Authors: Erik Larson
ITH THE BOMBING OF
came increased fears for Churchill’s safety, a concern that he himself appeared not to share. No raid was too fierce to stop him from climbing to the nearest roof to watch. On one cold night while watching a raid from the roof of the building that capped the Cabinet War Rooms, he sat on a chimney to keep warm, until an officer came up to ask him politely to move—smoke was backing up into the rooms below. Churchill, enthralled by gunfire, continued to visit anti-aircraft installations even as German bombers flew overhead. When raids occurred, he dispatched his staff to the shelter below but did not himself follow, returning instead to his desk to continue working. At night and for naps, he slept in his own bed. When a large unexploded bomb was discovered in St. James’s Park, perilously near 10 Downing Street, Churchill stayed put, expressing concern only for “those poor little birds”—the pelicans and swans—in the lake. Even near misses seemed not to ruffle him. John Colville recalled how one night as they were walking through Whitehall, two bombs came whistling to earth nearby. Colville dove for cover; Churchill continued on, “
striding along the middle of King Charles Street, his chin stuck out and propelling himself rapidly with his gold-headed walking stick.”
Churchill’s disregard for his own safety drew an exasperated plea from Air Minister Sinclair. “
One thing worries me these days—that you stay at Downing Street without a proper shelter.” He urged Churchill to take up residence in the Cabinet War Rooms, or in some other well-protected locale. “You are making us ridiculous if you insist on us living in basements & refuse to do it yourself!” Churchill’s great friend Violet Bonham Carter told him that she had urged Clementine to restrain him from venturing into dangerous zones. “
It may be fun for
—but it is terrifying for the rest for us. Please realize that for most of us this war is a One-Man Show (unlike the last) & treat your life like a guarded flame. It does not belong to you alone but to all of us.”
Others stepped in to take measures to protect him. Blast shutters were installed over windows to block shrapnel and keep glass from disintegrating into flesh-rending shards. The Ministry of Works began construction of a concrete-and-steel shield to reinforce the ceiling of the Cabinet War Rooms. The rising danger also led the government to begin constructing a new, blastproof flat in the building above the war rooms; designed for the Churchills, the apartment became known as the No. 10 Annexe, or, simply, “the Annexe.” As always, the associated hammering drove Churchill wild. He routinely sent his private secretaries to find the source and stop it, thereby causing what Colville believed to be a significant delay in the project’s completion.
No. 10 Downing, which Churchill once described as “rickety,” at least had the advantage of being tucked away among larger buildings, within a zone protected by a concentration of anti-aircraft batteries and barrage balloons. His prime ministerial country home, Chequers, was another story. About all that had been done so far to protect the house itself against aerial attack was to install the timbers in the Hawtrey Room. When Chequers’ previous owner, Arthur Lee, first saw these arrangements, he was appalled. “
When I was at Chequers,” he wrote, “I was, I must confess somewhat flabbergasted by the Office of Works conception of bombproof chambers
the house; fortified by piles of decaying sandbags against the brickwork
.” The sandbags had since been removed; the timbers remained.
Churchill himself was fully prepared to fight it out among the Cromwellian artifacts, should German invaders enter the house, and expected his family to do likewise. At one gathering he said, “If the Germans come, each one of you can take a dead German with you.”
I don’t know how to fire a gun,” protested daughter-in-law Pamela.
“You could go into the kitchen and get a carving knife.”
She had no doubt that he meant it. “He was in dead earnest,” she recalled later, “and I was terrified.” Four helmets, known universally as “tin hats,” were allotted to Chequers, to be used by caretaker Grace Lamont, Churchill’s chauffeur, Clementine, and Pamela. Mary had her own helmet, and full uniform, from the Women’s Voluntary Service.
