The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (54 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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At the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Göring was found guilty of an array of offenses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court sentenced him to die by hanging on October 16, 1946.

In his testimony, he stated that he had wanted to invade England immediately after Dunkirk but had been overruled by Hitler. He told an American interrogator, U.S. air force general Carl Spaatz, that he had never liked the idea of attacking Russia. He wanted to keep bombing England and drive Churchill to capitulate. The timing of the Russian campaign was fatal, Göring told Spaatz. “
Only the diversion of the Luftwaffe to the Russian front saved England.”

To the last, Göring was unrepentant. He told the Nuremberg court, “
Of course we rearmed. I am only sorry we did not rearm more. Of course I considered treaties as so much toilet paper. Of course I wanted to make Germany great.”

Göring also sought to justify his systematic looting of art collections throughout Europe. While awaiting trial, he told an American psychiatrist, “
Perhaps one of my weaknesses has been that I love to be surrounded by luxury and that I am so artistic in temperament that masterpieces make me feel alive and glowing inside.” He claimed that all along he’d intended to donate his collections to a state museum after his death. “Looking at it from that standpoint I can’t see that it was ethically wrong. It was not as if I accumulated art treasures in order to sell them or to become a rich man. I love art for art’s sake and as I said, my personality demanded that I be surrounded with the best specimens of the world’s art.”

Investigators cataloged the works he had amassed since the war began, and counted “1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 200 pieces of period furniture, 60 Persian and French rugs, 75 stained glass windows,” and 175 miscellaneous other objects.

The night before his execution, he killed himself with cyanide.

Magda, poisoned their six youngest children—Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Holdine, Hedwig, and Heidrun—on May 1, 1945, in Hitler’s bunker as the Soviet army closed in, first directing a medical adjutant to administer a shot of morphine to each child. Next Hitler’s personal doctor gave each an oral dose of cyanide. Goebbels and Magda then killed themselves, also using cyanide. An SS officer, acting on their instructions, shot them both to make certain they were dead.

Hitler had killed himself the day before.

at Nuremberg, where he avowed his continued loyalty to Hitler. “
I do not regret anything,” he said. He was sentenced to life in prison for his role in helping bring about the war and was assigned to Spandau Prison, along with half a dozen other German officials.

One by one the other prisoners, including Albert Speer, were released until, on September 30, 1966, Hess became the prison’s sole occupant. He committed suicide on August 17, 1987, at the age of ninety-three, using an extension cord to hang himself.

the war, despite a number of near-death encounters. On one day alone he was shot down twice.
He achieved his final kills on April 25, 1945, when, while flying the Luftwaffe’s most advanced fighter, a jet aircraft, he shot down two American bombers, bringing his score to 104. After destroying the second aircraft, he was intercepted by an American P-47. Wounded, his plane badly damaged, he managed to return to his airfield just as it came under attack, and crash-landed with bombs and bullets falling around him. He survived with only a leg injury. American forces arrested him ten days later. He was thirty-three years old. As good as his record was, it by now had been exceeded by a number of his colleagues. Two pilots accumulated more than 300 kills each, and ninety-two other men matched or exceeded Galland’s record.

After first being interrogated in Germany, Galland was flown to England on May 14, 1945, for further questioning. This was his first visit on land. In July, his captors took him to the big air base at Tangmere, near Stansted Park, where he met the legless ace, Douglas Bader, with whom Mary Churchill had danced. Galland had met Bader earlier in the war, after Bader had been shot down and captured; Galland had insisted he be treated well.

Now Bader gave him cigars.


The boy never left the man.

One morning in the summer of 1944, with the war still in full flare, Clementine, in her bed at the No. 10 Annexe, summoned to her room a teenage soldier named Richard Hill, the son of Churchill’s personal secretary Mrs. Hill. A toy train set had arrived for Winston Junior, Pamela’s son, and Clementine wanted to make sure all the pieces were present and that everything worked. She asked Hill to assemble it and try it out.

