Authors: Erik Larson
ECEMBER 27, 1940,
the Admiralty conducted its first full-scale test of the Prof’s aerial mines, a new iteration that involved small bombs carried aloft by balloons. The balloons—nine hundred of them—were readied for launch as German planes approached. Officials gave the signal for their release.
No balloons rose.
The release team did not receive the message to launch for half an hour.
What followed was no more encouraging. “About a third of the nine-hundred-odd balloons inflated proved defective,” wrote Basil Collier, the air-war historian; “others exploded early in their flight or descended prematurely in unexpected places.”
No bombers appeared; the test was suspended two hours later.
Still Churchill and the Prof were not deterred. They insisted that the mines were not merely viable but crucial to air defense. Churchill ordered more mines produced, more trials conducted. By now, presumably with no intent at humor, the mines program had been assigned the official code name “Egglayer.”
Work proceeded, as well, on improving the RAF’s ability to locate the Luftwaffe’s beams and jam or mask them, but German engineers kept devising new variants and transmission patterns and building more transmitters. German pilots, meanwhile, were growing uneasy about the possibility that the RAF might use the same beams to locate their bombers and set up an aerial ambush.
They gave the RAF too much credit. Despite refinements of air-to-air radar and tactics, Fighter Command was still effectively blind after dark.
N THE NIGHT OF
December 29, Roosevelt pressed his case for aid to Britain in a “Fireside Chat,” the sixteenth of his presidency. With his reelection achieved, he now felt able to speak more freely about the war than thus far had been the case. He used the word “Nazi” for the first time and described America as the “arsenal of democracy,” a phrase suggested by Harry Hopkins.
“No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it,” Roosevelt said. “There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness.” If Britain were to be defeated, the “unholy alliance” of Germany, Italy, and Japan—the Axis—would prevail, and “all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun”— “a Nazi gun,” he specified later in the speech.
Hopkins had also urged him to leaven his talk with something optimistic. Roosevelt settled on this: “
I believe that the Axis powers are not going to win this war. I base that belief on the latest and best information.”
As it happened, that “latest and best information” was merely his own instinct that his lend-lease plan not only would pass in Congress but also would change the balance of the war in Britain’s favor. Speechwriter Robert Sherwood called it Roosevelt’s “own, private confidence that Lend Lease would go through and his certainty that this measure would make Axis victory impossible.”
Millions of Americans heard the broadcast, and so did millions of Britons—at three-thirty in the morning. In London, however, there was a good deal of distraction. That night, possibly in hopes of blunting the power of Roosevelt’s planned Fireside Chat, the Luftwaffe launched one of its biggest raids thus far. The raid targeted London’s financial district, known as the City. Whether the intent truly was to counter Roosevelt’s broadcast is unclear, but other elements of its timing were deliberate. The bombers came on a Sunday night, during Christmas week, when all City offices, shops, and pubs would be closed, thus ensuring that few people would be around to spot and extinguish falling incendiaries. The Thames was at low tide, thereby limiting the supply of water to fight fires. It was also a night with no moon—the astronomical new moon had occurred the night before—all but guaranteeing little or no resistance from the RAF. The Luftwaffe’s fire-starter group, KGr 100, guided precisely by radio beacons, dropped incendiaries to light the target, and high-explosive bombs to destroy water mains and expose more fuel to the resulting fires. A brisk wind intensified the conflagration, producing what became known as “the Second Great Fire of London,” the first having occurred in 1666.
The raid caused fifteen hundred fires and destroyed 90 percent of the City. Two dozen incendiaries landed on St. Paul’s Cathedral. With its dome at first obscured by smoke from the surrounding fires, the cathedral was feared lost. It survived with relatively little damage. The raid was otherwise so effective that RAF planners adopted the same tactics for future fire raids against German cities.
writing in his diary, gloated over the attack, but first he addressed Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat. “
Roosevelt,” he wrote, “makes a scurrilous speech aimed against us, in which he slanders the Reich and the Movement in the most boorish fashion and calls for the most extensive support for England, in whose victory he firmly believes. A model of democratic distortion. The
still has to decide what to do about it. I would be in favor of a really tough campaign, of finally pulling no punches towards the USA. We are not getting far at present. One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”
With evident satisfaction, he turned next to the Luftwaffe and its recent successes. “London trembles under our blows,” he wrote. The American press, he contended, was stunned and impressed. “If only we could keep up bombing on this scale for four weeks running,” he wrote. “Then things would look different. Apart from this, there are heavy shipping losses, successful attacks on convoys, and so on. London has nothing to smile about at the moment, that is for sure.”
N THAT SCORE,
begged to differ. The timing of the “Great Fire” raid, in terms of sparking American sympathy, was perfect, as Alexander Cadogan observed in his diary: “
This may help us enormously in America at a most critical moment. Thank God—for all their cunning and industry and efficiency—the Germans are fools.”
