7:00 PM on 22 December 1941 – The world was shocked to learn that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had secretly crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House.
* * * * * * *
On Sunday, 7 December 1941, Winston Churchill at his manor house, Chartwell, having dinner with U.S. special envoy Averell Harriman and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John Winant. At about 9:00 PM, they were sitting at the dining table, on which rested a $15 American radio that Harry L. Hopkins (President Franklin D. Roosevelt's primary advisor and unofficial emissary to the United Kingdom) had given the Prime Minister. They were listening to the news when the newsreader stopped, then announced that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Churchill immediately phoned the Roosevelt, asking for confirmation. "It's quite true," the President said. The Prime Minister said he would come to Washington for talks. That night, Churchill said, he "slept the sleep of the saved and thankful."
Great Britain declared war on Japan on 8 December. That night, Churchill asked King George VI for permission to leave the UK and travel to the United States. He received it when he lunched with the King the following day.
Churchill wanted to depart for America on Thursday, 11 December. But Roosevelt did not accept the suggestion of a meeting until about 6:00 PM on 9 December, and Churchill did not receive his reply until 12:50 AM on 10 December. Roosevelt followed up with a personal communication the following day. Roosevelt had initially rejected the idea of a meeting, but withheld sending this draft to Churchill. In a second draft message (also never sent), Roosevelt agreed to a meeting but asked that it be delayed some weeks. In a third draft, Roosevelt accepted the meeting, but hesitated to agree to "grand strategy" meeting. In his fourth draft (which was sent), Roosevelt endorsed the plan enthusiastically. In this message, Roosevelt offered to meet in Bermuda, both to save Churchill time as well as to lessen the security problems of traveling all the way to Washington, D.C. But Churchill rejected that plan; it's just as well, because the next day, Roosevelt admitted it would be impossible for him to leave the United States at this juncture.
At 10:30 PM on 12 December, Churchill traveled with Lord Beaverbrook,Minister of Supply, to the Euston railroad station in the heart of London. It was well-known in diplomatic and press circles (but kept from the public) that Beaverbrook was traveling to the United States to confer with Roosevelt -- and Churchill was there to travel with him to HM Naval Base Clyde near Glasgow, Scotland. That was the covery story, and it worked. The men dined aboard the train while the luggage was loaded, then had drinks and talked. The train (an overnight) reached Scotland early the next morning.
At 11:00 AM on 13 December, Beaverbrook boarded the HMS Duke of York with a party of 80, which included Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, The First Sea Lord; Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff; and Averell Harriman. Winston Churchill boarded the ship ostensibly to see them off. He remained aboard when the vessel departed. So successfully was Churchill's presence aboard ship concealed that even military liaison officers were surprised to see him aboard. At 3:00 PM, the Duke of York -- escorted by the destroyers Faulknor, Foresight, and Matabele -- began steaming for America. It was the maiden voyage of the Duke of York, which had been commissioned only two weeks earlier.
* * * * * * *
Because the shortest distance between two points on a sphere is an arc and not a straight line, initially the Duke of York was to have taken the "great circle" route -- skirting Iceland and Greenland and then coming down the Canadian coast to Washington (a distance of 3,431 miles). But the weather forecast was so bad that the decision was made to head south through the Irish Sea and then proceed southeast to the Azores (900 miles off the east coast of Portugal). This meant crossing the main route which Nazi U-boats took from their submarine pens in France as they traveled to the North Atlantic, and adding 1,200 miles to the trip.
As the Duke of York entered the Atlantic Ocean on 14 December, it ran into a full-blown winter gale. The ship had to reduce speed so that the destroyers could keep up. The storm continued the next day, but abated somewhat on the 16th. Nevertheless, there were heavy seas, which caused numerous problems for the destroyer escorts. On 17 December, another gale hit. The Foresight suffered steering problems that forced it to drop back, but she corrected the difficulty and caught up a few hours later. At 6:30 PM, the Faulknor, Foresight, and Matabele left the Duke of York to steam to Ponta Delgada, the main port of the Azores, where they could refuel and take up new duties. The Duke of York was now joined by the destroyers Highlander, Harvester, and Lightning (all out of Ponta Delgada). So much time had been lost during the bad weather that Churchill now considered diverting to Bermuda and flying the rest of the way to the United States. But after much discussion, it was determined that flying would save only one day, and yet incur such an immense expense in manpower, resources, and logistics that it would not be worth it.
