The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (17 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
What's in a Name?

abruptly arose in the Churchill family.

By July, Pamela Churchill was convinced that her baby was going to be a boy, and she set her heart on naming the child Winston Spencer Churchill, after the prime minister. But that same month, the Duchess of Marlborough, whose husband was a cousin of Churchill's, gave birth to a boy and claimed the full name for her son.

Pamela was crushed and angry. She went to Churchill in tears and pleaded with him to do something. He agreed that the name was rightfully his to bestow, and that it would be more appropriate to give it to a grandson than a nephew. He called the duchess and told her bluntly that the name was his, and it was to be given to Pamela's new son.

The duchess protested that Pamela's child had not even been born yet; obviously there was no certainty that it would be a boy.

“Of course it will,” Churchill snapped. “And if it isn't this time, it will be next time.”

The duke and duchess renamed their son Charles.

The Tyrant's Appeal

ULY 19,
strode to the rostrum of the Kroll Opera House, in Berlin, to address the Reichstag, Germany's legislature, which had been meeting in that building ever since the eponymous 1933 fire that had made the body's official home unusable. On the dais, near Hitler, sat Luftwaffe chief Göring, large and merry, “
like a happy child playing with his toys on Christmas morning,” wrote correspondent William Shirer, who witnessed the speech. In an aside, Shirer added, “Only how deadly that some of the toys he plays with, besides the electric train in the attic of Carinhall, happen to be Stuka bombers!” Göring and a dozen generals were to receive their own promotions that night, the generals to the rank of field marshal, and Göring, already a field marshal, to the newly created rank of
. Hitler knew his man. He understood Göring's need for special attention and gleaming medals.

Earlier that Friday, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had centered his regular morning meeting on the speech and its potential effect, according to minutes of the session. He cautioned that foreign reaction would likely not reach full flower for two or three days but that it was certain to polarize public opinion within Britain, even to the point of forcing Churchill's resignation. The meeting minutes stated: “
The Minister emphasizes that Britain's fate will be decided this evening.”


Shirer, seated in the audience, was struck anew by his rhetorical skills: “
So wonderful an actor,” Shirer wrote in his diary, “so magnificent a handler of the German mind.” He marveled at how Hitler managed to cast himself as both conqueror and humble supplicant for peace. He noticed, too, that Hitler spoke in a lower register than was typical, and without his usual histrionics. He used his body to underscore and amplify the thoughts he sought to convey, cocking his head to impart irony, moving with a cobra's grace. What especially caught Shirer's attention was the way Hitler moved his hands. “Tonight he used those hands beautifully, seemed to express himself almost as much with his hands—and the sway of his body—as he did with his words and the use of his voice.”

First Hitler ran through the history of the war thus far, laying the blame for it on Jews, Freemasons, and Anglo-French “warmongers,” foremost among them Churchill. “I feel a deep disgust for this type of unscrupulous politician who wrecks entire nations and States,” Hitler said. He framed the war as a quest to restore Germany's honor and rescue the nation from the oppression of the Treaty of Versailles. He congratulated his army and generals, commending many by name, singling out as well Rudolf Hess, his official deputy; Heinrich Himmler, chief of Hitler's protective force, the S.S.; Joseph Goebbels; and Göring, clearly his favorite among the four, to whom he devoted several minutes of fulsome praise.

Throughout Hitler's speech,” Shirer observed, “Göring leaned over his desk chewing his pencil, and scribbling out in large, scrawly letters the text of his remarks which he would make after Hitler finished. He chewed on his pencil and frowned and scribbled like a schoolboy over a composition that has got to be in by the time class is ended.” At intervals Göring grinned and applauded, thudding his big hands together with exaggerated force. Hitler announced Göring's promotion and handed him a box containing the requisite new insignia for his uniform. Göring opened the box, peeked in, then went back to chewing his pencil. His “boyish pride and satisfaction was almost touching, old murderer that he is,” Shirer wrote.

Hitler turned to the future. He proclaimed his army to be at its most powerful and promised to respond to British air raids on Germany in a manner that would bring “unending suffering and misery” to England—though probably not to Churchill himself, he said, “for he no doubt will already be in Canada where the money and the children of those principally interested in the war already have been sent. For millions of other persons, great suffering will begin.”