The package contained tracks, train cars, and two engines, which were powered by wind-up mechanisms. Hill, on his knees, began laying out the track, and as he did so, he noticed the appearance on the floor before him of two slippers bearing the monogram “W.S.C.” He looked up and saw Churchill standing above, in his pale blue siren suit, smoking a cigar and closely watching his progress. Hill made a move to stand up, but the prime minister stopped him. “Carry on with what you are doing,” Churchill said.

Hill completed the layout.

Churchill continued watching. “Put one of the engines on the track,” he said.

Hill did so. The engine moved around the circle as its clockwork wound down.

“I see you have two engines,” Churchill said. “Put the other one on the track as well.”

Hill again obliged. Now two engines traveled the tracks, one behind the other.

Churchill, cigar in his mouth, got down on his hands and knees.

With obvious delight he said, “Now, let’s have a crash!”

ended on May 8, 1945. Throughout the day, as the news spread through London, crowds began filling the city’s squares. Cocky American soldiers threaded through the crowd, waving American flags and now and then breaking into the song “Over There.” Germany’s surrender was official. Churchill was to make a public speech at three o’clock from Downing Street, to be broadcast by the BBC and through loudspeakers, after which he would proceed to the House of Commons.

At the sound of Big Ben booming three o’clock, the crowd went utterly silent. The German war, Churchill said, was over. He summarized the war’s course and explained how, in the end, “almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us.” He tempered this news with the sober reflection that Japan had yet to surrender. “We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!”

The staff at No. 10 made a path for him in the back garden and applauded as he walked to his car. He was touched. “
Thank you so much,” he said, “thank you so much.”

the king and queen appeared on the royal balcony, a vast crowd on the Mall erupted with one fused scream of delight, and continued clapping and cheering and waving flags until the royal couple went back inside. But the crowd lingered and began chanting, “We want the king, we want the king.” At length the king and queen reappeared, then stepped apart to make room for another, and out walked Winston Churchill, an immense smile on his face. The roar was explosive.

That night, even though the blackout was officially still in effect, bonfires erupted throughout London, casting the familiar orange glow of fire into the sky—except now the fires were a sign of celebration.
Searchlights played on Nelson’s Tower in Trafalgar Square, and in perhaps the most moving gesture of all, the searchlight operators aimed their lights at a space in the air just above the cross that topped the dome to St. Paul’s Cathedral and held them there, to form a shining cross of light.

in an episode of breathtaking irony, the British public voted the Conservative Party out of power, forcing Churchill’s resignation. He had seemed the ideal man to run a war, less so to guide Britain’s postwar recovery. Churchill was succeeded by Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, which won 393 seats; the Conservatives held only 213.

The final results of the vote were reported on July 26, a Thursday; a few days later, the Churchills and some friends gathered for their last weekend at Chequers. The house filled as always. Here came Colville, Ambassador Winant, Brendan Bracken, Randolph, Mary, Sarah, and Diana, with her husband, Duncan Sandys; the Prof arrived for lunch. The rector of the Ellesborough church, so rarely attended by Churchill, stopped by to say farewell.

That Saturday night, after dinner and after watching newsreels and a documentary about the Allied victory in Europe called
The True Glory,
the family went downstairs. Suddenly Churchill seemed downhearted. He told Mary, “
This is where I miss the news—no work—nothing to do.”

She poured her sadness for her father into her diary: “It was an agonizing spectacle to watch this giant among men—equipped with every faculty of mind and spirit wound to the tightest pitch—walking unhappily round and round unable to employ his great energy and boundless gifts—nursing in his heart a grief and disillusion I can only guess at.”

It was “the worst moment so far,” she wrote. The family played records to cheer him, first Gilbert and Sullivan, which for the first time had little effect, followed by American and French military marches, which helped a bit. Then came “Run Rabbit Run” and, at Churchill’s request, a song from
The Wizard of Oz,
and these seemed at last to do the trick. “Finally at 2 he was soothed enough to feel sleepy and want his bed,” Mary wrote. “We all escorted him upstairs.”

