The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (40 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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Hopkins brought out a box of gramophone records containing American songs and other music having “Anglo-American significance,” as Seal put it, and soon the music filled the Great Hall, where the gramophone was located. “We had these until well after midnight, the PM walking about, sometimes dancing a
pas seul,
in time with the music,” Seal wrote. In the midst of his circling and dancing, Churchill would pause now and then to comment on the growing bond between Britain and America, and his appreciation of Roosevelt. “We all got a bit sentimental & Anglo-American, under the influence of the good dinner & the music,” Seal wrote. Something ineffable crept into the Great Hall. “It was at the time very pleasant & satisfying—but difficult to convey in words, especially within the confines of a letter,” Seal told his wife. “Everyone present knew & liked each other—it is quite extraordinary how Hopkins has endeared himself to everyone here he has met.”

Directive No. 23

of Russia—Operation Barbarossa—well underway, Hitler found Britain’s continued resistance galling. He would require every available soldier, tank, and aircraft for the campaign, after which he would be free to focus his attentions on the British Isles. Until then, however, he needed to negotiate a peace or otherwise neutralize Britain as a viable foe, and it was here, with an invasion of England at least temporarily out of consideration, that the Luftwaffe continued to play the most critical role. Its failure to achieve the victory promised by Hermann Göring was undoubtedly a source of frustration for Hitler, but he remained hopeful that his air force would prevail.

On Thursday, February 6, he issued a new directive, No. 23, in which he ordered the air force and navy to further intensify their attacks against England, ideally to cause Churchill to surrender but, short of that, to at least weaken British forces to the point where they could not disrupt his Russian campaign. With Russia now thought to be speeding production of aircraft, tanks, and munitions, the longer he waited, the harder it would be to achieve his vision of utter annihilation.

The increased intensity of attacks, the directive said, would have the secondary benefit of creating the illusion that a German invasion of England was imminent, and thereby force Churchill to continue allocating forces for home defense.


The decision to attack the East made me despair,” he later told an American interrogator.

He tried to dissuade Hitler, he claimed, by quoting Hitler’s own book,
Mein Kampf,
which warned of the dangers of a two-front war. Göring was confident that Germany could readily defeat the Russian army, but he believed the timing was wrong. He told Hitler that his air force was on the verge of bringing about England’s collapse and surrender. “
We’ve got England where we want her and now we have to stop.”

Hitler replied: “Yes, I shall need your bombers for just three or four weeks, after that you can have them all back again.”

Hitler promised that once the Russian campaign ended, all newly freed resources would be poured into the Luftwaffe. As one witness to the conversation reported, Hitler promised Göring that his air force would be “trebled, quadrupled, quintupled.”

Recognizing that he could push Hitler only so far, and always covetous of his favor, Göring resigned himself to the fact that the invasion of Russia would indeed occur, and that he needed to play a key role in its execution. He convened a meeting of military planners at the Gatow Air Academy, outside Berlin, to begin detailed preparations for Barbarossa.

It was “strictly top secret,” wrote Luftwaffe field marshal Kesselring. “
Nothing leaked out. Staffs were as much in ignorance of what was in the wind as the troops.”

Or so the German High Command imagined.

No. 23, the Luftwaffe stepped up its attacks against England, hampered only by bouts of bad winter weather. Its pilots encountered little resistance. They could tell from their daily experiences that the British still had not found an effective means of intercepting aircraft at night.

The Coming Violence

Hopkins was to begin his long journey back to America—the news arrived that the Lend-Lease Bill had overcome its first important hurdle, gaining passage in the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 260 to 165. Hopkins went to Chequers that day to say goodbye to Churchill and Clementine; later he would take a train to Bournemouth to catch a flight to Lisbon. He found Churchill hard at work preparing a speech for broadcast the next evening, Sunday, February 9.

