The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (33 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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the landscape and roiled the surrounding seas, making an amphibious landing by German forces seem less and less likely. Fragments of intelligence from Bletchley Park—which Air Ministry officials referred to only as “our special source”—suggested that Hitler might have postponed his planned Operation Sea Lion. Yet the Luftwaffe continued to pummel London with nightly raids, and now appeared to be expanding its range of targets elsewhere in England. Clearly something new was afoot, and the implications were troubling. London had shown itself able to withstand nightly attack, but how would the rest of the country fare, as more and more civilians were killed or injured and bombed from their homes?

The details of the Luftwaffe’s new campaign were starting to come into focus. On Tuesday, November 12, intelligence officers listened in as a newly captured German airman conversed with another prisoner in a room fitted with a hidden microphone. “He believes,” the officers reported, “that riots have broken out in London and that Buckingham Palace has been stormed and that ‘Hermann’ ”—a reference to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring—“thinks the psychological moment has come for a colossal raid to take place between the 15th and the 20th of this month at the full moon and that Coventry and Birmingham will be the towns attacked.”

The scenario described by the prisoner was chilling. For this raid, the Luftwaffe planned to deploy every available bomber and use every navigational beam. The planes would carry fifty-kilogram (110-pound) “shrieking” bombs. The prisoner, according to the report, said the bombers were to concentrate on destroying working-class neighborhoods, where the populace was believed to be on the verge of revolt.

The report cautioned that the new prisoner might not be very reliable, and recommended that his remarks be treated with circumspection. What had prompted air intelligence to relay them now, the report said, was its receipt that afternoon of information from the special source that indicated the Germans were planning “a gigantic raid,” code-named Moonlight Sonata. The special source believed the target was not Coventry or Birmingham but, rather, London. The attack would likely take place three days hence, on Friday, November 15, when the moon was full, and would involve up to eighteen hundred German aircraft, including bombers from KGr 100, the elite fire-starter unit, whose incendiaries would further light the target. One indication of the singular importance of the raid was the fact that Göring himself planned to direct the operation.

If all this was true, it raised the specter of the massive knock-out raid—Churchill’s aerial “banquet”—that civil defense officials had expected and feared ever since the start of the war.

The Air Ministry circulated a “minute sheet,” on which officials offered their thoughts about the bits of intelligence known thus far. In an entry marked “
,” an RAF wing commander wrote that the exact date of the raid would probably be signaled by a flight in the afternoon by bombers from KGr 100; their goal would be to check on weather conditions over the selected target and make sure the navigational beams were positioned properly. He proposed that the word “sonata” might itself be significant. In music, sonatas were traditionally structured around three movements. This suggested that the attack might occur in three phases. The exact target was still not clear, but intercepted instructions showed that the Luftwaffe had selected four possible areas, among them London.

The information in hand was deemed reliable enough to cause Air Ministry officials to begin planning a response. A counter-operation intended to pour “cold water” on the German attack began to take shape; appropriately enough, it was code-named “Cold Water.” One official proposed that the best response, from the point of view of the British public, would be to launch a massive RAF strike against a target in Germany. He suggested a “big bang” on targets along the Ruhr River, or even Berlin itself, and recommended, as well, that the bombs used be fitted with the RAF’s version of Germany’s “Jericho trumpet,” to make each bomb howl on its way down. “The whistles for our bombs,” he noted, “have already gone out to Depots and there should be no trouble in getting them fitted to our 250 and 500 lb. bombs for an occasion of this kind. If the big bang is to achieve the best moral effect we suggest we should do this.”

Operation Cold Water also called for the RAF’s new countermeasures squadron, No. 80 Wing, established in July, to do all it could to disrupt the skein of navigational beams transmitted by the Germans. Two specially equipped bombers were to fly back along a key beam transmitted from Cherbourg and bomb the transmitter. They would know they were over the target because previous electronic reconnaissance had shown that the beams disappeared directly above the transmitting stations. The RAF referred to this dead space as “the silent zone,” “the cut-out,” and, yes, “the cone of silence.”

No word of the possible German attack, as yet, was conveyed to Churchill.

