Authors: Erik Larson
Upon landing, they realized immediately that things were much worse than they had expected. Officers assigned to meet them told Ismay that they expected the Germans to arrive in Paris within the next few days. Wrote Ismay, “
None of us could believe it.”
Reynaud and his generals again pleaded for more aircraft. After much agonizing, and with an eye, as always, on history, Churchill promised the ten squadrons. He telegraphed his War Cabinet that night: “
It would not be good historically if their requests were denied and their ruin resulted.”
He and his party returned to London the next morning.
The prospect of sending so many fighters to France worried private secretary Colville. In his diary he wrote, “
This means denuding this country of a quarter of its first-line fighter defense.”
S THE SITUATION IN
France degraded, so rose the fear that Hitler would now turn his full attention to Britain. Invasion seemed a certainty. The deep current of appeasement that had persistently flowed within Whitehall and English society began to surface anew, with fresh calls for a peace arrangement with Hitler, the old instinct burbling up like groundwater through a lawn.
In the Churchill household, such defeatist talk inspired only rage. One afternoon, Churchill invited David Margesson, his chief whip in Parliament, for lunch, along with Clementine and daughter Mary. Margesson was one of the so-called Men of Munich, who had previously endorsed appeasement and had supported Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich Agreement.
As lunch progressed, Clementine found herself growing more and more unsettled.
Ever since Churchill’s appointment as prime minister, she had become his ever-present ally, hosting luncheons and dinners and answering innumerable letters from the public. She often wore a head scarf, wrapped turban-style, that was printed with tiny copies of war posters and slogans exhorting, “Lend to Defend,” “Go to It,” and the like. She was now fifty-five years old and had been married to Churchill for thirty-two of them.
Upon their engagement, Churchill’s good friend Violet Bonham Carter had expressed grave doubts about Clementine’s worthiness, forecasting that she “could never be more to him than an ornamental sideboard as I have often said and she is unexacting enough not to mind not being more.”
Clementine, however, proved to be anything but a “sideboard.” Tall, lean, and displaying a “
finished, flawless beauty,” as Bonham Carter conceded, she was strong-willed and independent, to the point where she often took vacations alone, absent from the family for long periods. In 1935, she traveled solo on an excursion to the Far East that lasted more than four months.
She and Churchill kept separate bedrooms; sex happened only upon her explicit invitation.
It was to Bonham Carter that Clementine, soon after being wed, revealed Churchill’s peculiar taste in underclothes: pale pink and made of silk. Clementine was undaunted by argument, no matter how lofty her opponent, and was said to be the only person who could effectively stand up to Churchill.
Now, over lunch, her anger rose. Margesson espoused a pacifism that she found repulsive. She quickly reached a point where she could stand it no longer, and lit into him for his past role as an appeaser, implicitly blaming him for helping bring Britain to its current dire position. As daughter Mary put it, she “
flayed him verbally before sweeping out.” This was not uncommon. Family members talked of “Mama’s sweeps.” Churchill, describing one incident in which the victim received a particularly vivid rebuke, quipped, “
Clemmie dropped on him like a jaguar out of a tree.”
In this case, she did not sweep out alone. She dragged Mary with her. They had lunch at the Grill in the nearby Carlton Hotel, famous for its gleaming interior rendered in gold and white.
Mary was mortified by her mother’s behavior. “
I was most ashamed and horrified,” she wrote in her diary. “Mummie & I had to go & have lunch at the Carlton. Good food wrecked by gloom.”
A visit to church presented Clementine with another opportunity to express her indignation. On Sunday, May 19, she attended a service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the famed Anglican church in Trafalgar Square, and there heard a minister deliver a sermon that struck her as being inappropriately defeatist. She stood up and stormed from the church. Upon arriving at 10 Downing, she told her husband the story.
Churchill said, “
You ought to have cried ‘Shame,’ desecrating the House of God with lies!”
Churchill then traveled to Chartwell, the family home outside London, to work on his first radio broadcast as prime minister, and to spend a few peaceful moments beside his pond, feeding his goldfish and a black swan.
There had been other swans, but foxes had killed them.
NEW TELEPHONE CALL
from France drew Churchill back to London. The situation was growing dramatically worse, the French army wilting. Despite the grave news, Churchill seemed unfazed, and this caused a further warming in Jock Colville’s attitude toward his new employer. In his diary that Sunday, Colville wrote, “
Whatever Winston’s shortcomings, he seems to be the man for the occasion. His spirit is indomitable and even if France and England should be lost, I feel he would carry on the crusade himself with a band of privateers.”
He added: “Perhaps my judgments of him have been harsh, but the situation was very different a few weeks ago.”
At a four-thirty meeting of his War Cabinet, Churchill learned that the commander in chief of Britain’s forces in France was contemplating a withdrawal toward the channel coast, identifying in particular the port city of Dunkirk. Churchill opposed the idea. He feared that the force would be trapped and destroyed.
Churchill made the decision that, in fact, no fighter aircraft would be sent to France. With that country’s fate now seeming so tenuous, there was little point, and every fighter was needed in England to defend against the coming invasion.
He worked on his radio speech until the last minute, from six to nine that night, before settling himself in front of a BBC microphone.
I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country,” he began.
He explained how the Germans had broken through the French line, using a “remarkable” combination of aircraft and tanks. However, he said, the French had proven themselves in the past to be adept at raising counteroffensives, and this talent, in tandem with the power and skill of the British Army, could turn the situation around.
The speech set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism.
“It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour,” he said. “It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”
He left out completely any reference to the possibility, discussed just a few hours earlier with his War Cabinet, that Britain might withdraw the BEF from France.
