Pervitin Und Benzedrin, Oh My!


I wrote about how Hitler and many of his upper echelon leaders were smashed on opiates or amphetamines, or both. When I finished that summary, I mentally bookmarked to look up whatever I could find about allied leaders’ drug use during WWII; Winston Churchill, of course, was a notable drinker.

Churchill also liked the amphetamines.

Lord Moran, Churchill's doctor

Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor

Suddenly a lot more became clear about Churchill: his ups and downs, his all-nighters, his drinking and showing no effect. He was moody throughout his life, and would go on “manic” binges and write copiously, or would sit inert and drink. By 1940, Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, was giving him amphetamines to keep him up, and barbituates to help him sleep. One imagines a sort of meat-puppet being jerked onto its feet, spring-loaded with a bit of benzedrine, then knocked down when the house-lights are off, with the assistance of phenobarbitol. Up, down, up, down, up, down.

It’s inappropriate and probably outright dangerous to attempt retro-historical diagnosis, but Churchill himself wrote often of his “black dog” – depression – and often avoided easy opportunities for suicide for fear he might take them.*  Churchill later suffered from a series of strokes, which led to his resigning from public office, mild dementia and eventual death. His first strokes were concealed, though Churchill quipped, “The dagger struck but this time it was not plunged in to the hilt.”** Smoking, drinking, uppers, downers, it’s hard to point a finger and say what killed the bulldog. His was not a low-stress life.

It sounds like he was probably as out of his head as Hitler, around the same time. Later, after the war, when he began to decline, he was propped up with more amphetamines.

From 1940 onwards, Moran prescribed “reds” to promote sleep. “Reds” were quinalbarbitone (Seconal 100mg) which were favored hypnotics in those days. […] When Churchill was troubled with muzzy feelings in the head after his first major stroke in 1953, Moran prescribed a pill that Churchill called “A Moran” and from which he claimed great benefit. Moran gave his patient a test dosage of this pill a few days before Churchill’s important speech at the Conservative Party Conference at Margate on 10 October 1953.*** Although there is no clear record in Moran’s medical notes, his use of a preliminary test dose and and Churchill’s comments on the pill’s effects indicate that a “Moran” would have contained amphetamine.

Before his death, he apparently became a fairly unpredictable handful of a patient, the result of years of alcohol, drugs, and strokes. He was greatly diminished, and it’s hard to find photographs of him from that period; I think most of the world would rather remember him in his prime. Or perhaps his late prime. Or even his later-than-late prime. He was atop the tiger for a lot longer than most humans ever manage.

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My feelings about Churchill are complicated. As an unashamed imperialist, it’s hard to approve of his actions, and as an avid reader of military history and strategy it’s impossible to avoid the fact that he was responsible for a lot of suffering from the consequences of his bad ideas. The forcing of the Dardanelles and the Gallipoli campaign was one of his ideas; the allied landings and assault up through Italy in WWII was another. He was as fond as big strategic games-play as was Hitler, and – while he never came up with an idea as stupid as invading Russia in the late sumer – he was emphatically not the kind of commander who should have been prosecuting a war like WWII. Most of them weren’t, though.

What I find endlessly amazing is how many people love and adulate their leaders, as many did Churchill. They cheer and they march and they die for some puffed-up drunken drug-addled popinjay, or a vicious racist goon. And after they’re dead and buried, their legacies, bad judgement, murderous pride, poor negotiation – get swept under the carpet and they are hailed as saviors or great leaders. I just don’t get it. These great leaders are the same ones who ‘negotiated’ their countries into corners they couldn’t get out of without bloodshed, then fought to the last drops of someone else’s blood. Yet humans continue to elevate them, instead of locking them away somewhere with a lot of beer and board-games, to endlessly measure the size of their hands against their fellows.

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The Telegraph: “Churchill’s drinking was one thing, but what about the drugs?

The Express on: “The big secret of Churchill’s stroke cover-up” (imdb)

Theconversation.com: “Churchill and his ‘black dog’ of greatness

The Daily Mail: “Diary of Winston Churchill’s nurse reveals an ill-humored patient.

(* Could have been a bit of Churchillian drama.)

(** He may have been a horrible person, but damn could he do the “bon mot”)

**BMJ, Volume 310 “Lord Moran’s Prescriptions for Churchill”  – This letter is interesting because its author points out that Moran’s use of asprin prefigured today’s use of asprin as a blood-thinner for patients suffering from atherosclerosis; it’s possible that Moran’s treatments prolonged Churchill’s life.

