The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (35 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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Directive,” asking its many diarists to express their feelings about the coming year.

How do I feel about 1941?” wrote diarist Olivia Cockett. “I stopped typing for two minutes to listen to an extra noisy enemy plane. It dropped a bomb which puffed my curtains in and made the house shiver (I am in bed under the roof) and now the guns are galoomphing at its back. There are craters at the bottom of my garden, and a small unexploded bomb. Four windows are broken. Can see the ruins of 18 houses within five minutes walk. Have two lots of friends staying with us whose homes have been wrecked.

“About 1941, I feel that I shall be damned glad if I’m lucky enough to see it at all—and that I’d rather like to see it.” At root she felt “cheerful,” she wrote. “But I THINK differently, think we’ll be hungrier (haven’t been hungry yet), think many of our young men will die abroad.”

That Silly Old Dollar Sign

Monday, December 16, looking “tanned and exuberant and jaunty,” according to his speechwriter, Robert E. Sherwood, a playwright and screenwriter. The president convened a press conference the next day, smoking a cigarette as he greeted reporters. Mischievous as always with the press, he told them, “
I don’t think there is any particular news”—and then proceeded to introduce the idea that had come to him aboard the
which historians would later judge to be one of the most important developments of the war.

He began, “There is absolutely no doubt in the mind of a very overwhelming number of Americans, that the best immediate defense of the United States is the success of Britain in defending itself.

“Now, what I am trying to do is eliminate the dollar sign. That is something brand new in the thoughts of everybody in this room, I think—get rid of the silly, foolish, old dollar sign.

“Well, let me give you an illustration,” he said, and then deployed an analogy that distilled his idea into something both familiar and easy to grasp, something that would resonate with the quotidian experience of countless Americans. “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have got a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away: but, my Heaven, if he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out the fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have got to pay me $15 for it.’ What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, ‘I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.’

“He says ‘How many feet of it were there?’

“I tell him, ‘There were 150 feet of it.’

“He says, ‘All right, I will replace it.’ ”

That became the kernel of an act introduced in Congress soon afterward, numbered H.R. 1776 and titled “A Bill Further to Promote the Defense of the United States, and for Other Purposes,” soon to receive its lasting byname, the Lend-Lease Act. Central to the proposal was the idea that it was in the best interests of the United States to provide Britain, or any ally, with all the aid it needed, whether it could pay or not.

The bill immediately met pitched resistance from senators and congressmen who believed it would bring America into the war, or as one opponent vividly predicted—also deploying an analogy that would resonate in America’s heartland—that it would result in “
ploughing under every fourth American boy.” The remark infuriated Roosevelt, who called it “the most untruthful, the most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has been said in public life in my generation.”

That Roosevelt’s idea would ever be more than an idea was, by Christmas 1940, anything but certain.

about Churchill. According to Sherwood, the eloquent power of the prime minister’s letter to Roosevelt sparked in Hopkins “a desire to get to know Churchill and to find out how much of him was mere grandiloquence and how much of him was hard fact.”

Hopkins soon would get that chance and, in the process, despite his ill health and fragile frame, shape the future course of the war—while spending much of his time freezing to death in bomb-torn London.

A Toad at the Gate

in so sensitive a phase, choosing an ambassador to replace Lord Lothian became a critical matter. His craftier instincts told him that Lothian’s death might in fact offer him an opportunity to strengthen his hold on his own government. Banishing men to far-flung posts was for Churchill a familiar and effective tactic for muting political dissent. Two men stood out as potential sources of future opposition, former prime minister Lloyd George and Churchill’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, the also-ran for his own job.

That his first choice among the two men was Lloyd George suggests that he saw him as the more immediate and serious threat. Churchill sent Lord Beaverbrook as intermediary to offer him the post. This was awkward for Beaverbrook, because he himself would have liked to be made U.S. ambassador, but Churchill believed he was too valuable an asset, both as minister of aircraft production and as a friend, confidant, and adviser. Lloyd George declined the offer, citing his doctor’s concerns about his health. He was, after all, seventy-seven years old.

The next day, Tuesday, December 17, Churchill again summoned Beaverbrook, this time to discuss the possibility of sending Halifax to Washington, and he again dispatched Beaverbrook to make the offer, or at least propose the idea. What Churchill clearly knew from their long friendship was that Beaverbrook had a knack for, and delighted in, making people do what he wanted them to do. Halifax biographer Andrew Roberts called Beaverbrook a “born schemer.” Beaverbrook’s own biographer, A.J.P. Taylor, wrote, “
There was nothing Beaverbrook liked better in politics than moving men about from one office to another or in speculating how to do it.”

