The Secret Heart Attack of Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953

Picture the following scene. The Prime Minister has suffered a massive heart attack. A handful of people know this. The Prime Minister may well have to resign if news breaks out, both as leader of the country and his party and a General Election will then have to be called. What will you do? This…

Picture the following scene. The Prime Minister has suffered a massive heart attack. A handful of people know this. The Prime Minister may well have to resign if news breaks out, both as leader of the country and his party and a General Election will then have to be called. What will you do? This is the very decision that has to be answered in 1953 by the Prime Minister's closest confidants.

There is little forewarning. On 23 June 1953 a Downing Street dinner is held for the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide de Gaspieri and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The evening begins well with Churchill delivering yet yet another witty speech joking about the Roman request of Britain. Later it starts to taper off as he rapidly deteriorates in health. Barely able to move he holds the hand of his close friend, Jane Clark and whispers' I want the hand of a friend. They put too much on me, Foreign Affairs … 'and then his voice trails off.

No reply occurs. Those who hope it is just a small attack like the one he suffered in Southern France in 1949 are disappointed. Churchill's condition is so bad that at one point the aptly named neurologist, Sir Russell Brain doubts whether his patient will live another year.

It later transpires he has suffered a massive heart attack and yet incredibly he struggles on. The next day he even manages to conduct a cabinet meeting. Some cabinet collections note he looks rather pale and white but the only sign something is amiss happens when he requests that 'Harold, you might draw down the blind a little, will you?'.

The pain that Churchill endures with the loss of function in his left arm, leg and the left side of his face is intolerable. Occasionally he capitulates and with reference decides to retire to his home at Chartwell for recuperation on Thursday morning. He leaves at noon from No.10 for Chartwell. He is in full glaring view of the public and media and yet somehow manages to walk unaided into his car and escape detection. By the time he arrives at Chartwell he needs full assistance to leave the car.

His problems continue to mount over the next few days. He is well aware that if the media get hold of this story they will have a field day. He can also see how his political rivals circle round him like vultures by a carcass. If he wants to stay as Prime Minister then he absolutely has to somehow recover his health.

The first matter of the media is tackled on Thursday 25th June when the three leading press barons of the day, Lord Beaverbrook, Camrose and Bracken are invited to Chartwell to discuss the Prime Minister's health. Extraordinarily given the scoop that is at their hands they collectively decide to muzzle their own papers in order to protect the Prime Minister. They also encourage others to do likewise by arguing that the Parliamentary summer recess will allow Winston sufficient time to recuperate.

More difficult negotiations take place on Friday. Winston meets his key adversaries, Lord Salisbury and Butler on Friday at Chartwell. Winston knows he needs their goodwill as either can reveal his condition to the public. He tries to persuade them by suggesting he will leave office in October in favor of Eden. It is dangerous game to appeal to their mixed sympacies and yet it appears to work.

This can best be seen with how both Butler and Salisbury make direct appearances to the Prime Minister's medical experts, Moran and Sir Russell Brain to alter their original media circular. In the first draft it says Churchill has suffered from 'a disturbance of the cerebral circulation'. Instead a revised medical bulletin is let out saying the Prime Minister is taking 'complete rest' while the original comment is cut to stop the general public being aware of how serious his situation is.

Churchill's problems are not over. On Saturday 27th June key talks about the future of the Conservative Government are held in secret at Chartwell between the key political figures of Butler, Salisbury, Colville and Lascelles, the Queen's secretary. They agree upon a caretaker government under Lord Salisbury taking over until Eden is in a position to permanently do so.

A suggestion is even put to Churchill that he moves to the House of Lords and remain Prime Minister in name only while Eden takes over effective control from the Commons. He outright rejects the offer and replies with his usual keen sense of wit 'I should have to be the Duke of Chartwell, and Randulph would be the Marquis of Toodledo'.

The major impediment to a smooth transition of power is the state of Antony Eden. One of Winston's two main challengers, he is 3,000 miles away in a Boston hospital in America recovering from a botched eight hour operation for his gall bladder that leaves him a 50/50 chance of survival prognosis. His other main rival is Rab Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he loses his opportunity by vacillating over what to do next rather than aggressively promoting himself and canvassing for support.

None of this matters when Winston's life becomes touch and go during the weekend of 27 / 28th June. His health is so poor that his Doctor, Moran tells Colville he is not sure if the Prime Minister will last the weekend. Unable to get out of bed on Saturday morning, his good right hand stiffens and Winston appears to give up hope.

Sunday is a pivotal day in his fortunes. Luckily for him his thrombosis settles so his friends and family, such his wife, Clementine take the opportunity to try to lift his spirits. Winston himself is keen to tough it out. He still has immunity resources of mental fortitude and a willingness to fight it out or 'pig it' as he likes to say. Rather stupendously he sets himself the goal of walking unaided to his bed. Incredibly he succeeds with much effort and promptly collapses from the sheer endeavor.

Keeping the matter of Winston's health a secret is too much a burden and so on Monday 31st June more people become aware of how poorly he is when the full cabinet are informed. Grown men cry with shock or have to restrain their emotions to stop themselves from breaking down.

Meantime Winston continues to confound all around him. A remarkable example of his willingness to 'pig it' happens on Tuesday 30th June after dinner. It leaves a lasting impression on his colleague, Brook. This time round Winston is in the drawing room and sets himself the goal of standing upright without aid from a chair. All are scared for him so they try to stop him from doing it. He warns them away with his stick so they position them on either side of him. With endless effort he begins to rise, sweat glistening down his face. Finally he stands upright. Content he then sits down and has a cigar to relax. It leaves a lasting impression on all witnessing it. Brook felt that 'as he had done for the nation in 1940, so he did for his own life in 1953. He was determined to recover'.

Indeed he slowly gets better and on the following weekend of the 4th and 5th of July an evident upward swing begins. Churchill takes his first short walk unaided. In addition to a great deal of pain it also gives him a shot of sorely needed confidence and from then on he slowly makes a recovery.

All the time the public residual ignorant of to his condition. They only became enlightened a full year later during a speech by none other than Winston himself when he lets it slip as a casual side in a House of Commons debate.