The Churchill Secret: KBO

Written by Jonathan Smith
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

On 23 June 1953, after entertaining an Italian delegation to a witty after-dinner speech, Prime Minister Churchill, aged 79, suffered a major stroke. His deputy, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, was about to undergo major surgery in the USA. The country was effectively leaderless. To avoid panic, Churchill’s inner circle, including his private secretary Jock Colville and his doctor Lord Moran, decided, with the connivance of the mighty Press barons, to keep the news from Parliament and the general public. Churchill was packed off to Chartwell, his country home in Kent, to recover from a bout of ‘exhaustion’ under the care of his loyal wife Clementine and a forthright London nurse, Millie Appleyard.

This is very much a novel of character memorably revealed through dialogue, which achieves a great deal in 200 enjoyable, satisfying pages. Jonathan Smith brings out Churchill’s irascibility and wit as well as his indomitable will and determination to pull through, epitomised by the dogged motto KBO (Keep Buggering On) that had seen him though his dispiriting ‘Wilderness Years’ between the wars. In the fictitious Millie, he meets his match and a touching relationship develops when they unexpectedly find common interest. Then there’s the devoted Clemmie, the only person Churchill admits to being afraid of, who wishes he would take this stroke as a hint that he should retire but knows he won’t. Last, but not least, we meet the aristocratic Colville and the gruff Yorkshireman Moran, who dislike each other but are united in their dedication to the Great Man.