Read The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz Online
Authors: Erik Larson
The French were clearly bent on surrender and seemed impatient to get the meeting over with. At this point, Reynaud said, everything depended on what the United States would do. He planned to cable Roosevelt immediately. “For the moment,” he noted, “the only move open to us is to put the situation to the American President with the greatest frankness.”
Churchill promised to do likewise, then asked for a moment alone with his colleagues.
“Dans le jardin!”
he commanded. They retreated to a bleak rectangular garden lined with a narrow path, and marched in repeated circuits. “I believe that everyone was too stunned to speak,” Spears wrote. “I certainly was.”
Abruptly, Beaverbrook broke the silence. All they could do now, he said, was wait for Roosevelt’s response. Fearing that Churchill might rashly promise anew to dispatch squadrons of RAF fighters, Beaverbrook urged him not to make any last-minute pledges. “We are doing no good here,” he said. “In fact, listening to these declarations of Reynaud’s only does harm. Let’s get along home.”
They returned to England at dusk.
OR HIS SECOND MEETING
with the Prof, young Dr. Jones came more heavily armed. Jones knew that England’s top radio-wave expert, Thomas L. Eckersley, a veteran research engineer with the Marconi Company, had once written a short paper in which he’d calculated that a very narrow beam might indeed bend with the curvature of the earth and, therefore, could be marshaled to guide a bomber from Germany to Britain. Now Jones brought along Eckersley’s paper, as well as some new bits of intelligence.
By way of further preparation, Jones had contacted a friend and colleague, Group Captain Samuel Denys Felkin, in charge of interrogating Luftwaffe crew members. Jones knew that bombers shot down in recent days had yielded new prisoners for interrogation, so he had asked Felkin to include questions focused specifically on beam-guidance technology.
Felkin did so, but the direct questions yielded nothing new. Felkin, however, had developed an effective new way of harvesting intelligence from prisoners. After an interrogation session, he would reunite the subject with his fellow airmen, then eavesdrop via hidden microphones as they discussed the interview and the questions asked. Felkin returned one of the new prisoners to his cell and listened in as he told a cellmate that no matter how hard the RAF looked, they would never find “the equipment.”
Which, of course, piqued Jones’s curiosity. The prisoner’s remark provided oblique confirmation that Jones was on the right track. It also suggested that the device might in fact be hidden in plain sight.
Jones immediately requested a copy of a technical report made after British investigators had examined a bomber shot down the previous fall, the same kind of bomber in which the prisoner had flown. Jones focused on its radio equipment. One instrument caught his attention: a device identified in the report as a blind-landing receiver. This in itself was not surprising, since all German bombers were equipped with standard Lorenz landing systems. The report showed that the equipment had been closely examined by an engineer at the Royal Aircraft Factory, an experimental aviation unit.
Jones called him.
Tell me,” he said, “is there anything unusual about the blind landing receiver?”
The engineer said no, then qualified his answer. “But now you mention it,” he said, “it is much more sensitive than they would ever need for blind landing.”
The device could be tuned to particular frequencies, which, Jones reasoned, must be the ranges at which the new beam system operated—provided, of course, that his hunch was correct.
As inclined as Lindemann was to stand his ground, he was also receptive to cool scientific logic. It was one thing to listen to a twenty-eight-year-old scientist propose the existence of a secret new German guidance technology, working from a few pieces of circumstantial evidence, but quite another to see in clear, hard numbers the calculations of a leading expert purporting to prove that the underlying radio physics could permit the creation of such a system. And the new evidence Jones had collected was compelling.
Lindemann now recognized that if the Luftwaffe had managed to harness this new technology, it was indeed a fearsome development. Jones believed the beam could place an aircraft within four hundred yards of a target, a startling degree of precision.
