Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain

Overview

Sixty years ago, Europe lay at the feet of Adolf Hitler. Standing between Hitler and world domination was the just-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill...and a few hundred pilots in the Royal Air Force's Fighter Command. Defeat seemed inevitable. Instead, a legend was born.

Taking its readers on a breathtaking journey from open lifeboats in North Atlantic gales to the cockpits of burning fighter planes, Finest Hour re-creates the tensions and uncertainties of the events of...

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Overview

Sixty years ago, Europe lay at the feet of Adolf Hitler. Standing between Hitler and world domination was the just-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill...and a few hundred pilots in the Royal Air Force's Fighter Command. Defeat seemed inevitable. Instead, a legend was born.

Taking its readers on a breathtaking journey from open lifeboats in North Atlantic gales to the cockpits of burning fighter planes, Finest Hour re-creates the tensions and uncertainties of the events of 1940 -- months when the fate of the world truly hung in the balance. It is a powerful account, told through the voices, diaries, letters, and memoirs of the men and women who lived and loved, fought and died, during that terrible yet ultimately triumphant year. The personal stories of these soldiers and airmen, diplomats and politicians, journalists and spies, are combined with a fresh and often controversial account of the swirling political intrigues and betrayals of the period.

A testament to a year when a nation's darkest hour became its finest, Finest Hour is a singular achievement and an indispensable contribution to the literature of World War II.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Terry W. Hartle The Christian Science Monitor Clayton and Craig make the story of this decisive engagement come alive.

The Sunday Times (London) In the words of the ordinary people caught up in the war...[Finest Hour] is told with an immediacy that fiction could not achieve.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While related to a PBS documentary to appear on July 10 and 17, this chronicle of one of England's darkest hours manages to stand on its own, albeit with gaps. Its focus is the summer and fall of 1940, when France collapsed, America remained neutral and Britain stood alone. Aside from a slight American accent, the prevailing voice is British; continental perspectives, including German, are conspicuously absent. Clayton, a senior research fellow at Oxford's Worchester College, and Craig, the PBS show's producer, have drawn on the experiences of a hundred or so people who were there. About two dozen of the interview subjects are what might be called "featured players": soldiers, sailors, pilots and a few civilians whose stories recur and help hold the work together. Their comments seem to have been edited honestly--smoothed out rather than distorted to fit editorial needs or preconceptions. One result is a certain loss of spontaneity, but another is that the text paradoxically fits the "stiff upper lip" tradition perfectly. If not all the brethren were consistently valiant, the stories still come together in a master narrative of making do, muddling through and eventually seeing Hitler off. In an age all too inclined to discount such sentiment, it is good to be reminded that the British people in 1940 did see the war as worth fighting--and fighting at all costs. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Cultural historian Clayton and film producer Craig have gathered over 100 interviews from the PBS series The Fines Hour, scheduled to air this month, and have written a wonderful oral history of Great Britain during the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Included are interviews with pilots, soldiers, politicians (American, Canadian, and British), sailors, and civilians taken from London's Imperial War Museum and from personal diaries. Often overlooked now is just how bleak it looked for Britain in 1940 following Hitler's triumphs in Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France. This oral history helps immerse the reader in what it felt like at that time in Britain, and we witness Churchill's brave and lonely efforts to resist Germany to the bitter end. Much has been published on the Battle of Britain but comparatively less about the British Expeditionary Force and the successful evacuation from Dunkirk, to which about half of this volume is devoted. This was truly England's "finest hour." An oral history in the tradition of Stephan Ambrose; recommended for all collections.-Richard Nowicki, Emerson Vocational H.S., Buffalo, NY
Terry W. Hartle
What incredible stories these are. The voices are uniformly eloquent and the memories vivid. Courage and heroism figure prominently. By skillfully weaving these personal recollections into the broader account of political and military strategy, Clayton and Craig make the story of this decisive engagement come alive...How fitting to finally ask the men and women who lived throught that turbulent, dangerous era to tell their stories in their own words.
The Christian Science Monitor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684869315
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 2/5/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,531,516
  • Product dimensions: 0.85 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

The late Philip R. Craig was the author of nineteen novels in the Martha's Vineyard Mystery series. A professor emeritus of English at Wheelock College in Boston, he loved the Vineyard and lived there year-round with his wife, Shirley.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: May 10-14, 1940

RAF 85 Squadron

SECLIN, NEAR LILLE, FRANCE

The pilots awoke to the urgent battering of antiaircraft fire. Richard "Dickey" Lee, Benjy Angus, and "Paddy" Hemingway tumbled out into the dawn. Denis Wissler followed them to the door of their sleeping quarters. "Look, up there!" High above the control tower orange flashes filled the sky over Lille. Somewhere a phone was ringing. Moments later Lee was sprinting across the dewy grass of Seclin airfield to his Hurricane: VY R. VY for 85 Squadron, R for Richard. Angus and Hemingway followed. B Flight took off, first Lee, then the others. Farther away a section of three planes from A Flight was already racing along the strip.

All through Friday, May 10, they flew patrols in sections of three. Armorers, in shirtsleeves in the baking heat, hauled out case after case of machine-gun belts. Dusty fuel trucks trundled across the airfield, ready for the next time the planes came back. Refueled and rearmed, the fighters roared up again into the haze. All day the sun beat down and the score mounted. A Flight claimed five before breakfast. The ground crew cheered and slapped the pilots' backs. Some photographers were there, snapping away for the government. They photographed the armorers at work, they photographed the pilots as they landed, and they photographed A Flight as a group, minus one pilot who was now in hospital with a cut eye after a bullet smashed his cockpit cover. Denis Wissler had been with the squadron for a week. He did not even know the name of the man in hospital. His own flight, B Flight, had done well too. Dickey Lee came back with several holes in his aircraft and a graze to his leg, but by the end of the day he had been awarded two kills. Benjy Angus, the Canadian, had bailed out over Belgium. He phoned through later to say that he was okay. No one had been killed or even seriously injured, and the total claim for the day was sixteen. Bombers everywhere, with little in the way of fighter protection.

Wissler hadn't flown. Squadron Leader Oliver had told him gently that he was too inexperienced for combat. He'd spent the day scanning the skies enviously from outside the officers' mess.

2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment

ORCHIES, NEAR LILLE

Someone was hammering on the door of the billet. Private Ernie Leggett pulled the curtain from the window and looked outside. In the gray first light, Company Sergeant Major George Gristock was barking instructions. As his head cleared, Leggett searched frantically for his wristwatch and stumbled out onto the Rue de la Gare, where the men stationed in Orchies were already mustering. There was a thunder of guns from the direction of Lille and a red glow in the sky over the air bases less than ten miles away. Sergeant Gristock ordered the company out on parade. One hundred and twenty men, A Company of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, stood to attention as he shouted: "Get your kit together, we're moving out now." They were no more than a mile from Orchies, about halfway to the forest of Marchiennes, when German bombers flew over fast and low and plumes of smoke rose from their billets around the station. The men climbed out of the ditches by the road, dusted themselves down, looked back for a few moments, and hurried on toward the safety of the trees.