Now came the portion of the speech that Goebbels believed would determine Britain's fate. “Mr. Churchill,” Hitler said, “…for once believe me when I predict a great empire will be destroyed, an empire that it was never my intention to destroy or even to harm.”

The only possible result of the war, he warned, was the annihilation of either Germany or Britain. “Churchill may believe this will be Germany,” he said. “I know it will be Britain.” With his hands and body he conveyed with clarity that this was no mere threat. “In this hour I feel it to be my duty before my own conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense in Great Britain as much as elsewhere. I consider myself in a position to make this appeal, since I am not the vanquished, begging favors, but the victor speaking in the name of reason.”

Abruptly the conqueror gave way to the humble
. “I can see no reason why this war must go on,” he said. “I am grieved to think of the sacrifices it will claim. I should like to avert them.”


Adolf Galland and his squadron flew a protective screen above Berlin's opera house to guard against RAF bombers, a choice assignment meant to honor their performance in the French campaign.

Though only twenty-eight years old, Galland was by now a seasoned combat pilot, commander of his own fighter group. Big-eared, dark, with a black mustache and a broad smile, he had none of the Nordic iciness that the Nazi Party held dear; nor was he an ardent believer in party ideology. He cut a rakish figure, often wearing his officer's cap cocked at an angle. Just the day before the speech, he had been promoted to the rank of major and awarded his third Knight's Cross, for shooting down seventeen aircraft and providing effective support for Germany's ground forces. By the time his commander, Albert Kesselring, physically presented the award, however, Galland's total of verified kills had risen to thirty. His role as aerial guardian during Hitler's speech was not wholly honorific, he wrote later: “
One bomb on the Kroll Opera House would actually have eliminated the entire German High Command at one fell swoop, so the precaution seemed well justified.”

Galland's journey to this moment embodied the broader story of the creation and flowering of the Luftwaffe as a whole. Galland became obsessed with aviation early in his youth, his imagination fired by postwar accounts of the aerial exploits of Baron von Richthofen. At age seventeen, he began flying gliders. His father pressed him to join the army, but Galland just wanted to fly, and sought a way of making a living in the air. What he most wanted was to fly powered aircraft. He saw only one path: to become a pilot with Germany's newly founded airline, Deutsche Luft Hansa, soon to be known simply as Lufthansa. But every other young flying enthusiast seemed also to share this ambition. Galland's application to the German Airline Pilot School was one of twenty thousand, from which the school chose one hundred candidates. Only twenty made the final cut, Galland among them. By the end of 1932, he had earned a preliminary flying certificate.

Now things took an unexpected turn. Galland and four other students received orders to report to a flying school in Berlin, where they were invited to join a secret course in flying military aircraft—secret, because Hitler at this time was beginning his campaign to rearm Germany in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended the Great War. All five accepted the offer; they traveled in civilian clothes to an airfield near Munich, where they attended lectures on tactics and spent twenty-five hours flying old biplanes, learning such techniques as how to fly in formation and strafe targets on the ground. The high point, Galland recalled, was a visit from Hermann Göring, who had embarked, secretly, on building a new air force.

After a brief stint as a copilot on a commercial airliner, Galland in December 1933 was summoned back to Berlin and invited to join Göring's still secret force, the Luftwaffe; the following fall he was posted to its first fighter unit. When the air force began flying combat missions in Spain's Civil War, on behalf of General Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces, and pilots came back with stories that depicted a life of romance and derring-do, Galland volunteered. He soon found himself aboard a tramp steamer bound for Spain, along with 370 other Luftwaffe members, all again dressed in civilian clothing and carrying papers that indicated they were civilians. In Spain, Galland was disappointed to find himself placed in charge of a fighter group equipped with biplanes, while his fellow pilots flew the latest fighter,
the Messerschmitt Me 109.

The Luftwaffe's Spanish experience taught many valuable lessons about aerial warfare, but it also lodged a misconception in the minds of Göring and other senior officers. The bombers Germany deployed in Spain happened to be faster than the antiquated enemy fighters they encountered, and this conjured a wishful conviction, early on, that bombers did not require fighter escorts.

