Read The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz Online
Authors: Erik Larson
HE OBJECT OF THIS PAPER,”
the report began, “is to investigate the means whereby we could continue to fight single-handed if French resistance were to collapse completely, involving the loss of a substantial proportion of the British Expeditionary Force, and the French Government were to make terms with Germany.”
,” it made for a frightening read. One of its fundamental assumptions was that the United States would provide “full economic and financial support.” Without this, the report noted in italics,
“we do not think we could continue the war with any chance of success.”
It forecast that only a fragment of the BEF could be evacuated from France.
The overriding fear was that if the French did capitulate, Hitler would turn his armies and air force against England. “Germany,” the report said, “has ample forces to invade and occupy this country. Should the enemy succeed in establishing a force, with its vehicles, firmly ashore—the Army in the United Kingdom, which is very short of equipment, has not got the offensive power to drive it out.”
Everything depended “on whether our fighter defenses will be able to reduce the scale of attack to reasonable bounds.” Britain’s energies were to be concentrated on the production of fighters, the training of crews, and defense of aircraft factories. “The crux of the whole problem is the air defence of this country.”
If France fell, the report said, the task would be immeasurably more difficult. Previous plans for homeland defense were based on the assumption—the certainty—that the Luftwaffe would be flying from bases within Germany, and would thus have limited ability to penetrate deep into England. But now British strategists had to face the prospect of German fighters and bombers taking off from airfields along the French coast, just minutes from the English shore, and from bases in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway. These bases, the report said, would allow Germany “to concentrate a very heavy weight of long and short-range bomber attack over a large area of this country.”
A central question was whether the British public would be able to endure what was sure to be a furious assault by the full force of Germany’s air force. The morale of the country, the report warned, “will be subjected to a heavier strain than ever before.” The authors, however, found reason to believe that the people’s morale would hold, “if they realize—as they are beginning to do—that the existence of the Empire is at stake.” It was time, the report said, “to inform the public of the true dangers that confront us.”
London seemed certain to be Hitler’s primary target. In a 1934 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill himself had called it “
the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous, fat, valuable cow tied up to attract the beast of prey.” After one cabinet meeting, Churchill led his ministers out to the street and with a grim half-smile told them, “
Take a good look round. I expect all these buildings will look very different in two or three weeks’ time.”
VEN THE REPORT
from the chiefs of staff, gloomy as it was, did not envision the rapid and complete collapse already underway across the channel. With a German victory in France nearly certain, British intelligence now forecast that Germany might invade England immediately, without waiting for a formal French surrender. The British expected that an invasion would begin with a titanic onslaught by the German air force, potentially a “knock-out” blow—or, as Churchill called it, an aerial “banquet”—with as many as fourteen thousand aircraft darkening the sky.
British strategists believed that the Luftwaffe had four times as many aircraft as the RAF. Germany’s three main bombers—the Junkers Ju 88, the Dornier Do 17, and the Heinkel He 111—carried bomb loads ranging from two thousand to eight thousand pounds, more than could have been imagined in the prior war. One aircraft was particularly fearsome, the Stuka, its name a contraction of the German word for dive-bomber:
. The plane looked like a giant bent-wing insect and was equipped with an apparatus, the
(“Jericho trumpet”), that caused it to emit a terrifying shriek while diving. It could place bombs—up to five at a time—with far more precision than a standard aircraft, and had terrified Allied troops during Germany’s blitzkrieg attacks.
As British planners saw it, Germany possessed the ability to bomb England to the point where it might have no other option but to surrender, an outcome contemplated long before by theorists of aerial warfare who saw “strategic bombing,” or “terror bombing,” as a means of subduing an enemy. Germany’s bombing of Rotterdam had seemed to validate such thinking. The day after the Luftwaffe’s attack, the Dutch surrendered, out of fear that other cities would be destroyed. England’s ability to defend itself from this kind of campaign depended entirely on the nation’s aircraft industries’ capacity to produce fighter aircraft—Hurricanes and Spitfires—at a rate high enough not just to compensate for the fast-mounting losses but also to increase the overall number of planes available for combat. Fighters alone in no way could win the war, although Churchill believed that with enough aircraft, England might be able to hold Hitler at bay and stave off invasion long enough for the United States to enter the war.