Rabbits bolted at the sound of marching boots. The oak trees reminded Leggett of home. He was a country boy, raised in a scattered hamlet called Clippesby a couple of miles from Filby Broad. He used to walk two miles to school in one direction and a mile to church in the other. His father was a farm laborer; his brother had been crippled in an accident and could no longer work. At eleven Leggett passed the exam that entitled him to go to Yarmouth grammar school, but his parents could not afford the uniform.

Farmwork was hard to find and so Leggett, aged sixteen, joined the army. Army life suited him; he was tall and strong and he liked to look smart. Each week he saved some of his ten shillings pay to send to his mother. He had shot rabbits with his brother from earliest boyhood and now he won marksman's badges for both rifle and Bren light machine gun. The Bren, with a distinctive banana clip on top, fired five hundred rounds per minute and could slice through the trunk of a tree. But shooting at anything other than targets had seemed a distant prospect during three happy years in Gibraltar. Then war had come. "We were the boys who met the enemy eye-to-eye and we would have to do the fighting. It suddenly sunk into our brains, not only me but other people as well — what the hell have we done?"

All day the soldiers shuffled about, talking in hushed voices, brewing tea and waiting for their marching orders. Sunlight flickered through the shielding canopy of trees. Leggett felt his stomach turning over with anxiety. He was determined to do his best. The only thing that unnerved him was the thought of close combat. "I just couldn't bear anything to do with bayonets — using one or, even worse, being stabbed by one. We'd been taught all about it — how to push it in, twist it, and rip it out — and just the idea of it made me feel cold inside."

They would move under cover of darkness. As the light faded, Captain Peter Barclay, Sergeant Major Gristock, and some of the other sergeants came out carrying hurricane lamps. Barclay said, "Right-ho, lads, gather round, I've got something to tell you." A Company knelt round their captain in the gloom. It was his last words that they remembered: "Now more than ever your training will stand you in good stead. Keep your heads down and your spirits high, and from now on when you aim your rifle to shoot, you shoot to kill."

Impressed with these ominous instructions, the company formed up and marched away into the darkness. They crossed the Belgian frontier by back lanes and then met their transport. During the night they traveled unscathed but the roads were crowded and they were still in their lorries at dawn. German reconnaissance found them. "We heard the planes coming and we were given the order, 'Everybody out,' and we tumbled out of the back into the ditches and when we got back there was one man on the floor. A single bullet through the head had killed him. That was the first dead man I had ever seen in my life and of course it upset all of us."

Sergeant Major Gristock told his men to pull themselves together. But he looked up at the skies anxiously. Why was it that German aircraft could attack British infantry with such impunity? Where was the RAF?

*
• *

The RAF was busy shooting down German planes all over northern and eastern France. But there were nothing like enough of them to cope with the hundreds of air attacks. The first light of day on May 10 had brought bombs screaming down on airfields and barracks all over France, Belgium, and Holland. Within hours half of the Belgian air force and nearly all the Dutch was destroyed on the ground. German paratroopers and glider forces were landing behind the front line. Waalhaven airport near Rotterdam was seized. Six RAF Blenheim fighter-bombers of 600 Squadron were sent there to destroy any aircraft on the ground. Only one returned home. The British Royal Air Force in France was under French command. Orders were slow to arrive and hesitant when they came. "At all costs avoid bombing built-up areas" was one injunction. Plans were quickly made to attack the advancing German units. But sending Britain's lumbering and lightly armed bombers against enemy forces protected by mobile antiaircraft guns and fighter cover was to invite disaster. Later that day four waves of eight Fairey Battle light bombers attempted to disrupt a German column advancing through Luxembourg. Thirteen were destroyed and all the surviving planes were damaged. It was hard to know where the main effort should go when every unit was calling for fighters and bombers simultaneously. And it proved almost impossible to guide fighters and bombers to the same place at the same time.

The RAF's remaining bombing force was practically eliminated in a series of attacks on the German armored divisions advancing through the Ardennes. On May 11 eight Fairey Battles attempted to bomb near Sedan. Seven were shot down. The RAF followed up with Blenheims. Five out of six were shot down. More Blenheims had been lost to German bombing in the morning. Of 114 Squadron's eighteen, carefully disposed around the fringes of an airfield near Reims, six were destroyed and the rest made unserviceable.

RAF 1 Squadron

BERRY-AU-BAC, CHAMPAGNE, FRANCE

Paul Richey was a pilot with No. 1 Squadron based near Reims. He had been in the Champagne country since the previous September, spoke fluent French, and had made many friends in the villages around the British airfields. On Friday, May 10, he got up at 3:00 A.M. At 5:00 A.M. his flight patrolled over Metz and shot down a single Dornier bomber. At midday they tried to rendezvous with Fairey Battles over Luxembourg but, though they waited, the bombers did not appear. Later in the day the squadron was moved to a new base at Berry-au-Bac. They arrived to discover there was, as yet, no telephone link and no tankers to refuel their Hurricanes.

The tired pilots dozed in the oppressive heat. Then they saw twenty German planes approaching — Heinkel bombers. One peeled off and flew lazily toward them. "Then we heard it — first a whisper, then a faint whistle that rose to an unearthly shriek that filled and split the heavens as if all the devils in hell had been let loose." Richey threw himself underneath a lorry as a stick of bombs overshot into a neighboring field where French villagers were plowing. The shock of the explosions made the lorry bounce up and down on its wheels. "We found them among the craters. The old man lay face-down, his body twisted grotesquely, one leg shattered and a savage gash across the back of his neck oozing steadily into the earth. His son lay close by in a state I will not describe. Against the hedge I found what must have been the remains of the third boy — recognizable only by a few tattered rags, a smashed boot, and some splinters of bone." Richey and his fellow pilots got some rifles and shot the stricken horses. "I imagined the German bombardier, heading for his base at eighteen thousand feet, entering in his log: 'Military Objective bombed, Berry-au-Bac, British airfield.'"

Next morning No. 1 Squadron got their fuel and their revenge. They ran into a formation of thirty Dorniers escorted by fifteen of the feared Messerschmitt 110 fighters, christened "Destroyers" by the Luftwaffe. The six Hurricanes caught the Messerschmitts by surprise and saw several go down in flames. Richey claimed two kills but then found himself alone with five enemy planes and was himself shot down after an engagement timed at fifteen minutes by an observer on the ground. As he drifted to earth at the end of his parachute he was surprised at how calm everything suddenly became. He spent the night in the French village where he landed, and it was not until he returned to Berry on May 12 that the experience began to unsettle him: "At this stage I began to feel peculiar. I had a hell of a headache and was jumpy and snappy....I dared not speak for fear of bursting into tears." An old lady in whose house he was billeted took him aside and said passionately, "Vous êtes destiné àvivre," but Richey was not convinced and that night found his sleep disturbed by thoughts of death: "Scarcely had I dropped off when I was in my Hurricane rushing head-on at a 110. Just as we were about to collide I woke with a jerk that nearly threw me out of bed. I was in a cold sweat, my heart banging wildly about...I shall never forget how I clung to the bed rail in a dead funk."

2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry

NEAR MOUCHIN, BELGIUM

"Get your men ready, we will be moving into Belgium." Martin McLane's mortar platoon hauled their boxes of ammunition and their heavy mortars into a lorry. Just as they were about to go, an officer ordered McLane to take temporary charge of a frontier control point at Mouchin. His men and his mortars went forward without him and McLane spent the rest of May 10 directing traffic.

