High Politics in July
On June 16, Liz read in the paper that Sir William Strang was at the Kremlin as the lead negotiator for a possible alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union with the object of containing Nazi Germany and protecting Poland. She was with Ivan, who commented, “I’ve heard rumors, which I believe to be true, that Russia is, at the same time, negotiating a possible alliance with Hitler against the western powers.”
“So, is it to be Britain, France, and Russia against Germany to save Poland, or Russia and Germany against the others?”
“The British and French ruling classes hate communism. So does Hitler. It’s a question of which side which can stomach its hatred long enough to get Russia on its side.”
“When an MP urged Chamberlain to approach Russia, he replied by suggesting that ‘the honorable member tell him who to contact in the Soviet Union as the personalities there change rather rapidly.’ That sounds more like contempt than hatred.”
“Contempt can make more enemies faster than outright hatred.”
“Perhaps Sir William Strang, whoever he is, can do something.”
The name, ‘Strang’, amused both of them, and Ivan gave a hypothetical imitation of Sir William asking Stalin, as one gentleman to another, to help put down ‘that impossible bounder who seems to have taken over Germany.’ It was quite funny, and Liz laughed. She then said, “I suppose Hitler will send to Stalin some thug who, as one thug to another, will suggest that they divvy up Poland and tell the British and French to go fuck themselves.”
“Surely, my gently raised daughter does not use such language.”
“I was with aircraft grease monkeys before Barbara arrived.”
“Yes. A pity, perhaps. Except that these times do seem to call for strong language.”
“Of course, Viv is better at it than I am.”
“Speaking of her, have you any news?”
“Yes. The French managed to collide two Hawks right over the field, and they’re down in the dumps.”
“The poor French.”
“They don’t have a chance, do they?”
“They missed their chance three years ago when Hitler moved into the supposedly de-militarized Rhineland. The French out-numbered them ten to one, and did nothing. It’s too late now.”
“Do you realize that Viv is determined to get into air combat, and may manage it”?
“I’ve been aware of that.”
“Isn’t there something you can do?”
“It isn’t as bad as it seems. Hitler is going after Poland next. Everyone agrees on that. Because of their guarantee, the French will mount some sort of demonstration on their western border. But we know how weak it will be.”
“It won’t be so weak if Viv is part of it.”
“No. Viv will shoot down any German who comes near her. But I can then make a fuss with the French high command. The French police will drag her away by force if necessary, and we can convert her energies to U-boat hunting.”
“I didn’t realize how carefully you’d thought it out.”
“There’s one thing about the Germans. They tell you in advance exactly what they plan to do.”
“So, at least, Viv will probably survive.”
“Yes. However, I wish I hadn’t taken her to France. For one thing, the work we’re doing here is potentially much more important. Shooting down a plane there won’t make any important difference.”
A week later, Ivan announced a major event, the Fourth of July party at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Liz first reacted, “I try to avoid any displays of American patriotism in Europe. They’re usually embarrassing.”
“I usually pretend to be Canadian, or even Australian. But a party like this one is cover for diplomatic maneuvering, in this case, of a major kind.”
“Will a treaty be signed by people who are half drunk, and which turns out to have champagne stains on it?”
“Better yet, our ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt is going to be there. Drunk or not, he wants to meet us. He knows quite a lot about us, and he may want to use us to help him discredit the host, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.”
“Isn’t Bullitt the one who was told to order Kennedy to make certain promises concerning our intervention to the British?”
“The same. An extraordinary event, but one of many concerning Bullitt.”
Liz did know something of Bullitt. A brilliant young man, he had been an American diplomat at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of the war. Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, he had typically struck out on his own and made extensive contact with such statesmen as Lloyd George of England and the ‘tiger’ Clemenceau of France. No one was ever sure exactly who he was supporting at any given time, but no one questioned his ability. In the end, he was fired by Wilson for wanting to include the new Soviet Union in the deliberations.
Later on, when Bullitt was taken up by President Roosevelt, he was made the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1933. A temporary communist, he arrived prepared to love the regime. In 1936 he left, thoroughly disillusioned by Stalin and friends. He had since been the ambassador to France.
