Citizens of London – The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour

By Lynne Olson

Scribe Publications 2015
ISBN-10: 1400067588
ISBN-13: 978-1400067589
RRP – $27.99 pb

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

In the UK spring of 1941, the Luftwaffe rained down bombs on a number of the UK’s industrial cities and ports, trying to sever Britain’s supplies and damage production. In early April, Winston Churchill travelled from London to visit and boost morale among the devastated cities of Manchester, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Plymouth, Liverpool and Bristol.

On 12 April, Churchill entered the environs of the rubble covered city of Bristol, watching in dismay from his train, sheltering under a railway bridge, as the bombs lit up the sky laying waste the streets, from the docks to the central business district. As day dawned, Churchill’s party drove through the damaged Bristol streets, a sight his secretary John Colville recorded as “devastation such as I had never thought possible”.

The UK prime minister’s visit raised spirits and he was cheered along the way by many bystanders. But he was also heading that day to Bristol University where, as Chancellor, he would confer honorary degrees on three dignitaries. Lynne Olson records in her recently released Citizens of London, how the university’s faculty members had spent the night “fighting fires or preforming rescue work” and “marched into the small hall where the ceremony was held, their eyes bloodshot, their haggard faces streaked with grime, and the muddy, wet clothing under their academic gowns and richly coloured hoods reeking of smoke”.

The ceremony itself said much about the temerity and spirit of Britons and their leader, but more than that. Two of the dignitaries receiving honorary doctorates that day were not Britons. Travelling with the UK prime minister was the US Ambassador Gil Winant and US businessman and special envoy Averill Harriman. Churchill would confer an honorary degree at that ceremony on Gill Winant, along with Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia.

As Britain faced the might of the German onslaught, it had the support of its dominion Australia, albeit against criticism back home from the Australian Labor Party opposition that Australia’s home defence was a more pressing priority. But Churchill’s great preoccupation, at this time when Britain stood virtually alone, was in wooing military support from the US through such North American envoys as those accompanying him to Bristol.

The Anglo-American relationship has a long history and one barely recognised today involving serious divisions, even war. The US was reluctant to enter the First World War as an ally of Britain; in spite of a German U-Boat sinking its luxury liner the Luisitania in May 1915, it would not be until April 1917 that President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. In the 1940 presidential election campaign, as Britain seemed destined to be invaded by Germany, President F D Roosevelt assured US citizens that no US soldier would be sent to fight in the war against Hitler.

That the US entered the Second World War in late 1941 has been seen as a direct result of the Japanese bombing of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December. However, having declared war on Japan on 8 December, in the days immediately after this US actions provoked Germany to declare war on the US. By 11 December, Germany and the US were at war. This was an outcome Winston Churchill had been working tirelessly to achieve for more than a year – with support from London based Americans Gil Winant, US broadcaster Ed Murrow and Averill Harriman.

The story of those efforts, and the behind-the-scenes machinations on both sides of the Atlantic is now intrinsically recorded in a riveting telling by historian Lynne Olson as Citizens of London – with the sub title The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour.

Gil Winant replaced the unsuitable and appeasement focussed Joe Kennedy as US Ambassador to Britain in March 1941, at a time when tens of thousands of British civilians had been killed by Luftwaffe bombings of UK cities. France had fallen to the Nazis in May 1940 and, with the Nazi-Soviet Pact still in play, many considered it only a matter of time before Britain would be unable to hold out.

Winant’s mission from Roosevelt, as a liberal Republican with hands-on political experience, was to walk the line between Conservative and Labour figures sending back intelligence on Churchill, his manner of doing business and his government, while also easing relations between an isolationist US and a besieged British Empire world leader. Winant himself, however, was impatient about US unwillingness to show world leadership following its dominant role in the First World War.

In spite of President Woodrow Wilson’s seminal part in the founding of the League of Nations, US voters refused to agree to US membership. Increasingly, Winant’s role would be one of quiet advocate for the US to come to the aid of Britain and its suffering people. Alongside him in this quest were his good friend journalist Ed Murrow and US businessman Averill Harriman sent by Roosevelt (on the advice of close presidential adviser Harry Hopkins) to co-ordinate the Lend Lease agreement and aid. All three would become both personally and politically embedded in the Churchillian campaign to woo the US into the war.

Lynne Olsen has worked an engrossing tale of the intrigues and dramas at high levels around Whitehall and London’s political and social networks in 1941, and beyond as American troops invaded England through the years 1942-45. Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela, had affairs with both Harriman and Murrow and Sarah Churchill developed a serious relationship with Winant. London life was dangerous, promiscuous, exciting and socially incestuous. Murrow’s wife Janet remarked on her lonely country life and absent husband at the time saying, “They didn’t want to leave the excitement of London.”

Olson’s brief is not the battlefield but the command centres, the civilian landscape and the players around that. Strategies were often fraught with human error and divided personalities. Harriman and Winant had a problematic relationship – the unpretentious but charismatic personality of the generous Winant contrasting with the “go get” big man pushiness of the wealthy Harriman. British military command would also be shocked by the naivete and arrogance of initial US military proposals for what they were taking on, often unwilling to be advised on the vagaries and local pitfalls in the European/North African balance of forces. They underestimated, acutely, the force of the German military.