Leveraging the power of his direct connection to Churchill, Lindemann that day composed an urgent minute for delivery direct to the prime minister. It was this intimate Rasputin-like link that raised so much suspicion and jealousy among Lindemann’s peers. With his exalted new mandate, anything and everything now came within his purview. He could probe the most remote corners of government and question whatever he wished, even propose new weapons and weigh in on military strategy and, in so doing, upset the lives of bureaucrats both lofty and low. “
He was as obstinate as a mule, and unwilling to admit that there was any problem under the sun which he was not qualified to solve,” recalled Pug Ismay. “He would write a memorandum on high strategy on one day, and a thesis on egg production on the next.” Notes and minutes flew from Lindemann’s office—more than 250 by year’s end—on such diverse subjects as nitroglycerin, timber supplies, and secret anti-aircraft weapons. These often prompted Churchill to demand some new action from his various ministers, thereby disrupting their already pressured lives. One never knew during a meeting whether Churchill, forearmed by Lindemann, would suddenly flourish a statistical rapier that would eviscerate a demand or argument—or whether Lindemann himself, with his quiet, raspy voice, would conduct the evisceration. As Lindemann grew more comfortable in the job, he would append to his notes a draft of a minute for Churchill to initial, written in a voice approximating Churchill’s, careful to mask his own role in the process.
But this was what Churchill wanted from Lindemann: to challenge the orthodox, the tried-and-true, and thereby spark greater efficiency. The Prof delighted in coming up with ideas that turned conventional beliefs upside down. Once, as he was walking with a colleague, Donald MacDougall, he saw a poster that admonished, “
Stop that dripping tap,” an exhortation meant to conserve water and thereby save the coal that fueled the water-distribution system. As he walked, the Prof began calculating the costs in energy, wood pulp, and shipping needed to produce the paper for the posters. “And of course,” MacDougall recalled, “Prof was right in his initial suspicions that it all added up to enormously more than was going to be saved by the posters’ advice being followed.”
In his minute to Churchill about Dr. Jones’s apparent discovery, Lindemann kept his tone dispassionate. “
There seems some reason to suppose that the Germans have some type of radio device with which they hope to find their targets,” he wrote. The exact nature of the technology was unclear, but might, he hypothesized, involve some kind of beam, or possibly radio beacons installed in England by spies. Regardless, Lindemann wrote, “it is vital to investigate and especially to discover what the wave-length is. If we knew this we could devise means to mislead them.” He asked Churchill’s permission to “take this up with the Air Ministry and try and stimulate action.”
Churchill took the information seriously from the first, later recalling that he received the news as a “painful shock.” He forwarded the Prof’s minute to Air Ministry chief Archibald Sinclair, with a handwritten note: “
This seems most intriguing and I hope you will have it thoroughly examined.”
Coming from Churchill, this was like being prodded with a whip. Sinclair acted immediately, though grudgingly, and appointed a senior Air Ministry official to investigate Jones’s theory.
OW CAME MOVING DAY
for the Churchills. On Friday, June 14, with deposed prime minister Chamberlain having at last left 10 Downing Street, the Churchills began transferring their belongings from Admiralty House into their new residential quarters. Clementine directed the operation.
Moving in any era was a stressful affair, but the strain certainly was amplified by the fact that France was about to fall and invasion loomed. Clementine, however, seemed to weather it well, as her friend Violet Bonham Carter (the once-suspected rival) found when she stopped at Admiralty House for tea just a few days before the move. The house was still fully decorated and furnished. “
It was looking cool & delicious—full of flowers—& all their lovely pictures lit up,” she wrote in her diary on June 11. “Clemmie was absolutely her normal self—chirrupy—
sweet—& always a little more amusing than one expects to find her.”
The move took several days, during which Mary and Clementine stayed at the Carlton Hotel, also the Prof’s temporary residence. Choosing to avoid domestic chaos, Churchill stayed with Lord Beaverbrook in his London mansion, Stornoway House, headquarters of the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
The Churchills brought to 10 Downing a new family member, the Admiralty’s black cat, Nelson, named after Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the British naval victory at Trafalgar. Churchill adored the cat and often carried him about the house. Nelson’s arrival caused a certain degree of feline strife, according to Mary, for Nelson harassed the cat that already resided at 10 Downing, whose nickname was “the Munich Mouser.”