Comments

  1. EnkidumCan'tLogin says

    I do like the idea of invading Russia in the late Sumer.

    Sorry, I wish I had something sensible to add but, eh, can’t win ’em all.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I have not read the articles you list but the forcing of the Dardanelles sounded quite sane to me. Opening up a safe all-weather supply and reinforcement sea-route to Russia, to me anyway, makes a lot of sense. It might well have kept Russia in the war and even lead to a defeat of Germany in 1917.

    And don’t forget Churchill while a major (the main? ) proponent of the campaign he was only one member of cabinet not the PM. According to wiki he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster which seems like a junior ministerial post though given his earlier Cabinet post it may have been more powerful that it sounds. For some reason I had thought that he was First Lord of the Admiralty.

    From my relatively cursory reading about the Dardanelles fiasco it had a fairly decent chance of success but British and French admirals after taking some casualties/battle damage basically had a failure of nerve and retreated allowing the Ottomans time to reinforce.

    I think the admirals, none of whom would have had any major engagement experience and damn little, if any combat-at-sea experience , were conditioned by entire careers spent avoiding losing or seriously damaging their ships and did not have the aggressiveness needed to carry out the attack.

    The following Gallipoli campaign was pretty much the normal cockup by just about everyone but I doubt that most or any of that can be blamed directly on Churchill. Once one starts a battle the generals hate to admit defeat and most senior army officers in just about all combatants seems to have the strategic sense of a grey squirrel at the best of times

    The Italian campaign did not make a lot of sense to me but, perhaps from some strategic or political sense it did enough that Churchill provided enough rationale to convince his cabinet, the high command and Roosevelt that it did.

    If my calculations are correct, by 1953 he was something like 77 or 78 years of age so the drugs while not good were hardly surprising. On the other hand, I do remember saying that during WWII no one ever saw him drunk–and rarely without a brandy glass.

    Becoming a difficult patient at the age of 80 or 85 when one has other serious health problems is not unusual.

    @ 1 EnkidumCan’tLogin

    I do like the idea of invading Russia in the late Sumer.

    No, no it was a rescue. You must be thinking of Napoleon.

  3. springa73 says

    I think that there is more scrutiny of such things today, but I wonder if it will turn out that major world leaders of today or the very recent past had/have their own hidden dependencies on drugs (prescription or non-prescription) that can affect their judgment.

    I hear you about having complicated feelings about Churchill. I used to really admire Churchill the champion of democracy against Nazi and Communist tyranny, but then I read a lot more about Churchill the diehard racist imperialist and social reactionary. Now I find him both heroic and repulsive, depending on which aspect of his career one is talking about.

  4. John Morales says

    springa73:

    … but I wonder if it will turn out that major world leaders of today or the very recent past had/have their own hidden dependencies on drugs (prescription or non-prescription) that can affect their judgment.

    Does it matter? They are who they are and they say what they say and they act as they act.

    (What is more important than why)

  5. david says

    As you say, making a medical diagnosis of historical figures is difficult. But in Churchill’s case it’s safe to say that his “black dog” was half of his story: he probably had bipolar disorder. The diagnosis was actually made at the time by Lord Moran (reported in his memoirs). In his day, stimulants were often used for the condition. Lithium wasn’t discovered to be effective for that until 1949, and other modern treatments (valproate, other anticonvulsants, anti-dopaminergic agents, etc) came much later.

  6. lorn says

    Winston Churchill was, IMHO, a mixed bag.

    He could inspire a great deal of confidence and determination. Troops and the British public were mentally fortified by his words and attentions. He had seen combat and understood the balancing act between openly talking about the sacrifice and suffering and expressing confidence that they would, collectively, get through it, and show themselves to be noble even if they might not win any particular battle. It is hard to imagine a better leader for the years when the Brits were taking a beating and facing defeat daily.

    He was also sometimes very insightful in his strategic thinking. (I’m working from readings more than twenty years ago so, while I think I remember the general flow of the actions, I’m pretty sure I’m butchering the details. Play nice.)

    Gallipoli was a defeat but, it very well might ave been much more of a success if the officers in charge had moved out smartly and exploited the landings instead of dragging their heels. Churchill faced a similar situation in the Anzio landings when initiative was lost building a defensive perimeter instead of taking advantage of the element of surprise and poor field position of the German forces in the initial days of the landing. In both cases enemy forces were given time to surround the landings.

