Revealed: No-nonsense nurse fed Winston Churchill cold soup at 5am, scrubbed him in the bath and didn’t care that he never wore pyjamas as he fought pneumonia in 1943
Nurse Doris Miles nursed Winston Churchill back to health
During the winter of 1943, a young nurse sat down to write a letter to her husband, far away on wartime active service. Her note was addressed ‘Somewhere in Whitehall’ and dated ‘February 21, 2am’.
‘Darling heart,’ she wrote. ‘You will observe from the somewhat cryptic address that I am not in my usual position, and certainly up beyond my usual bedtime. Reason being that on Friday evening I was summoned to Matron and asked if I would go straight away to a case — a very important case under the care of the great Sir Charles Wilson.
‘I can’t say much now, but put two and two together and you get V for Victory.’
Mysteriously, she added: ‘The Patient is all he is cracked up to be.’
‘The Patient’, it would later be revealed, was Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who had been taken dangerously ill with life-threatening streptococcus pneumonia.
And that brief note from ‘Somewhere in Whitehall’ was the first in what would become an extraordinary, unique series of letters chronicling in intimate detail not only the Prime Minister’s sickness and convalescence, but the intriguing relationship that developed between him and the woman who nursed him back to health: 28-year-old Doris Miles.
The severe, sudden onset of Churchill’s illness had surprised both his doctors and colleagues.
Five days after he gave a report in the Commons on the progress of World War II, his temperature had shot up alarmingly and his personal physician, Sir Charles Wilson, was called in.
He diagnosed pneumonia, which was confirmed the next day by Dr Geoffrey Marshall, a respiratory expert from Guy’s Hospital.
Winston Churchill sits in the sunshine in Marrakesh, Morocco, in December 1943 during a period of convalescence after falling ill with pneumonia
‘You will have to relinquish the conduct of affairs for a fortnight,’ Marshall is said to have told the Prime Minister.
‘How dare you?’ Churchill replied. ‘The war is at a critical stage!’
‘Very well,’ Marshall told him. ‘But you know what we call this illness? We call it “old man’s friend” because you fade away so gradually that you arrive in the next world before you know you’ve left this one.’
‘Am I as ill as that?’ asked Churchill.
‘You certainly are,’ was the reply.
‘Very well. I’ll do as you say.’
The two physicians had prescribed bed rest, plenty of fluids and treatment with M&B, a new anti-bacterial medicine. The patient would need skilled nursing care, and Sir Charles — then head of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington — turned to his colleagues to send the brightest and best.
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As the recipient of a gold medal for excellence in nursing and the wife and daughter of doctors, Doris was the obvious first choice.
‘I went straight away in a taxi,’ Doris recalled many years later.
‘I was met by Sir Charles, who said: “Glad to see you, nurse. I must warn you, the Prime Minister doesn’t wear pyjamas.”
‘And neither he did,’ she remembered. ‘Only a silk vest, a velvet jacket with a diamond V on the lapel and slippers of velvet with PM embroidered on the front.’
And so began what was, for the newly married Doris, an intense, unforgettable experience that would eventually define the rest of her life.
‘I had to give him a tepid sponge as he had a high fever,’ she recalled. ‘WC took great interest in this, and I knew that if the temperature didn’t go down I would have very little authority. Luckily, it did.’
Her first challenge satisfactorily completed, Doris settled into her new life at 10 Downing Street.
10 Downing Street, London, Feb 22, 3.30am
‘Hello darling,’ she wrote the next day to her husband Roger, who was then serving as a medic on board a Royal Navy destroyer.
‘I think there’s a turn for the better. He’s had two Seconal [sleeping pills] tonight, and has only woken once since ten o’clock — to have his temperature taken — and finding it had gone down two degrees after I had sponged him at nine, he said I should have a bar to my gold medal.
‘A further bar was awarded for being able to find him some cold, jellied consommé without having to wake anyone up, so I gather I am approved of.
‘The trouble is that, feeling a bit better, he thinks he is cured and will probably walk down the corridor to have a bath with only a towel round him in the morning.’
Doris goes on to describe an unexpected visit in the middle of the night from Churchill’s wife, Clementine.
‘Interrupted by Mrs C wanting to look at his chart,’ she writes. ‘Luckily I hadn’t got my feet up and my cap off! Made her a cup of tea and explained the relations of pulse to temperature, etc. Charming woman.’
After the departure of ‘Mrs C’, Doris continues at 5.30am: ‘Been having a long chat with the old boy. He’s been telling me his daily habits. Did you know that he stays in bed until 12, sleeps from 3 to 5, never goes anywhere before 5 and never goes to bed before 2. What a man.
‘He also tells me that he hates cigars, and never smokes more than a quarter of one. We have also discussed the progress of the war, and the Beveridge Report [a 1942 document outlining proposed welfare reforms].
‘He’s not particularly clear-headed at night and apt to ramble off at a tangent.
‘I tried to persuade him to take some Ovaltine, but he declares he hates “pap” — can’t stand milk or porridge, kind of “steak and beer for breakfast” type.’
A day on, and Doris is clearly beginning to find her feet in the corridors of power.
