Authors: Erik Larson
Churchill’s appointment enraged the wife of one member of Parliament, who likened him to Hermann Göring, the obese, brutal chief of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, and the second most powerful man in the Third Reich. “
W.C. is really the counterpart of Göring in England,” she wrote, “full of the desire for blood, ‘Blitzkrieg,’ and bloated with ego and over-feeding, the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air.”
But a civilian diarist named Nella Last had a different view, one she reported to Mass-Observation, an organization launched in Britain two years before the war that recruited hundreds of volunteers to keep daily diaries with the goal of helping sociologists better understand ordinary British life. The diarists were encouraged to hone their observational skills by describing everything on their own fireplace mantels and on the mantels of friends. Many volunteers, like Last, kept their diaries throughout the war. “
If I had to spend my whole life with a man,” she wrote, “I’d choose Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked.”
The public and Churchill’s allies greeted his appointment with applause. Letters and telegrams of congratulations arrived at Admiralty House in a torrent. Two of these surely tickled Churchill, both from women with whom he had been friends for a long time, and who at varying points may have harbored romantic aspirations. Clementine certainly wondered, and was said to be wary of both women.
My wish is realized,” wrote Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of H. H. Asquith, the former prime minister, who’d died in 1928. “I can now face all that is to come with faith & confidence.” She knew Churchill well and had no doubt that his energy and pugnacity would transfigure the office. “I know, as you do, that the wind has been sown, & that, we must
reap the whirlwind,” she wrote. “But you will ride it—instead of being driven before it—Thank Heaven that you are there, & at the helm of our destiny—& may the nation’s spirit be kindled by your own.”
The second letter was from Venetia Stanley, the woman who had carried on the epistolary affair with Asquith. “Darling,” Venetia wrote now to Churchill, “I want to add my voice to the great paean of joy which has gone up all over the
world when you became PM. Thank God at last.” She rejoiced, she told him, in the fact that “you have been given the chance of saving us all.”
She added a postscript: “Incidentally how nice to have No. 10 once more occupied by someone one
MERICA LOOMED LARGE IN
thinking about the war and its ultimate outcome. Hitler seemed poised to overwhelm Europe. Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, was believed to be far larger and more powerful than Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF, and its submarines and surface raiders were by now severely impeding the flow of food, arms, and raw materials that were so vital to the island nation. The prior war had shown how potent the United States could be as a military force, when roused to action; now it alone seemed to have the wherewithal to even the sides.
Just how important America was in Churchill’s strategic thinking became evident to his son, Randolph, one morning soon after Churchill’s appointment, when Randolph walked into his father’s bedroom at Admiralty House and found him standing before a washbasin and mirror, shaving. Randolph was home on leave from the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, Churchill’s old regiment, in which Randolph now served as an officer.
Sit down, dear boy, and read the papers while I finish shaving,” Churchill told him.
After a few moments, Churchill made a half turn toward his son. “I think I see my way through,” he said.
He turned back to the mirror.
Randolph understood that his father was talking about the war. The remark startled him, he recalled, for he himself saw little chance that Britain could win. “Do you mean that we can avoid defeat?” Randolph asked. “Or beat the bastards?”
At this, Churchill threw his razor into the basin and whirled to face his son. “Of course I mean we can beat them,” he snapped.
“Well, I’m all for it,” Randolph said, “but I don’t see how you can do it.”
Churchill dried his face. “I shall drag the United States in.”
MERICA, THE PUBLIC
had no interest in being dragged anywhere, least of all into a war in Europe. This was a change from early in the conflict, when a Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans felt that if in the coming months France and Britain seemed certain to be defeated, the United States should declare war on Germany and send troops; 48 percent said no. But Hitler’s invasion of the Low Countries drastically altered the public’s attitude. In a poll taken in May 1940, Gallup found that 93 percent opposed a declaration of war, a stance known as isolationism. The U.S. Congress had previously codified this antipathy with the passage, starting in 1935, of a series of laws, the Neutrality Acts, that closely regulated the export of weapons and munitions and barred their transport on American ships to any nation at war. Americans were sympathetic toward England, but now came questions as to just how stable the British Empire was, having thrown out its government on the same day that Hitler invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
On Saturday morning, May 11, President Roosevelt convened a cabinet meeting at the White House at which England’s new prime minister became a topic of discussion. The central question was whether he could possibly prevail in this newly expanded war. Roosevelt had exchanged communiqués with Churchill a number of times in the past, while Churchill was first lord of the Admiralty, but had kept these secret for fear of inflaming American public opinion. The overall tone of the cabinet meeting was skeptical.
