Read The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz Online
Authors: Erik Larson
In his own hand, Churchill added, “We cannot accept any lower aim than air mastery. When will it be obtained?”
Churchill’s minister of aircraft production proceeded with the exuberance of an impresario, even designing a special flag for the radiator of his car, with “M.A.P.” in red against a blue background. British aircraft plants began turning out fighters at a rate that no one, least of all German intelligence, could have foreseen, and under circumstances that factory managers had never imagined.
HE PROSPECT OF INVASION
forced citizens at all levels of British society to contemplate exactly what invasion would mean, not as an abstraction but as something that could happen as you sat at your table reading the
or knelt in your garden pruning your rosebushes. Churchill was convinced that one of Hitler’s first goals would be to kill him, with the expectation that whatever government replaced his would be more willing to negotiate. He insisted on keeping a Bren light machine gun in the trunk of his car, having vowed on numerous occasions that if the Germans came for him, he would take as many as possible with him to the grave. He often carried a revolver—and often misplaced it, according to Inspector Thompson.
From time to time, Thompson recalled, Churchill would abruptly brandish his revolver and, “roguishly and with delight,” exclaim: “You see, Thompson, they will never take me alive! I will get one or two before they can shoot me down.”
But he was also ready for worse. According to one of his typists, Mrs. Hill,
he embedded a capsule containing cyanide in the cap of his fountain pen.
Harold Nicolson, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Information, and his wife, writer Vita Sackville-West, began working out the nitty-gritty details of coping with an invasion, as if preparing for a winter storm. “
You will have to get the Buick in a fit state to start with a full petrol-tank,” Nicolson wrote. “You should put inside it some food for 24 hours, and pack in the back your jewels and my diaries. You will want clothes and anything else very precious, but the rest will have to be left behind.” Vita lived at the couple’s country home, Sissinghurst, just twenty miles from the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point between England and France and, thus, a likely pathway for amphibious assault. Nicolson recommended that when the invasion came, Vita should drive to Devonshire, five hours west. “This all sounds very alarming,” he added, “but it would be foolish to pretend that the danger is inconceivable.”
The lovely weather only heightened the anxiety. It seemed as though nature were conspiring with Hitler, delivering a nearly uninterrupted chain of fine, warm days with calm waters in the channel, ideal for the shallow-hulled barges Hitler would need to land tanks and artillery. Writer Rebecca West described the “
unstained heaven of that perfect summer,” when she and her husband walked in London’s Regent’s Park as barrage balloons—“silver elephantines”—drifted overhead. Five hundred and sixty-two of these giant oblong balloons were aloft over London, tethered by mile-long cables to block dive-bombers and keep fighters from descending low enough to strafe the city’s streets. West recalled how people sat in chairs among the roses, staring straight ahead, their faces white with strain. “Some of them walked among the rose-beds, with a special earnestness looking down on the bright flowers and inhaling the scent, as if to say, ‘That is what roses are like, that is how they smell. We must remember that, down in the darkness.’ ”
But even invasion fears could not wholly obliterate the sheer seductiveness of those late spring days. Anthony Eden, Churchill’s new secretary of war—tall, handsome, and as recognizable as a film star—went for a walk in St. James’s Park, sat on a bench, and took an hour-long nap.
RANCE IN PRECIPITOUS
collapse, air raids over England seemed certain, and the moon became a source of dread. The first full moon of Churchill’s premiership occurred on Tuesday, May 21, imparting to the streets of London the cool pallor of candle wax. The German raid on Rotterdam lingered as a reminder of what could very soon befall the city. So likely was this prospect that three days later, on Friday, May 24, with the moon still bright—a waning gibbous—Tom Harrisson, director of Mass-Observation’s network of social observers, sent a special message to his many diarists: “
In the case of air raids observers will not be expected to stand about…it will be entirely satisfactory if observers take shelter, so long as they are able to take shelter with
a lot of other people.
The opportunity for observing human behavior at its most raw was just too perfect.
Hitler made two decisions that would influence the duration and character of the coming war.