It was private secretary Eric Seal who first seemed to recognize the vulnerability of Chequers. In a discreet note to Pug Ismay he aired his fears, and Ismay in turn grew concerned. That the Germans knew the location of the house was beyond doubt. Three years earlier, Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, then ambassador to Britain, had visited the property while Stanley Baldwin was prime minister. With the advent of the air war over England, Ismay realized that Chequers would make a choice target, both for the Luftwaffe and for parachute troops dropped into adjacent fields, though he did not realize just how vulnerable it was until the RAF produced a series of reconnaissance photos of the estate to see how it might appear to German pilots.
Taken from an altitude of ten thousand feet, these photographs (and others shot later at five thousand and fifteen thousand feet) revealed an aspect of the house and its orientation in the landscape that was thoroughly startling. The long entry road, Victory Way, intersected a U-shaped drive that led to the front and rear entrances of the house. The lanes were surfaced with light-colored gravel that contrasted sharply with the adjacent greenery. From the air, the effect was uncanny: The long white length of Victory Way looked like an arrow pointing at the house. At night, when the moon caused the pale gravel to luminesce, the effect was even more pronounced, so much so that it seemed a marvel that the Luftwaffe hadn’t attacked the house already.
Compounding Ismay’s worries was the fact that an aerial photograph of Chequers from a private source had already been published in the press, and was, as Ismay told the Ministry of Home Security in a letter dated August 29, “therefore, likely to be in possession of the Germans.” He enclosed a copy of the photograph, in which the house did indeed appear to be a distinctive target, and wrote: “In view of the fact that the Prime Minister goes there most week-ends, it is very important that early action should be taken to render it less easily identified.”
The ministry’s Camouflage Branch proposed a number of solutions, including paving the lanes with the same material used to surface tennis courts and erecting raised nets tufted with steel wool, but decided that the best, and least costly, means of masking the lanes would be to cover them with turf. Clementine wanted this done quickly. Her youngest daughter and pregnant daughter-in-law were now at the house, and increasingly Churchill himself seemed to be the target of the Luftwaffe, as suggested by the apparent rise in aerial attacks on Whitehall.
Ismay was concerned about other dangers as well. A security assessment had warned that Chequers required protection against all kinds of threats, ranging from lone assassins in disguise to squads of parachutists. The house and grounds were currently watched over by a platoon of Coldstream Guards consisting of four noncommissioned officers and thirty soldiers, but Ismay wanted this expanded to a company of 150. The guardsmen were housed in tents on the grounds; Ismay recommended a more permanent arrangement, with huts and a mess room hidden in the trees at the back of the estate.
Sewage could be a problem, he acknowledged. “Chequers drains would have to be used, and they may be overloaded.”
In mid-September, as invasion fears intensified, Home Forces stationed a Lanchester armored car at Chequers, for Churchill’s use, along with two officers to operate it. The Home Forces general staff recommended that the officers be armed with Thompson submachine guns. “
These would provide greater striking power than pistols in the event of opposition from enemy agents or parachute troops.” On weekdays, the car would reside in London; Churchill’s personal chauffeur was to be offered instruction in how to drive it.
The Prof, for his part, was particularly concerned about the dangers posed by the many cigars Churchill received as gifts from citizens and foreign emissaries, not because smoking was yet perceived to be bad, but for fear the sender or an infiltrator might lace the cigar with poison. All it would take was a tiny amount inserted into just one cigar out of fifty. Only a tested cigar could be ruled absolutely safe, but the testing process inevitably destroyed the sample.
One detailed assay uncovered a Cuban cigar that contained “a small black and flattened mass of vegetable debris containing much starch and two hairs,” this ruled to be the fecal pellet of a mouse. Nicotine itself, MI5’s chief tester, Lord Rothschild, pointed out, was a dangerous poison, though he noted, after testing one group of gift cigars, “I should say that it would be safer to smoke the rest than to cross a London street.”
At one point Churchill threw caution to the winds. He received an entire chest full of Havana cigars as a gift from the president of Cuba. He showed this to his ministers one night after dinner, before the resumption of a particularly fraught cabinet meeting. “
Gentlemen,” he said, “I am now going to try an experiment. Maybe it will result in joy. Maybe it will end in grief. I am about to give you each one of these magnificent cigars.”
“It may well be that these each contain some deadly poison.”
