Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 4, 2021

Atlantic Meeting, by H.V. Morton

80 years ago on this day, August 4th 1941, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill set sail across the Atlantic to make history.

Upon Sunday, August 3rd, 1941, Mr Winston Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff travelled by train to the North, where on the following day, and in conditions of the greatest secrecy, they embarked in a battleship.  Five days later, upon Saturday, August 9th, the battleship dropped anchor in a lonely bay off the shores of Newfoundland.  American warships were waiting there with President Roosevelt, who had come so secretly to the rendezvous that the entire Press of America was speculating on his disappearance.  In that desolate bay, which reminded everyone of the Hebrides, with low hills rising mistily in the air, the warships lay at anchor while the two statesmen conducted their conference, the published outcome of which was the Atlantic Charter.  (p.9)

So begins H V Morton’s account of this remarkable WW2 meeting which changed the course of history.

HVM, then one of the best-known journalists in Britain, received his invitation to be present under strict wartime conditions of secrecy, from Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information.

‘I have an extraordinary proposition to put up to you,’ he began.  ‘I want you to leave England for three weeks, but I regret to say I can’t tell you where you are going or what you will see when you get there.  I can only say that you will see history in the making and be present at one of the great moments of the war.  Will you go?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course I will go.’

‘Then I can tell you this.  You will leave London tomorrow, and you will leave England on Monday in a battleship.  You will be at sea for about a week.  You will be for several days in or near a foreign country, and you will then return in the battleship.  I can tell you no more.’ (p.21)

Bracken, reading HVM’s unvoiced suspicions that this mysterious affair must be a naval action, with a troop landing, perhaps in Russia, reassures him that it’s unlikely that he’ll hear any shooting unless Germany sends out a pocket battleship to intercept them.  He gets a more helpful clue, that this is a diplomatic mission, when Bracken tells him most certainly to take a dinner jacket. 

This is a serious book about a significant moment in world history, and HVM is immeasurably proud of Churchill’s courage in venturing into regions patrolled by Hitler’s u-boats, but his pen occasionally lightens the mood.  Explaining the preliminaries, he describes the L-shaped garden when Mr Churchill occasionally takes a walk at No 10 Downing St.

It is not a spectacular garden in spite of Mrs Neville Chamberlain’s earnest attempts to transform it.  There is a paved terrace, some grass, and a few official-looking flowers obviously blooming by arrangement with the Office of Works.  Although separated by only a few yards from the Cabinet Room, where so much history as been made, no great events have ever overflowed into the garden of No 10, which has accordingly enjoyed a smooth and uneventful career, except for one brief moment in the Nineteenth century when an unfortunate experiment conducted on the lawn with gun cotton blew in all the windows at the back of the house. (p.11)

But on this occasion, by the time Churchill had taken a breath of fresh air with his visitor [LH: who was probably choking from Churchill’s cigars], he had decided to cross the Atlantic.

One of the remarkable aspects of this venture was that Britain was under wartime censorship and could count on Fleet Street to keep all news of this perilous venture out of the press.  But the US was not at war, and its press did not hesitate to publish the scoop when it found out about it, making the return journey even more dangerous.  HVM could see this for himself in the Map room in the Prince of Wales where officers filed war cables and marked up the maps to correspond with events.

The position of every ship, warships and merchant ships alike, and the position of every known u-boat, were plotted hour by hour upon the huge map of the Atlantic Ocean.  The u-boats were represented by sinister little coffin-shaped ebony pins; enemy aircraft by black T’s; warships were grey, merchant ships were red. Most impressive to see were the great convoys crossing the Atlantic, sixty and seventy little red ships escorted by grey ships lying in a wide space of open water.  One immediately looked around for the nearest u-boat. There they were, sometimes a pack of six little black coffins, but well away to the north or south.  The convoy was safe for the moment!

Captain Pim would read a message, bring it over to the map, work out the longitude and latitude, and quietly place a couple of black coffins in the path of the convoy.  It was difficult to realise that this was real, that this was happening all about us at that moment, that it was not some exciting game of chance or skill.  And, as I looked at the ever-moving picture of the Battle of the Atlantic, translating it in my mind from a purely academic problem on a map into terms of human life or death, of ships, men and munitions, I prayed that those convoys and their escorts knew, as we knew, of the black coffins in their path.  (p.67)

HVM knew that the position of the Prince of Wales was of outstanding interest in the map room and often went in to look for the u-boat nearest to their own position.  He was pleased to witness an occasion when one that was near enough was, (like occasional others in the path of a convoy) quietly removed from the map because it had been destroyed.

Churchill, figurehead of Britain and a great prize for Hitler had he been lost at sea to those u-boats which wreaked such havoc on the merchant navy convoys*, took his life in his hands hoping that America would declare its intention to join the war against fascism.  That did not happen until December 1941.  But the Atlantic Charter was an important step towards binding the US to the war effort, and to the post-war goals first expressed in the London Declaration by its allies: representatives of the United Kingdom; the Commonwealth nations which had joined the fight—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa; the eight governments in exile—Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia; and Free France.

