Rhiwbina’s Brian Mead recalls the fascinating weeks he spent in Bermuda in 1953, guarding the Bermuda Conference. There, among others, he met Sir Winston Churchill, President Eisenhower and Sir Anthony Eden.
We flew to Bermuda on a Constellation aircraft on Sunday 29th November 1953. Compared to the converted bomber that flew us out from the UK, this was luxury. The passengers were Officers, NCOs and Guard Detachment. We arrived in Bermuda at 6pm and were driven straight from the airport to the barracks, which at that time, were uninhabited except for the Station Staff Officer who showed us to our rooms.
Hamilton Barracks itself was a very strange place. It struck me more like a Beau Guest Fort, filled with ghosts of soldiers long past. The walls of the barrack rooms were scarred with bayonet-carved messages, often poetry, some over a hundred years old. The men in my room walked around for hours trying to find the oldest. Some were very beautifully done by men of many different regiments. One carved in the 1800s stated that he had been there for five years. Shades of the Welch Brigade in India!
The beds were even stranger, made out of 4×4 timber with two inch by a quarter of an inch canvas being nailed over them in criss-cross pattern, similar to those seen on old sailing ships, probably dating from the time of Nelson.
The barracks were in a good state of repair and very clean with the walls of the barrack rooms white-washed. The grounds were laid out with trees and shrubs with flowers full of colours, which made the place seem very cool in the heat of the day.
Before I had chance to settle in, I was told that with two other Corporals plus a guard, I was going to the Mid Ocean Club on the other side of the island where Sir Winston Churchill and Mr Anthony Eden were going to stay.
Bermuda is very beautiful, made up by a number of islands named after English counties and joined by causeways. During the drive across the island, I noticed that although there was a lot of vegetation, a lot of the trees were dead. I was told later, it was because a few years earlier, they were stricken with some sort of blight. The coastline was dotted with small bays and the houses were all different colours in pastel shades with white roofs. From the roof, gutter pipes ran down to huge water butts – this was to make up for the shortage of fresh water on the island.
Upon reaching the Mid Ocean Club, we took over the men’s locker rooms for the Duty Officer, Guard Command and the NCOs on security duties. The clubhouse had been emptied of guests, only the staff remaining. The Clubhouse itself was guarded by the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF), the roof by the Royal Marines, while the gates and perimeter were shared by a guard from the Bermuda Rifles. These territorials, like their British counterparts, came from all walks of life.
Security at the clubhouse was very tight and incidents were many and various. On one occasion, the Marines on the roof spotted a frogman swimming into the private beach. He was caught coming out of the water and turned out to be a French photographer.
On another occasion, the clubhouse had a power cut. At the time, I was standing at the door of the Conference Room on duty when all the lights went out. In the best traditions of American cinema, the FBI agent on duty with me whipped out his gun and shouted “Nobody move!” Back came the British response of “Put that bloody thing away and grow up.” The power was restored within about two minutes and the agent spent the rest of his duty angrily puffing on his cigar and refusing to speak to us. Over the next few days, he became the butt of our jokes, not being helped by the fact that although being six foot in height, he was out of condition with a large beer pot belly.
Corporal Lightfoot on duty at the main gates had his problems too but of a different kind. He was accosted by a film crew led by a female correspondent who turned out to be Miss Jinx Falkenburg, an American ex movie star. By the time I had arrived, Corporal Lightfoot had persuaded her that she could not get in and instead gave her a dialogue on how a certain American president had his roots in Wrexham. Heaven knows what the American movie-goers thought of it all when it was shown. I thought it was hilarious!
The most notable incident concerning myself came the day I was tophone callhere was a phonecall for me. It was someone who said that they represented the New York Herald Tribune newspaper and that they wished to buy the films I had of the VIPs. Unbeknown to me, the call had been tapped by security and the first thing I knew was a hand on my shoulder and a voice telling me to put the phone down. Up until that time, I had taken a number of photographs of Heads of State. Probably one of the staff in the clubhouse had seen me doing so, and had told this newspaper about it. The culmination of this episode was the confiscation of the roll of film, which was later returned to me by Captain Sinnett. He told me that Security Officers had exposed it to the light. To my knowledge, there were never any photos taken of the Bermuda Three Power Talks, a shame for posterity; a bigger shame for my album.
My main duty was to guard the door to the Conference Room and check the passes issued to the delegates, the only exclusions being Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Jospeh Lainel, the French Premier. The embossed and numbered press passes corresponded to a list held by myself. My copy of the list, together with my pass, are in the archives of the RWF Museum in Caernarfon Castle.