Death and damage aside, Churchill was thrilled with Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat. On New Year’s Eve he met with Beaverbrook and his new foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to craft a response. Churchill’s senior-most finance minister, Kingsley Wood, chancellor of the exchequer, was also present.
The cable began, “We are deeply grateful for all you said yesterday.”
But Churchill, as much as any man alive, understood that at this point Roosevelt’s speech was just a collection of well-chosen words. It raised many questions. “
Remember, Mr. President,” he dictated, “we do not know what you have in mind, or exactly what the United States is going to do, and we are fighting for our lives.”
He warned of the financial pressures bearing down on England, with many supplies on order as yet unpaid for. “What would be the effect upon the world situation if we had to default in payments to your contractors, who have their workmen to pay? Would not this be exploited by the enemy as a complete breakdown in Anglo-American co-operation? Yet, a few weeks’ delay might well bring this upon us.”
N THE BACK OF
her diary, on blank pages allocated for notes and addenda to earlier entries, Mary quoted books, songs, and her father’s speeches, and wrote out snippets of doggerel. She kept a list of the dozens of books she had read in 1940, which included Hemingway’s
A Farewell to Arms,
The Old Curiosity Shop,
which she started but did not finish. “Just couldn’t take that ruddy little Nell & her old grandpop,” she wrote. She also read Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World,
noting, “I thought it sounded bloody.”
She wrote out the lyrics of a song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the lovers’ anthem of the day, recorded most recently—on December 20, 1940—by the American singer Bing Crosby. One portion, as Mary remembered it:
The moon was shining up above,
Poor puzzled moon he wore a frown!
How could he know we were so in love
That the whole darned world seemed upside down?
worked a full day, then drove to his country home on the Bogensee, a lake north of the city, through “a savage snowstorm.” The snow, the snugness of the house—despite its seventy rooms—and the fact it was New Year’s Eve (in Germany,
) put him in a reflective mood.
Sometimes I hate the big city,” he wrote in his diary that night. “How beautiful and cozy it is out here.
“Sometimes I would like to never have to go back.
“The children are waiting for us at the door with hurricane lanterns.
“The snowstorm rages outside.
“All the better to chat by the fireside.
“It troubles my conscience that we have things so good out here.”
in London, John Colville handed a glass of champagne to his fellow private secretary John Martin, this after both had consumed multiple brandies served by Pug Ismay. They climbed to the roof, the night black and nearly moonless, and toasted the New Year.
S OF MIDNIGHT,
over London alone in 1940 had killed 13,596 citizens, and caused serious injury to another 18,378. And more was yet to come, including the single worst raid of all.
HE FIRST SIX DAYS OF
January were cold in a way that was atypical for the British Isles. At West Linton, near Edinburgh, Scotland, temperatures stayed below freezing from January first through the sixth. Temperatures tumbled to six degrees below zero Fahrenheit in the English hamlet of Houghall. Snow fell at intervals throughout the month, with accumulations of fifteen inches in Birmingham and drifts near Liverpool up to ten feet deep. Powerful gales scoured the countryside, bringing winds that gusted to over seventy miles an hour; one gust tore through the port of Holyhead, Wales, at eighty-two.
In London, the wind and cold made for icy streets, and produced miserable conditions for the many Londoners whose homes had been perforated by shrapnel and lacked heat and window glass. Even Claridge’s was uncomfortable, its heating system unable to cope with such depths of cold. One guest, General Lee, the American military attaché, reported on January 4 that his rooms “are like an icebox,” though a coal fire eventually provided warmth.
Snow fell on the night of January 6, obscuring for a time the jagged remains of obliterated homes, and turning London beautiful. “
What a nice wintry morning this was!” General Lee wrote in his journal the next day. “When I arose and looked out of my window, which is up pretty high, I could see all the streets and roofs covered with clean white snow.” The view over London evoked for him a Christmas card depicting a snow-covered city in Central Europe, “with its chimney pots and angles picked out in black against the white snow coverlet and the gray sky above.”
EAVERBROOK RESIGNED AGAIN, ONE
of a number of vexations that inaugurated the New Year for Churchill. This resignation came after he asked Beaverbrook to take on an additional job that he deemed crucial to Britain’s survival.
One of Churchill’s top priorities was to increase imports of food, steel, and myriad other civilian and material supplies, whose delivery, owing to Germany’s intensified U-boat attacks, was more endangered than ever. To better direct, coordinate, and increase the flow of materials, Churchill established an “Import Executive,” and decided the best man to run it was Beaverbrook, who had so radically increased the production of fighters for the RAF. On January 2, he offered Beaverbrook the chairmanship with the idea that Beaverbrook would continue as minister of aircraft production but would expand his portfolio to oversee the government’s three supply ministries. His hope was that here, too, Beaverbrook would serve as a catalytic force, to prod them into producing a greater flow of goods and materials. The post would give Beaverbrook greater power, which he had long claimed to want, but it would also put him in the position of being, essentially, a committee chairman, and Beaverbrook, as Churchill well knew, loathed committees.