The Atlantic Charter set goals for the post-war world and inspired many of the international agreements that shaped the world thereafter, most notably the United Nations.

You can read more about that here.

In the Appendix, there are excerpts from Churchill’s broadcast to the nation on August 24th, 1941, six days after his return.  In this broadcast he told the British people about his voyage and about the goals upon which the two leaders had agreed, and concluded with a description of the church service held aboard the Prince of Wales, attended by the sailors and marines of both countries:

I looked upon that densely-packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals, and now to a large extent of the same interests, and certainly in different degrees facing the same dangers, it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  And so we came back across the ocean waves, uplifted in spirit, fortified in resolve. (p.155)

While not all the goals of the Atlantic Charter were realised, and both the US and UK have at different times betrayed its lofty ideals, the fact remains that the world would have been a barbaric place if Nazi Germany had won and held command of all Europe and the British Empire.  And yet Churchill saw fit to declare to his people so recently subjected to the Blitz:

‘That instead of trying to ruin German trade by all kinds of additional trade barriers and hindrances, as was the mood of 1917, we have definitely adopted the view that it is not in the interests of the world and our two countries that any large nation should be unprosperous or shut out from the means of making a decent living for itself and its people by its industry and enterprise.’  (p.154)

Are there any scholars out there who know if this was an early indication that Churchill knew that a prosperous Germany was an essential bulwark against the Soviets?

* 30,248 merchant seamen lost their lives during World War Two, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces. (Source: BBC History, Fact File: Merchant Navy.)

Author: H V Morton
Title: Atlantic Meeting
Cover artist unknown (my copy doesn’t have a dustjacket)
Publisher: Methuen & Co., London, First Edition, 1943
ISBN: None
Source: A gift from ‘the Tooth Fairy’ in the H V Morton Society


Responses

  1. Marvellous to see you bringing this book into focus, Lisa.

    Like

    • Hi Carmel, thank you:)
      I remember on my first visit ‘home’ to London in 2001 when The Spouse and I did all the touristy things I never did as a child, we took one of those red buses that does a circuit of the city so that The Spouse a.k.a. The Navigator can form a mental picture of the places that we were going to look for. The bus stopped somewhere in Westminster for people to take photos (of Harrods, I think), but I spied a plaque commemorating the first meeting of the UN in 1946, in which Australia’s H V Evatt played such significant role. He was President from 1948-9, and was instrumental in drafting the Declaration of Human Rights. For all its flaws I think that the UN is a magnificent achievement, and so I found this book about its origins in the middle of the war, absolutely fascinating.
      I must get a copy of the new bio about Evatt!

      Like

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  3. I’ve not heard of this book, but the quotes suggest his style is very readable, considering how serious the subject is.

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    • He was a really gifted writer. Keep an eye out for his travel books, they’re wonderful to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a great quote “instead of trying to ruin German trade …”. It’s interesting how early they were thinking of not repeating the mistake of reparations, and that Churchill was on board with it. It’s a policy I agree with, but it also seems to me that Britain after the war was left behind while Germany and Japan powered ahead.

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    • Well, yes, Britain was bankrupted by the war, and whereas the US Marshall plan gave aid to Western Europe to rebuild after the war, Britain was not only on its own, but also feeding Germany. Postwar rationing went on for a long time though it was not as severe by the time I was born.
      But this non-punitive policy didn’t last long. Trade embargoes designed to ruin the Soviet economy emerged along with the Cold War, and America persisted in prohibiting aid to Cuba even when fans of Hemingway wanted to make donations to protect his literary estate from mouldering in the Cuban humidity.
      And America did everything it could to hinder postwar recovery in Vietnam after 1975. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think trade embargoes remained until Obama?

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      • I agree with you. The US learnt nothing from the success of the Marshall Plan – partly change of presidents I suppose, and partly an irrational fear of the idea of Communism which all of the US ruling class seems determined to suppress rather than live with.
        My opinion is that Vietnam and Cuba (and Iran for that matter) would be ordinary middle class countries if they were left alone to get on with business.

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        • Still, it’s good to have lofty ideals even if the execution falls short. It’s when we have nothing good to aim for, that things go seriously awry.

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  5. Wow. I’d come across Morton’s travel books, but never before this one. My grandfather was a merchant seaman who lost his life on one of the first ships to be sunk in the war, so I think this would resonate strongly – I’ll keep a look out for it. Thanks, Lisa.

    Like

    • I’m sorry about your grandfather, it would have been a terrible way to die.
      We can’t mourn men we never met, but many of our generation witnessed the grief of family who knew and loved them, and we feel the absence of extended family lost because of the war.

      Liked by 1 person


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