On 17 December, Roosevelt radioed Churchill aboard the Duke of York and invited him to stay at the White House rather than the British Ambassador's residence. Churchill enthusiastically agreed. He only asked for room at the White House for Frank Sawyers (his valet), John Martin (his Principal Private Secretary), Lt. Tommy Thompson (naval aide-de-camp), and two security guards. He also asked that Sir Charles Wilson (his personal physician), Francis David Wynyard Brown (Third Secretary in the Foreign office), two stenographers, and his Royal Marine orderlies be given rooms at the Mayflower Hotel.
At 6:00 PM on 20 December, while in the middle of the Atlantic, the Highlander, Harvester, and Lightning left the Duke of York and returned to the Azores. Churchill was desperate to reach America faster, and the voyage was already a full day behind schedule. The decision to proceed alone was risky, but Churchill pushed for it. (It's not clear who raised the idea, when it was raised, who discussed it, who made the final decision, or when the decision was made.) The Duke of York proceeded at top speed, unescorted, for a full day, until the U.S. Navy destroyers Bristol, Trippe, and Warrington joined her.
The Royal Navy had intended to sail the Duke of York up the Potomac River to the Washington Navy Yard. But once more, a strong winter storm impeded progress. Now the decision was made to head for Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the Norfolk Naval Station. (Once more, who first raised the idea, and who made the final decision, are not known.) The Duke of York dashed for the U.S. coastline -- leaving the U.S. destroyers behind.
Churchill's staff radioed the White House to advise them of the new arrival time: about 6:30 PM on 22 December. The White House ordered a special, blacked-out train from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to whisk the British from Norfolk to Washington. But the train would take five hours, and give Roosevelt and Churchill no time to interact that night. Realizing how anxious Churchill was, Roosevelt (apparently) offered to have a U.S. Navy Lockheed Lodestar airplane ready for Churchill at the Norfolk Naval Station.
* * * * * * *
The Duke of York reached Norfolk at 4:15 PM on 22 December. It was moving so fast that, as it slowed, the swell behind it swamped the rear of the ship. The luggage compartment was flooded with water, but luckily Churchill's clothing remained dry.
Churchill departed Norfolk Naval Station at about 5:45 PM, and arrived at the Anacostia Naval Air Station at 6:30 PM. Traveling with him were Thompson, Martin, Sawyer, his two Scotland Yard guards, and Harriman. For five years, the British had seen only dismal, dark cities. Now, they saw the lights of Washington blazing beneath them -- a city unafraid of bombardment, a city alight with Christmas decorations. The sight brought tears to Thompson's eyes.
President Roosevelt was waiting for Churchill on the tarmac. He'd departed the White House at 5:55 PM, riding in a limousine seized from Al Capone by the U.S. Treasury. It was a 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan painted green with black fenders (in imitation of Chicago police vehicles). It had 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows, and it was for this reason that the limousine was used (since Roosevelt's 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible was not yet armor-plated).
As the plane taxied to a stop, Roosevelt's aides lifted the President from the back seat, and locked his leg braces. Roosevelt stood, holding onto the car for support, as Churchill walked toward him. The two men shook hands, then got into the car. They arrived at the White House at 6:50 PM.
At 7:00 PM, news of Churchill's arrival was released to the press simultaneously in Washington and London.
* * * * * * *
The President, a few key Americans, Churchill, and Churchill's party were served tea in the West Sitting Hall of the White House at 7:05 PM, followed by cocktails in the Red Room at 8:15 PM. Dinner in the Old Family Dining Room followed at 8:45 PM, with Churchill and his party, the President, and 10 other guests. By 10:00 PM, the rest of the British delegation had arrived in Washington. From 10:00 PM to 12:35 AM, the President and Churchill met with Lord Halifax (British ambassador to the United States), Lord Beaverbrook, Cordell Hull (U.S. Secretary of State), Sumner Welles (U.S. Undersecretary of State), and Harry Hopkins in the President's Study. Hull and Welles left at midnight, and Lord Halifax at 12:05 AM. The President retired at 12:50 AM.