McLane was the son of a shipyard worker, brought up in Bycker, Newcastle, in the north of England, a part of the world where the men who worked the steel imagined themselves wrought from the same substance. He should have been building ships, but in the early 1930s there were not many ships to build. Unemployment drove him into the army, where tough, resourceful lads were welcomed. Like Ernie Leggett, he found that he enjoyed the life. He was small and stocky with the build of a front-row forward, soon to be his position in the battalion rugby team. When the opposition made a mistake it would be McLane who was first to the muddy ball, winning possession for his team, as the other forwards drove over in support. The army soon spotted his potential and promoted him first to corporal, then to sergeant, then to platoon sergeant major. He could look after himself, could McLane, and the men respected him for it. They were a hard lot, his Durham lads, shipyard men like himself, and miners too. But they didn't dare take their sergeant on. He had drilled them into a solid unit and he was sure that they would do the job when the time came.

The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry was one of those front-line units that got the best equipment the army had, the half-track Bren gun-carriers and the motorized mortar platoons. McLane was interested in new equipment and he had made the mortar platoon his own. His two three-inch mortars gave local artillery support to the whole battalion. It was quite a responsibility, and that was why he was wondering what he was doing standing around directing traffic. What was more, the Germans couldn't have chosen a worse day to start. One of his mortars had a worn-out tripod. He had applied for a replacement from stores and they had sent him something else by mistake. It was certain that only one of his mortars would work. He needed time to find a good site and bring up ammunition and night-sights and yet here he was manning a checkpoint.

He thought of his wife, Annie, and their new baby. He had seen his little girl only once. He took the worn photograph of them both out of his pocket, as another column of lorries rumbled by. They weren't lorries from his own division anymore, he could tell because their own 2nd Division lorries were marked with crossed keys painted white on the bumper. He seemed to have been left there and forgotten. He got on his motorcycle and rode north in search of his men.

2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment

NEAR WAVRE, BELGIUM

pard

As a child Ernie Leggett had sat in his family's pew at St. Peter's, Clippesby, gazing at the large stained glass window over the altar. The crossed keys of St. Peter fascinated him. Silver over gold, they seemed to shine when the sun hit them from the east. When he'd arrived in France his battalion had been put into 2nd Division. All around him, on shoulder flashes and painted onto half-tracks and lorries, were the same crossed keys. Leggett had thought it was a good omen. He had been traveling now for twenty-four hours, with several stops to shelter from strafing German planes. The Norfolks had tried firing their rifles and Bren guns back up at them, and once they were sure that they had hit something, but they had still seen no sign of a French or British fighter. Then, as they left their lorries near Wavre, they encountered a new kind of terror. "We heard these Stuka dive-bombers and they had sirens on their wheels and as they came down they made this terrific hellish noise, screaming. Also the bombs which they let loose had sirens in their tails and it was the most hellish terrific noise you could ever encounter. And I threw myself down on the bank spread-eagled and I shook just like a jelly. We all did, we couldn't help it."

LONDON

The British government was in crisis even before it was hit by news of the German offensive. On May 7, during a passionate debate about the previous month's fighting in Norway, Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had sat, head bowed, as former supporters called upon him to resign and the Labour opposition chanted "Go, Go, Go!" At first he tried to fight it out, attempting to build a cross-party coalition. But the Labour Party refused to serve under the man they blamed for years of appeasing Hitler and for eight months of insipid wartime leadership. Chamberlain had two obvious successors: Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Both were from wealthy landed families, but there the similarity ended. Halifax was urbane, well read, and icily logical. He had served as Viceroy of India, the most prestigious administrative post the British Empire had to offer, and carried with him a sense of earnestness and piety that led to the nickname of "Lord Holy Fox."

Winston Churchill had accumulated many nicknames but the word "holy" hadn't featured in any of them. Sometimes a reformer, sometimes a reactionary, he'd been in and out of office since 1906. By 1940, he had, it appeared, lived enough for two or three lives: grandson of a duke, son of one of the most talented and cursed politicians in British history and his American wife, participant in the last cavalry charge of the British army at Omdurman, escaped prisoner of war in the Boer War, biographer of his great ancestor Marlborough, war correspondent in Cuba...perhaps unsurprisingly, in Parliament he was widely seen as a maverick. But Churchill had consistently warned about Hitler and called for British rearmament. And he spoke well on the radio.

Halifax, the consummate insider, was the choice of London's political and social elite. A great friend of the royal family, he had been granted the rare privilege of a key to the Buckingham Palace gardens so that his daily walk to work might take him through the grounds. But Halifax sat in the House of Lords and felt this would make it difficult for him to control the more disorderly House of Commons. When Chamberlain offered him his chance, he demurred. Churchill seized the opportunity. Supported by the leaders of the Labour Party, he accepted Chamberlain's suggestion that he form a coalition government. Halifax and Chamberlain were both offered seats in a new five-man War Cabinet along with Labour leader Clement Attlee and his deputy, Arthur Greenwood. The news broke on the morning of May 10.

To fight what would surely be a difficult and protracted war, Britain needed leadership and a common purpose. But the 1930s had been a decade of division, depression, and drift. The scars of battles between capital and labor, rich and poor, employed and unemployed ran very deep. Poverty, poor health, and decrepit housing scarred the old industrial cities. Churchill, a former Home Secretary, had once been denounced by the left as a strikebreaker after troops were sent to confront picketing coal miners in the pit village of Tonypandy. Now he went out of his way to bring the representatives of this other Britain into his war effort. He appointed the fiery former trade union boss Ernest Bevin as his Minister for Labour.

Churchill faced a huge challenge. Hitler's previous enemies had been overwhelmed as much by psychological pressure as military force. Men will only face Stukas and bayonets for so long when they feel it is in a lost cause. From the moment he took office, Churchill placed morale at the heart of his policymaking. His primary aim, whatever his own private anxieties, and there were many, was to spread confidence — within his Cabinet, through the machinery of government, then outward into the nation. But it wouldn't be easy. On the first evening of his administration, Churchill's bodyguard wished him luck. "I hope that it is not too late," the new Prime Minister replied. "I am very much afraid that it is."

2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry

SOIGNES, BELGIUM

There were military policemen at every junction as Martin McLane rode his motorcycle through the forest of Soignes, looking for his battalion of Durham Light Infantry. He waved to a final Redcap, who directed him up a minor road. Soon after, McLane arrived at La Tombe, an isolated hamlet on a hillside above the little River Dyle. Here, southeast of Brussels, on what military planners had called the Dyle Line, the British army was moving into defensive positions prepared for them by the Belgians. There they would hold the Germans. But it was immediately clear that the Belgian defenses did not amount to much and McLane found that his mortar platoon had been ordered to dig trenches. Furious, he demanded that they should go forward to site the mortars — or, rather, mortar. No new tripod had been delivered while he had been away. One man carried the base plate, another the barrel. The rest carried six bombs each plus their kit. Each bomb weighed ten pounds and there were three to a case. With this load they struggled down a winding path through thick beech woods to the front line. As he trudged through the trees, McLane was still cursing the new company commander under his breath. The captain was a schoolteacher, a Territorial recently shipped in to take charge of Headquarters Company. This company had all the best kit — the Bren carriers, the signalers, and the mortars — and this new captain had no idea how to use it. He didn't seem interested in what a mortar could do given proper communications and transport. They should have promoted one of the regular lieutenants, who would have known what to do.