Offering the job to Halifax required a certain brutality. By any standard, the post was a demotion, no matter how important it was that Britain win America’s eventual participation in the war. But Churchill also knew well that if his own government faltered, the king would likely turn to Halifax to replace him, having favored Halifax initially. Which was precisely why Churchill decided that Halifax should go, and why he sent Beaverbrook to propose that he do so.

after doing a broadcast at the BBC, Beaverbrook made his way to the Foreign Office to meet with Halifax, who was immediately on his guard. He knew that Beaverbrook lived for intrigue and that he had been waging a war of whispers against him. Beaverbrook offered him the job on Churchill’s behalf. In his diary that Tuesday night, Halifax expressed uncertainty as to whether Churchill really thought he was the best choice or merely wanted to get him out of the Foreign Office, out of London.

Halifax did not want to go, and told Beaverbrook as much, but Beaverbrook reported back to Churchill that Halifax had replied with an unhesitant “yes.” Wrote biographer Roberts, “
He returned to Churchill with a completely fabricated story about Halifax’s reaction to the offer.”

Churchill and Halifax met at eleven-forty the next morning on an unrelated matter, during which Halifax explained his reluctance. He did so again the next day, Thursday, December 19. The conversation was a tense one. Halifax tried to persuade Churchill that sending a foreign secretary to Washington as an ambassador might appear to be an act of desperation—of trying too hard to please Roosevelt.

Halifax returned to the Foreign Office feeling that he had succeeded in sidestepping the appointment. He was, however, mistaken.

the immediate threat of invasion diminished, though no one doubted this was only a temporary easement. Now another, more amorphous danger took its place. As the Luftwaffe expanded its attacks and sought to replicate the Coventry raid in attacks on other British cities, the matter of morale rose to the fore. London had thus far proven resilient, but London was an immense city, immune to the Luftwaffe’s new obliterative tactics. Would the rest of the country prove as tough if more cities experienced “coventration”?

The attack on Coventry had shaken that city to the core, causing morale to falter. Home Intelligence observed that “
the shock effect was greater in Coventry than in the East End [of London] or any other bombed area previously studied.” A pair of subsequent raids on Southampton, also intense, likewise shattered the public psyche. The bishop of Winchester, whose diocese included the city, observed that people were “broken in spirit after the sleepless and awful nights. Everyone who can do so is leaving the town.” Each night hundreds of residents vacated the city and slept in their cars in open country before returning to work the next day. “For the time,” the bishop reported, “morale has collapsed.” After a series of raids on Birmingham, the city’s American consul wrote to his superiors in London that while he had seen no sign of disloyalty or defeatism among residents, “
to say that their mental health is not being undermined by bombing is to talk nonsense.”

These new attacks threatened to bring about the wholesale collapse of national morale that defense planners long had feared, and to so intensify public dismay as to threaten Churchill’s government.

The arrival of winter made the matter even more acute, for it multiplied the daily hardships imposed by the German air campaign.

Winter brought rain, snow, cold, and wind. Asked by Mass-Observation to keep track of the factors that most depressed them, people replied that weather topped the list. Rain dripped through roofs pierced by shrapnel; wind tore past broken windows. There was no glass to repair them. Frequent interruptions in the supply of electricity, fuel, and water left homes without heat and their residents without a means of getting clean each day. People still had to get to work; their children still needed to go to school. Bombs knocked out telephone service for days on end.

What most disrupted their lives, however, was the blackout. It made everything harder, especially now, in winter, when England’s northern latitude brought the usual expansion of night. Every December, Mass-Observation also asked its panel of diarists to send in a ranked list of the inconveniences caused by the bombings that most bothered them.
The blackout invariably ranked first, with transport second, though these two factors were often linked. Bomb damage turned simple commutes into hours-long ordeals, and forced workers to get up even earlier in the darkness, where they stumbled around by candlelight to prepare for work. Workers raced home at the end of the day to darken their windows before the designated start of the nightly blackout period, a wholly new class of chore. It took time: an estimated half hour each evening—more if you had a lot of windows, and depending on how you went about it. The blackout made the Christmas season even bleaker. Christmas lights were banned. Churches with windows that could not easily be darkened canceled their night services.

The blackout also imposed new dangers. People routinely crashed into lampposts or rode their bikes into obstacles. Cities used white paint to try to ameliorate the most obvious problems, applying it to curbs, steps, and the running boards and bumpers of cars. Trees and lampposts received rings of white paint. And the police enforced special blackout speed limits, issuing 5,935 tickets in the course of the year. But people still drove into walls and tripped over obstacles, and stumbled into one another. Dr. Jones, the Air Intelligence man who’d discovered Germany’s secret beams, discovered the value of white paint—or, rather, the dangers of its absence. When driving to London one night after giving a lecture at Bletchley Park, he crashed into a truck left standing in the road. The rear end had been painted white, but the paint was now obscured by mud. Jones was driving at only fifteen miles an hour, but he still went hurtling through the windshield and lacerated his forehead. Authorities in Liverpool implicated the blackout in the deaths of fifteen dockworkers, who died by drowning.

