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Churchill`s Cuban Cigars and the M.I.5 testings
United Kingdom/Cuba 1941
First contact with the security services had been established, and on 2 June Colville wrote to Rothschild asking whether in future, it would be desirable for small boxes of cigars and chocolates “and other things of the same kind” to be sent to M.I.5 instead of Scotland Yard. Colville wryly observed that “we might stand a better chance of getting them back if they were innocuous!” In his reply two days later Rothschild argued that it was unfair to deprive Scotland Yard of the chocolates as he imagined that they ate them or fed them to dogs, but that cigars were a trickier problem and M.I.5 had a bacteriological expert on the spot.

The cabinet of cigars from the National Tobacco Commission of Cuba did not arrive until late September. In the meantime, Colville had sent three minutes to the Prime Minister, on 22 April, 18 June and 23 September, all warning him about the potential risk of poisoning from such gifts and advising him not to smoke anything. M.I.5 finally took possession of one cigar from each box on 24 September and proceeded to examine them for bacteriological and toxicological contamination. This appears to have been accomplished by either injecting mice with a broth derived from the cigars or exposing the poor creatures to fumes. Although, in the words of the technical report: “To clinch the innocence of the exhibits small fragments of the material were placed on the observer’s tongue for 30 seconds and when, in two days no evil had befallen, much larger samples. Four days elapsed without mishap.”

The conclusion was that the sample was innocuous. Although, as Lord Rothschild observed in a letter of 9 October to Churchill’s office, nicotine was itself “very poisonous indeed and there are few things which the smoking end of a cigar could be treated with which might be more harmful”. The report may have been reassuring, but it was not conclusive. Only a small percentage of the Cuban cigars had been tested and M.I.5 now recommended that all those remaining should be visually examined for puncture marks and stains. Churchill’s trusty bodyguard Inspector Thomson agreed to perform this time-consuming task. Lord Rothschild returned the tested cigars to Downing Street with the technical report as an exhibit to prove that he had not just smoked them, “after the number of jokes that Colville and I had about Special Branch eating No.10’s chocolates”.

The supreme irony in all of this is that there is evidence that Churchill, ignoring Colville’s anxious minutes, had already smoked some of the cigars before they had even been received by M.I.5. Lord Balfour of Inchcrye wrote an article for The Times in September 1965, quoted by Martin Gilbert in the official biography, describing a meeting of the Defence Committee on 19 September 1941. According to Balfour, who was then an Under-Secretary of State at the Air Ministry, Churchill took all the committee members to see his new Cuban cigar cabinet:

“Turning to the waiting Ministers, he addressed us thus: ‘Gentlemen, I am now going to try an experiment. Maybe it will result in joy. Maybe it will end in grief. I am about to give you each one of these magnificent cigars.’ He paused. He continued with Churchillian rolling of sound and digestive enjoyment of the spoken word. ‘It may well be that these each contain some deadly poison.’”

The problem facing those trying to protect the premier was immense. The only way they could be absolutely certain that a cigar was safe to smoke was by exposing it to a testing process that would destroy it. A situation that was clearly unacceptable to the Prime Minister. the answer was damage limitation. It became the policy of Churchill’s Private Office not to accept small gifts, while larger consignments of cigars were individually assessed for the risk they posed. If the source was considered respectable the consignment could be referred to M.I.5 for random testing. But when the source was considered unreliable the cigars clearly had to be disposed of.
by Allen Packwood, Churchill College, Cambridge University project about Winston Churchill and Cuba.
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