Most of 23 December was taken up by Anglo-American staff meetings and the Prime Minister's meetings with Commonwealth ambassadors, although Churchill and Roosevelt did meet for a few hours to discuss grand strategy. Most of 24 December was similarly taken up with staff meetings.
At 5:02 PM on December 24, the President and Prime Minister appeared on the South Portico of the White House. Both gave brief remarks, which were broadcast nationwide. The President then pushed the button that lit the National Christmas Tree. At 5:40 PM, the two men retired to the Red Room for tea.
* * * * * * *
On 15 January 1942, Churchill flew to Bermuda aboard a Boeing 314 flying boat. Named "Berwick", the aircraft was owned by the British Overseas Airline Corporation (BOAC). U.S. Army Air Corps fighters escorted the "Berwick" to Bermuda.
Churchill addressed the Bermuda legislative assembly a few hours after his arrival, and then consulted with Bermudan colonial officials.
Initially, the plan was for the Duke of York and an escort of destroyers to take the Prime Minister back to the United Kingdom from Bermuda. But British and American naval experts feared that Nazi U-boats -- which, at that time, were thick as fleas on a dog along the East Coast of the United States -- would intercept a naval expedition to Bermuda and attempt to kill Churchill, so the decision was made to fly. Accompanying Churchill on the flight would be his valet, his guards, Beaverbrook, Brown, Martin, Portal, Pound, Thomson, Wilson, and a few other key staff and assistants.
A transatlantic flight was unheard of by a head of state. The Boeing 314 only had an operational range of 3,600 miles, and England (3,330 miles distant) was barely within its flight range. There would be no fighter escort, and Churchill would be within range of Luftwaffe attack fighters the last two or three hours of the trip.
The "Berwick" departed around 4:00 PM on January 16. The aircraft was so heavily laden with fuel that it used up most of the harbor before it lifted off. The aircraft flew at a cruising altitude of 7,000 feet at about 190 miles per hour. Churchill and his aides had cocktails and then dinner, and then the Prime Minister worked and drank while talking to his advisors. Toward the end of the evening, they watched the flames from the engine exhaust flash out over the wings. The passengers were so intrigued by the flight -- it was the first transoceanic flight ever undertaken by a head of state in world history -- that "Bewick's" captain, Kelly Rogers, began issuing hourly flight updates, complete with number of miles flown, position, time to destination, speed, weather, and fuel remaining. At one point, the captain came back to show the Prime Minister how the de-icing system worked. Churchill went to bed some time before midnight, and slept soundly. During the night, he awoke. Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook (who sat up through the night reading) then visited the flight deck, and observed the stars with the crew for a short time before returning to bed. At dawn, Churchill arose and breakfasted lightly with his advisors.
But now a serious error was discovered: The navigator had failed to correct for wind, and the "Berwick" was seriusly off-course. The aircraft should have passed over the Isles of Scilly, and been about 30 miles from the Cornish coastline. Instead, they were nearly 100 miles south and about 90 miles from the French coast and the heavily defended Nazi-held city of Brest. Captain Kelly abruptly turned due north, just as Luftwaffe planes scrambled to intercept the aircraft. Kelly then turned north-northeast for Plymouth, and RAF and Royal Navy air cover.
As the "Berwick" approached HM Naval Base Devonport at Plymouth, radar detected them. Coming in from the south, the "Berwick" was thought to be a Nazi aircraft. Fighters scrambled to intercept the unknown flight. Fortunately, the fighters could not locate the "Berwick". Kelly piloted the BOAC ship through the balloon barrage and landed safely at RAF Mount Batten flying boat base on Mount Batten peninsula in Plymouth Sound at 10:00 AM. The flight had taken 17 hours and 55 minutes.
Churchill departed for London by train at 11:00 AM. He arrived without incident.