The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (36 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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Her investigations had an effect. Churchill, aware that how the public felt about shelters would influence how they viewed his government, made shelter reform a priority for the coming year. In a minute to his minister of health and his home secretary, he wrote, “
Now is the time to begin a radical improvement in the shelters, so that by next winter there may be more safety, more comfort, warmth, light and amenities for all who use them.”

That the shelters would still be needed at the end of 1941 was, to Churchill, a certainty.

20, Halifax’s undersecretary, Alexander Cadogan, picked him up at the Foreign Office and together they went to Westminster Abbey to attend the memorial service for Lord Lothian. Cadogan noted in his diary that Halifax’s wife was already seated, and clearly unhappy. “
Furious,” he wrote. She vowed to talk to Churchill herself.

After the service, she and her husband set off for No. 10. Barely banking her anger, Dorothy told Churchill that if he sent her husband to America, he would lose a loyal colleague who could marshal strong allies to support him should a political crisis arise. She suspected the hand of Beaverbrook.

Halifax, looking on with bemusement, wrote that Churchill could not have been kinder, but “he and Dorothy were certainly talking a different language.” Halifax later wrote to former prime minister Stanley Baldwin, “You can guess how mixed my feelings are. I don’t think it is particularly my line of country and I have never liked Americans, except odd ones. In the mass I have always thought them dreadful!”

By Monday, December 23, the deal was done, the assignment announced, Halifax’s replacement as foreign secretary chosen. Anthony Eden would succeed him. At a noon cabinet meeting, Churchill spoke of his gratitude to Halifax for taking on so vital a mission. Cadogan was present as well. “
I looked up and saw the Beaver opposite me, hugging himself, beaming and almost winking.”

The king sought to console Halifax, when Halifax paid him a visit at Windsor Castle on Christmas Eve. “
He was very unhappy at the thought of leaving here now, & was perplexed at what might happen if anything happened to Winston,” the king wrote in his diary. “The team was not a strong one without a leader, & there were some hot heads among it. I told him he could always be recalled. By way of helping him I suggested that the post of my Ambassador in U.S.A. was more important at this moment than the post of Foreign Secy, here.”

This was scant relief for Halifax, who by now understood not only that his removal as foreign secretary was recompense for his being perceived to be a likely successor to Churchill, but also that the engineer behind the plan’s execution was indeed—to use his favored nickname for Beaverbrook—“the Toad.”


German leaders. “
When will that creature Churchill finally surrender?” wrote propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in his diary, after noting the latest Coventry-style attack against Southampton and the sinking of another fifty thousand tons of Allied shipping. “England cannot hold out for ever!” He vowed that air raids would continue “until England falls on her knees and begs for peace.”

But England seemed far from doing so. The RAF made a succession of raids against targets in Italy and Germany, among them an attack against Mannheim by more than one hundred bombers that killed thirty-four people and destroyed or damaged some five hundred structures. (This was the Operation Abigail raid in retaliation for Coventry.) The raid itself was not particularly troubling to Goebbels, who called it “easily bearable.” What he found disconcerting, however, was the fact that England still felt confident enough to conduct the raid at all, and that the RAF was able to muster so many aircraft. Bombers also struck Berlin, prompting Goebbels to write, “
It seems that the English have found their touch again.”

But now it was more vital than ever that Churchill somehow be made to exit the war. On December 18, Hitler issued Directive No. 21, “Case Barbarossa,” his formal order to his generals to begin planning for an invasion of Russia. The directive began: “
The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England,
to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.
” The italics were Hitler’s. The directive detailed the roles to be played by the German army, air force, and navy—especially the army’s armored units—and envisioned the occupation of Leningrad and Kronstadt, as well as, eventually, Moscow. “The bulk of the Russian Army stationed in Western Russia will be destroyed by daring operations led by deeply penetrating armored spearheads.”

Hitler directed his commanders to produce plans and timetables. It was crucial that the campaign begin soon. The longer Germany delayed, the more time Russia would have to build up its army and air force, and England to recoup its strength. German forces were to be ready by May 15, 1941.

“It is of decisive importance,” the directive said, “that our intention to attack should not be known.” During these preparations, the Luftwaffe was to continue its attacks against England without restraint.

moral decay. In addition to guiding Germany’s propaganda program, he served as minister of popular culture, and saw it as his mission to vanquish forces that threatened to undermine public morality. “
No strip dancers are to perform in rural areas, in small towns, or in front of soldiers,” he told the staff at one of his December propaganda meetings. He called on his assistant, Leopold Gutterer, a baby-faced thirty-nine-year-old, to compose a circular addressed to all “compères,” masters of ceremonies at cabarets and the like. “The circular is to be in the form of a categorical final warning, forbidding compères to make political wisecracks or to use lewd erotic jokes in their performances.”

