The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (9 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
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C
HAPTER 10
Apparition
 

M
ONDAY,
J
UNE 10, FOUND
C
HURCHILL
in a foul mood, one of those rare times when the war eroded his outward buoyancy. Italy had declared war on Britain and France, drawing from him a minatory quip: “
People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii in future.”

This and the situation in France combined to make No. 10 Downing Street a stormy locale. “
He was in a very bad temper,” wrote Jock Colville, “snapped almost everybody’s head off, wrote angry minutes to the First Sea Lord, and refused to pay any attention to messages given him orally.” When Churchill was in such a mood, it was usually the person nearest at hand who caught the brunt of it, and that person was often his loyal and long-suffering detective, Inspector Thompson. “
He would turn on any handy person and let off steam,” Thompson recalled. “Because I was
always
handy, I got a good many of these scaldings. Nothing I seemed to do appeared correct in his eyes. I bored him. The necessity of my job bored him. My everlasting ubiquity must have bored him to death. It even bored me.” Churchill’s sniping at times disheartened Thompson, and made him feel a failure. “I kept wishing somebody would attack him so I could shoot the attacker,” he wrote.

It was also the case, however, that Churchill’s hostile moods faded quickly. He would never apologize, but he managed to communicate through other means that the storm had passed. “
He has been accused of being bad-tempered,” explained Lord Beaverbrook, who, as minister of aircraft production, was himself often a target of Churchill’s ire. “It isn’t true. He could get very emotional, but after bitterly criticizing you he had a habit of touching you, of putting his hand on your hand—like that—as if to say that his real feelings for you were not changed. A wonderful display of humanity.”

The weather did not help. In a departure from the long stretch of warmth and sun, the day was dark, eerily so. “
Pitch dark,” wrote Alexander Cadogan, undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Britain’s senior diplomat, a prominent diarist of the era. Another diarist, Olivia Cockett, a clerk with Scotland Yard and a prolific member of the Mass-Observation panel, wrote: “
The black heavy clouds continue all day, though no rain falls, and they are the chief subject of conversation. Rather touchy moods all round.” She overheard someone say, “The day Christ was crucified it came dark like this, something terrible will happen.”

Churchill’s main preoccupation was France. It irked him that, despite his several trips to France, he remained powerless to influence events and to ignite a French resurgence. Paris was expected to fall within forty-eight hours, and the French seemed certain to capitulate. He had not yet given up, however. He still believed that with his presence, his encouragement, perhaps some stirring remark or pledge, he might be able to revive the French corpse. He got the chance on Tuesday, June 11, when Prime Minister Reynaud summoned him again, this time to Briare, a small town on the Loire a hundred miles south of Paris. The conference sparked nothing; it merely underscored how bad things had gotten. Hoping to rouse the prime minister, Churchill, in a rush of bad French and good English, vowed to fight on no matter what, alone if necessary—“
on and on and on,
toujours,
all the time, everywhere,
partout, pas de grâce,
no mercy.
Puis la victoire!

The French were unmoved.

The meeting did succeed, however, in searing into the minds of several French officers a singular image: that of Churchill, angered by the French failure to prepare his afternoon bath, bursting through a set of double doors wearing a red kimono and a white belt, exclaiming,
“Uh ay ma bain?”
—his French version of the question “Where is my bath?” One witness reported that in his fury he looked like “
an angry Japanese genie.”

So disconsolate were the French, and clearly so close to giving up, that Churchill renewed his determination not to send RAF fighters to help. He told the French he was not being selfish, merely prudent; that only the fighter force could stop the expected assault against England. “We grieve that we cannot help more,” he said, “but we cannot.”


F
OR
J
OCK
C
OLVILLE, THERE
was personal anxiety as well. He knew that many of the British soldiers still in France were being evacuated from Cherbourg, and he hoped his brother Philip was among them. Some of Philip’s luggage had arrived in London, a hopeful sign, but much danger remained.

With both of his brothers in the war, and so many of his peers, Colville now decided that he, too, needed to join the fight. He believed that the best path lay through the Royal Navy, and he told this to his immediate boss, Eric Seal, Churchill’s senior private secretary. Seal promised to help, but found he could do nothing. A lot of young men throughout Whitehall had the same aspirations as Colville, including many in the diplomatic service, and this had become a problem. For the time being, at least, the Foreign Office was refusing to release any of its young men for military duty. Colville resolved to keep trying.


