The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (41 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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London, Washington, and Berlin

of March was a tense one. The Lend-Lease Bill still had not passed, and there were signs that support for its passage was beginning to soften. The latest Gallup Poll showed that 55 percent of Americans favored making the bill law, down from 58 percent in the poll that had preceded it. This may have contributed to Churchill’s bad mood at the start of a lunch on Thursday, March 6, held in the newly armored basement dining room at No. 10 Downing Street, in honor of another visiting American, James Conant, president of Harvard.

Churchill was not yet present when Clementine, Conant, and a number of other guests made their way into the dining room. The Prof arrived, tall and doleful, as did a friend of Clementine’s, Winnifreda Yuill. Also on hand was Charles Eade, a prominent newspaper editor and compiler of collections of Churchill’s speeches.

Clementine served sherry and resolved that the meal should begin without her husband. She wore her war-slogan head scarf wrapped to form a turban.

The first course had not yet been served when Churchill at last arrived. Upon entering, he kissed Winnifreda’s hand, a cordial enough beginning, but a disgruntled quiet followed. Churchill was still suffering from bronchitis and was clearly in a grumpy mood. He looked tired and seemed unwilling to converse.

Hoping to lighten the atmosphere, Conant decided to make clear from the start that he was an ardent supporter of the Lend-Lease Bill. He also told Churchill that he had testified in the Senate that the United States should intervene directly in the war. At which point, Conant noted in his diary, Churchill became more talkative.

First, and with evident joy, the prime minister described a successful British raid on the Lofoten Islands of Norway, carried out two days earlier by a group of British commandos and Norwegian soldiers. Dubbed Operation Claymore, it succeeded in destroying factories that made cod-liver oil, crucial to helping Germany supply much-needed vitamins A and D to its populace, and glycerin, a component of explosives. The commandos captured more than two hundred German soldiers and a few Norwegian collaborators, dubbed “Quislings,” after Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who had sought to ally Norway with Germany.

This was the public story. Churchill, however, knew a secret, one he did not reveal to his luncheon guests. In the course of the raid, the commandos had succeeded in capturing a key component of a German Enigma cipher machine and a document containing the cipher keys the German navy would use in the coming months. Now the codebreakers at Bletchley Park would be able to read not just Luftwaffe communications but also those of the German navy, including orders transmitted to U-boats.

Next Churchill raised the matter most on his mind: lend-lease. “
This bill has to pass,” he told Conant. “What a state it would leave all of us in if it doesn’t; what a state it would leave the President in; what a failure he would appear before history if this bill is not passed.”

to quit his job and join the war, came up with a new plan.

On Monday morning, March 3, he had gone riding in Richmond Park, near the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, using a horse borrowed from a friend, Louis Greig, personal assistant to Air Minister Sinclair. Afterward, Colville gave Greig a lift back to London, and during the drive, without prior thought, told Greig that he wanted to join a bomber crew. He had the vague idea that Churchill might be more inclined to let him go to the RAF than to the navy or army.

Greig promised to set him up for the first stage of the RAF enlistment process, a medical “interview.” Colville was delighted. Whether he was aware of it or not, the life expectancy of a new member of a bomber crew was about two weeks.

Department pored over a report assessing Britain’s prospects, written by its own War Plans Division. “
It is impossible to predict,” the report said, “whether or not the British Isles will fall or if so when.”

The coming year was crucial: British production of war materials was climbing and American aid increasing, while German resources, taxed by ten months of war and occupation, would only decline further from their prewar peak. Within a year, the report said, the two sides would approach parity—provided Britain survived that long. The gravest threat “is greatly intensified air, surface, and subsurface activity coincident with or followed by an attempted invasion.”

Whether Britain could withstand this combined assault was open to question, the report warned. “During this critical period, the United States cannot afford to base its military program on the assumption that the British Isles will not succumb as a result of blockade, or that they cannot be successfully invaded. The critical period is assumed to be from the present moment until November 1st, 1941.”

force applied against Britain. America seemed increasingly likely to enter the war but would do so only, he reasoned, if Britain continued to exist.
On March 5 he issued another directive, No. 24, this signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW), aimed mainly at how Germany and Japan might coordinate strategy under the Tripartite Pact, which both had signed with Italy the preceding fall.

The goal, the directive said, “must be to
induce Japan to take action in the Far East
as soon as possible. This will tie down strong English forces and will divert the main effort of the United States of America to the Pacific.” Beyond this Germany had no particular interest in the Far East. “The
common aim
of strategy,” the directive stated, “must be represented as the swift conquest of England in order to keep America out of the war.”

Saturday Night

a big one for Mary Churchill—another chance to escape the Prison Room, this time to drive into London with her mother for the event that even now, in wartime, kicked off London’s social season: Queen Charlotte’s Annual Birthday Dinner Dance, the city’s yearly debutante ball, set for the night of Saturday, March 8. Afterward, Mary and her friends planned to continue the fun well into the next morning, dancing and drinking at one of the city’s popular nightclubs, the Café de Paris.

