The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (39 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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Hopkins let his second pause linger.

“You see,” he drawled, “we’re only interested in seeing that that Goddam sonofabitch Hitler gets licked.”

Loud laughter amplified by relief convulsed the table.

but resolutely directed Churchill and the rest of the group toward the Ditchley home cinema, for a movie—a film released the prior year called
Brigham Young,
in which Dean Jagger played the Mormon leader, and Tyrone Power one of his followers. (The film’s premiere in Salt Lake City had caused a sensation, drawing 215,000 people at a time when the city’s population totaled 150,000.) Next came German newsreels, including one that featured the March 18, 1940, meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at the Brenner Pass, in the Alps between Austria and Italy, “
which with all its salutes and its absurdity,” Colville wrote, “was funnier than anything Charlie Chaplin produced in
The Great Dictator

Churchill and his guests retired at two

during an intense German air raid, a bomb struck the Bank Underground station, killing fifty-six of the people sheltering within, throwing some in front of an approaching train. The dead ranged in age from fourteen to sixty-five and included a police officer named Beagles, a sixty-year-old Russian national named Fanny Ziff, and a sixteen-year-old with the grimly apt name of Harry Roast.

South of the Thames, the air was infused with the scent of incinerated coffee, as one hundred tons of it burned in a warehouse in Bermondsey.

This was the added cruelty of air raids. In addition to killing and maiming, they destroyed the commodities that kept England alive, and that already were tightly rationed. In the week that ended Sunday, January 12, bombs and fire destroyed 25,000 tons of sugar, 730 tons of cheese, 540 tons of tea, 288 tons of bacon and ham, and, perhaps most barbaric of all, an estimated 970 tons of jams and marmalade.

Churchill kept Hopkins up even later, until four-thirty
. Hopkins wrote about the night in a letter to Roosevelt, which he composed on demure squares of Claridge’s stationery. The letter’s contents would have delighted the prime minister. “
The people here are amazing from Churchill down,” Hopkins told Roosevelt, “and if courage alone can win—the result will be inevitable. But they need our help desperately and I’m sure you will permit nothing to stand in the way.” Churchill, he wrote, held sway over the entire British government and understood every aspect of the war. “I cannot emphasize too strongly that he is the one and only person over here with whom you need to have a full meeting of minds.”

Hopkins emphasized the urgency of the moment. “This island needs our help now, Mr. President, with everything we can give them.”

In a second note, Hopkins emphasized the sense of impending threat that pervaded Churchill’s government. “The most important single observation I have to make is that most of the Cabinet and all of the military leaders here believe that invasion is imminent.” They expect it before May 1, he wrote, and “believe it will certainly be an all-out attack, including the use of poison gas and perhaps some other new weapons that Germany may have developed.” He pressed Roosevelt to act soon. “I…cannot urge too strongly that any action you may take to meet the immediate needs here must be based on the assumption that invasion will come before May 1.”

That Churchill saw poison gas as a grave and real threat was evident in his insistence that Hopkins be issued a gas mask and a helmet, his “tin hat.” Hopkins wore neither. From a sartorial perspective, this was prudent: He and his immense overcoat already resembled something an American farmer might stick in a field to scare away birds.

Hopkins told Roosevelt, “The best I can say for the hat is that it looks worse than my own and doesn’t fit—the gas mask I can’t get on—so I am all right.”

Upon finishing this note Tuesday morning, Hopkins set out through the icy cold to meet Churchill, Clementine, Pug Ismay, American observer Lee, and Lord and Lady Halifax, for a journey to the far north, to the British naval base at Scapa Flow, off the northern tip of Scotland. There, the Halifaxes and General Lee were to board a battleship bound for America.

The journey to Scapa was itself part of Churchill’s effort to win Hopkins to Britain’s cause. Ever since his arrival, Hopkins had become Churchill’s near-constant companion, a broken shadow in an oversized coat. Hopkins realized later that in his first two weeks in England, he had spent a dozen evenings with the prime minister. Churchill “scarcely let him out of his sight,” wrote Pug Ismay.

Still not wholly versed in the geographic idiosyncrasies of London, Hopkins made his way toward what he
was King’s Cross station, where Churchill’s train would be waiting. He had been warned to refer to the train only as the “eleven-thirty special,” to keep Churchill’s presence a secret.

The train was indeed waiting at King’s Cross. Hopkins was not. He had gone to Charing Cross instead.

