Dominion by C.J. Sansom
"The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world will move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science." WINSTON CHURCHILL, 18 JUNE 1940
All events that take place after 5:00 p.m. on 9 May 1940 are imaginary.
The Cabinet Room, 10 Downing Street, London
4.30 p.m., 9 May 1940
Churchill was last to arrive. He knocked once, sharply, and entered. Through the tall windows the warm spring day was fading, shadows lengthening on Horse Guards Parade. Margesson, the Conservative Chief Whip, sat with Prime Minister Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax at the far end of the long, coffin-shaped table which dominated the Cabinet room. As Churchill approached them Margesson, formally dressed as ever in immaculate black morning coat, stood up.
Churchill nodded at the Chief Whip, looking him sternly in the eye. Margesson, who was Chamberlain's creature, had made life difficult for him when he had stood out against party policy over India and Germany in the years before the war. He turned to Chamberlain and Halifax, the Prime Minister's right-hand man in the government's appeasement of Germany. "Neville. Edward." Both men looked bad; no sign today of the habitual half-sneer, nor of the snappy arrogance which had alienated Chamberlain's House of Commons during yesterday's debate over the military defeat in Norway. Ninety Conservatives had voted with the Opposition or abstained; Chamberlain had left the chamber followed by shouts of "Go!" The Prime Minister's eyes were red from lack of sleep or perhaps even tears though it was hard to imagine Neville Chamberlain weeping. Last night the word around a feverish House of Commons was that his leadership could not survive.
Halifax looked little better. The Foreign Secretary held his enormously tall, thin body as erect as ever but his face was deathly pale, white skin stretched over his long, bony features. The rumor was that he was reluctant to take over, did not have the stomach for the premiership literally, for at times of stress he was plagued with agonizing pains in his gut.
Churchill addressed Chamberlain, his deep voice somber, the lisp pronounced. "What is the latest news?"
"More German forces massed at the Belgian border. There could be an attack at any time."
There was silence for a moment, the tick of a carriage clock on the marble mantelpiece suddenly loud.
"Please sit down," Chamberlain said.
Churchill took a chair. Chamberlain continued, in tones of quiet sadness: "We have discussed yesterday's Commons vote at considerable length. We feel there are grave difficulties in my remaining as Prime Minister. I have made up my mind that I must go. Support for me within the party is hemorrhaging. If there should be a vote of confidence, yesterday's abstainers may vote against the government. And soundings with the Labour Party indicate they would only join a coalition under a new Prime Minister. It is impossible for me to continue with this level of personal antipathy." Chamberlain looked again at Margesson, almost as though seeking succor, but the Chief Whip only nodded sadly and said, "If we are to have a coalition now, which we must, national unity is essential."
Looking at Chamberlain, Churchill could find it in himself to pity him. He had lost everything; for two years he had tried to meet Hitler's demands, believing the Fu?hrer had made his last claim for territory at Munich only for him to invade Czechoslovakia a few months later, and then Poland. After Poland fell there had been seven months of military inaction, of "phony war." Last month Chamberlain had told the Commons that Hitler had "missed the bus" for a spring campaign, only for him suddenly to invade and occupy Norway, throwing back British forces. France would be next. Chamberlain looked between Churchill and Halifax. Then he spoke again, his voice still expressionless. "It is between the two of you. I would be willing, if desired, to serve under either."
Excerpted from Dominion by Ian Sansom. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Sansom. Excerpted by permission of Mulholland. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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