Anthony Montague Browne was a young official in the Foreign Office when, in 1952, he was seconded to become private secretary to Sir Winston Churchill. The war leader, hard of hearing and ageing, had returned to Downing Street the previous year for his second term as prime minister. Apart from a brief return to the Foreign Office after Churchill’s retirement in 1955, Montague Browne remained with Churchill until his death in 1965.
Montague Browne acted as the former prime minister’s adviser, confidante and companion. Indeed, when Montague Browne came to write his own account of that decade, Long Sunset, he captured a more personal and domestic side of Churchill’s life and brought into sharp focus the personalities of the Second World War and Churchill’s opinion on contemporary events.
Churchill was 77 and Montague Browne just 29 and the younger man had to gain the PM’s confidence and trust. From the outset, Montague Browne’s courtesy and charm won the PM – although his first words to his nervous new secretary, “I dare say we will get on very well together,” hardly reassured Montague Browne. But the relationship became deep and lasting with Montague Browne forever cherishing the memory of his former boss.
Anthony Arthur Duncan Montague Browne was the son of a British army colonel. He attended Stowe School and in 1941 went to Magdalen College, Oxford. The following year, Montague Browne joined the RAF and after training in America he qualified as a pilot, serving in the Middle East and the Burma-Bengal border. In 1945, he was awarded a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for his skill and valour attacking Japanese lines of communication.
On demobilisation, Montague Browne returned to Oxford for a year, and then, in 1946, joined the Foreign Office. Various postings in Whitehall followed until, in 1949, he was posted to the embassy in Paris. He spoke excellent French and was involved in undercover work on French activities in their North African colonies. It was while on this clandestine assignment that Montague Browne was offered the post with the prime minister.
The duty of a private secretary ranges from the mundane to the complicated and intricate. One of Churchill’s greatest secretaries during the war, Sir Jock Colville, had set a standard for efficiency and getting things done that Churchill much admired. The private secretary has to be eminently discrete, patient and know when courteously to bring up a sensitive subject. Montague Browne proved ideal in all such matters and coped with the sometimes irritable PM with wit and style. Often, as the most junior official at Number 10, Montague Browne found the lesser and more domestic tasks fell to him.
One occasion that necessitated immense tact was when Churchill was cruising in the Mediterranean on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht in 1959. Gracie Fields had joined for a day and insisted upon singing – Maria Callas was also a guest. Montague Browne noticed Churchill was slowly dropping off. With abject diplomacy he woke his master and quietly brought the concert to a close.
When Churchill did resign in 1955, apart from a few months back at the Foreign Office, Montague Browne remained with Churchill until he died. The Churchills moved to a house near London’s Hyde Park Corner and Montague Browne was to spend much of his time – eating, talking and helping Churchill at meetings. Meals were important items on the daily schedule – Churchill preserved a love of whisky (after breakfast) and Champagne into old age.
Montague Browne accompanied Churchill on his trips abroad. They were together in 1964 when Churchill collapsed in Monte Carlo and broke a hip. The RAF flew them back to London and when Churchill died on 24 January, 1965 Montague Browne signed the death certificate.
Plans for the funeral were far from clear. Churchill had only mentioned to Montague Browne that “I want lots of military bands” and “lively hymns”. The funeral was organised by the authorities but Montague Browne liaised with the family and the singing of I Vow To Thee My Country was a deeply emotional moment for all in St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, when he returned to his house in Belgravia, Montague Browne found it had been burgled. One precious item, a painting by his former boss, had been left hanging on the wall.
Montague Browne spent some years as a member of the Queen’s Household and then took on various directorships including Highland Participants plc (1967–77). He was a founder member and a chairman of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. He was appointed a KCMG (Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George) in 2000.
Montague Browne married Noel Arnold-Wallinger in 1950 (dissolved 1970), with whom he had a daughter. He then married Shelagh Macklin in 1970.