    Russia certainly benefited from British commitment of the expeditionary forces in Greece. This delayed the German offensive into Russia for a month. Given another month before the onset of winter the German columns might have taken Moscow. Given how close they came to breaking the Russian defenses even a week might have drastically changed the complexion of the fight in Russia.

    This is one of those ‘but for a nail’ things that come up in warfare. One of my favorites counterfactuals is what would have happened if the resources spent of German capital ships had been spent on submarines? The big ships were, in the final analysis, nearly useless while a few hundred more submarines could have made The Battle of the Atlantic go the other way.

    Or, what if the resources spent on German heavy, and super-heavy tanks had gone toward motorizing the German army and building medium tanks?

    Or, what would have happened if the Luftwaffe had stuck to attacking British airfields instead wasting time on the cities? Some think it was Churchill’s special understanding of Hitler that caused him to bomb Berlin as a way of keeping the Luftwaffe from wiping out the fighter force. Or was it dumb luck?

  7. Dunc says

    As the Klingons say, “In war, there is nothing more honourable than victory”… I suspect we’d look on Churchill rather differently if he’d ended up on the losing side.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    lorn @ # 7: Some think it was Churchill’s special understanding of Hitler that caused him to bomb Berlin as a way of keeping the Luftwaffe from wiping out the fighter force. Or was it dumb luck?

    Virtually of the WWII espionage histories I’ve read claim that British counter-intelligence caught practically all the German spies in the UK and either turned them into double agents or took over their radios and impersonated them, thus giving German military intelligence a systematically distorted view of the effects of Luftwaffe and V-n attacks.

    Purportedly on Churchill’s orders (or at least acquiescence), they spun stories of attacks on military facilities having little effect and bombing civilians causing great demoralization. A few authors have it that WC steered these disinfo campaigns to manipulate Goering into specifically targeting Labour districts and sparing Tory neighborhoods, but I’ve yet to see that from a source that seemed highly reliable.

  9. lorn says

    Pierce R. Butler @9:
    It happens so often that it has become something of a thing. Any time someone states a situation as a having only two main interpretations a third pops up. I was unaware of the spy and disinformation stuff. Goes to show how, even almost 80 years after the fact, even a subject that has had scores of books written about it and had been assumed to have been tapped out, can still yield previously unknown information that put it all in a different light. Learn something new every day.

  10. says

    jrkrideau@#3:
    I have not read the articles you list but the forcing of the Dardanelles sounded quite sane to me. Opening up a safe all-weather supply and reinforcement sea-route to Russia, to me anyway, makes a lot of sense.

    That part does make sense. Most of Churchill’s ideas made sense at a strategic level if they were only practical, which they more or less weren’t. The Dardanelles were protected with minefields and shore batteries, because the Turks weren’t complete idiots and knew that it was a strategic target, and they needed to protect it. I suggest you read the Wikipedia gloss about the naval assault it’s interesting stuff and I think the best summary is from Gibson:

    This is just what one might expect, & what we really did more or less. Every book on war ever written always states the fact that politicians interfering with Commanders in the field always lead to disaster but still they think they are born strategists & know alls & do it again & again

    British and French admirals after taking some casualties/battle damage basically had a failure of nerve and retreated allowing the Ottomans time to reinforce.

    They were just a couple battleships and stuff like that. Churchill’s response was that they should have driven through, which is farcical because they never got very far to begin with: things would have probably gotten very much worse and the losses would have been greater – and more importantly, the Turks would have been able to re-close the straits. The saga of the trapped fleet would have been glorious, but not for the fleet.

    The Turks had the will, interior lines and good logistics, as their performance at the meat-grinder in Gallipoli demonstrated. The British kept underestimating the Turks (read about the siege of Kut, for example) – they were still trying to re-fight the Zulu wars or opium wars: hit the natives a good strong punch on the jaw with a few redcoats and they’ll break and run, yadda yadda.

    Churchill’s strategic vision was deeply rooted in the idea that Turkey was the “sick man of Europe” and – basically, he dismissed the Ottomans as incapables who’d fold up without putting up much of a fight. It’s a tribute to what a military blockhead he was that he managed to learn absolutely nothing from the Boer War. Of course, if he had been able to, World War I would have been a very different thing and World War II might not have been at all. It’s pointless to speculate, I suppose, but we still do…

    The Italy campaign also looked like it made strategic sense – and it would have been a great thing, except that Churchill didn’t put a whole lot of thought into the idea of an allied “blitzkrieg” through mountainous terrain with narrow roads and lots of water-divides. He also seems to have thought that Italy was only defended by Italians, once again utterly underestimating his enemy.