Among those present was Harold L. Ickes, secretary of the interior, an influential adviser to Roosevelt who was credited with implementing Roosevelt’s program of social works and financial reforms known as the New Deal. “
Apparently,” Ickes said, “Churchill is very unreliable under the influence of drink.” Ickes further dismissed Churchill as “too old.” According to Frances Perkins, secretary of labor, during this meeting Roosevelt seemed “uncertain” about Churchill.
Doubts about the new prime minister, in particular his consumption of alcohol, had been sown well before the meeting, however. In February 1940, Sumner Welles, undersecretary of the U.S. State Department, had set off on an international tour, the “Welles Mission,” to meet with leaders in Berlin, London, Rome, and Paris, to gauge political conditions in Europe. Among those he visited was Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty. Welles wrote about the encounter in his subsequent report: “
When I was shown into his office Mr. Churchill was sitting in front of the fire, smoking a 24-inch cigar, and drinking a whiskey and soda. It was quite obvious that he had consumed a good many whiskeys before I arrived.”
The main source of skepticism about Churchill, however, was America’s ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, who disliked the prime minister and repeatedly filed pessimistic reports about Britain’s prospects and Churchill’s character.
At one point Kennedy repeated to Roosevelt the gist of a remark made by Chamberlain, that Churchill “has developed into a fine two-handed drinker and his judgment has never proved good.”
Kennedy, in turn, was not well liked in London. The wife of Churchill’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, detested the ambassador for his pessimism about Britain’s chances for survival and his prediction that the RAF would quickly be crushed.
She wrote, “
I could have killed him with pleasure.”
N HIS FIRST TWENTY-FOUR HOURS
in office, Churchill revealed himself to be a very different kind of prime minister. Where Chamberlain—the Old Umbrella, the Coroner—was staid and deliberate, the new prime minister, true to his reputation, was flamboyant, electric, and wholly unpredictable. One of Churchill’s first acts was to appoint himself minister of defense, which prompted an outgoing official to write in his diary, “
Heaven help us.” The post was a new one, through which Churchill would oversee the chiefs of staff who controlled the army, navy, and air force. He now had full control of the war, and full responsibility.
He moved quickly to build his government, making seven key appointments by noon the next day. He kept Lord Halifax as foreign secretary and, in an act of generosity and loyalty, also included Chamberlain, naming him lord president of the council, a post with a minimal workload that served as a bridge between the government and the king. Rather than evict Chamberlain immediately from the prime ministerial residence at No. 10 Downing Street, Churchill resolved to continue living for a while at Admiralty House, his current home, to give Chamberlain time for a dignified exit. He offered Chamberlain an adjacent townhouse, No. 11 Downing, which Chamberlain had occupied in the 1930s while chancellor of the exchequer.
A new electricity surged through Whitehall. Subdued corridors awoke. “
It was as though the machine had overnight acquired one or two new gears, capable of far higher speeds than had ever before been thought possible,” wrote Edward Bridges, secretary to the War Cabinet. This new energy, unfamiliar and disconcerting, coursed through all bureaucratic strata, from the lowest secretary to the most senior minister. The effect within No. 10 was galvanic. Under Chamberlain, even the advent of war had not altered the pace of work, according to John Colville; but Churchill was a dynamo.
To Colville’s astonishment, “respectable civil servants were actually to be seen running along the corridors.” For Colville and his fellow members of Churchill’s private secretariat, the workload increased to hitherto unimagined levels. Churchill issued directives and commands in brief memoranda known as “minutes,” which he dictated to a typist, one of whom was always on hand, from the moment he awoke until he went to bed. He raged at misspellings and nonsensical phrases caused by what he deemed to be misattention, though in fact the challenge of taking dictation from him was made all the harder by a slight lisplike speech impediment that caused him to muddy his
In the course of transcribing a twenty-seven-page speech, one typist, Elizabeth Layton, who came to 10 Downing in 1941, drew his ire for making a single error, typing “Air
” instead of “Air
” thereby creating a sentence with an unintended, but robust, visual image: “The Air Minister was in a state of chaos from top to bottom.” It could be hard to hear Churchill, however, especially in the morning, when he dictated from bed, according to Layton. Other clarity-distorting factors intruded as well. “
There’s always that cigar,” she remarked, “and usually he paces up and down the room as he dictates, so that sometimes he’s behind your chair and sometimes far across the room.”
