- Published: 5 January 2022
- ISBN: 9781787467996
- Imprint: Arrow
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 448
- RRP: $19.99
Now a major NETFLIX movie starring Jeremy Irons
Shortly before one o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday 27 September 1938, Mr Hugh Legat of His Majesty’s Diplomatic Service was shown to his table beside one of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Ritz Restaurant in London, ordered a half-bottle of 1921 Dom Perignon he could not afford, folded his copy of The Times to page seventeen, and began to read for the third time the speech that had been delivered the night before in Berlin’s Sportpalast by Adolf Hitler.
HERR HITLER’S SPEECH
FINAL WORD TO PRAGUE
PEACE OR WAR?
Occasionally Legat glanced across the dining room to check the entrance. Perhaps it was his imagination but it seemed that the guests and even the waiters moving back and forth across the carpet between the dusky pink upholstered chairs were unusually subdued. There was no laughter. Soundlessly beyond the thick plate glass, forty or fifty workmen, some stripped to the waist in the humid weather, were digging slit trenches in Green Park.
There should remain no doubt for the whole world at this time that it is not one man, or one leader, who speaks but the whole German people. I know that in this hour the whole people – millions strong – agree with every one of my words (Heil).
He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful – impressive in its horrible way – it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hand pounding the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It had seemed to well up from some black subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.
I am grateful to Mr Chamberlain for all his efforts, and I have assured him that the German people want nothing but peace. I have further assured him, and I emphasise it now, that when this problem is solved, Germany has no more territorial problems in Europe.
Legat took out his fountain pen and underlined the passage, and then did the same with another, earlier reference to the Anglo–German Naval Agreement:
Such an agreement is only morally justified if both nations promise one another solemnly never to wage war against one another again. Germany has this will. Let us all hope that those who are of the same conviction will gain the upper hand among the British people.
He put aside the paper and checked his pocket watch. It was characteristic of him not to carry the time on his wrist like most men of his age but rather on the end of a chain. He was only twenty-eight yet seemed older – his face pale, his manner grave, his suit dark. He had made the reservation a fortnight ago, before the crisis had blown up. Now he felt guilty. He would give her another five minutes; then he would have to leave.
It was a quarter-past when he glimpsed her reflection between the flowers in the wall of gilded mirrors. She was standing on the edge of the restaurant, practically on tiptoe, peering around blankly, her long white neck extended, her chin tilted upwards. He studied her for a few more moments as if she were a stranger and wondered what on earth he would make of her if she were not his wife. ‘A striking figure’ – that was the sort of thing people said of her. ‘Not pretty, exactly.’ ‘No, but handsome.’ ‘Pamela’s what one calls a thoroughbred.’ ‘Yes, tremendous breeding – and entirely out of poor Hugh’s league …’ (This latter he had overheard at the party to celebrate their engagement.) He raised his hand. He stood. Finally, she noticed him, smiled and waved and moved towards him, cutting quickly between the tables in her tight skirt and tailored silk jacket, leaving a wake of turned heads.
She kissed him firmly on the mouth. She was slightly out of breath. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry …’
‘It doesn’t matter. I’ve only just arrived.’ Over the past twelve months he had learned not to ask where she had been. As well as her handbag she was carrying a small cardboard box. She placed it on the table in front of him and pulled off her gloves.
‘I thought we agreed no presents?’ He lifted the lid. A black rubber skull, a metal snout and the vacant glassy eye-sockets of a gas mask stared back up at him. He recoiled.
‘I took the children for a fitting. Apparently, I’m to put theirs on first. That will test one’s maternal devotion, don’t you think?’ She lit a cigarette. ‘Could I have a drink? I’m parched.’
He signalled to the waiter.
‘Only a half-bottle?’
‘I have to work this afternoon.’
‘Of course you do! I wasn’t sure you’d even show.’
‘I ought not to have done, to be honest. I tried to call but you weren’t at home.’
‘Well, now you know where I was. A perfectly innocent explanation.’ She smiled and leaned towards him. They clinked glasses. ‘Happy anniversary, darling.’
In the park, the workmen swung their picks.
She ordered quickly, without even looking at the menu: no starter, Dover sole off the bone, green salad. Legat handed back his menu and said he’d have the same. He couldn’t think about food, couldn’t rid his mind of the image of his children wearing gas masks. John was three, Diana two. All that cautioning of them not to run too fast, to wrap up warm, not to suck on toys or crayons because you never knew where they might have been. He put the box under the table and pushed it out of sight with his foot.
