On June 21, 1940, the first day of summer, Winston Churchill was the most visible man in England. France accepted Hitler’s surrender terms that day and, with virtually all of Europe now under the swastika, with the Soviet Union a Nazi accomplice, and the United States isolationist, Britain and the Dominions confronted the Third Reich alone. Prime minister for only six weeks, Churchill was defending more than his island home. As first minister of the Crown he was also the central figure of the British Empire, then extant, comprising almost one-quarter of Earth’s landmass and almost a quarter of its population. The gravity of his role was obvious. Yet though all saw him, all did not see him alike. He was a multifarious individual, including within one man a whole troupe of characters, some of them subversive of one another and none feigned.
At No. 10 Downing Street everyone referred to the newly appointed sixty-five-year-old P.M. as “the Old Man.” In many ways he was an alarming master. He worked outrageous hours. He was self-centered and could be shockingly inconsiderate. Because of his lisp, and because he growled so often, his speech was often hard to follow, and aides had to learn what he meant when he referred to “that moon-faced man in the Foreign Office” or “Lord Left-leg-limps.” Although he never actually overruled his military advisers, he refused to delegate any of the prime minister’s powers to his staff. He wanted to make all decisions because, Sir Ian Jacob recalled, “he was determined to be Number One.” Jacob served as military assistant secretary to the War Cabinet during the war, and came to know Churchill’s obstinacy well.
Not only did Churchill insist on oversight of strategic matters, he mired himself in the details as well. Because the noise of modern warfare was appalling, he decided soldiers would be issued earplugs. It occurred to him that World War One weapons, taken as trophies, could be made fit for action. A survey was launched. And what would be done, he demanded to know, to safeguard the animals at the zoo if German bombs blew open the cages? Some of his musings on the finer points of warfare were prescient. He asked his liaison to the Chiefs of Staff, Major General Hastings (“Pug”) Ismay, to expedite the development of “some projectile which can be fired from a rifle at a tank like a rifle grenade, or from an anti-Tank [sic] rifle, like a trench-mortar bomb.”
Yet woe unto the underling who brought to Churchill’s attention details he considered petty. When King George’s minister in Reykjavík suggested that Icelandic civilians be evacuated before the expected German invasion of that country, Churchill shot back, “Surely this is great nonsense.” The dangers faced by Icelanders were “trifling” and “anyhow they have a large island and plenty of places to run into.” He thoroughly enjoyed his meanderings in the thickets of details. One day that spring, while fiddling with an operational model of a mine intended to be deployed in the Rhine basin, he turned to an aide and said, “This is one of those rare and happy occasions when respectable people like you and me can enjoy pleasures normally reserved to the Irish Republican Army.”
This small pleasantry exchanged with a subordinate was not a rare behavior, yet neither was it a regular occurrence. Underlings were more likely to experience his wrath. His pale-blue eyes telegraphed his moods, and when his gaze—“as warm as summer sunshine” when he was pleased—turned ice-cold, his staff knew an eruption was forthcoming. Certainly his roar was awesome—he terrorized his admirals, his generals, and, daily, his staff. “God’s teeth, girl, can’t you even do it right the second time, I said ripe, ripe, ripe—P P P,” he bellowed to Elizabeth Layton, a new typist at No. 10 who had the misfortune to interpret a mumbled “ripe” as “right.” Yet, as usual after his outbursts, Churchill uttered his version of an apology—he “forgave” Layton—and “was very amiable for the rest of the day.” Actually, his nature was informed by humane sympathy for all troubled men, including those Englishmen (he always preferred English and Englishmen to British and Britons) he held responsible for England’s present plight. Learning that a mob had stoned Stanley Baldwin’s car, he immediately invited the former prime minister to No. 10 for a two-hour lunch (at a time when every minute was precious to him), and when he was told that Neville Chamberlain was dying of cancer—Chamberlain would not survive 1940—Churchill instructed his staff to telephone all good news to the disgraced former prime minister.
Baldwin later told Harold Nicolson of his lunch with Churchill, adding that he left Downing Street “a happy man” while feeling “a patriotic joy that my country at such a time should have found such a leader.” Of Churchill, Baldwin offered, “The furnace of war had smelted out all of the base metals from him.” Not all. In private he relished skewering his fallen enemies. He and his wife, Clementine, once recounted for luncheon guests the rumor emanating from Baldwin’s household that Baldwin was a “haunted man.” The former P.M. was so disrespected by his family and household staff, so the story went, that when he complained that the wireless was playing too loud, somebody turned it up even louder. And when the Baldwin family cupboard went bare, it was Baldwin who was dispatched by his relatives to the grocer to restock the larder. When asked by friends of Baldwin to submit a testimonial for the former prime minister’s eightieth birthday tribute, Churchill, through an intermediary (and thinking his remark private), gave them: “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.” And in his most famous cut of Baldwin, he said, “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.” As for Chamberlain, Churchill told his new private secretary and a junior member of his staff, Jock Colville, that the former prime minister was “the narrowest, the most ignorant, most ungenerous of men.” On one occasion, Churchill managed to denigrate both Chamberlain and Baldwin in one breath, when he offered to his doctor, “Baldwin thought Europe was a bore, and Chamberlain thought it was greater Birmingham.” His pettiness was as unfeigned as his generosity, his sentimentality, and his love of England.
Members of the Private Office (private secretaries, orderlies, typists) were expected to be obedient and uncritical; in effect the prime minister said, “Thou shalt have no other god but me.” His temper was fearful. When he lost it, he would turn on whoever happened to be nearby, and, like other men of his class and generation, he never apologized or explained, though later he would go out of his way to mollify the injured party by, say, complimenting him on his handwriting, or by murmuring, “You know, I may seem to be very fierce, but I am fierce with only one man, Hitler.” On June 27, the week of the French surrender, Clementine wrote him the lone truly personal letter that passed between them that year. She directed his attention to a potentially disastrous state of affairs in immediate need of prime ministerial intervention: his behavior toward his staff. “There is a danger,” she wrote, “of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner.” No doubt it was the strain, she wrote. Yet, she too had noted deterioration in his manner: “You are not as kind as you used to be.” She advised him that he would not get the best results from irascibility and rudeness, which would “only breed either dislike or a slave mentality.” She signed the missive, “Please forgive your loving and watchful Clemmie.” Beneath her signature she sketched a cat (Winston had called her “Kat” for almost three decades). There is no record of Churchill’s response. None would have been necessary. That the letter survived, their daughter Mary later wrote, indicates a temperate reaction.
There would be no long absences from each other in 1940, as there had been in all the previous years of their marriage, when work or war or holidays took one or the other abroad. Proximity, usually in the dank confines of the subterranean No. 10 Annexe, would be the byword in coming months, during which time his ferocity toward his staff diminished not a whit.
All who were with him then agree that the Old Man had more important matters on his mind than the sensitive feelings of subordinates. In any event, in time they came to adore him. Jock Colville later recalled, “Churchill had a natural sympathy for simple people, because he himself took a simple view of what was required; and he hated casuistry. That was no doubt why the man-in-the-street loved him and the intellectuals did not.” Churchill, for his part, considered those on the left who anointed themselves the arbiters of right and wrong to be arrogant, “a fault,” Colville recalled, Churchill “detested in others, particularly in its intellectual form.” For that reason, Churchill “had dislike and contempt, of a kind which transcended politics, of the intellectual wing of the Labour party,” which in turn despised Churchill. In 1940 the intellectualism of the left was inimical to Churchill and to Britain’s cause, which was simplicity itself: defeat Hitler.
Churchill cared little for obtuse political or social theories; he was a man of action: state the problem, find a solution, and solve the problem. For a man of action, however, he was exceptionally thoughtful and well read. When serving as a young subaltern in India, he amassed a private library that included Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Plato’s Republic, Schopenhauer on pessimism, Malthus on population, and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Reading, for Churchill, was a form of action. After a lifetime of reading—from the sea-adventuring Hornblower novels to the complete Shakespeare and Macaulay—he possessed the acumen to reduce complex intellectual systems and constructs and theories to their most basic essences. He once brought a wartime dinner conversation on socialism to an abrupt end by recommending that those present read Maurice Maeterlinck’s entomological study, The Life of the White Ant. “Socialism,” Churchill declared, “would make our society comparable to that of the white ant.” Case closed. Almost a decade later, when the Labour Party, then in power, nationalized British industries one by one, and when paper, meat, gasoline, and even wood for furniture were still rationed, Churchill commented: “The Socialist dream is no longer Utopia but Queuetopia.”
Late in June, Eric Seal, his senior private secretary, remarked upon how much Churchill had “changed since becoming P.M.,” how he had “sobered down, become less violent, less wild, less impetuous.” That was untrue. It was Seal’s view of him that had altered. Churchill himself had not changed at all. His character had been fully formed at the turn of the century, as an officer in Victoria’s imperial army, as a war correspondent, and as a young MP under the Old Queen. And he knew it. Listening to recordings of The Mikado one evening, he said they brought back his youth and the Victorian era, “eighty years which will rank in our island history with the Age of the Antonines.” Upper-class Englishmen who had come of age then, when the empire stood at flood tide, possessed a certitude, an indomitable faith in England, confidence in their own judgment, and an indubitable conviction that they understood the world and were its masters.
In many ways Churchill remained a nineteenth-century man, and by no means a common man. He fit the mold of what Henry James called in English Hours “persons for whom the private machinery of ease has been made to work with extraordinary smoothness.” His valet warmed his brandy snifter over a neatly trimmed candle; his typists and secretaries kept more candles at the ready in order to light his cigars (Cuban Romeo y Julieta were his favorites). He had never ridden a bus. The only time he availed himself of the London Underground was during the general strike in 1926. Clementine dropped him off at South Kensington but Winston did not know how to navigate the system, with the result that “he went round and round not knowing where to get off, and eventually had to be rescued.” He never carried cash, except to casinos and the occasional derby, where an aide would take care of the business of procuring chips or placing bets on worthy steeds.
Clementine, ten years Winston’s junior and far more versed in domestic economics, kept the household books; she and the staff did the purchasing. Churchill did not (directly) “bestow his custom” upon local merchants. This man who embodied the English spirit never attended a jumble sale or, readying himself for the day’s labors, tucked a wrapped pasty into the pocket of his cardigan, or queued in a bakery for a bag of warm, fresh scones. In the years before he became prime minister, even his train tickets were bought for him. As befitted a man of his class and stature, he never prepared a meal in his life. Once, having announced his desire to spend a weekend at his country home, Chartwell, rather than in London, Clementine reminded him that the kitchen staff there was not in residence. “I shall cook for myself,” Winston replied. “I can boil an egg. I’ve seen it done.” When he was ready to leave on a trip, he would ask, not whether the chauffeur was behind the wheel but, “Is the coachman on his box?” His bodyguard, Scotland Yard detective inspector Walter Thompson, recalled that on the rare occasions when Churchill drove his own automobile, “he was forever just missing things, or not quite missing them and denting cars, his own and others. People shouldn’t be in his way, was his theory.”
To drive with Churchill, recalled Thompson, “was to take your life into your hands.” On one journey Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, turned into a narrow lane in Croydon only to encounter a construction project in the road and a long line of backed-up automobiles. A policeman signaled Churchill to stop, but Churchill ignored the constable and instead drove up onto the sidewalk in order to bypass the scene. Many were the occasions when Thompson, to avert disaster, had to reach over and yank the wheel from Churchill’s hands. When Churchill actually collided with some hapless Londoner’s automobile, he did not believe that any damage could possibly be of his doing, a mind-set he also applied to his frequent collisions with subordinates, parliamentary colleagues, and foreign potentates. Robert Boothby, one of Churchill’s most loyal supporters during the Wilderness Years when he was out of office and without influence, recalled that Churchill simply did not much care for what other people thought, and cared not at all about how they might feel. “It was this curious absence of interest or affection that may have helped make him a great leader.” Churchill “was often callous,” Boothby recalled, but then, “he had a war to fight” and little time for social niceties.
Churchill refused to accept changes in geographical names; Istanbul remained Constantinople (“though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it”). Ankara remained Angora (he told the Foreign Office he would refuse to call Angora cats by any other name). Peking remained Peiping, Sebastopol, Sevastopol, and Iran, Persia. Likewise, he preferred traditional military terms to the modern—“cannon” for artillery, “muskets” for rifles, and “frigates” for destroyers. When he drafted a cable to Franklin Roosevelt requesting a gift or loan of fifty old frigates, Jock Colville suggested he substitute “destroyers,” since the president might not know what the prime minister was referring to. It was in youth and early manhood, especially in the company of the officers of the 4th Hussars, resplendent in their blue and gold, impeccable in manners at the table, that he had acquired his lifelong love of tradition, ceremony, color, gaiety, pageantry, and formality. Protocol was important to him. He told his cabinet: “Gentlemen, we are engaged in a very serious business. We must conduct it in a serious way.” In correspondence he expected them to address him as “Dear Prime Minister,” and his replies opened “Dear Foreign Secretary,” “Dear Chancellor of the Exchequer,” “Dear Minister of Aircraft Production,” etc. Letters for his signature were not to end with “sincerely” unless he determined that he was, indeed, sincere.
The romantic glow of Victorian militarism, when casualties were few and victories enormous, accounted for his ambivalent view of warfare. He said, “War, which was cruel and glorious, has become cruel and squalid.” But the glory was still there for him. No other British prime minister, not even Wellington, had donned a uniform while in office. Churchill wore the light blue livery of an (honorary) RAF commodore and regretted that British soldiers no longer wore red coats.
Afterward everyone who had been around him in 1940 remembered the Old Man’s astonishing, unflagging energy. He was overweight and fifteen years older than Hitler; he never exercised, yet “he was working,” Kathleen Hill, one of Churchill’s typists, recalled, “all the time, every waking moment.” His old friend from the First World War, Edward Spears, who had not seen him in many years before that spring, felt “an astonishment such as I had never felt before at his strength and vitality. I had known he possessed these qualities in lavish measure, but now he exuded power and confidence, radiating them as if he were their very fountain-head.” Young Jock Colville marveled at “Winston’s ceaseless industry,” and wrote that it was “refreshing to work with somebody who refuses to be depressed even by the most formidable danger that has ever threatened this country… 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.”
To the British public he had become the ultimate Englishman, an embodiment of the bulldog breed, with the pugnacious set of his jaw, the challenging tilt of his cigar, his stovepipe hat, his pronouncement that “foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names” (he always sounded the final “s” in Calais), and his fondness for red meat. In a letter to his Minister of Food he wrote, “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay. The British soldier is far more likely to be right than the scientists. All he cares about is beef…. The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down, on gala occasions, with a little lime juice.”
He himself had always ignored dietary rules and rarely paid a penalty for it, and he drank whatever he wanted, usually alcohol, whenever he wanted it, which was often. Harry Hopkins (Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted adviser and go-to man) entered Churchill’s bedroom one morning to find the prime minister in bed, wrapped in his pink robe, “and having of all things a bottle of wine for breakfast.” When Hopkins commented on his breakfast beverage, Churchill replied that he despised canned milk, but had no “deep rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had resolved the conflict in favor of the latter.” Furthermore, the Old Man told Hopkins, he ignored the advice of doctors because they were usually wrong, that he had lived almost seven decades and was in perfect health, and that “he had no intention of giving up alcoholic drink, mild or strong, now or later.”
His normal wartime regimen included a glass of white wine at breakfast (taken as a substitute for tea during the war, when only canned milk was available). Then, a weak scotch and soda, refreshed with soda throughout the morning. At lunch, perhaps a port, always Pol Roger champagne, a brandy or two (likely Hine, and bottled in the previous century), sometimes a beer. After his nap and before dinner he’d nurse another whisky (Johnnie Walker Red Label was his favorite brand). At dinner, more champagne during the meal, followed often by “several doses of brandy” in the latter stages. He loved his meals as much as the libations that accompanied them. As recalled by his grandson, Winston S. Churchill, his favorite dinner began with madrilène (chilled, almost jellied consommé), followed by goujons (small filets of North Sea sole), then roast beef, thin-sliced, with Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes, followed by his favorite sweet, bombe glacée (puffs of ice cream cocooned within ice cream). Before retiring for the evening, his valet (Frank Sawyers, during the war) would pour another port or two, perhaps a final weak whisky while Churchill worked in his study. Another such drinker would recoil from food, but Churchill’s appetite was unaffected, and he rarely lost possession of his remarkable faculties.
Clearly he was blessed with a remarkable constitution, one which disposed of alcohol with exceptional efficiency. His detractors and enemies either inferred he was a drunk or, in the case of Hitler and Goebbels, denounced him outright as a “twaddler and a drunkard.” Yet Robert E. Sherwood, Franklin Roosevelt’s speechwriter and biographer, wrote that although Churchill’s “consumption of alcohol… continued at quite regular intervals through most of his waking hours,” it did so “without visible effect on his health or mental processes. Anyone who suggested he became befuddled with drink obviously never had to become involved in an argument with him on some factual problem late at night….” Churchill’s drinking habits, Sherwood wrote, were “unique” and his capacity “Olympian.”
Despite his prolonged, consistent, and prodigious consumption of alcohol, Churchill was not a drunk. But neither was he a moderate social drinker, as some of the memoirs and protestations of his close friends and private secretaries maintain. His former staff spin a consistent tale, that Churchill nursed a lone weak whisky and soda all day, replenished and diluted by splashes of soda, which is true but overlooks the daylong augmentation with other spirits. On occasion he would go too far, such as described in Jock Colville’s account of taking the Old Man up to bed at around 3:00 A.M. after a brandy-fueled evening. Both Colville and Churchill thought it hilarious when Churchill, attempting to settle into an armchair in order to remove his shoes, missed the chair entirely and fell onto the floor in a jumble of legs and arms. “A regular Charlie Chaplin,” Churchill offered as he struggled to regain his footing. Later in the war, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was summoned by Churchill in the middle of the day. Brooke, who often noted Churchill’s prodigious intake of alcohol, that night told his diary, “I found him very much worse for wear for evidently having consumed several glasses of brandy at lunch.” Such slides into outright drunkenness were exceedingly rare for Churchill, but they occurred.
He went nowhere without his supply of whisky close at hand, kept at the ready by his bodyguard or his valet. When he visited the United States during Prohibition, he secreted his whisky (and his Webley service revolver) past U.S. Customs, making him a violator of the Volstead Act, indeed, given his thirst, a habitual violator. When he was struck and severely injured by a car in New York City, he finagled a prescription for alcohol from his attending physician, Otto C. Pickardt. The injury, Pickardt wrote, “necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits, especially at meal times.” The quantity was “indefinite” but at a minimum was to be about eight fluid ounces. The British essayist C. P. Snow encapsulated the paradox of Churchill’s drinking when he remarked, “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.” It could of course be argued that had he exemplified the ideal of moderation—more exercise, less drink, less reckless behavior, fewer cigars—he might well have lived a full and rich life for many years beyond the ninety he was granted.
Churchill once summed up his relationship with drink thus: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
He kept hours that would stagger a young man. Late each evening, at midnight or shortly thereafter, a courier arrived in Downing Street with the first editions of the morning newspapers, eight or nine in all. The Old Man skimmed them before retiring, and sometimes, Kathleen Hill later recalled, he would telephone the Daily Mail to inquire about new developments in a running story. On June 18 Colville noted: “Winston was furious because the morning papers, which he likes to see before going to bed, had not arrived. In his emotion he upset his whisky and soda over all his papers.”
The prime minister’s day began at eight o’clock in the morning, when he woke after five or six hours’ sleep and rang a bell summoning his usual breakfast: an egg, bacon or ham or chipped beef (when meat was available), sometimes a piece of sole, all washed down by his glass of white wine, or a pot of tea, a black Indian blend. Then a typewriter arrived, accompanied by a stenographer—usually Mrs. Hill or Miss Watson—to whom he would dictate a stream of memos as she rapidly hammered them out and he worked his way through a large black dispatch box. The typewriters were advertised as “silent.” They were not. The Great Man resented every click of the keys, and made his displeasure known to the typists. He hated any noise (including ticking clocks, which he banned from his room) that intruded upon his equilibrium, and his business with the box.
The box, which he had organized, was the absolute center of Britain’s war against the Third Reich. Inside were numbered folders containing papers approximately 16″ x 13.″ The first one, the “top of the box,” as it was called, dealt with matters considered “really urgent” by his secretaries, according to one of them, John Peck, “not only by objective standards of importance, deadlines, and so on, but in part subjectively by the degree of the Prime Minister’s personal interest at the time. So we had to see and understand what was in his mind, and he relied on us to do this.” Below the top were folders containing military and foreign office telegrams, reports from the Chiefs of Staff (after screening by Churchill’s military liaison Pug Ismay), answers to questions he had raised concerning every aspect of British life—food supplies, crop yields, railroad capacity, coal production. Nothing escaped his attention.
Churchill’s private secretaries, John Peck, Eric Seal, John Colville, and John Martin, carried keys to this box. There was another, buff-colored box. Only Churchill had the key to that one. Inside were German military orders—at first from the Luftwaffe, later from the Wehrmacht and the SS, and much later from Admiral Dönitz’s U-boats—all decoded and translated for him. In the first days of the war, Polish intelligence officers had captured a German electromagnetic cipher machine; Polish mathematicians subsequently examined the machine and smuggled a replica to the British. The British cryptographers, stationed at Bletchley Park, a Victorian redbrick, white-trimmed, and copper-roofed complex north of London, called the machine “Enigma.” Each day the enemy reset the code and each day the men at Bletchley tried to break it, often without complete success. But the Bletchley crowd decrypted enough messages often enough to give Churchill an over-the-shoulder look at German plans (except U-boat plans, for which a slightly different and more complex encoding machine was used). The Bletchley wizards tended to be young and bearded, with long hair, dirty fingernails, and disheveled clothing. When the prime minister first saw them, he remarked to their chief, “Menzies, when I told you to leave no stone unturned, I didn’t mean you to take me quite so literally.”
At the outset, he told the War Cabinet secretary that “all directions emanating from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards confirmed in writing.” Any instruction not in writing was invalid. The edict seems petty at first glance, but it precluded any subordinate from mucking up the works by misinterpreting and passing on down the line a prime ministerial command. The sheer volume of paperwork confirmed the wisdom of Churchill’s edict that nothing submitted to him, not even a technical account of changes in the manufacture of tanks, could be longer than a single sheet of paper. During a meeting at Admiralty House, he lifted one that wasn’t, and said: “This report, by its very length, defends itself against scrutiny.” But Churchill, in turn, contributed to the lengthening paper trail with his river of memos marked “Action This Day” and “Report in 3 Days.” Many began, “Pray tell me…,” or “Pray explain…,” which earned his memos the moniker “Winston’s prayers.”
When reading and signing his missives at his desk, he often wore special sleeves over the cuffs of his jacket in order to protect them from any graphite or ink that might conspire to besmirch his outerwear. The sleeves, together with the occasional green eyeshade, lent to him the air of a plump typesetter. A perusal of the objects on his desk and side table, however—paperweights fashioned from gold medals, crystal inkstands with sterling lids, numerous bottles of pills and powders, and cut-crystal decanters of whisky—identified the owner as a Victorian gentleman of no small means.
There were snarls, and he was responsible for some of them. Churchill’s many gifts did not include the administrative. He had little understanding of organization. When a major issue arose, he gave it his full attention, ignoring his other responsibilities, which, because he had taken personal charge of everything affecting the strategic direction of the war, were many. He procrastinated. In his autobiography, My Early Life, he wrote: “I do think unpunctuality is a vile habit, and all my life I have tried to break myself of it.” He never succeeded. He was always late for trains, although as P.M. he could demand that the trains wait for him. “Winston is a sporting man,” Clementine once told his bodyguard. “He likes to give the train a chance to get away.” In crises, he fell hopelessly behind on the box. He avoided dull topics, and boring papers lay unread weekend after weekend, until, gritting his teeth, he waded through them. He would make plans, Jock Colville recalled, but was “inclined to forget to tell any of us and then to forget himself.” He once called his military chiefs to No. 10 for a 4:00 P.M. meeting. They arrived at the appointed hour; Churchill did not. Aides were sent off to locate the prime minister. They found him “enjoying a whisky and soda in the smoking room at the House.”
Some of his problems emanated from men he himself had selected. His staff believed that he was a poor judge of character and that he sometimes insisted upon unsuitable appointments. Men who had fought valiantly won his uncritical admiration. He wanted to give high office to Admiral Sir Roger Keyes of Zeebrugge, a hero of the First World War, though the admiral’s mental powers were clearly failing. Orde Wingate, who would win fame as a daring commander of Burmese guerrillas, also caught his eye, though Wingate, who Churchill’s doctor, Charles Wilson (made Lord Moran in 1943), thought was quite possibly insane, proved hopeless when given other responsibilities. Of course, those who had stood with Churchill against Munich always found favor with him. In his eyes Anthony Eden, who had quit the Chamberlain government in protest, could do no wrong. That was not a unanimous feeling; P. J. Grigg, permanent under secretary at the War Office, said of Eden, “The man is complete junk.”
Only up to a point did Churchill accept Ben Franklin’s maxim that well done is better than well said. He liked things well done and well said. Perhaps because Churchill himself was so articulate, he sometimes misjudged those who were not. The Middle East commander Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Wavell, though a published poet and fluent in Russian, was shy and unforthcoming—attributes that to Churchill implied Wavell was almost dumb—and he remained tongue-tied when the P.M. tried to elicit his views about the war. His fellow generals thought Wavell a magnificent commander. Thus, the prime minister withdrew his objections to him with great reluctance and later wished he hadn’t. He never appreciated the gifts of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the greatest RAF hero of the war, because of Dowding’s reticence. Ironically, the Old Man’s extraordinary fluency in discussion was sometimes a handicap. He could out-argue anyone, even when he was wrong. All who were close to him remember what Sir Ian Jacob (then a colonel, later promoted to lieutenant general)calls his “most devastating method of argument.” Jacob recalled how he would “debate, browbeat, badger, and cajole those who were opposed to him, or whose work was under discussion.” Churchill did not thrust and parry in such duels; he knew only how to thrust. Only later did it become clear that those who vehemently disagreed with him, and stated their case clearly, were those who won his respect. They survived to fight another day, which given Churchill’s temperament was likely the next day. He was hard on those he called on the carpet, but he was harder on himself. “Every night,” he told Colville, “I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground—anyone can go through the motions—but something really effective.”