But fighter production lagged. England’s aircraft plants operated on a prewar schedule that did not take into account the new reality of having a hostile force based just across the channel. Production, though increasing, was suppressed by the fusty practices of a peacetime bureaucracy only now awakening to the realities of total war. Shortages of parts and materials disrupted production. Damaged aircraft accumulated as they awaited repair. Many nearly completed planes lacked engines and instruments. Vital parts were stored in far-flung locations, jealously guarded by feudal officials reserving them for their own future needs.
With all this in mind, Churchill, on his first day as prime minister, created an entirely new ministry devoted solely to the production of fighters and bombers, the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In Churchill’s view, this new ministry was the only thing that could save Britain from defeat, and he was confident he knew just the man to run it: his longtime friend and occasional antagonist Max Aitken—Lord Beaverbrook—a man who drew controversy the way steeples draw lightning.
Churchill offered him the job that night, but Beaverbrook demurred. He had made his fortune in newspapers and knew nothing about running factories that manufactured products as complex as fighters and bombers. Moreover, his health was impaired. He was plagued by eye troubles and asthma, so much so that he devoted a room in his London mansion, Stornoway House, to asthma treatments and filled it with kettles to produce steam. Two weeks from turning sixty-one, he had pulled back from direct management of his newspaper empire and was intent on spending more time at his villa at Cap-d’Ail, on the southeast coast of France, though Hitler had killed this plan for the time being. Beaverbrook’s secretaries were still composing draft letters of refusal when, on the evening of May 12, apparently on impulse, he accepted the post. He became minister of aircraft production two days later.
Churchill understood Beaverbrook, and knew on an instinctive level that he was the man to jolt awake the still-slumbering aircraft industry. He also understood that Beaverbrook could be difficult—
be difficult—and anticipated that he would spark conflict. But it did not matter.
As one American visitor put it, “The PM, who has the most kindly feelings toward Beaverbrook, looked at him as an indulgent parent would to a small boy at a party who had said something not quite appropriate, but made no comment.”
There was more to Churchill’s decision, however. Churchill needed Beaverbrook’s presence as a friend, to provide counsel on matters beyond aircraft production. Despite later hagiography, Churchill did not and frankly could not manage the staggering pressure of directing the war by himself. He relied heavily on others, even if sometimes these others merely served as an audience on whom he could test his thoughts and plans. Beaverbrook could be counted on for candor at all times, and to deliver advice without regard for politics or personal feelings. Where Pug Ismay was a calming and cooling influence, Beaverbrook was gasoline. He was also wildly entertaining, a trait that Churchill loved and needed. Ismay sat quietly, ready to offer advice and counsel; Beaverbrook enlivened every room he entered. On occasion he called himself Churchill’s court jester.
Canadian by birth, Beaverbrook had moved to England before the previous war. In 1916, he bought the moribund
and over time he grew its circulation sevenfold, to 2.5 million, cementing his reputation as an ingenious maverick. “
Beaverbrook enjoyed being provocative,” wrote Virginia Cowles, a prominent chronicler of life in wartime England who worked for Beaverbrook’s
Complacency was as tempting a target to him “as a balloon to a small boy with a pin,” Cowles remarked. Beaverbrook and Churchill had been friends for three decades, though the intimacy of their connection had tended to wax and wane.
To the many people who disliked Beaverbrook, his physical appearance seemed a metaphor for his personality. He stood five feet, nine inches—three inches taller than Churchill—with a broad upper body over narrow hips and slender legs. There was something about this combination, tied with his wide and wickedly gleeful smile, his overly large ears and nose, and a scattering of facial moles, that inclined people to describe him as smaller than he was, like some malignant elf from a fairy tale. American general Raymond Lee, stationed in London as an observer, called him “
a violent, passionate, malicious and dangerous little goblin.” Lord Halifax nicknamed him “
the Toad.” A few, behind his back, referred to him as “
the Beaver.” Clementine, in particular, nursed a deep mistrust of Beaverbrook. “
My darling—” she wrote to Churchill. “Try ridding yourself of this microbe which some people fear is in your blood—exorcise this bottle imp and see if the air is not clearer and purer.”