Next he addressed his main reason for giving the speech: to warn his countrymen of what lay ahead. “After this battle in France abates its force there will come the battle for our Islands, for all that Britain is and all that Britain means,” he said. “In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step—even the most drastic—to call forth from our people the last ounce and inch of effort of which they are capable.”
The speech terrified some listeners, but Churchill’s apparent candor—at least on the threat of invasion, if not the true state of the French army—encouraged others, according to the Home Intelligence division of the Ministry of Information. The division went to great lengths to monitor public opinion and morale, publishing weekly reports that drew from more than one hundred sources, including postal and telephone censors, movie-theater managers, and the operators of bookstalls owned by W. H. Smith. After Churchill’s broadcast, Home Intelligence conducted a lightning survey of listeners. “
Of 150 house-to-house interviews in the London area,” it reported, “approximately half said they were frightened and worried by the speech; the rest were ‘heartened,’ ‘made more determined,’ ‘stiffened.’ ”
Now Churchill turned again to the agonizing decision about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers in France. His inclination was to insist that they take the offensive and fight it out, but the time for such heroics seemed to have passed. The British Expeditionary Force was in full retreat toward the coast, pursued by Germany’s armored divisions, which had given Hitler so lethal an advantage in his drive across Europe. The BEF faced the very real prospect of annihilation.
The Churchill who on Sunday had struck Colville as being unfazed was here supplanted by a prime minister who seemed deeply worried about the fate of the empire in his charge. Wrote Colville on Tuesday, May 21, “I have not seen Winston so depressed.”
HURCHILL RESOLVED, AGAINST THE
advice of his chiefs of staff and others, to fly to Paris for a second meeting, this time in foul weather.
The visit achieved nothing, except to worry Clementine and daughter Mary. “
It was terrible flying weather,” Mary wrote in her diary, “and I was so anxious. The news is unbelievably bad—one can only hang on by praying it will come out all right.”
O TENSE WERE THINGS,
so high the pressure on all, that members of Churchill’s cabinet decided that he ought to have a personal physician, though the patient himself did not agree. The assignment fell to Sir Charles Wilson, dean of the medical school at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. A medical officer in the prior war, he had been awarded a Military Cross in 1916 for bravery in the Battle of the Somme.
Late in the morning on Friday, May 24, Wilson found himself at Admiralty House, being led upstairs to Churchill’s bedroom. (In Britain, a doctor of Wilson’s stature is typically referred to not by the prefix “Dr.” but, rather, as “Mr.”) “
I have become his doctor,” Wilson wrote in his diary, “not because he wanted one, but because certain members of the Cabinet, who realized how essential he has become, have decided that somebody ought to keep an eye on his health.”
It was almost noon by now, but as Wilson entered the room he found Churchill still in bed, seated upright against a bedrest, reading. Churchill did not look up.
Wilson walked to his bedside. Churchill still did not acknowledge his presence. He continued to read.
After a few moments—what to Wilson “seemed quite a long time”—Churchill lowered the document and with impatience said, “I don’t know why they are making such a fuss. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
He resumed reading, with Wilson still at hand.
After another overlong interval, Churchill abruptly shoved away his bedrest, threw off his covers, and barked, “I suffer from dyspepsia”—indigestion, or what later generations would call heartburn—“and this is the treatment.”
He launched into a breathing exercise.
Wilson watched. “His big white belly was moving up and down,” he recalled later, “when there was a knock on the door, and the P.M. grabbed at the sheet as Mrs. Hill came into the room.” This was Kathleen Hill, thirty-nine, his beloved personal secretary. She and her typewriter were ever present, whether Churchill was clothed or not.
“Soon after,” Wilson wrote, “I took my leave. I do not like the job, and I do not think the arrangement can last.”
Churchill had no need for a doctor’s attention. He seemed fit and was once again in good spirits, having shed his depression of several days earlier. Later that Friday, Colville arrived at Admiralty House to find Churchill “
dressed in the most brilliant of flowery dressing-gowns and puffing a long cigar as he ascended from the Upper War Room to his bedroom.”
He was about to take one of his daily baths, these prepared with precision—ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit and two-thirds full—by his valet-butler Frank Sawyers, present at all hours (“
the inevitable, egregious Sawyers,” as Colville wrote). Churchill took two baths every day, his longtime habit, no matter where he was and regardless of the urgency of the events unfolding elsewhere, whether at the embassy in Paris during one of his meetings with French leaders or aboard his prime ministerial train, whose lavatory included a bathtub.
On this Friday, a number of important telephone calls demanded his attention during his bath hour. With Colville standing by, Churchill took each call, climbing naked from the tub and swathing himself with a towel.
Colville found this to be one of Churchill’s most endearing traits—“his complete absence of personal vanity.”
Colville witnessed scenes at Admiralty House and 10 Downing Street unlike anything he had encountered while working for Chamberlain. Churchill would wander the halls wearing a red dressing gown, a helmet, and slippers with pom-poms. He was also given to wearing his sky-blue “siren suit,” a one-piece outfit of his own design that could be pulled on at a moment’s notice. His staff called it his “rompers.” At times, according to his security officer, Inspector Thompson, the outfit made Churchill look “
so pneumatic as to suggest he might at any moment rise from the floor and sail around over his own acres.”
Colville was coming to like the man.
HURCHILL’S EQUANIMITY WAS ALL
the more remarkable given the news emerging that Friday from across the channel. To everyone’s continued mystification, the great French army now seemed on the verge of final defeat. “
The one firm rock on which everyone was willing to build for the last two years was the French army,” wrote Foreign Secretary Halifax in his diary, “and the Germans walked through it like they did through the Poles.”
That day, too, Churchill received a sobering document that dared contemplate this hitherto unthinkable outcome, still so beyond imagining that the authors of the report, the chiefs of staff, could not bring themselves to mention it in the title, calling their paper “British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality.”