“Idleness was a concept unknown to him,” recalled his daughter Mary. Idleness was the handmaiden to boredom, and boredom was an enemy to be vanquished. When Churchill found himself bored, recalled Scotland Yard’s Inspector Thompson, he became “a kicker of waste baskets, with an unbelievably ungoverned bundle of bad temper.” At such times, Thompson wrote, it is best to stay away from him “and this his family seeks to do.” The Old Man’s foul mood persisted until—the sooner the better for all concerned—he distanced himself from the agent of boredom. Such was the case one evening later in the war when Churchill, Colville, and several American guests viewed Citizen Kane. Colville termed it “a deplorable American film…. The P.M. was so bored that he walked out before the end.” He did so again during a White House viewing of Oliver Twist, leaving the president and Mrs. Roosevelt sitting alone. Boredom, for the Old Man, was an assault on his equilibrium, inflicted in these cases by movies that failed to engage him but usually by a droning bureaucrat or a dinner guest in whom he had scant interest. He would at first put on an air of civility in such circumstances, his doctor recalled. “Then, as if exhausted by his act of civility, he would make no further attempt at conversation, sitting all hunched up and scowling at his plate.” Finally, he would harrumph and walk off. Churchill “found it difficult to put on an act of affability even when circumstances positively demanded it,” Colville wrote. “He drew a conscious distinction between those with whom it was agreeable to have dinner and those who… were part of the scene.”
When boredom struck, he could be depended upon to make a “ruthless break” in pursuit of a more enjoyable source of entertainment. The balm might take the form of dictating a letter, singing off-key renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps wielding his trowel to lay bricks in the gardens at Chartwell. (Chartwell was soon closed for the duration of the war, the furniture draped in sheets. Most of the staff of gardeners, kitchen maids, the chauffeur, and housemaids were furloughed. Only a caretaker remained.) He always kept his quiver full of possible activities: read a novel, feed his goldfish, address his black swans, parse the newspapers, declaim on England’s glorious past. Painting had long afforded Churchill the happy combination of quietude and a focus for his restless mental energy, but during the war, he would unpack his easel, brushes, and oils only once: at Marrakech after the Casablanca Conference. Gambling had always been another option, but the war had put an end to those pleasures, at least in casinos. He soon was gambling with his armies, tanks, and ships. Whether aboard a train, tucked under his bedclothes with his newspapers strewn about, or presiding at the dinner table, he was “absolutely incapable” of doing nothing, recalled his literary assistant Sir William Deakin: “He could switch off in a marvelously tidy way.”
Once years before, recalled Inspector Thompson, during a train journey in North Africa, Churchill (then a cabinet member) decided he wanted a bath. He ordered the train stopped. Then he ordered a tub he had spotted in the baggage car removed and set out in the sands. It was filled to brimming with hot water siphoned from the locomotive’s boiler. And there, as the train let off steam, Churchill “bathed with half of Africa agape.” It fell to Thompson to shadow Churchill when he made his ruthless breaks. “He will move at a moment’s notice. He will move without notice. He is an animal. In war he is particularly feral.”
In relief of boredom, almost any action—short of the wicked—would do, with one prerequisite: it had to possess value, and Churchill was the arbiter of the value. There simply was none to be had by sitting through Citizen Kane or lingering in reception lines where strangers grabbed for his hand as if they owned it. No value accrued from entertaining humorless dinner guests. In the end, when boredom struck, his most reliable source of relief—the only source of relief he never tired of—was himself. He once told a friend that his idea of a delightful evening was to enjoy fine food in the company of friends, to then discuss the fine food, and then to move on to a good discussion “with myself as chief conversationalist.” What could be more stimulating than to listen to the sound of his own voice while declaiming on some topic of abiding interest, such as the Boer War or, in 1940, the need to kill Huns?
He was his own favorite audience. He regularly quoted at great length from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and Walter Scott’s “Marmion,” feats of memory Colville found to be “remarkable” yet sometimes “rather boring.” Boring for Colville perhaps, but not for Churchill. His old friend Violet Bonham Carter recalled that if a long recitation of Macaulay’s verse did not suffice to keep his gears meshed, he would revert to another favorite subject: himself. Lord Moran wrote, “Winston is so taken up with his own ideas he is not interested in what other people think.” That was partially true; he was more interested in what other people did. Herbert Samuel, Lloyd George’s successor as head of the old Liberal Party, believed Churchill was not interested in reasoned arguments, but rather, asked, “Will it work in practice?” One of Moran’s observations, however, doesn’t pass muster: “He [Churchill] must lose a chunk of his life this way, and must often be lonely, cut off from people.” In fact, Churchill found real joy in the company of his friends and family. He loved being with small children; “wollygogs” he called them, and wollygogs were always granted immunity from his growls and snarls. He surrounded himself with people who cared for him, people who hung on his every word. And why should they not; he was Winston Churchill. If he chose not to take an interest in someone, that person remained invisible. Years later, Frank Sinatra, by then the most famous crooner on the planet, rushed up to Churchill, grabbed his hand, and exclaimed, “I’ve wanted to do that for twenty years.” Churchill, not at all happy with being touched by a stranger, turned to a private secretary and demanded, “Who the hell was that?”
He once complained to Lord Moran of a loss of feeling in his shoulder, apparently caused by a pinched nerve. Should he be concerned about this? Churchill asked. “Sensation doesn’t matter,” replied the doctor. “No,” Churchill shot back, “life is sensation; sensation is life.” In this need for stimulation he was one with fellow wit and fellow Tory Dr. Samuel Johnson, who considered action the necessary prerequisite for a well-lived life. Churchill needed to complete the circuit between the goings-on in his mind and the external world. Once he generated an idea, he felt compelled to actualize it. When he pledged that RAF bombs would consume Nazi Germany, he did so not simply to hear himself speak—that was a delightful collateral benefit—but because he intended to deliver on his promise. “The only guide to a man is his conscience,” he once told the Commons, “the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.”
Descartes believed the wellspring of human essence could be expressed thus: Cogito, ergo sum. But Churchill was not a man of philosophical bent, and, like most Englishmen, he held continental rationalism in low regard. Empiricism—Locke and Hume—was the English way. Churchill saw things more along the lines of I act, therefore I am. Lord Samuel once offered to Lord Moran that Churchill “has never ever taken any interest in speculative thought, in philosophy and religion.” That was only partially true. He loved to engage in scientific and technological speculation, intellectual realms where the imagination could soar and where ideas were tested, results obtained, and improvements made in the lives of people. In 1932 he published Thoughts and Adventures, a collection of essays in which he predicted the atomic bomb and atomic-powered electrification (and the risks to humanity); bioengineering of crops and animals (and perhaps people); and television (which, when it became a reality, he detested). “Projects undreamed-of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants,” he wrote, “comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, and their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.”
On the day France fell, Churchill summoned Dr. R. V. Jones, just twenty-eight and a junior scientist working in RAF Intelligence, to No. 10 to argue his hypothesis (heretical to more senior scientists) that the Germans were using radio beams to target Britain. The raids, infrequent and usually directed at northern ports, had begun the previous October. Churchill expected them to increase in frequency and deadliness now that Hitler had control of the airfields of the Low Countries and France. Backed by Churchill, Jones in the coming months figured out how to jam the German beams and delivered one of the most important victories of the war. Jones later wrote of Churchill: “He understood the essence of supreme decisions: yea or nay, right or left, advance or retreat…. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of experts…. He knew how easy it is for the man at the summit to receive too rosy a picture from his Intelligence advisors…. Alone among politicians he valued science and technology at something approaching their true worth, at least in the military application.”
Churchill’s embrace of the new did not extend to the art and science of governing. The Oxford philosopher and Latvian Jewish émigré Sir Isaiah Berlin later proposed in his essay Churchill and Roosevelt that Churchill remained politically a European man of the nineteenth century, despite his embrace of modern technologies and his belief in their promise, despite his insatiable curiosity and his appetite for new knowledge. Britain’s glorious imperial past informed Churchill, who presumed it would likewise inform the future. But Franklin Roosevelt, Berlin argues, saw—and Churchill did not—that the past and all of its traditions could be jettisoned in order to produce a new political order from whole cloth. Where Roosevelt was an imaginative though cautious political visionary, Churchill was an imaginative and incautious preservationist. “Churchill… looks within,” Berlin wrote, “and his strongest sense is the sense of the past.”
After reading Plato and Aristotle as a young man, Churchill declared for agnosticism. Although he embraced the Greek philosophical antecedents of Christianity, he found no intellectual reward in theological exercises. He subscribed to the Christian values of mercy and forgiveness, but his beliefs were not dictated by doctrine, and certainly not by clerics. He had been informed by his experiences as a soldier and journalist, and he rejected the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. The idea of an afterlife was not much more than an afterthought for Churchill, and one he considered equivalent to a belief in ghosts and goblins. He claimed he “did not much believe in personal survival after death, at least not of the memory.” The thought of oblivion did not vex him. Where others found only terror in the prospect of the negation of self, Churchill found sanguineness, and fodder for irreverent asides. He did not believe in another world after death, he told his doctor, but “only in ‘black velvet’—eternal sleep,” which did not stop him from playing whimsically with other possibilities in painterly terms: “When I get to Heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my five million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. But then I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here. There will be a whole range of wonderful new colours which will delight the celestial eye.” Churchill’s fanciful heaven was also a distinctly pluralistic place where the full spectrum of humanity would mingle forever (although the membership list would never do for Churchill’s earthly private dining society, the Other Club): “Indians and Chinese and people like that. Everyone will have equal rights in Heaven… that will be the real welfare state…. Of course, I admit I may be wrong. It is conceivable that I might well be reborn as a Chinese coolie. In such case I should lodge a protest.” In a similar impish vein, he once proclaimed a proof for God’s existence “is the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom a hell is needed.”
As for the act of dying, the transition from consciousness to nothingness or to some manner of somethingness, Churchill would have agreed with Dr. Johnson, who said dying “lasts so short a time,” and it does a man “no good to whine…. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives.”
Such were Churchill’s sentiments exactly. In 1915, before departing for the Western Front, he entrusted his lawyer with a letter he wrote to Clementine, to be delivered in the event of his death: “Death is only an incident, & not the most important that happens to us…. If there is anywhere else, I shall be on the lookout for you.” He believed that were his final moment on earth to arrive via a German bomb, it would be due to chance. To Jock Colville, he quoted the French mathematician Henri Poincaré: “I take refuge beneath the impenetrable arch of probability.” Fate, not the Lord, would call Churchill home, although he once told Colville whimsically that were heaven ordered on the model of a constitutional monarchy, “there was always a possibility that the Almighty might have occasion to ‘send for him.’ ”
He detested superstition. A court case being prosecuted by His Majesty’s Government caught his attention. He demanded of the home secretary “why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern court of justice?” It was all “obsolete tomfoolery” that inhibited the court’s ability to function. He thought much the same of churchgoing. He was at best an infrequent visitor to God’s house. His private secretary Anthony Montague Browne recalled that Churchill claimed he “rarely went to church. When approached about this, he [Churchill] said he was not a pillar of the church but a buttress—he supported it from the outside.” If he had to sit through a sermon on national days of prayer or state occasions, Jock Colville later wrote, he preferred that the pastor speak to politics or war, “but no Christianity.” His visits to church were so rare that Colville was shocked one Sunday late in the war when Churchill attended a service. It was the first time in almost four years that Colville had seen him do so. Only toward the end of the service did Colville grasp Churchill’s real motive for attending. After the minister delivered his sermon, the Old Man walked up to the pulpit and delivered one himself. He loved the glory and pageantry of christenings, funerals, and coronations performed within the mossy precincts of Britain’s ancient village churches or within the silent grandeur of its great cathedrals, not for any proximity to the divine but because such rituals offered proximity to England’s storied past. Churchill was deeply moved by the melodic grace of hymns, by the power of voices uplifted in song. He loved the rolling peal of village church bells calling the faithful to worship, but, writes the British historian Roy Jenkins, there is no record of Churchill ever having left Chartwell in response to the summons. A Bible rests to this day on his bedside table at Chartwell, a sight that moves many visitors to conclude he sought guidance in Scripture. He did not. When Lord Moran, spying the Bible, asked Churchill if he read it, he replied, “Yes, I read it; but only out of curiosity.”
Jock Colville thought it the “supreme blasphemy” when, over lunch one day, Churchill said, “Every nation creates god in its own image.” Yet history lent credence to that judgment; even Hitler claimed that god was on his side.
He disliked holy men in general: “the old humbug Gandhi,” Greek Archbishop Damaskinos (“a pernicious priest”). Church of England prelates did not adorn Churchill’s dinner table. He considered the Anglican clergy to be a priggish and hypocritical lot. Why dine with those who would take moral umbrage to his ending an evening singing lustily and dancing about to Viennese waltzes while attired in an outrageous red dressing gown, a warmed snifter of brandy in one hand, and a cigar (or rifle) in the other? The death later in the war of William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury, “caused the P.M. no sorrow,” Colville wrote. “In fact he was quite ribald about it.” Temple was a scholar and philosopher, but Churchill “who as far as the English clergy was concerned had a touch of King Henry II about him, disliked Temple’s left-wing tendencies and his outspoken political comments.” Churchill was a Cavalier, the clergy were Puritans—worse, Puritans with a leftward list. This, for Churchill, made them and their brand of Christianity suspect.
Churchill squeezed the present for all it was worth. He believed meaning is found only in the present, for the past is gone and the future looms indeterminate if it arrives at all. Churchill was an old trooper who, whether at his easel, speaking in the Commons, or dining with his cronies, manifested the soldier’s creed: savor the moment, for it may be the last. Yet for Churchill, if there were to be tomorrows, they would arrive on his terms. He was an optimist, not a determinist; the world was indeed often cruel, but it need not remain so. He subscribed to a variation of the Nietzschean, monumental view of history that he had arrived at from his youthful reading of Gibbon (all of Gibbon) and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man, a must-read for young thinkers in the late nineteenth century. In his book Reade attributed to history a Darwinian, a survival of the fittest, continuum. Churchill, paraphrasing Reade in a letter to his mother, wrote, “If the human race ever reaches a stage of development—when religion will cease to assist and comfort mankind—Christianity will be put aside as a crutch which is no longer needed, and man will stand erect on the firm legs of reason.”
He synthesized his Gibbon and Reade and concluded that the greatness and goodness of the past could be recaptured through the exercise of will. God would play no part in the saga, because God, if indeed there was a God, was unwilling or unable to intervene. Yet that paradigm left open the possibility that a force of evil—such as Hitler—might well impose his will on the future. Churchill employed his present moments to plan his—and the world’s—better tomorrows through the exercise of his will. By doing so he intended to deny Hitler his supposed destiny. Churchill, not God, would safeguard the future of Europe and the British Empire, and he would do so by the vigorous exercise of his imagination and the imposition of his will by the only means he knew—action, action this day, action every day.
He saw communism not as the atheistic negation of Christian ideals (as did Franklin Roosevelt) but as the twisted fulfillment of those ideals. At dinner one evening later in the war he recited to his guests a Soviet creed:
“I love Lenin,
Lenin was poor, and therefore I love poverty,
Lenin was hungry, therefore I can go hungry…”
“Communism,” Churchill declared when he finished, was “Christianity with a tomahawk.”
Traditional religions at least held out the hope of mercy, love, and a forgiving deity. Not so the “non-God” religions that had overtaken Germany and Russia (although Churchill muted his criticism of Bolshevism after his alliance with Stalin). Three years before war came, during the early months of the Spanish Civil War, Churchill warned Britons of the “war between the Nazis and the Communists: the war of the non-God religions, waged with the weapons of the twentieth century. The most striking fact about the new religions is their similarity. They substitute the devil for God and hatred for love. They are at each other’s throats wherever they exist all over the world….” Britons, he warned, “must not blind their eyes to the power which these new religions exercise in the modern world. They are equipped with powerful agencies of destruction, and they do not lack their champions, their devotees, and even their martyrs.”
Chamberlain—and France—had blinded his eyes to the threat, with the result that Hitler and his apostles brought their gospel first to Poland, and now to Holland, Belgium, and France. Churchill intended that it not be brought to England.
He believed in Virtue and Right, not as matters of dogma, but as objective realities. Virtue was manifested in action. It took the form of the Aristotelian mean. Courage, the supreme virtue, could be found somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, Churchill wrote in Great Contemporaries: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because… it is the quality which guarantees all others.” Among the others was magnanimity. In Victory: Magnanimity, Churchill chimed, never revenge fueled by hatred. This was a virtue first expressed by Aristotle and most recently ignored by Hitler in Poland and, a generation earlier, by the good Christians who drafted the Carthaginian terms (Churchill believed) of surrender imposed upon Germany and Austria after the Great War. The argument put forth then that Germany had behaved like a mad dog since the Franco-Prussian War and deserved to wear the shortest possible leash was, for Churchill, flawed. It violated another of his maxims, In Peace: Goodwill. He believed that an economically healthy Germany was necessary for European stability.
Yet here now came the Hun again, waging a war that might soon result in the extermination of England. In fighting his battle to preserve liberty in England and restore it in Europe, there could be no middle path, no mean, and Churchill acknowledged none. Weapons and strategies that showed promise—special operations, assassination, sabotage, bacterial “spore” bombs, atomic fission bombs, aerial obliteration of German cities—were justified by the ends. Any weapon, especially one deployed often, accurately, and ruthlessly, was a fine weapon. His was a distinctly Old Testament approach to rendering justice. As much as he admired the merciful and demanded that generosity follow victory, In War, Fury formed his philosophy of battle.
In his youthful readings of Aristotle and Plato he discovered the pre-Christian philosophical antecedents that the Catholic Church later appropriated and folded into its doctrine. He taught himself well and created a code he could live by. He was seduced by the powerful simplicity of Aristotle’s mean and Plato’s analogy of the charioteer, who in order to successfully navigate his way must keep a tight rein on his brace of winged horses.
Churchill had as much difficulty riding smoothly in double harness as he did in keeping his car on the road, but in the end, he achieved his mean. It was a moral journey of many twists and turns, of chutes and ladders. Images of him in his dressing gown, rifle at his shoulder, marching about late of an evening hardly conjure an image of the Aristotelian mean. He possessed, John Martin recalled, a “zigzag streak of lightning on the brain.” The Old Man zigged and zagged in many of his strategic decisions as war leader when, literally and metaphorically, he was all over the map. For every diarist who notes his exuberance, fairness, geniality, or generosity, there is to be found another who alludes to his roughness, his sarcasm, his low moods, and his bellicosity—sometimes the same observer on the same day. Yet Churchill’s journey toward the mean could unfold in no other way. “If he hadn’t been this sort of bundle of energy that he was,” recalled Martin, “he would never have carried the whole machine, civil and military, right through to the end of the war.”
Endowed with a prodigious memory, Churchill seemed to remember every poem he had ever read, the lyrics of every song, and the chapter and verse of vast numbers of biblical passages, and he would recite them almost anywhere. Embarrassed once years earlier by not having heard of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” he set himself to memorizing all of Keats’s odes, and enjoyed reciting them “mercilessly,” in the estimation of Violet Bonham Carter. He could endlessly quote Dr. Johnson, and freely appropriated and paraphrased the doctor’s witticisms. Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was a Churchill favorite, although he did not share Byron’s melancholic view that man’s greatest tragedy is his ability to conceive a perfection that he cannot attain. Rather, Churchill told his countrymen in the battle against Hitler, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” “Invictus,” a nineteenth-century ode to willpower by William Ernest Henley, was another Churchill favorite.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
He reserved a special affection for American writers, particularly Twain, Melville, and Emerson. As with the English canon, his knowledge was broad. Once, motoring though Frederick, Maryland, with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s close adviser Harry Hopkins, Churchill saw a road sign for candy named for Barbara Frietchie, the Union patriot who flew her Stars and Stripes in defiance of Rebel troops marching past her house. Roosevelt, noting the sign, recited two lines of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem about Frietchie:
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag, she said.”
When Roosevelt allowed that those were the only lines he knew, Churchill weighed in by reciting the entire poem, sixty lines. Then, he began a long monologue on the strategic genius of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. He continued on as the miles sped past, oblivious to the effect on his companions. “After a while,” he later wrote, “silence and slumber descended upon the company.”
Churchill’s love of history was abiding and his knowledge profound. Memorizing dates and place-names has always been the bane of schoolchildren. Yet for a few, Churchill assuredly among them, history is more than a time line, more than the sequencing and parsing of collective memory. In those such as Churchill, history, by way of imagination and discipline, becomes part of personal memory, no less so than childhood recollections of the first swim in the ocean or the first day of school. Churchill did not simply observe the historical continuum; he made himself part of it. Classical venues, and Churchill’s “memory” of them—from the Pillars of Hercules and on around the Mediterranean to Syracuse, Rome, Sparta, Alexandria, and Carthage—informed his identity in much the same way his memories of his family’s ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, did, or his father’s London house, where as a boy he charged his toy soldiers across Persian carpets. He may have been born a Victorian, but he had turned himself into a Classical man. He did not live in the past; the past lived on in him. Harry Hopkins, who came to know Churchill well, noted the mystical relationship he had with the past, especially the military past: “He was involved not only in the battles of the current war, but of the whole past from Cannae to Gallipoli.” Alexander the Great, Boudicca, Hadrian, King Harold, Prince Hal, Pitt, and of course his luminous ancestor Marlborough had all played their parts in earlier scenes of the same play and upon the same stage that Churchill and his enemies now played their parts.
All who knew him had heard him recite, at one time or another, Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.”
All who knew him came to know that in Churchill such sentiments were intrinsic.
Churchill’s most endearing trait was also his most remarkable. He was probably the most amusing warlord in history. His very appearance could endlessly entertain his family and staff. On June 16, Colville took urgent dispatches to the P.M.’s room and “found him lying in bed, looking just like a rather nice pig, clad in a silk vest.” Smoking a long cigar and stroking his cat, Nelson, he prowled the corridors of No. 10 wearing a soldier’s steel helmet (called by all a “tin hat”), a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms. Sometimes he carried on anthropomorphic conversations with Nelson (including an admonition to be more stouthearted after the cat flinched during an air raid). Anticipating the need to move with dispatch during air raids, Churchill designed a one-piece suit with many zippers, permitting him to don it quickly. All members of his staff, including the stenographers, called the suit his “rompers.” Churchill called the outfit his “siren suit,” because he jumped into it at the first howl of the air-raid sirens. He designed the rompers; Henry Poole & Co. of Savile Row crafted them and delivered them.
Any circumstance might trigger Churchill’s humor reflex. Once, after delivering a speech in Parliament on American aid, he rode home to Downing Street in the back of a limousine, belting out “Old Man River.” When his doctor once recited lines from John Milton’s Lycidas—“While the still morn went out with sandals grey…”—Churchill countered, “He was on the wrong side on the Civil War.” During a visit to Rome, he was introduced to the leaders of various Italian political factions. Greeting one group, he asked, “What party are you?” “We are the Christian Communists,” came the reply. Churchill could not contain himself: “It must be very inspiring to your party, having the Catacombs so handy.” One day in the House, he was forced to sit through the delivery of a long and tedious report rife with statistics. He noticed an elderly MP leaning forward with an antique ear trumpet pressed to his ear, struggling to hear the report. Churchill turned to a colleague and asked, “Who is that idiot denying himself his natural advantages?”
Chequers—the ancient Buckinghamshire country house that had been the country retreat of prime ministers since 1917—was guarded by vigilant sentries and could be approached only by those who knew that day’s password. One night during that first week of summer it was “Tofrek,” site of an 1855 battle in the Sudan. That evening, excited by the sound of a plane overhead, Churchill ran out, shouting, “Friend! Tofrek! Prime minister!” There, late at night, he would recite lines from Hamlet, or Byron, or sing music hall ballads he had not heard since the 1890s. Sometimes, when a recording of The Blue Danube was playing, he would waltz around the room alone, his right hand flat against his shirt and his left arm extended as though he were supporting the hand of a partner. Clementine, if present, would likely not join her husband. She understood that he often played and worked simultaneously. While gliding around the room, he very often crafted phrases to deploy in upcoming speeches, and to interrupt him was out of the question. However, on one occasion (years later), two cabinet ministers considered their business more important than Churchill’s speech preparation. They bounded up the stairs, headed for his bedroom, where he was dictating his notes. As they waited outside, a secretary announced their presence to the Old Man. “Tell them to go and bugger themselves,” came the volcanic response. Then a pause, and, “Tell them there is no need for them to carry out that instruction literally.”
The prelude to a speech in the House of Commons was opéra bouffe. He would craft it, not in the calm of a study surrounded by reference books but while on the telephone, or prancing around the Great Hall at Chequers, or propped up in bed, or bowed over a map, waging war. He composed every word of every speech; no committee of speechwriters toiled at No. 10. His bath was a favorite venue for speech preparation (he was proud of being able to control the taps with his toes while he dictated). In the midst of other tasks, he would start muttering phrases to himself: “To the gates of India”; “this bloodthirsty guttersnipe”; “this star of England.” When a cabinet minister called Germans “sheep,” Churchill snarled, “Carnivorous sheep.” In two words he captured the essence of his foes better than Baldwin or Chamberlain could in two hours of speechifying. When Hitler was the subject, Churchill struck and struck again, each cut more ferocious than the one before: “This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break our famous Island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction.” He fertilized every phrase with imagery, and weeded them of any word that could choke his message. He tried them out over dinner with colleagues, with different adjectives, different emphasis, to measure their rhythms and to hear how they sounded. He might pause to pluck a pinch of snuff from his gold snuffbox (it had once belonged to Admiral Nelson), pop it into a nostril, and emit a sneeze with robust delight. He sometimes offered a pinch to his young, female typists, who politely declined. The creative process so absorbed him that he often became oblivious to events unfolding in the room, as on the day his cigar ash ignited his bed jacket. One of his private secretaries, noting the rising smoke, offered, “You’re on fire, sir. May I put you out?” The P.M., not looking up, responded with nonchalance, “Yes, please do.” And kept right at his work.
The climax of his ruminations would come on the day of delivery. Always at least fifteen minutes late, he might still be in bed, dictating the final draft to a typist, or inking in changes, when he should have been on his way to Parliament. Anxious whips would be telephoning from the House, his staff would be begging him to hurry, his valet would be dressing him and flicking cigar ash from his shirt (always a delicate task, for Churchill did not like to be touched). Meanwhile, messengers held the elevator, and his chauffeur, outside, gunned the engine. Finally he would totter out, still dressing, tucking his spectacles and cigar case and loose cigars and his little snuffbox into sundry jacket pockets, checking the numbered pages to be sure they were in the right order.
