March 15, 2008AsideBritainBritish rajbureaucracycivil serviceIndiaWorld War II

Sunday Levity: The Trichinopoly cigar

Celebrating the continuity of policy

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

A retired senior navy officer related a curious story. The stringent editorial policy of this blog required some fact-checking before it could be published. And luckily for you, it checked out. So here’s the (published version) of the story of a humble civil servant who sought a promotion.

In the early 1960s the Madras government set up a pay committee to review the pay structure and the service conditions of its officers and staff. One day a top secret’ double-sealed cover landed on the desk of the chairman. It was from CCA, office of the chief secretary, Fort St George, Madras’. He opened the cover to find a very humble and polite representation for upgrading the post of CCA to that of office superintendent in the chief secretary’s office because of the petitioner’s unblemished service record of 20 years. But there was still no clue as to what CCA stood for.

The chairman sent for the petitioner and asked him what these three letters meant and what exactly did he do in the chief secretary’s office. With gravity and dignity behoving a member of the chief secretary’s staff, the latter stated that in view of the 30-year embargo regarding disclosure of secret matters, he could only speak after 1975. The chairman said that in that case he should withdraw his representation and place it before the next pay committee after 1975. Appreciating that he was caught in a trap of his own making, he clarified that CCA stood for Churchill’s cigar assistant and thereby the secret unfolded…


Photo: Cigar Blog Network

Winston Churchill as Britain’s and the Empire’s prime minister during the second world war period, had two small weaknesses — one for French liquor and the other for Havana cheroot. In the early 1940s Hitler’s Wolf packs wrought havoc on the trade routes across the Atlantic. Not more than 20 to 30 per cent of ships in a convoy could reach England from the American east coast. There were critical shortages of everything in England including Churchill’s favourite Havana hand-rolled cigars. Housekeeping officers of 10, Downing Street were concerned about the depleting stock of Havana. One of them whispered to his counterpart in the India Office about securing a possible alternative supply of Trichy cigars from Madras.

Ciphers were exchanged between London and New Delhi and between New Delhi and Fort St George in Madras. Ultimately, the governor of Madras agreed to take personal responsibility for the project. He selected two reputed and loyal cigar manufacturers of Trichinapoly (now Tiruchirapalli). They were sworn to utmost secrecy to produce the best quality Trichy cigars for a burra’ sahib in England. To handle the affair, the governor required an intelligent English-speaking person as an assistant. He needed to have knowledge about cigar-making and their quality; in fact, he had to be a cigar taster. The normal process of post creation would not suffice. Nothing could be disclosed about the project. Hence by exercising his special powers under the Defence of India Rules, the governor created a post of an assistant, naming it CCA. It was located in the chief secretary’s secret cell. No one but the governor, the chief secretary and the incumbent knew the real meaning of CCA, and an aura of mystique came to surround the post. Many thought it stood for chief confidential assistant who dealt with ultra-secret matters.

The flow of Trichy cigars from Fort St George to Whitehall began under the cover of secrecy and continued throughout the war. It was said that Churchill soon developed a taste for the mildly aromatic Trichy cigar in preference to the heavy pungent smell of the Havana cigar. Thus Churchill’s temper was maintained on a fine balance. In 1945 Churchill lost the election and became leader of opposition.

The same housekeeping officer brought to the notice of the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, the issue of top secret’ supply of Trichy cigars to the former PM. Clement Attlee suggested that the supply should continue to the leader of opposition who was also the shadow prime minister and added that the number might be slightly increased so that His Majesty’s real’ prime minister might occasionally enjoy a couple of puffs. The war ended. India became independent. Supply of Trichy cigars to Whitehall stopped and everybody forgot about the CCA of Fort St George. [D Bandhyopadhyay/EPW]



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