Dwight Eisenhower, however, emerges as a gentle giant, internally strong in pushing for an Anglo-American coalition at all levels, a completely unified command with the US taking chief rank. Yet the first landings and invasion of north west Africa  – known as “Torch” – would be a baptism of fire as the inexperienced and not yet war ready US military floundered in the face of bad tactics and the strength of their opposition. All of it proved Churchill’s better judgement, that the US had a lot to learn.

Olson is also evocative in her recording of the spirit of Britons in the long and desperate months of 1941 when Churchill incessantly lobbied Winant and Harriman who in turn lobbied their president for US help for Britain. By May 1941, Churchill was cabling Roosevelt,

I am sure you will not misunderstand me if I speak to you exactly what is on my mind… The one decisive counterweight I can see … would be if the United States were immediately to range herself with us as a belligerent power.

Roosevelt waited a week and responded that he did not see the urgency from where he stood.

Olson conveys the ensuing sense of frustration and despair in Winant’s words on life in the UK around this time: “The fatigue and the monotony …the interrupted transportation … the dust …the shabby and worn out clothes … the drabness that comes from want of things … no glass for replacement of windows …stumbling home in the blackout … the shortage of light and fuel – all made a dreary picture for even the brave-hearted.” The bravery of the Brits had captured these US envoys but there was no shaking their commander-in-chief, remote in the safety of his western Atlantic shores.

The US would emerge from WW II as the dominant world leader and even world policeman. Britain would lose its empire and fade as a significant world power absorbed into Europe and the US dominated alliance NATO. In the last year of the war, Roosevelt would gradually overtake Churchill as pre-eminent Western leader, seeming closer to and admiring of Stalin at the historic meetings to decide on the spoils of war and post war settlement. All this was a sharp irony, however, in the light of US ignorance of Britain and Europe as its troops began arriving in England.

Olson deftly underlines the chasm between British and North American perceptions of each other. The Brits, at top level, dismissed Americans with a condescension more appropriate to Anglo-American relations a century or more earlier. The British ambassador to the US in the mid-1930s displayed this attitude in a poor use of metaphor when he wrote home to the Foreign Office that the US “resembles a young lady just launched into society and highly susceptible to a little deference from an older man.” By the end of the war, that “older man” Britain would have passed the global baton to a very much grown “young lady”.

On the US side, there was equal hubris. The Americans were far from ready for war, having emerged from a double dip depression under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal so that British military leaders like Sir John Dill visiting Washington remarked on how little evidence of military preparedness could be found. Olson makes graphic the situation by illustrating such a significant dilemma in the spectacle of men reporting for their new military adventure at the Army and Navy Building in December 1941 after the US had declared war in “uniforms and parts of uniforms dating back to 1918”.

There were obvious tensions in this chasm of knowledge. A public opinion survey made as the US entered the war recorded that Britons had a sense of “malicious delight” that Americans would now get a taste of the horrors Brits had endured for so long. In March 1942, after four months back home, Ed Murrow told Harold Nicolson in Whitehall that he found the anti-British feeling in the US quite “intense”. Clearly there would be a long way to go before the unity of the D Day landings of June 1944.

Much of the gap in knowledge had come from distance and lack of mutual experience. Olson references a US historian who opined that, “the primary image of the British that Americans had taken away from their history lessons was one of murderous redcoats who tried to destroy the infant United States during the Revolutionary War”. On the other side of the Atlantic, British students learnt nothing whatsoever of American history. Olson writes: “Few Britons had even met an American, and fewer yet had crossed the Atlantic.”  Their images of Americans, if they thought of them at all, was the clichéd figures of Hollywood – or as one Whitehall official put it, “a mixture of slaves in the South, gangsters in Chicago, and musicals with Fred Astaire”.

But the call to arms and the massive arrival and four years residence of US troops in the British Isles would revolutionise trans Atlantic awareness. Not always happily but, eventually, with mutual respect.

Olson crystalises the problem at one point with an anecdote passed on by a former US Military Policeman, on duty outside US Army headquarters in London. A pretty young woman in UK Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform approached the MP and his colleague for a chat and then asked them how they liked Britain. The MP who related the tale said he liked England “fine” but his companion blurted out, “Lady, they should cut all those goddam [barrage] balloons loose and let this SOB place sink.” As the young lady scowled and walked away, a civilian guard hurried over to say, “That was Princess Elizabeth. She’s doing her time in the Army.” The MP would never forget his embarrassment.

For all the momentary break downs in communication, the disputed tactics at the top and the shock many, on both sides, registered at the gaps in understanding, the war years shifted plates in Anglo-US relations. Heroes like US fighter bomber Tommy Hitchcock gave their all for the Allies alongside those who had withstood the Luftwaffe without allied support. In fact, as Olson charts, owing to US military command taking a decision to aggressively bomb at high altitude and in daylight, “US Army Air Forces casualties, particularly in the Eighth, were astronomically greater than those in either of the two other military services”. Harrison Salisbury labelled it “a ticket to a funeral” to be called to the Eighth.

Gil Winant, Ed Murrow and Averill Harriman are the heroes of Olson’s study without doubt. Yet, in her meticulous research of the social fabric as much as the military circumstances, Citizens of London and Olson’s pacey prose style reads like a giant tapestry of the millions of citizens, in uniform and not, who stood together in this European inferno – the like of which should never happen again.

Anne Henderson is the author of Menzies at War