Dominion, p.1C. J. Sansom
To the memory of my parents,
TREVOR SANSOM (1921–2000)
ANN SANSOM (1924–1990),
who in 1939–1945 endured the hardships
and did their bit to defeat the Nazis.
‘The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world will move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.’
WINSTON CHURCHILL, 18 June 1940
All events that take place after
5 p.m. on 9 May 1940
The Cabinet Room, 10 Downing Street, London
4.30 p.m., 9 May 1940
CHURCHILL WAS LAST TO ARRIVE. He knocked once, sharply, and entered. Through the tall windows the warm spring day was fading, shadows lengthening on Horse Guards Parade. Margesson, the Conservative Chief Whip, sat with Prime Minister Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax at the far end of the long, coffin-shaped table which dominated the Cabinet room. As Churchill approached them Margesson, formally dressed as ever in immaculate black morning coat, stood up.
Churchill nodded at the Chief Whip, looking him sternly in the eye. Margesson, who was Chamberlain’s creature, had made life difficult for him when he had stood out against party policy over India and Germany in the years before the war. He turned to Chamberlain and Halifax, the Prime Minister’s right-hand man in the government’s appeasement of Germany. ‘Neville. Edward.’ Both men looked bad; no sign today of Chamberlain’s habitual half-sneer, nor of the snappy arrogance which had alienated the House of Commons during yesterday’s debate over the military defeat in Norway. Ninety Conservatives had voted with the Opposition or abstained; Chamberlain had left the chamber followed by shouts of ‘Go!’ The Prime Minister’s eyes were red from lack of sleep or perhaps even tears – though it was hard to imagine Neville Chamberlain weeping. Last night the word around a feverish House of Commons was that his leadership could not survive.
Halifax looked little better. The Foreign Secretary held his enormously tall, thin body as erect as ever but his face was deathly pale, white skin stretched over his long, bony features. The rumour was that he was reluctant to take over, did not have the stomach for the premiership – literally, for at times of stress he was plagued with agonizing pains in his gut.
Churchill addressed Chamberlain, his deep voice sombre, the lisp pronounced. ‘What is the latest news?’
‘More German forces massed at the Belgian border. There could be an attack at any time.’
There was silence for a moment, the tick of a carriage clock on the marble mantelpiece suddenly loud.
‘Please sit down,’ Chamberlain said.
Churchill took a chair. Chamberlain continued, in tones of quiet sadness: ‘We have discussed yesterday’s Commons vote at considerable length. We feel there are grave difficulties in my remaining as Prime Minister. I have made up my mind that I must go. Support for me within the party is haemorrhaging. If there should be a vote of confidence, yesterday’s abstainers may vote against the government. And soundings with the Labour Party indicate they would only join a coalition under a new Prime Minister. It is impossible for me to continue with this level of personal antipathy.’ Chamberlain looked again at Margesson, almost as though seeking succour, but the Chief Whip only nodded sadly and said, ‘If we are to have a coalition now, which we must, national unity is essential.’
Looking at Chamberlain, Churchill could find it in himself to pity him. He had lost everything; for two years he had tried to meet Hitler’s demands, believing the Führer had made his last claim for territory at Munich only for him to invade Czechoslovakia a few months later, and then Poland. After Poland fell there had been seven months of military inaction, of ‘phoney war’. Last month Chamberlain had told the Commons that Hitler had ‘missed the bus’ for a spring campaign, only for him suddenly to invade and occupy Norway, throwing back British forces. France would be next. Chamberlain looked between Churchill and Halifax. Then he spoke again, his voice still expressionless. ‘It is between the two of you. I would be willing, if desired, to serve under either.’
Churchill nodded and leaned back in his chair. He looked at Halifax, who met his gaze with a cold, probing stare. Churchill knew Halifax held nearly all the cards, that most of the Conservative Party wanted him as the next Prime Minister. He had been Viceroy of India, a senior minister for years, a cool, steady, Olympian aristocrat, both trusted and respected. And most Tories had never forgiven Churchill his Liberal past, nor his opposition to his own party over Germany. They viewed him as an adventurer, unreliable, lacking in judgement. Chamberlain wanted Halifax, as did Margesson, together with most of the Cabinet. And so, Churchill knew, did Halifax’s friend, the King. But Halifax had no fire in his belly, none. Churchill loathed Hitler but Halifax treated the Nazi leader with a sort of patrician contempt; he had once said the only people the Führer made life difficult for in Germany were a few trade unionists and Jews.
Churchill, though, had had the wind in his sails with the public since war was declared last September; Chamberlain had been forced to bring him back into the Cabinet when his warnings over Hitler had, finally, been proved right. But how to play that one card? Churchill settled more firmly into his chair. Say nothing, he thought, see where Halifax stands, whether he wants the job at all, and how much.
