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The bombers came early that evening. The warning sirens heralded a night of relentless torment, unusual even by the standards of Londoners. Winant, the American Ambassador, was with Churchill in the Cabinet Room of Number Ten. Both men tried to ignore the growing signs of advancing chaos, but eventually a great sigh escaped from Churchill.
"We must go. If I stay, others must stay. And I have promised Mrs. Churchill."
They both placed helmets on their heads and made their way out of the front door of the soot-streaked building, past tangles of barbed wire and sandbag pillboxes, until they came to the doorway that led to the underground complex of the Cabinet War Rooms. Here, buried beneath a three-foot thick concrete slab that had been reinforced with steel rods and tram tracks, the outside world ceased to exist. The air tasted of oil, the artificial light lent skin a pale and corpse-like hue, the noise of the ventilation system was constant and in the corner of the eye there always seemed to be the scurrying of rats.
"Forgive me, Gil, but I am forced to involve you in a childish deception. In order to calm her, I was forced to promise Mrs. Churchill that I would retire here as soon as the bombing started. I have done so. The bargain is honored, my word is redeemed." He forced himself to his feet. "And now we can go upstairs.
They emerged onto the roof of the Air Ministry. An observation post had been built out of sandbags and here they took shelter, gazing in awe at the power of the events unfolding around them.
Great pillars of fire stretched up from the searchlights, punching holes in the roof of the night sky. In the distance a single glowing ball was trailing smoke across the horizon, like a comet come to earth. Winant barely had time to wonder whether the crew had made it out before his eye was dragged away by the sights of other men dying out there, and women and children, too.
The American was watching London being tortured to death. And he knew this had happened most nights for months.
Churchill said something, but Winant couldn't hear; he moved closer. He could see tears trickling down his cheeks. Then he made out the words.
"When will it all end?"