Moments later, when he rose from the front bench to address the House, he would be greeted by a respectful hush from members and from the galleries, where journalists and foreign ambassadors leaned forward in anticipation. If his words were to be given in secret session, the cue to clear visitors from the Strangers’ Gallery would come when he gazed upward and declared, “I espy strangers.” Secret sessions of the House therefore posed a small problem for Churchill; his most delightful phrases would be lost to the press and diplomatic pouches, and therefore lost to the outside world. Churchill’s solution was simplicity itself; he simply repeated the favored phrases over dinner or in the House smoking room, thus assuring that they would appear in Max Beaverbrook’s newspapers the Daily Express and the Evening Standard. Or, if Churchill wanted the Duke of Alba’s daily secret report to Franco to contain a nugget of misinformation from the Old Man himself, he might repeat a phrase to some Foreign Office minion who was known to dine with the Spaniard. Thus, secret session or no, if Churchill wanted to say something, he said it. Only words can live forever, he liked to say; it would simply not do for his words to die on the floor of the House.
Churchill, like Samuel Johnson and Shakespeare, could string together phrases that resonated with Glasgow pub patrons, Welsh coal miners, and Cockney laundresses, as well as with the Harold Nicolsons and Lady Astors. At his dinner table or in the Commons during Questions, he sprayed the room with fusillades of bons mots. But his broadcasts and speeches were strategic assaults, not tactical, and were crafted with infinite care. His broadcasts sound so English, but in fact their structural foundations date to Cicero. Gibbon and Shakespeare, and Churchill’s reading of them, had a hand in that. Gibbon, when read aloud, is a slow burn, more fuse than fireworks, yet the prose is perfectly balanced and perfectly ordered; each point meticulously advanced until in the climactic resolution only one inescapable conclusion can be reached. Gibbon’s cadence permeates Churchill’s speeches, which in structure and delivery were like a trebuchet, its mechanism slowly and steadily wound by Churchill until the maximum tension was reached, at which point he launched his verbal missile. Then, beginning with his next breath, he re-armed his siege engine and prepared for the next shot.
Although Shakespeare’s name does not appear in the index of his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill read and memorized Shakespeare his whole life, and imbued his speeches with metrical tributes to the Bard. He embodied the Shakespearean notion that a man’s essence is to be found in his actions, and his words, the authenticity and value of which would be confirmed or debunked by the actions that followed. He did not so much speak to Englishmen (as Franklin Roosevelt did to Americans in his homespun fireside chats), as for them. In doing so he represented their destiny and their role in the current struggle, which could only end in either national survival or national annihilation. Hitler, an opportunist and nihilist romantic, told his people much the same.
Churchill dictated all speeches, memos, and letters to his typists, usually young and female, who typed away while he paced about the room, fetched his thoughts, and put them into words. When he dictated directly to the typewriter, the typists found themselves in peril, for to change flimsies in the middle of a long dictation would produce a “primitive wrath.” “Come on, come on!” he’d growl. “What are you waiting for!” “Don’t fidget so with that paper! Stop it!” He was personally insulted by any pause necessitated by the mechanics of the infernal machine. He displayed, wrote his bodyguard, an “appalling, almost childish” unwillingness to learn the mechanics of typing or of typewriters. None of his staff recollect ever seeing Churchill put a finger to a typewriter keyboard. Nor did he ever write his own memos. Other than signing them, recalled William Deakin, Churchill “never wrote a line in his life. I have never seen him put pen to paper.” Actually, Churchill had written his early books in longhand, and of course his dispatches from Cuba and the veldt. But once elected to the Commons, and forever after, he indulged his love of dictation.
He disliked the taking of dictation by shorthand, which would have kept the stenographers in the chase and allowed them to type in peace outside his presence. He believed shorthand only added one more step to the process of setting his thoughts down on paper. He allowed an exception to the ban when he was on the move—in a car, onboard a rolling ship, or strutting through the halls of Chequers or Parliament, conditions which even he understood were not conducive to wielding a typewriter. Not a moment was to be wasted by the typists, as young Patrick Kinna, a lance corporal and trained stenographer who had worked for the Duke of Windsor, learned the first time he entered the prime minister’s room to take a letter. Without looking up or acknowledging Kinna, Churchill, pacing, intoned, “This is a melancholy story….” Kinna, thinking Churchill was about to tell a tale, set down his pencil and notepad, and said, “Oh dear! How unfortunate.” “Well,” Churchill grumbled, “take it down.” It was a memo to the Admiralty, ruing the paucity of aircraft carriers. Kinna survived the day and served Churchill for the rest of the war as a member of the team.
Woe unto the typist who had to ask the Great Man to repeat a phrase. His staff knew that to guess at what he said was far preferable to asking him to repeat it. The typists had to engage in a fair amount of guessing (as Elizabeth Layton had learned) because Churchill often mumbled and, to make matters worse, often while pacing about far across the room, his back to the typist. When he didn’t mumble, he rumbled, strings of phrases all but indecipherable to the struggling scribes. When he dictated while in bed, propped up on his pillows, words were lost as newspapers fluttered to the floor, or the telephone rang, or he summoned his valet to refresh his refreshment. As with the collecting of his thoughts in preparation for a speech, he liked to dictate letters and memos while a gramophone played his favorite recordings of old music hall standbys—“After the Ball,” “Goodbye, My Love,” perhaps Harry Lauder belting out “Keep Right On Till the End of the Road.” The typists had to blot out the background noise in order to parse his phrases, a supremely difficult task when Churchill instructed his valet to turn the volume higher. Finally, when the typist finished, and before she could pull the paper from the typewriter, Churchill would thrust out a hand and utter a curt “Gimme.”
Typists earned about two pounds per week, about forty dollars a month, less than the wages of a corporal in the U.S. Army. As well, they were expected to remain at their post even as German bombs fell into nearby courtyards.
Churchill had been a professional writer before he became a statesman; he had supported his family with a tremendous stream of books and articles. His love of the language was deep and abiding, he had mastered it as few men have, and he was quick to correct anyone who abused it, especially those who tried to camouflage sloppy thinking with the flapdoodle of verbose military jargon or bureaucratese. He believed, with F. G. Fowler, that big words should not be used when small words will do, and that English words were always preferable to foreign words. He said: “Not compressing thought into a reasonable space is sheer laziness.” On his orders “Communal Feeding Centres” were renamed “British Restaurants,” as “Local Defense Volunteers” had become “Home Guard.” And why not “ready-made” rather than “prefabricated”? “Appreciate that” was a red flag for him; he always crossed it out and substituted “recognize that.” Another was “intensive” when “intense” was required. Once John Martin, driving along the Embankment with him, described the winding of the Thames as “extraordinary.” Churchill corrected him: “Not ‘extraordinary.’ All rivers wind. Rather, ‘remarkable.’ ” In the margins of official documents, he often quoted Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a copy of which he sent to Buckingham Palace on his first Christmas as prime minister.
John Martin believed that the P.M.’s “interest in basic English was inspired by politics rather than linguistics: it was a means of promoting ‘the English-speaking club.’ ” Certainly that was one reason. He believed that all countries where English was spoken, including America, should merge. Here lay a profound contrast with the foreign policies of his predecessors at Downing Street. They had focused upon the Continent and the various combinations of the great powers there. Neville Chamberlain had referred to the United States with amusement and contempt, and called Americans “creatures.” But Churchill, though a European patriot, looked westward, and not only because he knew Hitler could not be crushed without American troops. British to the bone, he was nevertheless the son of an American mother, and long before the war, he had envisaged a union of the world’s English-speaking peoples: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the far-flung colonies of the British Empire.
In his parliamentary speeches, and particularly in his broadcasts to his besieged island, his genius for the language fused with his idealized image of England and Englishmen, or the “British race,” formed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—a people endowed with fearlessness, gallantry, nobility, a unique sense of honor, and invincibility. He still exulted in the memory of colonial conquests, when the Enfield rifles and Maxim guns of the Queen’s armies were challenged only by primitive weapons, imperial flags flew proudly, and British casualties, even in the Indian Mutiny, were always light. The slaughter of the 1914–1918 war had appalled Britons, including Churchill, and had exhausted and disillusioned many, but not Churchill. Now, drawing fire from the terrible red glow across the Channel, he was exhilarated. His first four hundred days in office—from early May 1940 to mid-June 1941, a ghastly time for millions of Europeans—were, for him, the supreme chapter in his life. Later he wrote that it was “the most splendid, as it was the most deadly year in our long British and English story.” He believed that 1940 was a time when “it was equally good to live or die.” Years after the war, John Martin remarked to him that life was not as exciting as it had been. Churchill replied jovially, “You can’t expect to have a war all the time.”
Based on his reading of Lord Moran’s memoirs, Anthony Storr, the eminent British psychiatrist, believed that the source of Churchill’s strength lay in his “inner world of make-believe,” the sort of fantasies imaginative men call up from time to time when bored or disappointed. For most of the 1930s, Churchill had been both. After June 1940, Storr believed, that world of imagination “coincided with the facts of external reality in a way that rarely happens to any man.” After the fall of France, Churchill became the hero he had always dreamed of being. Storr compares this to passionate love, “when, for a time, the object of a man’s desire seems to coincide exactly with the image of a woman he carries within him.” In that dark time, Storr argues, what England needed was not a shrewd, composed, balanced leader, but a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost—a man who could inspire not only Britons but also Americans. “Had Churchill been a stable and equable man,” Storr writes, “he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.”
And yet, despite the fact that Churchill was prone to sentimentality, was mercurial, and at times lacked strategic military sense, he had, through intuitive leaps and careful analysis during the 1930s, arrived at an astonishingly accurate forecast of the calamity that had since befallen Europe and England. The events of September 1939 had proven him England’s most sober statesman, as well as its most prophetic. Other sober and equable men, who lacked his imagination and penetrating vision, had allowed Britain to stumble unprepared into this war.
Storr’s Churchill is complex, which Churchill certainly was, and a lifelong depressive, which he likely was not. The widely held belief that Churchill fought depression throughout his adult life stems in large part from Storr’s musings and Lord Moran’s memoir, in which he recounts his service as Churchill’s personal physician. Moran probed Churchill during his last decade with leading questions about his “black dog” of depression and painted the octogenarian statesman in hues of decrepitude and despondency. Based on the writings of Moran and Storr, the idea that Churchill was a lifelong depressive and probably bipolar took hold in mental health circles, and it lingers still in the popular imagination (but not in the minds of Churchill’s family, friends, and his official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert). Yet Churchill likely did not suffer from mental illness. The story of the “black dog” begins in 1911, when, in a letter to Clementine, Winston enthused over a German doctor who was said to be able to cure depression: “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns.” (Samuel Johnson called his bouts with melancholia his “black dog.”) Churchill went on to tell Clementine that when the dog departed, “All the colors came back into the picture.” His letter describes what modern psychiatrists call a moderate adult depressive episode. The “light faded out of the picture,” Churchill wrote. When prompted by Moran in 1944, Churchill recounted the episode, as well as the sensations of vertigo that had long ago troubled him—feeling unease while standing at a ship’s railing or on a railroad platform, where he liked to put a pillar between himself and the approaching train. To this, Churchill added a vital conclusion: “And yet I don’t want to go out of the world at all in such moments.” Despondency or thoughts of self-obliteration never attached to Churchill’s low moods. After 1911 he never again wrote of the black dog.
Storr’s diagnosis of Churchill has since been supplanted by more exact psychiatric diagnostic protocols. Churchill could indeed be moved to gloom and long silences by events great and small—a crushing naval loss, the death of a much-loved pet, the mention of the name of a long-dead comrade-in-arms. He was easily moved to tears. “I blub an awful lot,” he once told a private secretary, and he never apologized for his blubbing. He became quite irritable over unnecessary delays or secretarial foul-ups or generals who proved unwilling or unable to fight. He just as readily could turn off his temper, and his worries. He did not exhibit what are now considered to be the symptoms of major adult depression: prolonged (two weeks or more) and regular (at least yearly) periods of loss of interest in work and family, lack of interest in socializing, difficulty in making decisions, sleep loss, feelings of low self-esteem, and feelings of being unloved or not worthy of being loved, sometimes accompanied by spells of inconsolability. Nor did he show symptoms associated with the mania end of the manic-depressive spectrum: decreased need for sleep, rapid speech, racing thoughts, euphoria or extreme optimism, increased sexual drive, spending sprees, and inability to concentrate.
It is true that as an adult Churchill took wildly unnecessary risks at the gaming tables and on the battlefield (which London itself was for much of 1940) and drank heavily—symptoms of depression when accompanied by several others—but he never lost his ability to function. He worried, he fretted, he grew weary at times, but he never despaired. In fact, it is part of the contradictory nature of the man that he manifested various symptoms of depression—risk taking, excessive drinking, mood swings—not intermittently, but regularly, even daily, and for his whole life.
Although psychiatrists caution against trying to prove a negative in the case of Churchill’s “black dog,” they also caution against any retroactive diagnosis such as Storr’s. Jock Colville and one of Churchill’s military liaisons, Fitzroy Maclean, recalled rare occasions when Churchill claimed “he had the black dog on his back.” He did not mean that he was depressed in a clinical sense, but only that he was having a bad day. Both Colville and Maclean recalled from their own upbringings that English nannies used the term “black dog” to describe the moods and emotional outbursts of young children. Throughout the war, Churchill, knowing that a dark and defeatist exterior inspired no confidence in those he needed by his side in order to win the war, did not indulge gloom but exorcised it. When visitors to Chequers or the underground No. 10 Annexe marveled at Churchill’s good cheer, he voiced a variation on a theme he had once voiced to Colville: he took his strength from the “splendid sangfroid and morale of the British people.” When Pug Ismay, strolling one day with Churchill in the garden at Chequers, offered, “whatever the future held, nothing could rob him of credit for having inspired the country….,” Churchill replied, “It was given to me to express what is in the hearts of the British people. If I had said anything else, they would have hurled me from office.”
Nothing—not his moods, not Britain’s defeats, not the slow strangulation of the U-boat blockade, not his reluctant generals—impeded Churchill’s capacity to inspire his countrymen and to fight for their salvation. Nothing diminished his love for his family. Nothing undercut his love of life. If one accepts Freud’s dictum that mental health is the ability to love and work, Churchill possessed his full mental health.
If anything, Churchill had attained what the American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization,” the condition at the top of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” where is found creativity, morality, spontaneity, and the ability to parse problems, accept facts, and refute prejudices.
Churchill was never modest, yet he bridled at the suggestion that he had transformed Britons. He believed the British race had “the lion heart”; he only supplied the roar. He believed they had always been heroic. Afterward, much as in his response to Pug Ismay, he said: “It fell to me to express the sentiments and resolves of the British nation in that supreme crisis of its life. That to me was an honor far beyond any dreams or ambitions I have ever nursed, and it was one that cannot be taken away.” At the time, however, he said, “It is destiny. Destiny has put me here, now, for this purpose.” Yet, “destiny” for Churchill meant only that he had arrived at this place and time; destiny did not guarantee the success of his mission. Only his actions, freely taken, could do that. He acknowledged the possibility that human affairs may be watched over and guided, as part of “the Almighty’s Great Design into which all our human actions fit if we do our duty.” His abiding agnosticism precluded certainty in the matter of divine influence, but not in the matter of doing his duty. Destiny, like fate, is all things to all men. Here it may be seen as that dynamic force within Churchill that, in combination with his will, altered history during the summer of 1940. Europe lay under Hitler’s boot, from the Pyrenees to the Arctic Circle, from beyond the Vistula to the English Channel, across which three weeks earlier the British army had fled, leaving French beaches strewn with abandoned tanks, trucks, cannons, kits, rifles, rations, and the bodies of those Tommies who had not made it out. The Führer’s victorious generals now paced the French shore and gazed toward England’s white-chalk cliffs, just visible across the narrow waters of the Dover Strait.
It would be a mistake to imagine Hitler in 1940 as a deranged Charlie Chaplinesque buffoon given to spewing spittle on the uniforms of dumbfounded Prussian subordinates during purple-faced tirades. The Führer was quite in command of his faculties that spring, at the top of his game. He had served five years with honor in the trenches during the Great War and been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. He had been wounded three times—twice by shrapnel and once by gas, which temporarily blinded him. He had fought in twelve battles. Hitler anointed himself, the military historian Sir John Keegan wrote, “first soldier of the Reich,” yet he had earned that title by virtue of his courage during the Great War. His regiment—the 16th Bavarian Reserve—had suffered more than 100 percent casualties (military statisticians compute casualties based on the ratio of the original number of men in any unit to the number of replacements). Hitler in 1940 knew the inhuman hardships of war better than many of his generals, yet he also found the Great War to be “the greatest of all experiences.” Only the final result had proved unsatisfactory, a defeat inflicted as much by Germany’s national loss of will as by the Entente armies. Germany, then, had not deserved victory. This time would be different. This time already was different. Hitler was winning.
Adolf Hitler was now the greatest conqueror in German history, his destiny fulfilled, by the exercise of his will. The war, such as it was, was just about over. The British must surely sue for peace, and Hitler was prepared to offer generous terms, for he respected the English race. “He liked the Englanders,” recalled one of his SS bodyguards years later, adding, “except for Churchill.” The Führer’s Reich now basked in a splendorous Alpine dawn born of barbarity, deceit, and sheer Teutonic will. Britain stood alone in twilight, awaiting the seemingly inevitable descent of darkness. Were Churchill to prove himself a dangerous fool by rejecting Hitler’s peace terms, one final task would remain before the former corporal, the failed artist—the “housepainter” as Churchill called Hitler—could assume his place as master of his new European order: the severing of the British Empire’s head from its body.
This was the status of Churchill, of London, of Britain and the British Empire, on the longest day of that year.
Hitler and his generals knew that they could crush the remnants of Britain’s army in a matter of days if they could only reach them, there, across the narrows and beyond the cliffs. But the cold Channel waters lapping at the conquerors’ boots only underscored an ancient and elemental truth; they were land warriors. Unlike English general officers, they were not “salt water generals.” They had no plans in place to cross the sea, did not understand the sea, and in fact, they and Hitler feared it. Churchill did not. The Channel was his moat, England his bailey; he intended to fight from his battlements until he could muster the men and arms necessary to strike out, across the Channel and into Europe, and finally someday, however long it took, across the Rhine and into Germany, to Berlin, where he would achieve his stated objective: final and absolute victory over Hitlerism. Were Hitler or destiny to deny him that, he told his cabinet, he fully expected each of them, himself included, to die “choking on his own blood upon the ground.”
Churchill’s nemesis, Adolf Hitler, was a wicked political genius who rose to power by finding, and then occupying, the dark places in the German mind. The Führer’s gifts were not confined to his Reich, however. Although he spoke no foreign tongues and had never been overseas, he possessed an intuitive gift for exploiting weaknesses in what Germans call das Ausland, that revealing Teutonic word that welds together all nations outside the Reich into a single collective noun. Again and again in the 1930s, he had dared the allied governments of Britain and France to stand up to his acts of aggression. Aghast at the prospect of another European war, they had turned away again and again, sacrificing their pride, their honor; even their prospects of national survival. In the meantime, his armed strength multiplied. Finally, at the end of the decade, after six years of preparation, he was ready. At dawn on Friday, September 1, 1939, he sent fifty-six Wehrmacht divisions roaring eastward into Poland. Now London and Paris had no choice. They were bound to Warsaw by military alliances. They had to declare war, and, reluctantly, they did.
In the Berlin suburb of Zossen, headquarters of the Führer’s Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, OKW), his field commanders were, in their turn, aghast. By turning to the east, ignoring the armies of England and France, he had defied OKW’s basic strategic principle, and invited a two-front war. Worse, he had stripped the defenses on the Reich’s Western Front, leaving a thin force of twenty-three second-rate divisions to face eighty-five heavily armed enemy divisions. It was a historic opportunity for Généralissime Gustav-Maurice Gamelin of France, who commanded the Allied troops. The German Supreme Command chief, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, later testified that “a French attack would have encountered only a German military screen (militärischen Schleier), not a real defense.” To win the war, Gamelin had but to issue one command: “En avant!” His troops could have marched into the Ruhrgebeit, the heartland of German industry, and the war would have been over.
But he didn’t do it. Except for a token sortie in the direction of the Saar and its coal mines and steel furnaces—a meaningless gesture meant to encourage the Poles, yet one from which the Nazis fled—Allied troops remained where they were. Then, in five weeks of blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare, the Nazi juggernaut crushed Poland, freeing the Wehrmacht to turn westward. The moment had passed. French and British troops steeled themselves for the shock of a German offensive, but none came. They waited. And waited. By May of 1940 all had remained quiet on the Western Front for eight months. What fighting there was had been largely confined to the open seas, the realm of the Royal Navy, and the barren coast of Norway. On land, the great armies squatted idly opposite one another week after week in an unnatural silence.
Berliners called this extraordinary hush, unique in the history of modern warfare, der Sitzkrieg. In Paris it was la drôle de guerre (the amusing war), in London the Bore War. Churchill called it the Twilight War; America’s Senator William Borah, the Phony War. In England and France, the public, feeling emotionally ruptured after bracing themselves for the worst, returned instead to the pleasures of peace. But as the conflict entered its ninth sterile month, life was about to stir within in it. The greatest of all wars was about to erupt at last in a convulsion of violence, slaughter, and terror.
Afterward everyone remembered the weather. The winter of 1939–1940 had been a white horror, Europe’s cruelest since 1895 (and, though neither Paris nor London knew it, the only reason Hitler hadn’t attacked), but spring was coming at last, and coming fast. Though March was its usual mottled mess, temperatures were exceptionally mild. Then, across the Continent, primroses were out, fruit trees were budding, crocuses teeming. As early as April 3, Sir Alexander Cadogan, a British diplomat with a green thumb, noted in his diary: “The herbaceous plants seem all alive-oh” and “Meadows are greening up nicely and copses purpling.”
Within a fortnight the season had acquired a radiant, crystalline tone. So pure was the air that vision seemed enhanced, objects being perceived with a cameo-like clarity as sharp and well defined as a fine etching. Magnolias, snowdrops, and bright azaleas rioted in Kensington and Whitechapel alike. Mollie Panter-Downes wrote in The New Yorker that the floral displays in London parks “have been so magnificent that it’s a pity that the garden-loving Britons haven’t had more heart to go and see them,” adding that the season ahead “looks as though it were going to be the best, as far as weather and growing things go, that England has had in years.” Then she noted: “The tulips in the big beds outside Buckingham Palace are exactly the color of blood.”
In the Low Countries across the Channel, cultivating garden tulips had been a major Dutch industry since the eighteenth century, selling the world triumph tulips, breeder’s tulips, and Darwin, parrot, cottage, and Mendel tulips. These were approaching their peak in late April and would soon to be joined by graceful white tulips, always the loveliest. In tiny Luxembourg, the beauty of the gladioli was unprecedented. Belgium’s spring had always been announced by the tall, graceful plane and poplar trees elegantly lining Brussels’ wide gray streets, and now they, too, wore veils of pale green.
It was that rarity, a genuine idyll, a blessed time of crystal-clear air, of radiant mornings, of gentle twilights, and of soft, balmy evenings, when a delicate, bluish moisture fell on orchards and gardens. In late April, whipped-cream clouds hung motionless overhead; then the sky cleared. For six weeks not one drop of rain fell. Clothed in sunlight, their spirits soaring, people found pleasure in just lifting their faces to an immaculate heaven that seemed wider and higher and of a deeper blue than any before.
Alec Cadogan was rapturous: “It’s a lovely spring with sparkling air and wonderful blossoms and the whole world looking like paradise.” The same enraptured theme ran through other diaries, journals, and letters. Anthony Eden noted the “unbroken sunshine.” At No. 10 Downing Street, Jock Colville rose early each morning to ride in Richmond Park, rejoicing in the “warm and summery weather.” General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of His Majesty’s Imperial General Staff and thus England’s top soldier, wrote of “the most gorgeous weather,” and noted a week later that it was “still the most gorgeous weather.” In the rue de la Paix in Paris, the Duchess of Windsor, smartly dressed in a Union des Femmes de France uniform, supervised a soldiers’ canteen, and wrote her Aunt Bessie, “We have never had such a beautiful spring.” That spring was, the American war correspondent Vincent Sheean later wrote, “the loveliest Paris had ever known.” Then, remembering its climax, he added, “the weather itself formed part of the human drama.” In the Reich, some were reminded of August 1914, when German infantrymen in spiked helmets had written home of Kaiserwetter. Now their sons called it Hitlerwetter. General Heinz Guderian, the Nazi tank commander, was more specific. In his diary he called it “völlig Panzerwetter.”
Paris, always Europe’s most colorful city, had joined the dazzling spectacle with cannas, dahlias, daffodils, and freesias—seen at their best advantage in the gardens of the Tuileries—while along the Seine and the capital’s broad boulevards, the trees beloved by Parisians approached the height of their vernal flowering, their blossoms standing like small pink candles, and their dark green lapping leaves so delicately tarnished, in places so exquisite, that Paris Soir compared them to Renoir. Clare Boothe, touring Western Europe in that fourth month of 1940, wrote, “Now, in April, chestnuts burst into leaf on the lovely avenues of Paris, sunlight danced off the opalescent gray buildings, and the gold and gray sunsets, glimpsed through the soaring Arc de Triomphe at the end of the long splendid vista of the Champs-Élysées, brought a catch of pain and pleasure in your throat. Paris was Paris in April!”
Paris was gai— a gaiety which, in retrospect, seems cruelly ironic. Immediately after the declaration of war, all theaters had closed, but now they reopened and were packed. So were the opera houses, cinemas, restaurants, and nightclubs; the stands at the Auteuil Hippodrome; the flower market at the Madeleine; the spring art exhibition at the Grand Palais; the Concours d’Élégance automobile race in the Bois de Boulogne sponsored by Renault and Citroën—even the Left Bank hall where the five academies gathered to hear Paul Valéry deliver his Pensée de l’art française, a lecture more widely covered by the Paris dailies that week than the war on all its fronts.
