Authors: Erik Larson
After completing this telegram, and another to the prime ministers of Canada and Britain’s other dominions, Churchill turned to John Colville and quipped, “
If words counted, we should win this war.”
Though sympathetic, Roosevelt remained hamstrung by neutrality laws and the isolationist bent of the American public.
himself whisked off to the countryside for a weekend at what was fast becoming for Churchill a kind of secret weapon: the official prime ministerial estate, Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, forty miles northwest of London.
HE THREE BLACK
through the countryside, in fading light. Churchill liked to go fast. With luck and daring, his driver could cover the distance from Downing Street to Chequers in an hour; if he did it in fifty minutes, a feat that required running traffic lights and ignoring rights-of-way, he won Churchill’s generous praise. On one return trip he was said to have hit seventy miles per hour—this in an age when cars had no seatbelts. Churchill was invariably accompanied in the back seat by a typist, for whom the ride could be hair-raising. Wrote secretary Elizabeth Layton, of a later experience: “
One would sit with book balanced on one knee, scribbling hard, one’s left hand holding spare pencils, his glasses’ case or an extra cigar, sometimes with one’s foot keeping open his precious Box, which otherwise would have slammed shut as we swung around a corner.” Shorthand was allowed only in cars; the rest of the time, Churchill’s dictation had to be typed.
Inspector Thompson came along as well, his anxiety rising as he approached the house, which he deemed an ideal setting for an assassination. Owing to the thoughtful gift of its prior owner, Sir Arthur Lee, the house, a large Tudor mansion of turmeric-hued brick, had been the official country home of British prime ministers since 1917, when Lee gave it to the government. “
A police officer, even with his health and a revolver, could feel very alone there,” Thompson wrote. “And very unsafe.”
The procession entered the grounds through a large wrought-iron gate, which was flanked on both sides by brick lodges. Soldiers of the Coldstream Guards patrolled the grounds; police officers manned the lodges and stopped the cars to check identities. Even Churchill’s driver was questioned. The cars then proceeded down a long, straight lane called Victory Way.
Banks of tall windows would, in peacetime, have been filled with a welcoming amber light but now were dark, in accord with the strict blackout rules in place throughout the country. The cars entered a semicircular drive and came to a stop before the main entrance, on the east side of the house, where the party was greeted by Miss Grace Lamont, “Monty,” a Scot who had managed the house for its prime ministerial tenants since 1937. Her official title was “lady housekeeper.”
The terms of Lee’s gift specified that no work was to be done at the house—that it was to be a place of rest and renewal. Lee had written, “
Apart from these subtle influences, the better the health of our rulers, the more sanely will they rule and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods will, it is hoped, result in a real advantage to the nation as well as to its chosen leaders.”
It was indeed an idyllic locale. “
Happy Prime Ministers, whichever way you go fresh beauties meet you,” wrote Hubert Astley, a descendant of an early owner. The house stood in a shallow valley of the Chilterns, surrounded on three sides by rising terrain laced with paths that led walkers among yew hedges, ponds, and copses of beech, larch, and holly, delicately patrolled by chalk-blue butterflies. One of the estate’s comely forests was the Long Walk Wood, happily and densely populated with rabbits. The immediate grounds had a croquet lawn, which delighted Clementine, an avid and demanding player. Churchill would soon put the croquet lawn to secondary use, testing novel military weapons, some the brainchildren of the Prof. Off the south end of the house was an ancient sundial with a gloomy inscription:
Ye houres doe flie,
Full soone we die
In age secure
Ye House and Hills
The front door opened onto an entry passage that led to the Great Hall, whose walls rose the full height of the house and displayed thirty large paintings, including
. (The painting was later determined to have been done by one of Rembrandt’s students.) The entire house embodied the grand sweep of British history, but it was in the Long Gallery, on the second floor, that a sense of the past was most palpable. Here stood a table used by Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on St. Helena. On the mantel of a large fireplace lay two swords once wielded by Oliver Cromwell, one of which supposedly accompanied him into battle at Marston Moor in 1644. To the left of the fireplace hung the cheery letter written by him from the scene with the notable line “
God made them as stubble to our Swords.”