She added, “O darling Papa—I love you so, so much and it breaks my heart to be able to do so little. I went to bed feeling very tired and dead inside me.”

The next day, after lunch, Mary and John Colville took a last walk up Beacon Hill. It was a lovely, sun-filled day. Everyone gathered on the lawn; Clementine played croquet with Duncan, by now largely recovered from his car crash. They all signed the Chequers visitors’ book—“that memorable visitors’ book,” Mary noted, “where you can follow the plots and stratagems of the war from the names there.” In a thank-you to the estate’s owners, the Lees, Clementine wrote, “
Our last weekend at Chequers was sad. But as we all wrote our names in the Visitors’ Book I reflected upon the wonderful part this ancient house has played in the war. What distinguished guests it has sheltered, what momentous meetings it has witnessed, what fateful decisions have been taken under its roof.”

Churchill was the last to sign.

He added beneath his name a single word: “

To David Woodrum —for secret reasons

Sources and Acknowledgments

York and its attendant 9/11 epiphany was the primary impetus for my embarking on this book, another element played an important part as well: the fact that I am a parent. As my three daughters will assure you, I am the king of fatherly anxiety, but my anxieties about my children center on the routine insults of their daily lives, like their jobs and boyfriends and the smoke detectors in their apartments, not high-explosive bombs and incendiaries falling from the sky. Honestly, how did the Churchills and their circle cope?

With that as my guiding question, I set out on what became a lengthy journey through the vast and tangled forest of Churchill scholarship, a realm of giant volumes, distorted facts, and bizarre conspiracy theories, to try to find my personal Churchill. As I’ve discovered with prior books, when you look at the past through a fresh lens, you invariably see the world differently and find new material and insights even along well-trodden paths.

One danger in writing about Churchill is that you’ll become overwhelmed at the very start, and possibly be deterred from proceeding, by the sheer volume of work already in the public domain. To avoid this, I decided to begin with a modest amount of advance reading—William Manchester and Paul Reid’s
Defender of the Realm,
Roy Jenkins’s
and Martin Gilbert’s
Finest Hour
—but then to plunge right into the archives to experience Churchill’s world in as fresh a manner as possible. My particular lens meant that certain documents would be of far more use to me than to Churchill’s traditional biographers—for example, lists of household expenditures at his prime-ministerial retreat, Chequers, and correspondence on how to billet soldiers on the estate’s grounds without overwhelming its sewage system, a matter of significant interest at the time but not necessarily important to future writers of history.

My search took me to numerous archival depots, including three of my favorite places in the world: the National Archives of the United Kingdom, at Kew, outside London; the Churchill Archives Center at Churchill College, Cambridge; and the U.S. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, in Washington. As my stacks of documents accumulated, I began mapping my narrative, using the so-called Vonnegut curve, a graphic device conceived by Kurt Vonnegut in his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, which his department rejected, he claimed, because it was too simple and too much fun. It provides a schema for analyzing every story ever written, whether fiction or nonfiction. A vertical axis represents the continuum from good fortune to bad, with good at the top, bad at the bottom. The horizontal axis represents the passage of time. One of the story types that Vonnegut isolated was “Man in a Hole,” in which the hero experiences great fortune, then deep misfortune, before climbing back up to achieve even greater success. It struck me that this was a pretty good representation of Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

With arc in hand, I set out to hunt for the stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous. But it is in frivolity that Churchill often revealed himself, the little moments that endeared him to his staff, despite the extreme demands he placed on all. I tried also to bring to the foreground characters often given secondary treatment in the big histories. Every Churchill scholar has quoted the diaries of John Colville, but it seemed to me that Colville wanted to be a character in his own right, so I tried to oblige him. I know of no other work that mentions his bittersweet romantic obsession with Gay Margesson, which I include in part because it reminded me of a singularly pathetic phase in my own early adulthood. You won’t find the story in the published version of Colville’s diaries,
The Fringes of Power,
but if you compare its pages with the manuscript version at the Churchill Archives Center, as I did, you’ll find each romantic installment. He dismissed these and other omissions as “trivial entries which are of no general interest.” At the time he actually made them, however, the events at hand were anything but trivial. What I found so interesting about his pursuit of Gay was that it unfolded while London was aflame, with bombs falling every day, and yet somehow the two of them managed to carve out moments of, as he put it, “sufficient bliss.”

