Authors: Erik Larson
Churchill stood before the House of Commons to address the French debacle, delivering a speech he would repeat that evening in a radio broadcast to the public. This speech, too, would go down as one of the great moments in oratory, at least as he delivered it in the House of Commons.
Churchill spoke of parachute troops and airborne landings and of bombing attacks “which will certainly be made very soon upon us.” While Germany had more bombers, he said, Britain had bombers too, and would deploy them “without intermission” to attack military targets in Germany. He reminded his audience that Britain had a navy. “Some people seem to forget that,” he said. He made no attempt, however, to skirt the true meaning of the French collapse. The “Battle of France” was over, he said, adding, “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” At stake was not only the British Empire but all of Christian civilization. “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.”
He marched toward his climax: “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.”
He issued an appeal to the greater spirit of Britons everywhere. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, âThis was their finest hour.'â”
Arguably, this was Churchill's finest as well, and so it would have remained had he taken the recommendation of his minister of information to broadcast the speech live from the House chamber. As Home Intelligence had found, the public needed to hear from Churchill himself about the French fiasco and what it meant for Britain's prospects in the war. But the process of arranging a broadcast from the House, including a necessary vote of approval by members, proved too daunting.
Churchill agreed, with reluctance, to do a separate broadcast that night. The ministry expected him to write something new, but, with a child's contrariness, he decided simply to reread the speech he had delivered in the Commons. Although public reaction as measured through Mass-Observation and Home Intelligence reports varied, one consistent theme was criticism of Churchill's delivery. “
Some suggested he was drunk,” Mass-Observation reported on Wednesday, June 19, “others that he did not himself feel the confidence he was proclaiming. A few thought he was tired. It would seem that the delivery to some extent counteracted the contents of the speech.” Cecil King, editorial director of the
wrote in his diary, “
Whether he was drunk or all-in from sheer fatigue, I don't know, but it was the poorest possible effort on an occasion when he should have produced the finest speech of his life.”
One listener went so far as to send a telegram to 10 Downing Street warning that Churchill sounded as though he had a heart condition, and recommended he work lying down.
As it happened, the problem was largely mechanical. Churchill had insisted on reading the speech with a cigar clenched in his mouth.
HE NEXT DAY,
top three military commandersâhis chiefs of staffâsent a secret note (“To Be Kept Under Lock and Key”) to Churchill and his War Cabinet, via Pug Ismay, in which they laid out the coming danger in terms more stark than Churchill had detailed in his speech. “
Experience of the campaign in Flanders and France indicates that we can expect no period of respite before the Germans may begin a new phase of the war,” the note read. “We must, therefore, regard the threat of invasion as immediate.” But first would come an assault from the air, the chiefs explained, one that “will tax our air defenses and the morale of our people to the full.”
Hitler would spare nothing, they warned. “The Germans have accepted prodigious losses in France, and are likely to be prepared to face even higher losses and to take even greater risks than they took in Norway to achieve decisive results against this country.”
The next three months, they predicted, would determine the outcome of the war.
HURSDAY, THERE WERE
more rumors that Churchill would hold a meeting devoted solely to beam navigation. The meeting, Dr. Jones now heard, would take place the next morning, Friday, June 21. No one had invited him, however, so on that Friday morning he kept to his usual routine, which involved catching a train from London's Richmond district at nine thirty-five and arriving at work about thirty-five minutes later.
When he got to his office, he found a note from a secretary in the Air Intelligence Branch stating that a colleague, Squadron Leader Rowley Scott-Farnie, “has telephoned and says will you go to the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street.”
Cabinet Room began filling with officials. Here was the “long table,” a twenty-five-foot span of polished wood covered with green cloth, toothed by the backs of twenty-two mahogany chairs. The prime minister's chairâthe only armchairâwas at the center of one side of the table, in front of a large marble fireplace. Tall windows afforded views of the back garden and, beyond, the Horse Guards Parade and St. James's Park. At each seat was a writing pad, a blotter, and notepaper with “10 Downing Street” embossed in black at the top.
From time to time, Churchill used the room as his base for dictating telegrams and minutes. A secretary would sit opposite him, with a typewriter, sometimes for hours, typing item after item, with Churchill “
holding out his hand for it almost before he had finished dictating,” wrote Elizabeth Layton. At the ready were his “klop”âhis hole punchâand two pens, one with blue-black ink for signing correspondence, one with red ink for initialing minutes. If he needed something, he would hold out a hand and say “Gimme,” and Layton was expected to know what device he wanted. He used the same command to summon people. “Gimme Prof” or “Gimme Pug” meant she was to call for Lindemann or General Ismay. During long quiet stretches, she listened to the chimes of Big Ben and the Horse Guards clock, both of which sounded at quarterly intervals, with a pleasing dissonance, the clang of the Horse Guards clock against the stately boom of Big Ben.
The officials took their seats. Here came Churchill, Lindemann, Lord Beaverbrook, and the empire's top aviation officials, including Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair and Fighter Command chief Hugh Dowding, a dozen or so men in all. Present as well was Henry Tizard, who advised the government on aeronautical affairs. A onetime friend of Lindemann's, Tizard had become estranged from the Prof, in large part because of the Prof's virtuosity at nursing grudges. No secretaries were present, private or personal, indicating that the meeting was deemed so secret that no written record would be kept.
There was tension in the room. Tizard and Lindemann were feuding over past imagined slights; the animus between them was clearly evident.
Churchill noticed that one key man, Jones, the young scientist whose detective work had caused the meeting to be convened in the first place, was absent. The discussion began without him.