Churchill paced; a secretary typed. Hopkins watched, enthralled. The speech was ostensibly an address to the British public, but both men understood that it was also to be a tool for bolstering American support for the Lend-Lease Bill, which now had to go before the U.S. Senate. Hopkins urged Churchill to make the argument that far from dragging America into the war, the bill presented the best way to stay out. Churchill agreed. He also planned to make use of a note from Roosevelt, in which the president, in longhand, had written five lines from a poem by Longfellow.

Hopkins left Churchill a thank-you note. “
My dear Prime Minister,” he wrote, “I shall never forget these days with you—your supreme confidence and will to victory—Britain I have ever liked—I like it the more.

“As I leave for America tonight I wish you great and good luck—confusion to your enemies—victory for Britain.”

Late that night Hopkins boarded a train for Bournemouth; he arrived at the nearby seaplane port at Poole the next morning, Sunday, to find that bad weather had forced the postponement of his flight to Lisbon. Brendan Bracken had come along to see him off. Hopkins was accompanied as well by a British security agent assigned to watch over him all the way to Washington, owing to his habit of leaving confidential papers lying around his hotel room. The agent was to stay particularly close in Lisbon, by now notorious as a center for espionage.

On Sunday evening, Hopkins, Bracken, and others convened in the bar of the Branksome Tower Hotel in Poole, to listen to Churchill’s broadcast.

Later, Home Intelligence would report that elements of the speech “
made some people’s flesh creep.”

praise to the citizens of London and elsewhere who had withstood German raids, noting that the German air force had dropped “three or four tons of bombs upon us for every ton we could send to Germany in return.” He singled out the police for special acclaim, noting that they “have been in it everywhere, all the time, and as a working woman wrote to me: ‘What gentlemen they are!’ ” He applauded successes against Italy in the Middle East; he cited Hopkins’s visit as a mark of America’s sympathy and goodwill. “In the last war,” Churchill said, launching into a passage clearly inspired by Hopkins’s advice, “the United States sent two million men across the Atlantic. But this is not a war of vast armies, firing immense masses of shells at one another. We do not need the gallant armies which are forming throughout the American Union. We do not need them this year, nor next year, nor any year that I can foresee.” What he did need, he said, were supplies and ships. “We need them here and we need to bring them here.”

With the passing of winter, he continued, the threat of invasion would arise anew, in a different, potentially more dangerous form. “A Nazi invasion of Great Britain last autumn would have been a more or less improvised affair,” he said. “Hitler took it for granted that when France gave in we should give in; but we did not give in. And he had to think again.” Now, Churchill said, Germany will have had time to plan and to build the necessary equipment and landing craft. “We must all be prepared to meet gas attacks, parachute attacks, and glider attacks, with constancy, forethought and practiced skill.” For the fact remained: “In order to win the war Hitler must destroy Great Britain.”

But no matter how far Germany advanced or how much more territory it seized, Hitler would not prevail. The might of the British Empire—“nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world”—was on his trail, “bearing with them the swords of justice.”

By implication, one of those sword-bearers was America, and now, rearing toward his closing, Churchill quoted the handwritten note sent to him by Roosevelt.

“Sail on, O Ship of State!” Churchill rumbled. “Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

Churchill asked his listeners how he should respond. “What is the answer that I shall give, in your name, to this great man, the thrice-chosen head of a nation of a hundred and thirty millions? Here is the answer…”

70 percent of potential listeners. At the Branksome Tower Hotel, Hopkins listened. Colville, with a rare weekend off, listened too, after dining with his mother and brother at Madeley Manor, his grandfather’s country home in North Staffordshire, 140 miles from London. The night was cold and rainy, but numerous fireplaces made the house feel cozy.

This was Churchill at his most deft—candid yet encouraging, grave but uplifting, seeking to bolster his own people while reassuring, albeit somewhat disingenuously, the great mass of Americans that all he wanted from the United States was material aid.

Goebbels, listening too,
called it “insolent.”

rhetorical drive.

“Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us,” Churchill said. “Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.

“We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.

“Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

came to a new realization. In his diary he wrote, “
I could not have a better Prime Minister.”

nothing happened.

By mid-February Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Bill still had not been approved by the Senate. Churchill was frustrated, as were the British people, who were growing impatient with what Home Intelligence called the “apparently interminable discussions” about the bill.

Churchill was also more convinced than ever that the Luftwaffe was making a deliberate effort to kill him and fellow members of his government. The Cabinet War Rooms were being reinforced, but, as he told Sir Edward Bridges, secretary to the War Cabinet, in a minute on Saturday, February 15 (one of at least eighteen minutes Churchill composed that day), he was concerned that the headquarters building for Britain’s Home Forces was uniquely vulnerable to attack. German bombs seemed to be coming closer, and to be concentrating on Whitehall. “
How many bombs have been thrown within a thousand yards of the [war rooms]?” Churchill asked Bridges.

In fact, by this point at least forty raids had struck Whitehall, with 146 bombs landing within a one-thousand-yard radius of the Cenotaph, the national war monument located a block and a half from 10 Downing Street, at the heart of Whitehall.

That same day, Churchill wrote to Pug Ismay on the subject of invasion. Despite intelligence reports suggesting that Hitler had put off his plan to invade England, Churchill still believed the threat had to be taken seriously. (The public agreed: In January, a Gallup Poll had found that 62 percent of respondents expected Germany to invade in the coming year.) That Hitler would have to dispose of England at some point was clear, as was the reality that he would need to do so soon, before the country grew too strong. Britain was stepping up its production of weapons and equipment and, if Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Bill became law, would soon be receiving a great surge of supplies from America. Churchill’s senior commanders believed that Hitler had no choice but to invade, and saw Germany’s renewed bombing of London and other English cities as an ominous indication of a revived interest in doing so.

Churchill was less convinced, but agreed to the extent that he believed it imperative that Home Forces and civilians be as ready as possible to repel a German assault, and to Churchill this meant that England’s beaches and beach communities had to be cleared of civilians. “
We must begin persuading the people to go away,” he wrote to Pug Ismay, “…and explain to those who wish to stay what is the safest place in their houses, and that they will not be able to leave after the flag falls.”

Beaverbrook, in turn, hectored his factory managers with calls to step up their operations. “
The need for sustained and increasing efforts on the part of all concerned with aircraft production remains vital to the security of the country in face of threatening invasion when the weather mends,” he wrote in a telegram to 144 companies involved in the manufacture of airframes. “I ask therefore for your assurance that work will in future continue at your factory throughout Sundays so that the maximum output may be obtained.” He sent a similar telegram to sixty companies that made gas-decontamination equipment. “The decontamination devices are needed so urgently that I have to request you to work night and day shifts and especially to work on Sundays.”

the departure of Harry Hopkins coincided with the arrival of a period of warm, springlike weather, with melting snow and crocuses peeking from the grass in Hyde Park. Wrote Joan Wyndham, out for a stroll with her “lovely Rupert,” he of the lopsided appendage: “
Sunny day like spring, blue sky, wonderful feeling of exhilaration….That afternoon was one of the happiest we’d ever spent together. We were two minds with a single thought, or rather lack of thought.”

That week, too, Randolph Churchill and his new unit, No. 8 Commando, set out for Egypt aboard a ship called the
By now the unit had more than five hundred soldiers, plus an assortment of officers and liaison men, one of whom was the writer Evelyn Waugh, also a member of Randolph’s social club, White’s. Randolph and Pamela hoped this hiatus would give them a chance to stabilize their finances, a task that was all the more vital now, as she believed she might be pregnant with their second child. “
Well, it is hell to be parted,” Randolph told her, before departure, “…at least, we’ll get our debts sorted out.”

But the voyage was long and Randolph’s weakness for gambling, profound.

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
8.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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