Sensing that Beaverbrook might resist the idea, Churchill imbued his pitch with flattery and an uncharacteristic woe-is-me needfulness.
Nothing can exceed the importance of the tasks you are about to assume,” Churchill began, in the apparent presumption that Beaverbrook would of course take the job. “I want to point out to you that I am placing my entire confidence and to a large extent the life of the State, upon your shoulders.”
If Beaverbrook chose not to take the job, Churchill wrote, he himself would have to do it. “This would not be the best arrangement, as it is bound to distract my thought from the military side of our affairs,” he wrote. “I mention this to you because I know how earnestly you wish to help me, and there is no way in which you can help me so much as in making a happy solution of our Import, Shipping and Transport problems.”
Beaverbrook was unmoved. Professing deep regret, he rejected the chairmanship and made it clear that his resignation also applied to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. “
I am not a committee man,” he wrote on January 3. “I am the cat that walks alone.”
He offered his own sad-sack closing: “This letter does not need any answer. I will find my own way about.”
Churchill took Beaverbrook’s resignation as a slight against both himself and England. For Beaverbrook to leave now would be a betrayal. His energy and rapacious ingenuity had driven aircraft production to levels that seemed nearly miraculous, and were crucial in helping the country to withstand Germany’s aerial onslaught and Churchill to maintain his own confidence in ultimate victory. Moreover, Churchill needed him personally: his knowledge of political undercurrents, his counsel, and just generally his presence, which enlivened the day.
My dear Max,” Churchill dictated on January 3. “I am very sorry to receive your letter. Your resignation would be quite unjustified and would be regarded as desertion. It would in one day destroy all the reputation that you have gained and turn the gratitude and goodwill of millions of people to anger. It is a step you would regret all your life.”
Again Churchill struck a note of self-pity: “No Minister has ever received the support which I have given you, and you know well the burden which will be added to my others by your refusal to undertake the great commission with which I sought to entrust you.”
He awaited Beaverbrook’s reply.
HURCHILL HAD FURTHER CAUSE
for annoyance. He had learned of two lapses in secrecy, and these troubled him. In one case, an American correspondent telegraphed secret information about the Vichy government to her newspaper, the
Chicago Daily News
. What made this especially galling for Churchill was that the reporter, Helen Kirkpatrick, had gleaned the information from a conversation during one of his own dinner parties at Ditchley, his full-moon retreat, where the unwritten law against divulging country house confidences held sway. The secret—that the Vichy government would not provide direct military assistance to Germany—was divulged over dinner by a French pianist, Ève Curie, daughter of the famous physicist.
Mademoiselle Curie, who is a woman of distinction, should have had the good sense not to gossip about it at a country house party,” Churchill wrote to Anthony Eden, now his foreign secretary. “Miss Helen Kirkpatrick has betrayed the confidence for journalistic profit. Both these women should be questioned by MI5 at the earliest moment, and their explanations obtained.” He told Eden that Kirkpatrick should be ejected from the country immediately. “It is very undesirable to have a person of this kind scouting about private houses for copy regardless of British interests.”
This, and a second incident involving the publication of secret aircraft details in an American aviation magazine, prompted Churchill to send a directive to Pug Ismay, as well as others, on the subject of secrecy in general. “
With the beginning of the New Year, a new intense drive must be made to secure greater secrecy in all matters relating to the conduct of the war,” he wrote. He ordered tighter limits on the circulation of secret materials and on what kind of information was made available to reporters. “We are having trouble through the activities of foreign correspondents of both sexes,” he wrote. “It must be remembered that everything said to America is instantly communicated to Germany and that we have no redress.”
Churchill’s ire about secrecy caused John Colville anxiety about his own diary, which, filled as it was with operational secrets and insights into Churchill’s behavior, would have been a prize for any German agent who happened across it. Colville well understood that the act of keeping so precise a record was very likely illegal. “
The P.M. has circulated a minute about preserving the secrecy of documents which suddenly makes me feel rather conscience-stricken about this diary,” he wrote in it on New Year’s Day. “I haven’t the heart to destroy it and shall compromise by keeping it locked up here, even more strictly than hitherto.”
As that first day of 1941 began to wane, Churchill invited Colville on a tour of the construction underway to bombproof the ceiling of the Cabinet War Rooms. So anxious was Churchill to get up among the girders and falsework that he decided to set off with only the flashlight in the top of his walking stick to guide them and, Colville wrote, promptly “
sank up to his ankles in thick liquid cement.”