The weather promised to be lovely: clear, under a moon that was three-quarters full, a waxing gibbous. Excellent weather for young women in their finest silk, men in their evening suits and silk top hats. And for German bombers.

Gun and searchlight crews braced for what was almost certain to be a very long night.

on Coventry Street in Piccadilly, owner Martin Poulsen looked forward to a busy night. Saturdays always drew the biggest crowds to the club, but this particular Saturday promised to bring a larger and noisier throng than most, owing to the debutante ball taking place nearby at the Grosvenor House Hotel. The debs and their dates and their friends—the most attractive men were called “debs’ delights”—would doubtless come to the club afterward and pack the place full. It was one of the most popular clubs in the city, alongside the Embassy Club and the 400, and was known to have some of the best jazz bands and most charismatic bandleaders. Owner Poulsen had hired a particularly popular front man to close out the night, Kenrick “Snakehips” Johnson, a lithe, black twenty-six-year-old dancer and conductor from British Guiana—“
slim grey beautiful Snakehips,” as one woman described him. No one actually called him Kenrick. It was always Ken. Or just Snakehips.

Poulsen himself was known for his optimism and his always cheerful personality, which struck some as an anomaly, given the fact that he was Danish—“
the least melancholy Dane in history,” as the club’s biographer put it. Poulsen had been the headwaiter at another popular club before founding the Café de Paris in what had been a downtrodden, largely empty restaurant in the basement below a theater, the Rialto Cinema. Its new interior was meant to evoke the glamour and luxury of the
. With the advent of war, the club’s subsurface location gave Poulsen a marketing edge over his competitors. He advertised it as “the safest and gayest restaurant in town—even in the air raids.
Twenty feet below ground
.” In reality, however, it was no safer than any other building in the neighborhood. The club was indeed underground, but it had an ordinary ceiling and, above that, only the glass roof of the Rialto.

But, again, Poulsen was an optimist. Just a week earlier, he’d told a golfing companion that he was so convinced the war would end soon that he’d ordered twenty-five thousand bottles of champagne, the drink of choice among his guests. Magnums were the preferred size. “
I don’t know why people are making such a fuss over the blitz,” he told a female friend. “I’m absolutely certain it will be over in a month or two. In fact, I am so sure of this that I am going to order neon lights to put outside the Café de Paris.”

The club was already busy at eight-fifteen that Saturday night when air-raid sirens began to sound. No one paid attention. The first band played. Snakehips was due to arrive soon to take the stage for his first number, at nine-thirty

night in Berlin before heading to his country home on the Bogensee the next day. His wife, Magda, was struggling with a prolonged case of bronchitis.

In his diary on Saturday, Goebbels acknowledged that the British raid on Norway’s Lofoten Islands “was more serious than at first thought.” In addition to destroying factories, fish oil, and glycerin, the attackers had sunk fifteen thousand tons of German shipping. “Espionage by the Norwegians was involved,” he wrote, and noted that Josef Terboven, Reich Commissar for Norway, a German and a staunch party loyalist, had been dispatched to punish the islanders for aiding the attackers. On Saturday, Terboven telephoned Goebbels to report on what he had accomplished thus far, as Goebbels summarized in his diary:

He has established a punitive court of the harshest kind on the Lofoten island which aided the English and betrayed Germans and Quisling’s people to them. He has ordered saboteurs’ farms to be put to the torch, hostages to be taken, etc.”

Goebbels approved. In his diary he wrote, “This Terboven fellow is all right.”

There had been progress elsewhere. “There have also been a mass of death sentences in Amsterdam,” Goebbels wrote. “I argue in favor of the rope for Jews. Those fellows must learn their lesson.”

He closed the night’s entry: “It gets so late. And I am so tired.”

of the Lend-Lease Bill improved.
One important factor was a decision by Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s past opponent, to throw his full support behind the bill. (Willkie dismissed his own former fear crusade as “a bit of campaign oratory.”) It now seemed that the bill would indeed be passed by the Senate, and soon—and without being crippled by amendments designed to undermine its effectiveness. Passage could come any day.

So likely did this now seem that Roosevelt prepared to dispatch another emissary to London, this man the antithesis of the frail Harry Hopkins and soon to influence the lives of both Mary Churchill and her sister-in-law, Pamela.

The Tall Man with the Smile

in for lunch at the president’s desk in the Oval Office of the White House. Roosevelt was recovering from a cold and seemed woozy.

An extraordinary meal,” his guest wrote later. By “extraordinary,” he meant extraordinarily awful.

“Spinach soup—” he began.

The guest was William Averell Harriman, known variously as Averell, or Ave, or Bill, depending on who was speaking. Wealthy beyond measure, he was the scion of the Union Pacific rail empire, built by his father. He joined its board of directors while a senior at Yale, and now, at the age of forty-nine, was its chairman. In the mid-1930s, to encourage rail travel to the West, he directed the construction of a vast ski resort in Idaho, called Sun Valley. He was handsome by any standard, but the two things that made him especially so were his smile, which was large and white, and the easy, athletic grace with which he moved. He was an expert skier and polo player.