‘Were they very frightened?’
‘Of course not. They thought the whole thing was a game.’
‘Do you know, sometimes I feel exactly that? Even if you see the telegrams it’s difficult not to think it’s all just some ghastly joke. A week ago it looked as though it had all been fixed. Then Hitler changed his mind.’
‘What will happen now?’
‘Who can say? Possibly nothing.’ He felt he should try to sound optimistic. ‘They’re still talking in Berlin – at least they were when I left the office.’
‘And if they stop talking, when will it start?’
He showed her the headline in The Times and shrugged. ‘I suppose tomorrow.’
‘Really? As soon as that?’
‘He says he’ll cross the Czech border on Saturday. Our military experts reckon it will take him three days to get his tanks and artillery in position. That means he’ll have to mobilise tomorrow.’ He tossed the paper back on the table and drank some champagne; it tasted like acid in his mouth. ‘I tell you what – let’s change the subject.’
From his jacket pocket he produced a ring-box.
‘It will be too big,’ he warned her.
‘Oh, but it’s charming!’ She slipped the ring on to her finger, held up her hand and turned it back and forth beneath the chandelier so that the blue stone glinted in the light. ‘You are a wonder. I thought we hadn’t any money?’
‘We haven’t. It was my mother’s.’
He had been afraid she might think him cheap, but to his surprise she reached her hand across the table and laid it on his. ‘You are sweet.’ Her skin was cool. Her slim forefinger stroked his wrist.
‘I wish we could take a room,’ he said suddenly, ‘and stay in bed all afternoon. Forget about Hitler. Forget about the children.’
‘Well, why don’t you see if you can arrange it? We’re here. What’s to stop us?’ She held his gaze with her large grey-blue eyes and he saw, with a sudden insight that caught him in his throat, that she was only saying it because she knew it would never happen.
Behind him a man coughed politely. ‘Mr Legat?’
Pamela took away her hand. He turned to find the maître d’, palms pressed together as in prayer, grave with self-importance.
‘Number Ten Downing Street are on the line for you, sir.’ He was careful to say it just loudly enough for the neighbouring tables to hear.
‘Hell!’ Legat stood and threw down his napkin. ‘Will you excuse me? I’ll have to take it.’
‘I understand. You go and save the world.’ She waved him on his way. ‘We can have lunch any time.’ She started packing her things into her handbag.
‘Just give me a minute.’ There was a pleading edge to his voice. ‘We really have to talk.’
He hovered for a moment, conscious of the nearby diners staring at him. ‘Do wait,’ he said. He assumed what he hoped was a neutral expression and followed the maître d’ out of the restaurant and into the lobby.
‘I thought you’d like some privacy, sir.’ The maître d’ opened a door to a small office. On the desk was a telephone, the handset beside it.
‘Thank you.’ He picked up the receiver and waited until the door had closed before he spoke. ‘Legat.’
‘Sorry, Hugh.’ He recognised the voice of Cecil Syers, one of his colleagues in the Private Office. ‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to come back right away. It’s about to get rather hectic. Cleverly is asking for you.’
‘Has something happened?’
There was a hesitation at the other end. The Private Secretaries were told always to assume the operator was listening in. ‘It looks as though the talking’s over. Our man is flying home.’
‘Understood. I’m on my way.’
He replaced the receiver on its cradle. For a moment he stood paralysed. Was this what History felt like? Germany would attack Czechoslovakia. France would declare war on Germany. Britain would support France. His children would wear gas masks. The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park. It was all too much to grasp.
He opened the door and hurried back across the lobby into the restaurant. But such was the efficiency of the Ritz’s staff their table was already cleared.
In Piccadilly there was not a taxi to be had. He danced back and forth in the gutter, vainly waving his rolled-up newspaper at every passing cab. Finally, he gave up, rounded the corner into St James’s Street and set off down the hill. From time to time he glanced across the road in the hope he might see his wife. Where had she gone in such a hurry? If she was walking straight home to Westminster, this was the direction she would have to take. Best not to think of it; best never to think of it. Already he was sweating in the unseasonable heat. Beneath his old-fashioned three-piece suit, he could feel his shirt sticking to his back. Yet the sky was dull, threatening a rain that somehow never came, and all along Pall Mall, behind the tall windows of the great London clubs – the Royal Automobile, the Reform, the Athenaeum – the chandeliers glittered in the humid gloom.