This year French fields had been plowed by troops. It was strange duty for soldiers in wartime, but thus far it had been a strange war; in isolated skirmishes the French arms had suffered only two thousand casualties, a third of the Royal Navy’s losses in sea actions. Even so, the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre (Supreme War Council) had bridled at the idea of soldiers manning plows and planting potatoes, arguing that such work was demeaning to their profession. However, the government, at the insistence of deputies with agricultural constituencies, pointed out that although career officers were professional soldiers, their troops were not; the men they commanded were peacetime civilians, many of them farmers, and if someone didn’t turn the earth and sow it, France would lose the war by starvation.
Some officers, among them Colonel Charles de Gaulle, were relieved when the generals were forced to back down. France’s army had a great reputation, even in Berlin, but idle troops are worrisome. The British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, had dealt with the problem of inactivity during the winter. Although there were still fewer than four hundred thousand British soldiers on the Continent—only 18 percent of the Allied ground forces—their quality was high, in part because officers kept spirits up with programs of vigorous exercise. The French did not. As the war entered its third season, the armies of France were stagnating, even rotting.
Every allowance must be made for the French, and the French soldier of 1940 must be regarded with great compassion. With the exception of Serbia, no nation had suffered so terribly in the Great War. Because their fathers had been bled white, the World War II generation, unlike that of 1914, simply wanted to be left alone.
At the time, this atrophy of spirit was imperfectly understood. In 1938, Churchill had called the French army “the most perfectly trained and faithful mobile force in Europe.” In January 1940, to his dismay, he found that the French did not view the war “with uprising spirit or even with much confidence.” He blamed the long months of waiting that had followed the collapse of Poland. This hiatus, he believed, had given “time and opportunity” for the “poisons” of communism and fascism to be established. It was certain, he wrote, that the quality of the French army was being “allowed to deteriorate during the winter.”
The eight-month lull at the front was seen variously. Vincent Sheean wrote that there was “no possible doubt that a dawn must come, one day or the next, when the gray rivers of the German flood would begin to roll westward over Holland, Belgium and France… and yet, in the way people have, I think we only half believed the inevitable until it had taken place.”
Since the expected curtain-raiser would have brought vast bloodshed, others were optimistic, including some who should have known better. General André Beaufre saw it as “a giant charade acted out by mutual consent” that would lead to nothing serious “if we play our part right.” Alfred Duff Cooper, who had resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet to protest the Munich sellout, fatuously told an American audience in Paris that the Allies had “found a new way to make war, without sacrificing human lives.”
Many argued that it must stop, that it couldn’t go on this way, that there was no point to it. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain privately said he had “a hunch” that the war would be over by summer. Others felt otherwise; eminent men in Paris and London were persuaded that the war would continue as it was, with the naval blockade slowly strangling the Führer’s Reich. That would take a year or two, of course, but by then the British would have fifty divisions in the field, and doubtless the Americans would sail over with a hundred more to deliver the coup de grâce. (It was the sort of showy thing they liked to do.)
The arguments of the distinguished scholar Alfred Sauvy to the contrary, the French masses had accepted the war, however reluctantly. They believed France would win it. They felt “sure,” William L. Shirer, the CBS radio correspondent in Berlin, observed, “that all a democracy had to do to win a war was to declare it, that if a ‘free nation’ was united in its desire to win, no ‘slave-driven force’ like Hitler’s could defeat it… they talked to you about the gigantic War Effort, and explained to you how, because this was a democracy, the War Effort was certainly greater than in Germany, because it was voluntary.” Shirer noted a growing conviction that “in this peculiar war there was no need to suffer, to deprive oneself of the good, easy life. Sacrifice was not this time needed.”
The French government encouraged such lullabies. Its deputies had invested Premier Édouard Daladier with dictatorial powers over French industry, including the right to conscript labor, but he had not used them. Factories that could have been converted to munitions manufacture were still turning out civilian goods. The Parisian firms of Lelong, Balenciaga, and Molyneux were exporting silks that Frenchmen would next see in German parachutes. Food was unrationed; so was gasoline, despite the fact that every gallon had to be imported. A subcommittee of députés had recommended that ski slopes and the Côte d’Azur resorts be reopened.
De Gaulle, the lonely Cassandra, wrote to Paul Reynaud, then still French Minister of Finance: “Now, as I see it, the enemy will not attack us for some time…. Then, when he thinks we are weary, confused, and dissatisfied with our own inertia, he will finally take the offensive against us, possessing completely different cards in the psychological and material line from those he holds at present.” He was right, but when the upstart colonel told Pierre Brisson, editor of Le Figaro, that he felt uneasy over the French enemy’s passivity, Brisson ridiculed him: “Don’t you see that we have already won a bloodless Marne?”
The British, possessing on the whole a better record on European battlefields, ought to have been more realistic. They weren’t. Instead, they were complacent. The Isle looked fine; ergo, the Isle was fine. In the autumn, the Times had proclaimed Britain’s “grim determination” to see it all through, but nine months after the outbreak, English life had returned to normal. Idle men dozed on Hyde Park “deck chairs”; the sheep lazed away the days in London’s park enclosures, and admiring crowds gathered by the nearby duck ponds. In 1940, the city’s skyline was still dominated by St. Paul’s, by the steeples of Wren’s fifty other baroque churches, by the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Blacked out now, it loomed serenely on moonlit nights, invoking in some memories of the imperial capital before the arrival of electricity. Nightlife was as innocent and diverting as ever; John Gielgud was King Lear; Emlyn Williams’s Light of Heart played to busy houses; elsewhere in the West End the most popular dance tunes were the American “Deep Purple” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Clearly Londoners were less interested in the war than in the rituals of peace. The Times, ever the vigilant recorder of multifarious ornithological sightings, reported the return of swallows, cuckoos, and even nightingales.
Churchill tried to wake the nation. Speaking that March on the BBC, HMG’s first lord of the Admiralty warned his countrymen that “more than a million German soldiers, including all their active and armored divisions, are drawn up ready to attack, on a few hours’ notice, all along the frontiers of Luxembourg, of Belgium and of Holland. At any moment these neutral countries may be subjected to an avalanche of steel and fire, and the decision rests in the hands of a haunted, morbid being who, to their eternal shame, the German people have worshipped as a god.” He observed that in Britain “there are thoughtless dilettanti or purblind worldlings who sometimes ask us: ‘What is it that Britain and France are fighting for?’ To this I answer: ‘If we left off fighting you would soon find out.’ ”
Nevertheless Lord Haw-Haw, a pseudonym for William Joyce, the English traitor who broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain from Berlin—for which he would later hang—was not yet resented; most Britons considered him merely amusing. At No. 10 Downing Street, the young diarist Jock Colville noted: “The war looks like being an immobile affair on the Western Front.” After an evening in town, Colville wrote of seeing “a group of bespectacled intellectuals remain firmly seated while God Save the King was played.” He commented: “Everybody looked but nobody did anything, which shows that the war has not yet made us lose our sense of proportion or become noisily jingoistic.” He had yet to learn that tolerance is a weakness in a nation at war, and that in wartime, jingoism becomes patriotism. The Germans already knew it. Had Berliners snubbed “Deutschland Über Alles” or sat through the “Horst Wessel Lied,” they would have been fortunate to lose only their freedom.
The burgeoning spring revealed a minor scandal. The sandbags piled high around entrances to Whitehall government buildings split open and sprouted green weeds, clear evidence that they had been filled, not with sand, as stipulated in contracts, but with cheaper earth. Inevitably a question was raised in the House of Commons, though it was never really answered, largely because no one much cared. Sandbags and the other impedimenta of war—the barrage balloons, the air-raid trenches in the city’s parks, the air-raid wardens, and the gas masks, which, as Punch pointed out, were carried only by officers and high civil servants—like stories of the evacuated children and jokes about women in uniform—had become banal. Indeed, the war itself had turned into a tiresome commitment to be grudgingly met.
That mood began to shift in the first week of May. The public, misled by the press, which had been misled by the government, had been under the impression that their troops were driving the Germans out of Norway. In fact it was the other way around. The fiasco ended on Thursday, May 2, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rose in the House of Commons to announce that the British troops, having suffered a stunning defeat, were being evacuated. That weekend a Gallup poll revealed the public’s disillusionment: fewer than a third now supported Chamberlain.
Parliament debated the Scandinavian losses on the following Tuesday. On Wednesday the Labour Party forced a division—a vote of confidence—and more than one hundred members of Chamberlain’s own party deserted him. So stinging a rebuke should have led to the immediate fall of the prime minister’s government. Clinging to office, the P.M. spent that evening trying every conceivable political maneuver to stay in office. All failed.
In Berlin that same day—Wednesday, May 8, 1940—William L. Shirer noted “a feeling of tension in the Wilhelmstrasse today.” He added, “I hear the Dutch and Belgians are nervous. They ought to be.” The Associated Press reported that two German armies, one from Bremen and the other from Düsseldorf, were moving toward the Dutch frontier. That angered the Germans; nevertheless, Shirer wrote that his censors “let me hint very broadly that the next German blow would fall in the west—Holland, Belgium, the Maginot Line, Switzerland.”
In Brussels the papal nuncio requested an audience with King Leopold to relay a warning from the Vatican. The pope had learned that a German invasion of Belgium was “imminent.” Two coded dispatches to Brussels from the Belgian embassy in Berlin confirmed it. The Hague was alerted by the Dutch military attaché in Berlin.
Hitler was in a state of high excitement. In Mein Kampf he had sworn to destroy France in “a final, decisive battle (Entscheibungskampf).” Now the hour was at hand. General Jodl noted in his diary: “The Führer does not want to wait any longer…. He is very agitated. Then he consents to postponement until May 10, which he says is against his intuition. But [he will wait] not one day longer.”
In the Château de Vincennes, Généralissime Gustav-Maurice Gamelin announced the restoration of normal peacetime leave in the French army. Four days earlier General André-Georges Corap, commander of the French Ninth Army, had told his men: “Nothing will happen until 1941.” A Paris headline, welcoming the coming weekend, read: DÉTENTE AU HOLLANDE (Relaxation in Holland).
Because Britannia ruled the waves, the Admiralty in Whitehall determined overall naval policy for the war, but with the 400,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force outnumbered by over 2,100,000 French, the disposition of troops was fixed by the short, courtly Gamelin. The généralissime was confident he could stop the enemy because he believed he knew exactly where they were going to attack. It would be through Belgium, precisely where they had come in August of 1914, when, achieving complete strategic surprise, the gray tide of the Reich’s huge right wing, a million strong, had swept down and cut a swath seventy-five miles wide, enveloping France’s left flank. That had been among the last imaginative maneuvers on the Western Front in 1914–1918. The French had avoided immediate disaster by falling back and rallying on the Marne. Then the sidestepping had begun as each army tried to outflank the other. Neither could. The result was a stalemate. The Allies found themselves defending for more than four years a snakelike chain of trenches that began on the Swiss border and ended 566 miles away on the English Channel. Breakthroughs were impossible, because whenever a position was in peril it could be swiftly reinforced; troop trains packed with defending troops could rocket to the tottering sector before the attacking infantrymen, plodding ahead at the three-miles-an-hour pace of Napoleonic foot soldiers, could reach their objective.
Gamelin foresaw a precise encore. But this time, he assured his countrymen, the war would not be fought on “the sacred soil” of France. Under his Plan D, he would send his armies into the great northern plain of eastern Belgium and meet the enemy there on the line of the Dyle River. Where else, he asked, could the Nazis come? It was everyone’s opinion that a German invasion through Switzerland was inconceivable, and France’s perimeter comprised the Belgian plain (Flanders) on the left, the great Ardennes forest in the center, sprawling across Luxembourg, Belgium, and northern France, and the eighty-seven-mile Franco-German border, where the two hostile powers confronted one another directly.
This last location held no threat. Every inch of it was now defended by the most expensive system of fixed fortifications in history, the mighty steel-and-concrete Maginot Line, manned by forty-one divisions. When Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, and a group of British generals toured the fortifications, they asked their French guide, René de Chambrun, how much it had all cost. Fifty-five billion francs, Chambrun replied, over ten years. Then, realizing his English guests were of a seafaring nation and calculated in pounds sterling, Chambrun put the numbers into a nautical perspective: Had France spent the same amount of money building the biggest and fastest of battleships, of which there were about twenty-five in all the navies of the world, the French fleet would now consist of fifty such behemoths. Thus, Chambrun explained, the interconnected forts and artillery batteries of Maginot could be thought of as a great line of “land battleships,” an analogy the British appeared to grasp. Gort, Chambrun wrote, “could not conceal his astonishment.” Chambrun did not disclose to his guests that the cost of the line had precluded investments in tanks and mechanized units. Nor did he and his guests take the naval analogy far enough, for battleships are mobile and can react to changing tactical conditions. Forts—“land battleships”—are not and cannot.
Le Maginot, as the line was known to all Frenchmen, was named for André Maginot, a politician who, like Premier Édouard Daladier, had spent four years suffering in the trenches of the first war and vowed: never again. To be sure, the line ended at the Belgian border. Consideration was given to building it up to the northern French coast but the French believed that would send the wrong signal to Belgium, that their troops wouldn’t even bother to fight until the Germans got to the French border. Some members of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre had urged that the line be extended to the Meuse River, within Belgium, but that was vetoed by Maréchal Henri-Philippe Pétain, the French commander of the army in 1918. To reach the Meuse, the Germans would have to pass through the Ardennes—a thickly wooded Hans Christian Andersen forest, slashed with deep ravines, and fogged with mist rising from peat bogs—“impénétrable,” Pétain declared, thus ruling it out as a channel of invasion. By the process of elimination, Gamelin reasoned, that left the Belgian plain as the only possible battlefield.
Although he did not see them, he faced grave problems. Napoleon had warned his commanders against forming a picture—deciding in advance what the enemy was going to do. That is precisely what Gamelin had done. It never occurred to him that the Germans, having watched one great plan fail in 1914, might have formed another. Gamelin had also overlooked an ominous change in Belgium’s rulers. In the last war King Albert had been a mighty ally, but in 1936, his son, Leopold III, had astonished Europe by renouncing his country’s military alliance with France and Britain. In any new war between Germany and France, he declared, Belgium would be neutral—as though such an absurdity were possible. He had actually gone so far as to fortify his border with France, and had told the French that an extension of Le Maginot to the North Sea would be looked upon in Belgium as an unfriendly gesture.
But Gamelin’s greatest error was his assumption that warfare had not changed since the Armistice in 1918. His Conseil Supérieur took the same view, although there were a few vigorous dissenters, among them Colonel de Gaulle. De Gaulle was making a pest of himself, insisting that the French must study the swift Nazi conquest of Poland with tanks. Tanks, he said, had revolutionized battle; new strategies were needed to turn them back. As early as November 11, 1939, he had sent General Headquarters an aide-mémoire on the lessons of the Polish campaign, chiefly the need for fluidity on the battlefield, specifically the formation of a mechanized shock corps (armée de métier), soldiers specially selected and trained to lead an attack. Unless France followed the German example, he predicted, the gasoline engine would demolish French military doctrines even as it demolished fortifications.
But his superiors thought him absurd. One of them asked the others, Suppose the Boche panzers did burst through the lines. Where would they refuel? None of them reflected on the fact that since 1918, thousands of filling stations had appeared in northern France. To them they were irrelevant. After all, these petrol stations—which, like 91 percent of the automobiles in the country, had not existed in 1918—were there to serve civilian automobiles, not German panzers. The fact that both cars and tanks used the same fuel was disregarded.
Some war correspondents, haunted by the spectacle of the Führer’s armored columns crushing the gallant Poles, remained troubled, but at Gamelin’s grand quartier général they were told sharply that a replay of the blitzkrieg here was impossible. General Dufieux, the army’s retired commander of tanks, declared that Nazi armored units could not “hurl themselves unsupported against our lines and penetrate deeply without facing complete destruction.” Another senior officer chided the foreign press for its doubts: “Ah, my fellows, how naive you are!” A war of movement across the dry Polish plains, yes. But through the Ardennes, through the Dutch floods, through the Belgian defenses, through the Maginot—through the tank-traps and barbed wire and casemates, in the face of our powerful air force—that was absurd.”
In adopting the strategic defensive, the French high command was expressing the caution of a France whose World War I wounds were still unhealed. All the great battles had been fought on French or Belgian soil, and 1,315,000 poilus (“hairy,” “virile”) had been killed in action—27 percent of all men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven, a figure that does not include the wounded: those left blind, or legless, or armless, or with no limbs at all. The survivors lacked the strength or the will to lift the tricolor again. Unlike generations of Frenchmen gone before them, they understandably felt no craving for grandeur, no desire for Gallic supremacy in Europe. They did not want to lose this war, but neither did they much crave victory. In fact, they did not even want victory. France had no war aims. Everything desirable, as they saw it, was already French. They asked for nothing from the Germans but peace.
Thus the decision to leave the initiative to the Nazis was more political than military. Le Maginot was as much a state of mind as a fortified line; when Daladier’s government fell that March, conduct of the war was entrusted to Paul Reynaud only after he promised to undertake no offensive against the enemy. The idea of attacking Germany was, the deputies agreed, preposterous. After the Polish collapse, the most bellicose had lost heart. In the Chambre des Députés, all political parties became defeatist. Even before Hitler could deliver another Friedensrede, a peace speech calling on the Western allies to end the war now that he had enslaved another country—he had been posing as a prince of peace for seven years—the Communist delegation in the Chambre demanded that the deputies debate the “proposals for peace which are going to be made.” Alexis Léger, the secretary-general of the Foreign Office, told the American ambassador William Bullitt: “The game is lost. France stands alone against the three dictatorships. Great Britain is not ready. The United States has not even changed the neutrality act. The democracies are again too late.” Alfred Sauvy concluded simply that the country had “refused the war” (“on refusait la guerre”).
But this was not a chess match, where a gambit could be refused. And Hitler would deliver no proposals of peace on the upcoming weekend of May 10. He intended to deliver something else entirely.
The timidity of the French high command had exasperated Churchill ever since the war’s outbreak. They had rejected every initiative suggested by him—bombing the Ruhr, for example, or mining the Rhine—on the grounds that it might invite Nazi reprisals. “This idea of not irritating the enemy,” he later wrote, “did not commend itself to me…. Good, decent, civilized people, it appeared, must never themselves strike until after they have been struck dead.” This Gallic trepidation even ruled out air reconnaissance, which defies understanding because the Luftwaffe was overflying French lines every day. Had Allied planes done the same in early May, they would have been astonished at enemy preparations below. Eight military bridges had been thrown across the Rhine, and three armored columns stretched back from the river for one hundred miles.
In fact, one French pilot did see the buildup on the evening of the eighth of May. He was over the Ruhr, returning from a propaganda mission, dropping leaflets urging the German people to overthrow Hitler and thus bring peace. Above Düsseldorf he looked down and saw a sixty-mile line of tanks and trucks headed for the Ardennes. They were driving with their lights on. He reported his discovery. It was dismissed as not credible.
This was not the first time such intelligence had been dismissed, but it would be the last. Five months earlier, as Europe slept away the winter, a German airplane carrying two staff officers was blown off course and forced to land in Belgium. The officers tried, and failed, to burn the papers they carried, which happened to contain OKW’s revised operation orders for the invasion of the Low Countries, including a thrust through the Ardennes. British intelligence perused the captured papers. The high arts of deception and double-cross being well practiced by both the Germans and the British, it was concluded that the papers were a plant, a ruse, and therefore, unbelievable.
On Thursday morning, May 9, the 250th day of the war, Chamberlain faced the bitter truth: he was through. The debacle in Norway had finished him. It had become obvious that Britain needed an all-party national government, and Labour refused to serve under him. Given the huge Tory majority in the House, a legacy of the general election of 1935, the new prime minister would have to be a Conservative. The party’s leadership wanted Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary. So did Chamberlain. So did the King. However, Tory backbenchers and Labour MPs leaned toward the first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Halifax bowed out. Telephoning London from his battalion, Randolph Churchill asked for news. His father told him: “I think I shall be Prime Minister tomorrow.”
At 9:00 P.M. that night Hitler issued the code word “Danzig.”
The mightiest army in history was ready, and at 4:19 A.M. on Friday, May 10, 1940, more than two million German soldiers in coalscuttle helmets surged forward. The Wehrmacht was crossing the frontiers of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, attacking on a front extending from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. Hitler had repeatedly sworn never to violate their neutrality, but he meant to conquer France, and the Low Countries were in his way.
At 5:30 A.M. Belgium asked the Allies for help. Gamelin phoned General Alphonse Georges, his field commander in the northeast.
Georges asked: “Well, General, is it the Dyle operation?”
Gamelin said: “Since the Belgians are calling on us, do you see what else we can do?” (“Que nous puissons faire autre chose?”) Georges replied: “Obviously not.”
Gamelin sealed it: “We must go into Belgium!” (“Nous devons entrer en Belgique”). Five minutes later Georges ordered five French armies and the British Expeditionary Force across the frontier. There was some unpleasantness with the Belgian border guards, who hadn’t been told of the decision in Brussels. One official demanded visas from the British 3rd Division—the divisional commander, Major General Bernard Montgomery, put him under arrest—and on several roads Belgian obstacles, erected to block a French invasion, still barred the way. None slowed the Allied troops, now plunging ahead.
The BEF was in high spirits. Tommies blew kisses as they passed smiling women and, wrote Clare Boothe, who was there, “stuck up their thumbs in the new gesture they had, which meant ‘O.K., everything’s fine.’ ” They were singing “Roll Out the Barrel,” a Czech drinking song that had been popular since Munich, nineteen months earlier, and a ballad based on an Australian folk song:
Run, Adolf, run Adolf, run, run, run!
Here comes a Tommy with his gun, gun, gun!
They also sang songs their fathers had sung a generation ago: “Tipperary,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.” Among older officers there was a remarkable mood of déjà vu. In the New York Times, Drew Middleton wrote: “It was almost as if they were retracing steps taken in a dream, they saw again faces of friends long dead and heard the half-remembered names of towns and villages.”
By evening the best trained of the Allied troops were deep in both Belgium and Holland. Here, Gamelin assured everyone, was the German schwerpunkt—the strategic center of effort as defined by Prussian staff doctrine.
His blunder was fatal.
At Hitler’s eyrie at Bad Münstereifel, twenty-five miles southwest of Bonn, the Führer danced with joy. His generals could scarcely believe their luck. General Adolf Heusinger excitedly scrawled in his diary: “They have poured into Belgium and fallen into the trap!”
The upcoming Sabbath was Whitsuntide, traditionally part of a long holiday weekend for Englishmen, and celebrated by Christians as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples. Londoners were impressed when, on Friday, having learned of the attack upon the Low Countries, their government canceled the bank holiday; it meant, wrote Mollie Panter-Downes for The New Yorker, “The government is really getting a move on.” No reliable news was coming out of the Low Countries, and that was bad. Yet Britons were calm; no excited crowds took to the streets. Panter-Downes wrote: “It takes a good, stiff dose of adversity to release the formidable strength in what Harold Nicolson called ‘the slow grinding will power of the British people.’ To that has been added the quickening realization that they are fighting for their lives.”
For almost a decade Churchill had drummed warnings to his countrymen that this day would come. Three hundred years earlier, during the English Civil War, both the Royalist and Parliamentary armies introduced drummers into their ranks. They went into battle unarmed and beat out coded orders that could be heard over the crash of muskets and cannon: form up, face right, left, volley. The drummers were not meant to inspire or comfort their comrades, or to introduce confusion and fear into enemy ranks, yet within the blinding stinking smoke and bloody mayhem of combat, their relentless, rhythmic, tap and thrum did just that. Where the drummers of England went, Empire followed. Rudyard Kipling glorified them in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,” in which the courage of two young regimental drummers inspires the regiment, which, on the verge of annihilation at the hands of Afghan tribesmen, regroups, attacks, and at the end of the slaughter claims victory.
Churchill’s heroes—Pitt, Marlborough, Nelson—had not only led, they had inspired. Winston Churchill was prepared now to step forward as England’s master and commander, and its drummer. But were his King and countrymen ready for him? Would Britons join him when the Hun arrived, and fight alongside him to the end? Were they prepared, each and all, to die in defense of family, home, King, and country? Churchill was. He had readied himself for this moment during every hour of every day for six decades, when he first sent his toy armies charging across the floors of his father’s London town house.
The glorious weather held. Lilacs—in English folklore the harbingers of springtime rebirth—bloomed across the land. “Lovely day,” Alexander Cadogan noted in his diary hours before Hitler gave his order to attack. “Tulips almost at their best and everything smiling, except human affairs.”
Cadogan, a Chamberlain loyalist, by then knew that the Chamberlain government was finished. “But what,” he asked his diary, “are we going to put in its place?” Who would lead? “Attlee? Sinclair? Sam Hoare?”
He eliminated one candidate out of hand: “Winston useless.”
Shortly after tea on Friday, May 10, fifteen hours after Hitler drove his steel into the Low Countries, Neville Chamberlain reluctantly returned the seals of his office to King George VI, who received them with equal reluctance: “I accepted his resignation,” the sovereign wrote in his diary that evening, “& told him how grossly, unfairly I thought he had been treated.” Shortly after six o’clock, the King anointed as prime minister the massive, stooped, sixty-five-year-old first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Later King George became one of Churchill’s most ardent admirers, but his feelings were mixed at the time. In his diary that day Jock Colville wrote that the King “(remembering perhaps the abdication, which Churchill had opposed) is understood not to wish to send for Winston.” Nevertheless, an all-party government was essential, and Labour had been adamant: they would not serve under Chamberlain.
Defending Britain and her Empire would be the new prime minister’s responsibility for the next five years, or until he was hurled from office by Parliament or Hitler. Yet, as he rode back from Buckingham Palace, neither he nor anyone else in London felt unduly alarmed over the course of the war. Little was known that evening about the day’s developments across the Channel. The Luftwaffe had bombed airfields in Belgium and Holland; parachute troops had landed among the Belgians, who were said to be fighting well; Dutch resistance was reportedly “stubborn”; and the Allies were taking up strong positions on the Antwerp-Namur Line, preparing to defend the Albert Kanaal. Everything was going as expected, or so it seemed at that hour.
When the BBC announced Churchill’s appointment that night, his daughter Mary, seventeen, listened to the broadcast in the small cottage at Chartwell where her governess lived. When it finished she switched off the wireless and said a prayer for her father.