To Scapa Flow

morning, January 14, in his bombproofed bedroom at the No. 10 Annexe, he looked and sounded terrible. His cold—apparently the one he’d contracted in December—had deepened into a bronchitis he could not shake. (Mary was back at Chequers, where on Monday night her own cold had driven her to bed exhausted and coughing.) Clementine was concerned about her husband, especially in light of his plans to set out that morning for Scapa Flow to bid goodbye to Halifax and his wife, Dorothy. She summoned Sir Charles Wilson, Churchill’s doctor, who had last visited him the previous May, just after Churchill became prime minister.

At the main door to the Annexe, a member of Churchill’s staff greeted Wilson and told him that Clementine wanted to see him immediately, before he saw Churchill.

She told the doctor that Churchill was going to Scapa Flow.

When?” Wilson asked.

“Today at noon,” she said. “There is a blizzard there, and Winston has a heavy cold. You must stop him.”

The doctor found Churchill still in bed and advised him not to make the trip. “He became very red in the face,” Wilson recalled.

Churchill threw off his bedclothes. “What damned nonsense!” he said. “Of course I am going.”

Wilson reported this to Clementine, who was not pleased. “Well,” she snapped, “if you cannot stop him, the least you can do is to go with him.”

Wilson consented, and Churchill agreed to bring him along.

Not expecting this denouement from a simple house call, Wilson of course had not packed a bag. Churchill loaned him a heavy coat with an astrakhan collar. “He said it would keep out the wind,” Wilson recalled.

Wilson understood that the stated purpose of the trip was to see off the new ambassador, but he suspected another motive: that Churchill really just wanted to see the ships at Scapa Flow.

the members of Churchill’s party found a long line of Pullman cars, which suggested that the group would be a large one. His “special train” typically consisted of a coach for his use, containing a bedroom, bath, and lounge, and an office; a dining car with two sections, one for Churchill and his designated guests, the other for staff; and a sleeping car with a dozen first-class compartments, each allocated for a particular guest. The staff members had less luxurious accommodations. Churchill’s butler, Sawyers, was invariably aboard, as were police detectives, including Inspector Thompson. Churchill kept in constant touch with his office in London through whatever private secretary happened to be on duty at 10 Downing Street—in this case, John Colville.
The train carried a scrambling telephone that would be connected to phone lines at a station or siding. All the secretary on the train had to do was tell the operator the number, Rapid Falls 4466, and the call would automatically be directed to the prime minister’s office.

The secrecy afforded the eleven-thirty special proved to be of little value. As the passengers arrived, many easily recognizable from press photographs and newsreels, a crowd gathered. A number of ministers, including Beaverbrook and Eden, had come as well, to say goodbye—Beaverbrook’s presence unwelcome, at least to Lady Halifax, who believed he had engineered her husband’s appointment as ambassador. Neither she nor Halifax wanted to leave London. “
We both felt Beaverbrook had suggested it and I had no trust in him of any sort,” Lady Halifax wrote later. “In the end we had to go and I don’t think that I have ever been more miserable.”

General Lee watched the luminaries arrive. “
Lord and Lady Halifax, he so tall and she so small, came down the platform and endured their farewells and then the PM with his round fat face, snub nose and twinkling eyes in a semi-nautical attire of double-breasted blue coat and peaked cap, with Mrs. Churchill, tall and smart-looking.” Pug Ismay walked with them. Churchill, despite being obviously ill with a cold, “was in high good humor,” Lee wrote. The crowd outside cheered.

When Ismay stepped onto the train, he was surprised to see that Churchill’s doctor, Sir Charles Wilson, was already aboard. “
He looked miserable,” Ismay wrote, “and I asked him why he was there.”

Wilson told him about his morning encounter with the Churchills.

“So here I am,” Wilson said, “without even a toothbrush.”

At the last minute, Hopkins came rushing along the platform, his great overcoat flapping. There was no danger that the train would leave without him, however. Churchill would have held it for his American talisman no matter how much time was lost.

that evening, General Lee found himself seated next to Lord Halifax, opposite Clementine and the Canadian minister of munitions. “
We really had a pleasant time,” Lee wrote. “Mrs. Churchill is a tall and handsome woman and had a fine scarlet cloak which started me off in high good humor.” At one point Halifax asked, in all seriousness, why the White House was called the White House, which prompted Clementine to joke that this was something Halifax indeed ought to know before he got to America.

Now General Lee weighed in, and described how the original presidential mansion had been burned by the British in the War of 1812. “Lord Halifax looked shocked and puzzled,” Lee wrote later, “and I got the distinct idea that he did not know the War of 1812 had ever happened.”

Churchill dined with Lady Halifax, Ismay, and, of course, Hopkins. Churchill was the only member of the party to wear a dinner jacket, a contrast to Hopkins, who looked as unkempt as ever. After dinner, Churchill and the others moved into the lounge.

