Authors: Erik Larson
RANCE TOTTERED, AND
planes battered British and French forces massing at Dunkirk, private secretary John Colville struggled with a long-standing and, for him, wrenching quandary.
He was in love.
The object of his adoration was Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford and the daughter of David Margesson, the former appeaser whom Clementine Churchill had savaged over lunch. Two years earlier, Colville had asked Gay to marry him, but she had declined, and ever since he had felt both drawn to her and repelled by her unwillingness to return his affections. His disappointment made him look for, and find, faults in her personality and behavior. This did not stop him, however, from trying to see her as often as he could.
On Wednesday, May 22, he telephoned her to confirm arrangements for the coming weekend, when he was to visit her at Oxford. She was evasive. She told him first that there was no point in his coming because she would be working, but then changed her story and told him that there was something she planned to do that afternoon at school. He persuaded her to honor their plans, since they had arranged the visit weeks earlier. She relented. “
She did so with an ill-grace and I felt very hurt that she [should] prefer some miserable undergraduate arrangement, which she had made at Oxford, to seeing me,” he wrote. “It is extraordinary to be quite so inconsiderate about other people’s feelings when one pretends to be fond of them.”
The weekend began on an optimistic note, however. He drove to Oxford on Saturday morning, through lovely spring weather suffused with sunshine. But as he arrived, clouds filled the sky. After lunch at a pub, he and Gay drove to Clifton Hampden, a village south of Oxford on the Thames, and spent time lying in the grass, talking. Gay was depressed about the war and the horror that seemed certain to come. “Nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves,” Colville wrote, “and for me it was sufficient bliss to be with her.”
The next day they walked together on the grounds of Magdalen College and sat for a time talking, but the talk was dull. They went to her room. Nothing happened. She studied French; he took a nap. Later, they clashed over politics, Gay having recently declared herself a socialist. They strolled along the Thames (called Isis within the bounds of the city of Oxford), with its many punts and painted barges, until toward evening they found themselves at the Trout Inn—“the Trout,” for short—a seventeenth-century pub beside the river.
The sun emerged and the weather turned “glorious,” Colville wrote, producing “a blue sky, a setting sun and enough clouds to make the sun still more effective.”
They dined at a table with views of a waterfall, an old bridge, and an adjacent forest, then walked along a towpath as children played nearby and plovers called to one another. “There has never been a more beautiful setting in which to be happy,” Colville wrote, “and I have never felt greater serenity or contentment.”
Gay felt likewise. She told Colville that “happiness could only be attained if one lived for the moment.”
This seemed promising. But then, upon returning to her room, Gay reiterated her decision that she and Colville would never marry. He promised to wait, in case she changed her mind. “She urged me not to be in love with her,” he wrote, “but I told her that to have her as my wife was the greatest ambition I had, and that I could not give up crying for the moon, when the moon meant everything in life to me.”
He spent Sunday night on a sofa in a cottage on the grounds of a nearby estate owned by the family of a sister-in-law, Joan.
ONDON THAT EVENING,
May 26, just before seven
, Churchill ordered the start of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the French coast.
his armored columns to resume their advance against the BEF, which now crowded the port city of Dunkirk. His forces moved more tentatively than expected, content to let Göring’s bombers and fighters finish the task at hand.
But Göring harbored a distorted perception of what by now was unfolding off the coast of Dunkirk, as British soldiers—nicknamed Tommies—prepared to evacuate.
Only a few fishing boats are coming across,” he said on Monday, May 27. “One hopes that the Tommies know how to swim.”
HE ESCAPE RIVETED THE WORLD.
In his diary, the king kept a daily count of how many men had gotten away. The Foreign Office sent Roosevelt detailed daily updates. Initially the Admiralty had expected that at best 45,000 men would escape; Churchill himself estimated a maximum of 50,000. The tally for the first day—just 7,700 men—seemed to suggest that both estimates were generous. The second day, Tuesday, May 28, was better, with 17,800 men evacuated, but still nowhere near the kind of volume Britain would need to reconstitute a viable army. Throughout, however, Churchill never flagged. Far from it. He seemed almost enthusiastic. He understood, however, that others did not share his positive outlook; this was underlined on that Tuesday when one member of his War Cabinet said the BEF’s prospects looked “blacker than ever.”
Recognizing that confidence and fearlessness were attitudes that could be adopted and taught by example, Churchill issued a directive to all ministers to put on a strong, positive front. “
In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination.”
Also that day, he sought to put to an end, once and for all, any thought of Britain seeking peace with Hitler. Speaking before twenty-five of his ministers, he told them what he knew about the impending debacle in France and conceded that even he had briefly considered negotiating a peace agreement. But now, he said: “
I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
For a moment, there was stunned silence. Then, to a man, the ministers rose and mobbed him, slapping his back and shouting their approval. Churchill was startled, and relieved.
“He was quite magnificent,” wrote one minister, Hugh Dalton. “The man, and the only man we have, for this hour.”
Here, as in other speeches, Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all, more courageous.
John Martin, one of his private secretaries, believed that he “gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong.” Under his leadership, Martin wrote, Britons began to see themselves as “protagonists on a vaster scene and as champions of a high and invincible cause, for which the stars in their courses were fighting.”
He did this on a more intimate level as well.