As they reached the river there was a sudden change in scenery. They were in the park of a country house. McLane quickly assessed the terrain. Ahead of him a straight track led over an ornamental bridge to a village on the other side of the river. Immediately to the left a wooded spur of the hill commanded the riverside. Farther left and away to the right were open water meadows. Behind him on a grassy hill stood a beautiful country house. It looked like the ideal vantage point. The carrier platoon, which had been scouting, returned. They had seen the Germans coming only about a mile away. The engineers had been waiting for them to come back over the bridge and were now preparing to blow it up.

McLane walked up the path toward the house. It was lined with ornamental railings. The whole place was absolutely beautiful. He thought about days out and picnics with Annie. He'd got a letter from her a few days before. It was the last one he would receive for some time now that they were going into action. A few months back he'd had to warn her that the officers read all the letters to check on morale. She'd said that thinking of some of the things she had written and then the officers reading it all had made her blush. She wrote very loving letters, did Annie.

Before he reached the top of the path a bullet whistled past. McLane could hear it as clear as day. Snipers! You could see right across the valley from up here. He pulled out his binoculars. There were German motorcyclists on the road across the river. This would be a great spot to put the mortar but absolutely obvious to the enemy. It would be a magnet for their mortars and artillery. He crawled away a bit until he was no longer silhouetted and then walked on to the house, went round to the side door that faced away from the Germans, and knocked. A small man with a goatee beard, not much taller than McLane, opened the door. McLane could hear that inside the family was having dinner. "You want to vamoose tout de suite, Allemands coming." The Belgian said nothing, but hurried off. McLane was not sure that he had been understood, but feeling that he had done the decent thing, he went back down the hill, taking care to keep out of view until he got back to his men.

He decided to site the mortar behind some sheds in a clump of trees just off the straight track. It was not the ideal position but he could see the main road on the far side of the river from there. Scores of refugees, their belongings piled on carts, were trudging by. The bridge, he noted, was too close to where D Company had dug in to land mortars on it, but at a pinch he could hit the meadows beyond to the left, and he had a clear view to the right. He told the men to dig in. As he turned to report to headquarters he saw a car racing down the drive away from the chateau. It turned right through some trees and disappeared. "See," he told his corporal, "told you I could speak French."

As McLane's platoon dug in behind the River Dyle, they saw waves of German bombers passing overhead and flying on toward Brussels.

RAF 85 Squadron

SECLIN, NEAR LILLE, FRANCE

85 Squadron still wouldn't let Denis Wissler fly and so he was writing up his diary. He became aware of a distant drone. It must be the Hurricanes returning again. Then he realized the note was wrong. Bombers! He sprinted for his life. Two bombs landed thirty feet from him, demolishing the sleeping quarters. In the rubble they found a body. A cook was pulled out alive, whimpering with pain. Another bomb hit the adjutant's car. His driver had been blown to pieces. In the evening Wissler wrote: "I came nearest to death today than I have ever been....I was in the Ante-Room and my God did I run....There was a raid into Germany, which our chaps convoyed, and Dickey Lee has so far not returned. We are going to sleep by the aeroplanes in a Nissen hut tonight."

Dickey Lee had doubled his score to four on May 11 before disappearing somewhere deep in Belgium, now a long way behind enemy lines. He was the squadron's hero. Tall and handsome, he looked every inch the dashing young air ace. Lee was twenty-three and had graduated from the RAF College at Cranwell in 1937. He had been in France since the beginning of the war. He knew his Hurricane inside out and had even flown stunts in a film. Wissler, by contrast, had joined up on July 10, 1939, the eve of his nineteenth birthday, and he knew he looked his age. He had completed his basic flying training in April and was only in France because he had drawn the short straw when one of eight trainee pilots was required to go. He had little more than two hundred hours in the air and only a handful of these had been in a Hurricane.

Mounting casualties brought him his chance, and on Sunday, May 12, Wissler finally represented B Flight in more than just late-night bar games. Straight away, he found that flying patrols wasn't easy. On the first one he got lost. He landed at an airfield that turned out to be a French base, got directions, flew home, and did another sortie. They didn't find any enemy but the tension and excitement quickly unsettled him. On the evening of May 12, from new quarters in Lesquin, he scrawled, "I now have had 6 hours sleep in 48 hours and haven't washed for over 36 hours. My God am I tired? And I am up again at 3 AM tomorrow."

Monday morning brought good news. Dickey Lee turned up. He had crashed, been captured, escaped from a hayloft, borrowed some clothes from a peasant, and picked his way through enemy lines. Typical. Wissler flew two more patrols that day. On the second his flight was bounced by Messerschmitt 109s, the fastest and most deadly German fighter plane. The squadron leader was shot down but bailed out. Fleeing for the clouds, Wissler found himself alone and disoriented. He landed at an airfield that turned out to be Cambrai and a French engineer told him that his plane was gushing oil. While English ground crew were summoned to find the fault, Wissler ate in the "very pukka" French mess, acutely conscious of his own disheveled state, and then finally got a good night's sleep.

Taking off without being bombed, handling tight maneuvers without stalling, finding his way back to the airfield and landing the plane among shell craters demanded all the skill he could yet command. Pilots like Dickey Lee or Paul Richey had three years of flying behind them, and six months to learn the geography of northern France. Wissler had to try to master all these things in four days while, simultaneously, the Luftwaffe was doing its best to kill him. No wonder he was tired.

LONDON

Within days of coming to power, Churchill was juggling military resources, attempting to boost war production, and dealing with a panic-stricken ally. Across London there were many who thought he was singularly ill equipped for the job. His enemies called him unstable, impetuous, and absolutely the wrong man to trust with weighty matters of state in a moment of unsurpassed crisis. Some of those who had served under him in the First World War remembered the disastrous landings he'd masterminded at Gallipoli. They predicted more of the same. Such fears were amplified when Churchill announced that he would combine the role of Prime Minister with running the Ministry of Defence. He also proclaimed that he would lead a special defense committee made up of himself and the Chiefs of Staff, putting him in day-to-day, hour-to-hour command of Britain's armed forces. Clearly this was not going to be Parliament's war, or even the Cabinet's war — it was going to be Churchill's war. At first he spent very little time in Downing Street, preferring to remain at the Admiralty whilst the Chamberlains packed their bags.

Waiting for him inside No. 10 was a nervous twenty-year-old secretary called Marian Holmes. Holmes had been with Chamberlain for three years. He had been a gracious, considerate employer who stopped work at 6:00 p.m. and retired after a simple dinner to his private rooms to read. She was dreading her first encounter with her new boss: "The staff at No. 10 had grave misgivings about this man. They'd heard rumors about how he was impossible to please, difficult to work for, that he was a man used to giving orders but unaware of the practicalities of carrying them out."