Despite his bronchitis, Churchill stayed up until two
“He was enjoying himself and with his vast knowledge of history, his power of expression and his huge energy, putting up a show for Hopkins,” General Lee wrote. “Hopkins is really the first representative of the president he has had a fair go at. I’m sure he never confided in or even cared for [Joseph] Kennedy.”

When Churchill and the others arose the next morning, they found that a derailment somewhere up ahead had forced their train to a halt a dozen miles shy of their final stop at Thurso, where they were to proceed by ship to the waters of Scapa Flow. Outside was a frozen landscape—a “deserted heath,” wrote John Martin, the private secretary assigned to the trip, “the ground white with snow and a blizzard howling at the windows.” Britain’s Meteorological Office reported snowdrifts in the area up to fifteen feet deep. The wind keened among the cars, blowing snowy spindrift horizontally across the plain. For Hopkins, this was a landscape of despair, capping a week in which he had felt only cold.

Churchill, however—though hoarse and obviously ill—“
came beaming into the breakfast car, where he consumed a large glass of brandy,” Charles Peake, Halifax’s personal assistant, wrote in his diary. The prime minister was eager to get out on the water, despite a susceptibility to seasickness. At one point he declared, “I’ll go and get my Mothersills,” a reference to a popular drug favored by queasy travelers.

He began discoursing on the wonders of an experimental anti-aircraft weapon that launched multiple small rockets at a time. An early iteration was already in place at Chequers for defense against low-flying aircraft, but now the navy was seeking to adapt the weapon to protect its ships. While at Scapa Flow, Churchill planned to test-fire a prototype, and the prospect delighted him—until a senior Admiralty official traveling with the group interjected that each firing cost about
100 (roughly $6,400 today).

As Peake watched, “
The smile faded from the PM’s lips and the corners of his mouth turned down like a baby.”

“What, not fire it?” Churchill asked.

Clementine cut in: “Yes, darling, you may fire it just once.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Churchill said, “I’ll fire it just once. Only once. That couldn’t be bad.”

Wrote Peake, “Nobody had the heart to say that it would be bad, and he was soon beaming again.”

As they all would discover the next day, it would indeed be bad.

“Whither Thou Goest”

Thurso, the weather awful, and Churchill so ill, debate arose as to whether to proceed or not. Clementine worried about her husband's bronchitis, and so did his doctor. “
There was much discussion as to what we should do,” wrote secretary Martin, “for the sea was stormy and my master had a bad cold.”

Churchill broke the impasse. He put on his hat and coat, exited the train, and marched to a car that had drawn up near the tracks. He planted himself firmly in the back seat and vowed that he was going to Scapa Flow, no matter what.

The rest of the party followed, climbing into other cars, and the procession set off over snow-scoured roads for a little harbor called Scrabster, there to board a small vessel that would then take them to larger ships waiting farther out. “
The land is bleak, forbidding,” General Lee recalled. “The only living things were herds of bundles resembling sheep and I reflected that these animals had to grow Harris tweed or freeze to death.” While some in the party boarded a pair of minesweepers, Churchill, Clementine, Hopkins, Ismay, and Halifax transferred to a destroyer, HMS
The ship moved through a tormented seascape of opaque snow squalls intermixed with brilliant sun, the sea a striking cobalt against the gleam of the snow-covered shore.

For Churchill, bronchitis aside, this was pure delight—enhanced, no doubt, by the drama of entering Scapa Flow through a succession of anti-submarine nets, which had to be pulled open by guard ships and swiftly closed again, lest a U-boat sneak in behind. (Early in the war, on October 14, 1939, a U-boat had torpedoed the battleship HMS
Royal Oak
in Scapa Flow, killing 834 of its 1,234 crew, prompting the navy to install a series of protective causeways dubbed “Churchill Barriers.”) As the
and the two minesweepers entered the central waters of Scapa, the sun again emerged, casting diamond light on the moored ships and snowy hills.

Pug Ismay found it breathtaking, and went off in search of Hopkins. “
I wanted Harry to see the might, majesty, dominion and power of the British Empire in that setting and to realize that if anything untoward happened to these ships, the whole future of the world might be changed, not only for Britain but ultimately for the United States as well.” Here Ismay was exaggerating a bit, because at this moment there were only a few important ships in the roadstead, the bulk of the fleet having been sent to the Mediterranean or dispatched to protect convoys and hunt German commerce raiders.

