Authors: Erik Larson
HURCHILL, SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD,
awoke that morning, May 10, to the grim news from Europe. The details were terrifying in themselves, but it was the juxtaposition between how Mary had spent her night and what had happened across the English Channel that made it all the more shocking.
Mary was the youngest of Churchill’s four children; a fifth child, a daughter named Marigold, the family’s beloved “Duckadilly,” had died of septicemia in August 1921, at two years and nine months of age. Both parents were present at her death, a moment that drew from Clementine, as Churchill later told Mary, “
a succession of wild shrieks, like an animal in mortal pain.”
Mary’s eldest sister, Diana, thirty, was married to Duncan Sandys (pronounced Sands), who served as Churchill’s “special liaison” to Air Raid Precautions (ARP), the civil defense division of the Home Office. They had three children. The second sister, Sarah, twenty-five, so stubborn that as a child she was nicknamed “Mule,” was an actress who, to Churchill’s displeasure, had married an Austrian entertainer named Vic Oliver, sixteen years her senior and twice married before he met her. They had no children. The fourth child was Randolph, nearly twenty-nine, who a year earlier had married Pamela Digby, now twenty years old and pregnant with their first child.
Mary was pretty, buoyant, and spirited, described by one observer as “
very effervescent.” She approached the world with the unabashed enthusiasm of a spring lamb, a guilelessness that a young American visitor, Kathy Harriman, found cloying. “
She’s a very intelligent girl,” Harriman wrote, “but so naive that it hurts. She says such frank things; then people laugh at her, make fun of her, and being super-sensitive, she takes it all to heart.” At her birth, Mary’s mother, Clementine, had nicknamed her “
Mary the mouse.”
While Hitler had been inflicting death and trauma on untold millions in the Low Countries, Mary had been out with friends having the time of her life. The evening began with a dinner party for her close friend Judy—Judith Venetia Montagu—a cousin, also seventeen, daughter of the late Edwin Samuel Montagu, former secretary of state for India, and his wife, Venetia Stanley. Theirs had been a marriage steeped in drama and speculation: Venetia married Montagu after carrying on a three-year affair with former prime minister H. H. Asquith, thirty-five years her senior. Whether Venetia and Asquith had ever had a physical relationship remained for all but them an unresolved question, although if word volume alone were a measure of romantic intensity, Asquith was a man lost irreclaimably to love. Over the three years of their affair he wrote at least 560 letters to Venetia, composing some during cabinet meetings, a penchant Churchill called “
England’s greatest security risk.” Her surprise engagement to Montagu crushed Asquith. “
No hell could be so bad,” he wrote.
A number of other young men and women also attended Judy Montagu’s dinner, all members of London’s bright set, the offspring of Britain’s gentry, who dined and danced and drank champagne at the city’s popular nightclubs. The war did not put an end to their revelry, though it injected a somber note. Many of the men had joined some branch of the military services, the RAF being perhaps the most romantic, or were ensconced in military schools like Sandhurst and Pirbright. Some had fought in Norway, and others were now abroad with the British Expeditionary Force. Many of the girls in Mary’s group joined the Women’s Voluntary Service, which helped resettle evacuees, operated rest centers, and provided emergency food, but also did such varied tasks as spinning dogs’ hair into yarn for use in making clothing. Other young women were training to be nurses; some took shadowy posts within the Foreign Office, where, as Mary put it, they pursued “activities not to be defined.” But fun was fun, and despite the gathering darkness, Mary and her friends danced, Mary armed with the
5 ($20) allowance Churchill gave to her on the first of each month. “
London social life was lively,” Mary wrote in a memoir. “Despite the blackout, theaters were full, there were plenty of nightclubs for late dancing after restaurants closed, and many people still gave dinner parties, often organized round a son on leave.”
A favorite locale for Mary and her group of friends was the Players’ Theatre, near Covent Garden, where they sat at tables and watched an ensemble of actors, including Peter Ustinov, perform old music-hall songs. They stayed until the theater closed, at two
, then walked home through blacked-out streets. She adored the beauty and mystery conjured on nights when the moon was full: “
Emerging from streets deep in shadow like dark valleys into the great expanse of Trafalgar Square flooded with moonlight, the classical symmetry of St Martin-in-the-Fields etched in the background and Nelson’s Column soaring away up into the night above his guardian lions so formidable and black—it was a sight I shall never forget.”