Still an anti-communist, but now a bit of a socialist friendly to Leon Blum, he was trying to get France to prepare for war. Bullitt was the sort of man who would already have known about Eye-Eye and Ivan, and he had recently heard about Viv. Some people said that he was a lightweight party boy who collected mistresses. However, Ivan took him to be much more than that, indeed, the man in Europe closest to FDR. As Ivan said, “Bullitt seems to be the man chosen to undo the damage Kennedy has done with his liking for the Nazis and his anti-Semitism.”
For the event, Viv and Barbara were summoned back from France, stopping in Paris to get properly arrayed. Liz was told that her shipboard gown wasn’t good enough for such a gathering, and an outfit was also brought for her. They took rooms in a hotel for the night before the party, and duly arrived the next evening.
Mr. Bullitt was a striking-looking man, dark with a partly bald beautifully-shaped forehead. Unlike Eye-Eye, who could have been taken for an ordinary person, one knew instantly that Bullitt was extraordinary. He actually looked rather dangerous until he smiled.
Bullitt didn’t seem in a hurry to press an agenda, and, in the general conversation, it came out that he had written a book, with Sigmund Freud as his co-author, on Woodrow Wilson. That, in itself, amazed Liz, who hadn’t even known that Freud was a refugee in England. Making light of it, Bullitt remarked, “Freud has taught us that, instead being captains of our souls, we are, due to poor toilet training, only captains of leaky vessels.”
That turned out to be a joke, and, half seriously, he followed with, “We were unable to unearth any such data in the case of Mr. Wilson.”
Liz resisted the temptation to tell him that she and Viv had been trained to the use of a hole in a dock. But she could imagine doing so if she came to know him better.
There followed a discussion with Viv on the Soviets she had known, and their remarkable willingness to return to Russia to face probable execution. He said, “It wasn’t just Stalin and his henchmen who disgusted me, but the fact that so many millions are willing to follow him blindly.”
“Is it just like Hitler and the Germans?”
“Substantially. Isn’t it a lovely world?”
What Bullitt really wanted was an article from Ivan, to be published prominently in America, extolling the Spitfire in particular, and British aviation in general. Ivan replied, “The real writer in our group is my chief-of-staff, Henry. All of us together could probably produce something with the help of a couple of fact-checkers.”
“Could you do the same thing for the French?”
“I don’t see how. We all know that the only useful thing they can do is to slow down a German invasion. But we certainly can’t say that in print.”
At that point Liz suggested, “Could we avoid the issue by describing the gallant fight of the French airmen in the last war, the implication being that they might do the same thing again?”
Bullitt seemed quite amused by that, replying, “Miss Bolsky, you’d make a good diplomat. But not even a good one could quite pull that one off in these circumstances.”
Ivan asked, “Well, then, what?”
Bullitt replied, “How about interviews with a couple of their best pilots?”
Liz immediately thought of Jean Marie, but, not wanting to go back and get involved with him, she asked, “Could it be a somewhat fictionalized version?”
“Certainly. I could get it into a popular magazine, and no one would know the difference.”
“There is a particular fighter pilot, a pretty good one, from whom I could take all the basic facts. But he isn’t terribly interesting, certainly not a glamorous figure trailing a white silk scarf.”
“That’s perfect. You describe the man, his training, and his abilities. We can then supply the scarf.”
Bullitt was then off to chat with Lord Halifax, the immensely tall and gentlemanly, but quite peculiar looking, Foreign Minister.
At some distance was the Royal Navy Group, including the two men who would shortly be taking charge. Ivan explained, “The present First Lord of the Admiralty, Stanhope, is a zero in bad health who is about to be replaced by the man standing on the left. That’s Winston Churchill. The First Sea Lord is dying of a brain tumor, and will be replaced by Dudley Pound, next to Churchill, who is also in bad health.”
Barbara remarked, “That man looks practically gray in the face. Will Churchill be his boss?”
“What a contrast between energy and debility!”
“Which is not so good. Churchill has wild strategic ideas. In the last war, the Gallipoli disaster was his idea. He now makes no secret of his urge to send a British battle fleet into the Baltic on the outbreak of war.”
Viv said, “The Baltic is practically a German lake. The Luftwaffe will quickly sink it with Udet’s dive bombers.”
“Certainly. Pound is too sensible for that, and will try to prevent it.”
Barbara looked aghast, and said, “That poor man! How can he possibly cope?”
Ivan smiled as he replied, “He’s said to be tricky. Let’s hope so.”
After a further survey of the room, Barbara asked, “How many of these people are either dying of brain tumors or are crazy in the head?”
