1 Cyclone MAY–DECEMBER 1940 Shortly after tea on Friday, May 10, fifteen hours after Hitler drove his steel

into the Low Countries, Neville Chamberlain reluctantly returned the seals of his office to King George VI, who received them with equal reluctance: “I accepted his resignation,” the sovereign wrote in his diary that evening, “& told him how grossly, unfairly I thought he had been treated.” Shortly after six o’clock, the King anointed as prime minister the massive, stooped, sixty-five-year-old first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Later King George became one of Churchill’s most ardent admirers, but his feelings were mixed at the time. In his diary that day Jock Colville wrote that the King “(remembering perhaps the abdication, which Churchill had opposed) is understood not to wish to send for Winston.” Nevertheless, an all-party government was essential, and Labour had been adamant: they would not serve under Chamberlain. Defending Britain and her Empire would be the new prime minister’s responsibility for the next five years, or until he was hurled from office by Parliament or Hitler. Yet, as he rode back from Buckingham Palace, neither he nor anyone else in London felt unduly alarmed over the course of the war. Little was known that evening about the day’s developments across the Channel. The Luftwaffe had bombed airfields in Belgium and Holland; parachute troops had landed among the Belgians, who were said to be fighting well; Dutch resistance was reportedly “stubborn”; and the Allies were taking up strong positions on the Antwerp-Namur Line, preparing to defend the Albert Kanaal. Everything was going as expected, or so it seemed at that hour. When the BBC announced Churchill’s appointment that night, his daughter Mary, seventeen, listened to the broadcast in the small cottage at Chartwell where her governess lived. When it finished she switched off the wireless and said a prayer for her father. Churchill was surrounded by his family, whether at No. 10 or in the underground Annexe. Of the older Churchill children, only Sarah, the actress, was still a civilian, living with her husband in a Westminster Gardens flat, and soon she too would be commissioned in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Sarah’s husband, Vic Oliver, Austrian by birth, the son of Baron Viktor Oliver von Samek, had renounced his barony, changed the “k” in Viktor to “c,” and was now an American citizen. Churchill, upon first meeting Oliver in 1936, took an immediate dislike to the man, and in a letter to Clementine cut loose. Oliver was “common as dirt,” possessed “a horrible mouth,” and spoke with “an Austro-Yankee drawl.” Yet no mention was made of the one trait which many in the English aristocracy would have found sufficient to dismiss Vic Oliver outright: his family was Jewish. It would not have occurred to Churchill to do so. He measured the man.