‘Winston,’ Chamberlain began, his tone questioning now. ‘You
Churchill did not answer, but stood abruptly and walked over to the window, looking out into the bright spring afternoon. Don’t reply, he thought. Flush Halifax out.
The carriage clock struck five, a high, pinging sound. As it finished Big Ben began booming out the hour. As the last note died away Halifax finally spoke.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘that I would be better placed to deal with the Labour men.’
Churchill turned and faced him, his expression suddenly fierce. ‘The trials to be faced, Edward, will be very terrible.’ Halifax looked tired, desperately unhappy, but there was determination in his face now. He had found steel in himself after all.
‘That, Winston, is why I would like you at my side in a new, smaller War Cabinet. You would be Minister of Defence, you would have overall responsibility for conduct of the war.’
Churchill considered the offer, moving his heavy jaw slowly from side to side. If he was in charge of the war effort, perhaps he could dominate Halifax, become Prime Minister in all but name. It all depended on who else Halifax put in place. He asked, ‘And the others? Who will you appoint?’
‘From the Conservatives, you and I and Sam Hoare; I think that best reflects the balance of opinion within the party. Attlee for Labour, and Lloyd George to represent the Liberal interest, and as a national figure, the man who led us to victory in 1918.’ Halifax turned to Chamberlain. ‘I think you could be of most use now, Neville, as Leader of the Commons.’
It was bad news, the worst. Lloyd George who, for all his recent backpedalling, had spent the thirties idolizing Hitler, calling him Germany’s George Washington. And Sam Hoare, the arch-appeaser, Churchill’s old enemy. Attlee was a fighter, for all his diffidence, but the two of them would be in a minority.
‘Lloyd George is seventy-seven,’ Churchill said. ‘Is he up to the weight that must be borne?’
‘I believe so. And he will be good for morale.’ Halifax was sounding more resolute now. ‘Winston,’ he said, ‘I would very much like you beside me at this hour.’
Churchill hesitated. This new War Cabinet would hobble him. He knew that Halifax had decided to take the premiership reluctantly and out of duty. He would do his best, but his heart was not in the struggle that was coming. Like so many, he had fought in the Great War and feared seeing all that bloodshed again.
For a moment Churchill thought of resigning from the Cabinet; but what good would that do? And Margesson was right; public unity was all important now. He would do what he could, while he could. He had thought, earlier that day, that his hour had come at last, but it was not to be after all, not yet. ‘I will serve under you,’ he said, his heart heavy.
ALMOST ALL THE PASSENGERS on the tube to Victoria were, like David and his family, on their way to the Remembrance Sunday parade. It was a cold morning and the men and women all wore black winter coats. Scarves and handbags were also black, or muted brown, the only colour the bright red poppies everyone wore in their buttonholes. David ushered Sarah and her mother into a carriage; they found two empty wooden benches and sat facing each other.
As the tube rattled out of Kenton Station David looked round him. Everyone seemed sad and sombre, befitting the day. There were relatively few older men – most of the Great War veterans, like Sarah’s father, would be in central London already, preparing for the march past the Cenotaph. David was himself a veteran of the second war, the brief 1939–40 conflict that people called the Dunkirk campaign or the Jews’ war, according to political taste. But David, who had served in Norway, and the other survivors of that defeated, humiliated army – whose retreat from Europe had been followed so quickly by Britain’s surrender – did not have a place at the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Nor did the British soldiers who had died in the endless conflicts in India, and now Africa, that had begun since the 1940 Peace Treaty. Remembrance Day now had a political overtone: remember the slaughter when Britain and Germany fought in 1914–18; remember that must never happen again. Britain must remain Germany’s ally.
‘It’s very cloudy,’ Sarah’s mother said. ‘I hope it isn’t going to rain.’
‘It’ll be all right, Betty,’ David said reassuringly. ‘The forecast said it would just stay cloudy.’
Betty nodded. A plump little woman in her sixties, her whole life was focused on caring for Sarah’s father, who had had half his face blown off on the Somme in 1916.
‘It gets very uncomfortable for Jim, marching in the rain,’ she said. ‘The water drips behind his prosthesis and of course he can’t take it off.’
Sarah took her mother’s hand. Her square face with its strong round chin – her father’s chin – looked dignified. Her long blonde hair, curled at the ends, was framed by a modest black hat. Betty smiled at her. The tube halted at a station and more people got on. Sarah turned to David. ‘There’s more passengers than usual.’
‘People wanting to get a first look at the Queen, I imagine.’
‘I hope we manage to find Steve and Irene all right,’ Betty said, worrying again.
‘I told them to meet us by the ticket booths at Victoria,’ Sarah told her. ‘They’ll be there, dear, don’t worry.’
