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Posted on May 20, 2008 in Carlo D'Este, Stuff We Like

The Not So Merry Month of May

By Carlo D'Este

Just how tightly wound Churchill was during these trying days are the recollections of his son-in-law, Vic Oliver, the Viennese-born radio actor and comedian who had married his daughter Sarah in 1936. Churchill was at Chequers for the weekend and was awakened about 7:00 A.M. on Saturday, May 24 with the news that the Hood had been sunk. He went immediately to the bedroom of visiting U.S. envoy Averell Harriman, who was jarred awake to a rarely seen view of the prime minister of Great Britain: “Churchill in a yellow sweater, covering a short nightshirt, his pink legs exposed. ‘Hell of a battle going on,’ he said. ‘The Hood is sunk.’” Somehow, Churchill had repressed his grief to put on a brave face and several hours later “sounded more confident than he felt. ‘My American guest thought I was gay,’ Churchill remembered, ‘but it costs nothing to grin.’” Harriman left Chequers enormously impressed with Britain’s warlord.


Yet, Churchill has simply masked his grief. “Her loss was a bitter grief,” he said. It was a particularly bitter pill, not only for the enormous loss of lives but the Hood was a warship that had been launched in 1920 during his tenure as Secretary of State for War and for many years was the world’s largest capital ship and the pride of the Royal Navy. The loss of the Hood and of Crete threw Churchill into one of his black dog depressions.

Later than morning, “Mr. Churchill came down from his study looking inexpressibly grim,” remembered Oliver. Averell Harriman’s daughter Kathleen was present and when he appeared “he had a tear running down his face and it was the saddest sight I’d ever seen . . . his face showed how he suffered.” His mood remained forlorn throughout the day but no one dared ask him what brought it on and he was not forthcoming.

Throughout the dismal weekend Churchill was unable to concentrate on working through the usual mass of paperwork he brought with him whenever he went to Chequers. Most of his time was spent restlessly pacing back and forth in front of a large map of the North Atlantic that was kept current by his naval aide whenever fresh sighting reports from the Admiralty of the Bismarck were received.

On Sunday, May 25, it was reported that the Bismarck had yet to be sighted by Royal Navy. A perfectly miserable day ended with Churchill’s remark before he retired at 2:15 A.M. that “these three days had been the worst yet.”

The Bismarck was finally sighted on May 27 some 700 miles from Brest. That evening just before dark a torpedo fired from a Swordfish aircraft crippled the Bismarck. The next morning the Royal Navy carried out the coup de grace and the pride of the German navy sank with a loss of 2,107 lives. The two battleships in hot pursuit of the Bismarck were running low on fuel. At Churchill’s instigation, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound had signaled the fleet commander, Admiral Sir John Tovey: “the Bismarck must be sunk at all costs.” The Churchill-Pound signal ordered both battleships “to remain on the scene . . . even if it subsequently means towing King George V,” Admiral Tovey’s flagship. However, the Admiralty signal was not sent until after the Bismarck had gone to her watery grave and ultimately proved meaningless. Pound later admitted he never ought to have been coerced into sending this signal to Tovey that was blatant interference in a sea battle that was, in the event, carried out flawlessly.

Both the First Lord of the Admiralty, A.V. Alexander, and Admiral Pound were frequently on the receiving end of harsh memoranda and opinions about how Churchill wanted various navy operations carried out. Churchill also took aim at various admirals in whom he lacked confidence. That both men had long since become used to rude treatment by Churchill did not ease the difficulty of dealing with a prime minister with very specific ideas.

The morning of May 27, Churchill, as yet unaware of events at sea, was resigned to the loss of Crete. While no substitute, the bitterness of losing Crete was temporarily eased when, in Parliament, just as MPs were about to be informed of its escape, Churchill was handed a note that the Bismarck had been sunk. M.P. Harold Nicolson recorded the scene: “’I crave your indulgence, Mr. Speaker,’ he said, ‘I have just received news the Bismarck has been sunk.’ Wild cheers, in which I do not join.”

Nicolson had good reason. Other than the sinking of the Bismarck, there was precious little to cheer about in May 1941. Besides losing Crete, the Royal Navy sustained heavy losses in the Mediterranean. Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the British naval commander, rightly called Greece and Crete “a disastrous period in our naval history.” The army fared no better. The Crete force lost some 13,000 British, Dominion and Greek troops killed, wounded and captured. In his war memoirs, Churchill disguised the tragedy of Crete as a Pyrrhic victory for Germany for having diverted valuable assets from Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of Russia in June. However, no amount of spin control by London ever disguised the fact that Greece and Crete were enormously costly and unnecessary disasters. The only consolation during the otherwise dismal month of May was that the Bismarck had been sunk and no longer posed a threat – but there too, the Royal Navy paid a cruel price. The best that could be said for May 1941 was that Britain continued to survive and would fight on.

Portions of this article will appear in Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, to be published in November 2008 by HarperCollins.


The Bismarck. Gregory Proch/Armchair General

The German battleship Bismarck, commissioned on August 24, 1940, had an overall length of 251 meters and weighed more than 49,946.7 tons fully displaced. It was armed with eight 380 mm main guns and a dozen 150 mm secondary guns. The ship could achieve a top speed of 30.1 knots and struck fear in the hearts of its Allied opponents.

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1 Comment

  1. Good article. Also, I am requesting permission to use the two JPEG images that appeared in Mr. Carlo D’Este’s May 20 2008 article in one that I am writing on the Bismarck.