He did not slacken his pace until he reached the top of the steps leading down from Carlton House Terrace to St James’s Park. Here he found his path blocked by a silent crowd of twenty watching what looked like a small airship rising slowly behind the Houses of Parliament. It ascended past the spire of Big Ben, an oddly beautiful sight – majestic, surreal. In the distance he could make out half a dozen others in the sky south of the Thames – tiny silver torpedoes, some already thousands of feet high.
The man beside him murmured, ‘I suppose you could say the balloon’s gone up.’
Legat glanced at him. He remembered his father using exactly the same expression when he was home on leave during the Great War. He had to go back to France because the balloon had gone up. To Hugh’s six-year-old ears it had sounded as if he was going off to a party. It was the last time he had seen him.
He edged his way around the spectators, trotted down the three wide flights of steps, across the Mall and into Horse Guards Road. And here, in the centre of the sandy expanse of the parade ground, in the half-hour since he left, something else had happened. A pair of anti-aircraft guns had appeared. Soldiers were unloading sandbags from a flatbed lorry, working quickly as if they feared the Luftwaffe might appear at any moment, passing them from hand to hand along a human chain. A half-built wall of sandbags surrounded a searchlight battery. A gunner furiously turned a wheel; one of the barrels swung around and elevated until it was almost perpendicular.
Legat took out a large white cotton handkerchief and wiped his face. It would not do to turn up red-faced and perspiring. If there was one sin that was frowned upon above all others in the Private Office, it was appearing to be in a flap.
He climbed the steps into the narrow, shadowed, soot-blackened cutting of Downing Street. On the pavement opposite Number 10, a group of reporters turned their heads to follow his arrival. A photographer raised his camera, but when he saw it was no one of importance he lowered it again. Legat nodded to the policeman, who rapped once, hard, with the knocker. The door opened as if of its own volition. He stepped inside.
It was four months since he had been seconded from the Foreign Office to work in Number 10 yet each time he felt the same sensation: as if he were entering some gentlemen’s club that was no longer fashionable – the black-and-white-tiled lobby, the walls of Pompeiian red, the brass lantern, the grandfather clock ticking its leisurely heartbeat, the cast-iron umbrella stand with its solitary black umbrella. Somewhere in the depths of the building a telephone rang. The doorkeeper wished Legat a good afternoon and returned to his leather coachman’s seat and his copy of the Evening Standard.
In the wide passageway leading to the back of the building Legat paused and checked himself in the mirror. He straightened his tie and smoothed down his hair with both hands; he braced his shoulders; turned. Ahead of him was the Cabinet Room, its panelled door closed. To his left, the office used by Sir Horace Wilson, also closed. To his right, the corridor that led to the offices of the Prime Minister’s Private Secretaries. The Georgian house exuded an air of imperturbable calm.
Miss Watson, with whom he shared the smallest office, was bent over her desk, exactly as he had left her, walled in by piles of folders. Only the top of her grey head was visible. She had begun her career as a typist when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. He was said to have chased the Downing Street girls around the Cabinet table. It was hard to imagine him chasing Miss Watson. Her responsibility was preparing answers for Parliamentary questions. She peered at Legat over her barricade of papers. ‘Cleverly has been in looking for you.’
‘Is he with the PM?’
‘No, he’s in his office. The PM’s in the Cabinet Room with the Big Three.’
Legat made a noise that was between a sigh and a groan. Halfway along the corridor, he stuck his head into Syers’s office. ‘All right, Cecil, how much trouble am I in?’
Syers swung round in his chair. He was a small man, seven years Legat’s senior, constantly and irrepressibly and often irritatingly amused. He wore the same college tie as Legat. ‘I’m afraid you picked rather the wrong day for a romantic lunch, old fellow.’ His voice dropped sympathetically. ‘I hope she didn’t take it badly.’
Once, in a weak moment, Legat had hinted to Syers of his difficulties at home. He had regretted it ever since. ‘Not at all. Things are on an even keel. What happened in Berlin?’
‘Apparently it degenerated into one of Herr Hitler’s tirades.’ Syers pretended to strike the arm of his chair. ‘“Ich werde die Tschechen zerschlagen!”
‘Oh, good grief. “I will smash the Czechs!”’
A military voice called along the corridor, ‘Ah, Legat, there you are!’
Syers mouthed, ‘Good luck.’ Legat stepped backwards and turned to confront the long, moustached face of Osmund Somers Cleverly, universally known, for reasons unexplained, as Oscar. The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary crooked a finger. Legat followed him into his office.
