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‘What’s wrong with that?’

‘Oh, not a lot, except the military value of Berlin doesn’t amount to a row of beans and it’d cost at least one hundred thousand casualties – American casualties – to get there before the Russians. Christ, can you imagine how tough the Germans are going to be fighting for their own capital? !’

The telephone interrupted them for the fourth time since they had sat down to dine, and Eisenhower jumped to answer it. This proved to be a mistake for as he drew back his chair he seemed to double up and a flash of pain crossed his face. Chronic indigestion. When in England he had blamed it on the endless diet of Brussels sprouts and boiled cabbage which seemed to be standard fare in London, but in France he had run out of excuses. They didn’t eat boiled cabbage, and the pain was getting worse. The strains of war were plucking at him, demanding that he ease up. The point had been brought firmly home when he discovered a rat in one of the classrooms serving as his office. He had taken out his revolver and, from a distance of no more than a few feet, shot at it. He missed. Carefully he had put on his glasses and shot again. And missed again. The third shot succeeded only in blowing off its tail and a sergeant had used a chair to put both the rat and the Supreme Commander out of their misery. Eisenhower was tired, he had been losing weight and the patchwork quilt of lines beneath his eyes had sagged into whirlpools of fatigue. He needed to steady his hand and to get his mind off the war, but how could he? Even as he talked on the telephone his jaw was chomping with frustration.

‘OK-OK-OK, run up the white flag. If State insists it’s vital I see the Crown Prince – where’d you say he was from? – you’d better fit it in. Then you go and ask the State Department, very politely, if they’d mind putting a cork in their courtesy calls and letting us get on with winning this goddamned war!’ The grinding of his teeth could be heard across the room. ‘And one more thing. No more interruptions, eh?’

He hobbled back towards the table, massaging his bad knee. It always swelled when he was run down, and his habitually high blood pressure hit new peaks and he lost still more of his hair. And he could really do without this run-in with Churchill.

‘For Chrissake, he’s being preposterous. Even if we do take Berlin, we can’t hold it. We already agreed at Yalta that it’ll be in the Russian zone of occupation after the war. So five minutes to hold Mr Churchill’s victory parade and then we hand it back. That’s about twenty thousand US casualties for every godforsaken minute. A high price for an old man’s ambition, eh?’ He swirled the whisky around the glass, watching the candlelight catch the finely cut patterns in the French crystal, wondering what his troops in the field facing von Rundstedt had eaten that evening, and envying them their simple tasks of war. ‘I’ll not let the old men of Europe play their games with my troops,’ he said quietly. ‘My duty is clear. To win this war, and to win it with the minimum loss of Allied lives. If lives are to be lost, better they be Russian than American or British.’

There was no response from his companion. Perhaps he had gone too far. He felt the need to justify himself. ‘There’s something else. Something pretty scary. Our intelligence guys believe Hitler may be planning a retreat from Berlin to the mountains in Bavaria and Austria, a sort of Alpine redoubt. He moves everything he can in there and conducts endless guerrilla warfare. God, it would be tough rousting him out of there. The war might never end.’

‘But is that likely?’

‘He’s fighting for his life; he’s not going to roll over just to please Churchill.’

‘So …?’

‘So to hell with what the Old Man wants. We concentrate on cutting off any chance of Hitler’s retreat to the mountains.’ He drained the glass. ‘And if it means Stalin taking Berlin and half of Europe, it would be a pity. But not a great pity.’

‘What a way to run a war!’ Churchill exclaimed, more soapy water splashing over the side of the bath and dripping on to the carpet.

Cazolet looked despairingly at his suit, the razor-sharp creases of half an hour ago now a sorry tangle of damp wool.

‘Some intelligence men sitting on their backsides in a Zurich bar hear whispers about a mountain fortress, and Eisenhower wants to cast all our plans aside. For mere tittle-tattle and rumour!’

‘But surely there may be something in those reports,’ interjected Cazolet. He could always recognize when Churchill’s enthusiasm ran away with his prudence, particularly late at night.

‘Let us suppose, let us for one fraction of a moment suppose …’ Churchill responded, his jowls quivering with indignation and stabbing his cigar like some blunt bayonet in the direction of the younger man. ‘Let us suppose that the same American intelligence experts who just four months ago so lamentably failed to spot thirty-one Nazi divisions massing in the Ardennes to launch the Battle of the Bulge were, on this occasion and in spite of their track record, right. So what? What can Hitler do in the Alps? Let him have his caves, let him freeze in the winter snows just as he did on the Russian plains. He can do no real damage in the mountains. But Berlin …’ At the mention of the word, his voice lowered, the brimstone being replaced by an almost conspiratorial timbre. ‘Berlin is the key, William, the key. Without it, everything may be lost.’

The waters heaved and parted as Churchill raised his considerable girth out of the bath and gesticulated for Cazolet to hand him a tent-size cotton towel. ‘It is quite simple. Either we take Berlin, or the Russians will. Vienna, Budapest, Sofia, probably Prague, almost every one of the great capitals in Central Europe will soon be occupied by the Red Army. If he gains Berlin, too, Stalin will have his paws around the heart of the continent. I have to tell you, Willie, I do not trust him. He talks of friendship, but every time Comrade Stalin stretches out his hand to me, it always feels as if he is reaching directly for my throat!’ Churchill, suddenly distracted, sat naked on the edge of the bath.

‘And behind us, here in London, I fear the worst, Willie. Defeat. Before the end of the year, at the election.’

Cazolet couldn’t help himself. The idea seemed too absurd. ‘Nonsense! How can you lose after all you’ve done? They must support you.’

‘I love them, with all my heart I love them, but I have little faith in their gratitude.’ He sat silent for a moment, drawing in his chin until it became lost in the loose folds of flesh. He tried to hide the misting in his eyes, but there was no mistaking the catch of emotion in his voice as he resumed. ‘My own father. One of the great statesmen of his age. Yet they threw him to one side. Broke his heart on the great anvil of politics …’ Tears were starting to roll down Churchill’s cheeks as he remembered the humiliation, even as Cazolet recognized the hyperbole and inexactitude. Churchill’s father had been a drunken womanizer, a disgraceful husband and even worse father, and had died at a young age of syphilis. Perhaps that was why the son had to work so hard to weave the legend and why he, at least, had to believe so passionately in it.

‘No. All triumphs are fleeting, Willie. One cannot expect gratitude. After the last war we promised them homes fit for heroes. They’re still waiting. And if Stalin and his acolytes are to rule from the Urals to the Atlantic, right up to our own doorstep, I’m not sure how long the electorate could resist inviting them in, even here. So you see, we need Berlin, to stop the disease spreading, Willie. If we lose. Berlin we shall lose the peace. The battle for Hitler’s capital is the most important contest of the war. Sadly, it seems we shall have to wage it against our American allies.’

There was a glint in his pale eyes, revealing the boyish enthusiasm of which he was so capable – or was it the desperation of an ageing, ailing leader? Cazolet was no longer sure.

‘If only we could be certain Hitler would never leave Berlin,’ Cazolet responded. ‘Then everything would fall into place.’



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