But the blackout also was a vector for humor. Blackout material used on train windows became a “scribbling pad,” wrote Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett. She noted how someone had altered the notice “
Blinds must be kept down after dark” to “Blonds must be kept down after dark,” which was subsequently amended to “Knickers must be kept down after dark.” For a degree of relief from the blackout and the other new burdens of life, Cockett turned to smoking. “One new habit since the war—
cigarettes,” she wrote. “
Used to smoke occasionally, but now three or four a day regularly, and with pleasure! Inhaling makes the difference, and the nicotine-treat which just detaches one’s mind from one’s body for a second or two after each breath.”

The greatest threat to morale in London was deemed to arise from the tens of thousands of citizens bombed out of their homes or otherwise compelled to use public shelters, where the conditions within were drawing widespread condemnation.

The mounting outcry prompted Clementine Churchill to venture into the shelters to see them for herself, often accompanied by John Colville. She began visiting what she believed to be “a fairly representative cross-section” of shelters.

On Thursday, December 19, for example, she toured shelters in Bermondsey, an industrial district that in the preceding century had housed a notorious slum, Jacob’s Island, where Charles Dickens, in
Oliver Twist,
had killed off the malignant Bill Sikes.
What Clementine found repulsed her. The occupants of shelters spent “perhaps fourteen hours out of the twenty-four in really horrible conditions of cold, wet, dirt, darkness and stench,” she wrote in notes to her husband. The worst shelters escaped reform because officials judged them so awful as to be beyond redemption but too necessary to close immediately. As a consequence, Clementine found, they just grew worse.

One object of her ire was the way in which shelters, trying to adapt to night bombing by installing permanent sleeping accommodations, tried to cram as many beds as possible into the allocated space by stacking bunks in threes. “The more one sees of the 3-tier bunks,” Clementine wrote, “the worse one feels them to be. They are, of course, much too narrow; an extra 6 inches would have made all the difference between great discomfort and comparative comfort.”

The bunks were also too short. Feet touched feet; feet touched heads; heads touched heads. “In the case of heads touching there is great danger of lice spreading,” Clementine wrote. And lice posed a serious problem. Although lice were to be expected—“war entails lice,” she wrote—their presence raised the potential for outbreaks of typhus and trench fever, both louse-borne diseases. “It seems that if these started they would rage through the poorer population of London like wildfire,” she noted. “If there was tremendous mortality among the workers war output would be seriously diminished.”

By far the worst trait of the three-tier bunk, as Clementine saw it, was the limited vertical space between tiers. “I wonder people do not die for lack of air,” she wrote. “Where mothers have their babies sleeping with them it must be quite intolerable, as the baby has to sleep on top of the mother as the bunk is too narrow for it to sleep by her side.” She feared that many more three-tiered bunks had been ordered, and asked Churchill if these orders could be stopped until the bunks were redesigned. As to the bunks already installed, the solution, she argued, was simply to remove the middle tier. Doing so, she noted, would have the “satisfactory effect” of reducing the number of people crowding the worst shelters by one-third.

Her greatest concern was sanitation. She was horrified to find that there were very few toilets in shelters and that, overall, sanitation conditions were abysmal. Her reports reveal not just a willingness to venture into unaccustomed realms but an eye for Dickensian detail. The latrines, she wrote, “are often among the bunks and have skimpy canvas curtains which do not cover the opening. These curtains are often foul at the bottom. The latrines should be
from the bunks and the entrances turned to a wall so as to ensure a little privacy.” The worst conditions she encountered were on Philpot Street, at the Whitechapel synagogue, “where people were sleeping absolutely opposite the latrines with their feet almost inside the canvas curtains and where the stench was intolerable.”

She recommended that the number of latrines be doubled or tripled. “This is easy,” she noted, “as they are mostly buckets.” She observed that these were often placed on porous ground, into which waste seeped and accumulated. One solution, she wrote, would be to place these “on big sheets of tin with turned-up edges like trays. These tin trays could be washed.” Separate latrines should be installed for children, with shorter buckets, she wrote. “The ordinary buckets are too high for them.” And, she found, the buckets received little attention. “The buckets should, of course, be emptied before they are full, but in some places, I am told, this is done only once in twenty-four hours, which is not soon enough.”

She was especially appalled to find that latrines were often unlit. “The prevailing darkness merely hides and, of course, encourages the dirty conditions.”

The winter rain and cold had made bad conditions worse. In her tours of shelters, she found water “dripping through the roof and seeping through the walls and floors.” She reported hearing examples of earthen floors turned to mud, and water accumulating to such a degree that it needed to be removed with pumps.

She isolated another problem: Most shelters had no provision for making tea. “For this purpose,” she wrote, “the minimum requirement would be an electric power plug and a boiler.”

She told Churchill that she believed the problem with the worst shelters was that responsibility for them was apportioned among too many agencies with overlapping authority, and as a result, nothing was done. “The only way to get the matter straightened out is to have one authority for safety, health, and everything else,” she wrote in a brief minute in which she addressed her husband not as Winston but as “Prime Minister.” “Division of authority is what is preventing improvement.”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
7.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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