Among the men at Judy Montagu’s dinner was a young army major named Mark Howard, whom Mary judged to be handsome and debonair, and whom she “
rather fancied.” Fated to die in action in four years’ time, Howard was a major with the Coldstream Guards, the oldest continuously serving regiment in Britain’s regular army. Though an active combat unit, its duties included helping guard Buckingham Palace.
After dinner, Mary, Mark, and their friends went to the famed Savoy Hotel to dance, then moved on to a nightclub favored by London’s well-off young men and women, the 400 Club, known as “the night-time headquarters of Society.” Situated in a cellar in Leicester Square, the club stayed open until dawn, as guests waltzed and fox-trotted to the music of an eighteen-piece orchestra. “
Danced almost exclusively with Mark,” Mary wrote in her diary. “V. nice! Home and bed 4
That morning, Friday, May 10, she learned of Hitler’s lightning attacks in Europe. In her diary she wrote, “
While Mark & I were dancing gaily & so unheedingly this morning—in the cold grey dawn Germany swooped on 2 more innocent countries—Holland & Belgium. The bestiality of the attack is inconceivable.”
She went to her school, Queen’s College, on Harley Street, where, as a part-time “day girl,” she studied French, English literature, and history. “
A cloud of uncertainty & doubt hung over us all day,” she noted. “What would happen to the govt?”
She soon got the answer. In the afternoon, as she customarily did on Fridays, she traveled to the Churchill family estate, Chartwell, about twenty-five miles southeast of London. She had grown up here, raising a menagerie of animals, some of which she sought to sell through an enterprise she named “
The Happy Zoo.” The house was closed for the war, save for Churchill’s study, but a cottage on the grounds remained open, and was now occupied by Mary’s beloved former nanny, Maryott Whyte, Clementine’s first cousin, known variously within the family as Moppet or Nana.
It was a warm, summery evening. Mary sat on the cottage steps in the blue dusk—“the gloaming,” she called it—and listened to a radio playing within. Around nine o’clock, just before the regular BBC news broadcast, Chamberlain came on and made a brief speech, in which he stated that he had resigned, and that Churchill was now prime minister.
Mary was thrilled. Many others were not.
OR AT LEAST ONE
member of Mary’s set who was also present that night at the Savoy and the 400 Club, the appointment was troubling, in terms of both how it would affect the nation and the war, and how it was likely to affect his own life.
Until Saturday morning, May 11, John “Jock” Colville had served as an assistant private secretary to Neville Chamberlain, but now he found himself assigned to Churchill. Given the demands of the job, he faced the prospect of practically living with the man at No. 10 Downing Street. Mary’s view of Jock was ambivalent, almost wary: “
I suspected him—rightly, on both counts!—of being a ‘Chamberlainite’ and a ‘Municheer.’ ” He, in turn, was less than enthralled with her: “
I thought the Churchill girl rather supercilious.”
The job of private secretary was a prestigious one. Colville joined four other newly assigned men who together composed Churchill’s “Private Office” and served almost as his deputies, while a cadre of other secretaries and typists managed his dictation and routine clerical tasks. Colville’s heritage seemed to predetermine his posting to No. 10. His father, George Charles Colville, was a barrister, and his mother, Lady Cynthia Crewe-Milnes, a courtier, woman of the bedchamber to Mary, the queen mother. She also served as a social worker ministering to the poor in East London and now and then brought Colville along so that he could see the other side of English life. At the age of twelve, Colville became a page of honor to King George V, a ceremonial post that obliged him to appear at Buckingham Palace three times a year, bedecked in knee breeches, lace cuffs, a royal blue cape, and a three-cornered hat with red feathers.
Though only twenty-five, Colville looked older, an effect attributable both to the funereal manner in which he was compelled to dress and to his dark eyebrows and impassive face. Together these conveyed a dour censoriousness, though in fact—as would become apparent in a covertly kept diary of his days at 10 Downing—he was a precise observer of human behavior who wrote with grace and had a deep appreciation for the ambient beauty in the world at large. He had two older brothers, the eldest, David, in the navy, the other, Philip, an army major serving in France with the British Expeditionary Force, for whom Jock felt great anxiety.