Ivan replied, “There’s our ambassador, Kennedy. He’s healthy and sane, but also a crook and a secret Nazi. Since he’s our host, I suppose we should bumble into the receiving line and mutter something.”
Afterwards, Barbara remarked, “A complete cold fish. It’s a good thing the line moves quickly.”
“He was a bootlegger during Prohibition. It wasn’t necessary to have a way with words.”
“His wife looks like the sort of woman who is always kept in ignorance of everything.”
“And, unlike you, my dear, she probably isn’t smart enough to figure things out.”
That got Ivan a nice smile, and the Bolsky party made its escape.
Back in Bridport two days later, Liz put pen to paper, writing about Jean Marie. She wasn’t used to writing the sort of thing that would be required, but she wrote quickly and produced something of about the right length. Barbara could then go to work on it while Henry wrote about the British.
The next day, Viv and Barbara headed back to France, Ivan to the ship, and Liz to Bridport. Rural England in the summer had a serenity that Liz had never sensed anywhere else. At home, for example, there was the excitement of golferly shenanigans across the lake and the tension and excitement that followed Ivan everywhere. Nothing like that was going on in their bit of English countryside. Even the Walrii didn’t look warlike, but more like flying ducks taking schoolchildren for rides. Indeed, no one would have guessed that the young people climbing over the aircraft wanted to kill people.
Liz joined in a game of soccer over the bumpy ground with the other adults as well as the refugee children. She felt a little tall for the game, being at a disadvantage to the quick little people at ground level, but she was good at heading the ball when it got up in the air.
A little later, Ian went up with Liz. He was, of course, an experienced machine gunner, but he had never done it from the air. Liz hadn’t been alone with him very much, and found him relaxed and humorous, actually easier than David to be with. It also occurred to her that he might be an Ivan without the quirks.
Having flown to the barge anchored off the coast, they began with straight-in runs. After tattooing the barge with their weaponry, Ian wanted to make some oblique approaches, using only the machine guns. He found that more difficult than he imagined, and it was some time before he was satisfied with his accuracy. Liz pointed out, “In the attacks we have in mind, where we’re aimed at the base of the conning tower, it’ll take only a slight deviation of the machine guns to hit the top of it.”
“Sure. But it’s always fun to anticipate the unexpected.”
Ian laughed as he said it, but it did sound more like Eye-Eye than Ivan.
In discussion with the others after returning, Ian seemed mostly satisfied with the armament. He was pleased that the cannons hadn’t jammed, but still insisted that there had to be a crew member tending them. He also thought that a smaller cannon, a twenty millimeter, could replace one of the machine guns on the forward disk. As he said, “I’ve become convinced that a twenty could penetrate a U-boat conning tower and put a bunch of holes in it.”
Liz replied, “Then, even if the pilot misses, the co-pilot could score.”
Ian thought that a row of even the smaller holes would seriously tax a submarine’s endurance under water.
“At any significant depth, pumps expelling water against the outside pressure are inefficient. Even if they run them full-out, they’re likely to gradually have water rising in the bilges and have to surface.”
Viv asked, “Couldn’t they plug up the holes from the inside despite the pressure?”
“If they had fine-threaded lag bolts of, say, twenty two millimeter diameter, they might be able to drive them into the holes with a hammer while simultaneously tightening them with a wrench. But they’d have to have practiced with just the right equipment.”
It didn’t seem that even the Germans would have that much forethought. As the discussion continued, Liz increasingly got the feeling that the others expected her to actually sink a submarine. She said to them,
“If I do, it’ll be with the active involvement of Sheila.”
Sheila wasn’t used to being treated as a consultant, but, of course, she was vitally interested in the machine gun armament. It gradually developed that she could look at the guns, estimate the angle at which they were pointed, and compare that with the angle of the target. It seemed all to be done unconsciously, but Liz told the others that Sheila could still hit the target when flying almost at right angles to it.
Ian responded, “That surprises me. I was thinking about making the controls finer while sacrificing some of angle on which they can be trained.”
Sheila looked horrified, and Liz quickly said, “We’ll leave Sheila’s guns alone.”
Then, recalling all the talk of the ‘average pilot’, she added, “It might be good for the others.”
Sheila, after a minute of consideration, said, “I might still like to have a twenty in between the three oh threes.”
Liz replied, “That will make you even more dangerous than before.”