No detail was too small to draw his attention, even the phrasing and grammar that ministers used when writing their reports. They were not to use the word “aerodrome” but, rather, “airfield”; not “aeroplane” but “aircraft.” Churchill was particularly insistent that ministers compose memoranda with brevity and limit their length to one page or less. “
It is slothful not to compress your thoughts,” he said.
Such precise and demanding communication installed at all levels a new sense of responsibility for events, and dispelled the fustiness of routine ministerial work. Churchill’s communiqués tumbled forth daily, by the dozens, invariably brief and always written in precise English. It was not uncommon for him to demand an answer on a complex subject before the day was out. “
Anything that was not of immediate importance and a concern to him was of no value,” wrote General Alan Brooke, known as “Brookie” to the secretarial staff at No. 10 Downing Street. “When he wanted something done, everything else had to be dropped.”
The effect, Brooke observed, was “like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration—so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing.”
HAMBERLAIN’S DEPARTURE FROM
No. 10 Downing, Churchill established an office on the ground floor of Admiralty House, where he planned to work at night. A typist and a private secretary occupied the dining room and daily traversed a walkway populated with furniture in a dolphin motif, the backs and arms of chairs rendered in kelp and twisty marine creatures. Churchill’s office occupied an inner room. On his desk he kept a miscellany of pills, powders, and toothpicks, as well as cuffs to protect his sleeves and various gold medals, which he deployed as paperweights. Bottles of whiskey stood on an adjacent table. By day he occupied an office at 10 Downing.
But Churchill’s notion of what constituted an office was expansive. Often generals, ministers, and staff members would find themselves meeting with Churchill while he was in his bathtub, one of his favorite places to work. He also liked working in bed, and spent hours there each morning going through dispatches and reports, with a typist seated nearby. Always present was the Box, a black dispatch box that contained reports, correspondence, and minutes from other officials requiring his attention, replenished daily by his private secretaries.
Nearly every morning one visitor in particular came to Churchill’s bedroom, Major General Hastings Ismay, newly appointed military chief of staff, known lovingly, and universally, as “Pug” for his likeness to that breed of dog. It was Ismay’s job to serve as an intermediary between Churchill and the chiefs of the three military services, helping them to understand him, and him to understand them. Ismay did so with tact, and a diplomat’s grace. Immediately he became one of the central members of what Churchill called his “Secret Circle.” Ismay came to Churchill’s bedroom to discuss matters that would come up later, at the morning meeting of the chiefs of staff. Other times he would simply sit with Churchill, in case he was needed—a warm and calming presence. Pug was a favorite of typists and private secretaries alike. “
The eyes, wrinkling nose, mouth and shape of his face produced a canine effect which was entirely delightful,” wrote John Colville. “When he smiled his face was alight and he gave the impression that he was wagging an easily imaginable tail.”
Ismay was struck by how much the public seemed to need this new prime minister. While walking with him from 10 Downing back to Admiralty House, Ismay marveled at the enthusiastic greeting Churchill got from the men and women they passed. A group of people waiting at the private entrance to No. 10 offered their congratulations and encouragement, with cries of “Good luck, Winnie. God bless you.”
Churchill was deeply moved, Ismay saw. Upon entering the building, Churchill, never afraid to express emotion, began to weep.
Poor people, poor people,” he said. “They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”
What he wanted most to give them was action, as he made clear from the start—action in all realms, from the office to the battlefield. What he especially wanted was for Britain to take the offensive in the war, to do something, anything, to bring the war directly to “that bad man,” his preferred term for Adolf Hitler. As Churchill said on frequent occasions, he wanted Germans to “
bleed and burn.”
Within two days of his taking office, thirty-seven RAF bombers attacked the German city of München-Gladbach, in Germany’s heavily industrialized Ruhr district.