Goebbels also brooded about Christmas. Germans loved Christmas—Weihnachten—more than any other holiday. They sold Christmas trees on every corner, sang carols, danced, and drank to excess.
He warned his lieutenants against the creation of “a sentimental Christmas atmosphere” and condemned the “blubbing and mourning” that Christian holidays induced. It was “unsoldierly and un-German,” he said, and must not be allowed to extend through the whole period of Advent. “This must be confined exclusively to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he told the group. And even then, he said, Christmas was to be framed in the context of the war. “A sloppy Christmas tree atmosphere lasting several weeks is out of tune with the militant mood of the German people.”

At his own home, however, Goebbels found himself increasingly mired, not unhappily, in preparations for the holiday. He and his wife, Magda, had six children, all of whose names began with
Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Holdine, Hedwig, and Heidrun, the last just a month and a half old. The couple also had an older son, Harald, from Magda’s previous marriage. The children were excited, as was Magda, “who thinks about nothing but Christmas,” Goebbels wrote.

Diary, December 11: “
A lot of work with the Christmas parcels and gifts. I have to distribute them to the 120,000 soldiers and flak gunners in Berlin alone. But I enjoy it. And then the host of personal commitments. These are increasing from year to year.”

December 13: “Choose Christmas gifts! Make Christmas arrangements along with Magda. The children are sweet. Unfortunately, one or the other of them is always ill.”

On December 22, two RAF air raids drove the family into a shelter until seven
“Not pleasant with all the children, some of whom are still sick,” Goebbels wrote. “Only two hours’ sleep. I am so tired.” Not too tired, however, to muse upon his favorite pastime. “A Jew Law has been passed by the Sobranje [Bulgaria’s parliament],” he wrote. “Not a radical measure, but nevertheless something. Our ideas are on the march throughout the whole of Europe, even without compulsion.”

The next day, RAF bombers killed forty-five Berliners.

“So considerable losses, after all,” Goebbels wrote on Christmas Eve.

He authorized Christmas bonuses for his colleagues. “They must have some sort of compensation for all their work and their ceaseless dedication.”

Hitler’s sights, deputy Rudolf Hess was more anxious than ever to engineer a settlement with England and fulfill the “wish” of his
He still had not received a response from the Duke of Hamilton, in Scotland, but continued to see the duke as a source of hope.

An idea came to Hess, and now, December 21, his plane stood ready at the Augsburg airfield of the Messerschmitt Works, near Munich, even though more than two feet of snow lay on the ground.

The aircraft was a Messerschmitt Me 110, a twin-engine fighter-bomber modified for long-distance flying. Ordinarily it carried two men, but it could easily be flown solo. Hess was an accomplished pilot; nevertheless, he had needed to learn the peculiarities of the Me 110, and took lessons with an instructor. After proving himself capable, he was given exclusive use of a brand-new model, a privilege accorded him because he was, after all, Hitler’s deputy and, depending on perspective, either the second or third most powerful man in the Third Reich. Power had its limits, however: Hess’s first choice of aircraft, a single-engine Me 109, was denied. He kept his new plane at the Augsburg airfield and flew it often. No one questioned—at least not openly—why so senior an official would want to do so, nor why he kept requesting additional modifications to the aircraft that would increase its range, nor why he kept asking his secretary to get him the latest aviation weather forecasts for the British Isles.

He acquired a map of Scotland and mounted it on the wall of his bedroom, so that he could memorize prominent elements of the terrain. He delineated a mountainous zone in red.

Now, on December 21, with the runway cleared of snow, Hess took off.

Three hours later, he was back. At some point during the flight, his emergency flare pistol had become entangled in the cables that controlled the plane’s vertical stabilizers, the two upright fins at the rear of the fuselage, causing them to jam. That he was able to land at all, and in such snowy conditions, was a testament to his skill as a pilot.


Air raids and the threat of invasion left fertile ground for the propagation of false tales. To combat them, the Ministry of Information operated an Anti-Lies Bureau, for countering German propaganda, and an Anti-Rumors Bureau, for dealing with rumors of local origin. Some were detected by the Postal Censorship bureau, which read people’s mail and listened in on telephone conversations; managers of bookstalls owned by W. H. Smith reported rumors as well. Anyone spreading false stories could be fined or, in egregious cases, imprisoned. The rumors covered a broad range:

—In the Orkney Islands, the Shetlands, Dover, and elsewhere, intercepted letters reported that thousands of bodies had washed ashore after a failed invasion attempt. This rumor was particularly persistent.

—German parachute troops dressed as women were said to have landed in Leicestershire, in the Midlands, and Skegness, on the North Sea coast. This proved not to be true.