Another dramatic beat.
“It may well be that within days I shall follow sadly the long line of coffins up the aisle of Westminster Abbey.”
He paused again.
“Reviled by the populace; as the man who has out-Borgia-ed Borgia.”
He handed out the cigars; the men lit them; all survived.
A week later, however, John Colville notified Churchill that he was sending one cigar from each donated box to be tested by MI5.
The Prof, he told Churchill, “hopes that you will not smoke any of the cigars until the result of the analysis is known. He points out that there has just been a round-up of undesirable elements in Cuba, which has shown that a surprisingly large number of Nazi agents and sympathizers exist in that country.”
Lindemann would have preferred that Churchill not smoke any cigar donated from abroad, as Colville reported in a separate note: “
The Professor thought however that you might like to let them accumulate in a safe and dry place until after the war, when you might feel justified in taking the risk involved in smoking them if you wished to do so.”
This was the Prof’s coolly scientific way of saying that by then, if a cigar killed him, it wouldn’t matter.
EAVERBROOK GREW INCREASINGLY FRUSTRATED
with the amount of work lost to air raids, false alerts, and visits by lone bombers whose mission clearly was simply to trigger sirens and drive workers into shelters. On a single day, two solo aircraft making separate flights over London triggered alerts that caused a six-hour delay in production at the city’s factories. In the week ending Saturday, September 28, raids and warnings reduced by half the working hours at seven major aircraft plants. The cost of these lost hours was compounded by the fact that workers who spent the night in shelters were less efficient the next day. When bombs did strike, the secondary effects were even more profound. Workers stayed home; night shifts became hard to staff. The risks, however, were real. In July, one company, Parnall Aircraft Ltd., a maker of gun turrets, lost seventy-three thousand hours of work to false alarms. Seven months later more than fifty of the plant’s workers were killed in a single daylight raid.
Beaverbrook came to loathe the wail of air-raid sirens. “
The sirens, it must be admitted, became almost an obsession with him,” wrote David Farrer, his personal secretary. Beaverbrook deluged Churchill with complaints and hectored him to ban warning sirens altogether. “
The decision might cost the country some lives,” he wrote. “But if we persist in the warnings we shall probably pay a higher price in lives through the impairment of our aircraft production.”
Beaverbrook laid some of the blame for lost production at the feet of his favorite antagonist, Air Minister Archie Sinclair, accusing him of failing to provide adequate protection for factories and for failing to defend them even after receiving advance warning that a raid was likely to occur. He wanted more barrage balloons hung over factories, and more anti-aircraft guns, and went so far as to demand that the Air Ministry assign one Spitfire to protect each complex.
He did not believe for a moment that such measures would indeed protect a factory, according to secretary Farrer: “
It was the appearance, not the reality of safety that he was after.” His interest was not in saving workers but in keeping them at their posts, wrote Farrer, adding, “He was fully prepared to risk lives in order to produce more aircraft.”
Beaverbrook also railed against other threats to production, and saw such threats everywhere. When Herbert Morrison, minister for Home Security, and Home Secretary, proposed to allow shopkeepers to work only five days a week and to close their stores at three
to give them time to get home or to a shelter before the night raids began, Beaverbrook objected, on the grounds that factory workers would then demand to do likewise. “This, of course, would be disastrous,” he wrote.
Beaverbrook warned, too, that if British factory workers did not work their machine tools twenty-four hours a day, America would notice, and would be disinclined to send more tools. That Beaverbrook actually cared about American perceptions is doubtful. He wanted production, at all costs. For this he needed Churchill’s attention, and raising the specter of disillusioning Roosevelt was one way to get it. “The American claim that we have more machine tools than we require will be completely justified,” he wrote.
By way of encouraging others to ignore air-raid alerts, Beaverbrook resolved to remain at his desk when the sirens rang out. He was, however, terrified. “
Beaverbrook is a man of nervous temperament,” wrote secretary Farrer. “He was thoroughly scared by the noise of a falling bomb. But his sense of urgency prevailed over his fears.”