Harriman was to leave for London several days later, on Monday, March 10, there to coordinate the delivery of American aid once the Lend-Lease Bill finally passed. Like Hopkins before him, Harriman was to serve as Roosevelt’s looking glass into how Britain was faring, but he also had the more formal responsibility of making sure that Churchill got the aid he most needed and, once he got it, made the best use of it. In announcing the appointment, Roosevelt gave him the title “defense expediter.”

Harriman dipped his spoon into a watery green liquid.

“—didn’t taste bad but looked like hot water poured over chopped up spinach,” he wrote in a note for his own files. “White toast and hot rolls. Main dish—cheese soufflé with spinach!! Dessert—three large fat pancakes, plenty of butter and maple syrup. Tea for the president and coffee for myself.”

Harriman took particular note of this lunch because of Roosevelt’s cold. He wrote, “It struck me as the most unhealthy diet under the circumstances, particularly as we discussed the British food situation and their increasing needs for vitamins, proteins and calcium!!”

Roosevelt wanted Harriman to make England’s food supply a priority, and spent a long while—too long, from Harriman’s perspective—talking about the specific foods the British would need to survive. Harriman found this ironic. “As the President was obviously tired and mentally stale, in the British interest it struck me that fortification of the President’s diet should be first priority.”

Harriman came away from the meeting concerned that Roosevelt did not yet truly grasp the gravity of Britain’s position and what it meant for the rest of the world. Harriman himself was publicly on record as favoring American intervention in the war. “All in all I left feeling that the President had not faced what I considered to be the realities of the situation—namely that there was a good chance Germany, without our help, could so cripple British shipping as to affect her ability to hold out.”

Later that day, at about five-thirty
Harriman met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was also suffering from a cold and looked tired. The two discussed the broader naval situation, in particular the threat to Singapore posed by the rising power and aggression of Japan.
The U.S. Navy had no plans to interfere, Hull told him, but he personally believed that the navy should deploy some of its most powerful ships to the waters of the Dutch East Indies in a display of force, in the hopes—as Harriman paraphrased his remarks—“that by bluff the Japs could be kept within bounds.”

By sitting back, Hull said, America risked the “ignominious result” of having Japan seize key strategic points in the Far East, while America kept its ships safely moored at their big Pacific base. Obviously tired and befogged by his cold, Hull could not for the moment remember its exact location.

“What is the name of that harbor?” Hull asked.

“Pearl Harbor,” Harriman said.

“Yes,” Hull said.

only a vague sense of exactly what his mission was supposed to accomplish. “
No one has given me any instructions or directions as to what my activities should be,” he wrote in another memo for his files.

In exploratory conversations with U.S. naval and army officials, Harriman found a deep reluctance to send weapons and matériel to the British without a clearer understanding as to what they planned to do with them. Harriman faulted Hopkins for this. Hopkins had seemed to have only an impressionistic sense of what the British needed and how those needs fit into Churchill’s war strategy. The military leaders Harriman spoke to expressed skepticism and seemed unsure of Churchill’s competence. “Such remarks are made as, ‘We can’t take seriously requests that come late in the evening over a bottle of port,’ which, without mentioning names, obviously refers to evening conversations between Hopkins and Churchill.”

The skepticism Harriman encountered in Washington now made his task clear, he wrote. “I must attempt to convince the Prime Minister that I or someone must convey to our people his war strategy or else he cannot expect to get maximum aid.”

on Pan American Airways’
Atlantic Clipper,
scheduled to depart at nine-fifteen
Monday, March 10, from the Marine Air Terminal at New York Municipal Airport, known informally as LaGuardia Field. (Only later, in 1953, would the name LaGuardia Airport become official and permanent.) Under the best conditions, the journey would take three days, with multiple stops, first in Bermuda, a six-hour flight away, then a fifteen-hour leg to Horta, in the Azores. From there the
would fly to Lisbon, where Harriman was to catch a KLM flight to the Portuguese city of Porto, lay over for an hour, then proceed by plane to Bristol, England, and catch a British passenger flight to London.

Harriman initially reserved a room for himself at Claridge’s hotel, then canceled and booked the Dorchester. Notoriously frugal (he rarely carried cash and never picked up a dinner check; his wife, Marie, called him a “
cheap old bastard”), he telegraphed Claridge’s on Saturday, March 8: “Cancel my reservation but reserve cheapest room my Secretary.”

Just two days earlier, the Dorchester had come up during Churchill’s lunch with Harvard president Conant, who was staying at Claridge’s. Clementine suggested that for the sake of safety, Conant should move to the Dorchester—at which point Clementine and her friend Winnifreda burst out in earthy knowing laughter and, as another guest recalled, “explained to Dr. Conant that although his life may be in greater danger at Claridge’s, his reputation may be in greater danger at the Dorchester.”

Conant replied that as president of Harvard, “he would rather risk his life than his reputation.”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
8.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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