There was much to arrange, of course, as in any household, but an inventory for 10 Downing hints at the complexity that awaited Clementine: wine glasses and tumblers (the whiskey had to go somewhere), grapefruit glasses, meat dishes, sieves, whisks, knives, jugs, breakfast cups and saucers, needles for trussing poultry, bedroom carafes and tumblers, 36 bottles of furniture polish, 27 pounds of carbolic soap, 150 pounds of primrose soap (in bars), and 78 pounds of Brown Windsor soap, a favorite of both Napoleon and Queen Victoria. There were banister brushes, both bristle and whisk; a Ewbank automatic floor sweeper; hearth brushes; kneeling mats; mops and handles for mops and heads for special Do-All mops; as well as chamois leathers, 8 pounds of rags, and 24 dozen matches for lighting hearths and cigars alike.
The Chamberlains have left the place very dirty,” Mary wrote in her diary the next day. “Mummie has left the Admiralty house like a new pin.”
Mary loved her new home, particularly its dignified air. The front door was painted with black enamel and had a lion’s-head knocker; it was guarded by a uniformed doorman and a police officer. Churchill’s private study and the famed Cabinet Room were on the ground floor, where a stately quiet prevailed, as if the clamor of daily life were muffled by the sheer weight of British history. His paintings hung in the halls.
The family quarters were upstairs on the second floor (what Americans called the third), linked by halls painted eggshell blue with carpet the color of tomatoes. Sashed windows overlooked the garden and the rear entrance of the house and the Horse Guards Parade, a broad, graveled plaza upon which important ceremonial events took place. To Mary, this floor evoked a country home. Here, as at Admiralty House, Churchill and Clementine kept separate bedrooms.
Mary especially liked the rooms assigned to her. “
Mummie has given me a lovely bedroom, sitting room & most spacious clothes closet (this latter most
),” she wrote.
With her father as prime minister, she was at the center of things now. It was all very stirring and romantic. That the Luftwaffe would soon evict Mary from her lovely rooms, and from London itself, was a thought that at this point, judging by the tenor of her diary, never entered her mind.
ULFILLING HIS PROMISE TO
the French, late on Saturday afternoon, June 15, Churchill dictated a telegram to President Roosevelt that contained his most ardent plea yet.
The process of dictation invariably strained the patience of whomever was in attendance—typically his primary personal secretary, Mrs. Hill, and a private secretary, in this case John Colville. As Colville wrote later, “
To watch him compose some telegram or minute for dictation is to make one feel that one is present at the birth of a child, so tense is his expression, so restless his turnings from side to side, so curious the noises he emits under his breath.”
The ritual was especially painstaking for telegrams as sensitive as this one.
I understand all your difficulties with American public opinion and Congress,” Churchill dictated, “but events are moving downward at a pace where they will pass beyond the control of American public opinion when at last it is ripened.” France was confronting an existential crisis, and the only force capable of influencing her future was America. “A declaration that the United States will if necessary enter the war might save France,” he said. “Failing that, in a few days French resistance may have crumbled and we shall be left alone.”
But far more than France was at stake, he added. He raised the specter of Britain, too, succumbing to Hitler’s influence and warned that a new and pro-German government might then replace his own. “If we go down you may have a United States of Europe under the Nazi command far more numerous, far stronger, far better armed than the New World.”
He reprised his earlier request that the United States send destroyers to bolster the Royal Navy and backed it up with a paper that detailed just how urgently the destroyers were needed in light of the expected invasion. The paper, echoing Home Forces commander General Ironside’s earlier concerns about a reverse Dunkirk, warned that a German invasion from the sea “will most certainly be in the form of dispersed landings from a large number of small craft, and the only effective counter to such a move is to maintain numerous and effective destroyer patrols.” But the Royal Navy, the report cautioned, had only sixty-eight operational destroyers. The need for more was therefore crucial. “Here,” Churchill wrote, “is a definite practical and possible decisive step which can be taken at once and I urge most earnestly that you will weigh my words.” He called receipt of the destroyers “a matter of life or death.”