On a chilly Jan. 30, 1965, Britain said a final farewell to Churchill with all the pomp and pageantry the country is famous for. More than 1 million mourners lined the path of the funeral cortège as it passed by major landmarks in Churchill’s life. A vessel called the MV Havengore also carried his coffin down the River Thames, with construction cranes famously lowering one by one in respect as the barge floated by. The Daily Telegraph wrote that the funeral, dubbed “Operation Hope Not” by organizers, was some 12 years in the planning.
On Friday, that river journey was reenacted with Churchill's relatives onboard a newly restored Havengore, including Emma Soames, who told the Press Association that at her grandfather's funeral 50 years ago, "I realized that he was not just a deeply loving grandfather but so very much else besides."
Other tributes included the raising of Tower Bridge, a four-gun salute from the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast, and an evening memorial planned at Westminster Abbey.
The BBC also re-broadcast newsreel footage of the 1965 funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by a young and nervous-looking Queen Elizabeth II and statesmen from more than 100 nations.
Churchill is still clearly revered by the nation, but half a century after his passing, questions are also being asked about his legacy and whether the country glorifies its best-known statesman too much.
On the BBC on Friday, journalist Simon Heffer said that Churchill had made a “number of misjudgments” in peacetime Britain, notably putting the country back on the gold standard, which meant it couldn’t devalue its currency, he said. Churchill “stuck around much too long,” said Heffer.
In a recent article titled “Why it’s time to debunk the Churchill myth,” Heffer wrote that Churchill’s “pivotal motivational role in saving the country from Nazism inevitably clouds everything else about him.”
Andrew Roberts, a Churchill biographer, told the BBC that Churchill had made mistakes — like his approach to Indian independence — but said that in the grand scheme, his failings were “unimportant, all of them, compared to the centrality of the point of Winston Churchill, which is that he saved this country from being invaded by the Nazis.”
While he has his critics, Churchill is still regarded by many as one of the greatest Britons ever. Even today, to call someone "Churchillian" is generally a sign of respect.
In “Churchill: The Nation’s Farewell,” one of the many recent documentaries on Churchill’s long and colorful life, presenter Jeremy Paxman said: “Fifty years on, for better or worse, we still live in the great man’s shadow.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who led tributes to his predecessor in the House of Commons, called Churchill Britain’s “greatest ever” leader.
“Today we remember our greatest ever prime minister, Winston Churchill, who saved our country,” tweeted Cameron.