At noon, on the advice of a trusted senior general, Hitler ordered his armored divisions to halt their advance against the British Expeditionary Force. Hitler agreed with the general's recommendation that his tanks and crews be given a chance to regroup before a planned advance to the south. German forces already had sustained major losses in the so-called campaign in the west:
27,074 soldiers dead, 111,034 more wounded, and another 18,384 missingâa blow to the German public, who had been led to expect a brief, tidy war. The halt order, which gave the British a lifesaving pause, perplexed British and German commanders alike. The Luftwaffe's general field marshal Albert Kesselring later called it a “
Kesselring was all the more surprised when suddenly the task of destroying the fleeing British force was assigned to him and his air fleet. Luftwaffe chief Hermann GÃ¶ring had promised Hitler that his air force could destroy the BEF on its ownâa promise that had little grounding in reality, Kesselring knew, especially given the exhaustion of his pilots and the spirited attacks by RAF pilots flying the latest Spitfires.
That same Friday, further swayed by GÃ¶ring's belief in the near-magical power of his air force, Hitler issued Directive No. 13, one of a series of broad strategic orders he would issue throughout the war. “
The task of the Air Force will be to break all enemy resistance on the part of the surrounded forces, to prevent the escape of the English forces across the Channel,” the directive read. It authorized the Luftwaffe “to attack the English homeland in the fullest manner, as soon as sufficient forces are available.”
ÃRINGâLARGE, BUOYANT, RUTHLESS, CRUELâHAD
used his close connection to Hitler to win this commission, deploying the sheer strength of his ebullient and joyously corrupt personality to overcome Hitler's misgivings, at least for the time being. Although on paper Hitler's official number two man was Deputy FÃ¼hrer Rudolf Hess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hoess, who ran Auschwitz), GÃ¶ring was his favorite. GÃ¶ring had built the Luftwaffe from nothing into the most powerful air force in the world. “
When I talk with GÃ¶ring, it's like a bath in steel for me,” Hitler told Nazi architect Albert Speer. “I feel fresh afterward. The Reich Marshal has a stimulating way of presenting things.” Hitler did not feel this way toward his official deputy
“With Hess,” Hitler said, “every conversation becomes an unbearably tormenting strain. He always comes to me with unpleasant matters and won't leave off.” When the war began, Hitler chose GÃ¶ring to be his primary successor, with Hess next in line.
In addition to the air force, GÃ¶ring held enormous power over other realms within Germany, as evident in his many official titles: president of the Defense Council, commissioner for the Four-Year Plan, president of the Reichstag, prime minister of Prussia, and minister of forests and hunting, this last an acknowledgment of his personal love for medieval history. He had grown up on the grounds of a feudal castle that had turrets and walls with machicolations designed for the dispersion of stones and boiling oil onto any assailants below. According to one British intelligence report, “
In his childhood games he always played the part of a robber knight or led the village boys in some imitation military maneuver.” GÃ¶ring held full control over German heavy industry. Another British assessment concluded that “this man of abnormal ruthlessness and energy now holds almost all the threads of power in Germany.”
On the side, GÃ¶ring ran a criminal empire of art dealers and thugs who provided him with a museum's worth of art that was either stolen or bought at coercively low prices, much of it considered “ownerless Jewish art” and confiscated from Jewish householdsâin all, fourteen hundred paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, including Van Gogh's
Bridge at Langlois in Arles
and works by Renoir, Botticelli, and Monet. The term “ownerless” was a Nazi designation applied to works of art left behind by fleeing and deported Jews. In the course of the war, while ostensibly traveling on Luftwaffe business, GÃ¶ring would visit Paris twenty times, often aboard one of his four “special trains,” to review and select works gathered by his agents at the Jeu de Paume, a museum in the Jardin des Tuileries. By the fall of 1942, he had acquired 596 works from this source alone. He displayed hundreds of his best pieces at Carinhall, his country home and, increasingly often, his headquarters, named for his first wife, Carin, who had died in 1931.
Paintings hung on the walls, from floor to ceiling, in multiple tiers that emphasized not their beauty and worth but, rather, the acquisitiveness of their new owner. His demand for fine things, especially those rendered in gold, was fed as well by a kind of institutional larceny.