Wednesday night, air intelligence gave RAF commanders a new update on Moonlight Sonata from the special source, which confirmed that the raid would indeed have three parts, though whether these were three phases in one night or over three nights was not clear. The source supplied the code names for two of the three phases, the first being
or “Umbrella,” the second
or “Moonshine Serenade.” The name for the third was not yet known. One of the Air Ministry’s most senior men, William Sholto Douglas, deputy chief of the Air Staff, doubted that the Germans planned an attack over three nights: “How can even the optimistic Boche hope to get 3 successive nights of fine weather?”

Typically news about the day-to-day activities of German forces did not get sent to Churchill, but with the scale of the attack expected to be so great, on Thursday, November 14, the Air Ministry prepared a special “
” memorandum for the prime minister. This, in turn, was placed in his special yellow box, reserved for the most secret messages.

As best anyone could tell, the raid would not occur until the next night, Friday, November 15, which promised to be nearly ideal for flying, with cold, mostly clear skies and a full moon that would light the landscape below to a brightness approaching that of daylight.

But this supposition was incorrect, as soon became apparent.

Colville made his way to Westminster Abbey, where he was to be an usher at the funeral service for former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who had died the week before. Churchill was a pallbearer, as was Halifax. A bomb had blown out the windows of the chapel; there was no heat. Government ministers filled the seats in the choir. Everyone wore coats and gloves, but froze all the same. The chapel was only partly full, owing to the fact that the time and place for the funeral had been kept secret—a prudent measure, Colville noted, “for a judiciously placed bomb would have had spectacular results.”

Colville’s gaze fell on Duff Cooper, minister of information, whose face bore a “look of blank indifference, almost of disdain.” A few ministers sang hymns. No sirens wailed; no German aircraft appeared overhead.

at 10 Downing, Churchill, his detective, his typist, and the rest of his usual weekend platoon walked through the back garden and entered the usual cars; they settled in for the drive to the country, this time to Ditchley, Churchill’s full-moon house.

Just before departure, the private secretary assigned to weekend duty, John Martin, handed Churchill the yellow box containing his most secret communications and joined him in the back seat. The cars set off at high speed and moved west along the Mall, past Buckingham Palace, and along the southern border of Hyde Park. A few minutes into the drive, Churchill opened the box and there found a secret memorandum dated that day that described, in three dense pages, a possibly imminent Luftwaffe operation called Moonlight Sonata.

The report proceeded to detail what air intelligence had learned and how the RAF planned to respond; it named four possible target areas, with Central London and Greater London mentioned first. The report stated that London seemed the likely choice.

Then came the most troubling phrase in the memorandum: “The whole of the German long range Bomber Force will be employed.” The raid, moreover, would be directed—“we think”—by Hermann Göring himself. The intelligence “comes from a very good source indeed.” Churchill, of course, knew that this source had to be Bletchley Park.

Far more satisfactory were the next two pages of the report, which detailed the RAF’s planned response, Operation Cold Water, and stated that RAF Bomber Command would follow a “knock-for-knock policy,” with bombers concentrating on a single city in Germany, maybe Berlin but possibly Munich or Essen, the choice to be determined by the weather.

By this point, Churchill and his entourage, en route to Ditchley but still within the city, were just passing Kensington Gardens. Churchill ordered his driver to turn around. Wrote secretary Martin, “He was not going to sleep quietly in the country while London was under what was expected to be a heavy attack.”

The cars sped back to 10 Downing Street. So grave was the apparent threat that Churchill ordered his female staff to leave before nightfall and directed them to go home or to the “Paddock,” the fortified emergency headquarters in Dollis Hill. He told John Colville and another private secretary, John Peck, to spend the night at the Down Street station, a luxurious shelter built by the London Passenger Transport Board that Churchill occasionally occupied. He called it his “burrow.” Colville did not object. He and Peck dined “
apolaustically,” as Colville put it, using a ten-penny word meaning “with great enjoyment.” The shelter’s stock of luxuries included caviar, Havana cigars, brandy dating to 1865, and, of course, champagne: Perrier-Jouët 1928.

Churchill went to the Cabinet War Rooms to await the raid. He did many things well, but waiting was not one of them.
Growing impatient, he climbed to the roof of the nearby Air Ministry building to watch for the attack, bringing Pug Ismay with him.

identified the target. In the afternoon, members of the RAF’s radio countermeasures unit detected new beam transmissions from German transmitters in France. Wireless operators listening in on German communications intercepted the expected Luftwaffe advance reconnaissance reports, as well as messages from a control center at Versailles from which the raid was to be directed. Together these offered strong evidence that Moonlight Sonata would occur that night, November 14, a day earlier than intelligence had first suggested.