—German planes were believed to be dropping poison cobwebs. “This rumor is rapidly dying,” Home Intelligence reported.

—A rumor circulating in Wimbledon held “that the enemy is preparing to use a high explosive bomb of terrifying dimensions which is destined to wipe the suburb off the map.” Wrote one official, “I am seriously informed that it has taken an unhealthy grip on Wimbledonian imagination.” No such bomb existed.

—A particularly gruesome, and common, rumor in circulation during the week before Christmas held “that large numbers of corpses in bombed public shelters are to remain there, the shelters being bricked up to form communal catafalques.” This rumor proved stubborn as well, reincarnated afresh after each new air raid.


The holiday was important for morale. Churchill decided that the RAF would not conduct bombing operations against Germany on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, unless the Luftwaffe attacked England first. Colville found himself saddled with addressing “the vexed question,” raised in the House of Commons, of whether the custom of ringing church bells on Christmas should be suspended, owing to the fact that church bells were the designated warning that invasion was underway. At first Churchill recommended that the bells be rung. He changed his mind after talking with his Home Forces commander, General Brooke.

Colville by then had prepared what he considered to be a strong argument for ringing the bells, but now he backed off, noting in his diary that “the thought of the responsibility that would be mine if any disaster occurred on Christmas Day made me pause.”

Colville and his fellow private secretaries, having worked a succession of two
nights, hoped to have a week off for the holiday. Principal secretary Eric Seal crafted a delicately phrased minute asking permission. The request “incensed” Churchill, according to Colville.

Scrooge-like, Churchill scrawled “No” on the document itself. He told Seal that his own plan for the holiday, which fell on a Wednesday, was to spend it either at Chequers or in London, working “continuously.” He hoped, he wrote, “that the recess may be used not only for overtaking arrears, but for tackling new problems in greater detail.”

He did, however, concede that each member of his staff could have one week off between then and March 31, provided the weeks were “well spread.”

On Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, he signed copies of his own books to distribute as gifts to Colville and the other secretaries. He also sent Christmas presents to the king and queen.
He gave the king a siren suit like his own, the queen a copy of Henry Watson Fowler’s famous 1926 guide to the English language,
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

The private secretaries, meanwhile, scrambled to find something that would make a suitable gift for Churchill’s wife. Despite the war and the threat of air raids, London’s commercial streets were crowded, even though stores were meagerly stocked. Wrote American observer General Lee in his diary, “
There may not be a great deal in the shops and there may be a great many people out of London, but to try to buy anything today was like swimming against Niagara. The streets were packed with traffic, both foot and motor.”

The secretaries first considered getting flowers for Clementine, but they found that the flower vendors had only sparse inventory, and nothing suitable. “
Apparently,” wrote John Martin in his diary, “those bowls of hyacinths that used to appear at Christmas were Dutch”—and Holland was now firmly under German control. Their thoughts turned next to chocolate. Here, too, the big stores had been mostly denuded, “but in the end we found one that could produce a large box.” It doubtless helped that the intended recipient was the wife of the prime minister.

Churchill left for Chequers, calling out as he made his exit, “
A busy Christmas and a frantic New Year!”

on Christmas Eve, with snow falling and the night skies quiet, that Colville first heard a rumor that his beloved Gay Margesson had become engaged to Nicholas “Nicko” Henderson, who, decades later, would become Britain’s ambassador to America. Colville pretended not to care. “
But it gave me a pang and worries me, even though I am fairly confident Gay will take no sudden leap—she is much too indecisive.”

He could not understand why he persisted in loving Gay, with so little likelihood that she would ever return his affections. “So often I despise her for her weakness of character, unobservancy, selfishness and inclination to moral and mental defeatism. Then I tell myself it is all selfishness on my part, that I find faults in her as a cover for her lack of interest in me, that instead of trying to help her—as I should, if I really loved her—I seek relief for my feelings in bitterness or contempt.”

He added, “I wish I understood the true state of my feelings.”

There was something about Gay that made her different from every other woman he knew. “I sometimes think I should like to marry; but how can I even think of it when the possibility of my marrying Gay, however distant, remains in being? Only time can solve this problem, and patience!”

Beaverbrook discovered that one of his most valued men was still in his office. The man had been working six or seven days a week, arriving in the morning before sunup, leaving well after nightfall, remaining at his desk even after sirens warned of imminent attack. And here it was Christmas Eve.

At length, the man got up and left his office to go to the washroom before departing for the night.

When the man returned, there was a small package on his desk. He opened it, and found a necklace.