10 Downing Street, Whitehall, Feb 23
‘Darling Roger. Isn’t this a beautiful address! Dearest, you would laugh if you could see me now. I’m in the PM’s study, sitting in that odd-shaped chair he sits in for his photographs, and using a blotter stamped ‘First Lord, Cabinet Room’ on the outside.
‘The study is next to his bedroom, and there is a connecting bell which usually goes off with a loud buzz about 2am. He usually requires me to bath him at night, and he holds court to Sir Charles, one or more secretaries and any odd visitors who may be around while I’m doing it!
‘One thing that might amuse you is his fluid intake chart. It goes something like this:
‘Champagne oz 10
‘Brandy oz 2
‘Orange juice oz 8
‘Whiskey and soda oz 8
‘Doesn’t that make your tongue hang out? There seems to be no lack of it here.’
As Churchill was a renowned trencherman and drinker, the appearance of champagne at the top of his ‘fluid intake’ chart is no surprise — he is said to have told a granddaughter of the eponymous vintner Pol Roger: ‘I could not live without champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.’
For Doris and the rest of Churchill’s medical team, getting him to stay in bed was one thing; getting him to rest, however, was quite another. Even George VI had written urging him to slow down.
‘My dear Winston,’ wrote the King, ‘I am very sorry to hear that you are ill, and I hope that you will soon be well again. But do please take this opportunity for a rest. You must get back your strength for the strenuous coming months.’
Lacking his usual vigour, Churchill put up only a token resistance.
‘We reached agreement on the following lines,’ he later wrote in his six-volume account of World War II. ‘I was to have only the most important and interesting papers sent to me, and to read a novel.’ It was a strategy that appeared to bear fruit.
‘Darling Roger’, wrote Doris. ‘The Patient is greatly improved, and all the nursing now is to appear at the correct hours with the correct doses of M&B, Pot Cit [potassium citrate, to reduce acidity in the urine] etc., take temperatures and prepare orange drinks.
‘Even the latter is not strenuous, as the butler prepares the tray for me, and all I have to do is cut up the oranges and squeeze them!
‘The PM is most considerate, and always the first thing he asks when I come on duty at night is how I have slept, and when I’ve tucked him up and wished him a very good night, he says he hopes I’ll get some sleep too.
‘He’s very keen on people getting enough sleep, and we have long talks at night about that and many other subjects. Last night it was religion and dreams, and the night before it was mostly political, very interesting.’
Westminster, Monday, March 1
‘Darling Roger. Our Patient is making rapid strides to health and is taking me with him to the country for a few days, which will be very pleasant.
‘My job will be to see that he does his breathing exercises, give him his tonic, and be there when he wakes up at night.
‘As he gets better so his cigars get larger, and tonight after dinner he was smoking one that I swear was over a foot long. I wish I could get one for you.
‘It’s midnight and the Old Man is still working away, with a couple of secretaries and several whiskeys. I will take my courage in both hands and suggest very firmly that it’s quite time he went to sleep. I can hear most of what’s going on, and from the laughter it sounds like lowies [Doris’s word for risqué jokes]!’
Later: ‘Well, I made my appearance and it’s not lowies, but his latest speech being read to Anthony E. [Anthony Eden, Leader of the House of Commons]. However, he submitted like a lamb and took a Seconal [for insomnia], so in about half an hour he should be beginning to feel sleepy.’
At the beginning of March, a trip to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country retreat, was mooted, and on March 3 an excited Doris travelled there in the Prime Minister’s convoy.
‘My darling. The journey here was magnificent! Two cars, I came in the second with a private secretary, naval ADC and the detective. We whistled down in just over an hour, and I arrived to find my bags had come down earlier and been unpacked for me, and everything laid around in true country house style.
‘It’s a lazy life, except that he usually wakes at about 5am and requires jelly and whatnot, but apart from that there’s only tonics and breathing exercises, and upholding the honour of Mary’s [hospital] by looking as decorative as possible!’
For Doris, the next few days would prove to be a golden period. Although she was on call through the night, she was able to explore the beautiful house and its surroundings and take long walks in the Chiltern Hills during the day.
Somewhere in Bucks, Saturday, March 6
‘My darling. We’ve got a wonderful organisation of hours of work here.
‘The Old Man’s theory is that no one was meant to work 12 and 14 hours at a stretch, and that if you go properly to bed and sleep for a couple of hours in the daytime, you can work till the small hours with no trouble at all.
‘My day really begins at 7pm, when I’m called with a cup of tea and the evening papers. If I can persuade the Patient to do his breathing exercises before he gets up for dinner I do, but his usual excuse is that he is too tired or too busy (too lazy, really).
‘After dinner we have a film. The whole staff, guards, policemen, guests, family all go, and it’s usually very pleasant. Some of the films are rather stupid and if the OM [Old Man] doesn’t like any of it he comes out with some pretty cutting remarks.
‘As dinner is never over much before 10, the show hardly ever ends before midnight.
‘From 12 until 1, 2 or 3am the Patient usually puts in some solid work, and there is much telephoning and rushing up and down stairs with dispatch boxes.