At 6:17
roughly an hour after sunset, the first German bombers—thirteen of them—crossed the southern coast of England, at Lyme Bay. These were the bombers of KGr 100, so adept at finding and flying along radio beams. They carried more than ten thousand individual incendiary canisters, to illuminate the target for the bombers that soon would follow.

A few aircraft did pass over London, at 7:15
and again ten minutes later, setting off sirens and driving people into shelters, but these aircraft continued on without event, leaving behind a silent city made ghostly by moonlight. As it happened, these were feints, meant to convince the RAF that the big raid was indeed targeting the capital.

A Coventry Farewell

afternoon, the RAF’s radio countermeasures group knew that German navigational beams were intersecting not over London but above Coventry, a center for arms manufacturing in the Midlands, nearly one hundred miles away. Industry aside, Coventry was best known for its medieval cathedral and for hosting, according to legend, the drafty eleventh-century ride of Lady Godiva (and, as a by-product, giving rise to the term “Peeping Tom,” after a man named Thomas was said to defy an edict ordering citizens not to peek at the passing countess). For reasons unclear, the news that Coventry was the intended target was not relayed to Churchill, waiting impatiently on the Air Ministry roof.

The RAF’s radio countermeasures group struggled to determine the exact frequencies needed to jam or distort the navigational beams aimed toward the city. Only a few jamming transmitters were available, and by now the sky was scored with invisible beams. One beam passed right over Windsor Castle, west of London, prompting concern that the Luftwaffe might have targeted the royal family itself. A warning was relayed to the castle. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) officials assigned to its defense manned the battlements as if awaiting a medieval siege, and they soon saw bombers overhead, black against the nearly full moon, in a procession that seemed endless.

No bombs fell.

T 5:46 P.M.,
entered its blackout period; the moon was already up and visible, having risen at 5:18
Citizens closed their blackout blinds and curtains; the lights at train stations were turned off. This was routine. But even with the blackout underway, the streets were agleam with light. The moon was dazzling, the sky exceptionally clear. Leonard Dascombe, a tool setter at an arms factory, was on his way to work when he realized how brilliantly it shone, its light “glistening from on the house-tops.” Another man observed that the moon made the headlights on his car unnecessary. “
We could almost have read a newspaper, it was such a wonderful night,” he said. Lucy Moseley, a daughter of the city’s newly elected mayor, John “Jack” Moseley, recalled, “It really was unnaturally light outside; hardly ever before or since have I seen such a brilliant November night.” As the Moseleys settled in for the evening, a family member called it “a huge, really horrible ‘bomber’s moon.’ ”

At 7:05
an ARP message arrived at the local civil defense control room, stating “Air Raid Message Yellow.” This meant that aircraft had been detected heading in the direction of Coventry. Then came “Air Raid Message Red,” the signal to turn on the sirens.

Coventry had experienced air raids before. The city had taken them in stride. But Thursday night felt different, as many residents later recalled. Suddenly flares appeared in the sky, drifting under parachutes, further lighting streets already luminescent with moonglow. At 7:20, incendiary bombs began to fall, with what one witness described as “a swishing sound like heavy rain.” Some of the incendiaries seemed to be a new variety. Instead of simply igniting and starting fires, they exploded, sending incendiary material in all directions. A number of high-explosive bombs fell as well, including five four-thousand-pound “Satans,” with the apparent intent of destroying water mains and keeping firefighting teams from getting to work.

Then came the full rain of high-explosive bombs, as the pilots above “bombed the fires.” They dropped parachute mines as well, 127 in all, of which 20 failed to explode, either because of a malfunction or a time-delay fuse, something the Luftwaffe seemed to delight in deploying. “
The air was filled with the crash of guns, the whine of bombs and the terrific flash and bang as they exploded,” recalled one police constable. “The sky seemed to be full of planes.” The raid came so suddenly and with such strength that a group of women at a YWCA hostel had no time to escape to a nearby shelter. “For the first time in my life,” one wrote, “I knew what it was like to shake with fear.”