Mary Churchill, too, steps forward. She loved her father very much, but also loved a good RAF dance, and thrilled at the practice of “beating up,” when pilots would buzz her and her friends at treetop level. I owe special thanks to Emma Soames, Mary’s daughter, who gave me permission to read her mother’s diary.

I also owe a great debt to Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Center, who read a draft of the manuscript and saved me from numerous gaffes. His own recent book,
How Churchill Waged War,
proved to be an invaluable vehicle for catching up on the latest thinking about Churchill. I owe thanks also to two former directors of the International Churchill Society, Lee Pollock and Michael Bishop, who also read the manuscript and suggested all manner of corrections and adjustments, some quite subtle. Early on both gentlemen recommended a variety of resources to consult, in particular a stack of 10 Downing Street desk-calendar cards held at society headquarters in Washington, D.C. I found it singularly compelling that the card for September 1939, when the war began, is marred by a big black stain, apparently caused by the toppling of an ink jar.

As always, I owe incalculable thanks, and a supply of Rombauer chardonnay, to my wife, Chris, for putting up with me, yes, but especially for her attentive first read of my manuscript, which she returned with her usual margin notations—smiley faces, sad faces, and receding sequences of
’s. Huge thanks as well to my editor, Amanda Cook, whose margin notations were rather more eviscerating and demanding, but always smart and illuminating. Her assistant, Zachary Phillips, piloted this book through the homestretch with grace and enthusiasm, though I imagine he nearly went blind in the process owing to my terrible handwriting. My agent, David Black, always a mensch, but also sometimes a junkyard dog, encouraged me throughout the long journey, while periodically plying me with red wine and great food. Julie Tate, my brilliant professional fact-checker, read the manuscript as if with a magnifying glass, hunting down misspellings, incorrect dates, bad chronologies, and misquoted quotes, in the process improving my sleep immeasurably. Thanks, also, to my friend Penny Simon, ace Crown publicist, who read an early draft, fully aware that I can never repay her for her generosity, and making that clear at every opportunity. My longtime friend and former colleague Carrie Dolan, a front-page editor at
The Wall Street Journal,
also read a draft, in part while doing her absolutely favorite thing: flying in an airplane over the sea. Actually, she hates to fly, even more than me, but she claimed to like the book.

A team of resourceful, creative, and energetic souls at Random House and Crown brought this book to life and gave it a grand send-off: Gina Centrello, president and publisher, Random House; David Drake, publisher at Crown; Gillian Blake, editor-in-chief; Annsley Rosner, deputy publisher; Dyana Messina, director of publicity; and Julie Cepler, director of marketing. Special thanks to Rachel Aldrich, maestro of new media and new ways of winning the attention of distracted readers. Bonnie Thompson put the book through a rigorous final copyedit; Ingrid Sterner fixed my end notes; Luke Epplin translated my abysmal handwriting to conjure page proofs in record time; Mark Birkey oversaw it all, and produced a book. Chris Brand designed a killer jacket, and Barbara Bachman made the book’s interior pages into beautiful things.