The house was not to everyone’s taste. Lloyd George disliked the fact that it was situated in a hollow and thus afforded only constricted views of the countryside. The house, he said, was “
full of the ghosts of dull people,” and this, he mused, might explain why his dog, Chong, tended to growl in the Long Gallery. Churchill visited the house during Lloyd George’s tenure, in February 1921, a visit that must surely have stoked his lust to one day be prime minister. “
Here I am,” he wrote to Clementine about his visit. “You [would] like to see this place. Perhaps you will some day! It is just the kind of house you admire—a paneled museum full of history, full of treasures—but insufficiently warmed—Anyhow a wonderful possession.”
Churchill quickly demonstrated that he had no intention of honoring Arthur Lee’s demand that prime ministers leave their work behind.
INNER ON THAT
June 15, was to begin at nine-thirty. The cook, alerted that the Prof would be a guest, prepared a special meal for him, suited to his vegetarian palate. He favored asparagus omelettes, lettuce salads, and tomatoes, first peeled, then sliced—anything, basically, that could be matched with eggs and olive oil–based mayonnaise. Clementine did not mind bending the culinary apparatus of the house to accommodate the Prof. “
My mother took endless trouble,” Mary recalled. “There was always a special, different dish cooked for Prof, endless egg dishes, and he would carefully pick out the yolks and eat the whites.” Meals aside, he was an easy guest. “Prof was never a worry,” Mary wrote. “He wasn’t any trouble to entertain: he would take himself off to play golf, or he was working, or he was enlightening Papa, or he was playing tennis. He was a totally wonderful guest.”
As welcome as he was, Mary had her reservations. “
I always rather dreaded sitting next to Prof as he didn’t make many jokes, and for a young person he was a little boring. I never felt cozy with Prof. He was absolutely charming,” she remarked, “but he was a different animal altogether.”
Neither Clementine nor Mary was present that Saturday night, presumably having chosen to stay behind to continue the process of moving the family, and Nelson, into No. 10 Downing. The guests who would stay the night included Churchill’s daughter Diana and her husband, Duncan Sandys, and the ever-present John Colville; the Prof, leery of encountering others while on his way to the bath, never stayed overnight, preferring the privacy and comfort of his rooms at Oxford or his new workday residence at the Carlton Hotel.
Shortly before everyone entered the dining room, Colville received a telephone call from a fellow private secretary on duty in London, reporting the grimmest news from France thus far. The French were now openly demanding to be allowed to make their own peace deal with Hitler, in violation of a prior Anglo-French pact.
Colville took the news to Churchill, “who was immediately very depressed.” At once the atmosphere at Chequers grew funereal, Colville wrote. “Dinner began lugubriously, W. eating fast and greedily, his face almost in his plate, every now and then firing some technical question at Lindemann, who was quietly consuming his vegetarian diet.”
Churchill—troubled and glum—made it clear that, at least for the moment, he had little interest in routine dinner talk and that only Lindemann merited his attention.
At length, the house staff served champagne, brandy, and cigars, and these did wonders to lighten the mood. This revitalization over drink and dinner was something of a pattern, as Lord Halifax’s wife, Dorothy, had noted in the past: Churchill would be “
silent, grumpy and remote” at the start of a meal, she wrote. “But mellowed by champagne and good food he became a different man, and a delightful and amusing companion.” After Clementine once criticized his drinking, he told her, “
Always remember, Clemmie, that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
The talk grew animated. Churchill began reading aloud telegrams of support that had come from far-flung lands within the empire, this by way of cheering himself up and heartening the others in the party as well. He offered a sobering observation: “
The war is bound to become a bloody one for us now, but I hope our people will stand up to bombing and the Huns aren’t liking what we are giving them. But what a tragedy that our victory in the last war should have been snatched from us by a lot of softies.” By “softies,” he was referring to supporters of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
The group went outside to stroll the grounds, with Churchill, son-in-law Duncan, and Inspector Thompson going to the rose garden, while Colville, the Prof, and Diana headed for the opposite side of the house. The sun had set at nine-nineteen; the moon was up and bright, a waxing gibbous, with a full moon due in five days. “
It was light and deliciously warm,” Colville wrote, “but the sentries, with tin helmets and fixed bayonets, who were placed all round the house, kept us fully alive to the horrors of reality.”