*
• *

Lord Halifax had turned down his chance to form a government. Nevertheless, some of his followers were free with their scorn about the man who had taken control of the nation. "Rab" Butler was Halifax's deputy at the Foreign Office. In the presence of John "Jock" Colville, Chamberlain's assistant private secretary, Butler called Churchill "a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of similar type." Butler despaired that "the good clean tradition of English politics...had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history." Colville, who was about to start working for the new Prime Minister, wrote in his diary that "Everybody here is in despair at the prospect....[Churchill] may be able to speed up our creaking military and industrial machinery, but it is a terrible risk, it involves the danger of rash and spectacular exploits." Churchill's critics were skeptical about his lifestyle and way of working. The new Prime Minister liked to be at the center of a fluid group of advisers, ministers, and generals who would together embark on late-night brainstorming sessions sustained by huge dinners, cigars, and champagne. "The Crazy Gang," one senior official called them. Inspired by the atmosphere (or, some said, by the alcohol), Churchill's mind would race, enthusiastically leaping from topic to topic, and a plethora of memos, directives, and letters would result. Halifax, Butler, and many others distrusted Churchill's fondness for boisterous dining partners like Canadian newspaper proprietor Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, or the MP and financier Brendan Bracken.

But to his admirers Churchill represented hope, inspiration, and a pure galvanizing energy. Here, at last, was a natural leader, someone who would revitalize the nation and trample on the toes of the slow, shabby, and pusillanimous Britain of recent years. Violet Bonham-Carter, whose father, Herbert Asquith, had led the nation into the First World War, wrote to Churchill during his first week in office: "My wish is realised and I can face all that is to come with faith and confidence. I know, as you do, that the wind has been sown and that we must all reap the whirlwind. But you will ride it, instead of being driven before it. Thank heaven that you are there and at the helm of our destiny." And whatever his detractors might say about overconfidence, Churchill more than anyone knew the size of the task before him. He had spent years cataloguing British military weakness. Now he would have to make the best he could of the paltry resources available.

Three days after taking office, he addressed the House of Commons for the first time as Prime Minister. He announced in a grave and trembling voice: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering."

Copyright © 1999 by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig and Brook Lapping Productions

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Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue

In Northern France, May 1940

Entries from the Diary of Denis Wissler, May 1940

1 May 10-14, 1940

2 May 14-20

3 May 20-22

4 May 22-26

5 May 26-27

6 May 28-June 1

7 June 1-10

8 June 10-16

9 June 16-20

10 June 20-July 11

11 July 16-August 15

12 August 16-20

13 August 20-September 4

14 September 4-11

15 September 11-17

16 September 17-30

17 October

18 November and After

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Bibliography

Notes on Sources

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: May 10-14, 1940

RAF 85 Squadron
SECLIN, NEAR LILLE, FRANCE

The pilots awoke to the urgent battering of antiaircraft fire. Richard "Dickey" Lee, Benjy Angus, and "Paddy" Hemingway tumbled out into the dawn. Denis Wissler followed them to the door of their sleeping quarters. "Look, up there!" High above the control tower orange flashes filled the sky over Lille. Somewhere a phone was ringing. Moments later Lee was sprinting across the dewy grass of Seclin airfield to his Hurricane: VY R. VY for 85 Squadron, R for Richard. Angus and Hemingway followed. B Flight took off, first Lee, then the others. Farther away a section of three planes from A Flight was already racing along the strip.

All through Friday, May 10, they flew patrols in sections of three. Armorers, in shirtsleeves in the baking heat, hauled out case after case of machine-gun belts. Dusty fuel trucks trundled across the airfield, ready for the next time the planes came back. Refueled and rearmed, the fighters roared up again into the haze. All day the sun beat down and the score mounted. A Flight claimed five before breakfast. The ground crew cheered and slapped the pilots' backs. Some photographers were there, snapping away for the government. They photographed the armorers at work, they photographed the pilots as they landed, and they photographed A Flight as a group, minus one pilot who was now in hospital with a cut eye after a bullet smashed his cockpit cover. Denis Wissler had been with the squadron for a week. He did not even know the name of the man in hospital. His own flight, B Flight, had done well too. Dickey Lee came back with several holes in his aircraft and a graze to his leg, but by the end of the day he had been awarded two kills. Benjy Angus, the Canadian, had bailed out over Belgium. He phoned through later to say that he was okay. No one had been killed or even seriously injured, and the total claim for the day was sixteen. Bombers everywhere, with little in the way of fighter protection.

Wissler hadn't flown. Squadron Leader Oliver had told him gently that he was too inexperienced for combat. He'd spent the day scanning the skies enviously from outside the officers' mess.


2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
ORCHIES, NEAR LILLE

Someone was hammering on the door of the billet. Private Ernie Leggett pulled the curtain from the window and looked outside. In the gray first light, Company Sergeant Major George Gristock was barking instructions. As his head cleared, Leggett searched frantically for his wristwatch and stumbled out onto the Rue de la Gare, where the men stationed in Orchies were already mustering. There was a thunder of guns from the direction of Lille and a red glow in the sky over the air bases less than ten miles away. Sergeant Gristock ordered the company out on parade. One hundred and twenty men, A Company of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, stood to attention as he shouted: "Get your kit together, we're moving out now." They were no more than a mile from Orchies, about halfway to the forest of Marchiennes, when German bombers flew over fast and low and plumes of smoke rose from their billets around the station. The men climbed out of the ditches by the road, dusted themselves down, looked back for a few moments, and hurried on toward the safety of the trees.

Rabbits bolted at the sound of marching boots. The oak trees reminded Leggett of home. He was a country boy, raised in a scattered hamlet called Clippesby a couple of miles from Filby Broad. He used to walk two miles to school in one direction and a mile to church in the other. His father was a farm laborer; his brother had been crippled in an accident and could no longer work. At eleven Leggett passed the exam that entitled him to go to Yarmouth grammar school, but his parents could not afford the uniform.

Farmwork was hard to find and so Leggett, aged sixteen, joined the army. Army life suited him; he was tall and strong and he liked to look smart. Each week he saved some of his ten shillings pay to send to his mother. He had shot rabbits with his brother from earliest boyhood and now he won marksman's badges for both rifle and Bren light machine gun. The Bren, with a distinctive banana clip on top, fired five hundred rounds per minute and could slice through the trunk of a tree. But shooting at anything other than targets had seemed a distant prospect during three happy years in Gibraltar. Then war had come. "We were the boys who met the enemy eye-to-eye and we would have to do the fighting. It suddenly sunk into our brains, not only me but other people as well -- what the hell have we done?"

All day the soldiers shuffled about, talking in hushed voices, brewing tea and waiting for their marching orders. Sunlight flickered through the shielding canopy of trees. Leggett felt his stomach turning over with anxiety. He was determined to do his best. The only thing that unnerved him was the thought of close combat. "I just couldn't bear anything to do with bayonets -- using one or, even worse, being stabbed by one. We'd been taught all about it -- how to push it in, twist it, and rip it out -- and just the idea of it made me feel cold inside."

They would move under cover of darkness. As the light faded, Captain Peter Barclay, Sergeant Major Gristock, and some of the other sergeants came out carrying hurricane lamps. Barclay said, "Right-ho, lads, gather round, I've got something to tell you." A Company knelt round their captain in the gloom. It was his last words that they remembered: "Now more than ever your training will stand you in good stead. Keep your heads down and your spirits high, and from now on when you aim your rifle to shoot, you shoot to kill."