O
N
W
EDNESDAY,
J
UNE 12,
as Churchill and his party concluded their meetings in France, U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy sent a confidential cable to his chief, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, offering another jaundiced appraisal of England’s prospects.
The empire’s preparedness was, he related, “appallingly weak” relative to Germany’s great strength. “Pitiful,” he wrote. All England possessed was courage. What kept Churchill going, Kennedy stated, was his belief that the United States would enter the war soon after the upcoming presidential election, on November 5, in which Roosevelt seemed increasingly likely to run. Churchill, he wrote, believed “that when the people in the United States see the towns and cities of England, after which so many American cities and towns have been named, bombed and destroyed they will line up and want war.”

Kennedy cited a report from an English correspondent in America who had written that all that was needed was “an ‘incident’ to bring the United States in.” Kennedy found this alarming. “If that were all that were needed, desperate people will do desperate things,” he warned.


T
HERE WAS FORBIDDING NEWS
from another quarter. That Wednesday morning, June 12, Churchill’s newly appointed personal scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann, known universally as the Prof, convened a meeting with a young scientist from the intelligence branch of the Air Ministry, Dr. Reginald V. Jones, a former student of his who now, at the age of twenty-eight, had the lofty title of deputy director of intelligence research.

The meeting was supposed to focus on whether Germany had succeeded in developing and deploying its own radar system, something the British had done before the war and now used to great, and secret, advantage, with a network of coastal towers—the “Chain Home” stations—that gave accurate advance warning of the approach of German aircraft. The meeting, however, soon veered in another direction, to reveal a terrifying prospect: a technological advance that, if real, would give Germany a huge advantage in the air war.

Part Two
 
A CERTAIN EVENTUALITY

J
UNE–
A
UGUST

C
HAPTER 11
The Mystery of Swan Castle
 

T
HE
P
ROF—
L
INDEMANN—LISTENED WITH
growing skepticism. What Dr. Jones, the young air force intelligence man, was now proposing went against all that physicists understood about the propagation of radio waves over long distances. The bits of intelligence Jones presented were compelling, but they surely meant something other than what Jones imagined.

It was the Prof’s job to assess the world with scientific objectivity. Fifty-four years old, an Oxford physicist, he was one of the first men Churchill had brought into his ministry, in accord with the prime minister’s belief that in this new war, advances in technology would play an important role. This had already proved the case with radar, a happy by-product of far less successful research into the feasibility of creating a “death ray” capable of destroying aircraft outright. Likewise, the British were becoming adept at intercepting and decrypting Luftwaffe communications, these processed at Bletchley Park, the ultrasecret home of the Government Code and Cypher School, where codebreakers had cracked the secrets of the German “Enigma” encryption machine.

Lindemann had previously run an Admiralty office established to provide Churchill, as first lord, with as rich a grasp as possible of the day-to-day readiness of the Royal Navy. Immediately after becoming prime minister, Churchill put Lindemann in charge of a successor bureau with a much broader purview, the Prime Minister’s Statistical Department, and made him his special scientific adviser, with the formal title of personal assistant to the prime minister. Together the two roles gave Lindemann license to explore any scientific, technical, or economic matter that might influence the progress of the war, a compelling mandate but one certain to ignite jealousy within the ministerial fiefdoms of Whitehall.

What further complicated things was Lindemann himself, whose main achievement, according to foreign-affairs undersecretary Cadogan, “
was to unite against him any body of men with whom he came in contact.”

He was a tall, pale man, given to wearing stiff-fronted “boiled” shirts, rigid collars, and ties knotted to a wasp’s waist at his neck. His pallor matched the gray of his suits. He always wore an immense black bowler and an overcoat with a velvet collar, and carried an umbrella. His expression was invariably one of contemptuous appraisal, this imparted by lips perpetually turned down at the ends. He seemed ageless—or, rather, always aged, recalled Lady Juliet Townsend, daughter of Lord Birkenhead, a close friend of Lindemann’s and his eventual biographer. “
I think he was probably one of those people who got to look quite old quite early on,” she said, “and then just went on looking the same for twenty years.” It was Townsend who as a child assigned Lindemann the nickname “Prof.” Whether one called him Prof or
the
Prof was a matter of personal preference.

Contradiction defined Lindemann. He hated black people, and yet for years played tennis with a doubles partner who was West Indian. He disliked Jews, on one occasion describing a fellow physicist as a “
d-dirty l-little Jew,” yet counted Albert Einstein as a friend and, during Hitler’s rise, helped Jewish physicists escape Germany. He was binary in his affections. His friends could do no wrong, his enemies no right. Once crossed, he remained so, for life. “
His memory,” wrote John Colville, “was not just comprehensive; in recording past slights it was elephantine.”