Colville was summoned often to the telephone, and each time set out to find Churchill—“searching for Winston among the roses,” as he put it in his diary. The French, he told Churchill, were moving ever closer to capitulating.
Churchill said, “
Tell them…that if they let us have their fleet we shall never forget, but that if they surrender without consulting us we shall never forgive. We shall blacken their name for a thousand years!”
He paused, then added, “Don’t, of course, do that just yet.”
ESPITE THE NEWS,
mood continued to improve. He passed out cigars; matches flickered in the dark.
As the coal ends of cigars glowed, he recited poems and discussed the war with an animation that verged on delight. At intervals he chanted the refrain from a popular song performed by the male duo Flanagan and Allen:
Bang, bang, bang, bang goes the farmer’s gun,
Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run, run.
The song would become immeasurably more popular later in the war when Flanagan and Allen substituted “Adolf” for “rabbit.”
A telephone call arrived for Churchill, from America’s ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy. Colville retrieved Churchill from the garden. His demeanor immediately more grave, Churchill unleashed on Kennedy “
a flood of eloquence about the part that America could and should play in saving civilization,” Colville wrote in his diary. Churchill told the ambassador that America’s promises of financial and industrial support constituted “a laughing-stock on the stage of history.”
Churchill and his guests gathered in the central hall; Churchill lay down on a sofa, puffing his cigar. He told a couple of off-color jokes and talked about the importance of increasing the production of fighters for the RAF.
he rose to go to bed, telling the others, “Good night, my children.”
That night in his diary Colville wrote, “
It was at once the most dramatic and the most fantastic evening I have ever spent.”
T SEVEN-THIRTY ON
upon learning that Churchill was awake, Colville brought him the latest report on the French situation, which had arrived earlier both over the telephone and in the form of a document delivered by courier. Colville brought the messages to Churchill’s room. Churchill was in bed, “
looking just like a rather nice pig, clad in a silk vest.”
Churchill decided to convene a special cabinet meeting at ten-fifteen that morning, in London. As Churchill breakfasted in bed, his valet, Sawyers, ran his bath, and the house roused to action. Mrs. Hill readied her portable typewriter. Inspector Thompson checked for assassins. Churchill’s driver prepared the car. Colville raced to dress and pack, and rushed through his breakfast.
They sped back to London through heavy rain, splashing through stoplights and hurtling along the Mall at high speed, with Churchill all the while dictating minutes to Mrs. Hill and generating a morning’s worth of work for Colville and his fellow private secretaries.
Churchill arrived at 10 Downing Street just as his cabinet ministers were gathering. The meeting resulted in a telegram to the French, sent at twelve thirty-five
, authorizing France to inquire about the terms of an armistice on its own behalf, “
provided, but only provided, that the French Fleet is sailed forthwith for British harbors pending negotiations.” The telegram made clear that Britain planned to fight on, and would not participate in any deliberations that France pursued with Germany.
Churchill knew France was lost. What he cared about most, now, was the French fleet. If it fell under Hitler’s control, as seemed likely, it would change the balance of power on the high seas, where Britain, at least for the time being, retained superiority.
the Prof and young Dr. Jones of Air Intelligence attended a meeting of the RAF’s Night Interception Committee, convened by Air Marshal Philip Joubert to further consider Jones’s apparent discovery of a new German beam navigation system. Churchill, otherwise engaged, did not attend, but the galvanic power of his interest was evident. What had hitherto been the subject of more or less academic interest now became a target of concrete inquiry, with specific tasks assigned to various officers.
What a change,” Jones wrote, “from my inactivity of only a week ago!”
But doubts about Jones’s theory persisted. One key participant in the meeting, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, described Jones’s case as consisting of “
some rather nebulous evidence.” Another, Henry Tizard, a prominent scientific adviser to the Air Ministry, wrote, “
I may be wrong, but there seemed to me to be unnecessary excitement about this latest alleged German method for dealing with the country. One cannot possibly get accurate bombing on a selected target in this way.”
The Prof, however, was convinced that the matter was urgent. Lindemann again wrote to Churchill, this time urging him to issue a directive “
that such investigation take precedence, not only as regards materials but especially the use of men, over any research whose results are not liable to affect production in the next three months.”