Colville had been schooled in all the right places; this was important among Britain’s upper echelons, for whom one’s school served as a kind of regimental flag. He went to Harrow for the British equivalent of high school and captained its fencing team, then moved on to Trinity College, Cambridge. Harrow in particular had an outsized influence on the fates of young men of Britain’s uppermost classes, as evident in the roster of “Old Harrovians,” which included seven prime ministers, among them Churchill, a lackluster student said by a staff member to have exhibited “phenomenal slovenliness.” (The ranks of later Harrovians include actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Cary Elwes, of
fame, and an ornithologist named James Bond.) Colville learned German and burnished his skills during two stays in Germany, first in 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and a second time in 1937, when Hitler was asserting full control. At first Colville found the enthusiasm of the German populace infectious, but over time he grew uneasy. He witnessed a book burning in Baden-Baden and later attended one of Hitler’s speeches. “I had never before, and have never since, seen an exhibition of mass-hysteria so universal in its scope,” he wrote. That same year he joined the Foreign Office in its diplomatic service division, which supplied 10 Downing with its private secretaries. Two years later, he found himself working for Chamberlain, by then engulfed in conflict over his failed Munich Agreement. Churchill, one of Chamberlain’s foremost critics, called the agreement “a total and unmitigated defeat.”
Colville liked and respected Chamberlain, and feared what might happen now that Churchill was in power. He saw only chaos ahead. Like many others in Whitehall, he considered Churchill to be capricious and meddlesome, inclined toward dynamic action in every direction at once. But the public adored him. Colville, in his diary, blamed Hitler for this surge in popularity, writing, “
One of Hitler’s cleverest moves has been to make Winston Public Enemy Number One, because this fact has helped to make him Public Hero Number One at home and in the U.S.A.”
To Colville, it seemed as though a miasma of dismay settled over Whitehall as the potential consequences of Churchill’s appointment began to register. “
He may, of course, be the man of drive and energy the country believes him to be and he may be able to speed up our creaking military and industrial machinery,” Colville wrote. “But it is a terrible risk, it involves the danger of rash and spectacular exploits, and I cannot help fearing that this country may be maneuvered into the most dangerous position it has ever been in.”
Colville harbored a quiet wish that Churchill’s tenure would be short. “
There seems to be some inclination to believe that N.C.”—Neville Chamberlain—“will be back before long,” he confided in his diary.
One thing seemed certain, however: Colville’s posting with Churchill would provide ample material for the diary, which he had begun keeping eight months earlier, just after the war began. Only later did it occur to him that doing so was very likely a grave violation of laws governing national security. As a fellow private secretary put it later: “
I am filled with amazement at the risks Jock was running in the matter of security, for which he should have been sacked on the spot if he had been caught.”
OLVILLE’S DAY-AFTER SKEPTICISM WAS
echoed throughout Whitehall. King George VI told his own diary, “
I cannot yet think of Winston as P.M.” The king encountered Lord Halifax on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, through which Halifax had royal permission to walk in his commute from his home in Euston Square to the Foreign Office. “I met Halifax in the garden,” the king wrote, “& I told him I was sorry not to have him as P.M.”
Halifax, though newly reappointed as foreign secretary, was skeptical of Churchill and the wild energy he seemed likely to bring to 10 Downing. On Saturday, May 11, the day after Churchill’s appointment, Halifax wrote to his own son, “
I hope Winston won’t lead us into anything rash.”
Halifax—whose nickname for Churchill was “Pooh,” after the A. A. Milne character Winnie-the-Pooh—grumbled that Churchill’s new cabinet appointees lacked intellectual heft. Halifax likened them all to “gangsters,” the chief gangster, in his view, being Churchill. “
I have seldom met anybody with stranger gaps of knowledge, or whose mind worked in greater jerks,” Halifax wrote in his diary that Saturday. “Will it be possible to make it work in orderly fashion? On this much depends.”