With the fall of France, the urgency of the matter was growing by the day. The Luftwaffe was moving its bases steadily closer to the French coast; its raids over the English mainland were growing in size, severity, and frequency. Two nights earlier, the Luftwaffe had sent 150 aircraft over England, damaging steelworks and a chemical plant, destroying gas and water mains, sinking one merchant ship, and nearly blowing up an ammunition depot in Southampton. Ten civilians were killed. It was all part of the mounting drumbeat of suspense as to when the Germans would invade, like the slow build of a thriller (to use a word that debuted in 1889). The suspense was making people irritable and anxious, as well as more critical of the government, according to a Home Intelligence report.
If German aircraft were indeed being guided, at night, by a secret new navigational system, it was crucial to know that, and to devise some means of countering the technology as soon as possible. This realm of secret science was one in which Churchill took great delight. He loved gadgets and secret weapons, and was an ardent promoter of the novel inventions proposed by the Prof, even those derided by other officials as the dreams of a crackpot. Upon the failure of an early prototype of an explosive device that adhered to the exterior of a tankâand occasionally to the soldier throwing itâChurchill rose to the Prof's defense. In a minute addressed to Pug Ismay but meant for wider distribution, Churchill wrote, “
Any chortling by officials who have been slothful in pushing this bomb over the fact that it has not succeeded will be viewed with strong disfavor by me.”
The “sticky bomb,” as it was known, did eventually reach a point where it could be deployed in the field, despite opposition by the War Office. Churchill overrode the department's objections and gave the weapon his full support. In a June 1, 1940, minute noteworthy for both its precision and its brevity, Churchill commanded, “
Make one million. WSC.”
When, later, several members of Parliament began to question Lindemann's influence, Churchill bridled. During a contentious “Question Time” in the House of Commons, one member not only asked questions that implicitly criticized Lindemann but made dark allusions to his German heritage, which infuriated Churchill. Afterward, he ran into the critic in the Commons Smoking Room andâ“
bellowing at him like an infuriated bull,” according to one witnessâshouted, “Why in Hell did you ask that Question? Don't you know that he is one of my oldest and greatest friends?”
Churchill told the man “to get the hell out” and never to speak to him again.
In an aside to his own parliamentary secretary, Churchill said, “
Love me, love my dog, and if you don't love my dog you damn well can't loveÂ me.”
ONES STILL THOUGHT
the meeting at 10 Downing Street might be a prank. He tracked down the secretary who had put the note on his desk that morning. She assured him that the invitation was real. Still unconvinced, Jones paid a call on Squadron Leader Scott-Farnie, the colleague who had telephoned the original message to the secretary. He, too, avowed that this was no prank.
Jones caught a taxi. By the time he reached No. 10, the meeting had been underway for nearly half an hour.
For Jones, this was an unnerving moment. As he entered the room, Churchill and a dozen other men turned his way. Jones was a bit stunned to find himself, all of twenty-eight years old, looking down the center of the legendary long table in the Cabinet Room.
Churchill was seated midway down the left side of the table, flanked by Lindemann and Lord Beaverbrook, the two men antipodes in appearanceâLindemann pale and soap-featured; Beaverbrook, animated and bilious, every bit the scowling elf captured in newspaper photographs. At the other side of the table sat Henry Tizard, Air Minister Sinclair, and Fighter Command's Dowding.
Jones sensed the tension in the room. Lindemann gestured toward the empty seat to his right; the men on Tizard's side signaled that he should come sit with them. For an instant Jones was flummoxed. Lindemann was his former professor and undoubtedly the main reason he had been invited to the meeting in the first place; but the Air Staff men were his colleagues, and by all rights he should sit with them. What further complicated the moment was that Jones was well aware of the ill feeling between Tizard and Lindemann.
Jones resolved the quandary by taking a chair at the end of the table, in what he called “the no-man's land” between the two delegations.
He listened as the others renewed their conversation. He judged by their comments that the group had only a partial understanding of the beam situation and its implications for aerial warfare.
At one point Churchill addressed a question directly to him, to clarify a detail.
Instead of merely answering, Jones said, “
Would it help, sir, if I told you the story right from the start?” In retrospect, he was startled by his own sangfroid. He attributed his calmness in part to the fact that his summons to the meeting had so taken him by surprise that he had not had an opportunity to let his anxiety build.
Jones told it as a detective story, describing the early clues and the subsequent accumulation of evidence. He revealed, as well, some fresh intelligence, including a note pulled just three days earlier from a downed German bomber that seemed to confirm his hunch that the
system deployed not just one beam but two, with the second one intersecting the first over the intended target. The note pegged the second beam's point of origin as Bredstedt, a town in Schleswig-Holstein, on Germany's north coast. It also provided what appeared to be the frequencies of the beams.
Churchill listened, rapt, his fascination for secret technologies in full flare. But he also realized the bleak significance of Jones's discovery. It was bad enough that the Luftwaffe was establishing itself at bases on captured territory just minutes from the English coast. But now he understood that the aircraft at those bases would be able to bomb accurately even on moonless nights and in overcast weather. To Churchill, this was dark news indeed, “
one of the blackest moments of the war,” as he later put it. Until this point, he had been confident that the RAF could hold its own, despite being, as Air Intelligence believed, vastly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. In daylight, RAF pilots were proving adept at bringing down Germany's slow-moving bombers and besting their fighter escorts, which were hamstrung by having to hang back to protect the slower aircraft and by fuel limitations that gave the fighters only ninety minutes of flying time. At night, however, the RAF was powerless to intercept German aircraft. If the German planes could bomb accurately even in heavy overcast and on the darkest nights, they would no longer need their swarms of fighter escorts, and no longer be restrained by the fighters' fuel limits. They could traverse the British Isles without restriction, a tremendous advantage in laying the groundwork for invasion.