Bombs struck several shelters. Teams of soldiers and ARP men worked through the rubble by hand, for fear of causing harm to survivors. One refuge had clearly been destroyed by a direct hit. “
After a time we came to the occupants of the shelter,” wrote one rescuer. “Some were quite cold and others were still warm, but they were all dead.”

A bomb landed close to a shelter into which Dr. Eveleen Ashworth and her two children had retreated. First came “a shattering noise,” she wrote, then the blast, “and a land wave which rocked the shelter.” The blast blew off the shelter door.

Her seven-year-old said, “That nearly blew my hair off.”

Her three-year-old: “It nearly blew my head off!”

At one city hospital, Dr. Harry Winter climbed to the roof to help extinguish incendiary bombs before they set the hospital on fire. “I could hardly believe my eyes,” he said. “All round the hospital grounds glowed literally hundreds of incendiary bombs, like lights twinkling on a mammoth Christmas tree.”

Within the building, women in the maternity ward were placed under their beds, with mattresses over their bodies. One patient was a German airman, injured and convalescing in a bed on the top floor. “Too much bomb—too long!” he moaned. “Too much bomb!”

Casualties began to arrive at the hospital. Dr. Winter and his fellow surgeons went to work in three operating theaters. Most of the injuries were damaged limbs and severe lacerations. “
The complication with bomb lacerations, however, is that you get a small wound on the surface but extensive disruption underneath,” Dr. Winter wrote later. “Everything is pulped together. It’s no use fixing the surface wound without doing a major cutting job on the inside.”

At another hospital, a nurse in training found herself confronting an old terror. “
During the course of my training I had always the fear of being left with the limb of a patient in my hand after amputation and had so far managed to be off-duty when amputations were taking place,” she wrote. The attack “changed all that for me. I didn’t have time to be squeamish.”

Now the city bore what many considered its most traumatic wound. Incendiaries salted the roofs and grounds of the city’s famed Cathedral of St. Michael, the first descending at around eight o’clock. One landed on the roof, which was made of lead. The fire burned through the metal, causing molten lead to fall onto the wooden interior below, igniting it as well. Witnesses called for fire trucks, but all of the trucks were engaged fighting fires throughout the city. The first truck to reach the cathedral arrived an hour and a half later, having come from the town of Solihull, fourteen miles away. Its crew could do nothing but watch. A bomb had shattered a critical water main. An hour later, water at last began to flow, but with very low pressure, and soon that, too, waned to nothing.

As the fire advanced and began consuming chancel and chapels and the heavy wood beams of the roof, church employees rushed inside to rescue all that they could—tapestries, crosses, candlesticks, a wafer box, a crucifix—and brought them to the police station in a solemn procession. Reverend R. T. Howard, provost of the cathedral, watched it burn from the police station porch, as an orange fist engulfed its ancient pipe organ, once played by Handel. “
The whole interior was a seething mass of flame and piled up blazing beams and timbers, interpenetrated and surmounted with dense bronze-colored smoke,” Howard wrote.

The rest of Coventry seemed to be on fire as well. The glow was visible thirty miles away, spotted in fact by Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison, who was a guest at a distant country home. A German pilot shot down soon after the raid told RAF interrogators that he could see the glow a hundred miles off as he flew over London on his return leg. In Balsall Common, eight miles west of Coventry, diarist Clara Milburn wrote, “
When we went out the searchlights were probing the clear sky, the stars looked very near, the air was so clear and the moonlight was brilliant. I have never seen such a glorious night. Wave after wave of aircraft came over, and heavy gunfire followed.”

All through the night, for eleven hours, the bombers came, and incendiaries and bombs fell. Witnesses told of familiar odors raised from the flames that would have been comforting if not for the cause. A fire consuming a tobacco store filled the surrounding area with the scent of cigar smoke and burning pipe tobacco. A burning butcher shop raised the aroma of roast meat and brought to mind the comforts of the traditional Sunday evening “joint.”

The bombs fell until 6:15
The blackout ended at 7:54. The moon still shone in the clear dawn sky, but the bombers were gone. The cathedral was a ruin, with melted lead still dripping from its roofs, and fragments of charred timber now and then coming loose and falling to the ground. Throughout the city, the most common sound was that of broken glass crunching under people’s shoes. One news reporter observed glass “so thick that looking up the street it was as if it was covered with ice.”