Inspector Thompson recalled one summer evening at Chartwell, Churchill’s home in Kent, when Churchill was dictating notes to a secretary. At some point he opened a window to admit the cooling country breeze, and in flew a large bat, which began wildly careening through the room, now and then diving at the secretary. She was terrified; Churchill was oblivious. At length he noticed her convulsive ducking and asked if something was wrong. She pointed out the fact that the bat—“a large and extremely hostile bat,” Thompson wrote—was in the room.
“Surely you’re not afraid of a bat, are you?” Churchill asked.
She was indeed afraid.
“I’ll protect you,” he said. “Get on with your work.”
HE EVACUATION FROM
proved successful beyond imagining, aided by Hitler’s pause order and by bad weather over the channel, which thwarted the Luftwaffe. The Tommies did not, after all, have to swim. In the end, 887 vessels carried out the Dunkirk evacuation, of which only a quarter belonged to the Royal Navy. Another 91 were passenger ships, the rest an armada of fishing boats, yachts, and other small craft. In all, 338,226 men got away, including 125,000 French soldiers. Another 120,000 British soldiers still remained in France, including John Colville’s older brother Philip, but were making their way toward evacuation points elsewhere on the coast.
As successful as it was, the evacuation of the BEF was nonetheless deeply frustrating for Churchill. He was desperate to take the offensive. “
How wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island and roof it over,” he wrote to Pug Ismay, his military chief of staff. “An effort must be made to shake off the mental and moral prostration to the will and initiative of the enemy from which we suffer.”
It can be no accident that in the midst of the evacuation, Churchill began adding red adhesive labels exhorting “
ACTION THIS DAY
” to any minute or directive requiring an immediate response. These labels, wrote secretary Martin, “
were treated with respect: it was known that such demands from the summit could not be ignored.”
On June 4, the last day of the evacuation, in an address to the House of Commons, Churchill again turned to oratory, this time to bolster the empire as a whole. First he applauded the success at Dunkirk, though he added a sober reminder: “
Wars are not won by evacuations.”
As he neared the conclusion of the speech, he fired his boilers. “We shall go on to the end,” he said, in a crescendo of ferocity and confidence. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender—”
As the House roared its approval, Churchill muttered to a colleague, “And…we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”
His daughter Mary, who sat in the gallery that day, beside Clementine, found the speech breathtaking. “
It was now that my love and admiration for my father became enhanced by an increasing element of hero-worship,” she wrote.
One young navy man, Ludovic Kennedy, later to achieve fame as a journalist and broadcaster, recalled how “when we heard it, we knew in an instant, that everything would be all right.”
Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, “
I feel so much in the spirit of Winston’s great speech that I could face a world of enemies.” Not, however, to the extent that he abandoned his plan for suicide. He and Vita planned to acquire some form of poison and—borrowing a phrase from
a “bare bodkin” with which to administer it.
He instructed her to keep her bodkin close at hand, “so that you can take your quietus when necessary. I shall have one also. I am not in the least afraid of such sudden and honorable death. What I dread is being tortured and humiliated.”
As stirring as Churchill’s speech was, it did not win the wholehearted approval of all.
Clementine noted that “a great section of the Tory Party”—the Conservative Party—did not react with enthusiasm, and that some even met the speech with “sullen silence.”
David Lloyd George, a former prime minister and current Liberal member of Parliament, called the reception “very half-hearted.”
The next day, Home Intelligence reported that only two newspapers “gave Churchill’s speech headline value” and that the speech had done little to fortify the public. “The final evacuation of the BEF has brought with it a certain feeling of depression,” the office noted. “There is a deflation of tension without a corresponding increase in resolve.” The report found, further, that “some apprehension has been caused throughout the country on account of the PM’s reference to ‘fighting alone.’ This has led to some slight increase in doubt about the intentions of our ally”—meaning France.
One diarist for Mass-Observation, Evelyn Saunders, wrote, “
Churchill’s speech yesterday hasn’t raised my spirits yet, I still feel sick through me.”
But the audience Churchill had mainly in mind when he’d crafted his speech was, once again, America, and there it was viewed as an unequivocal success, as might be expected, since the hills and beaches to be fought upon were four thousand miles away. Though he never mentioned America directly, Churchill intended that his speech communicate to Roosevelt and Congress that whatever the setback of Dunkirk, and regardless of what France did next, Britain was wholly committed to victory.
The speech also sent a signal to Hitler, reiterating Churchill’s resolve to fight on. Whether the speech had anything to do with it or not, the next day, Wednesday, June 5, German aircraft began bombing targets on the English mainland for the first time—deploying a few bombers, accompanied by clouds of fighters. This raid, and others that immediately followed, perplexed RAF commanders. The Luftwaffe lost aircraft and men largely in vain. In the course of one night’s raids, bombs fell onto pastures and forests around Devon, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, and elsewhere, doing little damage.
The RAF presumed these to be practice raids meant to test England’s defenses in preparation for the invasion to come. Hitler, as feared, seemed now to have turned his gaze toward the British Isles.
HURCHILL DID NOT
address in his speech was an underappreciated element of the Dunkirk evacuation. To those who cared to look, the fact that more than three hundred thousand men had managed to cross the channel in the face of concerted aerial and ground attack carried a darker lesson. It suggested that deterring a massive German invasion force might be more difficult than British commanders had assumed, especially if that force, like the evacuation fleet at Dunkirk, was composed of many hundreds of small ships, barges, and speedboats.
Wrote General Edmund Ironside, commander of Britain’s Home Forces, “
It brings me to the fact that the Bosches may equally well be able to land men in England despite [RAF] bombing.”
He feared, in effect, a reverse Dunkirk.