And yet by all counts, women and children loved him. He was a favorite of Churchill’s family and never forgot a birthday. He was beloved in particular by Clementine, who had little affection for most of the ministers and generals with whom Churchill associated. Lindemann’s outward austerity masked an inner sensitivity to public perception sufficiently profound that he would never wear a wristwatch, for fear it looked unmanly. He was assiduous about keeping secret the pet name his parents had given him as a child: Peach.

He had to be the best at whatever he pursued and played tennis at a nearly professional level, once even competing in a doubles match at Wimbledon. He often played with Clementine but never exhibited any outward sense of joy, according to his sister, Linda. He seemed always to be fighting some interior battle: “
Peach at luncheon shining with quite appalling general knowledge which made all conversation a nightmare of pitfalls. Peach determinedly playing chess, playing tennis, playing the piano. Poor Peach, never really playing at all.”

Through an accident of timing that Lindemann attributed to the selfishness of his mother, he was born not in England but in Germany, at the spa town of Baden-Baden, on April 5, 1886. “
The fact that she knew her time was drawing near and yet chose to give birth to him on German territory was a source of life-long annoyance to Lindemann,” wrote Lord Birkenhead. Lindemann saw himself as anything but German and, in fact, loathed Germany, yet because of his birthplace found himself during the past war, and now again during the new one, the target of suspicions as to his national allegiance. Even Colville noted, early on, “
His foreign connections are fishy.”

Lindemann’s mother had another lasting influence that later shaped how people viewed him. It was she who, while he was a child, placed him and his siblings on a strict vegetarian diet. She and the rest soon abandoned the regimen; he alone held to it, and with a vengeful obstinance. Day after day, he consumed enormous quantities of egg whites (never the yolks) and mayonnaise made from olive oil. He also had a sweet tooth of the first magnitude, with a special passion for filled chocolates, in particular Fuller’s chocolate creams. By his own careful measure, he consumed up to two hundred grams of sugar a day, equivalent to forty-eight teaspoons.

Lindemann and Churchill first met in the summer of 1921, at a dinner in London, and over time became friends. In 1932, they toured Germany together to visit battlefields fought upon by Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, about whom Churchill was then writing a biography. While tooling around the countryside in the Prof’s Rolls-Royce (he had inherited great wealth upon the death of his father), they became aware of an undercurrent of bellicose nationalism. Alarmed, they began working together to collect as much information as possible about the rise of militarism in Hitler’s Germany, and to awaken Britain to the coming danger. Churchill’s home became a kind of intelligence center for amassing inside information about Germany.

Lindemann felt a professional kinship with Churchill. He saw him as a man who should have been a scientist but had missed his vocation. Churchill, in turn, marveled at Lindemann’s ability to recall details and to distill complex subjects to their fundamental elements. He often described the Prof as having a “
beautiful brain.”


L
INDEMANN’S MEETING WITH
Dr. Jones began, as planned, with the question of whether Germany had mastered the art of detecting aircraft using radio waves. Jones was certain the Germans had done so, and cited intelligence to support his view. As the meeting came to a close, Jones changed the subject. Something had happened earlier that day that troubled him. A colleague, Group Captain L. F. Blandy, head of the RAF unit responsible for listening in on German radio transmissions, had given Jones a copy of a Luftwaffe message deciphered at Bletchley Park.


Does this mean anything to you?” Blandy had asked. “It doesn’t seem to mean much to anybody here.”

The message was brief, and included a geographic position rendered in latitude and longitude, along with what appeared to be two German nouns,
Cleves
and
Knickebein
. As best Jones could make out, the message, translated, said: “
Cleves
Knickebein
is confirmed [or established] at position 53° 24
'
north and 1° west.”

Jones was startled. The message, he told Blandy, meant
everything
to him.

It fit into a mosaic that lay partially completed at the back of his mind, consisting of fragments of intelligence that had drawn his attention over the preceding months. He had seen the word
Knickebein
once before, on a piece of paper found in the wreckage of a German bomber downed in March 1940; it bore the phrase “Radio Beacon
Knickebein
.” More recently, after the RAF’s Air Intelligence Branch had made it routine practice to eavesdrop on conversations between prisoners, he had listened to a recording of two captured German fliers discussing what seemed to be a secret wireless navigation system.

And then came this latest message. Jones knew that
Knickebein
in English meant “crooked leg” or “dog’s leg,” and he believed that
Cleves
most likely referred to a town in Germany, known also by the spelling Kleve.
The town had a famous castle, Schwanenburg, or Swan Castle, where supposedly Anne of Cleves resided before heading to England to become the fourth wife of Henry VIII. Swan Castle and the legend of the knight Lohengrin were thought to have influenced Wagner in his creation of the famed opera that bears the knight’s name.

