Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland commemorates Churchill's summit with Roosevelt that shaped history

Ship Harbour, Newfoundland was the scene of a secretive summit 75 years ago that helped shape the course and aftermath of the Second World War.

Several local events planned to mark anniversary of talks which built crucial trust between U.S. and U.K.

Four months before the U.S. went to war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill chat aboard HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, a rendezvous that gave the world the Atlantic Charter, a prayer book is on Roosevelt's lap. Behind Churchill are General George Marshall, left, chief of staff, and General Sir John G. Dill, chief of Imperial British Staff. To the extreme left behind FDR is Capt. Elliott Roosevelt, his son. (The Canadian Press/AP)

Peter Russell has some rocks on his desk from the beach in tiny Ship Harbour, N.L. — the unlikely site of a secretive summit 75 years ago that helped shape the course and aftermath of the Second World War.

Those stones may have been touched by former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill as he walked the edge of Placentia Bay in mid-August 1941, said the political science professor emeritus at University of Toronto.

"I say to my kids or my friends: 'Churchill walked on these rocks."'

It's believed the legendary wartime leader took at least two oceanside strolls during three days of shipboard, clandestine meetings with then-U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt.

Several local events are planned to mark the anniversary of those first talks which built crucial trust between the two men and produced on Aug. 14, 1941 the Atlantic Charter.

A draft archival copy, marked Most Secret just above a note cautioning that it should "not be left lying about" sets out "certain common principles" in national policies of the two countries.

At the time, Americans still feeling bitter First World War losses were deeply divided about whether to join the fight against Hitler and the Axis powers, Russell said in an interview.

"Think of the kind of courage and the vision of an American president who, knowing that, is still taking a gamble and going to meet the leader of the Allied cause — in a war that he's not yet engaged in — to really cement an alliance.

"He saw ahead, like all great statesmen, that America would have to fight," Russell said. The attack on Pearl Harbour that ultimately led the U.S. into the conflict was still months away.

"Churchill and Roosevelt knew they had to give the Americans a real cause to fight for, which was not there in the First World War. They needed to know they were fighting for something great, a vision of what the world should be like and could be like once the Axis powers were defeated."

Building a new world

The joint declaration known as the Atlantic Charter set out eight principles. They included the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, along with a wish "to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them."

It was a rationale for the global conflict which set the foundation for the United Nations Charter that followed in 1945, said St. John's lawyer Ches Crosbie, an organizer of commemoration efforts.

"It speaks to us even today as to why the Second World War was fought, and why there has been a long peace at least between the great powers ever since."

Churchill on HMS Prince of Wales and Roosevelt on the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, each with several warships to guard against U-boat attack, staged their first summit in the quiet bay off Ship Harbour for diplomatic reasons, Crosbie said. A halfway point, Newfoundland was then a British dominion.

Roosevelt's love of fishing may well have helped choose the location, Russell added.

The American president had made two previous salmon fishing trips to the island "and spoke admiringly of the country and people," former Newfoundland governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn reported of his own meeting with Roosevelt.

Crosbie said 75th anniversary events planned in St. John's by the Atlantic Charter Foundation will feature several speakers at Memorial University of Newfoundland on Saturday. They include Russell and Bob Rae, the former interim leader of the federal Liberals.

A banquet dinner Saturday with former media baron Conrad Black as keynote speaker will replicate the meal served to Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941.

The menu includes salad with mandarin orange and strawberry slices, baked chicken with traditional Newfoundland savoury stuffing, and chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and cream.

On Sunday, participants will travel by bus to Ship Harbour for a re-enactment of the church service held on HMS Prince of Wales, a community garden party and a chance to see the beach where Churchill came ashore.

His great-grandson Duncan Sandys will speak on behalf of the Churchill family.

"Newfoundlanders need to know and recognize that our small place did play an important role in the Second World War," Crosbie said in an interview.

"It provided a venue for this meeting which has played over into establishing the foundations for the peace that has lasted ever after."