Churchill was surrounded by his family, whether at No. 10 or in the underground Annexe. Of the older Churchill children, only Sarah, the actress, was still a civilian, living with her husband in a Westminster Gardens flat, and soon she too would be commissioned in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Sarah’s husband, Vic Oliver, Austrian by birth, the son of Baron Viktor Oliver von Samek, had renounced his barony, changed the “k” in Viktor to “c,” and was now an American citizen. Churchill, upon first meeting Oliver in 1936, took an immediate dislike to the man, and in a letter to Clementine cut loose. Oliver was “common as dirt,” possessed “a horrible mouth,” and spoke with “an Austro-Yankee drawl.” Yet no mention was made of the one trait which many in the English aristocracy would have found sufficient to dismiss Vic Oliver outright: his family was Jewish. It would not have occurred to Churchill to do so. He measured the man.
Of the other children, Diana and Randolph were already officers, she in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, or Wrens in naval slang), Randolph in his father’s old regiment, the 4th Hussars. Mary worked in a canteen and for the Red Cross and lived with her parents. So did Randolph’s twenty-year-old wife, Pamela, who was expecting their first child in October. When the air raids began with June’s full moon, Pamela and her father-in-law shared bunk beds in the basement of No. 10. Because she was pregnant, hers was the bottom bunk, and in the early hours of each morning she woke to hear Churchill laboriously climb the short ladder to his. Clementine slept in another basement bedroom.
As prime minister, Churchill was also surrounded by a large official family, “The Secret Circle,” as he called them. Always at his elbow were his three private secretaries, John (“Jock”) Colville, who remained at No. 10 after Chamberlain’s departure, and Eric Seal and John Martin, whom Churchill had brought over from the Admiralty. Also within earshot were his typists, Kathleen Hill, Grace Hamblin, and Edith Watson, who had aided every P.M. since Lloyd George. Pug Ismay served as his liaison with His Majesty’s Chiefs of Staff, whose offices were in Richmond Terrace: the chiefs were Admiral Sir Alfred Dudley Pound, General Sir John Dill, and Air Marshal Sir Cyril Newall. Colville told his diary that Churchill considered the three chiefs to be “sound, but old and slow.” Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal replaced Newall in October.
A recent arrival at No. 10 was Dr. Charles Wilson, the P.M.’s personal physician, who kept a diary from the day of his appointment. On first meeting the doctor, Churchill treated him as he did all underlings, with a mixture of curtness and impatience. Dr. Wilson had found Churchill in bed, at noon, reading papers, which he continued to peruse as Wilson stood nearby, waiting for some acknowledgment. Finally, from Churchill: “I don’t know why they’re making such a fuss.” Churchill snarled, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” That was true enough, for the doctor makes no further diary entries for the remainder of the year.
Churchill hadn’t wanted a doctor; he claimed that there was nothing wrong with him. Churchill’s old friend Max Beaverbrook insisted, however, and no one could insist more strenuously than “the Beaver,” as everyone called him. That was why Churchill had named him chief of aircraft production. England had to have planes for the coming air battle. In pursuit of a vital goal, the Beaver was ruthless, unscrupulous, even piratical. He seized factories, broke into warehouses, and imprisoned those who tried to stop him. None of this was against the law. On May 22, Parliament had passed an Emergency Powers (Defence) Act giving His Majesty’s Government sweeping prerogatives. One section, 18B, effectively removed the habeas from habeas corpus. HMG held absolute power over all British citizens, requiring them “to place themselves, their services, and their property at the disposal of His Majesty,” specifically of the minister of defence, who happened also to be the prime minister. Churchill could have become a dictator had he so chosen. Instead he became almost obsessive in his belief that the House should be fully informed of all developments.
Among the other newcomers to HMG were three Churchill votaries—“the fearsome triumvirate,” Colville called them—whom the civil servants had awaited with dread: Brendan Bracken, MP; Frederick Lindemann (“the Prof”); and Major Desmond Morton, a Westerham neighbor of Churchill who had played a vital role in Churchill’s prewar intelligence net, assembling proof of England’s military unpreparedness. But Morton lacked access to the most vital intelligence, from Bletchley. Within a year Morton’s star began to set, since Churchill, informed by Bletchley, no longer needed his own private secret service, and Morton apparently did not provide enough panache at the dinner table to rate a regular weekend dinner invitation. Churchill’s friendships admitted to a certain degree of utilitarian relativity, though for the time being Morton’s past loyalty trumped his diminishing utility. Bracken had long been Churchill’s most devout supporter in the House of Commons. He was also a very odd young man who, to Clementine’s annoyance, had in the 1920s encouraged rumors that he was Churchill’s natural son (he ceased doing so at Churchill’s request). The Prof was even odder. German born, educated at Berlin University, a bachelor and vegetarian, he believed that all women looked upon him as a sex object. But he was a brilliant physicist and a consummate interpreter of science for laymen. He was to become the strongest advocate for the unrestricted bombing and burning of the cities of his homeland.
Churchill, his family, his colleagues, and his cronies were prepared to meet whatever came their way via Berlin. If Britons were not yet prepared, Churchill intended that they soon would be.
It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of World War I on the opening battles of World War II. Afterward, Churchill wrote that it was “a joke in Britain to say that the War Office is always preparing for the last war.” That was also true of soldiers, and it was equally true of statesmen—even the Führer was preoccupied with the trench fighting of 1914–1918. Churchill was no exception. During the Great War he had learned certain precepts of modern warfare, including one of immense significance: tactical breakthroughs were impossible, because whenever a position was in peril, it could be swiftly reinforced. The continuous front had never broken. And another lesson learned: nothing in that war had happened quickly.
In the current war, everything was happening quickly—too quickly—and none of it good. German panzers were smashing all the old strategic and tactical paradigms. Britain’s survival depended upon finding the weaknesses in the Nazi strategy, and then exploiting them. This would be Churchill’s ultimate problem. His immediate problem was political: Conservative MPs, who held 432 of the 607 seats in the House, dominated Parliament. The source of this problem lay in the country’s last general election, five years earlier. Misled by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had assured Parliament that England’s defenses were more than adequate, Britain had elected a House of Commons top-heavy with irreconcilable pacifists and die-hard appeasers. Since then, the country’s mood had turned 180 degrees, but in their hearts, the Conservative majority remained loyal to the memory of Baldwin and the disastrous policies of Neville Chamberlain, even though they had led England to this fearful pass.
The new P.M., though a Tory himself, had been their gadfly throughout the 1930s, a vehement opponent of their “Splendid Isolation,” which they defined as “a plea for the detachment of Britain from Continental quarrels.” Again and again he had warned of the Nazi menace, demanding larger defense budgets. The fact that subsequent events had proven him right and them wrong did not endear him to them. An embittered R. A. (“Rab”) Butler (an appeaser and Chamberlain loyalist) called Churchill “a half-breed American” and “the greatest adventurer in modern political history.” That Friday, the tenth, Butler denounced “this sudden coup of Winston and his rabble.” Another Conservative MP wrote Stanley Baldwin—who had described Churchill as part of “the flotsam and jetsam of political drift thrown up on the beach”—that “the Tories don’t trust Winston. After the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder Government may emerge.” A civil servant noted, “There seems to be some inclination in Whitehall to believe that Winston will be a complete failure and that Neville will return.” The pacifist editor Max Plowman wrote: “Perhaps Winston will win the war. Perhaps he won’t. How anybody could expect him to, I don’t know, in view of his unparalleled record in losing everything he puts his hand to.”
The permanent secretariat at No. 10 Downing Street, who knew Churchill only as a critic of his predecessors, despaired. For as long as the private secretaries there could remember, Baldwin or Chamberlain had been in power. They were mostly Tories themselves, young gentlemen working in what had been, until then, a comfortable private home, where everything went smoothly and quietly, with messengers summoned at the tinkle of a bell, clean towels and ivory brushes in the cloakroom, and everything, as one of them put it, “reminding the inhabitants that they were working at the very heart of a great empire, in which haste was undignified and any quiver of the upper lip unacceptable.” Everything about Churchill’s reputation horrified them. Jock Colville wrote in his diary that Churchill’s rise “is a terrible risk, and I cannot help feeling that this country may be manoeuvred into the most dangerous position it has ever been in.” Later Colville recalled that “in May 1940 the mere thought of Churchill as Prime Minister sends a cold chill down the spines of the staff at No. 10 Downing Street…. Seldom can a Prime Minister have taken office with the Establishment so dubious of the choice & so prepared to have its doubts justified.” Quite apart from the fortunes of war, already darkening England’s prospects for survival, Churchill’s government was being launched in very rough political waters.
They swiftly calmed. “Within a fortnight,” Colville wrote, “all was changed.” Churchill arrived on the scene like a summer squall at a sailboat regatta. Whitehall was galvanized, and the office at No. 10 was pandemonium. Bells were ringing constantly, telephones of various colors were being installed in every nook at No. 10, and the new prime minister was attaching maroon labels demanding “Action This Day” or green ones saying “Report in Three Days” to an endless stream of directives that were being dictated to typists in the Cabinet Room, the P.M.’s bedroom, and even his bathroom, with replies expected within minutes. Ministers, generals, and senior civil servants appeared and departed within minutes. Working hours began early each morning and ended after midnight. “The pace became frantic,” another private secretary, John Martin, recalled. “We realized we were at war.”
Chamberlain had been cold and orderly; Churchill, John Martin recalled, was “a human dynamo.” In the words of Sir Ian Jacob: “His pugnacious spirit demanded constant action. The enemy must be assailed continuously: the Germans must be made to ‘bleed and burn.’ ” Churchill appointed himself his own minister of defence, thereby assuring that he himself, working through Major General Ismay, would manage the Chiefs of Staff, conducting the war day by day, even hour by hour. Yet Churchill always took care to pass his wishes to the generals through Ismay, whose “loyalty to his seniors and juniors was absolute” such that, in turn, he was never shy about telling Churchill just what the generals and their Joint Planning Staff thought of his suggestions—often, not much, which led Churchill to call the JPS “the whole machinery of negation.” Ismay’s loyalty to Churchill did not insulate him from prime ministerial outbursts any more than did the allegiance of others on the Old Man’s staff. After one contentious meeting with the Chiefs of Staff, he let loose on the “pusillanimity and negative attitude” displayed by the chiefs, “and you are one of the worst,” he declared to the indignant Ismay. After another unsatisfactory meeting with his COS and Ismay, Churchill told Colville, “I am obliged to wage modern warfare with ancient weapons.”
Sir Ian Jacob recalled that as deferential as Ismay was to his boss and the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill learned quickly that Ismay never allowed the usual feelings of protocol to stand in the way of speed and efficiency of work. “He was without vanity,” Jacob later recalled, “and inspired in all those who worked with him the same spirit of loyalty he in such great measure possessed.” At about 9:30 each morning (if Churchill hadn’t kept Ismay up most of the night), Ismay and Churchill met, the Old Man usually in bed, the early editions of the newspapers strewn hither and yon, the air saturated with the stale aroma of cigars. At these briefings Churchill passed along any memos he had dictated the night before. Most were brief queries or suggestions; some were strongly worded opinions. A memo signed in red ink meant Churchill wanted action. A memo signed in red ink, and affixed with the slip “Action This Day,” was the prime ministerial equivalent of a five-alarm fire.
As Ian Jacob later observed, Churchill was “determined to be No. 1 and to use all the political powers of a No. 1 directly.” In front of his place at the cabinet table he placed a square of cardboard bearing a quotation from Queen Victoria during the Boer War: “Please understand that we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”
The impact of all of this on his civil service secretariat was enormous. The journalist Virginia Cowles wrote: “The whole of 10 Downing Street throbbed with an energy it had not seen since the days of Lloyd George.”
Parliament was another matter. On his third day in office, Churchill rose in the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister and invited the members to affirm his new government. Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary: “When Chamberlain enters the House he gets a terrific reception, and when Churchill comes in the applause is less.” The P.M.’s statement was brief but eloquent; it was then that he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” His peroration was, as usual, a taking of the ramparts by words alone, and, as usual, it was dismissed by his detractors in the Commons and by his enemies in Berlin as typically Churchillian hyperbole, misplaced given unfolding events in France, and perhaps delusional. It was in fact a solemn oath, a statement of literal intent, which admitted to no ambiguity: “You ask, what is our aim? I answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire” and all it has stood for, “no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward toward its goal.” Labour and Liberal MPs cheered. Many Tories sat silent; they were still fuming over Churchill’s ascendancy to No. 10. The historian Laurence Thompson noted: “Conservative anger that the wrong man had been shot over Norway continued for many months.”
The campaign for Norway had lasted two months, from early April until early June. By late May, southern and central Norway had been abandoned by British and Norwegian forces, although Narvik, Norway’s northernmost ice-free port, had been cleared of Germans by British troops, who, if reinforced, were poised to strike toward the Swedish iron-ore fields so critical to Hitler. Thus to interdict Swedish war shipments had been the objective of the March plan (code-named Wilfred) to lay mines in Norwegian waters. But Wilfred was scotched by Chamberlain and Halifax for fear of offending Norway and Sweden. Narvik (and the million tons of iron ore stored there) had been Churchill’s main objective from the start, but by early June, events in France dictated that the cause be abandoned. The evacuation did not go well. On the afternoon of the eighth of June, 1940, the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious—fleeing Norway with as many aircraft and men as she could carry—was intercepted in the Norwegian Sea by the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Glorious, and two escorting destroyers, were sunk by gunfire in just over two hours, with the loss of more than 1,500 officers and men of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force. Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty when the Norwegian adventure began, and prime minister when it ended, had already taken responsibility for the disastrous outcome. For much of the remainder of the war, the loss of Glorious and the specter of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst moved Churchill at times to dubious naval strategy. He was still coming to terms with modern naval warfare, and not entirely successfully; the success of the German battle cruisers and the vulnerability of Glorious seemed to imply that fast, heavy ships still ruled the waves. In fact, aircraft carriers, if deployed properly, posed a mortal threat to battle cruisers. Hitler, meanwhile, pocketed the Norwegian and Swedish ore, but would pay heavily for those prizes; during the next four years, more than 160,000 of his best troops remained in Norway awaiting the return of the English. Other than shooting Norwegian patriots and chasing down the occasional British commando, more than twelve priceless Wehrmacht divisions would miss the war. Churchill, in turn, became obsessed with returning to Norway, and during the next four years drove his military chiefs to distraction with what Sir Alan Brooke called “his mad Norwegian plans.” Hitler, in fact, read Churchill’s ambitions exactly.
Because Churchill well understood that criticism of his career centered on his history of questionable strategic judgments and his notoriety for being willing to change sides, his chief political concern was reconciliation with the House, and he made a major effort to do so. He invited Chamberlain into his government both as lord president of the council and leader of the House, and sent him a note: “No one changes houses for a month.” Beginning on May 13, his third day in office, he began working at No. 10 afternoons while his predecessor leisurely moved out upstairs, but during those early weeks, he conducted most of HMG’s business from Admiralty House, using its drawing room, with its furniture carved with dolphins (“the fish room,” he called it), for cabinet meetings. He could scarcely ignore the issues that had divided him and the appeasers for seven years, but his references to them were light, even bantering; introducing one appeaser to his wife, he beamed as he said, “Oh, yes, my dear, he has the Munich medal with bar.” He would have been happy to see the last of his foreign secretary and a major appeaser, Lord Halifax, but he kept him in the Foreign Office for the present. This put Churchill in an awkward position with those who had backed him during the lean years and now wanted all “the old crowd” thrown out, but he was adamant. “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future,” he said, and, later, “No one had more right than I to pass a sponge across the past. I therefore resisted these disruptive tendencies.”
Inevitably politics determined his cabinet choices. He had to form a government with all parties represented, and he hadn’t much time. Most senior posts were filled by May 13. Clement Attlee (lord privy seal), Arthur Greenwood (cabinet minister without portfolio), and Ernest Bevin (minister of labour) came from the Labour benches. Bevin’s inclusion testified to the true nature of the coalition; he was a former teamster, the son of a domestic servant and unknown father, and most assuredly not one of Churchill’s crowd. From the Liberals, Archibald Sinclair, Churchill’s longtime friend and second in command of Churchill’s battalion in the trenches, went to the Air Ministry. From Churchill’s own camp, Sir John Anderson, a Chamberlain appointee, stayed on as Home Secretary. Leo Amery, Churchill’s old friend from Harrow (and sometimes his critic) as well as a pugnacious anti-Chamberlain rebel, was given the India secretariat. Anthony Eden went to the War Office. Only one appointment hit a snag. The problem wasn’t political. Churchill wanted Lord Beaverbrook as minister of aircraft production. The King objected. That was understandable: Beaverbrook was a highly controversial figure, objectionable in many ways. However, Churchill was going to need a lot of airplanes soon, and he knew this man had the drive and the ruthlessness to get them one way or another. Beaverbrook, he told Jock Colville, was “twenty-five percent thug, fifteen percent crook and the remainder a combination of genius and real goodness of heart.”
The King bowed to his judgment. Churchill did settle one score. Sir John Reith, minister of information and creator of the modern BBC, had barred him from the BBC during the 1930s and, after the war’s outbreak, intrigued against him. Churchill fired Reith on May 12 and replaced him with Alfred Duff Cooper, who had quit Chamberlain’s government in protest against the Munich Agreement. Churchill soon found new duties for the appeaser Reith, at the Transport Ministry. The War Cabinet—“the only ones,” he said, “who had the right to have their heads cut off on Tower Hill if we did not win”—comprised five men: himself, Chamberlain, Attlee, Halifax, and Greenwood.
In the country, where his popularity was soaring, his conciliatory manner toward those who had scorned him was remarked upon and widely praised. Few noticed how he quietly put the greatest possible distance between himself and the most objectionable of them. Sir Samuel Hoare was sent as ambassador to Spain, Lord Harlech to South Africa, Lord Swinton to the African Gold Coast, Malcolm MacDonald to Canada, and, before the year was out, Halifax to the United States. Presently he would use this very effective maneuver to banish the Duke of Windsor, a sometime admirer of the Third Reich, an admiration as narrow and shallow as he was. But Churchill could not banish their abiding doubts of his abilities. On the day Churchill told Halifax he would remain at the Foreign Office, Halifax wrote in his diary, “I have seldom met anyone with stranger gaps of knowledge, or whose mind worked in greater jerks. Will it be possible to make it work in orderly fashion?” Then Halifax answered his own question with such profound understatement as to call into question whether he truly grasped Britain’s plight: “On this much depends.”
At the outset, Churchill later wrote, “no fresh decision was required from me or my colleagues.” Plan D was in operation, British troops had reached the Dyle River, and so, the new prime minister wrote, he did not “in the slightest degree wish to interfere with the military plans”; instead, he merely “awaited with hope the impending shock.” The War Cabinet authorized the detention of enemy aliens living in Britain, debated the wisdom and morality of bombing German territory, and approved messages from the P.M. to President Roosevelt and Mussolini. Roosevelt’s answer was cordial but disappointing. Churchill had asked for the “loan of 40 or 50 old” U.S. destroyers; the President explained that to honor the request would violate Congress’s Neutrality Acts. Il Duce, in reply to Churchill’s suggestion to stay out of the fray, was rude. Italy, he bluntly replied, was an ally of Nazi Germany.
The world’s eyes were on the Low Countries across the Channel. The British were following this front with special anxiety, aware of the threat to England should the Nazis establish bases that close to Britain. Enemy successes there were spectacular but not really alarming. In the Netherlands 4,000 Nazi parachutists and German infantrymen captured key bridges over the Meuse River and forced a Dutch surrender after the Luftwaffe’s terror bombing of Rotterdam, which destroyed 25,000 homes and massacred more than 1,000 (not the 30,000 claimed by the Dutch government, a figure that terrified Britons). Meantime, in Belgium, German airborne troops and specially picked paratroopers had crossed the Albert Kanaal and seized the country’s mighty Fort Eben-Emael. Nazi infantry then turned southward to take Liège from the rear.
But the Belgian, French, and British troops were fighting well. Despite furious German assaults, the Dyle Line had not been breached. Two enemy divisions briefly penetrated it in a tangled railroad yard near Louvain, but the Tommies of General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division swiftly routed them.
South of Louvain two panzer divisions, supported by waves of Junkers Ju 87s—“Stuka” dive-bombers—mounted an even stronger attack on the grounds of an agricultural school at Gembloux. Instantly General Jean-Georges-Maurice Blanchard ordered a counterattack by the French First Army. These were crack troops, descendants of the poilus whose valor, inspired by the tricolor and their fierce national anthem, had awed Europe in the century and a half since the French Revolution.
They drove the Germans back and back, and Gamelin felt vindicated. This, he said, proved that he had anticipated the German schwerpunkt; the Nazis had come where he expected them to come, and the Allied Line was unbroken. The British were less sure. The RAF had not been caught on the ground, but it had been battered in the air. On Sunday, May 12, Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall reported “undue losses of medium bombers in relation to the results attained,” and on Monday, when the Chiefs of Staff committee met in Admiralty House, with Churchill in the chair for the first time as minister of defence, the consensus was that “it was not yet certain” where the enemy’s main effort was to be made. General Ironside, Chief of the Imperial Staff, believed the Germans might be consolidating their position on this front before mounting an offense elsewhere, possibly “an intensive air attack in Great Britain.” Churchill thought the situation “far from satisfactory.” One officer noticed an ominous sign. The Luftwaffe bombers, he pointed out, had achieved air superiority over the northern battlefield, yet they were leaving columns of French reinforcements marching to the front unmolested. Why should the Germans want more Allied troops on this front?
No one, not even Pétain, had declared the Ardennes Forest to be absolutely impenetrable, though his error was equally egregious. What he had said was that the Ardennes was “impassable to strong forces.” In fact it was good tank country, with many fields and trails. The French should have known that—they had held maneuvers there in 1939. The forest’s trees were actually an asset, serving to camouflage armor and troop movements from aerial surveillance.
The German strategy in 1940 could be summed up in the code word by which the Wehrmacht general staff in Zossen anointed the operation: “Sichelschnitt,” or “scythe cut.” Here, as in Poland, the scythe would exploit the Reich’s new concept of warfare: deep penetration of enemy territory by mobile armored forces, with infantry following. In planning his drive, Hitler had divided his forces into three army groups. The one that had struck in the Low Countries comprised thirty divisions, including three panzer divisions. A second, tying down the Maginot Line, in the west, was given nineteen divisions. The great blow would be delivered in the center by the third: forty-five divisions, including seven panzer divisions, commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt. This juggernaut would plunge through Luxembourg and the Ardennes, and vault over the Meuse River north and south of Sedan, some 70 miles southwest of Liège, on the east bank of the Meuse and a dozen miles inside France. That would put the main German force at a point roughly 125 miles from Paris and 175 miles from the Channel ports of Calais, Gravelines, and Dunkirk. The German high command knew the Allies were vulnerable in the Sedan sector; the line was thinly held by two French armies of older, poorly trained, and ill-equipped married men.
The French high command had estimated that it would take at least fifteen days for any strong enemy force to negotiate the thickets and deep wooded ravines of the Ardennes. The Germans, who had rehearsed elaborately in the Black Forest, did it in two, sweeping Belgian infantrymen before them. To the horror of the unprepared French defenders in the vicinity of Sedan, on Sunday the twelfth, the mechanized spearhead of Rundstedt’s seven panzer divisions—1,800 tanks, 17,000 other vehicles, and 98,000 men—appeared on the east bank of the Meuse. The answer to the question of why the Luftwaffe had allowed French reinforcements to drift northward toward Holland had arrived with terrible certainty: the real schwerpunkt was at Sedan.
The Meuse, the Nazis had known, would be their most forbidding obstacle. It was narrow and swift at this point; confronting the attackers on the far bank were well-placed batteries of heavy artillery. That would have sufficed in 1918, but this was a different war. On Monday, Rundstedt silenced every French field piece, every howitzer, by skillful use of tactical air—Stukas and other low-level bombers—which so terrorized the gunners that they abandoned their cannons. Nazi rubber boats reached the opposite shore unmolested; beachheads were established north and south of Sedan; pontoon bridges spanned the Meuse, then heavy bridges, and, finally, on Tuesday morning, lumbering and growling, came the Nazi tanks. By noon on Tuesday, May 14, the Germans had established a formidable pocket on French soil, three miles wide and two miles deep.
It was time, and past time, for a French counterattack. At 5:30 P.M. on the thirteenth, orders were issued, and a strong force of French tanks advanced, backed by the infantry of the 55th Division. History’s first great battle of mechanized armor seemed imminent. The French position was far from hopeless. The German flank was exposed to the French tanks, and not all the panzers, artillery, and infantry were across the Meuse and in position. French tanks were well armored; many carried 75mm cannon, heavier than the guns on many German tanks. Unfortunately, the French chose not to mass their tanks for a steel-fisted assault, instead dispersing them along too broad a front. More unfortunately, the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, having determined that armor was to be used only in support of infantry, had forbidden the installation of radios in their turrets. The French drivers, unable to communicate with one another, could not coordinate an assault. The consequence was disastrous. Within two hours of the battle opening on the fourteenth, the panzers had destroyed fifty French tanks; the rest, a few dozen, fled.
That was the small disaster. The great disaster began sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M., when, according to the French corps commander, “the situation evolved with a disconcerting rapidity toward catastrophe.” Bluntly put, the defenders panicked. Men threw down their rifles and ran, crowding the roads, and they did not stop until they had reached Reims, sixty miles away. Few officers tried to discourage them. One who did later recalled their response. “Colonel,” they said, “we want to go home, back to our little jobs (nos petit boulots). There’s no use trying to fight. There’s nothing we can do. We’re lost! We’ve been betrayed!”
In a well-disciplined army they would have been shot on the spot. But everyone, officers and men, seemed infected with the fear, which spread. “The roof fell in,” wrote William L. Shirer. One regiment after another broke, until the entire Ninth Army—some two hundred thousand men—ceased to exist. A dazed divisional commander wandered into the army’s headquarters to report: “Of my division I fear I am the only one left.” The Second Army, on the right flank of the Ninth, fell back. Meantime the Germans, who were arriving in great numbers, began to capture them. Charles de Gaulle, moving up to take command of a brigade, was shocked to see “many soldiers who had lost their weapons…. Caught up, as they fled, by the enemy’s mechanized detachments, they had been ordered to throw away their arms and make off to the south so as not to clutter up the roads. ‘We haven’t time,’ they had been told, ‘to take you prisoners!’ ”
The French defensive line was now breached by a hole sixty miles wide, and German armor, followed by infantry, was streaming through it. Incredibly, no one in Paris knew what was happening. Field commanders, ashamed to report the truth, played down the debacle, assuring General Georges’ headquarters that everything was under control, and hour by hour Georges relayed their optimism to Gamelin in Vincennes. As late as Wednesday, when the Battle of the Meuse was over and the French hopelessly routed, Gamelin’s communiqué reported: “To sum up, the day of May 15 seems to show a lessening in the intensity of enemy action…. Our front, which was ‘shaken’ (‘ébranlé’) between Namur and the region west of Montmédy, is reestablishing itself little by little.”