OST ANNOYING OF ALL,
apart from falling bombs and torpedoed ships, was a preliminary report Churchill received from Mr. Justice Singleton on his inquiry into the comparative strengths of the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Churchill had hoped it would resolve the issue and end the bickering and sniping among the various parties involved.
It did not.
Singleton wrote that in the course of his investigation he had spent five days hearing evidence about numbers of fighters, bombers, aircraft “wastage,” reserves, and planes used as trainers. The document he submitted on that Friday, January 3, was merely an interim report—interim because he, too, was flummoxed. “
At one time,” he wrote in his opening paragraph, “I hoped that some measure of agreement might be reached but it now seems unlikely that there will be agreement on the main factors.”
He accepted the Prof’s reasoning, put forth the previous spring, that the German experience of aerial warfare—losses, reserves, rates of new production—could not be all that different from the British experience, and that therefore it was crucial first to know exactly what the British experience was. But precise numbers were elusive. Even after his painstaking analysis, more than three thousand RAF planes remained unaccounted for. Singleton was unable to provide an accurate portrait of the British air force, let alone the German; nor was he able to bring into agreement the figures put forth by various ministries. “I feel it will be extraordinarily difficult to arrive at any figure of German strength,” he wrote. “I can say no more at this stage than that I do not think it is as high as claimed by Air Staff (Intelligence).”
Churchill found this deeply unsatisfying and exasperating, especially the failure of the Air Ministry to keep accurate records of its own aircraft. Singleton continued his investigation, as yet more conflicting numbers came into his possession.
EAVERBROOK STOOD FAST.
With a schoolboy’s petulance, he told Churchill on Monday, January 6, that he had never wanted to be a minister in the first place. “
I did not want to join the Government,” he wrote. “The place in the Cabinet was undesired and was, indeed, resisted by me.” He reiterated his rejection of the new chairmanship and his resignation as minister of aircraft production. “It is because my usefulness has come to an end. I have done my job.” The ministry, he wrote, “is better off without me.” He thanked Churchill for his support and friendship and closed the letter with a metaphoric hanky in hand. “On personal grounds,” he wrote, “I hope you will permit me to see you sometimes and to talk with you occasionally on the old terms.”
This was too much. “
I have not the slightest intention of letting you go,” Churchill wrote in reply. “I sh’d feel myself struck a most cruel blow if you were to persist in so morbid & unworthy an intention.” In places, Churchill’s letter read more like the missive of a forsaken lover than a prime ministerial communication. “You have no right in the height of a war like this to put yr burdens on me,” he wrote. “…No one knows better than you how much I depend on you for counsel & comfort. I cannot believe that you will do such a thing.” He suggested that
Beaverbrook’s health required it, he should take a few weeks to recuperate. “But abandon the ship now—never!”
At midnight, Churchill again wrote to Beaverbrook, this time in longhand and summoning the judgment of history: “
You must not forget in the face of petty vexations the vast scale of events and the brightly-lighted stage of history upon which we stand.” He closed by quoting a remark that Georges Danton, a leader of the French Revolution, made to himself just before being guillotined in 1794: “ ‘Danton no weakness.’ ”
This skirmish with Beaverbrook was mostly stage combat. Having been friends for so long, they knew well how to jolt each other’s composure, and when to stop. This was one reason Churchill liked having Beaverbrook in his government and found such value in his near-daily presence. Beaverbrook was never predictable. Exasperating, yes, but always a source of energy and cold-eyed clarity, with a mind like an electric storm. Both men took a certain delight in dictating letters to each other. To both it was like acting—Churchill strutting about in his gold-dragon nightclothes and jabbing the air with a dead cigar, savoring the sound and feel of words; Beaverbrook like a knife thrower at a carnival, hurling whatever cutlery came to hand. The physical character of the resulting letters revealed the men’s contrapuntal natures. Where Churchill’s paragraphs were long and precisely worded, full of complex grammatical structures and historical allusions (in one note to Beaverbrook he used the word “ichthyosaurus”), each of Beaverbrook’s paragraphs was a single, brief knife thrust serrated with short, crisp words, not so much savored as sputtered.
The truth is that they both enjoyed it, and of course neither found the writing, or usually the dictating, of letters laborious,” wrote A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook’s biographer. “Beaverbrook liked parading his troubles and liked still more winding up with a display of emotional attachment which for the moment, while he was dictating the letter, he really felt.”
HAT FIRST WEEK OF 1941
ended on a more positive note, with Churchill, at two
on Tuesday, January 7, climbing into bed in good spirits. More good news had come from Libya, where British forces were continuing to batter the Italian army. And Roosevelt, on Monday evening—early Tuesday in England—gave his State of the Union Address, in which he presented his lend-lease plan to Congress, declaring that “the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” He described a world to come that would be founded upon “four essential human freedoms”: speech, worship, and freedom from want and fear.