Impressed with these ominous instructions, the company formed up and marched away into the darkness. They crossed the Belgian frontier by back lanes and then met their transport. During the night they traveled unscathed but the roads were crowded and they were still in their lorries at dawn. German reconnaissance found them. "We heard the planes coming and we were given the order, 'Everybody out,' and we tumbled out of the back into the ditches and when we got back there was one man on the floor. A single bullet through the head had killed him. That was the first dead man I had ever seen in my life and of course it upset all of us."

Sergeant Major Gristock told his men to pull themselves together. But he looked up at the skies anxiously. Why was it that German aircraft could attack British infantry with such impunity? Where was the RAF?

* * *

The RAF was busy shooting down German planes all over northern and eastern France. But there were nothing like enough of them to cope with the hundreds of air attacks. The first light of day on May 10 had brought bombs screaming down on airfields and barracks all over France, Belgium, and Holland. Within hours half of the Belgian air force and nearly all the Dutch was destroyed on the ground. German paratroopers and glider forces were landing behind the front line. Waalhaven airport near Rotterdam was seized. Six RAF Blenheim fighter-bombers of 600 Squadron were sent there to destroy any aircraft on the ground. Only one returned home. The British Royal Air Force in France was under French command. Orders were slow to arrive and hesitant when they came. "At all costs avoid bombing built-up areas" was one injunction. Plans were quickly made to attack the advancing German units. But sending Britain's lumbering and lightly armed bombers against enemy forces protected by mobile antiaircraft guns and fighter cover was to invite disaster. Later that day four waves of eight Fairey Battle light bombers attempted to disrupt a German column advancing through Luxembourg. Thirteen were destroyed and all the surviving planes were damaged. It was hard to know where the main effort should go when every unit was calling for fighters and bombers simultaneously. And it proved almost impossible to guide fighters and bombers to the same place at the same time.

The RAF's remaining bombing force was practically eliminated in a series of attacks on the German armored divisions advancing through the Ardennes. On May 11 eight Fairey Battles attempted to bomb near Sedan. Seven were shot down. The RAF followed up with Blenheims. Five out of six were shot down. More Blenheims had been lost to German bombing in the morning. Of 114 Squadron's eighteen, carefully disposed around the fringes of an airfield near Reims, six were destroyed and the rest made unserviceable.


RAF 1 Squadron
BERRY-AU-BAC, CHAMPAGNE, FRANCE

Paul Richey was a pilot with No. 1 Squadron based near Reims. He had been in the Champagne country since the previous September, spoke fluent French, and had made many friends in the villages around the British airfields. On Friday, May 10, he got up at 3:00 A.M. At 5:00 A.M. his flight patrolled over Metz and shot down a single Dornier bomber. At midday they tried to rendezvous with Fairey Battles over Luxembourg but, though they waited, the bombers did not appear. Later in the day the squadron was moved to a new base at Berry-au-Bac. They arrived to discover there was, as yet, no telephone link and no tankers to refuel their Hurricanes.

The tired pilots dozed in the oppressive heat. Then they saw twenty German planes approaching -- Heinkel bombers. One peeled off and flew lazily toward them. "Then we heard it -- first a whisper, then a faint whistle that rose to an unearthly shriek that filled and split the heavens as if all the devils in hell had been let loose." Richey threw himself underneath a lorry as a stick of bombs overshot into a neighboring field where French villagers were plowing. The shock of the explosions made the lorry bounce up and down on its wheels. "We found them among the craters. The old man lay face-down, his body twisted grotesquely, one leg shattered and a savage gash across the back of his neck oozing steadily into the earth. His son lay close by in a state I will not describe. Against the hedge I found what must have been the remains of the third boy -- recognizable only by a few tattered rags, a smashed boot, and some splinters of bone." Richey and his fellow pilots got some rifles and shot the stricken horses. "I imagined the German bombardier, heading for his base at eighteen thousand feet, entering in his log: 'Military Objective bombed, Berry-au-Bac, British airfield.'"

Next morning No. 1 Squadron got their fuel and their revenge. They ran into a formation of thirty Dorniers escorted by fifteen of the feared Messerschmitt 110 fighters, christened "Destroyers" by the Luftwaffe. The six Hurricanes caught the Messerschmitts by surprise and saw several go down in flames. Richey claimed two kills but then found himself alone with five enemy planes and was himself shot down after an engagement timed at fifteen minutes by an observer on the ground. As he drifted to earth at the end of his parachute he was surprised at how calm everything suddenly became. He spent the night in the French village where he landed, and it was not until he returned to Berry on May 12 that the experience began to unsettle him: "At this stage I began to feel peculiar. I had a hell of a headache and was jumpy and snappy....I dared not speak for fear of bursting into tears." An old lady in whose house he was billeted took him aside and said passionately, "Vous êtes destiné àvivre," but Richey was not convinced and that night found his sleep disturbed by thoughts of death: "Scarcely had I dropped off when I was in my Hurricane rushing head-on at a 110. Just as we were about to collide I woke with a jerk that nearly threw me out of bed. I was in a cold sweat, my heart banging wildly about...I shall never forget how I clung to the bed rail in a dead funk."


2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
NEAR MOUCHIN, BELGIUM

"Get your men ready, we will be moving into Belgium." Martin McLane's mortar platoon hauled their boxes of ammunition and their heavy mortars into a lorry. Just as they were about to go, an officer ordered McLane to take temporary charge of a frontier control point at Mouchin. His men and his mortars went forward without him and McLane spent the rest of May 10 directing traffic.

McLane was the son of a shipyard worker, brought up in Bycker, Newcastle, in the north of England, a part of the world where the men who worked the steel imagined themselves wrought from the same substance. He should have been building ships, but in the early 1930s there were not many ships to build. Unemployment drove him into the army, where tough, resourceful lads were welcomed. Like Ernie Leggett, he found that he enjoyed the life. He was small and stocky with the build of a front-row forward, soon to be his position in the battalion rugby team. When the opposition made a mistake it would be McLane who was first to the muddy ball, winning possession for his team, as the other forwards drove over in support. The army soon spotted his potential and promoted him first to corporal, then to sergeant, then to platoon sergeant major. He could look after himself, could McLane, and the men respected him for it. They were a hard lot, his Durham lads, shipyard men like himself, and miners too. But they didn't dare take their sergeant on. He had drilled them into a solid unit and he was sure that they would do the job when the time came.

The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry was one of those front-line units that got the best equipment the army had, the half-track Bren gun-carriers and the motorized mortar platoons. McLane was interested in new equipment and he had made the mortar platoon his own. His two three-inch mortars gave local artillery support to the whole battalion. It was quite a responsibility, and that was why he was wondering what he was doing standing around directing traffic. What was more, the Germans couldn't have chosen a worse day to start. One of his mortars had a worn-out tripod. He had applied for a replacement from stores and they had sent him something else by mistake. It was certain that only one of his mortars would work. He needed time to find a good site and bring up ammunition and night-sights and yet here he was manning a checkpoint.

He thought of his wife, Annie, and their new baby. He had seen his little girl only once. He took the worn photograph of them both out of his pocket, as another column of lorries rumbled by. They weren't lorries from his own division anymore, he could tell because their own 2nd Division lorries were marked with crossed keys painted white on the bumper. He seemed to have been left there and forgotten. He got on his motorcycle and rode north in search of his men.