    Churchill was good at meat-grinders. I’ll say that much for him. But he had no strategic eye; he was not like Bonaparte or other great strategists. I almost said that Napoleon was better on his worst day than Churchill on his best, but that’s probably not fair to Napoleon. Though the battle of Borodino was quite a Churchillian meat-grinder, and the assault on Moscow was certainly stupid enough for Churchill, too.

  11. says

    springa72@#4:
    I wonder if it will turn out that major world leaders of today or the very recent past had/have their own hidden dependencies on drugs (prescription or non-prescription) that can affect their judgment.

    We know Kennedy was blitzed on painkillers a lot – he was hiding a lot of health problems from the public.
    Maybe he was particularly calm during the cuban missile crisis. Maybe he wasn’t. It scares the shit out of me, to be honest with you.

    One book I read about the great influenza argued that Wilson might have allowed the treaty of Versailles to be so onerous because he was too sick to put up a struggle with the French leadership. It’s impossible to say. But it’s interesting to imagine if the Germans had been given peace with dignity.

  12. says

    John Morales@#5:
    Does it matter? They are who they are and they say what they say and they act as they act.

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? History is only a matter of facts; analysis is really just idle speculation if you look at it that way. What fascinates me is that the changes to causation need to be relatively small, to change absolutely everything. Everything, not just the little piece we imagine we’d adjust.

  13. says

    lorn@#7:
    He could inspire a great deal of confidence and determination. Troops and the British public were mentally fortified by his words and attentions. He had seen combat and understood the balancing act between openly talking about the sacrifice and suffering and expressing confidence that they would, collectively, get through it, and show themselves to be noble even if they might not win any particular battle. It is hard to imagine a better leader for the years when the Brits were taking a beating and facing defeat daily.

    Well said!

    Churchill faced a similar situation in the Anzio landings when initiative was lost building a defensive perimeter instead of taking advantage of the element of surprise and poor field position of the German forces in the initial days of the landing. In both cases enemy forces were given time to surround the landings.

    They are probably lucky that they clung to the beaches. If they had charged further inland they’d have risked being cut off from their supply lines by some experienced and well-rested German troops. It’s really hard to say. The whole thing might have worked. It might have equally been a complete disaster. As it was, it was a whole lot of personal disasters and a great deal of unpleasantness and destruction. I often wonder whether an underlying objective was to make sure Italy got its share of punishment for being in the axis.

    the German columns might have taken Moscow

    I’m not jumping on you, but… This is an idea that always continues to fascinate me: so what? The Russians would have lost Moscow and – big deal – the Germans would have had a horrible army-losing battle at Stalingrad and another at Moscow. The Russians have lost Moscow before, remember? It just pisses them off like crazy. They don’t collapse and surrender, they obliterate you. Remember how Napoleon’s successful capture of Moscow worked out for the French…

    One of my favorites counterfactuals is what would have happened if the resources spent of German capital ships had been spent on submarines?

    Germany had to have a credible navy, or the Brits would have had free rein to bombard a lot of valuable targets. They might have even been able to stay at Dunkirk if they’d had the navy able to come in close.

    I love these counterfactuals, too. There are so many things to think about!!!

    When I was in high school, I played a lotta lotta Third Reich. And one of the things that crept in on me eventually was that it never ever happened anything remotely even resembling the same way twice. You could look at what happened and say “that critical die-roll there is where my impetus was lost!” but it’s the causality thing – it’s all starting conditions, simple rules, and a tiny bit of randomness: you get utterly different outcomes.

  14. springa73 says

    John Morales @ 5 –

    The why is of interest to historians, if no one else. It’s also of interest if one hopes to learn lessons from history, about what to do and what to avoid. Unfortunately, I think that people aren’t usually very good at learning from history, but that’s another discussion!

  15. John Morales says

    springa73, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, I was alluding to “the major world leaders of today or the very recent past” being in power by their known words and actions, meaning that whatever effect possible drug consumption has/had is evidently not impeding their position within the highest tier.

    Could be they’d be better at it without the drugs, could be they might not have got there without them.

    Rob Ford is an interesting example.

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