Churchill agreed. On Lindemann’s note he jotted, “
Let this be done without fail.”
Soon Jones heard a rumor that Churchill considered the matter so grave that he planned to convene a meeting on the subject at 10 Downing Street.
To Jones, this seemed implausible, very likely the opening move in a multiple-step practical joke by his colleagues in Air Intelligence, who had elevated the art of pulling pranks to a high level; Jones himself was acknowledged to be a foremost practitioner.
“a certain eventuality” came to pass. France fell. Churchill’s cabinet met at eleven
and soon afterward learned that Marshal Philippe Pétain, who that day replaced Reynaud as leader of France, had ordered the French army to stop fighting.
After the meeting, Churchill walked into the garden at 10 Downing, alone, and began to pace, head down, hands clasped behind his back—not depressed, and not cowed, but deep in thought. Colville watched him. “
He was doubtless considering how best the French fleet, the air force and the Colonies could be saved,” Colville wrote. “He, I am sure, will remain undaunted.”
Judging by the telegram Churchill sent to Pétain and General Maxime Weygand later that day, this appeared to be the case. Deploying flattery leavened with irony, he began: “
I wish to repeat to you my profound conviction that the illustrious Marshal Pétain and the famous General Weygand, our comrades in two great wars against the Germans, will not injure their ally by delivering over to the enemy the fine French Fleet. Such an act would scarify”—
a six-hundred-year-old word that only Churchill would use in crucial diplomatic correspondence—“would scarify their names for a thousand years of history. Yet this result may easily come by frittering away these few precious hours when the Fleet can be sailed to safety in British or American ports, carrying with it the hope of the future and the honor of France.”
The news about France was first broadcast by the BBC at one o’clock that afternoon.
Home Intelligence reported that the reaction by the public “has been one of confusion and shock, but hardly surprise. From all parts come reports of bewilderment and great anxiety.” There was widespread fear that the British government might “go abroad” or simply give up. “A few feel all is over.” The two questions most on people’s minds were what would happen to the soldiers still in France—“Will a second Dunkirk be possible?”—and what would now become of the French air force and navy. It was crucial, the report said, that Churchill or the king come forward that very night to speak.
Olivia Cockett, the Scotland Yard clerk and Mass-Observation diarist, was at work when she heard the BBC broadcast. “
Poor France!” she wrote at three-forty
“The 1 o’clock news was a bomb to me. I’d said over and over again that I didn’t believe France was ever going to give in to Germany. We all fell very silent.” The afternoon tea service arrived. Cockett did not share England’s national obsession with tea, but today, she said, “I was grateful for a cup, for once.” She spent the next hour “quivering and with tears.”
But at 10 Downing and Buckingham Palace, there was a new and welcome sense of clarity. “
Personally,” the king wrote, in a letter to his mother, Queen Mary, “I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to & to pamper.” Air Marshal Dowding was elated, for it meant the end, at last, of the persistent threat that Churchill, in a rash and generous moment, would send fighters to France and deplete the force needed to repel the massive assault by the German air force that was certain to come now that France had capitulated. Dowding later confessed to Lord Halifax, “
I don’t mind telling you, that when I heard of the French collapse I went on my knees and thanked God.”
But all this relief was tempered by an appreciation of just how radically the French collapse altered the strategic landscape. The Luftwaffe was sure now to move its air fleets into bases along the channel coast. Invasion seemed not only practical but imminent. The British expected it to begin with a massive onslaught by the German air force, the much-feared “knock-out” blow.
ORE BAD NEWS ARRIVED
that afternoon. Churchill was seated in the quiet of the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing when he was told that a large Cunard liner, the
which was serving as a troopship and loaded with more than 6,700 British soldiers, air crews, and civilians, had been attacked by German aircraft. Three bombs had struck the ship and set it afire. It sank in twenty minutes, with the loss of at least 4,000 lives, far more than the combined tolls of the
So wrenching was this news, especially on top of the French debacle, that Churchill barred the press from reporting it. “
The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least,” he said. This was, however, a misguided attempt at censorship, given that 2,500 survivors soon arrived in Britain. The
New York Times
broke the story five weeks later, on July 26, and the British press followed suit. The fact that the government never acknowledged the sinking caused a surge of distrust among the public, according to Home Intelligence. “
The withholding of the news of the
is the subject of much adverse criticism,” the agency stated in one of its daily reports. The lack of disclosure raised “fears that other bad news is withheld…and the fact that the news was only released after publication in an American paper gives rise to the feeling that it would otherwise have been withheld longer.”