2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
NEAR WAVRE, BELGIUM

As a child Ernie Leggett had sat in his family's pew at St. Peter's, Clippesby, gazing at the large stained glass window over the altar. The crossed keys of St. Peter fascinated him. Silver over gold, they seemed to shine when the sun hit them from the east. When he'd arrived in France his battalion had been put into 2nd Division. All around him, on shoulder flashes and painted onto half-tracks and lorries, were the same crossed keys. Leggett had thought it was a good omen. He had been traveling now for twenty-four hours, with several stops to shelter from strafing German planes. The Norfolks had tried firing their rifles and Bren guns back up at them, and once they were sure that they had hit something, but they had still seen no sign of a French or British fighter. Then, as they left their lorries near Wavre, they encountered a new kind of terror. "We heard these Stuka dive-bombers and they had sirens on their wheels and as they came down they made this terrific hellish noise, screaming. Also the bombs which they let loose had sirens in their tails and it was the most hellish terrific noise you could ever encounter. And I threw myself down on the bank spread-eagled and I shook just like a jelly. We all did, we couldn't help it."


LONDON

The British government was in crisis even before it was hit by news of the German offensive. On May 7, during a passionate debate about the previous month's fighting in Norway, Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had sat, head bowed, as former supporters called upon him to resign and the Labour opposition chanted "Go, Go, Go!" At first he tried to fight it out, attempting to build a cross-party coalition. But the Labour Party refused to serve under the man they blamed for years of appeasing Hitler and for eight months of insipid wartime leadership. Chamberlain had two obvious successors: Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Both were from wealthy landed families, but there the similarity ended. Halifax was urbane, well read, and icily logical. He had served as Viceroy of India, the most prestigious administrative post the British Empire had to offer, and carried with him a sense of earnestness and piety that led to the nickname of "Lord Holy Fox."

Winston Churchill had accumulated many nicknames but the word "holy" hadn't featured in any of them. Sometimes a reformer, sometimes a reactionary, he'd been in and out of office since 1906. By 1940, he had, it appeared, lived enough for two or three lives: grandson of a duke, son of one of the most talented and cursed politicians in British history and his American wife, participant in the last cavalry charge of the British army at Omdurman, escaped prisoner of war in the Boer War, biographer of his great ancestor Marlborough, war correspondent in Cuba...perhaps unsurprisingly, in Parliament he was widely seen as a maverick. But Churchill had consistently warned about Hitler and called for British rearmament. And he spoke well on the radio.

Halifax, the consummate insider, was the choice of London's political and social elite. A great friend of the royal family, he had been granted the rare privilege of a key to the Buckingham Palace gardens so that his daily walk to work might take him through the grounds. But Halifax sat in the House of Lords and felt this would make it difficult for him to control the more disorderly House of Commons. When Chamberlain offered him his chance, he demurred. Churchill seized the opportunity. Supported by the leaders of the Labour Party, he accepted Chamberlain's suggestion that he form a coalition government. Halifax and Chamberlain were both offered seats in a new five-man War Cabinet along with Labour leader Clement Attlee and his deputy, Arthur Greenwood. The news broke on the morning of May 10.

To fight what would surely be a difficult and protracted war, Britain needed leadership and a common purpose. But the 1930s had been a decade of division, depression, and drift. The scars of battles between capital and labor, rich and poor, employed and unemployed ran very deep. Poverty, poor health, and decrepit housing scarred the old industrial cities. Churchill, a former Home Secretary, had once been denounced by the left as a strikebreaker after troops were sent to confront picketing coal miners in the pit village of Tonypandy. Now he went out of his way to bring the representatives of this other Britain into his war effort. He appointed the fiery former trade union boss Ernest Bevin as his Minister for Labour.

Churchill faced a huge challenge. Hitler's previous enemies had been overwhelmed as much by psychological pressure as military force. Men will only face Stukas and bayonets for so long when they feel it is in a lost cause. From the moment he took office, Churchill placed morale at the heart of his policymaking. His primary aim, whatever his own private anxieties, and there were many, was to spread confidence -- within his Cabinet, through the machinery of government, then outward into the nation. But it wouldn't be easy. On the first evening of his administration, Churchill's bodyguard wished him luck. "I hope that it is not too late," the new Prime Minister replied. "I am very much afraid that it is."


2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
SOIGNES, BELGIUM

There were military policemen at every junction as Martin McLane rode his motorcycle through the forest of Soignes, looking for his battalion of Durham Light Infantry. He waved to a final Redcap, who directed him up a minor road. Soon after, McLane arrived at La Tombe, an isolated hamlet on a hillside above the little River Dyle. Here, southeast of Brussels, on what military planners had called the Dyle Line, the British army was moving into defensive positions prepared for them by the Belgians. There they would hold the Germans. But it was immediately clear that the Belgian defenses did not amount to much and McLane found that his mortar platoon had been ordered to dig trenches. Furious, he demanded that they should go forward to site the mortars -- or, rather, mortar. No new tripod had been delivered while he had been away. One man carried the base plate, another the barrel. The rest carried six bombs each plus their kit. Each bomb weighed ten pounds and there were three to a case. With this load they struggled down a winding path through thick beech woods to the front line. As he trudged through the trees, McLane was still cursing the new company commander under his breath. The captain was a schoolteacher, a Territorial recently shipped in to take charge of Headquarters Company. This company had all the best kit -- the Bren carriers, the signalers, and the mortars -- and this new captain had no idea how to use it. He didn't seem interested in what a mortar could do given proper communications and transport. They should have promoted one of the regular lieutenants, who would have known what to do.

As they reached the river there was a sudden change in scenery. They were in the park of a country house. McLane quickly assessed the terrain. Ahead of him a straight track led over an ornamental bridge to a village on the other side of the river. Immediately to the left a wooded spur of the hill commanded the riverside. Farther left and away to the right were open water meadows. Behind him on a grassy hill stood a beautiful country house. It looked like the ideal vantage point. The carrier platoon, which had been scouting, returned. They had seen the Germans coming only about a mile away. The engineers had been waiting for them to come back over the bridge and were now preparing to blow it up.

McLane walked up the path toward the house. It was lined with ornamental railings. The whole place was absolutely beautiful. He thought about days out and picnics with Annie. He'd got a letter from her a few days before. It was the last one he would receive for some time now that they were going into action. A few months back he'd had to warn her that the officers read all the letters to check on morale. She'd said that thinking of some of the things she had written and then the officers reading it all had made her blush. She wrote very loving letters, did Annie.

Before he reached the top of the path a bullet whistled past. McLane could hear it as clear as day. Snipers! You could see right across the valley from up here. He pulled out his binoculars. There were German motorcyclists on the road across the river. This would be a great spot to put the mortar but absolutely obvious to the enemy. It would be a magnet for their mortars and artillery. He crawled away a bit until he was no longer silhouetted and then walked on to the house, went round to the side door that faced away from the Germans, and knocked. A small man with a goatee beard, not much taller than McLane, opened the door. McLane could hear that inside the family was having dinner. "You want to vamoose tout de suite, Allemands coming." The Belgian said nothing, but hurried off. McLane was not sure that he had been understood, but feeling that he had done the decent thing, he went back down the hill, taking care to keep out of view until he got back to his men.

