London Calling

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She did. In May 1940 Churchill, newly made prime minister, entered the sturdy cellar suite. “This is the room from which I’ll direct the war,” he said. With great care and skill the Imperial War Museum has made it possible to visit these chambers and to get a sense of the tremendous business that was conducted there. A tape-recorded tour lets you go at the pace you choose through the cabinet room (where you hear the proceedings of October 15, 1940, a day no better or worse than any other that appalling year: shortages everywhere, dire choices, business as usual), the radio room whence Churchill broadcast the speeches that, along with radar and the Spitfire, were about the only advantages Britain had just then, and the converted broom closet where Churchill spoke to his transatlantic counterpart over the world’s first hot line. This last was done in the greatest secrecy; a small brass washroom register on the door read “engaged” when he was inside, and while he patiently drew Roosevelt closer to the conflict, many of his aides thought the prime minister was suffering severe gastric difficulties.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the map room, where wall-size charts of the Atlantic are peppered nearly black with the million pinpricks that marked the convoys’ progress. On the map of Europe a blue wool thread runs a zigzag line down through the suburbs of Moscow—as far east as the Germans ever got. While these pins and their threads moved back and forth by inches and fractions of inches, men fought their way up the spine of Italy and across France and Belgium, Hitler’s great corpse factories started up and ran full blast, and fifty million people died.

Nobody died in the Cabinet War Rooms (although the stands of rifles in the corridors remind us that in 1940 the occupants were prepared to have the war end here), and yet they are as haunting as the Normandy beaches.

A very different echo of those times can be found half an hour outside London at Cliveden, the glorious country house that was home to Frederick, Prince of Wales, three dukes—and the Astors. Now a hotel, it is magnificently restored, and one can stay where Churchill and Mountbatten and Charlie Chaplin once visited. It’s ruinously expensive and worth every penny—the only way I know to get some idea of what it was like to be a guest in a grand stately home. A marvelously informative tape takes you on a two-hour tour of gardens splendid enough to touch even my mulishly nonagrarian soul. There is much history offered (you can swim in the pool where John Profumo met Christine Keeler), but what is interesting is that the thing the place is best remembered for is nowhere mentioned. The Cliveden Set, who gathered about Nancy Astor in the 1930s, despised Churchill as a reactionary. They all loved Britain, to be sure, but in Hitler’s dynamism and efficiency they saw a force that needed to be understood and accommodated.

When Churchill, newly made prime minister, entered the cellar suite he said, “This is the room from which I’ll direct the war.”

You can feel the incalculable distance between 1935 and 1940 in the dark magnificence of Cliveden’s main hall. Go have a glass of whisky in the pleasant little library beyond it. The room seems to have been the repository for books left behind by weekend guests. There they are on the shelves, novels from the thirties, in moss-colored bindings with titles like Mist Be My Mantle. Then the decade turns, and on the next shelf is Squadrons Up with its frontispiece showing “The Hawker Hurricane, Miracle Fighter.” Inside, a fragile clipping from the Daily Express of December 4, 1940, carries the American publisher Ralph Ingersoll’s account of Pilot Officer Hart, a twenty-two-year-old flier who had been shot down six times (the last one wasn’t worth talking about, Hart said, because “absolutely nothing happened”).

Hart kept going up; they all kept going up, rising from the green folds of country beyond Cliveden’s wide windows, climbing through the beautiful weather of the long-ago summer of 1940 to meet the Heinkels and Messerschmitts so high up that no sound reached the ground below, where the watchers could only try to read their fate in the momentous white scribble of contrails. They kept going up while Churchill followed the progress from his War Rooms, and Roosevelt from across the ocean, until at last Hitler, frustrated, turned against Russia instead, and the Yanks came from the prairies, and from Niagara, and from gangster-ridden Chicago to add their weight to the balance.

—Richard F. Snow