Andrew Roberts: Discovered extraordinary secret documents recording every Cabinet conversation of Churchill

Historians in the News

It was a wet Friday afternoon last year, and I was about to take the train back to London when it happened. The Churchill Archives in Cambridge were preparing to close, and I had finished working on the files I’d requested for my research on my new book, about the grand strategy of the Second World War.

I’d love to pretend it was archival genius, or undue diligence, that encouraged me to take down the catalogue for the papers of Lawrence Burgis, but to be honest it was sheer serendipity. That and curiosity, because the name meant nothing to me in an archive that is otherwise stuffed with the papers of the political and military giants of the twentieth century.

The catalogue stated that Burgis had been an assistant to the deputy secretary to the War Cabinet between 1939 and 1945, a junior post that mainly consisted of taking notes at meetings, which were then drawn up for the cabinet minutes before being burnt in the grate of the War Cabinet offices in Whitehall. Because the staff at the Churchill Archives are super-efficient, I decided to order up a file that simply stated December 1941, to see if it had anything interesting to say about the attack on Pearl Harbour that month. At best I was expecting copies of the opaque, deliberately uninformative Cabinet minutes that for decades have been publicly available at the National Archives at Kew.

When it arrived soon afterwards, the brown file tied up with string contained scores of yellow pages written in a crabby calligraphy, employing a shorthand code and hieroglyphic-like marks throughout. The stain of rusty paper-clips and general mustiness of the documents implied that historians had worked through these obscure papers of a minor civil servant since they were deposited at the archive on Burgis’s death in 1971.

'WC: address entirely new sit: to wh: existed last week,’ I read under a large '10/XII’ on a page opened at random, 'disaster in Pac. Pearl Har taken by surprise – maltreated. J complete control Cape Town to Van.’ It was at that moment that I realised that Lawrence Burgis had broken the 1911 Official Secrets Act, and had kept his verbatim notes of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. '10/XII’ meant the Cabinet of Wednesday, 10 December 1941, when 'WC’ – ie Winston Churchill - reported the events of three days earlier at Pearl Harbour. He was telling his colleagues that they had to address an entirely new situation to that which existed last week, for what was at stake was nothing less than Japanese control of the whole area between Cape Town in South Africa and Vancouver in Canada.

If Burgis had kept the verbatim report for December 1941, I wondered, had he also kept them for all the War Cabinets in which he had sat in as a note-taker? The catalogue seemed to suggest as much, so there could be thousands of such pages, detailing word-for-word what everyone, not just the Prime Minister, had said in Britain’s most senior decision-making body [+italics] throughout the Second World War. [-italics]

Lawrence Burgis (pronounced 'Burgess’) was, according to the diarist James Lees-Milne, 'the last serious attachment of Lord Esher’s private life’ (although it was unreciprocated). When Esher and Burgis first met – it is not known how – Burgis was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at Ing’s School, Worcester, and the fifty-seven-year-old Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher, was a former courtier to Queen Victoria and perhaps the best socially connected man of Edwardian England.

Burgis was 'alert, intelligent and eager to learn’, and it was down to Esher that he secured a place on the staff of the Cabinet Office before the end of the Great War. That he knew he was breaking the law in not destroying his notes is evident from his unpublished autobiography, also amongst his papers, in which he explicitly stated that he kept his actions secret....

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