Suddenly the pieces fit together in a way that made sense to Jones, though what he concluded seemed improbable. He was twenty-eight years old. If wrong, he would seem a fool. But if he was right, his discovery could save untold numbers of lives.

He knew that the geographic coordinates cited in the newly intercepted message identified a point south of the town of Retford, in England’s industrial Midlands. A line drawn from Cleves to Retford would delineate a vector, possibly an aircraft’s course or radio transmission—a beam or beacon—as evinced by the phrase “Radio Beacon
Knickebein
.” The term “crooked leg” suggested an intersection of some kind and, by Jones’s reckoning, raised the possibility that a second beam might intersect the first. This would have the effect of marking a precise geographic location on the ground, perhaps a city or even an individual factory. A technology already existed to guide commercial and military aircraft using radio beams, but only over short distances, to help them land in conditions of limited visibility. Known as the Lorenz blind-landing system, after its inventor, C. Lorenz AG of Germany, the technology was familiar to both sides, and was in use at airports and military airfields in England and Germany. It struck Jones that the Luftwaffe might have found a way to project a Lorenz-like beam all the way across the channel to targets inside England.

The prospect was deeply troubling. As things stood now, bomber pilots flying at night needed clear skies and moonlight if they hoped to achieve any degree of accuracy. With a system of the kind Jones imagined, German bombers could range over England on any night, without having to wait for a full moon or its brightest waxing and waning phases, even in weather that would keep RAF fighters grounded. The RAF was confident that it could counter air raids conducted by day, but at night its fighters had little ability to find and engage enemy aircraft, despite England’s radar network. Combat required visual contact, and ground radar simply was not precise enough to bring RAF pilots close enough to afford it. By the time the pilots received radar fixes from controllers at Fighter Command, the German bombers would already be in a different location, possibly at new altitudes and on different headings.

Now, at his morning meeting with the Prof, Jones laid out his theory. He was excited, certain that he had stumbled on a secret new German technology. But Lindemann—pallid, ascetic, lips turned down, as always—told him that what he proposed was impossible. Conventional blind-landing beams traveled only in straight lines, meaning that, owing to the curvature of the earth, by the time a beam from Germany traveled the needed two hundred or more miles to the skies above a given target in England, it would be beyond the reach of even the highest-flying bomber. This was accepted doctrine. And Lindemann, once convinced of a thing, was a very hard man to bend. As one close associate, Roy Harrod, put it, “
I have never met anyone who, when once he was convinced by his own reasonings, was so deeply and unshakably convinced.”

Discouraged but not yet vanquished, Jones returned to his office to consider his next move. He arranged a second meeting with Lindemann for the next day.


A
T ELEVEN O’CLOCK ON
Thursday morning, Churchill again took off for France, for what would prove to be his last face-to-face meeting with French leaders. He brought Pug Ismay, Halifax, Cadogan, and Major General Edward Spears, the British liaison to the French army, and this time even Lord Beaverbrook, once again putting at risk a significant portion of Britain’s government. The airfield to which they were headed, at Tours, had been bombed just the night before. For Mary Churchill and her mother, the flight meant another day of anxiety. “
I do
hate
it when he goes,” Mary wrote in her diary. “We all have a ghastly premonition that the French are going to give in. O God! France can’t do it! She must go on—she must go on.”

The field was deserted and desolate, cratered from the night’s raid. French fliers lazed among the hangars, showing little interest in the new arrivals. Churchill walked up to a group of airmen and introduced himself, in awful French, as Britain’s prime minister. They gave him a small touring car—hard for Churchill to fit into, let alone Halifax, who was six feet five inches tall. Thus crammed into the car, like characters in a slapstick movie, they set off for the local
préfecture,
which housed local representatives of the national government. Here they found just two officials, French prime minister Reynaud and his undersecretary for foreign affairs, Paul Baudouin. Reynaud sat behind a desk; Churchill chose a deep armchair and nearly disappeared from view.

Unlike at the previous meeting in Briare, Churchill made no effort to appear affable. He looked “
extremely stern and concentrated,” wrote General Spears. Pug Ismay, no longer the lovable human canine, also wore a severe expression. Beaverbrook jingled coins in his pocket, “as if feeling for a coin with which to tip someone,” Spears observed. His face was flushed, his hair—what little he had—wild. “His round head looked like a cannon-ball that might be projected at any moment at Reynaud by the powerful spring his small, tense body provided.”

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