Now came scenes of horror. Dr. Ashworth reported seeing a dog running along a street “with a child’s arm in its mouth.” A man named E. A. Cox saw a man’s headless body beside a bomb crater. Elsewhere, an exploded land mine left behind a collection of charred torsos. Bodies arrived at a makeshift morgue at a rate of up to sixty per hour, and here morticians had to deal with a problem they had rarely, if ever, been compelled to confront: bodies so mangled that they were unrecognizable as bodies. Between 40 and 50 percent were classified as “unidentifiable owning to mutilation.”

Those bodies that were mostly intact received luggage tags, stating where the body had been found and, when possible, the likely identification, and were stacked in multiple tiers. Survivors were permitted to walk through and look for missing friends and kin, until a bomb struck an adjacent natural gas storage facility, causing an explosion that tore the roof off the morgue. Rain fell, distorting the luggage tags. The process of identification was so macabre, so fruitless, with sometimes three or four people identifying the same body, that visits were halted and identifications made by examining personal belongings collected from the dead.

A sign went up outside the morgue, stating: “
It is greatly regretted that the pressure at the mortuary is such that it is not possible for relatives to view any of the bodies.”

the city, unwilling to be perceived as missing another cataclysmic raid. His visit was not well received. He focused on restoring production in factories damaged in the attack. During a meeting with officials, he tried out a bit of Churchillian rhetoric. “
The roots of the Air Force are planted in Coventry,” he said. “If Coventry’s output is destroyed the tree will languish. But if the city rises from the ashes then the tree will continue to burgeon, putting forth fresh leaves and branches.” He was said to have shed tears upon seeing the destruction, only to be brought up “sharply,” according to Lucy Moseley, the mayor’s daughter. Tears, she wrote, had no value. Beaverbrook had hectored the factories for maximum production, and now much of the city was in ruins. “
He’d asked Coventry’s workers for an all-out effort,” Moseley wrote, “and what had they got for it?”

Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison came too, and found himself blamed for failing to better protect the city, and for the fact that the German bombers had arrived virtually without challenge by the RAF. And, indeed, the RAF, though it had made 121 sorties during the night, using dozens of fighters equipped with air-to-air radar, reported only two “engagements” and failed to destroy a single bomber, once again underscoring the persistent difficulty of fighting in darkness. Operation Cold Water took place but with minimal effect. British bombers struck airfields in France and military targets in Berlin, losing ten bombers in the process. The RAF’s countermeasures group, No. 80 Wing, used jammers and beam-bending transmitters to distort and divert German beams, but these were thought to have had little effect, according to an air force analysis, “
since the night was so clear and bright that radio navigational aids were not essential.” The unit did succeed in dispatching a pair of bombers to follow two German beams back to their home transmitters in Cherbourg, where they knocked both out of action. The failure to down any aircraft, however, prompted an angry telegram from the Air Ministry to Fighter Command, asking why there had been so few interceptions despite “fine weather, moonlight and considerable fighter effort exerted.”

The city offered a much warmer welcome to the king, who arrived on Saturday morning for an unannounced visit. Mayor Moseley had learned of the impending honor only late the previous day. His wife, who was in the midst of gathering up the family’s personal belongings for a move to a relative’s home outside the city, burst into tears. These were not tears of joy. “
Oh dear!” she cried. “Doesn’t he understand we’re in too much of a mess and have so much to do without him coming?”

The king met first with the mayor in his formal mayor’s parlor, now lighted only by candles stuck in the mouths of beer bottles. Afterward, accompanied by other officials, the two men set out to tour the devastation, and soon, without warning, the king began turning up in the most prosaic locales. At one stop, a stunned group of weary elderly people jumped to their feet and sang “God Save the King.” Elsewhere, a worker who had sat down on a curb for a brief rest, grubby and tired, still wearing his helmet, looked up to see men approaching on the street. As the group passed, its apparent leader said, “Good morning” and nodded. Only after they moved on did the man on the curb realize it was the king. “I was so taken aback, flabbergasted, amazed, overwhelmed that I couldn’t even answer him.”

At the cathedral, the king was introduced to provost Howard. “The king’s arrival took me completely by surprise,” Howard wrote. He heard cheering and saw the king enter through a door at the southwest end of the church. Howard greeted him. They shook hands. “I stood with him watching the ruins,” Howard wrote. “His whole attitude was one of intense sympathy and grief.”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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