‘In the morning I either sit by my roaring fire or go out for a walk, coming back at lunchtime to supervise the breathing exercises.
‘In the afternoon I can do what I like, and then at 3, 4 or 5 we both go to bed again (sounds suspicious!) until dinner time, when the whole thing starts again.
‘Not a bad way of life, you must admit. I live like a queen.’
Clementine Churchill’s hopes that her husband would be able to have a rest at Chequers turned out to be wishful thinking; now he was feeling better, Churchill was virtually carrying on business as usual, following events in North Africa with particularly close attention. Every day brought visitors — Cabinet ministers, advisers and friends, even the King.
Chequers, Tuesday, March 9
‘My dearest. Yesterday was a great day because the King came to see the Patient! Great excitement.
‘A guard of honour was formed and marched around for some time, finally settling in three long rows right in front of the door.
‘After about ten minutes they realised that no car would be able to get near the door and no one would be able to get in or out, so they were forced to re-form.
‘We didn’t see much of HM, but it was a big thrill just the same.
‘Today, with the PM’s blessing, I’m going up to Town.’
Later: ‘I went to Mary’s and saw all the girls. I arrived back this evening in state in the PM’s own car. The old boy asked me if I had enjoyed myself in London, and said he would like me to stay here another week.
1am: ‘I’m pushing back hot coffee and biscuits while waiting for the Patient to finish his whiskey and come and do his exercises before going to bed.
‘There’s going to be trouble over said exercises, I foresee! He will argue, quite rightly, that 1.30am is not the time do be doing exercises. I wonder who will win?
Later: ‘Well, I won the argument and the exercises were duly performed. I just said: “You’ve got to do some more exercises” and he said: “No I won’t, I’m too tired.”
‘So I said no more, and in about five minutes he said: “Oh well, if you want to you’d better do them.”
If I wanted to!’
Thursday, March 11
Darling. ‘I’ve done the right thing by Mrs C — I’ve been tending her hand where she burnt it on a hot water bottle.
‘She came to my room the other day to have it dressed and found me reading Anna Karenina. She asked if I had read War And Peace and I said no, I hadn’t been able to get a copy. So the next thing I knew she had given me a lovely copy, suitably inscribed by her. Wasn’t that very nice of her?
‘Just been tucking the old boy up for the night. It’s quite a performance and involves undressing him, plying him with cold soup, soda water, sleeping tablet, and trying to make him do the breathing exercises he avoided earlier!
‘Poor old boy, you know it’s taken it out of him and he says ruefully he’s not the man he was. After all, he’s 68.
‘I’ve got awfully fond of him in spite of his occasional tantrums and rather overbearing ways. He’s very sweet to me, and always thanks me so nicely when I do anything for him.’
AS March progressed, the war dragged on, with no obvious indication of a speedy or favourable outcome. Only in Tunisia, where Allied troops under General Montgomery had broken through the German defensive line, was there clear hope of an immediate victory.
On March 13, Doris wrote to Roger that her time at Chequers ‘is almost over, and I must admit I’ll leave with great regret’. Three days later, Churchill was back in the House of Commons.
For Doris and her famous patient, March 15, 1943 would mark the parting of their ways, which she recorded in a poignant letter to Roger.
Monday, March 15
‘Had a very touching farewell this morning,’ she wrote. ‘He thanked me very kindly for all I had done for him, and made me sign the visitors’ book — Doris Miles SRN — next to Anthony Eden and five away from the King of Greece!
‘I was presented with a signed portrait and a signed copy of My Early Life [Churchill’s autobiography].
‘He is the most amazing natural, and the whole time he treated me more as an intimate friend than as a nurse.
‘He would talk on the phone when I was in the room, and have ‘Most Secret’ documents lying around the bed.
‘Darling, I wish so much that you could have been there, even invisibly, to watch the goings on! I used to undress the old boy every night — peeling off first the rompers, then the long silk pants, and down to the little silk vest in which he slept.
‘Very clean man, though, two baths a day and a complete clean set of clothes after each one — I shouldn’t like to have had his laundry bill.
‘I was shown the historical treasures before I left — the whole place is simply stacked with antiquities, flags, pictures and whatnot. Living there is like being in another world.’
MORE THAN 60 years later, when the Churchill War Rooms museum was reopened in London in 2005, Doris was asked if some of her letters could be included among the exhibits.
She readily agreed, and was invited to attend the official opening by the Queen, where among the guests was Winston and Clementine’s daughter, Mary Soames.
It was a huge pleasure for Doris to revisit the memories of a short but very important time in her long life.
On September 3, 2016, Doris and her family celebrated her 100th birthday in the nursing home where she lived near Chichester, West Sussex.
A few weeks later, she ate her lunch, then lay down for her afternoon nap — much as she had always done when she was nursing Churchill.
She never woke up.
Adapted by Katherine Whitbourn from Nursing Churchill, by Jill Rose (Amberley Publishing, £18.99). © Jill Rose 2018. To buy a copy for £15.19 (a 20 per cent discount), call 0844 571 0640, or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books. P&P free on orders over £15; offer valid until August 5, 2018.
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