Winston Churchill’s Last Private Secretary: SIR ANTHONY MONTAGUE BROWNE 1923-2013
by Barry Singer
Anthony Montague Browne first came to work for Winston Churchill in October 1952. He was 29 years old and a former fighter pilot, who’d been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945. Churchill was on holiday with the Queen at Balmoral Castle in Scotland when Montague Browne arrived at No. 10 for his first day of work as Churchill’s newest Private Secretary. “Nobody was expecting me,” Montague Browne later recalled to Sir Martin Gilbert. “My first introduction to life there was being telephoned in the early hours of the morning to be told by an Admiral that our first nuclear bomb experiment had been a success. He suggested that I should wake the Prime Minister…and inform him, but even at this early stage I concluded that this would be imprudent.”
Anthony Montague Browne, who passed away on April 1 at the age of 89, remained prudence personified throughout his long tenure as Churchill’s last Private Secretary. His duties centered around a boss in physical decline. Montague Browne remained at Churchill’s side after his retirement as Prime Minister in 1955, attending to him through strokes, falls and the mounting ailments of age. He also traveled extensively with Churchill, including frequent treks to the South of France. In this capacity, he bore witness to one extraordinary encounter in a Monte Carlo casino. As Churchill and his entourage were sitting at a table, Frank Sinatra and his entourage passed. Sinatra stopped, turned back, and heartily shook Churchill’s hand. “I’ve been waiting to do that for ages,” Sinatra was heard to say as he moved on. “Who the hell was that?” growled Churchill to Montague Browne.
All told, Winston Churchill employed fourteen different Private Secretaries, commencing with Eddie Marsh in 1905 and concluding with Sir Anthony. Churchill also employed five Parliamentary Private Secretaries, including Robert Boothby (1924-1929), Brendan Bracken (1940) and his own son-in-law Christopher Soames (1953-1955). The roster of his Personal Secretaries runs to at least 47 ladies, beginning with Annette Anning, who was Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph’s, Private Secretary before being loaned to Winston in November 1902. She would stay on with the young MP until 1909.
Though discretion was considered an essential quality in any secretary, Private or Personal, at least six of Churchill’s secretaries published books full of details about him: Eddie Marsh (A Number of People: A Book of Reminiscences; John Colville (three volumes: Footprints in Time; The Churchillians – or, as it was titled in the U.S., Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle; and The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries. Robert Boothby produced his own memoir (I Fight to Live); John Martin (Downing Street: The War Years); Elizabeth [Layton] Nel (Mr. Churchill’s Secretary); Phyllis Moir (I Was Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary) and Anthony Montague Browne (Long Sunset).
They constituted an astonishing group, Churchill’s secretariat; an erudite, enormously accomplished, disciplined, devoted lot. Their like will not be seen again.