”
Traffic was heavy during Winston’s guided tour of London the next day. However, every bobby recognized Prime Minister Churchill’s vehicle and stopped traffic to wave the official car through the intersection.
“That day, the only Winston Churchill in the car was me!”
Winston’s uncle drove five different British prime ministers during his 24-year career with Scotland Yard. Jimmy Parker described Sir Winston Churchill as “rather exacting, but a very nice man when you got to know him.”
Winston Churchill later autographed and presented a copy of his famous Yousuf Karsh portrait to Jimmy Parker. Upon his death, the iconic photo became the property of Winston Churchill Parker. He proudly displayed on the wall in his ranch house for many years.
At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill Parker returned to his beloved ranch life in Alberta. Great Britain’s victorious wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1953.
What a memory!
Winston, who often thinks of the rallying words that Prime Minister Churchill delivered to the British people, is particularly fond of a June 1940 speech: We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end; we shall fight in France; we shall fight on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; 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.
“Mr. Churchill picked that nation up by its bootstraps and everybody in England and the British Empire was willing to die in its defense,” Winston says with frank admiration for his namesake.
Sir Winston Churchill is widely considered one of the 20th century’s most significant figures. Winston Churchill Parker cherishes the memory of the day he shook the great man’s hand and had a conversation with him.
To learn more about Winston Churchill Parker’s wartime service, which included three years of incarceration in a German prisoner of war camp, visit my recent blog post, When Two Worlds Once Touched. You also can check out Winston’s inspiring life story, “Saddles and Service,” on Amazon.
To fully appreciate Prime Minister Winston Churchill, don’t miss the bestseller, “The Splendid and the Vile,” a fascinating look at the great man who led Great Britain and the Allies to victory in World War II. It’s also available on Amazon.
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So readers, now it’s your turn! Have you ever rubbed shoulders with a famous person? We’d like to hear about your encounter.
And by the way, Winston Churchill Parker will celebrate his 102nd birthday on July 31. Will you please join me in wishing him well?