The Capture of Winston Churchill in South Africa
- Wednesday 15th November 1899 -
The 2nd Boer War, 11th October 1899 – 31st May 1902 – was fought between the armies of Britain, the Cape and the Natal Colonies with Afrikaner support and backed by help from Australia, New Zealand, British India and Canada and the Boer Republic, the Republic of Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. In the first stage the Boers were successful in Northern Natal, besieged the town of Ladysmith and invaded the Cape Colony, laying siege to the British bases in Kimberley and Mafeking. The British responded in the second stage under Lords Roberts and Kitchener. The sieges of the towns of Ladysmith and Mafeking were lifted, in March 1900 Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State was captured, in May Johannesburg was captured and in June Pretoria was taken. It seemed the war was over and Roberts returned to the UK a hero.
Under Louis Botha and Jan Smuts the Boers abandoned the traditional methods of warfare for guerrilla tactics. This proved very successful. In response the British resorted to a ‘scorched earth’ policy of burning the land to deny the enemy supplies. Over 30,000 farms were burnt and 3,700 miles of wire fencing was erected and guarded by 50,000 troops. The British followed this with a number of ‘drives’ to capture the Boers. This had the effect of displacing them and they were rounded up and sent to concentration camps – bringing an end to the war.
In this context a young 25-year-old Winston Churchill was determined to see action. He got a commission as a War journalist with the Morning Post. He was travelling in a steam train loaded with British soldiers between Frere and Chieveley in the British Natal Colony on November 15th 1899. The Boers had placed a large boulder on the tracks and the train crashed right into it. The Boers then opened fire with field guns and rifles. Those who were not injured from the crash returned fire whilst the wounded were dragged to safety. Churchill himself was thrown from the train. Fighting continued for over 70 minutes while the British tried to uncouple the locomotive to drive it back down the hill. The Boers then swept down from the hillside as the train moved out capturing many although plenty escaped. Churchill found himself in a gully near the track. He was spotted by a Boer on a horse who dismounted and aimed his gun at the Briton. The two stared at each other. Churchill went for his pistol but realised he had left it on the train and was forced to surrender. The Boer who had captured him turned out to be none other than Louis Botha, who became the first official Prime Minister of South Africa in 1910.
Churchill came from an elite family. His cousin was the Duke of Marlborough – one of the leading aristocrats in Britain - and his father, Randolph, had been an eminent politician and former Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a prized asset to the Boers and was treated as an officer POW rather than as a civilian.
The captives were route marched then put on a train to Pretoria, the capital of the Boer Transvaal republic. Here he was marched through the streets and imprisoned in an old school building serving as a prison camp. Churchill describes it as, “A long, low, red brick building with a slanting veranda and a row of iron railings in front of it.” Whilst here the prisoners drew detailed maps of the area on the walls with the latest troop positions marked on – British in red and Boers in blue. These can still be seen today, kept behind glass covers. He had been in captivity just 4 weeks when on the evening of 12th December he and some others decided to escape. Most of the guards were out patrolling the streets as reports had been heard of British soldiers in the area. They took their chance and Churchill was told to go first. He vaulted the wall into the shrubbery of the next door neighbour and waited for the others. They never arrived. The guards had become suspicious and returned. The others, so as not to make Churchill’s escape obvious, stayed put. Unfortunately, they had the map, compass and rations and Churchill was left with some chocolate and £75. That night he carefully walked the streets looking for the rail line that he knew would take him east and out of the Transvaal. He walked by night and hid by day.
Eventually he was able to jump onto a passing freight train and hid in one of the coal holders. He shared this hideaway with a vulture – who, Churchill later declared, took a great interest in him. Eventually due to extreme hunger and thirst he was forced to jump off and walked through the swamps and long grass until he came to a house. With little option he knocked on the door. In true Churchill style the owner happened to be one of the few Englishmen living in the area and he took him in. His name was John Howard and, together with Mr Dewsnap, was the owner of the Transvaal and Delagoa Colliery. Mr Dewsnap was from Oldham and knew Churchill as the latter had stood as a prospective parliamentary candidate in the area – and lost.
Howard took Churchill in and hid him down a mine for a number of days with food and cigars. He read by candlelight including the novel Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. After this he hid in an office before being stowed on a train bound for Portuguese East Africa with a consignment of wool. There was a price of £25 on Churchill’s head and plenty of wanted posters offering this reward for his capture – dead or alive.
For nearly 3 days he stayed hidden in the train until he heard a search. As the soldiers neared the spot where Churchill was he recognised that they were speaking Portuguese. He had escaped from the Transvaal. 2 days later John Howard received a telegraph saying merely, “Goods arrived safely”. He contacted the British consul in Lourenco, Mozambique, and, when his identity was verified, was put on board a steamboat for Durban. News of his escape had made the news both locally and in Britain. On his arrival he was greeted by cheering crowds.
Churchill carried on his work as a war reporter and was also commissioned into the cavalry. He went on to take part in the Battle of Spion Kop and the lifting the siege of Ladysmith. With his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, he rode in to Pretoria and demanded the surrender of the guards at the prison camp where he had been held. Taking off his hat he declared to all those there that the prisoners were free to go.
Churchill returned to Britain as a celebrity. He returned to Oldham where he won the seat at the 1900 general election. After winning he went on a speaking tour throughout Britain, raising about £10,000, nearly £980,000 at today’s values. By 1908 he got his first ministerial job as President of the Board of Trade in Asquith’s government and his career, with many ups and downs continued when he became Prime Minister in May 1940. He was used to dark hours and days by that point and he faced his biggest then. Undaunted he faced down the Nazis.