He decided to site the mortar behind some sheds in a clump of trees just off the straight track. It was not the ideal position but he could see the main road on the far side of the river from there. Scores of refugees, their belongings piled on carts, were trudging by. The bridge, he noted, was too close to where D Company had dug in to land mortars on it, but at a pinch he could hit the meadows beyond to the left, and he had a clear view to the right. He told the men to dig in. As he turned to report to headquarters he saw a car racing down the drive away from the ch’teau. It turned right through some trees and disappeared. "See," he told his corporal, "told you I could speak French."

As McLane's platoon dug in behind the River Dyle, they saw waves of German bombers passing overhead and flying on toward Brussels.


RAF 85 Squadron
SECLIN, NEAR LILLE, FRANCE

85 Squadron still wouldn't let Denis Wissler fly and so he was writing up his diary. He became aware of a distant drone. It must be the Hurricanes returning again. Then he realized the note was wrong. Bombers! He sprinted for his life. Two bombs landed thirty feet from him, demolishing the sleeping quarters. In the rubble they found a body. A cook was pulled out alive, whimpering with pain. Another bomb hit the adjutant's car. His driver had been blown to pieces. In the evening Wissler wrote: "I came nearest to death today than I have ever been....I was in the Ante-Room and my God did I run....There was a raid into Germany, which our chaps convoyed, and Dickey Lee has so far not returned. We are going to sleep by the aeroplanes in a Nissen hut tonight."

Dickey Lee had doubled his score to four on May 11 before disappearing somewhere deep in Belgium, now a long way behind enemy lines. He was the squadron's hero. Tall and handsome, he looked every inch the dashing young air ace. Lee was twenty-three and had graduated from the RAF College at Cranwell in 1937. He had been in France since the beginning of the war. He knew his Hurricane inside out and had even flown stunts in a film. Wissler, by contrast, had joined up on July 10, 1939, the eve of his nineteenth birthday, and he knew he looked his age. He had completed his basic flying training in April and was only in France because he had drawn the short straw when one of eight trainee pilots was required to go. He had little more than two hundred hours in the air and only a handful of these had been in a Hurricane.

Mounting casualties brought him his chance, and on Sunday, May 12, Wissler finally represented B Flight in more than just late-night bar games. Straight away, he found that flying patrols wasn't easy. On the first one he got lost. He landed at an airfield that turned out to be a French base, got directions, flew home, and did another sortie. They didn't find any enemy but the tension and excitement quickly unsettled him. On the evening of May 12, from new quarters in Lesquin, he scrawled, "I now have had 6 hours sleep in 48 hours and haven't washed for over 36 hours. My God am I tired? And I am up again at 3 AM tomorrow."

Monday morning brought good news. Dickey Lee turned up. He had crashed, been captured, escaped from a hayloft, borrowed some clothes from a peasant, and picked his way through enemy lines. Typical. Wissler flew two more patrols that day. On the second his flight was bounced by Messerschmitt 109s, the fastest and most deadly German fighter plane. The squadron leader was shot down but bailed out. Fleeing for the clouds, Wissler found himself alone and disoriented. He landed at an airfield that turned out to be Cambrai and a French engineer told him that his plane was gushing oil. While English ground crew were summoned to find the fault, Wissler ate in the "very pukka" French mess, acutely conscious of his own disheveled state, and then finally got a good night's sleep.

Taking off without being bombed, handling tight maneuvers without stalling, finding his way back to the airfield and landing the plane among shell craters demanded all the skill he could yet command. Pilots like Dickey Lee or Paul Richey had three years of flying behind them, and six months to learn the geography of northern France. Wissler had to try to master all these things in four days while, simultaneously, the Luftwaffe was doing its best to kill him. No wonder he was tired.


LONDON

Within days of coming to power, Churchill was juggling military resources, attempting to boost war production, and dealing with a panic-stricken ally. Across London there were many who thought he was singularly ill equipped for the job. His enemies called him unstable, impetuous, and absolutely the wrong man to trust with weighty matters of state in a moment of unsurpassed crisis. Some of those who had served under him in the First World War remembered the disastrous landings he'd masterminded at Gallipoli. They predicted more of the same. Such fears were amplified when Churchill announced that he would combine the role of Prime Minister with running the Ministry of Defence. He also proclaimed that he would lead a special defense committee made up of himself and the Chiefs of Staff, putting him in day-to-day, hour-to-hour command of Britain's armed forces. Clearly this was not going to be Parliament's war, or even the Cabinet's war -- it was going to be Churchill's war. At first he spent very little time in Downing Street, preferring to remain at the Admiralty whilst the Chamberlains packed their bags.

Waiting for him inside No. 10 was a nervous twenty-year-old secretary called Marian Holmes. Holmes had been with Chamberlain for three years. He had been a gracious, considerate employer who stopped work at 6:00 p.m. and retired after a simple dinner to his private rooms to read. She was dreading her first encounter with her new boss: "The staff at No. 10 had grave misgivings about this man. They'd heard rumors about how he was impossible to please, difficult to work for, that he was a man used to giving orders but unaware of the practicalities of carrying them out."

* * *

Lord Halifax had turned down his chance to form a government. Nevertheless, some of his followers were free with their scorn about the man who had taken control of the nation. "Rab" Butler was Halifax's deputy at the Foreign Office. In the presence of John "Jock" Colville, Chamberlain's assistant private secretary, Butler called Churchill "a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of similar type." Butler despaired that "the good clean tradition of English politics...had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history." Colville, who was about to start working for the new Prime Minister, wrote in his diary that "Everybody here is in despair at the prospect....[Churchill] may be able to speed up our creaking military and industrial machinery, but it is a terrible risk, it involves the danger of rash and spectacular exploits." Churchill's critics were skeptical about his lifestyle and way of working. The new Prime Minister liked to be at the center of a fluid group of advisers, ministers, and generals who would together embark on late-night brainstorming sessions sustained by huge dinners, cigars, and champagne. "The Crazy Gang," one senior official called them. Inspired by the atmosphere (or, some said, by the alcohol), Churchill's mind would race, enthusiastically leaping from topic to topic, and a plethora of memos, directives, and letters would result. Halifax, Butler, and many others distrusted Churchill's fondness for boisterous dining partners like Canadian newspaper proprietor Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, or the MP and financier Brendan Bracken.

But to his admirers Churchill represented hope, inspiration, and a pure galvanizing energy. Here, at last, was a natural leader, someone who would revitalize the nation and trample on the toes of the slow, shabby, and pusillanimous Britain of recent years. Violet Bonham-Carter, whose father, Herbert Asquith, had led the nation into the First World War, wrote to Churchill during his first week in office: "My wish is realised and I can face all that is to come with faith and confidence. I know, as you do, that the wind has been sown and that we must all reap the whirlwind. But you will ride it, instead of being driven before it. Thank heaven that you are there and at the helm of our destiny." And whatever his detractors might say about overconfidence, Churchill more than anyone knew the size of the task before him. He had spent years cataloguing British military weakness. Now he would have to make the best he could of the paltry resources available.

Three days after taking office, he addressed the House of Commons for the first time as Prime Minister. He announced in a grave and trembling voice: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering."

Copyright © 1999 by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig and Brook Lapping Productions

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