Winston Churchill has been a source of admiration and criticism ever since he was elected as Britain’s prime minister in 1940, when the country was in the midst of World War II. “Darkest Hour,” a nominee for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, tells the story of how Churchill helped lead the nation to victory; actor Gary Oldman won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar this year for his portrayal of the prime minister.
Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys has written five books on various aspects of her grandfather’s life and frequently accompanied him on his vacations. In a collaboration with tour operator Tauck, she gives lectures about her grandfather on two of the company’s trips, a cruise along the Seine and a visit to London and Paris.
Q: What’s your opinion on how your grandfather is portrayed in “Darkest Hour”?
A: Gary Oldman plays him incredibly well, and I think the movie balances his slightly ferocious side with the anguish he faced in inspiring England to win World War II.
Q: Perhaps more so than many other leaders, Churchill has been a continued source of fascination for so many people. Why do you think that is?
A: World War II is a crucial part of world history, and he had a key role in the war. He became prime minister on May 10, 1940, when the war had already been going on for several months. It was a difficult moment for the country. The British army was marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk, in France, and surrounded by Germans. My grandfather ordered a fleet of small boats to go across the Channel and pick up the soldiers. The air force flew overhead to help protect the boats.
Incredibly, many of the soldiers survived, which was a huge boost to England’s morale because everyone thought that they would either die or be taken as prisoners.
Q: How often did you travel with your grandfather and to what destinations?
A: We took five trips together. He had nine other grandchildren, but they were either too young or had other commitments. I happened to be of the right age and available and feel very lucky that I had a lot of one-on-one time with him.
Our first trip, in 1959, was a monthlong vacation on the Onassis yacht sailing around the Greek islands. We were a group of a dozen, including my mother, Diana, and the opera singer Maria Callas, and her husband. Aristotle Onassis was our host. We visited Mykonos and Delos and many other islands and eventually ended up in Istanbul. During the cruise, my grandfather would sit on the boat’s deck and puff a cigar every day and take in the scenery.
Q: Is there one memory that stands out from your travels together?
A: On one of our last trips, to Monte Carlo, which was in 1962, he fell down in his hotel room in the middle of the night and broke his hip. Everyone thought he was going to die, including him. The day after this happened, the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, sent a plane to pick us up. He lay on a stretcher on the flight home. I held his hand the whole time and prayed that he would make it.
Q: Did your grandfather have any travel rituals?
A: Painting. He painted constantly when he was on the road and never traveled without his paints.
Q: What questions do Tauck guests most often ask you about your grandfather?
A: Some people ask why I think he wasn’t put back in office for a second consecutive term as prime minister, but many also ask what sort of grandfather he was. I tell them that he was warm and affectionate. To us, he was Grandpapa, not a famous person.