‘I must say I’m disappointed in you, Legat, and more than a little surprised.’ Cleverly was older than the rest of them, had been a soldier by profession before the war. ‘Lunch at the Ritz in the middle of an international crisis? It may be the way things are done in the Foreign Office; it’s not how we do them here.’
‘I apologise, sir. It won’t happen again.’
‘You have no explanation?’
‘It’s my wedding anniversary. I couldn’t get hold of my wife to cancel the table.’
Cleverly stared at him for a few seconds longer. He did not bother to hide his suspicions of these brilliant young men from the Treasury and the Foreign Office who had never served in uniform. ‘There are times when one’s family has to take a back seat; now is such a time.’ The Principal Private Secretary sat behind his desk and switched on a lamp. This part of the house faced north across the Downing Street garden. The unpruned trees that screened it from Horse Guards Parade cast the ground floor in a perpetual twilight. ‘Has Syers filled you in?’
‘Yes, sir. I gather the talks have broken down.’
‘Hitler has announced his intention to mobilise at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. I’m afraid all hell is about to break loose. Sir Horace should be back to report to the PM by five. The PM will broadcast to the nation at eight. I’d like you to deal with the BBC. They are to set up their apparatus in the Cabinet Room.’
‘There will have to be a full Cabinet meeting at some stage, probably after the broadcast, therefore the BBC engineers will need to clear out quickly. The PM will also be seeing the Dominion High Commissioners. The Chiefs of Staff are due to arrive any minute – take them in to the PM as soon as they all get here. And I shall need you to take a note of the meeting so that the PM can brief the Cabinet.’
‘Parliament is being recalled, as you know. He intends to make a statement to the House on the crisis tomorrow afternoon. Have all the relevant minutes and telegrams for the past two weeks arranged for him in chronological order.’
‘I am afraid you will probably have to stay overnight.’ The phantom of a smile played beneath Cleverly’s moustache. He reminded Legat of a muscular Christian games master at a minor public school. ‘It’s a pity it’s your anniversary, but it can’t be helped. I’m sure your wife will understand. You can sleep in the duty clerk’s room on the third floor.’
‘Is that all?’
‘That is all – for now.’
Cleverly put on his spectacles and began studying a document. Legat walked back to his office and sat down heavily at his desk. He opened a drawer, took out a pot of ink and dipped in his pen. He was not used to being reprimanded. Damn Cleverly, he thought. His hand shook slightly, rattling his nib against the glass edge of the pot. Miss Watson sighed but did not look up. He reached into the wire basket on the left of his desk and took out a folder of telegrams recently arrived from the Foreign Office. Before he could untie the pink ribbon, Sergeant Wren, the Downing Street messenger, appeared in the doorway. As usual he was out of breath; he had lost a leg in the war.
‘The Chief of the Imperial General Staff is here, sir.’
Legat followed him as he limped down the passage towards the lobby. In the distance under the brass lantern stood Viscount Gort reading a telegram, his polished brown boots planted wide apart. A glamorous figure – an aristocrat, a war hero, a holder of the Victoria Cross – Gort seemed oblivious to the clerks and secretaries and typists who had suddenly discovered pressing reasons to cross the lobby in order to catch a glimpse of him. The front door opened on a cascade of flashes from the photographers’ cameras, out of which stepped Air Marshal Newall, followed seconds later by the towering figure of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Backhouse.
Legat said, ‘If you would kindly come with me, gentlemen …’
As he led them into the interior he heard Gort say, ‘Is Duff coming?’ and Backhouse reply, ‘No, the PM thinks he leaks to Winston.’
‘Would you mind waiting here for a moment …?’
The Cabinet Room was soundproofed by double doors. He opened the outer and knocked gently on the inner.
The Prime Minister was seated with his back to the door. Facing him across the centre of the long table were Halifax, the Foreign Secretary; Simon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the Home Secretary, Hoare. All three looked up to see who had come in. The room was in absolute silence apart from the ticking of the clock.
Legat said, ‘Excuse me, Prime Minister. The Chiefs of Staff are here.’
Chamberlain did not turn. His hands were on the table, spread wide on either side of him, as if he were about to push back his chair. His forefingers slowly tapped the polished surface. Eventually, in his precise, slightly old-maidish voice, he said, ‘Very well. Let us meet again when Horace returns. We’ll hear what more he has to say then.’
