May 10, 1940
Just after midnight, Friday, May 10, 1940. Two imposing steam
engines at the head of ten luxuriously appointed coaches in bottle-green livery
slid towards a junction 140 miles west of Berlin. The train had been traveling
north from Hanover towards Hamburg, but now a set of points switched it to the
west. It smoothly and slowly changed direction. On board this special train,
code-named Amerika, was Adolf Hitler. The Führer was on a one-way ticket to
With Hitler was his personal secretary, Christa Schroeder, a breezy and attractive young woman of 32 who was full of admiration for the charm and vitality of the "boss." She wrote an excited letter to a friend describing her great adventure. The day before, the "inner" circle in Hitlers office in the Reich Chancellery, of which she was thrilled to be part, had only been told that they were going "on a trip." Its destination and length were a secret. Once the train had left Berlin, they asked the "boss" if they were going to Norway, the main theater of battle on that day between Germany and Great Britain. Teasingly Hitler appeared to confirm their guess: "If you behave you will be allowed to take a seal hide home with you."
At dawn the train arrived at a station whose name plates had been removed. It turned out to be Euskirchen, 30 miles from the German frontier. Hitler and his party transferred to cars which took them through villages whose names were also missing and replaced by military signs. Finally they headed up a dirt track overshadowed by birches towards a small, flat clearing high in the forest spotted with concrete bunkers and posts. They had reached their destination: Felsennest, Hitlers new headquarters.
In the background the rumble of artillery started up. Hitler pointed a uniformed arm westwards and announced: "Gentlemen, the offensive against the western powers has begun." The governments of Belgium, Holland and France were about to wake up to 136 highly trained and well-equipped German divisions storming across their frontiers. The "phoney war" was over; the Blitzkrieg had begun. Hitlers unique mind had plunged the world for the next five years into the deadliest war ever.
As the Luftwaffes squadrons blackened the sky over Felsennest and the forces of the Wehrmacht poured down roads and tracks towards the west, a young man was taking an early morning ride among the deer of Richmond Park on the southwest fringes of London. He was John Colville, aged 25, and like Christa Schroeder he was a private secretary; in his case to another European boss, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. But, Colville knew, not for long. As he dismounted, his groom told him that Holland and Belgium had been invaded by the Nazis. Colville felt the heat of the political turmoil surging through Westminster and, as he noted in his diary, one thing was becoming depressingly obvious: "If the PM does go, I am afraid that it must be Winston."
Winston Churchill, who had returned to the British Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty on the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939, was considered reckless, untrustworthy and insufferable by much of the political establishment. But Churchill woke up on this fateful day, knowing that by its end and barring accidents he would achieve his lifes ambition of becoming British prime minister.
Churchills opportunity had arisen only from a fiasco for which he bore the heaviest responsibility: the campaign in Norway, in which the British navy had been outwitted by German paratroopers. Its aim was to cut Germanys link to supplies of steel and iron ore from Sweden. But while British warships lumbered up the Norwegian coast and deposited their ill-supported land forces, Hitler struck from the air, forcing his opponents into a humiliating retreat. The Norwegian failure hardened political opinion in London that Chamberlain was not a man for battle; whatever Churchills disadvantages, nobody could mistake that he was the type of leader the nation neededa warlord who had long understood that the enemy was Hitler.
Reprinted from Warlords, Copyright 2006. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press.
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