One man knew better. It says much about France’s military establishment that the first Parisian to learn the truth was a civilian: Paul Reynaud. The premier had studied the possibilities of tank warfare, and he had spies in the army, informers who sent him word of what was actually happening. At 5:45 P.M. on Tuesday, May 14, the fifth day of the enemy offensive, he wired Churchill: “The situation is indeed very serious. Germany is trying to deal us a fatal blow in the direction of Paris. The German army has broken through our fortified lines south of Sedan…. Between Sedan and Paris there are no defenses comparable with those in the line, which we must restore at almost any cost.” He then asked for ten more Royal Air Force squadrons “immediately.”
The prime minister told Ironside to check this; the CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) sent a liaison officer “to find out what the real situation is.” Later in the day Ironside told Churchill, “We could get nothing out of” either Gamelin or Georges. Ironside suggested that perhaps Reynaud was being “a little hysterical.” But the French premier knew he was right. At seven o’clock the next morning he woke Churchill with an anguished telephone call. “We have been defeated!” he cried in English. “We are beaten! We have lost the battle!” The P.M., his mind still mired in the trenches of 1914–1918, said, “Surely it can’t have happened so soon!” As Churchill recalled afterward, Reynaud replied, “The front is broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armored cars.” Churchill told him, “All experience shows that the offensive will come to an end after a while.” Within five or six days, he said, the enemy would have to halt for supplies; that would be the moment for a counterattack. But the premier repeated, “We are defeated; we have lost the battle.” Churchill said he was willing to come over “and have a talk.”
Ringing up Ironside, the prime minister repeated the conversation, commenting that Reynaud had seemed “thoroughly demoralized.” Ironside told him that “we have no extra demands from Gamelin or Georges, both of whom are calm, though they both consider the situation serious.” The P.M. then called Georges, an old friend. Georges, quite cool, reported that the breach at Sedan was “being plugged.” But late that afternoon Reynaud sent another message: “Last week we lost the battle. The way to Paris lies open. Send all the troops and planes you can.” Churchill sent four squadrons of fighters, then decided it was “imperative to go to Paris.” At 3:00 P.M. on May 16 he took off in an unarmed Flamingo, a civilian passenger plane, accompanied by General Ismay, General Sir John Dill, and Inspector Walter Thompson of Scotland Yard, a fifty-year-old ex-copper who had served as Churchill’s bodyguard a decade earlier and had been called out of retirement to again protect the Great Man.
Over the French coast the prime minister peered down, and Thompson saw his face go gray. Churchill was looking, for the first time, at the war’s refugees. There were now over seven million of them fleeing from the Germans, swarming down the highways, shuffling, exhausted, aching from the strain of heavy loads on their backs. No one had told them to evacuate the battlefields; they were evacuating themselves. Barns, sheds, and garages had disgorged into throughways an extraordinary collection of vehicles: farm carts, trucks, horse-drawn carts, hay wagons, and ancient automobiles saddled with sagging loads of mattresses, kitchen utensils, family treasures, and bric-a-brac. Cars bombed by the Luftwaffe stood in flames, and here and there among straggling vagabonds lay corpses of children and the very old, who, unable to keep up, had been machine-gunned by Nazi pilots who saw panic as an ally of their comrades in the Wehrmacht.
In their memoirs the generals on both sides would complain about the obstacles these people created, but the refugees looked at it differently, and Churchill saw it their way. The great tragedy was coming into focus for Churchill. He was also beginning to understand Reynaud’s alarm. He later wrote: “Not having had access to official information for so many years, I did not comprehend the revolution effected since the last war by the incursion of a mass of fast-moving heavy armour.” This Nazi drive would not have to pause for supplies; as de Gaulle had foreseen, the panzers were filling their tanks at the filling stations of northern France.
The prime minister’s Flamingo landed at Le Bourget, and as they alighted, Ismay felt “an unmistakable atmosphere of depression.” Events were moving swiftly in Paris. Gamelin foresaw the end. William Bullitt, the American ambassador, had been with Daladier when the généralissime called to break the news. He had told them: “It means the destruction of the French army. Between Laon and Paris I do not have a single corps at my disposal.” The panic had reached the French capital. Parisians realized that there were an extraordinary number of automobiles with Belgian license plates on the streets “just passing through,” the drivers told them; “the Boche is right behind us.” Everyone seemed to know that Gamelin had told the highest officials of the republic, “Je ne répons plus de rien” (“I am no longer responsible for anything”).
At the Quai d’Orsay Reynaud, Daladier, and Gamelin awaited the British in a large room looking out on a garden “which,” Ismay wrote, “had appeared so lovely and well-kept on my last visit, but which was now disfigured with clusters of bonfires.” The French were burning their official papers. This was Churchill’s first meeting as a member of the Allied Supreme War Council, and Ismay was “interested to see how he handled the situation.”
He dominated the proceedings from the moment he entered the room. There was no interpreter, and he spoke throughout in French. His idiom was not always correct, and his vocabulary was not equal to translating with exactitude all the words that he required. But no one could have been in any doubt as to his meaning.
He began by telling them that although their plight was grave, this was not the first time they had been in a crisis together; the Ludendorff offensives of early 1918 had nearly destroyed them and their ally, the United States. He was confident that they would survive this one. Then he asked for a briefing. Gamelin gave it. Stepping up to a map on an easel, he talked for five minutes, describing the Germans’ breakthrough. He said they were advancing with unprecedented speed. Their intentions were unknown; they could reach the coast or turn on Paris. At the end Churchill slapped him heartily on the shoulder—the general winced—and told him that this would become known as “the Battle of the Bulge.” (“Boogle” was the closest he could come to this.) Then he asked him where his strategic reserve was: “Où est la masse de manoeuvre?” Gamelin shook his head and replied: “Aucune.” He had none.
There was a long pause while Churchill, speechless, stared absently at the elderly men carrying wheelbarrows of documents to the fires. No strategic reserve. It had never occurred to him that commanders defending five hundred miles of engaged front would have left themselves without reserves; no one could defend with certainty so wide a front, but when the enemy broke the line, the defenders should have a mass of divisions ready to counterattack. He was, he wrote, “dumbfounded.”
After the war it was Churchill’s recollection, confirmed by Ismay, that he did not argue strategy with Reynaud, Daladier, and Gamelin. “There couldn’t have been a disagreement,” he said. “We didn’t know enough about the situation to disagree.” However, the French notes on this point are quite detailed. According to them, Churchill vigorously opposed ordering a general retreat by the Allied troops in Belgium. This, the P.M. said, was a time to “hold fast.” He did not believe the panzer breakthrough was “a real invasion.” As long as the tanks were “not supported by infantry units,” they were merely “little flags stuck on the map,” because they would be “unable to support themselves or to refuel.” The French records quote him as telling them, “I refuse to see in this spectacular raid of the German tanks a real invasion.”
Churchill may not have argued strategy that day, but he proposed one—to hold fast—and it was unrealistic. It was characteristic of him that he always approved of attacks, and seldom retreats, even when, as here, failure to withdraw would mean encirclement and annihilation. Reynaud silenced him by pointing out that all the field commanders, including Lord Gort, believed the French should fall back.
Churchill was, however, thoroughly justified in asking Gamelin when and where he proposed to attack the flanks of the German bulge. The généralissime’s dismaying, unresponsive reply was “inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method,” followed by a hopeless shrug of the shoulders. The généralissime saw only one hope of salvation: the commitment of six more RAF squadrons to the battle. It was, he said, the only way to stop the panzers.
Churchill vigorously replied that tanks should be the target of artillery, not of fighter planes; fighters should “cleanse the skies” (“nett le ciel”) over the battle. Bombing the Meuse bridges was not a proper job for the RAF; nevertheless they had attempted to do it, at great risk, and had lost thirty-six aircraft. “You can replace bridges,” he said, “but not fighters.” He had just sent four more squadrons, forty-eight planes, and it was vital that Britain’s metropolitan air force be available to command the air over Britain in order to protect defense factories from the Luftwaffe. Britain had only a limited number of squadrons in England, and, he said, “We must conserve them.” He did not think another six squadrons would “make the difference.”
Daladier replied, “The French believe the contrary.” The discussion became acrimonious. Gamelin had touched a vital nerve. Both sides were, to a degree, disingenuous. What the French really believed was that the British should throw everything they had into the struggle for France, and that if the Allied cause were to lose, both countries should go down together. The British believed that if France went down—and they were beginning to contemplate that possibility—Britain and the Empire should go on alone. That was why Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had put himself on record as “absolutely opposed to parting with a single additional Hurricane.”
At the British embassy that evening, the prime minister weighed the French appeal. He should have rejected it, but his sympathy for them outweighed his reason, and he wired the War Cabinet that they should give this “last chance to the French Army to rally its bravery and strength. It would not be good historically if their requests were denied and their ruin resulted.” The War Cabinet was apprehensive, but it was difficult to say no to the P.M. They reluctantly agreed, provided the Hurricanes returned to English bases each night. In the interests of security this decision was sent to Ismay, a veteran of the Indian army, in Hindi—“Han,” for “yes.”
In Paris the embassy staff assumed that the good news would be telephoned to the French. Churchill insisted upon delivering it in person. “This,” Ismay comments, “was in character.” Churchill reminded him of someone giving children presents and wanting to see the expressions on their faces as they opened their gifts: “He was about to give Reynaud a pearl beyond price, and he wanted to watch his expression as he received it.” To the P.M.’s surprise, the premier had left his office—it was midnight—so he sought directions to his home. That was awkward. Reynaud and his mistress, Mme la Comtesse de Portes, were living in a small apartment on the Place du Palais-Bourbon, hiding from his wife. Nevertheless Churchill and Ismay eventually found him there. Receiving them in his bathrobe, he thanked them profusely. Then Churchill insisted that he summon Daladier, with whom the premier was barely on speaking terms. The war minister left his mistress, Mme la Marquise de Crussol, to come and wring their hands in silent gratitude.
Back in London, the prime minister found nothing but problems defying solution. Another one hundred thousand Belgians had arrived in Britain, begging for shelter, and every report from the Continent told of a continuing German advance. The P.M.’s mood was defiant. Roosevelt reaffirmed the impossibility of loaning Britain U.S. destroyers. As well, a strict reading of the Neutrality Act of 1939 forced Roosevelt to deny Churchill’s request to send an aircraft carrier to America to pick up some of the more than three hundred Curtiss P-40 fighter planes awaiting shipment. During these months American aircraft purchased by Britain had to be flown to the Canadian border, where, in order to abide by U.S. laws preventing transshipment, they were pushed or towed (often by horse) across the border before continuing on, by ship, to England. The P-40s, Churchill was told, would be ready for delivery in two or three months. After digesting Roosevelt’s decisions, he wrote a cordial reply and then growled to Colville: “Here’s a telegram for those bloody Yankees. Send it off tonight.” It was Trinity Sunday. Clementine attended services at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and returned indignant. The rector had preached a pacifist sermon and Clementine had walked out. Churchill said: “You ought to have cried ‘Shame,’ desecrating the house of God with lies!”
That evening—May 19—he was to address the nation over the radio. He was driven to Chartwell, soon to be closed for the war’s duration. There he could visit his goldfish, sit in the sun, and reflect, but he found no peace there. He wanted to feed his black swans, but to his consternation he found that foxes had eaten all but one. Then Anthony Eden called. The matter was urgent, and would become more so in the days ahead. Lord Gort had just called. The French army south of the BEF had melted away, leaving a vast gap on the British right. He was in a dilemma. He could leave the Belgians to their fate and fight southward to rejoin the French, or he could fall back on the Channel ports and fight it out with his back to the sea. His preference was to withdraw toward Dunkirk. Ironside had told him that “this proposal could not be accepted at all.” Churchill, always against retreat, agreed. In Dunkirk, he said, the BEF would be “closely invested in a bomb-trap, and its total loss would be only a matter of time.”
After forty years in the House of Commons, Churchill instinctively swung his head from left to right. That would not do on the BBC, so Tyrone Guthrie of the Old Vic stood behind him and held his ears firmly as he spoke at a desk in a small room, his text illuminated by a green lamp. Addressing the country, he began:
I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our Empire, of our Allies, and above all of the cause of Freedom. A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans, by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armored tanks, have broken through the French defenses north of the Maginot Line, and strong columns of their armored vehicles are ravaging the open country, which for the first day or two was without defenders…. Side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history. Behind them, behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France, gather a group of shattered states and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.
“At last the country is awake and working,” wrote the diehard Tory Tom Jones.
“The hour has struck,” wrote the commander of the Portsmouth Naval Base, Admiral Sir William Milbourne James, “and the man has appeared.”
Churchill had spoken of the French “genius for recovery and counterattack, for which they have long been famous,” adding, “I have invincible confidence in the French army.” He may have believed it. He had always been an arch-Francophile; in 1916, commanding a British battalion in the trenches, he had worn a poilu’s helmet to show his confidence in England’s ally. Thus far, Fleet Street had supported this view: “One hears,” Mollie Panter-Downes reported in The New Yorker, “nothing but admiration for the heroic French resistance.” But Gamelin was no Foch, and his troops were not the soldiers of 1914–1918. After the men on both sides had laid down their arms, a group of American war correspondents toured the scenes of struggle and concluded, in the words of William L. Shirer, that “France did not fight…. None of us saw evidence of serious fighting. The fields of France are undisturbed. There was no fighting on any sustained line… no attempt to come to a halt on a line and strike back in a well-organized counter-attack.”
The Führer’s Panzergruppen had roared down unmined roads, passed unmolested under overlooking heights unsited with artillery. Strategic bridges had been unblown. French prisoners said they had seen no combat; whenever battle seemed imminent, they were ordered to retreat. The Channel ports, notably Boulogne and Calais, had been defended mostly by the British. Shirer thought the defending armies seemed to have been “paralyzed as soon as the Germans made their first break-through. The French, as though drugged, had no will to fight, even when their soil was invaded by their most hated enemy. It was a complete collapse of French society and of the French soul.”
Even Churchill had begun to have doubts about the French. The day before his Sunday broadcast, debating whether to send Britain’s 1st Armored Division to Gamelin, he had told Ismay: “One must always be prepared for the fact that the French may be offered very advantageous terms of peace, and the whole weight be thrown on us.” Gamelin himself had all but abandoned hope. Saturday evening he had calmly explained “the causes of our defeat” to Reynaud. It was the ninth day of the battle, and the généralissime was ready to quit. Even the hopelessly overmatched Poles had held out for three weeks.
On Monday, May 20, the 2nd Panzer Division reached Abbéville, at the mouth of the Somme, and Noyelles on the coast. The Germans had cut France in half, thereby trapping a million Allied soldiers in the north, including the Belgian army, more than half the BEF, and the First and Seventh French Armies—France’s best troops. It was a stunning triumph. But it was also the hour of the Nazis’ maximum danger. Their tanks had created a corridor almost two hundred miles long and twenty miles wide, from the Ardennes to the Channel, but they had outdistanced the Wehrmacht’s foot soldiers, and tanks alone could not hold the German gains against determined counterattacks. They would be vulnerable until their infantry arrived in strength.
Hitler knew it and was frightened. In his aerie he envisaged a second Marne, with the French rallying and striking back with a deadly blow. Jodl noted: “The Führer is terribly nervous. He is worried over his own success, will risk nothing and insists on restraining us…. He rages and screams that we are on the way to ruining the whole operation and that we are in danger of a defeat.”
This was, in fact, the critical moment; everything that followed turned upon it. As a disillusioned Churchill told the House of Commons four weeks later:
The colossal military disaster… occurred when the French High Command failed to withdraw the northern armies from Belgium at the moment when they knew that the French front was decisively broken at Sedan and on the Meuse. This delay entailed the loss of fifteen or sixteen French divisions and threw out of action for the critical period the whole of the British Expeditionary Force, a total of twenty-five divisions of the best-trained and best equipped troops [which] may have turned the scale.
Gamelin finally saw it. On Sunday he drew up “Instruction No. 12,” ordering two offensives: the troops in the north were to fight south across the tank corridor while French troops on the Somme drove northward, cutting off the 2nd Panzer Division. But on Monday, before he could issue the orders, Reynaud sacked him and chose seventy-three-year-old General Maxime Weygand as his successor, a short, spruce, fox-faced officer who, as one Englishman said, resembled an “aged jockey.” Weygand had never before commanded troops in battle; he had made his reputation as a staff officer. He was a political general, a monarchist, a hero of the militantly conservative Croix de Feu, and an Anglophobe. Despite his age he was exceptionally vigorous, but he had arrived in Paris exhausted, recalled from Syria; immediately after assuming command he went to bed. Before retiring he canceled Gamelin’s Instruction No. 12.
The situation in the corridor was fluid. Every hour was critical now. The gap between the German armor and its supporting formations was closing. Yet when the new généralissime woke, he announced that he would tour the front before making a decision. By the time he returned and reissued the order, the corridor was thick with defenders. After four strenuous days the enemy had strengthened it by rushing infantry and motorized artillery to beef up both sides of it. The chance had passed.
At 6:30 P.M. Monday, a British officer had wired London that Luftwaffe bombers had severed rail service between Amiens and Abbéville, and that night, panzers at Abbéville cut off the British army’s supply bases and the French armies in the south. Ironside, returning from France Tuesday morning, reported that another enemy tank column had been sighted passing Frévent, “probably making for Boulogne.” There was “nothing wrong with the French troops themselves,” he said, but the commanders seemed “paralyzed.” In his diary he wrote, “Personally I think we cannot extricate the B.E.F…. God help the B.E.F., brought to this state by the incompetence of the French command.” Dill, who was with Georges, telegraphed that a northward drive by the French was “improbable.”
“In London,” Ismay wrote, “we felt we were being harshly treated by the French High Command… they had told us nothing, and we were completely in the dark.” Aware of the constantly shifting face of the battle, Churchill tried again and again to reach Reynaud by telephone. It was impossible. All lines between Paris and London had been cut. He told Colville, “In all the history of war I have never known such mismanagement.” In his diary Colville commented: “I have not seen Winston so depressed.” Desperate for information, the prime minister, against the advice of the Chiefs of Staff, decided to fly to Paris the following morning, Wednesday, May 22.
The Flamingo landed at Le Bourget shortly before noon; the P.M. and his party went straight to the généralissime’s GHQ in the Château de Vincennes, an old fort suggestive of Beau Geste, guarded by Algerian troops dressed in white cloaks and bearing long curved swords. Weygand, greeting them, “was brisk, buoyant, and incisive,” Churchill wrote. “He made an excellent impression on us all.” Telling them that the panzers “must not be allowed to keep the initiative, he gave them a detailed description of what instantly became known as the Weygand Plan. It was Gamelin’s Instruction No. 12, too late, though the British had no way of knowing that then. Churchill put it in writing “to make sure there was no mistake about what was settled.” After the généralissime and Reynaud approved the text, it was telegraphed to the War Cabinet in London.
Specifically, the plan provided for an attack southward “at the earliest moment, certainly tomorrow,” by eight divisions of the BEF and the French First Army. Simultaneously, a “new French Army Group” of between eighteen and twenty divisions, after forming a line upon the Somme, would “strike northward and join hands with the British divisions who are attacking southward in the general direction of Bapaume.” The more Churchill thought about it, the better he liked it. That evening, Ironside noted, “Winston came back from Paris about 6:30 P.M. and we had a Cabinet at 7:30 P.M. He was almost in buoyant spirits, having been impressed by Weygand.”
The plan was impossible—all of it. The Allied forces in the north could not drive southward; all were heavily engaged with the enemy. And Weygand’s own orders to his divisions in the south merely directed them to recapture local objectives. “The Weygand plan,” as William L. Shirer later wrote, “existed only in the General’s mind.” It may not have existed even there. As Shirer noted, “no French troops ever moved up from the Somme.”
And Gort received no instructions from Vincennes. Indeed, he had heard nothing from GHQ for four days. Learning of this at 4:50 the following afternoon, Churchill called Reynaud—the lines were open again—to ask why. The voices on the other end were incoherent. At 6:00 P.M. he called again. This time he reached Weygand, who had thrilling news: his new French army in the south had already thrown the Germans back and retaken Amiens, Albert, and Péronne. In Admiralty House, Colville noted that this reversal of fortunes was greeted as “stupendous”; “gloom gave way to elation.”
It was a lie. Weygand had known from the beginning that the Allied cause was doomed. His only hope, he had told Georges on May 20, was “sauver l’honneur des armées françaises” (“save the honor of the French armies”), whatever that meant. His distrust of England and Englishmen was profound, though not unusual among Frenchmen with his convictions. Reviewing his deception, Colville later concluded that “Weygand was determined… that we should go under if he did.” It is also possible that he was looking for a scapegoat. If so, he found one, and found him quickly. On Tuesday, the day before Churchill’s flight to Vincennes, Gort had attempted to break the enemy’s encircling line with an attack on the German flank. He set his sights on Arras and went after it with two British divisions, supported by sixty light French tanks. The enemy commander, then unknown, was Erwin Rommel. The action was unexpected; Rommel reported a “heavy British counterattack with armour.” On Wednesday Gort saw that a heavy German force was preparing to move against both his flanks, and he withdrew.
Weygand heard about this Thursday morning. He angrily demanded that Reynaud protest, and the premier sent Churchill—who didn’t even know of Gort’s attack—two reproachful telegrams, which concluded: “General Weygand’s orders must be obeyed.” The généralissime put his protest in writing, declaring that “as a result of the British retreat” the drive southward had to be abandoned. It was at this point that Churchill assigned Edward Spears the delicate task of improving relations between the two allies. Spears was half French and completely bilingual, a Conservative MP who had been a friend of Churchill’s since the Edwardian era. They had been fellow officers in World War I, in which Spears had been wounded four times. He left a striking description of Churchill at the height of the war’s first crisis. Summoned to Admiralty House in the middle of the night he found Churchill:
… sitting relaxed and rotund in an arm-chair at his desk. He offered me a cigar, looked at me a moment as if I were a lens through which he was gazing at something beyond, then the kindliest, friendliest expression spread over his face as he focused me, his face puckered in a lovable baby-like grin, then he was grave again. “I have decided,” he said, “to send you as my personal representative to Paul Reynaud. You will have the rank of a Major General. See Pug. He will brief you. The situation is very grave.”
It was more than grave. It was catastrophic. Now all France, like ancient Gaul, was divided into three parts:
In the south, below the Somme—where Weygand actually planned to make his stand—lay 90 percent of France, including Paris. It was no longer the serene France of those early spring days, however. Spears reported that the roads were choked with refugees, top-heavy wagons, and “cars with boiling radiators.” Over three hundred thousand poilus, members of military formations which no longer existed, were roaming the countryside; some, he reported, had shot their officers and were “robbing passers-by in the forests near Paris.” French officers, captured by the Germans but given their parole, had returned to their homes, seemed to be enjoying their families, and weren’t even interested in news of the fighting.
In the north, a desperate amalgam of Allied forces—more than half the BEF, the Belgians, and three French armies—was fighting for survival.
Between the two, a broadening, solidifying belt of enemy territory stretched across France from the Sedan, in the east, to Abbéville on the coast. Capturing Paris was every German’s dream, and the panzers could have turned that way.
Instead they had wheeled northward and were driving toward the Channel ports, historically England’s last line against invasion.
Churchill was aware of the danger. On the Sunday before his flight to Vincennes, Ironside had warned him that the BEF might soon be cut off from the French, in which case they could only be supplied through Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk. Now all three had been heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe the previous night. Dunkirk could not be used; ships sunk by the Nazis blocked its entrance. On Tuesday, Boulogne, directly in the path of the panzers, was reinforced by the 20th Guards Brigade and the Irish and Welsh Guards, the last available army units still in England. It was in vain; the German armored columns were irresistible; on Wednesday, while Churchill was being introduced to Weygand, evacuations were under way there. In his diary, Ironside wrote: “4 p.m. Boulogne was definitely gone…. So goes all the people in Boulogne, including the two Guards battalions. A rotten ending indeed.” He added: “Gort is very nearly surrounded…. I don’t see that we have much hope of getting the B.E.F. out.” But the following evening he noted: “The German mobile columns have definitely been halted for some reason or other.”
Although no one realized it at the time, this was one of the turning points in the war. The “Halt Order” (Haltordnung), as it came to be known, has been endlessly debated. Had the panzers continued to advance, evacuation of the BEF would have been impossible. Yet the reasons for the pause seem clear. Rundstedt needed time for the German infantry to catch up with his tanks. Moreover, after fourteen days of offensive action, the men were exhausted and their machines badly in need of repairs.
Hitler lengthened the halt. Two days of downpours had made the Flanders swamps virtually impassable for armored vehicles. General Heinz Guderian, the panzer leader, who had first opposed the halt, conceded that “a tank attack is pointless in the marshy country which has been completely soaked by the rain…. The infantry forces of this army are more suitable than tanks for fighting in this kind of country.”
Moreover, the Nazis’ chief enemy continued to be France, and they did not believe they had already defeated what was considered the best army in Europe. Their push toward Paris, they believed, would be long and bloody. They needed to refit for that. Finally, they did not know that they had trapped 400,000 French, Belgian, and British men in the north. Afterward, Luftwaffe general Albert Kesselring said: “Even 100,000 would have struck us as greatly exaggerated.”
Leaders in both Paris and London continued to debate impractical plans. On Friday, May 24, Weygand bitterly complained that “the British Army has carried out, on its own initiative, a retreat of forty kilometers towards the ports when our troops moving up from the south are gaining ground towards the north, where they were to meet their allies.” In another sharp telegram to London, Reynaud commented that the British action “has naturally compelled General Weygand to modify his arrangements” and that he has been forced to abandon “any idea” of uniting the Allied armies. His Majesty’s Government was disconcerted. Ironside wrote: “Why Gort has done this I don’t know. He has never told us what he was going to do or even when he had done it.” In his reply to Reynaud, Churchill said that “no doubt the action was forced on Lord Gort.” This was “no time for recriminations,” he said, though he conceded that Gort should have kept him informed and that he did not doubt that the French “had grounds for complaint.”