Ismay found Hopkins, “disconsolate and shivering,” in a wardroom. The American seemed exhausted. Ismay gave him one of his own sweaters and a pair of boots lined with fur. This cheered Hopkins a bit, but not enough for him to accept Ismay's recommendation that they both take a brisk walk around the ship. “He was too cold to be enthusiastic about the Home Fleet,” Ismay wrote.

Ismay strode off alone, as Hopkins looked for a place to shelter himself from the cold and wind. He found a spot that seemed ideal, and sat down.

A chief petty officer approached him. “
Excuse me, sir,” the officer said, “—but I don't think you should sit just there, sir—that, sir, is a depth charge.”


boarded the ship that would take the Halifaxes and General Lee to America, a new and impressive battleship christened the
King George V.
Even Churchill's choice of this ship for Halifax's voyage had been calculated to help woo Roosevelt. Churchill knew that the president loved ships and shared his own avid interest in naval affairs. Indeed, by now, Roosevelt had amassed a collection of more than four hundred ship models, large and small, many of which would go on display at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, upon its opening in June 1941. “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” Churchill said. He chose the
King George V,
he wrote, “in order to clothe the arrival of our new Ambassador, Lord Halifax, in the United States with every circumstance of importance.”

After lunch aboard the ship, all said their goodbyes. Hopkins handed General Lee his letters to Roosevelt.

Churchill and the stay-behinds climbed down into a small boat that would take them to their destination for the night, an old battleship named
. Churchill was careful, as always, to adhere to naval protocol, which required that the senior officer—in this case, himself—leave the ship last. Swells heaved; the wind scoured the darkling sea. From the
King George V
's deck, Lee watched the little boat depart, “in a shower of spray.” The time was four-fifteen, by Lee's watch, and the northern sunset was fast approaching.

King George V
departed, with General Lee and the Halifaxes aboard. Wrote Lee, “
There was no noise, no music, no guns; up came the anchor and we stood out to sea.”

In the fading light, the little boat with Churchill and Hopkins aboard returned to the
where they and the others spent the night.


January 16, aboard the
Churchill got his chance to fire the new anti-aircraft weapon. Something went awry. “
One of the projectiles got entangled in the rigging,” secretary Martin recalled. “There was a loud explosion and a jam-jar-like object flew towards the bridge, where we were standing. Everyone ducked and there was a great bang, but no serious damage was done.” As Hopkins later told the king, the bomb landed five feet from where he was standing. He was unhurt, and found the incident funny. Churchill, apparently, did not.

At length, Churchill and his party left the
and traveled in the admiral's barge back to the destroyer
which would return them to their train. The weather was worse than it had been the day before, the sea rougher, and this made climbing from the barge to the destroyer's deck a precarious venture. Here naval protocol called for a reversal in the order of boarding, with Churchill first to ascend. The two vessels rose and fell with the swells. Wind ripped the gunwales. As Churchill climbed, he talked the whole while, much at ease. Pug Ismay, on the barge below, heard one of the steps of the ladder crack “ominously” under Churchill's weight, but the prime minister kept going and was soon aboard. Wrote Ismay, “
I was careful to avoid that particular rung when my turn came, but Harry Hopkins was not so lucky.”

Hopkins began to climb, his coat billowing in the wind. The step broke, and he began to fall. Roosevelt's confidant, England's potential savior, was about to plummet onto the boat below or, worse, into the tortured chasm of sea between the barge and the hull, which moved against each other like the jaws of a vise.

Two seamen caught him and held him by his shoulders, dangling above the barge.

Churchill shouted encouragement of sorts: “I shouldn't stay there too long, Harry; when two ships are close together in a rough sea, you are liable to get hurt.”


to London, Churchill's train stopped in Glasgow, where he reviewed legions of civilian volunteers, including fire brigades, police officers, and members of the Red Cross, the Air Raid Precautions service (ARP), and the Women's Voluntary Service, all drawn up in ranks for Churchill's inspection. Whenever he reached a new group, he paused and introduced Hopkins, calling him the personal representative of the president of the United States, which heartened the members of each service but depleted Hopkins's last reserves.

He hid, camouflaging himself among the crowds of spectators who had gathered to see Churchill.

But there was no escape,” Pug Ismay wrote.

Churchill, noting Hopkins's absences, called out each time, “Harry, Harry, where are you?”—forcing Harry to return to his side.

It was here in Glasgow that the most important moment of Hopkins's stay in England would occur, though it was kept secret, for the time being, from the public.

The group gathered at the Station Hotel in Glasgow for a small dinner party with Tom Johnston, a member of Parliament and a prominent journalist, soon to be named secretary of state for Scotland. Churchill's doctor, Wilson, sat beside Hopkins, and was struck anew by how disheveled the man looked. Speeches followed. At length it was Hopkins's turn.