Every year, his underlings were compelled to contribute money for the purchase of an expensive present for his birthday.
GÃ¶ring designed Carinhall to evoke a medieval hunting lodge, and built it in an ancient forest forty-five miles north of Berlin. He also erected an immense mausoleum on the grounds for the body of his late wife, framed with large sarsen stones that evoked the sandstone blocks at Stonehenge. He married again, an actress named Emmy Sonnemann, on April 10, 1935, in a ceremony at Berlin Cathedral, attended by Hitler, as formations of Luftwaffe bombers flew overhead.
GÃ¶ring also had a passion for extravagant sartorial display. He designed his own uniforms, the flashier the better, with medals and epaulettes and silver filigree, often changing clothes multiple times in the course of a day. He was known to wear more eccentric costumes as well, including tunics, togas, and sandals, which he accented by painting his toenails red and applying makeup to his cheeks. On his right hand he wore a large ring with six diamonds; on his left, an emerald said to be an inch square. He strode the grounds of Carinhall like an oversized Robin Hood, in a belted jacket of green leather, with a large hunting knife tucked into his belt, and carrying a staff.
One German general reported being summoned for a meeting with GÃ¶ring and finding him “sitting there dressed in the following way: a green silk shirt embroidered in gold, with gold thread running through it, and a large monocle. His hair had been dyed yellow, his eyebrows were penciled, his cheeks rougedâhe was wearing violet silk stockings and black patent leather pumps. He was sitting there looking like a jellyfish.”
To outside observers, GÃ¶ring seemed to have a limited grip on sanity, but an American interrogator, General Carl Spaatz, would later write that GÃ¶ring, “
despite rumors to the contrary, is far from mentally deranged. In fact he must be considered a very âshrewd customer,' a great actor and professional liar.” The public loved him, forgiving his legendary excesses and coarse personality. The American correspondent William Shirer, in his diary, sought to explain this seeming paradox: “
Where Hitler is distant, legendary, nebulous, an enigma as a human being, GÃ¶ring is a salty, earthy, lusty man of flesh and blood. The Germans like him because they understand him. He has the faults and virtues of the average man, and the people admire him for both. He has a child's love for uniforms and medals. So have they.”
Shirer detected no resentment among the public directed toward the “fantastic, medievalâand very expensiveâpersonal life he leads. It is the sort of life they would lead themselves, perhaps, if they had the chance.”
GÃ¶ring was revered by the officers who served himâat first. “
We swore by the
and worshipped GÃ¶ring,” wrote one bomber pilot, who attributed GÃ¶ring's cachet to his performance in the prior war when he was a top ace, legendary for his courage. But some of his officers and pilots were now growing disenchanted. Behind his back they began calling him “the Fat One.” One of his top fighter pilots, Adolf Galland, came to know him well and repeatedly clashed with him over tactics. GÃ¶ring was easily influenced by a “
small clique of sycophants,” Galland said. “His court favorites changed frequently since his favor could only be won and held by means of constant flattery, intrigue and expensive gifts.” More worrisome, in Galland's view, was that GÃ¶ring seemed not to understand that aerial warfare had advanced radically since the prior war. “
GÃ¶ring was a man with almost no technical knowledge and no appreciation of the conditions under which modern fighter aircraft fought.”
But GÃ¶ring's worst error, according to Galland, was hiring a friend, Beppo Schmid, to head the Luftwaffe's intelligence arm, responsible for determining the day-to-day strength of the British air forceâan appointment soon to have grave consequences. “
Beppo Schmid,” Galland said, “was a complete wash-out as intelligence officer, the most important job of all.”
Nonetheless, GÃ¶ring paid attention only to him. He trusted Schmid as a friend but, more importantly, reveled in the happy news that he seemed always ready to provide.
When Hitler turned to the daunting task of conquering Britain, naturally he came to GÃ¶ring, and GÃ¶ring was delighted. In the western campaign, it was the army, especially its armored divisions, that won all the honors, with the air force playing a secondary role, providing ground support. Now the Luftwaffe would have its chance to achieve glory, and GÃ¶ring had no doubt that it would prevail.