They had none. Weygand’s troops still weren’t advancing, and Gort had not retreated. However, with each passing hour the commander of the BEF realized that he would have to do something, and soon. His army—the only army Britain had—was in mortal danger, nearly encircled, trapped in a pocket seventy miles from the sea and only fifteen to twenty-five miles across. Their lines of communications had been cut. Their only allies were the Belgians and the remnants of the First French Army. The ports through which the BEF’s two hundred thousand men were supplied were either bombed out or already in enemy hands. The Tommies were down to a four-day supply of ammunition and rations. Panzers were in Gravelines, barely ten miles from Dunkirk, the BEF’s last remaining port of escape. The panzers were closing in, and the Belgians were on the verge of surrender; already their last link with General Alan Brooke’s corps, northeast of Menin, had been broken, creating a breach between which the Nazis would pour once they found it.
Of the Channel ports, only Calais and Dunkirk were still free. The army might be cut off from them at any time. In his diary Brooke wrote: “Nothing but a miracle can save the B.E.F. now, and the end cannot be far off.” The British had lost all confidence in General G. H. Billotte, the French commander in the north. Ironside, calling at Billotte’s command post on May 20, had been horrified. He wrote of him: “No plan, no thought of a plan. Ready to be slaughtered. Defeated at the head without casualties. Très fatigué and nothing doing. I lost my temper and shook Billotte by the button of his tunic. The man is completely beaten.”
John Standish, the 6th Viscount Gort of Limerick—“Jack” to his fellow generals—was not greatly admired by them. At best, the French said, he would be a good battalion commander. He lacked intellect, said the British staff officers (Gamelin’s intellect had been much admired in London, and even in Berlin). But Gort’s courage was extraordinary. As a Guards officer in the last war, he had won the Victoria Cross, three Distinguished Service Orders, and the Military Cross. He was, if anything, an overdisciplined soldier, and now he faced an excruciating decision. He had heard nothing from Weygand for four days. Ironside had brought him orders from the War Cabinet, specifically forbidding a withdrawal to the sea, telling him, instead, to attack southward. But now he knew that only annihilation awaited him there. In Berlin, Germany’s foreign minister Ribbentrop had already told the press: “The French army will be destroyed and the English on the Continent will be made prisoners of war.” Rommel wrote in his diary: “Now the hunt is up against sixty encircled British, French and Belgian divisions.”
During the afternoon of Saturday, May 25, Gort received a distress signal from Brooke: “I am convinced that the Belgian army is closing down and will have stopped fighting by this time tomorrow. This, of course, entirely exposes our left flank.” Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Adam, the army’s other corps commander, confirmed Brooke. Gort’s reserves were gone. The only British soldiers not engaged with the enemy were two divisions, the 5th and the 50th, which were awaiting orders to open the southern attack the next day. In his command post at Prémesques, he spent most of that afternoon staring at wall maps of northern France and the Channel ports. At 6:30 P.M. he canceled the offensive and dispatched the 5th Division to plug the gap on Brooke’s flank. Then he wired Eden, telling him what he had done and why he had done it.
The telegram was delayed. At 10:30 that evening, before it could arrive, Churchill independently reached the same conclusion. After consulting Reynaud, he instructed Eden to telegraph Gort: “It is clear… that it will not be possible for French to deliver attack in the south…. You are now authorized to operate towards coast forthwith in conjunction with the French and Belgian armies.” The formal evacuation order reached Prémesques the next day, Monday, May 27.
A week earlier, King Leopold had informed the British through Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes that should his troops lose contact with the French and British, “capitulation would be inevitable.” Leopold also personally warned his fellow monarch George VI of Belgium’s “imminent surrender” the same day Brooke wrote to Gort. Still, the shock was great in Paris and London when, on Tuesday afternoon, the twenty-eighth, King Leopold, without informing his allies or consulting his advisers, surrendered the entire 274,000-man Belgian army, opening a twenty-mile gap between Brooke’s corps and the coast near Nieuport.
Lord Halifax, HMG’s tall, ectomorphic foreign secretary, thought this was an excellent time to negotiate a peace with Hitler. On the twenty-seventh, Halifax—the last of the major appeasers to fall from favor (if not from office)—told the War Cabinet that “it is not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany, but of safeguarding the independence of our own Empire.” The Italian ambassador to Britain, he reported, had approached him with “fresh proposals” for a peace conference, and he thought they should seize this opportunity. Churchill replied that, yes, peace could be achieved “under a German domination of Europe,” but, no, that was a condition “we could never accept.”
Exasperated, Halifax argued that if Il Duce offered terms “which do not postulate the destruction of our independence, we should be foolish if we did not accept them.” Provided Britain’s independence were not in jeopardy, he held, it would be proper for Britain, confronted with two or three months of air raids, “to accept an offer which would save the country from avoidable disaster.” Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent under secretary in the Foreign Office and a minor appeaser, thought the prime minister’s defiant reply “too rambling and romantic and sentimental and temperamental. Old Neville still the best of the lot.” To Halifax’s horror, Churchill said that if France surrendered, Britain would go it alone. The foreign secretary persisted. The following day he dominated the War Cabinet’s afternoon meeting, proposing an Anglo-French approach to Mussolini, suggesting that he “might be persuaded to act as mediator.” Attlee replied sharply, pointing out that this would amount to asking Il Duce “to intercede to obtain peace terms for us.” Churchill, jaw outthrust, growled that it would “ruin the integrity of our fighting position in this country…. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope with France.”
As the meeting broke up, Halifax told Cadogan he was going to resign, saying, “I can’t work with Winston any longer.” That evening he wrote in his diary: “I thought Winston talked the most frightful rot…. It does drive one to despair when he works himself up into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.” However, the foreign secretary changed his mind after Cadogan, a Foreign Office mandarin of the first order, replied: “Nonsense: his rodomontades probably bore me as much as they do you, but don’t do anything silly under the stress of that.”
But patriotic ardor was stirring in England. In the 1930s, Churchill had been denounced as a “warmonger.” Now his critics were branded “defeatists.” A short service of intercession and prayer was held in Westminster Abbey; it was crowded with men who had cheered Munich only twenty months ago. Churchill wrote: “The English are loth [sic] to expose their feelings, but in my stall in the choir I could feel the pent-up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.”
Now that the war edged closer to their homes and hearths, the British public began to learn the truth. Until the final week of May, Britons had been largely optimistic. The wakening came slowly because they had been told so little. As late as May 24, the Times asked, in a headline, ARE WE REALLY AT WAR? Hotels and theaters were crowded, the story reported; idle young men cloistered around amusement parks; holidays were being observed; in London’s West End unemployed miners sang for coppers as though Britain and her empire were still at peace.
The press, aided and abetted by military censors, bore much responsibility for this tranquillity. On May 13, a Times headline announced, BEF SWEEPS ON. On Tuesday, May 14, the day after Guderian’s panzers began pouring across the Meuse, a Times analyst told readers: “In general, it may be said that the Germans have not made contact with the bulk of the French and Belgian forces.” Other newspapers followed the same line. War news was reaching Englishmen in a promiscuous rush. Vital information was there, if you knew where to look, but it was buried beneath dispatches claiming RAF victories, accounts of French troops forming for a mighty counteroffensive, denials of German communiqués, and such predictions of enemy defeats as “GERMAN MOTORISED UNITS DRIVING INTO FRANCE BELIEVED TO FACE DESTRUCTION.” Suddenly on May 22, Britons were told that the Nazis were at Abbéville, 140 miles behind the Allied lines in Belgium and heading for the Channel ports. For the next week the papers were full of contradictory stories about fighting in Flanders. Finally, on May 30, the British public were told: “ALLIES TRYING TO FIGHT WAY TO FRENCH COAST IN DIRECTION OF DUNKERQUE.” Harold Nicolson wrote Vita Sackville-West, “Oh my dear, my dearest, that we should come to this!” Stanley Baldwin’s wife wrote the Times, urging churches to fly the Cross of St. George as a sign that England was fighting for Christianity against evil. “It is a daily inspiration to myself,” she wrote, “to look out of my window and see that our parish church is bearing the Red Cross of St. George on its tower night and day.” The piety of Lady Baldwin was unsurprising. But the crisis brought the war effort some unlikely converts. Bertrand Russell wrote Kingsley Martin that he had renounced pacifism, declaring that if he were young enough to fight, he would enlist. On that desperate Tuesday when the Belgian king surrendered, George Orwell wrote in his diary: “Horrible as it is, I hope the B.E.F. is cut to pieces rather than capitulate.”
Gort, having withdrawn his 5th Division from the impossible southern adventure and flung it into the gap left by the Belgians, felt the full fury of the Nazi attack. A vanguard of 85,000 Germans, supported by reserves and, now, by refitted tanks, fell upon famed regiments: the 3rd Grenadiers, the 2nd North Staffordshire, the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, the Royal Inskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, and the Duke of Cornwall’s light infantry. They held until the 42nd and 50th Divisions could move up to the line. The battle there, between Warneton and Ypres, raged throughout the withdrawal, with very heavy losses.
The greatest sacrifice was made by the Calais garrison: the 229th Antitank Battery; battalions from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Rifle Brigade, the Royal Tank Regiment, and the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, supported by a thousand brave French soldiers. British destroyers lay off Calais, ready to save the men. Instead, Churchill decided, they must be abandoned. It was essential, he told Ironside, that they fight to the last man, holding the enemy in check; otherwise, Ironside wrote, “it would have been impossible to have used Dunkirk as a point from which to evacuate the B.E.F. and the 1st French Army,” because the vast German divisions would have reached the beach and cut them off. The “grim decision,” Ismay called it, was made on the night of May 26. Ironside, Ismay, and Eden were with the prime minister at the time.
It was Eden’s lot to telegraph this order to Brigadier C. N. Nicholson, commanding the Rifle Brigade that he must fight to the destruction of his command: “The eyes of the Empire are upon the defence of Calais, and H.M. Government are confident that you and your gallant regiments will perform an exploit worthy of the British name.” Shortly before midnight, he again wired him: “Every hour you continue to fight is of greatest help to the B.E.F…. Have greatest admiration for your splendid stand.” Churchill was uncharacteristically mute during dinner. Later he wrote, “One has to eat and drink in war, but I could not help feeling sick as we afterwards sat silent eating at the table.”
Now the two hundred thousand men of the BEF cut off in the north and the remnants of the First French Army, outnumbered three or four to one, fell back down the narrow corridor leading to the sea, fighting by day and retreating at night, with every step contested by the Germans. The 1st Coldstream Guards held the line for thirty hours before disengaging. The 2nd Gloucestershire and the 4th Royal Sussex regiments outflanked a German column. The 2nd Buffs broke the momentum of a German wheeling movement. The 1st Cameroons, reduced to forty survivors, nevertheless counterattacked and drove the enemy back across the Canal de la Lawe. Surrounded, a battalion of the Welch Fusiliers fought their way back to the Lys. Strung out between Ypres and the Warneton-Comines Canal for nine miles, the 6th Black Watch, the 13/18th Hussars, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, the 2nd North Staffordshire, and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters counterattacked, flinging back the claw of a German pincer movement. The 2nd Buffs were reduced to the strength of a weak company but blocked a penetration near Godewaersvelde.
Like all soldiers, they fought best when they had learned to hate, and the enemy they faced, which prided itself on its use of terrorism, gave them strong reasons for rage. After the SS Totenkopf division had captured a hundred men of the 2nd Royal Norfolk, many of them wounded, the SS lined their prisoners up against a barn wall and machine-gunned them, shooting or bayoneting those who still showed signs of life. Two Tommies, hidden by the bodies, crawled away to tell the tale. Alan Brooke was deeply shocked. In the first war he had fought Germans, but these were Nazis.
Late on May 26, Brooke himself narrowly escaped capture. Sleepless, he was driven from one command post to another, his driver honking his way through demoralized refugees, including the inmates from an insane asylum, who stood by the side of the road wearing inane smiles and waving at the mass of troops and refugees. Brooke commanded by word of mouth—the army’s signals communications had broken down—issuing fresh orders to commanders as the situation changed, transferring battalions to other divisions, directing Montgomery to make a dangerous night flank march across the front of the attack. Immediately after he had crossed one bridge over the canal, it blew up behind him. Near Ypres he lay under a cottage fence, having hastily abandoned his car at the approach of thirty-six Luftwaffe bombers. When he tried to take a two-hour nap in a stone hut, he was blown out of bed.
There are a thousand reasons why the withdrawal to the coast shouldn’t have worked, but it did. To be sure, the cut-off army paid a dreadful price—68,710 casualties, nearly a third of its strength—but the majority of these were wounded who would fight again. Much of the achievement may be credited to the military traditions of the Empire, which gave Britain skilled professional officers and highly disciplined regular soldiers, the grandsons of Kipling’s red-coated Mulvaneys. The very names of their regiments and battalions evoke ghosts of past glory, infantry of the line and cavalry troopers loyal to King and Country, the legacy of imperial armies that had given Britain’s soldiers a small island for their birth and the whole world for their grave, regiments in one of which, the 4th Hussars, handsome young Winston Churchill had served as a highly decorated lieutenant.
A week before the Belgian surrender, and after almost two weeks of crushing defeats on the Continent, Churchill asked Chamberlain to study “the problems which would arise if it were necessary to withdraw the BEF from France.” On Monday, May 20, staff officers went through the motions of outlining a tentative plan. Assuming that Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk would be available, low-level planners believed they could evacuate two thousand men a day. The “hazardous evacuation of very large forces” was briefly mentioned, then relegated to the bottom of the agenda; its possibility seemed very remote. That changed in less than twenty-four hours. Tuesday morning, “the emergency evacuation across the Channel of very large forces” led the agenda, and Churchill ordered steps to “assemble a large number of small vessels in readiness to proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast.” Transport officers from Harwich to Weymouth were directed to list all ships up to a thousand tons. The Admiralty appointed Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay to command the operation. It was code-named Dynamo. He was immediately given thirty-six ships, most of them cross-Channel ferries. His headquarters, hacked out of Dover’s white cliffs, overlooked the troubled waters.
By the twenty-sixth, London was in despair. At seven o’clock that evening the Admiralty, on Churchill’s instructions, sent out the message: “Operation Dynamo is to commence.” On the twenty-eighth, with the evacuation from Dunkirk under way for almost twenty-four hours, Churchill warned the House of Commons to “prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.” Privately he feared that “the whole root and core and brain of the British army” was “about to perish upon the field or be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.” The Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff informed him that, in their view, a full-scale attack on England was “imminent.” Yet, each of the three service chiefs—army, navy, and RAF—parsed the data at hand after his own fashion; none was reading the same tea leaves as the others.
The diary of the CIGS reflects Britain’s grim mood. On the twenty-third, Ironside had written, “I cannot see that we have much hope of getting any of the B.E.F. out.” Two days later he predicted, “We shall have lost all our trained soldiers by the next few days unless a miracle appears to help us.” Two days later his entry read: “The news in the morning is bad…. I met Eastwood [the commander of the 4th Division in France] on the steps of the War Office. He had come over last night and described things as very bad. He did not expect any of the B.E.F. to get off at all.” The following evening Ismay wrote, “The Prime Minister asked me how I would feel if I were told that a total of 50,000 could be saved. I replied without hesitation that I would be absolutely delighted, and Churchill did not upbraid me for pessimism.” As late as May 30, with the Luftwaffe swarming over the Dunkirk beaches, the King was told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. Ironside wrote: “Very little chance of the real B.E.F. coming off. They have now sunk three ships in Dunkirk harbour and so there is very little chance of getting any units off.”
Eight months earlier the Poles had lost all hope; the French were losing theirs; but with few exceptions the morale of Englishmen was actually rising. Blessed with that great moat between them and the Continent, they were defiant. On the afternoon of May 28, Churchill assembled the full cabinet—some twenty ministers—in his room in Parliament to tell them everything he knew about the fighting and what lay in the balance. Then he said, “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering in negotiations with That Man. And I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
To his surprise, several men jumped up, ran to his chair, shouting, and clapped him on the back. Afterward he wrote: “I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in those coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do, because they were mine also.”
Hugh Dalton, long his opponent in the House, wrote: “He was quite magnificent. [He is] the man, and the only man we have, for this hour.”
In 1940 Dunkirk was an ancient seaport; many of the buildings facing the shore dated from the sixteenth century. Before the war, its ten miles of empty sand had attracted thousands of vacationing French and Englishmen, but when Lord Gort’s gaunt, exhausted, unshaven soldiers fell back upon it in those last days of May, the Luftwaffe had transformed it into a battered ruin. All the houses had been abandoned. The only sound came from crackling, exploding fires in the city. Buoys had been blasted from the water. Sunken ships blocked entrances to the harbor, which, by all the canons of seamen, had become a shattered, useless port. The wide beaches were within range of Calais-based Krupp artillery, which never let up. Tommies were also vulnerable to shrieking, dive-bombing Stukas and strafing Messerschmitt Bf 109s that were using as their beacon a billowing column of smoke from bombed oil tanks near the west pier. These tanks were to burn throughout the crisis, tainting the air with their foul stench. It was from this cauldron that the Royal Navy, all the available merchant ships, and British yachtsmen in private boats intended to rescue a quarter-million exhausted, bleeding men.
Nor was that all. Apart from the sunken hulks and smashed docks, the harbor confronted mariners with other challenges. Fifteen-foot low tides left a long, shallow foreshore bare for a half mile to seaward, which meant that no vessel could approach closer than that. Neither could Dunkirk be approached directly from the Straits of Dover. Instead, seamen had to navigate an 800-yard-wide deepwater channel that ran parallel to the coast for many miles. The only ameliorating feature of the port, and it was a frail one, was a mole, or breakwater, that sprang in a great curve from an eleventh-century fortress and extended 1,400 yards seaward. This jetty was the East Mole. Most breakwaters are made of stone. This one was a narrow wooden structure barely wide enough to accommodate three men walking abreast. Bringing craft alongside it would be both difficult and, because of the tides, hazardous. Moreover, the East Mole had not been built to survive the stresses of berthing ships alongside it. No one knew whether it could survive the strain.
By the morning of May 26, the navy had assembled a ragtag armada of 860 vessels in Dover. Of Britain’s 160 destroyers, almost half were attached to the Home Fleet, and only forty-one were available. These had been augmented by appealing to all yacht clubs along the coast and by commandeering everything afloat in English waters. In addition, French, Belgian, and Dutch skippers had volunteered, bringing the argosy total to 900 boats. On May 26, they were anchored three-deep along the Dover quays: trawlers, river barges, schooners, minesweepers, fireboats, corvettes, hospital ships, fishing sloops, launches, paddle wheelers, smacks, coasters, lifeboats, scows, tugs, the London fire float Massey Shaw, the ferries Brighton Queen and Gracie Fields, Channel packets such as the Princess Maud, and every variety of pleasure craft. Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour was there, with him at the helm. So were the launch Count Dracula; the yacht Sundowner, piloted by Commander Charles H. Lightoller, the senior surviving officer of the Titanic; and the Yangtze gunboat Mosquito. The Earl of Craven was going to sea as third engineer on a tug. The Honorable Lionel Lambert had armed his yacht and was sailing with his chef. And Captain Sir Richard Pim of the Royal Navy, the commander of the prime minister’s map room, was commanding a Dutch schuit. Churchill looked around, demanded, “Where’s Pim?” and was elated when told.
Just crossing the Channel, forty miles wide at this point, was harrowing for amateurs. The sea was choppy, and since the outbreak of the war, lightships and lighted buoys had been blacked out, and the enemy was continually mining these waters. The navy swept three narrow lanes; vessels that strayed from them, and some did, went down. Lying off the French coast between shoals, awaiting their turn to go in, helmsmen tried desperately, in narrow waters, to take evasive action against the German aircraft, which seemed to be everywhere. Then, when they went in, or as far in as they could get, they saw the long serpentine lines of Tommies stretching over the dunes. To the crews of boats entering after sunset, weaving between the sunken hulks, the beaches seemed to be swarming with fireflies. These were the lighted cigarettes of infantrymen awaiting a ride home. Some men stood waist-deep in water for hours, praying for rescue, but though bombed and machine-gunned, none broke.
During the first day of evacuation—Monday, May 27—small craft dodged in, picked up as many men as they could, and ran them out to the destroyers and Channel ferries, which formed the backbone of the fleet. This continued throughout the nine days and nights of Dunkirk, but only eight thousand soldiers were evacuated that Monday. Clearly the little craft could not do the job alone. The beach master decided to bring the ships in and test the flimsy East Mole. It held. It wasn’t the best of moorings; at low tide, men had to jump to decks, and when a rough sea rushed against the pilings, sucking, swirling, and widening the distance to be covered, each leap became a gamble. Some Tommies lost and sank to their death. The Germans bombed the jetty again and again. One morning it took a direct hit from a low-flying bomber. Ships’ carpenters patched it. Another bomb hit the hull of the paddle wheel steamer Fenella below the waterline just after she had been boarded by six hundred troops. She sank immediately, taking them with her. Nevertheless, the mole did all that could have reasonably been asked of it.
As did the little boats. Repeatedly they ran aground; soldiers would push them off and vault aboard. Sometimes overloaded craft capsized, drowning the heavily laden Tommies. Some crewmen brought collapsible boats; soldiers tried to paddle with their gun butts; it didn’t work; they tried their luck elsewhere. Makeshift piers were put together with trucks, wreckage, and driftwood. The skipper of a minesweeper raised his bow as high as possible, came in at twelve knots, and dropped two stern anchors as he beached. Nearly three thousand men used the ship as a bridge to deeper water, where other vessels awaited them. As the Luftwaffe found more victims, oil slicks made rescue filthy work, and flames from burning ships illumined the harbor from sundown to dawn. German bombers also littered the harbor with more sunken hulks. One destroyer was hit while waiting at the mole. She caught fire and drifted out, blocking the harbor entrance until a trawler towed her aside.
Ashore, there was some concern about the French soldiers. Those on the perimeter were fighting magnificently, but idle poilus had become a problem. “French Army now a rabble,” Brooke wrote in his diary on May 29, “and complete loss of discipline. Troops dejected and surly, refusing to clear road and panicking every time German planes come over.” That, he believed, was one reason the evacuation was slow. Another was an insufficient number of small boats. He asked Gort to pressure the Admiralty. Instead Gort sent two emissaries to the prime minister: Lord Munster, his aide-de-camp, and a junior officer, John Churchill, the prime minister’s nephew. Young Churchill arrived at Admiralty House that same evening, “soaking wet,” as he later recalled, “and still in full battle kit.” Winston and Clementine, both in dressing gowns, greeted him fervently. “Johnny!” his uncle said delightedly. “I see you have come straight from battle!”
Churchill wanted to know why his nephew was so wet: “Have you come straight out of the sea?” Johnny said that he had, and would be returning immediately. Lord Munster, immaculately attired in staff dress and jackboots appropriate to the function, received less attention, though Churchill agreed to prod the Admiralty. All who recall the incident remember not the message but Churchill’s enthusiasm for the war. “We felt,” recalled General Sir Ian Jacob, “that he would have liked to be fighting on the beaches himself.”
Altogether six destroyers were sunk and twenty-six damaged during the ten days of Dunkirk. Another 112 vessels went down, including the Mosquito and the Gracie Fields, lost on her way home with 300 Tommies. At times men on boats crossing to Dover had to make their way through the floating corpses of their comrades. The progress, or lack of it, was discouraging; by the night of May 28, only about 25,000 soldiers had been evacuated, and on June 2, the heavy air attacks forced suspension of daylight action. Nevertheless, the operation continued, favored by fair weather, and now they had the hang of it. Operation Dynamo, conceived in despair, with faint hope that a small fraction of the army could be saved, was astonishing the world.
On May 28, the number of evacuees was low: 17,800. “All this day of the 28th,” Churchill wrote afterward, “the escape of the British army hung in the balance.” On May 29, however, the figure was 47,310; on May 30, 53,823; on May 31, 68,014; on June 1, 64,429; and on June 2, 26,256. That was supposed to be the end of it, but Admiral Ramsay made one last perilous attempt to lift off the gallant French rearguard, and he returned with 26,175 polius. Altogether, Dynamo had rescued 338,226 Allied soldiers, 112,000 of them French, although a greater number of French troops turned and went home, to take their chances.
Behind them they had “left their luggage,” as Churchill put it: 2,540 artillery pieces, 90,000 rifles, 11,000 machine guns, nearly 700 tanks, 6,400 anti-tank rifles, 20,000 motorcycles, 45,000 trucks and other vehicles, and vast ammunition dumps.
But the great thing, for the English public, was that the men were back. They had heard stories of the heroic rearguard action. “Then,” Mollie Panter-Downes told readers of The New Yorker on June 2, “it was learned that the first war-stained, exhausted contingent had arrived on British shores, and the relief and enthusiasm were terrific.” Churchill never much liked The New Yorker, deriding it as The New Porker (he had a moniker for everyone), but here came Panter-Downes with journalistic testimony to the heroics in England. He could not have bought more favorable press.
Still, the news added up to disaster. On June 4 Churchill told the House the story of Dunkirk. “Wars,” he told them bluntly, “are not won by evacuations” and “what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Nevertheless, he said, Dunkirk was “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by recourse, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” Britain would “outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary, if necessary alone.”
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail…. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender.
And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forward to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In his diary Jock Colville wrote: “Went down to the House to hear the P.M.’s statement on the evacuation of Dunkirk. It was a magnificent oration which obviously moved the House.” Next day the News Chronicle called the address “a speech of matchless oratory, uncompromising candour, and indomitable courage.” Harold Nicolson wrote his wife, Vita Sackville-West: “This afternoon Winston made the finest speech that I have ever heard.” She wrote back: “I wish I had heard Winston make that magnificent speech! Even repeated by the announcer it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine. I think one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress; they are never words for words’ sake.” That evening, in a broadcast to the United States, a constituency that Churchill desperately needed to reach, Edward R. Murrow, the CBS man in London, said: “He spoke the language of Shakespeare with a direct urgency which I have never before heard in that House.” Later, the historian Brian Gardner wrote of the address that it had “electrified not only his own country, but the world. With it, Churchill won the complete confidence of the British people, which he had never before enjoyed. Whatever was to happen, Churchill’s place in the national life was assured; he would never be in the wilderness again.”
Churchill also worked a challenge to Hitler into his address: “When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, ‘There are bitter weeds in England.’ There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.”