Hopkins stood and, as Ismay recalled it, first made “a tilt or two at the British Constitution in general, and the irrepressible Prime Minister in particular.” Then he turned to face Churchill.

I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return,” he said.

This was an understatement. Churchill was desperate to know how well his courtship of Hopkins was progressing, and what indeed he would tell the president.

“Well,” Hopkins said, “I'm going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books in the truth of which Mr. Johnston's mother and my own Scottish mother were brought up—”

Hopkins dropped his voice to a near whisper and recited a passage from the Bible's Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Then, softly, he added: “Even to the end.”

This was his own addition, and with it a wave of gratitude and relief seemed to engulf the room.

Churchill wept.

He knew what it meant,” his doctor wrote. “Even to us the words seemed like a rope thrown to a drowning man.” Wrote Ismay: “It may have been indiscreet for [Hopkins] to show his partisanship in this way, but it moved us all deeply.”


as Churchill and Hopkins made their way back to London, Colville set out by car for Oxford and lunch with Gay Margesson, camouflaging his romantic interest with the minor deception that it was prime ministerial business that was bringing him to town. London was covered in snow, and more fell as he drove. He feared—or perhaps hoped—that Oxford, by now, would have changed her for the worst, her newly long hair being a symbol of Oxford's effect, but when they talked in her room after lunch he saw that she was just as captivating as always.

I found her charming and not so changed as I had feared,” he wrote, “but I did not make very much headway. We always talk so fluently, but I can never succeed in being anything but ‘the same old Jock' and until I become—or appear to become—different, I shall have no chance of making a new impression on Gay.”

Soon it was time to depart. Snow fell. Gay said goodbye and invited Colville to come visit her again, and there in the snow, as he wrote with evident sorrow, “Gay looked as beautiful as she ever has, her long hair half hidden by a handkerchief and her cheeks flushed by the cold.”

He drove back to London, through snow and ice, pronouncing the journey “a nightmare.”

Upon his return, he decided enough was enough. He composed a letter to Gay confirming “that I was still in love with her and saying that the only solution from my point of view was to cut the Gordian Knot and see her no more. I should leave no serious gap in her life, though I believed she was fond of me, but I could not hang around her as a rejected suitor, haunted by memories of what had been and dreams of what might have been.”

He knew, however, that really this was just a gambit, one deployed by doomed lovers in every age, and that he did not truly intend that the knot remain severed forever. “So perhaps weakly,” he wrote in his diary, after setting the letter aside, “I postponed the project and decided to ‘hang around' for some time yet. History is full of lessons about the redemption of Lost Causes.”


Rudolf Hess, once again traveled to the Messerschmitt Works airfield at Augsburg, accompanied by a driver, a police detective, and one of his adjutants, Karl-Heinz Pintsch. Hess gave Pintsch two letters and instructed him to open one of them after he had been gone for four hours. Pintsch waited the four hours and threw in an additional fifteen minutes just to be safe, then opened the letter. He was stunned. Hess, he read, was on his way to England to try to bring about a peace agreement.

Pintsch told the detective and the driver about what he had just read. They were discussing it, no doubt with great anxiety for their own lives and futures, when Hess's fighter returned to the airport. He had been unable to find a radio signal necessary for keeping the plane on course.

Hess and the others drove back to Munich.


was supposed to last two weeks; it expanded to over four, most of which he spent with Churchill against a backdrop of mounting suspense with regard to the Lend-Lease Bill, whose passage by Congress was anything but certain. In that time, Hopkins managed to endear himself to nearly everyone he met, including the valets at Claridge's, who took an extra effort to make him look presentable. “
Oh yes,” Hopkins told one valet. “I've got to remember I'm in London now—I've got to look dignified.” From time to time, the valets would find secret documents tucked into his clothing or discover that he had left his wallet in a pants pocket. A hotel waiter said Hopkins was “very genial—considerate—if I may say so, lovable—quite different from other Ambassadors we've had here.”

Churchill displayed Hopkins to the public whenever he could, both to hearten his British audience and to afford himself the opportunity to reassure Hopkins and America that he was not asking the United States to go to war—though privately he dearly wished Roosevelt could simply decide to do so without the bother of first winning over Congress. On Friday, January 31, Churchill took Hopkins with him to tour neighborhoods in Portsmouth and Southampton that had been heavily bombed, after which they drove again to Chequers, to dine with Clementine, Ismay, private secretary Eric Seal, and others. Churchill “was in great form,” Seal wrote to his wife that evening. “
He gets on like a house afire with Hopkins, who is a dear, & is universally liked.”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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