Galland went on to participate in each of Hitler's lightning invasions and at last was assigned to a fighter group that flew the newest fighters. Soon he had his first encounters with British RAF pilots flying the latest Hurricanes and Spitfires. He immediately understood that from this point onward he would be facing an opponent unlike any he had encountered thus far—the kind of combat he claimed to wish for, “when each relentless aerial combat was a question of ‘you or me.' ”

The first-line fighter planes of both sides were more or less evenly matched, though each had attributes that gave it an advantage under particular conditions. Britain's Spitfires and Hurricanes were more heavily armed and more maneuverable, but the German Messerschmitt Me 109 performed better at higher altitudes and carried more protective armor. The Spitfire had eight machine guns, the Me 109 only two, but it also had two cannons that fired exploding shells. All three fighters were mono-wing, single-engine planes capable of flying at unheard-of speeds—well over three hundred miles an hour—but all had the same limitation: Their fuel capacity gave them only about ninety minutes of flying time, barely enough to get to London and back. Overall, the Messerschmitt was considered to be the superior aircraft, but a more important advantage was the fact that German pilots, like Galland, had far more experience with aerial combat. The average age of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot was twenty-six; his RAF counterpart, twenty.

With each rapid victory of the German army, Galland's fighter group moved to a new airfield to keep up with the advancing front and, therefore, moved closer to the French coast, closer to England. Every advance meant an increase in the amount of time a fighter could engage in combat over the English mainland. Barring a peace agreement between Churchill and Hitler, the next phase of the war would begin. In Galland's view, the outcome was certain: England would be crushed.


Britain to Hitler's speech came an hour after its conclusion, in the form of a commentary broadcast by the BBC, without prior authorization by either Churchill or Foreign Secretary Halifax. The commentator, Sefton Delmer, did not mince words. “
Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense,” he said. “Herr
and Reich Chancellor, we hurl it right back into your evil-smelling teeth!”

William Shirer was present at the German radio center in Berlin, getting ready to broadcast his own report on Hitler's speech, when he heard the BBC reply.
The various officials present in the studio “could not believe their ears,” Shirer wrote. One shouted, “Can you make it out? Can you understand those British fools? To turn down peace now?…They're crazy.”

Britain's official response came three days later, but not from Churchill. “
I do not propose to say anything in reply to Herr Hitler's speech, not being on speaking terms with him,” he quipped. Foreign Secretary Halifax gave the reply on Monday, July 22, at nine-fifteen
. His message was clear. “
We shall not stop fighting,” he said, “until freedom, for ourselves and others, is secure.”

Propaganda Minister Goebbels instructed the German press to describe Halifax's official rejection as a “war crime.” At his morning meeting on Wednesday, July 24, Goebbels outlined how Germany's propaganda apparatus would now proceed: “
Mistrust must be sown of the plutocratic ruling caste, and fear must be instilled of what is about to befall. All this must be laid on as thick as possible.”

The ministry's array of “secret transmitters,” masquerading as English radio stations but based in Germany, were now to be deployed, “to arouse alarm and fear among the British people.” They were to take pains to disguise their German origins, even to the point of starting broadcasts with criticism of the Nazi Party, and fill their reports with grisly details of air-raid deaths and injuries, so that when the first air raids against England took place, the populace would be primed for panic. Goebbels also ordered broadcasts that outwardly would appear to be classes on how to prepare for an air raid but whose precise details were, in fact, meant to further terrorize British listeners.

Seeking also to leverage British anxiety about invasion, Goebbels directed his transmitters to report, falsely, that the German army had found one hundred thousand British uniforms left behind at Dunkirk. “
At the right moment the secret transmitters should then put out the story that parachutists have been dropped over Britain wearing these uniforms.”


of Germany's fighter aircraft were massed at airfields in France along the channel coast, including those of Adolf Galland's group, based at an airfield near Calais, just one hundred air miles from central London.

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Lovestruck by Julia Llewellyn
A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp
White Man Falling by Mike Stocks
Alice-Miranda in Paris 7 by Jacqueline Harvey