David looked out of the window. He was not looking forward to spending the afternoon with his wife’s sister and her husband. Irene was good-natured enough, although she was full of silly ideas and never stopped talking, but David loathed Steve, with his mixture of oily charm and arrogance, his Blackshirt politics. David would have to try to keep his lip buttoned as usual.
The train ground to a jolting halt, just before the mouth of a tunnel. There was a hiss somewhere as brakes engaged. ‘Not today,’ someone said. ‘These delays are getting worse. It’s a disgrace.’ Outside, David saw, the track looked down on rows of back-to-back houses of soot-stained London brick. Grey smoke rose from chimneys, washing was hanging out to dry in the backyards. The streets were empty. A grocer’s window just below them had a prominent sign in the window, Food Stamps Taken Here. There was a sudden jolt and the train moved into the tunnel, only to judder to a halt again a few moments later. David saw his own face reflected back from the dark window, his head framed by his bulky dark coat with its wide lapels. A bowler hat hid his short black hair, a few unruly curls just visible. His unlined, regular features made him look younger than thirty-five; deceptively unmarked. He suddenly recalled a childhood memory, his mother’s constant refrain to women visitors, ‘Isn’t he a good-looking boy, couldn’t you just eat him?’ Delivered in her sharp Dublin brogue, it had made him squirm with embarrassment. Another memory came unbidden, of when he was seventeen and had won the inter-schools Diving Cup. He remembered standing on the high board, a sea of faces far below, the board trembling slightly beneath his feet. Two steps forward and then the dive, down into the great expanse of still water, the moment of fear and then the exhilaration of striking out into silence.
Steve and Irene were waiting at Victoria. Irene, Sarah’s older sister, was also tall and blonde but with a little dimpled chin like her mother’s. Her black coat had a thick brown fur collar. Steve was good-looking in a raffish way, with a thin black moustache that made him look like a poor man’s Errol Flynn. He wore a black fedora on his thickly brilliantined head – David could smell the chemical tang as he shook his brother-in-law’s hand.
‘How’s the Civil Service, old man?’ Steve asked.
‘Surviving.’ David smiled.
‘Still keeping watch over the Empire?’
‘Something like that. How are the boys?’
‘Grand. Getting bigger and noisier every week. We might bring them next year, they’re getting old enough.’ David saw a shadow pass across Sarah’s face and knew she was remembering their own dead son.
‘We ought to hurry, get the tube to Westminster,’ Irene said. ‘Look at all these
They joined the throng heading for the escalator. As the crowd pressed together their pace slowed to a silent shuffle, reminding David for a moment of his time as a soldier, shuffling with the rest of the weary troops onto the ships evacuating British forces from Norway, back in 1940.
They turned into Whitehall. David’s office was just behind the Cenotaph; men walking past would still remove their hats as they passed it, respectfully and unselfconsciously, though fewer and fewer with each passing year – thirty-four now since the Great War ended. The sky was grey-white, the air cold. People’s breath steamed before them as they jostled – quietly and politely – for places behind the low metal barriers opposite the tall white rectangle of the Cenotaph, a line of policemen in heavy coats in front. Some were ordinary constables in their helmets, but many were Special Branch Auxiliaries in their flat peaked caps and slimmer blue uniforms. When they were first created in the 1940s, to deal with growing civil unrest, David’s father had said the Auxiliaries reminded him of the Black and Tans, the violent trench veterans recruited by Lloyd George to augment the police during the Irish Independence War. All were armed.
The ceremony had changed in the last few years; serving personnel no longer stood on parade around the Cenotaph, blocking the public view, and wooden boards had been laid on blocks behind the barriers to give people a better vantage point. It was part of what Prime Minister Beaverbrook called ‘demystifying the thing’.
The family managed to get a good place opposite Downing Street and the big Victorian building which housed the Dominions Office where David worked. Beyond the barriers, forming three sides of a hollow square around the Cenotaph, the military and religious leaders had already taken their places. The soldiers were in full dress uniform, Archbishop Headlam, head of the section of the Anglican Church that had not split away in opposition to his compromises with the regime, in gorgeous green-and-gold vestments. Beside them stood the politicians and ambassadors, each holding a wreath. David looked them over; there was Prime Minister Beaverbrook with his wizened little monkey face, the wide fleshy mouth downturned in an expression of sorrow. For forty years, since he first came to England from Canada with business scandals hanging over him, Beaverbrook had combined building a newspaper empire with manoeuvring in politics, pushing his causes of free enterprise, the Empire, and appeasement on the public and politicians. He was trusted by few, elected by none, and after the death of his immediate predecessor, Lloyd George, in 1945, the coalition had made him Prime Minister.
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