There was also a note from Beaverbrook: “
I know what your wife must be feeling. Please give her this with my regards. It belonged to
wife.” He’d signed it “B.”

was a Christmas of unexpected and unparalleled joy. The entire family—even Nelson, the cat—gathered at Chequers, most arriving on Christmas Eve. Sarah Churchill’s husband, Vic Oliver, whom Churchill disliked, also came. For once there were no official visitors. The house was warmed by holiday decorations: “
The great gloomy hall glowed with the lighted, decorated tree,” Mary wrote in her diary. Fires burned from every grate. Soldiers patrolled the grounds with rifles and bayonets, breathing steam into the cold night air, and aircraft spotters stood freezing on the roof, but otherwise the war had gone quiet, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day devoid of air or sea battles.

On Christmas morning Churchill had breakfast in bed, with Nelson lounging on the bedclothes, as he worked through the papers in his regular black box and in his yellow box of secrets, dictating replies and comments to a typist. “The Prime Minister has made a great point of working as usual over the holiday,” wrote John Martin, the private secretary on duty at Chequers that weekend, “and yesterday morning was like almost any other here, with the usual letters and telephone calls and of course many Christmas greeting messages thrown in.” Churchill gave him a signed copy of his own
Great Contemporaries,
a collection of essays about two dozen famous men, including Hitler, Leon Trotsky, and Franklin Roosevelt, this last entitled “Roosevelt from Afar.”

“From lunchtime on less work was done and we had a festive family Christmas,” wrote Martin, who was treated as if he were a member of the family. Lunch centered on a ration-times luxury, an immense turkey—“the largest turkey I have ever seen,” Martin wrote—sent from the farm of Churchill’s late friend Harold Harmsworth. The newspaper magnate had died a month before and among his last wishes had directed the bird’s final disposition. Lloyd George sent apples picked from the orchards at his estate, Bron-y-de, in Surrey, where in addition to growing Bramleys and Cox’s Orange Pippins he cultivated his long-standing love affair with his personal secretary, Frances Stevenson.

The family listened to the king’s “Royal Christmas Message,” an annual custom, broadcast over the radio since 1932. The king spoke slowly, clearly fighting the speech impediment that long had harried him—for example, a strangled start to the word “unstinted,” followed by its perfect execution—but this added to the gravity of his message. “In the last great war the flower of our youth was destroyed,” he said, “and the rest of the people saw but little of the battle. This time we are all in the front lines and in danger together.” He predicted victory, and invited his audience to look forward to a time “when Christmas days are happy again.”

And now the fun began. Vic Oliver sat down at the piano; Sarah sang. A cheery dinner followed, and after this came more music. Champagne and wine put Churchill in a buoyant mood. “
For once the shorthand writer was dismissed,” wrote John Martin, “and we had a sort of sing-song until after midnight. The PM sang lustily, if not always in tune, and when Vic played Viennese waltzes he danced a remarkably frisky measure of his own in the middle of the room.”

All the while, Churchill held forth, expounding on this and that until two in the morning.

This was one of the happiest Christmases I can remember,” Mary wrote in her diary late that night, in the Prison Room. “Despite all the terrible events going on around us. It was not happy in a
way. But I’ve never before seen the family look so happy—so united—so sweet. We were complete, Randolph and Vic having arrived this morning. I have never felt the ‘Christmas feeling’ so strongly. Everyone was kind—lovely—gay. I wonder if we will all be together next Christmas. I pray we may. I pray also next year it may be happier for more people.”

The unofficial Christmas truce held. “
Heilige Nacht
in truth
stille Nacht,
” John Martin wrote—holy night, silent night—calling this “a relief and rather touching.”

In Germany and England, no bombs fell, and families everywhere were reminded of how things once had been, except for the fact that no church bells rang and a great many Christmas tables had empty chairs.

of the Ministry of Information, spent Christmas Day alone, his wife safely lodged at their country home. “
The gloomiest Christmas Day that I have yet spent,” he wrote in his diary. “I get up early and have little work to do.” He read various memoranda and had lunch by himself, during which he read a book,
The War Speeches of William Pitt the Younger,
published in 1915. Later he met his friend and sometime lover, Raymond Mortimer, at the Ritz Bar, after which the two dined at Prunier, the famed French restaurant. At day’s end Nicolson attended a ministry party, which included the showing of a movie. He returned to his Bloomsbury flat through a landscape made desolate by previous bombs and fires and melting snow, the night extraordinarily dark because of the blackout and the absence of moonlight, a new moon due in three days.

“Poor old London is beginning to look very drab,” he wrote. “Paris is so young and gay that she could stand a little battering. But London is a char-woman among capitals, and when her teeth begin to fall out she looks ill indeed.”

And yet, in places the city still managed to raise a good deal of Christmas cheer. As one diarist noted, “
The pubs were all full of happy, drunken people singing ‘Tipperary’ and the latest Army song which goes ‘Cheer up my lads, fuck ’em all.’ ”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
2.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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