By Catherine Revland
The first article of a four-part series, You Must Remember This, about World War II and its relevance to our times
“The rape of Poland by both Hitler and Stalin meant that the two greatest totalitarian states in the world were in partnership against us. And what were we? A group of small islands led by Chamberlain nervously biting his thumb.”—Commander Ian Fleming, British Naval Intelligence, future creator of James Bond
On September 3rd, 1939, 80 years ago last month, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany and World War II officially began. What happened during the 150 days that followed is still known as “the phony war” because what happened was—nothing. Or so it seemed. What the public didn’t know until the 1970s, when the declassification of World War II archives began, was that a great deal was happening during that time, all of it clandestine.
Days after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration, three powerful men formed a pact to wage a secret war of resistance against Nazi Germany. Among themselves they called it by different names—the twilight war, the Baker Street Irregulars, the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare—but their mission couldn’t have been more serious: to recruit, train, and integrate anti-fascist activists from many professions, rarely military, but courageous, brilliant, daring, tenacious, risk-taking secret-keepers, most of them anonymous to this day—who quietly changed the course of history.
Alarmed by the rise of far-right extremism in the United States, including pro-Nazi members within his own administration, President Franklin Roosevelt was the instigator of this resistance, convinced it was his only option. Bypassing Prime Minister Chamberlain, he sent a carefully worded letter to Winston Churchill, first lord of the British Admiralty at the time, inviting him to enter into a “confidential information exchange.” Churchill was interested. Although he no longer had any authority over Parliament, he knew someone who did. In perilous times the country’s ultimate authority was the king, and George VI fully supported the cause.
Churchill wasted no time in convincing journalist Ian Fleming to leave his desk job and work in the Office of Naval Intelligence at Downing Street. There, under code name 17F, he was assigned to gather intelligence by infiltrating groups of Nazi sympathizers. But such a dangerous task first required a trip to Camp X in Canada, where he was trained in covert operations by British commandos “in the best spy story tradition,” as he later wrote. The camp was financed by William Stephenson, code name INTREPID, a wealthy Canadian businessman and FDR’s liaison between the FBI and British Intelligence, a history that is virtually unknown to this day.
Fleming learned a lot about espionage that he later fictionalized in his James Bond novels, but Stephenson told his biographers that, unlike 007, he never killed anyone. His cover was being himself, a traveling businessman and a good listener. He was soon transmitting vital information to Downing Street, and much of it was alarming, especially a German word he frequently heard called blitzkrieg. What does it mean? “Lightning war,” they told him. “The secret will be speed, but also our new communication machines—fantastic, invincible, the best in the world.”
In April of 1940 the phony war ended with devastating speed when Germany demonstrated to the world the meaning of blitzkrieg. Six countries fell like dominos in six weeks—Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France. The reaction in Whitehall was swift: confronted in Parliament with cries of “In the name of God, go!” Chamberlain stepped down, and the king appointed Churchill to replace him. The tide had turned, but it turned too late. Severed from the European continent from the Arctic to Gibraltar, England was now a small, vulnerable island in the middle of a Nazi sea.
1940 was turning out to be a very bad year. And then it got worse. From September to November the Luftwaffe bombed London and every major city every day, a deliberate act of terror that targeted not soldiers or military installations but civilians. The casualty rate of RAF pilots was staggering, as was the sinking of their destroyers and merchant ships. Then came the shocking news that the code-breakers at Bletchley had decrypted German plans for an invasion: “RAF destroyed by mid-September, occupation by end of month.” With no time to lose, all of Britain’s military secrets were shipped to the United States for safekeeping, including a newly invented, vastly improved version of a developing technology called radar.
On October 6th a small group of the scientific elite gathered around a table at Bell Labs to watch a demonstration of Britain’s most valuable asset. Decades later they reflected on the lasting impact of that moment: “The atmosphere was electric.” “Imagine our excitement.” “What lay on that table proved to be the salvation of the allied cause.” “Absolutely vital.” So desperate was the need for the magnetron that a Bell Labs team replicated a working model in less than two months, ready for mass production. “We had to move fast,” one of them recalled. “We had to, and so we did. It was Bell Labs’ finest hour.” And that was just the beginning.
“463 West Street: The Manhattan Project’s Second-Best-Kept Secret” will appear in the November issue—Part 2 of You Must Remember This.