'What would Winston Churchill do?' British military chief's meetings with Queen Elizabeth

Gen Lord David Richards lifts the lid on his regular discussions with the monarch

Queen Elizabeth II meets military officials at Windsor Castle. She took a keen interest in the armed forces and the welfare of military families. AFP
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Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated a firm grasp of military affairs and speculated on what Winston Churchill would have done in particularly difficult situations during audiences with Britain’s former chief of the Defence Staff.

As commander-in-chief of Britain’s armed forces, she also proved an excellent listener, “including when I had the odd tussle with my political bosses”, said Gen Lord David Richards.

The queen was always “particularly concerned” about the welfare of military families, especially if she felt they were not being as well treated as they deserved.

He said they would often discuss their shared love of military history by referring to Churchill, the famous wartime prime minister who was the first of 15 to serve the queen.

“As I got to know her well, it became more an opportunity to talk about history and speculate how someone like Winston Churchill would respond to the situation we're talking about,” he said.

“It was an amazing moment to talk to someone who knew these great statesmen of the past. It was a huge privilege.”

Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) typically had at least two and as many as four formal, half-hour audiences with the monarch each year, during which she was informed of operational matters as well as political issues.

Similar to the weekly audiences Queen Elizabeth had with her prime ministers, the discussions were private, although the monarch could use the information as she saw fit.

During Lord Richard’s time as CDS from 2010 to 2013, Britain was heavily involved in the war in Afghanistan at a time when major defence cuts were being introduced.

“Essentially it was an opportunity to update her on everything affecting our forces from the state of morale to operational issues,” Gen Richards told The National.

“In my case, it coincided with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria along with the 2012 Olympic Games.

“Anything that involved the armed forces could and was discussed. She was particularly interested in morale issues and worried about anything that might undermine it.”

Gen Richards had to inform the sovereign of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review that included cutting aircraft carriers, Harrier jump jets and Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

“We discussed the implications of the cuts, she'd express concerns and I would have to explain what the plan was,” he said.

With dozens of British soldiers dying or being severely injured in Afghanistan, the queen was also worried about the impact on their close relatives.

“She wanted to be reassured that the families were being properly looked after,” he said. “They were her armed forces and the men and women in them she prized as individuals and collectively.

“There was a very special relationship between them and her as their commander-in-chief. She was genuinely concerned for them.”

Gen Sir David Richards, left, former chief of the defence staff, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh watching a flypast during an armed forces parade at Windsor Castle in 2012. PA

She also wanted reassurance that she could have confidence in the military hierarchy, he added, and that the higher-ups were dealing with any problems and working with political leaders to resolve issues.

It was also reassuring, he said, that when he had issues with politicians — “as will invariably every CDS” — the very act of attending a regal audience “reminded me that my ultimate loyalty and obligations was to her”, he said.

“She would ask very astute and well-informed questions and I invariably gave honest answers, confident that they would remain entirely private,” Gen Richards said.

“How she would use the information I gave her, I wasn’t certain, it was part of building an understanding of how the country as a whole was functioning, often in difficult times.”

The meetings would mainly take place in the Audience Chamber at Buckingham Palace and occasionally at Windsor Castle but once the formalities or main business was done, Queen Elizabeth would sometimes display a sharp sense of humour, something Gen Richards witnessed when he she visited his Royal Horse Artillery regiment in 1993.

Recalling the visit, he told The National his efforts to introduce the troops went horribly wrong.

“I was introducing her to a soldier and because I had to learn a lot of names I got his wrong. ‘That's not my name, sir,’ the gunner said.

“The queen turned to me and said: ‘Now you’ve been told, Col Richards.’ With much merriment, she recalled the incident many years later.”

Gen Richards will be among nine former military members that held the same high-ranking post who, as a mark of respect for their position, have been invited to the funeral next Monday.

Updated: September 14, 2022, 7:11 AM