The Ministers gathered up their papers – awkwardly in the case of Halifax, whose withered left arm hung uselessly at his side – and rose to their feet without saying a word. They were men in their fifties or sixties, the ‘Big Three’, in the prime of their power – bulked by their dignity beyond their physical size. Legat stood aside to let them pass – ‘like a trio of pall-bearers in search of their coffin’ was how he described them afterwards to Syers. He heard them greet the service chiefs waiting outside – hushed, grim voices. He said quietly, ‘Would you like me to show in the Chiefs of Staff now, Prime Minister?’
Still Chamberlain did not turn to look at him. He was staring at the opposite wall. His corvine profile was hard, stubborn; belligerent even. Eventually he said, distractedly, ‘Yes, of course. Yes, bring them in.’
Legat stationed himself at the far end of the Cabinet table, close to the Doric pillars that supported the ceiling. The bookcases showed the spines of brown leather-bound statutes and silvery blue editions of Hansard. The Chiefs of Staff placed their caps on the side table by the door and took the seats vacated by the Ministers. Gort, as the senior officer, occupied the central position. They opened their briefcases and spread out their papers. All three lit cigarettes.
Legat glanced across at the mantel clock above the fireplace behind the Prime Minister’s head. He dipped his nib into the nearby inkstand. On a foolscap sheet he wrote, PM & CoS. 2:05 p.m.
Chamberlain cleared his throat. ‘Well, gentlemen, I’m afraid the situation has deteriorated. We had hoped for – and the Czech Government had agreed to – the orderly transfer of the Sudeten territory to Germany, subject to a plebiscite. Unfortunately, Herr Hitler announced last night he was not prepared to wait even so much as a week longer, and will invade on Saturday. Sir Horace Wilson saw him this morning and warned him privately but very firmly that if France fulfils her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia – which we still have every reason to believe she will – then we shall be obliged to support France.’ The Prime Minister put on his spectacles and picked up a telegram. ‘After his customary ranting and raving, Herr Hitler responded, according to our Ambassador in Berlin, in the following terms: “If France and England strike, let them do so. It is a matter of complete indifference to me. I am prepared for every eventuality. I can only take note of the position. It is Tuesday today, and by next Monday we shall all be at war.”’
Chamberlain put down the telegram and took a sip of water. Legat’s pen ran rapidly across the heavy paper: PM – latest from Berlin – breakdown of talks – violent reaction by Herr Hitler – ‘Next week we will be at war’ –
‘I shall of course continue my efforts to find a peaceful solution if one exists – although it’s hard at the moment to see what more can be done. But in the meantime, I fear we must prepare for the worst.’
Gort looked at each of his colleagues. ‘Prime Minister, we have drawn up a memorandum. It summarises our collective view of the military situation. Perhaps I might read out our conclusion?’
‘“It is our opinion that no pressure that Great Britain and France can bring to bear, either by sea, on land, or in the air, could prevent Germany from overrunning Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat on Czechoslovakia. The restoration of Czechoslovakia’s lost integrity could only be achieved by the defeat of Germany and as the outcome of a prolonged struggle, which from the outset must assume the character of an unlimited war.”’
Nobody spoke. Legat was acutely conscious of the scratching of his nib. Suddenly it sounded absurdly loud.
Eventually Chamberlain said, ‘This is the nightmare I have always dreaded. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing from the last war and we are reliving August 1914. One by one the countries of the world will be dragged in – and for what? We’ve already told the Czechs that once we’ve won, their nation in its present form cannot continue to exist. The three and a half million Sudeten Germans must have the right of self-determination. Therefore the separation of the Sudetenland from Germany will not even be an allied war aim. So for what would we be fighting?’
‘For the rule of law?’ suggested Gort.
‘For the rule of law. Indeed. And if it comes to it, we shall. But by God, I wish we could find some other way of upholding it!’ The Prime Minister briefly touched his hand to his forehead. His old-fashioned winged collar drew attention to his sinewy neck. His face was grey with exhaustion. But with an effort he recovered his usual businesslike manner. ‘What practical steps now need to be taken?’
Gort said, ‘We shall send two divisions to France immediately, as we have already agreed, to demonstrate our solidarity. They can be in position within three weeks and ready to fight eighteen days after that. But General Gamelin has made it quite clear the French have no intention of mounting anything more than token raids on Germany until next summer. Frankly, I doubt they’ll even do that. They’ll stay behind the Maginot Line.’