The raid killed four people, one of whom, oddly enough, was an Englishwoman. But mere mayhem wasn’t the point. This mission and other raids soon to follow were meant to signal to the British public, to Hitler, and especially to the United States that Britain intended to fight—the same message that Churchill sought to convey on Monday, May 13, when he gave his first speech before the House of Commons. He spoke with confidence, vowing to achieve victory, but also as a realist who understood the bleak terrain in which Britain now lay. One line stood out with particular clarity: “
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Although later these words would take their place in the pantheon of oratory as among the finest ever spoken—and years later would even receive praise from Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels—at the time, the speech was just another speech, delivered to an audience made newly skeptical by morning-after remorse. John Colville, who despite his new assignment remained loyal to Chamberlain, dismissed it as “
a brilliant little speech.” For the occasion, Colville chose to wear “a bright blue new suit from the Fifty-Shilling Tailors”—a large chain of shops that sold low-cost men’s clothing—“cheap and sensational looking, which I felt was appropriate to the new Government.”
were asserting their hold on the Low Countries with ruthless authority. On May 14, massed bombers of the Luftwaffe, flying at two thousand feet, bombed Rotterdam in what appeared to be an indiscriminate assault, leaving more than eight hundred civilians dead and, in the process, signaling that a similar fate might lie ahead for England. What most alarmed Churchill and his commanders, however, was the startling force with which German armor, accompanied by aircraft acting as aerial artillery, were pummeling Allied forces in Belgium and France, causing French resistance to wither and leaving Britain’s continental army, the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, dangerously exposed. On Tuesday, May 14, the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, telephoned Churchill and begged him to send ten squadrons of RAF fighters to supplement the four already promised, “
if possible today.”
Germany was already claiming triumph. In Berlin that Tuesday, William Shirer, an American correspondent, heard German newscasters declare victory over and over, interrupting the regular radio programming to crow about the latest advance.
First would come a fanfare, then news of the latest success, and after this, as Shirer recorded in his diary, a chorus would sing “the current hit, ‘We March on England.’ ”
At seven-thirty the next morning, Wednesday, May 15, Reynaud called Churchill again, reaching him while he was still in bed. Churchill picked up the phone on his bedside table. Through the scratchy, distant connection he heard Reynaud say, in English: “
We have been defeated.”
Churchill said nothing.
“We are beaten,” Reynaud said. “We have lost the battle.”
“Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” Churchill said.
Reynaud told him that the Germans had broken the French line in the commune of Sedan, in the Ardennes, near the French border with Belgium, and that tanks and armored cars were pouring through the gap. Churchill tried to calm his French counterpart, pointing out that military experience taught that offensives invariably lose momentum over time.
“We are defeated,” Reynaud insisted.
This seemed so unlikely as to defy belief. The French army was large and skilled, the fortified Maginot Line said to be impregnable. British strategic planning counted on France as a partner, without which the BEF had no chance of prevailing.
It struck Churchill that the time had come to make a direct plea for American assistance. In a secret cable to President Roosevelt dispatched that day, he told the president that he fully expected England to be attacked, and soon, and that he was preparing for the onslaught. “
If necessary, we shall continue the war alone, and we are not afraid of that,” he wrote. “But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear.”
He wanted material aid, and specifically asked Roosevelt to consider dispatching up to fifty old destroyers, which the Royal Navy would use until its own naval construction program could begin delivering new ships. He also requested aircraft—“several hundred of the latest types”—and anti-aircraft weapons and ammunition, “of which again there will be plenty next year, if we are alive to see it.”
Now he came to what he knew to be an especially sensitive matter in dealing with America, given its apparent need always to drive a hard bargain, or at least to be seen as doing so. “We shall go on paying dollars for as long as we can,” he wrote, “but I should like to feel reasonably sure that when we can pay no more, you will give us the stuff all the same.”
Roosevelt replied two days later, stating that he could not send destroyers without the specific approval of Congress and adding, “
I am not certain that it would be wise for that suggestion to be made to the Congress at this moment.” He was still wary of Churchill, but even more wary of how the American public would react. At the time, he was mulling whether to run for a third term, though he had yet to declare his interest.
After sidestepping Churchill’s various requests, the president added, “
The best of luck to you.”
that he needed to meet personally with French leaders, both to better understand the battle underway and to attempt to bolster their resolve. Despite the presence of German fighters in the skies over France, on Thursday, May 16, at three
., Churchill took off in a military passenger aircraft, a de Havilland Flamingo, from an RAF airbase in Hendon, roughly seven miles north of 10 Downing Street. This was Churchill’s favorite aircraft: an all-metal, twin-engine passenger plane furnished with large upholstered armchairs. The Flamingo promptly joined a formation of Spitfires dispatched to escort it to France. Pug Ismay and a small group of other officials went along.