Wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill was famous for his love of cigars, and was often pictured with one in his mouth.
But during World War II security officials feared the smokes, which Britain’s leader often received as gifts, could prove to be a fatal security flaw, documents cited in a new book reveal.
In “Agent Jack,” author Robert Hutton says Mi5 was concerned Nazi Germany could poison Churchill’s cigars, coating their tips with cyanide or another potent poison.
Victor Rothschild, scion of the famously wealthy Jewish family, was at the time assisting Mi5 in counter-espionage efforts.
Rothschild believed it would be “too easy” to slip such a tainted cigar into the prime minister’s stash, according to excerpts from the book published by the Daily Express newspaper.
He was also concerned a small bomb could be inserted into a cigar, going off once it was lighted.
However “Churchill was very much inclined to consume them, taking, Rothschild noted, ‘obvious pleasure’ from personal danger.”
Mi5 would therefore X-ray every box of cigars. Rothschild would then extract a sample, “grind it up in saline and inject the result into mice” to check the bath was safe.
Another problem arose when the PM was gifted a slab of Virginia ham by a French general.
“Churchill was delighted, and announced he would have it for breakfast the next morning,” Hutton writes.
“This caused panic among those tasked with his protection. How could they test the gift in time, and without the prime minister realizing?”
Eventually “they fed the slice to the Medical Research Council’s cat, and then watched it closely. When it survived, Churchill was allowed his breakfast.”