Newall added, ‘They’re waiting until we arrive in greater strength.’
‘And is the Air Force ready?’
Newall was sitting up very straight – a thin-faced man, skeletal almost, with a small grey moustache. ‘I have to say this comes at the worst possible time for us, Prime Minister. On paper, we have twenty-six squadrons available for home defence, but only six have modern aircraft. One has Spitfires. The other five have Hurricanes.’
‘But they are ready to fight?’
‘I’m afraid there is a technical problem with the guns on the Hurricanes, Prime Minister – they freeze above fifteen thousand feet.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Chamberlain leaned forwards as if he had not heard correctly.
‘We’re working on a solution, but it may take some time.’
‘No, what you are actually saying, Air Marshal, is that we have spent one and a half thousand million pounds on rearmament, the bulk of it on the air, and when it comes to it our warplanes don’t work.’
‘Our planning has always been predicated on there being no conflict with Germany before 1939 at the earliest.’
The Prime Minister turned his attention back to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. ‘Lord Gort? Can’t the Army shoot down most of the attacking aircraft from the ground?’
‘I’m afraid we’re in a similar position to the Air Chief Marshal, Prime Minister. We only have about a third of the number of guns we believe are necessary to defend London, and most of those are obsolete relics from the last war. We are equally short of searchlights. We have no ranging or communication equipment … We were also counting on another year to prepare.’
Halfway through his answer Chamberlain seemed to have stopped listening. He had put on his spectacles again and was sorting through his papers. The atmosphere in the room had become uncomfortable.
Legat continued writing calmly, smoothing the awkward facts into bureaucratic prose – PM expressed concern at adequacy of home air defence – but the orderly mechanism of his mind was disturbed. Once again, he couldn’t escape the image of his children in gas masks.
Chamberlain had found what he was looking for. ‘The Joint Intelligence Committee estimates there will be one hundred and fifty thousand casualties in London by the end of the first week of bombing. Six hundred thousand by the end of two months.’
‘That’s unlikely to happen immediately. We assume that to begin with, the Germans will direct their principal bombing force against the Czechs.’
‘And when the Czechs have been defeated – then what?’
‘Then we don’t know. We should certainly use the time available to take precautions, and start evacuating London tomorrow.’
‘And how prepared is the Navy?’
The First Sea Lord was a striking presence, a good head taller than anyone else in the room. His grizzled skull was bald, his face deeply scoured, as if it had been exposed to the elements too long. ‘We have some shortages of escort vessels and minesweepers. Our capital ships require fuelling and arming; some of the crews are on leave. We shall need to announce mobilisation as quickly as possible.’
‘When would you need to do that, to be operational by the first of October?’
Chamberlain sat back in his chair. His forefingers tapped the table. ‘Of course that would mean we would mobilise before the Germans.’
‘Partially mobilise, Prime Minister. And there is something else to be said for it: it would have the effect of showing Hitler we aren’t bluffing – that if it comes to it, we are prepared to fight. It might even make him think twice.’
‘It might. Or it might push him into war. Remember, I have stared into that man’s eyes on two occasions now, and in my judgement, if there is one thing he cannot tolerate, it is losing face.’
‘But surely if we’re going to fight it’s important he should be left in no doubt of that fact? It would be a tragedy if he interpreted your courageous visits and your sincere efforts for peace as a sign of weakness. Wasn’t that the mistake the Germans made in 1914? They thought we weren’t serious.’
Chamberlain folded his arms and stared at the table. Legat couldn’t tell whether the gesture meant he had rejected the suggestion or was considering it. Shrewd of Backhouse to flatter him, he thought. The PM had few obvious weaknesses but strangely for such a shy man his besetting vice was vanity. The seconds ticked by. Finally, he looked up at Backhouse and nodded. ‘Very well. Mobilise.’
The First Sea Lord stubbed out his cigarette and stuffed his papers into his briefcase. ‘I’d better get back to the Admiralty.’
The others rose with him, grateful to escape.
Chamberlain called up to them, ‘I would like you to hold yourselves in readiness to brief senior ministers later today. In the meantime, we should avoid doing or saying anything that contributes to a mood of public panic, or forces Hitler into a position from which he cannot back down, even at the eleventh hour.’
After the Chiefs of Staff had gone, Chamberlain let out a long sigh and rested his head in his hand. Glancing sideways, he seemed to notice Legat for the first time. ‘Were you making a note of all of that?’
‘Yes, Prime Minister.’
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