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Churchill, Cuban Cigars and Scotland Yard
United Kingdom/Cuba 1941
It is 1941. Churchill’s penchant for cigars and fine drink is known throughout the world. His private office is regularly being offered gifts of alcohol and tobacco. Clearly there is a risk of poisoning that has to be taken seriously.
In the early part of the war such gifts appear to have been intercepted and passed to Scotland Yard for testing and safekeeping. In January 1941 the Maceo Society of Camaguey in Cuba presented the British Legation in Havana with two boxes of cigars for the Prime Minister. These were sent by the Foreign Office to Scotland Yard, who in turn passed them to the senior official analyst at the Home Office, one Roche Lynch, an expert in poisons working at the Department of Chemical Pathology at St Mary’s Hospital in London. Lynch offered to perform his routine tests but observed that, “ is impossible for me to test the cigars for every known poison especially when it is possible that they could have been treated with some tropical poison not seen in this country.”

Lynch further added that, “If an attempt on the life of anyone is to be made with cigars, I would suggest that the poison is not likely to be inhaled in the smoke as the heat of combustion would destroy nearly all the poison”. However, a poisoner could achieve his goal by incorporating poison into the mouth end of the cigar, which would come directly into contact with the intended victim. He pointed out that a number of poisons have a fatal dose of less than one grain, and that “From photographs of the P.M., I should say that he probably chews the end of the cigar which would make this possibility more easy.”
In his report Lynch confirmed that he could detect no signs of tampering and had found nothing of a “noxious nature”. He had also smoked a single cigar from each box “with no untoward effects”.
Scotland Yard’s advice was that while the risk was “infinitesimal”, the Prime Minister ought not to take it and the cigars should remain with them. This appears to have been the end of this particular matter, but keeping such gifts from the Prime Minister was not always so easy.

In the spring of 1941 Churchill was offered two large consignments of cigars from Cuba, one set from the pro-British paper called “Bohemia” and the other, complete with a decorative cabinet (which now adorns the painting studio at Chartwell), from the Cuban National Tobacco Commission. This clearly caused some consternation among his own staff, and led to the following minute of 22 April from John Colville to Eric Seal: “When these arrive, I think it will be very difficult to do as Mr Bracken suggested and suppress them! The Prime Minister is quite likely to ask what has become of them and in any case they represent a gift of considerable value. Would it not be best for you to ask Mr Bracken and Mrs Churchill to represent strongly to the Prime Minister that they should not be smoked?” Eric Seal was worried enough to raise the matter the following day with Professor Lindemann, Churchill’s close friend and adviser in all things scientific. In a hand-written note to the professor he concludes: “In short, is there any watertight examination by means of which we could make sure the cigars are OK?”

Professor Lindemann’s, response was to contact Lord Rothschild at M.I.5. Rothschild agreed that “some security measures ought to be laid on” and offered to make the necessary enquiries without anyone knowing as he imagined that “this is the sort of thing which the Prime Minister would not like very much if he knew about it.” We know from Jock Colville’s diary that a conference to discuss this matter then took place in Desmond Morton’s room at Downing Street on 29 May with both Lindemann and Rothschild in attendance.
by Allen Packwood, Churchill College, Cambridge University project about Winston Churchill and Cuba.
Article ID 542
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