I owe particular thanks to my three daughters for helping me keep perspective amid the routine trials of daily life, which pale in comparison to the awful things that Churchill and his circle had to deal with every day.

original documents deserves special notice:
The Churchill War Papers,
collected and published by the late master of Churchill history, Martin Gilbert, as a vast appendix to his multivolume biography of the prime minister. I made extensive use of volumes 2 and 3, whose telegrams, letters, speeches, and personal minutes together total 3,032 pages. Another invaluable source, for matters beyond romance, was Colville’s
primarily the first volume, which provides a wonderful sense of life at No. 10 Downing Street during the war. I came across many terrific secondary works. Among my favorites: Andrew Roberts’s
Holy Fox,”
a biography of Lord Halifax; John Lukacs’s
Five Days in London, May 1940;
Lynne Olson’s
Troublesome Young Men;
Richard Toye’s
Roar of the Lion;
Lara Feigel’s
Love-Charm of Bombs;
and David Lough’s
No More Champagne,
a financial biography of Churchill and one of the most original works of Churchillian scholarship to emerge in the last decade.

In the following notes I cite and credit mainly material that I have quoted from original documents or secondary sources; I’ve also cited things that seem likely to strike readers as novel or controversial. I do not, however, cite everything. Episodes and details that are well-known and fully documented elsewhere, and material whose source is obvious, such as certain clearly dated diary entries, I have chosen not to annotate in order to avoid end-matter bloat. Having said that, I have salted the notes with little stories that did not make the final draft but that for one reason or another seem to demand retelling.


The first of these occurred
Bombing War,

One immense German bomb
“Examples of Large German Bombs,” Dec. 7, 1940, HO 199/327, UKARCH. Also, “Types of German Bombs and Mines,” Jan. 3, 1941, HO 199/327, UKARCH. The precise weight of a Satan bomb before rounding was 3,970 pounds.

“I think it is well”
130; Overy,
Bombing War,

Britain’s civil defense experts
Death from the Skies,

“It was widely believed”
Fringes of Power,
1:20; Harrisson,
Living Through the Blitz,
24, 39.

“London for several days”
Bertrand Russell,
146; Field, “Nights Underground in Darkest London,” 13.

The Home Office estimated
Living Through the Blitz,

bury people in shrouds
“Mortuary Services,” Department of Health, Scotland, March 1940, HO 186/993, UKARCH.

“For mass burial”
Ibid.; Süss,
Death from the Skies,

Special training was to be provided
“Civilian Deaths due to War Operations,” Department of Health, Scotland, Feb. 28, 1939, HO 186/1225, UKARCH.

The code name for signaling
First Day of the Blitz,
101, 102.

Towns and villages took down street signs
“World War II Diary,” 49, Meiklejohn Papers; Bell, “Landscapes of Fear,” 157.

The government issued
Basil Collier,
Defense of the United Kingdom,
69; Longmate,
Air Raid,

London’s mailboxes received
London at War,
73; Ogden,
Life of the Party,

Strict blackout rules
“World War II Diary,” 15, Meiklejohn Papers.

The full moon
Air Raid,
74; Manchester and Reid,
Defender of the Realm,

“The atmosphere is something more”
War Years,
77, 84, 91.


“I drove behind”

“I suppose you don’t know”
King George VI,
444n. For more on the king’s feelings toward Churchill, see ibid., 445–46.

“You have sat too long”
Troublesome Young Men,
294; Andrew Roberts,
“Holy Fox,”
196. (Three exclamation points appear in Olson; Roberts includes only one, at the end of the sentence. It does, however, seem to have been an exclamatory moment.)

“a dirty old piece of chewing gum”
Troublesome Young Men,

“rogue elephant”
Andrew Roberts,
“Holy Fox,”

“I accepted his resignation”
King George VI,
443–44. Wheeler-Bennett makes a tiny adjustment to the king’s phrasing. The actual entry is rendered thus: “unfai[r].”

He made this duly clear
Andrew Roberts,
“Holy Fox,”

“I sent for Winston”
King George VI,

“You know why”

“In my long political experience”
Winston Churchill,
Their Finest Hour,

“At last I had the authority”
War and Colonel Warden,

“It sets up an almost”

Once, while walking
Churchill’s Bodyguard,

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
11.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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