None were more bitter than Churchill.
Charles Corbin, the French ambassador, was alarmed. He called at the Foreign Office to ask what the prime minister had meant by declaring that Britain would, if it came to that, carry on alone. He was told that he had meant “exactly what he had said.” That, members of Corbin’s staff told diplomatic correspondents, was “not exactly encouraging the French to fight on against fearful odds.”
The French were getting nervous. As they saw it, the British army had bolted, leaving them to the enemy’s mercies. Of course, the evacuation would have been unnecessary if the French strategy had not been hopelessly wrong or if Weygand had not been a liar. Moreover, the original intent of the operation, as seen by Gort, Churchill, and Ironside, had been to extricate the BEF and then land it in the south, rejoining their allies. The loss of their equipment meant they had to be refitted, but Churchill intended to then send the troops back, and Reynaud, Weygand, and the French high command knew it. Even as Dunkirk wound down, Churchill had landed two fresh British divisions below the Somme. Nevertheless, he had been aware of the uneasiness across the Channel. On May 30, he had decided to convene a meeting of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre in Paris the following day. With him he would take Clement Attlee, Pug Ismay, and Sir John Dill, the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Ironside staying behind as the new commander in chief of Home Forces, to organize English defenses against the invasion threat. Spears would meet them at Villacoublay Airport.
Flying over France had become more hazardous since Churchill’s last flight to the theater. Although the Flamingo was escorted by nine Spitfires, north of Paris the sky was swarming with Nazi fighters. Churchill’s pilot detoured and they arrived late. Spears saw the hunched but resilient figure of the prime minister emerge, “obviously in grand form. He might not have had a care in the world…. Danger, the evocation of battle, invariably acted as a tonic and a stimulant to Winston Churchill.”
The Conseil met at 2:00 P.M. on May 31, in a large first-floor room, giving out on a garden, in the Ministry of War in the rue Saint-Dominique, with the conferees sitting at an immense green-baize-covered oval table, the visitors on one side and, facing them, their hosts: Reynaud, Admiral Jean Darlan; Paul Baudouin, a protégé of Reynaud’s mistress and an admirer of the defeatist Pétain; Weygand, booted and spurred; and, finally, a newcomer to the war council: eighty-four-year-old Maréchal Henri-Philippe Pétain, in mufti.
Reynaud had appointed Pétain his deputy premier, hoping to increase the public’s confidence in the government. In France the old marshal was regarded as a hero of the last war, le vainqueur de Verdun (the conqueror of Verdun). The British saw him differently. In 1917 he had suppressed a mutiny in the French army by promising his soldiers that the British and the Americans would do most of the future fighting. He was, moreover, an impassioned Anglophobe who despised democracy; the responsibility for France’s present plight, he believed, lay with the leftist Popular Front of 1935. “Now,” Ismay thought, Pétain “looked senile, uninspiring, and defeatist.”
Churchill opened by suggesting that they consider three questions: the Allied force still in Norway, the fighting in Flanders, and the strong likelihood that Mussolini would soon enter the war at Hitler’s side. First, however, he thought the French would be interested in a piece of good news. The Dunkirk evacuation was succeeding beyond all expectations: 165,000 men had been taken off, including 10,000 wounded. It was then that Weygand sounded the first dissonant note. In an aggressive, querulous voice, he interrupted to ask, “But how many French? The French are being left behind?”
The Englishmen present expected a Churchillian outburst. All the signs were there: the light had died out of his face, he was drumming his fingers on the table, and his lower lip jutted out like the prow of a dreadnought. Clearly he was angry, and with reason. Weygand had known of Operation Dynamo for six days, but had neglected to tell his commander in the north and had issued no orders authorizing French participation in the evacuations. Indeed, that was one of the reasons the prime minister had flown over. However, he controlled himself; his expression became sad; he said quietly, “We are companions in misfortune. There is nothing to be gained from recrimination over our common miseries.”
Baudouin wrote that there were “tears in his eyes,” that he was obviously moved by “the common sufferings of England and France.” Spears felt that “a stillness fell over the room.” They then proceeded with the agenda, agreeing, first, to reinforce the Allied armies in France by withdrawing their forces from Norway. Briefly they discussed fortifying a redoubt in Brittany, into which they might withdraw if France fell. The RAF would bomb Italian targets if Mussolini entered the war. At that point the French translator, misunderstanding the P.M., said it was understood that British soldiers at Dunkirk would embark before the French. Churchill interrupted him; waving his arms, he roared in his extraordinary accent: “Non! Partage bras dessous, bras dessous”—the soldiers from both countries would leave together, arm in arm.
The French wanted more RAF squadrons. Churchill pointed out that His Majesty’s Government had already given ten additional squadrons, needed for the defense of Great Britain. If they lost the rest, the Luftwaffe could, with impunity, attack “the most dangerous targets of all, the factories producing new aircraft.” It was, he said, “impossible to run further risks” with British aircraft.
What concerned him most was the flagging spirit of all Frenchmen—soldiers, civilians, and, except for Reynaud, members of the government. He could not say that there, of course, but he wanted them to know that England meant to crush Nazi Germany, whatever the cost. “I am absolutely convinced,” he said, his voice rolling with oratorical cadences, “that we have only to fight on to conquer. If Germany defeats either ally or both, she will give no mercy. We should be reduced to the status of slaves forever. Even if one of us is struck down, the other must not abandon the struggle. Should one comrade fall in battle, the other must not put down his arms until his wounded friend is on his feet again.”
Attlee endorsed every word the prime minister had said, adding: “Every Englishman knows that the very basis of civilization common to both France and Britain is at stake. The Germans kill not only men, but ideas.” Reynaud was pleased; that was the line he had been taking with his ministers. They, however, were divided. Spears thought that Baudouin had been swept away by Churchill’s fire. Not so; in his diary he wrote that he had been “deeply troubled” by Churchill’s vow and asked, “Does he consider that France must continue the struggle, cost what it may, even if it is useless? We must clear that up.”
Beaming, Churchill said merrily: “Fini l’agenda!”
But he himself was not finished. As they rose from the table, gathering in groups to discuss this or that, Churchill headed for Pétain, followed by Spears. The old man had not said a word. His voice would carry great weight with the people of France, and the P.M. thought he looked “detached and sombre, giving me the feeling that he would face a separate peace.” One of the Frenchman said that if events continued on their present course, France might have to reappraise its foreign policy, including ties to Britain, and “modify its position.” Pétain nodded. Spears told them in perfect French that such a change would result in a British blockade of French ports. Then, looking directly into Pétain’s eyes, Spears said, “That would not only mean blockade but bombardment of all French ports in German hands.” Afterward Churchill wrote, “I was glad to have this said. I sang my usual song: we would fight on whatever happened or whoever fell out.”
No one had mentioned the Anglo-French accord signed by both governments nine weeks earlier—they had solemnly agreed to “neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement.” In March, when the pledge was signed, the strength of the opposing forces on the Western Front had been roughly equal, but by May 31, when the Conseil was meeting in Paris, the Nazi edge was enormous. The Germans had taken almost 500,000 prisoners at a cost of 60,000 casualties. Unaccountably, Weygand issued no orders to move the seventeen divisions manning the Maginot Line. As a consequence he had to face the coming onslaught with forty-nine divisions. The Germans attacked with 130 infantry and ten panzer divisions—almost three thousand tanks.
On June 5 the Germans launched their offensive against the Somme. The French, fighting desperately, held their line for two days and thwarted a pincer movement toward Creil from Amiens and Péronne, but on June 7, the 7th Panzer Division, led by Erwin Rommel, broke through toward Rouen, and on Sunday, June 9, they were over the Seine. That day they lunged across the Aisne, took Dieppe and Compiègne; then tanks drove through the breach toward Châlons-sur-Marne before turning eastward toward the Swiss frontier, to cut off the huge garrison in le Maginot. Rommel drove his tanks so far and so fast that the English called the 7th Panzers the Ghost Division. Nobody—including the German high command—knew where it was until it appeared someplace where it was not expected.
On Monday, June 10, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Franklin Roosevelt declared in a radio broadcast, “The hand that held the dagger has plunged it into the back of its neighbor.” Churchill merely muttered, “People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii in the future.” He ordered that all male Italian citizens be rounded up and interned. A few hours after Mussolini’s declaration of war, mobs smashed the windows of Soho’s spaghetti joints, but in London, unlike in Rome, there were no organized demonstrations against the new enemy. Mussolini’s dagger was very small. Almost immediately the French hurled back Il Duce’s badly led, dreadfully equipped army. Churchill wired Roosevelt: “If we go down Hitler has a very good chance of conquering the world.” In that case, small dagger or no, Mussolini would get his share.
That night, as German armies advanced toward Paris, the prime minister decided to fly to Paris once more, hoping to persuade the French to defend their capital. Then a message arrived, telling him the government was leaving it. “What the hell,” he growled, fuming until a second telegram told him they could meet at Briare, on the Loire, eighty miles south of Paris. Tuesday morning—the eleventh—he took off with Ismay, Eden, and Spears, escorted by twelve Hawker Hurricanes. He wanted to fly over the battlefields, but the pilot told him that the flight plan made that impossible; he and the Hurricanes were following precise instructions from the Air Ministry.
Briare airfield was deserted. Churchill, massive in black, leaning on his stick, looked around, beaming, as though this airstrip were the place he had sought all his life and finally found. Several cars drove up, the first driven by a sullen colonel “who, from his expression,” Spears wrote, “might have been welcoming poor relatives at a funeral procession.” The ambiance was equally unpleasant when they arrived at the red-brick Château du Muguet. Spears felt that “our presence was not really desired.”
They were shown into a large dining room. There the Frenchmen—with one exception, Charles de Gaulle, whom Reynaud had made a general, serving as the premier’s under secretary of state for defense and war—sat with hung heads, staring at the table, like prisoners awaiting sentencing. To Ismay, Pétain seemed “more woebegone than ever,” while Weygand appeared “to have abandoned all hope.”
Churchill tried to cheer them up by revealing that a Canadian division would be landed in France that night, joining the three British divisions already in the line, and another division would arrive within nine days. They remained glum. Weygand said that the army’s plight was hopeless. The Allies had lost thirty-five divisions—over half a million soldiers. He said: “There is nothing to prevent the enemy reaching Paris. We are fighting on our last line and it has been breached. I am helpless. I cannot intervene, for I have no reserves. It was the break-up of the army (“C’est la dislocation”).Then he went too far. He was asked what would happen if another breach were made and replied: “No further military action will be possible.” Eden noted that Reynaud immediately intervened sharply: “That would be a political decision, Monsieur le Général.” Weygand bowed and said, “Certainly,” but then he struck again, blaming “those responsible”—the French politicians—“for entering the war with no conception of Nazi power.”
Churchill couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe that France was in extremis. In the beginning he had hunched over the table, his face flushed, following the généralissime’s every word, but at the end he looked away, said nothing, stared at the ceiling, ignoring Weygand but glancing quizzically at de Gaulle several times. He asked to see his old friend General Georges. Georges appeared and confirmed everything Weygand had said. Even as they spoke, he said, the enemy was only sixty miles away. The P.M., though visibly shaken, sought to revive the willpower of the French. His mouth was working; he searched for the words, found them, and spoke warmly and deeply. He wished, he said, to express his admiration for the gallant resistance of the French and Britain’s deep sorrow that her contribution had been so slight. “Every Englishman,” he told them, “is profoundly grieved that further military help cannot be given to France in this grave hour.” Had the BEF not returned from Dunkirk naked, nine divisions of Britons would now be fighting alongside the poilus. As it was, England was sending all she had left, leaving her island virtually defenseless. Then he reminded them of 1918, when the Allies had been so close to defeat, and said that might be true now; all intelligence reports agreed that the Germans were exhausted, at the end of their tether. The cloud might lift in forty-eight hours. Weygand broke in to say they hadn’t that much time; they were down to “the last quarter of an hour.”
Churchill wouldn’t quit. He wanted to set the French afire with the flame of Britain’s defiance. His words, Spears wrote, “came in torrents, French and English phrases tumbling over each other like waves rushing for the shore when driven by a storm. No matter what happened, he told them, England would fight—on and on and on, toujours, all the time, everywhere, partout, pas de grâce, no mercy. Puis la victoire!” He offered all the British support he could muster, including troops on their way from Britain’s Dominions and colonies, and suggested alternatives to a French defeat, raising again the possibility of a Breton redoubt, into which the troops could withdraw, supplied by the Royal Navy. He wanted Weygand’s army to fight in Paris, telling them how a great city, if valiantly defended, could absorb immense enemy armies. He suggested that the French government retreat to North Africa. If all else failed, he proposed guerrilla warfare.
The French were hostile, Weygand scornful, and Pétain, who had sat silent until now, incredulous, mocking, and, finally, angry. The old maréchal dismissed the prime minister’s vow that the British would fight on alone as absurd: “Since France cannot continue the struggle, wisdom dictates that England should seek peace, for certainly she cannot carry on alone.” To make Paris “a city of ruins,” he said, would not affect the issue. As for guerrillas, he said: “That would mean the destruction of the country.”
The most protracted discussion arose from the French demand that every plane left in the Royal Air Force be committed to the battle now raging. The appeal was unanimous: Pétain, Weygand, Georges, and Reynaud agreed that the RAF was their last hope, and that it could turn back the German tide. If the aircraft were withheld, Reynaud predicted, “Without doubt history will say that the battle of France was lost for lack of planes.” “Here,” said Weygand, “is the decisive point. Now is the decisive moment. The British ought not to keep a single fighter in England. They should all be sent to France.” Ismay, Eden, and Spears were holding their breaths. Air Chief Marshal Dowding, chief of Britain’s Fighter Command, had warned the prime minister and the War Cabinet that if any more fighter squadrons were sent to France, he could not guarantee the defense of England, and they were afraid that the prime minister’s generosity, his love of France, his impulsiveness, and his innate optimism would prompt him to make a disastrous commitment of further air support.
He didn’t. According to Ismay, after a long pause he said very slowly, “This is not the decisive point. This is not the decisive moment. The decisive moment will come when Hitler hurls his Luftwaffe against Britain. If we can keep command of the air over our own island—that is all I ask—we will win it all back for you.”
Reynaud, Ismay noted, was “obviously moved.” The premier asked, “If we capitulate, all the great might of Germany will be concentrated upon invading England. And then what will you do?” Thrusting his jaw forward, the P.M. replied that he hadn’t thought about it carefully, but that broadly speaking, he would propose to drown as many of them as possible and then to “frapper sur la tête” (“hit on the head”) any of them who managed to crawl ashore.”
It is odd that none of the Englishmen raised the question of the French air force. France had one, commanded by General Joseph Vuillemin, a daring pilot in the last war but now obese and incompetent. Vuillemin had angered the British by commenting that RAF support in the opening days of the German offense had arrived “tardily and in insufficient numbers.” In fact, Britain had sent a hundred bombers, all the RAF had then, to bomb the Meuse bridges and had lost forty-five of them. On May 28 Vuillemin had also said the RAF had three hundred planes in England and had sent only thirty to France—this at a time when eight to ten frontline British squadrons—96 to 120 aircraft—were in action every day supporting the French. Indeed, during the fall of France all but ten of the RAF’s fifty-three fighter squadrons saw action over France and the Low Countries, and of those ten, three were night fighters, two were in Norway, and one was nonoperational.
During the fall of France the British lost 959 aircraft and nearly 300 pilots. The French lost 560 planes, 235 of them destroyed on the ground. The performance of the French air force was baffling, even to its leaders and even after the war. At the outset, Vuillemin had more than 3,287 planes. (The Germans had 2,670.) Yet only a third of French aircraft saw action. Furthermore, between May 10 and June 12, French factories delivered 1,131 new airplanes, 688 of them fighters. Indeed, when France dropped out of the war, Vuillemin found that he actually had more first-line aircraft than he had had when the great Nazi offensive began. “What is this mystery about our planes?” General Gamelin asked afterward, testifying before a Parliamentary Investigating Committee. “Why out of 2,000 fighters on hand at the beginning of May 1940 were fewer than 500 used on the Northeast Front? I humbly confess to you that I do not know.” Commenting on the confusing figures, he said, “We have a right to be astonished.” Certainly it is astonishing that the généralissime was astonished.
At 10:00 P.M. the conferees dined. Weygand invited de Gaulle to sit beside him and flushed when the new general chose the chair beside Churchill instead. Already there was an unspoken bond between Churchill and Reynaud’s protégé. The formation of that bond was probably the only accomplishment of the Briare meeting. For Churchill the last straw came at bedtime. Before retiring, the prime minister and the premier had coffee and brandy together. Reynaud said Weygand had told him, “In three weeks Britain would have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Then Reynaud revealed that Pétain had told him that “it will be necessary to seek an armistice.” Once the “vainqueur de Verdun” had been considered the guardian of French honor. Now, the premier said, the marshal “has written a paper on the subject which he wishes me to read. He has not handed it to me yet. He is still ashamed to do it.” Churchill, appalled, thought Pétain should have been even more ashamed to have supported, “even tacitly, Weygand’s demand for our last twenty-five squadrons of fighters when he has made up his mind that all is lost and that France should give in.”
Inspector Thompson, who prepared the prime minister’s bath on these trips, had been billeted in another building and was without transportation. Thus Churchill awoke alone the next morning. Two French officers were finishing their café au lait in the conference room, which was the château’s dining room, when a big double door burst open, confronting them with what one later described as “an apparition resembling an angry Japanese genie”—an irate, plump Churchill with sparse, mussed hair, dressed in a flowing crimson dressing gown belted with silk, and angrily demanding: “Uh ay ma bain [where’s my bath]?”
His frustration mounted after a telephone call from a furious air marshal, Sir Arthur Barratt, stationed in Salon. Barratt reported that local authorities, fearful of reprisals, had not permitted RAF bombers to take off for targets in Italy. They had dragged farm carts on the runway, forcing him to cancel the mission. Others in the British party thought that was the last straw. However, the P.M. did not reproach his hosts. Tormented by the martyrdom of the French and by England’s niggardly contribution to the Allied cause here, he disregarded the incident.
The next morning, the twelfth, after Churchill had exacted a promise from Admiral Darlan never to surrender the French fleet, the British party left. Near tragedy brushed them on the way home. Unescorted by Hurricanes—an overcast sky had grounded them—they were flying over Le Havre when the sky cleared and the pilot saw two Heinkel bombers below, firing at fishing boats. The unarmed Flamingo dived to a hundred feet above the sea and raced for home. According to Inspector Thompson, one of the Nazi fighters fired a burst at them, but then they were gone, and the prime minister landed safely at Hendon.
In parting, Churchill had told Reynaud that in the event of any “change in the situation,” the French premier must let His Majesty’s Government know “at once” so that the British could return “at any convenient spot” to discuss the situation before the French took any irrevocable step “which would govern their action in the second phase of the war.” Clearly England’s allies were at the end of their tether. Late that evening, HMG learned that the British 51st Division had surrendered to the Germans in the fishing port of St-Valéry-en-Caux, a loss of more than 12,000 men. In his diary Jock Colville wrote: “Speaking of the surrender of the 51st Division, W. said it was the most ‘brutal disaster’ we had yet suffered.”
Early on the thirteenth, when Churchill was donning his sleeping smock, Reynaud phoned. The connection was bad. Eventually Colville got through to one of the premier’s aides. The message was grim: the premier and his advisers had moved from Briare to Tours; he wanted Churchill to meet him at the Préfecture there that same afternoon. This would be the P.M.’s fifth flight to France in less than four weeks. At 11:00 A.M. he and his party gathered at Hendon—Ismay, Eden, Beaverbrook, Halifax, and Cadogan. Escorted by eight Spitfires, the Flamingo detoured around the Channel Islands and entered French air space over Saint-Malo.
Lashed by a thunderstorm, they landed on an airstrip pitted with bomb craters. The field was deserted. No one was there to meet them. They taxied around the craters, looking for someone, and found a group of French airmen lounging outside a hangar. Churchill disembarked and told them, in his appalling French, that his name was Churchill, that he was the prime minister of Great Britain, and that he would be grateful if they could provide him with “une voiture” to carry him and his small staff to the town’s Préfecture de Police. The airmen loaned them a small touring car, into which they crammed themselves with great difficulty and much discomfort. Halifax’s long legs were a problem; so was the P.M.’s bulk. No one at the Préfecture knew who they were or had time for them. Luckily an officer appeared, recognized them, and led them to a small restaurant, where they lunched on cold chicken, cheese, and Vouvray wine.
It was there that they were found by Paul Baudouin. In what Churchill called “his soft, silky manner,” Baudouin lectured them on the hopelessness of French resistance. No one knew when Reynaud would appear, or even where he was. At length the premier arrived, followed by General Spears and Sir Ronald Campbell, the British ambassador. The meeting—destined to be the last of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre—was to be held in the Préfet’s study, a small, shabby room looking out on an unkempt garden. The study was furnished with a desk, behind which Reynaud presided, and assorted unmatched chairs. Churchill took a leather chair and eyed his French hosts warily. He was confronting France’s split personality. Reynaud—still backed by a majority of the Chamber and the Senate—stood for a never-say-die, death-before-dishonor last stand against Nazi barbarism, with which Churchill agreed. Baudouin, Churchill knew, represented the defeatists; in his final report to Whitehall, Campbell would describe Baudouin as a man whose “dominating motives were fear and the desire to stand in well with the conqueror after the inevitable defeat.” Even now Churchill had not grasped how eager for peace such men were. U.S. ambassador to France William Bullitt, no admirer of the British, told Washington that “to have as many companions in misery as possible, they hoped England would be rapidly and completely defeated by Germany and [that] the Italians would suffer the same fate.” As for their own country, Bullitt reported, they hoped France would become “Hitler’s favorite province.”
Reynaud told the British that Weygand had declared Paris an open city; panzers were in Reims; Nazi troops were below the Seine and the Marne. It was too late to withdraw into a rédout Breton. He himself wanted to “retreat and carry on, but the people would remain; France would cease to exist.” Therefore the alternative was “armistice or peace.” He asked what the British position would be “should the worst come” and raised the issue of the pledge—made at France’s insistence and signed by him—that neither ally would made a separate peace. The French wanted to be left off the hook. They had, he said, “already sacrificed everything in the common cause,” had “nothing left,” and would be shocked if the English failed to understand that they were “physically incapable of carrying on.” Would Britain face the hard facts now confronting France?
Spears quietly pointed out that capitulation was not the only alternative to war. Norway had not surrendered; neither had Holland. In the meantime, Churchill scowled, weighing his words. Britain, he replied at last, knew what France had endured and was still suffering. If the BEF had not been cut off in the north, they would be fighting beside the French now. They could not be there “owing to our having accepted the strategy of the army in the north.” The other Englishmen sat up. They had long hoped he would say that. The reason for the present crisis was not a lack of fighter planes. It was GHQ’s decision to ignore the Ardennes threat and send the best Allied troops into Belgium. The British had not yet “felt the German lash” but knew its force, the prime minister rasped. “England will fight on. She has not and will not alter her resolve: no terms, no surrender.” He hoped France would carry on, fighting south of Paris and, if it came to that, in North Africa. Time was of the essence. It would not be “limitless: a pledge from the United States would make it quite short.” A “firm promise from America,” he said, “would introduce a tremendous new factor for France.”
He was grasping at straws. Churchill knew that Roosevelt’s hands were tied by the U.S. Constitution. As well, if Roosevelt announced his intention to seek an unprecedented third term in office, he surely would not do so on an interventionist platform. Indeed, Roosevelt made no announcement that June, telling Americans only that he would abide by the decision of the July Democratic convention. The P.M. also knew that Washington then had no arms to give. So did Reynaud. Although unschooled in American politics, the premier had served as France’s ministre de finance for the first six months of the war, had bought some arms from the United States, and knew how little matériel was there. Nevertheless he accepted the possibility of American intervention. It was a delusion. Churchill was wrong to have encouraged it, though much of the blame was Ambassador Bullitt’s. Alistair Horne points out that “through him [Bullitt] the French government was led to expect far greater aid than could possibly have been forthcoming at that time.”
Briefly stirred, the premier agreed to appeal to Roosevelt. Nevertheless he again asked that Britain agree to “a separate peace.” The prime minister replied that although Britain would not “waste time in reproaches and recriminations,” that was “a very different thing from becoming a consenting party to a peace made in contravention of the agreement so recently concluded.” Then he reported that the Royal Navy was fast approaching a tight blockade of the Continent, which could lead to famine, from which an occupied France could not be spared. The French could not withdraw from the war and remain on good terms with the British. Reynaud, disturbed, darkly remarked: “This might result in a new and very grave situation in Europe.”
They had reached an impasse. Spears scribbled a note to Churchill suggesting a pause. Churchill told Reynaud he must confer with his colleagues “dans le jardin [in the garden].” The Englishmen withdrew to pace around the garden, “a hideous rectangle,” in Spears’s words, surrounded by a muddy path. After twenty minutes Beaverbrook spoke up: “There is nothing to do but repeat what you have said, Winston. Telegraph to Roosevelt and await the answer.” He added: “We are doing no good here”; therefore, “Let’s get along home.”
And so they did. Everything now depended upon the reply from Washington. Reynaud, who had been joined by Charles de Gaulle, seemed confident that the Americans would save his country. As they prepared to leave, Churchill noted that among the Allied prisoners in France were 400 Luftwaffe pilots. He asked that they be sent to England, and the premier immediately agreed. As the P.M. passed de Gaulle, he said in a low tone, “L’homme du destin [the man of destiny].” The general remained impassive, but he understood: The French troops who had escaped from Dunkirk to Britain formed an army in waiting, but were without a leader. Large French forces in Brittany, who might fight on, likewise were in need of leadership. “There is apparently a young French general named de Gaulle,” Colville told his diary the day before, “of whom Winston thinks a great deal.” He did, and his statement to de Gaulle amounted to both a challenge and a promise of support were de Gaulle to lead a resistance in Brittany. On some level everyone knew that the alliance was finished, and it was in keeping with its last five ragged weeks that it should end in a grotesque scene. Outside the Préfecture, the Comtesse de Portes accosted Churchill, crying: “Mr. Churchill, my country is bleeding to death. I have a story to tell and you must hear me. You must hear my side of it. You must!” He ignored her and entered his car. Later he remarked: “She had comfort to give him. I had none.”
Excerpted from The Last Lion by William Manchester Copyright © 2012 by William Manchester. Excerpted by permission.
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