As a rule, however, women found Beaverbrook attractive. His wife, Gladys, died in 1927, and both during and after their marriage he conducted numerous affairs. He loved gossip, and thanks to his female friends and his network of reporters, he knew many of the secrets of London’s uppermost strata. “
Max never seems to tire of the shabby drama of some men’s lives, their infidelities and their passions,” wrote his doctor, Charles Wilson, now also Churchill’s physician. One of Beaverbrook’s most impassioned enemies, Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin, deployed a gritty analogy to describe the relationship between Churchill and Beaverbrook: “
He’s like a man who’s married a whore: he knows she’s a whore, but he loves her just the same.”
Churchill saw the relationship in succinct terms. “
Some take drugs,” he said. “I take Max.”
He recognized that by removing the responsibility for aircraft production from the long-established Air Ministry and giving it to Beaverbrook, he was laying the groundwork for a clash of territorial interests, but he failed to anticipate just how much outright bickering Beaverbrook would immediately generate and how great a source of exasperation this would become. The writer Evelyn Waugh, whose comic novel
was thought by some to have been inspired by Beaverbrook (though Waugh denied it), once said that he found himself compelled to “
believe in the Devil if only to account for the existence of Lord Beaverbrook.”
The stakes were indeed high. “
It was as dark a picture as any Britain has ever faced,” wrote David Farrer, one of Beaverbrook’s many secretaries.
EAVERBROOK EMBRACED HIS NEW
task with relish. He loved the idea of being at the center of power and loved, even more, the prospect of disrupting the lives of hidebound bureaucrats. He launched his new ministry from his own mansion and staffed its administrative side with employees pulled from his own newspapers. In a move unusual for the age, he also hired one of his editors to be his personal propaganda and public relations man. Intent on quickly transforming the aircraft industry, he recruited a collection of top business executives to be his senior lieutenants, including the general manager of a Ford Motor Company plant. He cared little about whether they had expertise with airplanes. “
They are all captains of industry, and industry is like theology,” Beaverbrook said. “If you know the rudiments of one faith you can grasp the meaning of another. For my part I would not hesitate to appoint the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to take over the duties of the Pope of Rome.”
Beaverbrook convened key meetings in his downstairs library or, on fine days, outside on a balcony off his first-floor ballroom (the second floor in American parlance). His typists and secretaries worked upstairs wherever space permitted. The bathrooms had typewriters. Beds served as surfaces for arranging documents. No one left the premises for lunch; at the asking, food prepared by Beaverbrook’s chef was delivered on trays. His own typical lunch was chicken, bread, and a pear.
All employees were expected to work the same hours he did, meaning twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He could be unrealistically demanding. One of his most senior men complained about how Beaverbrook gave him an assignment at two in the morning, then called back at eight
to see how much had been accomplished. After a personal secretary, George Malcolm Thomson, took an unscheduled morning off, Beaverbrook left him a note: “
Tell Thomson that Hitler will be here if he doesn’t look out.” Beaverbrook’s valet, Albert Nockels, once countered his shouted command “
For god’s sake, hurry up” with the rejoinder “My lord, I am not a Spitfire.”
No matter their value, fighters were still only defensive weapons. Churchill also wanted a steep increase in the production of bombers. He saw these as the only means currently at hand for bringing the war directly to Hitler. For the time being Churchill had to rely on the RAF’s fleet of medium bombers, though two four-engine heavy bombers were nearing introduction, the Stirling and the Halifax (named for a town in Yorkshire, not for Lord Halifax), each with the capacity to carry up to fourteen thousand pounds of bombs well into Germany. Churchill acknowledged that Hitler was for the time being free to project his forces in whatever direction he wished, be it eastward or into Asia and Africa. “
But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down,” Churchill wrote in a minute to Beaverbrook, “and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland. We must be able to over-whelm them by this means, without which I do not see a way through.”