Part of my duty was to escort VIPs who wished to walk around the grounds of the clubhouse or swim from the private beach. In doing so, it was nearly always my task to escort Sir Anthony Eden, then Foreign Minister. To come into close contact with someone like Sir Anthony Eden was a memorable experience and one which I shall never forget. On being told to meet him in the hotel foyer, I found him to be waiting there for me. When I reported to him, he smiled at me and said “Good morning Corporal. I understand that you are to look after me. Shall we go down to the beach where I have my bathers?” His remarks immediately put me at ease, for here was a man six foot tall, very fit for his age, and as it turned out, was a far better swimmer than myself! It was just as well that I had to sit on the beach and watch him!
I do not know what I expected to feel meeting him for the first time, for I had read and seen so much about him in the media of the day. But what I did find, was a kind and surprisingly gentle man who was more interested in my welfare than of his own. The feeling of holding him in awe, he quickly dispelled, so that within a few minutes, I was relaxed in his company. During these walks, he encouraged me to chat about every topic of the day, but as they say, to be a good conversationalist, one also has to be a good listener. I knew that to listen to someone such as he was a chance of a lifetime.
Those days, many years on, when I see and hear reference to Sir Anthony Eden – they enhance the memory of a brilliant man whom I was privileged to know.
Having read and heard so much of Winston Churchill since my youth, it was only natural that my expectations on meeting the man was of someone larger than life. What I saw came as a shock, not only to myself but to everyone else waiting his arrival at the Mid Ocean Club.
He came through the entrance supported on either arm by two men. An exhausted little old fat man who was obviously partially paralysed from head to foot on his left side. He shuffled, rather than walked, and after murmuring greetings to those introduced to him, he was quietly assisted to the lift, followed by an embarrassing silence as we watched him leave.
History can now tell us that at the beginning of 1953, Winston Churchill had suffered a massive heart attack. This, at the time, was withheld from the press and public so as not to endanger the Bermuda Talks, which were postponed until the November.
As this Conference was to agree on the NATO stance to the growing aggressive attitude of the Russians at the time, one wonders if a younger, fitter Prime Minister may have changed the course of history as we know it today. Looking back on the months prior to November, the Gods must have been kind as the delay enabled me to witness such a momentous occasion in my life.
Sir Winston, being the first to arrive in Bermuda, went to the airport to greet the rest of the Heads of State and the Guard of Honour was provided by the 1st RWF. Lieutenant Tim Davies, who took part, described in a letter to me that a problem arose when trying to get through red tape in order to fly ‘Billy’ the goat mascot. Sir Winston was approached on the subject and his apparent reply was “Fumigate the goat and fly it.”
Although the RWF presence in Bermuda was from the 29th November to 11th December, Sir Winston was there from 2nd to 10th December. The conference itself only lasted from the 4th December until the 8th December 1953.
Our duties were worked on a 4 hours on and 4 hours off basis, while the Conference was in session. For the off-duty periods, we were restricted to the boundaries of the Mid Ocean Club, unless we had special permission.
My preconceived ideas as how Heads of State would conduct themselves at such a meeting were quickly dispelled on the first day with President Eisenhower flying off the handle and storming out of the conference room; in the days to come, we were sharply reminded that this was one man who operated on a very short fuse. Our duties on the door of the conference room were strictly adhered to. Each NCO had a clipboard, on which the White Passholder’s names were printed. Regardless of how many times a person left the room, the pass had to be checked on their return, the only exemptions being the three Heads of State.
Our other security areas were the main gates and doors of the clubhouse with standing guards between the main gates and the clubhouse itself, the Marines occupying the roof.
Today, the public are used to seeing massive security operations for Heads of State. For the Americans however, even in the early 1950s, this was the norm.
This was typical with President Eisenhower, giving me my first experience of a security motorcade. This consisted of two large American cars in the leads, filled with FBI men, followed by the Presidential Car with President Eisenhower sitting on the rear seat surrounded by bodyguards. The rear was brought up by two more cars filled with FBI men. One of the highlights of the day was to watch the motorcade move off, taking Eisenhower back to the US Air Force base at the end of a session of talks.
The cars would draw up to the front door of the Mid Ocean Club. They were then surrounded by FBI men facing outwards. When Eisenhower was installed in the car, a signal was given by the FBI officer in charge. The bodyguards would board their cars, which being open-topped, meant that they would swing their legs over the doors in true American flamboyant manner, instead of opening the doors and getting in. The British staff were so amused by this show that we would mutter in chorus “Prepare to Mount – Mount!” Then with their lights flashing and sirens blowing, the whole shebang would move off.
In marked contrast, whenever Winston Churchill left the Mid Ocean Club, he would move quietly and leave with his one bodyguard and valet, the car gently moving off leaving a trail of expensive cigar smoke.
The sense of occasion for those eight days as far as we of the Royal Welch Fusiliers were concerned, absorbed us every minute of its passing. It made our duties demanding, but they also gave us the knowledge that his was a little bit of history in the making.
We of the 1st Bn. RWF played our part.
Brian Mead, Rhiwbina