As it happened, the death toll was likely much greater than first reported. The actual number of people aboard the ship was never determined but could have been as high as 9,000.
HERE WAS GOOD NEWS,
however, from the Ministry of Aircraft Production. On Tuesday, June 18, Lord Beaverbrook gave the War Cabinet his first report on the output of aircraft. The results were stunning: New aircraft were exiting his factories at a rate of 363 a week, up from 245. The production of engines had soared as well—620 new engines a week, compared to 411.
What he did not report, at least not here, was that these gains had come at considerable cost to himself, in terms of stress and health, and to harmony within Churchill’s government. Immediately after accepting his new post, Beaverbrook began clashing with the Air Ministry, which he saw as fusty and hidebound in its approach not just to building aircraft but also to deploying and equipping them. He had personal insight into aerial warfare: His son, also named Max, and known as “Little Max,” was a fighter pilot, tall and sharply handsome, soon to win the Distinguished Flying Cross. From time to time, Beaverbrook invited him and his fellow pilots to his home for cocktails and conversation. Beaverbrook lived each day in a state of anxiety until about eight o’clock each evening, when Little Max would check in by telephone to let him know he was alive and intact.
Beaverbrook wanted control—of everything: production, repair, storage. The Air Ministry, however, had always considered these its exclusive responsibility. It wanted all the planes it could get, of course, but resented Beaverbrook’s intrusions, especially when he sought to dictate even the kinds of guns that should be installed in new aircraft.
Beaverbrook infuriated other ministries as well. He wanted first access to all resources: wood, steel, fabric, drills, milling equipment, explosives—anything needed for the manufacture of bombers and fighters, regardless of the needs and demands of other ministries. He would, for example, commandeer buildings already earmarked for other uses. His direct connection to Churchill made his depredations all the more exasperating. As Pug Ismay saw it, Beaverbrook had more in common with a highwayman than an executive. “
In the pursuit of anything which he wanted—whether materials, machine tools, or labor—he never hesitated, so rival departments alleged, to indulge in barefaced robbery.”
Two days before submitting his progress report, Beaverbrook had dictated a nine-page letter to Churchill in which he laid out his troubles. “
Today,” he began, “I find myself frustrated and obstructed, and I ask for your immediate help.”
He cited a long list of vexations, including resistance from the Air Ministry to his campaign to salvage and repair downed RAF planes, a province the ministry saw as its own. Beaverbrook recognized from the start that these wrecked planes were a trove of spare components, especially engines and instruments, that could be cobbled together into complete aircraft. Many damaged British fighters managed to crash-land at airfields, farms, and parks, or on other friendly ground, from which they could be readily retrieved. He marshaled the talents of myriad mechanics and small companies to create a repair network so adept at salvage that it could return to battle hundreds of aircraft a month.
Beaverbrook demanded full control of maintenance depots where damaged planes and parts accumulated, and claimed that the Air Ministry, out of territorial pique, tried to stymie him at every turn. In his letter to Churchill, he described how one of his salvage squads had recovered sixteen hundred inoperable Vickers machine guns from one depot and sent them to a factory for repair. He was told there were no more such guns, but this proved not to be true. “Yesterday, after an early morning raid, carried out at my instigation, we recovered another batch of 1,120 guns,” he wrote.
His use of the word “raid” was emblematic of his approach. His tactics won him no praise from Air Ministry officials who viewed his emergency salvage crews—his “Action Squads”—as the equivalent of roving bands of pirates, and at one point banned the squads from frontline airfields.
Beaverbrook never sent the nine-page letter. This change of heart was not unusual. He often dictated complaints and attacks, sometimes in multiple drafts, deciding later not to post them. In the personal papers he eventually left to the archives of Parliament, one big file contains unsent mail, a collection that steams with unvented bile.
His dissatisfaction continued to fester and intensify.