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The Secret of Churchill’s Darkest Hour: An American General in London

Right under the nose of an ambassador who thought the Brits were finished Raymond E. Lee told the White House it was otherwise—and he was right.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

LONDON—In the 19 months between Winston Churchill becoming prime minister and Pearl Harbor, fascism came as close as it ever would to world domination.

We are being newly awakened—in a timely way—to those months of peril not by historians but by two films, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s forthcoming Darkest Hour.

The first is prelude: the rout of Britain’s army in France turns into heroic evacuation. The second is a penetrating glimpse of Churchill as he summons and projects the indomitable spirit of his island people while not being sure that it will actually appear and prevail.

It’s an unplanned but neat contrast in dramatic power. In Dunkirk there really is no star. Instead there is a miraculous critical mass of human determination and survival. In Darkest Hour there is a single and exceptional human agent who moves history (a bravura performance from Gary Oldman).

And at the heart of this epic period lies the relationship between Britain and America. Churchill knew with a desperate but privately held certainty that unless America came into the war Britain would not survive and at least half the world would fall under the fascist heel for generations.

Churchill opened a secret back channel to President Franklin Roosevelt, writing to him under the pseudonym of “Former Naval Person.” Roosevelt wanted to help Churchill shore up British military resources but was limited in the public support he could show because of powerful domestic anti-war and isolationist interests.

He was also constrained because his ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, was predicting that Hitler would swiftly defeat Britain and, therefore, any military aid sent to Churchill would end up in Nazi hands.

However, there was another secret back channel providing a contrary view—remarkably from inside the London embassy, unknown to Kennedy. Even to this day the influence of that source is rarely mentioned and seriously underrated. He was the U.S. military attaché, General Raymond E. Lee.

Lee was scathing of Kennedy: “Kennedy has the speculator’s smartness but also his sharpshooting and facile insensitivity to the great forces which are now playing like heat lightning over the map of the world. The ambassador thinks the British are going to be beaten.”

But Lee also had to be careful to keep his views unknown to skeptics at high levels in the army who were suspicious of being drawn into a European war—or, as they saw it, being tricked into protecting Britain’s empire.

In fact, of all accounts of the months in which Britain’s survival was in question, the diaries that Lee kept provide some of the shrewdest insider assessments of the major players, including Churchill. The diaries, not published until 1971, reveal the essence of what Lee was sending in dispatches to the White House—most crucially they disclose how, through his own powers of observation, he slowly came to believe that in the course of a few months in the summer and fall of 1940 the tide had turned and Hitler would not prevail.

Lee came from a St. Louis family that was instinctively Anglophile. Indeed, Lee’s brother said that they considered themselves to be a “modern and improved breed of Englishmen”—Episcopalians in accord with the Anglican church but also believers in the American republic as superior to Britain’s compromise of a constitutional monarchy with aristocratic privileges.

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Notwithstanding that background, Lee mingled easily among the British upper classes. He had been military attaché since 1935 and so, when the war began, he was well placed to assess whether, like France, its political and social castes lacked the stomach for a fight to the death with fascism.

It was a good question and it remained unresolved until, in May 1940, Churchill came to power and dismissed any idea of compromising with Hitler.

Even then, there were lingering doubts. Early in July Lee encountered an aristocrat (unnamed) who told him that Britain was great only as long as it was run by aristocrats and now the country had fallen into the hands of the middle classes “who have invaded Parliament and completely monopolized the civil service…they can’t rise to meet the great occasions…if this country is beaten it will be the civil service that had done it.”

After that encounter, Lee noted in his diary, “I had a cup of tea and went out to sit in a chair in Green Park, wondering how long this peaceful atmosphere can last.”

He didn’t have to wonder much longer about where the British leadership was heading. Two days later he went to hear Churchill address the House of Commons:

“Churchill bounced to his feet, a most ordinary and undistinguished little rotund figure…but then, with the most dramatic effect and the most superb composure he narrated as a historian this vivid passage of history. He is a magnificent writer of history and I think the greatest political orator alive. When he finished the decorum of Parliament vanished. All were on their feet, shouting, cheering and waving order papers and handkerchiefs like mad.”

This was to be the summer of the Battle of Britain, when the small band of Royal Air Force fighter pilots of whom Churchill would say “never have so many owed so much to so few” were pitched against an armada of German bombers and their fighter escorts, a battle described by its own calligraphy of white con trails against the brilliant blue skies of a rare settled summer over London.

As the battle began, Lee wrote on July 15: “This is the date I have fixed in my own mind as the edge of the blitzkrieg season. I believe Hitler will attack this island with everything he has at any moment from now on. I also believe that if he is not successful by the fifteenth of September he will never be.”

A month later, when the battle was at its most severe, Lee was given his first look at the innovation that would decide the outcome every bit as much as the heroism of the pilots—a system designed to control the way in which the fragile resources of the RAF could be preserved and deployed in the most effective way:

“We went down, down, down into great subterranean chambers where in two great rooms two of the most intricate and modern organizations of the world are housed. In one room is the huge map on which moment by moment the reports of enemy location are plotted and enemy air and sea movements exposed, in another an even greater chart where actions are followed second by second.

‘The great rooms are almost silent—only a soft murmur of voices as messages come and go over headsets…I had no idea the British could evolve and operate so intricate, so scientific and rapid an organization…”

Lee left out of his diary—obviously for security reasons—what he must have included in his communications to the White House. The British had pioneered radar and embedded it in a network that linked every airfield to the controllers in “the great rooms” so that they were able to intercept the German bombers with unprecedented accuracy.

Somebody, possibly Churchill (who had himself watched some of the battle from an underground control center) knew what they were doing by allowing Lee to witness this winning secret. Outwardly the country could still seem in the grip of archaic social protocols; behind that façade a new technical meritocracy was outsmarting the Luftwaffe, supposedly an invincible force.

By September 3 Lee was writing: “On a cold-blooded appraisal one might say the betting on Britain beating off an invasion this fall is about 3 to 1, with the odds lengthening every week.”

This assessment was consequential because in Washington there was no equivalent of today’s National Security Council to provide intelligence to the president. Later Lee persuaded the White House to establish the Joint Intelligence Committee for this purpose. In 1940 his estimates of British strength were a one-man intelligence source that the White House regarded as invaluable and unbiased by political or partisan influences.

Even in these dark days Lee was not above showing a little British-style eccentricity. He was living comfortably in a suite at the swankiest hotel in town, Claridges. In the summer he had taken to wearing, when out of uniform, a straw boater that he said he would stick with until the end of the World Series. He was supporting the Cincinnati Reds. (They beat the Detroit Tigers 4-3).

Some of this panache was dented when, on the evening of Saturday September 8, the London Blitz began. Although Lee could not know it at that moment, the Luftwaffe had suffered so severely against the RAF in daylight raids that Hitler ordered sustained night bombing against the capital.

Once he realized what was happening, Lee took a taxi to where the first ferocious bombing was targeted—the working class areas around the London docks. “I had to park the taxi and walk through the streets of Wapping…tremendous fires were raging but the people displayed little excitement and no signs of panic.”

Lee returned to Claridges where the Blitz was barely audible, although the glow of fires defined the horizon. He dressed for dinner, called some friends, and “we had a magnum of champagne to celebrate the commencement of the real war.”

A few days later he observed: “Poor Miss McCann, an embassy secretary who lives very respectably in a genteel hotel in Bedford Square, is a trifle shaken by the fact that her bedroom door was suddenly blown across her bedroom last night.”

This gently sardonic tone reflected Lee’s own composure under fire and his view that reporting of the Blitz was being overdone. American newspaper and radio reporters in London delivered daily accounts from bomb-blasted streets and stridently on radio, with the audio backdrop of sirens and explosions.

Lee summoned a group of reporters to his office at the embassy, including James Reston of the New York Times who later described the meeting in his memoirs. Lee produced a large volume from a full set of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary and opened a page at “devastated.” Their use of the term for London was, he said, hyperbole.

“London is not devastated gentlemen, and if you want one soldier’s opinion it will not be devastated.”

On October 5 Lee wrote of Kennedy: “The Ambassador has reservations to go home, taking a couple of his henchmen with him. I doubt he will be back. He has been wrong on many points about the war and I don’t believe Churchill has had much use for him.”

Ten days later Lee observed: “This is the day I have fixed in my own mind as the one after which an invasion is highly improbable.”

He was right. Lee remained in London for another 14 months, when he was summoned to return home. He arrived at La Guardia Field, New York, on December 7, 1941. As his wife went to greet him the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced over the public address system. Britain would be alone no longer.