John Peck, 1945: General Eisenhower asks if the war is over….

John Peck, 1945: General Eisenhower asks if the war is over….

Col. Gault (Mil­i­tary Assis­tant to Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er, 29 April 1945): “John Peck, is that you? The Gen­er­al told me to ask you if the war is over.”

Peck: “I beg your par­don?”

Gault: “Seri­ous­ly, we’ve got a press mes­sage here which says quite clear­ly that it’s all over. If so, nobody has told the Gen­er­al and he thought you would be the most like­ly to know at your end.”

Peck: “Well, if it has end­ed, nobody has told the Prime Min­is­ter either.”

Gault: “Do you think we had bet­ter car­ry on?”

Peck: “Yes, I think so.” [John then went back to sleep, and the war went on.]

Joys of The Churchill Documents

It is a priv­i­lege to help edit and proof Hills­dale Col­lege‘s final doc­u­ment vol­umes in the Churchill offi­cial biog­ra­phy. We fall over so many gems. Here is one.

This doc­u­ment may be a “reject”—we can’t pub­lish every­thing. It was culled by Sir Mar­tin Gilbert for Doc­u­ment Vol­ume 21. That vol­ume will release in 2018, cov­er­ing the peri­od from Jan­u­ary to July 1945 and the end of Churchill’s pre­mier­ship. (After that, we have only two more vol­umes to go.)

The exchange quot­ed above is by for­mer Churchill Pri­vate Sec­re­tary John Peck to Dr. Robert Price of Lex­ing­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts, 18 July 1981. They had met at a com­mem­o­ra­tive cer­e­mo­ny at Churchill’s Cab­i­net War Rooms in Lon­don. Price had sent Peck an arti­cle on the exchanges between Churchill and Tru­man, via Admi­ral Leahy, at the end of war in Europe (VE Day). Peck’s reply is an amus­ing insight, a thing we would nev­er know oth­er­wise. It shows us the rich­ness of the Churchill Doc­u­ments (Admi­ral William Leahy was Chief of Staff to Pres­i­dents Roo­sevelt and Tru­man from 1942 to 1949.)

John Peck writes:

I hap­pen to have been the Pri­vate Sec­re­tary con­cerned in the Leahy/Churchill exchanges on the secret tele­phone on May 7th, 1945…. My rec­ol­lec­tion of events, admit­ted­ly writ­ten many years lat­er with­out the ben­e­fit of offi­cial records, runs as fol­lows:

The instru­ment of total uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der was signed in the small hours of 7 May 1945 and all hos­til­i­ties were to cease the fol­low­ing mid­night. Evi­dent­ly, as Leahy records, Churchill had sent a telegram to Pres­i­dent Tru­man, the sub­stance of which was that he want­ed to declare VE Day on 8 May. There was evi­dence that the Pres­i­dent felt the same way. How­ev­er, from Leahy’s tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with Churchill, it was evi­dent that the Pres­i­dent felt oblig­ed to go along with Stal­in‘s wish­es [to delay] per­haps until 9 May….

Churchill very reluc­tant­ly acqui­esced, but much lat­er he sud­den­ly said to me, “Go and ring the Pres­i­dent and tell him that I have got to announce the end of the war tomor­row (the 8th) as we orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed, as the crowds know of the Ger­man sur­ren­der.” (Or words to that effect.)

I duly put through the call, think­ing it high­ly improb­a­ble that I should speak to Pres­i­dent Tru­man him­self. Indeed, the call was nat­u­ral­ly tak­en by Admi­ral Leahy. Although it is not ver­ba­tim, the fol­low­ing is a pret­ty accu­rate account of our brief dia­logue:

Peck: “The Prime Min­is­ter wants to announce the end of the war tomor­row. The Rus­sians want to go on until the 9th. On bal­ance he is inclined to go ahead and end it on the 8th.”

Leahy: “We want to end it too.”

Peck: “Right, so we will both end it tomor­row.”

Leahy: “Yes, fine, okay.”

To the best of my knowl­edge no record of any of these con­ver­sa­tions was kept at the Lon­don end.

Is the War Over?

John Peck’s let­ter con­tin­ues:

I seem to have spe­cialised in odd tele­phone calls around that time. You may be amused by the fol­low­ing extract from an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work I once wrote record­ing anoth­er tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, on an open tele­phone line , on the night of Sun­day, 29 April 1945…. [After this] I ceased to be sur­prised at any­thing.

Dur­ing the week­end of 27-30 April 1945 I was on duty at Che­quers [the PM’s offi­cial coun­try res­i­dence]. On the Sun­day night we had final­ly got the PM off to bed at 3.00 am. I had just fall­en into a deep sleep when my bed­side tele­phone rang. An apolo­getic tele­phon­ist put through an even more apolo­getic Colonel Gault, the Mil­i­tary Assis­tant to Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er, speak­ing from his head­quar­ters in Reims.

Gault: “John, is that you? Sor­ry to both­er you at this hour, but the Gen­er­al told me to ask you if the war is over.”

Peck: “I beg your par­don?”

Gault: “Seri­ous­ly, we’ve got a press mes­sage here which says quite clear­ly that it’s all over. If so, nobody has told the Gen­er­al and he thought you would be the most like­ly to know at your end.”

Peck: “Well if it has end­ed, nobody has told the Prime Min­is­ter either.”

Gault: “Do you think we had bet­ter car­ry on?”

Peck: “Yes, I think so. I’ll let you know if there are any devel­op­ments here.”

Gault: “Many thanks. So I can tell the Gen­er­al to go on with the war?”

Peck: “Yes.”

Gault: “Good­night. Sor­ry to both­er you.”

Peck: “Not a bit. Good­night.”

So it was that Pri­vate Sec­re­tary John Peck, on his own recog­ni­zance, bid World War II con­tin­ue. Nei­ther Churchill, nor Tru­man, nor Stal­in were con­sult­ed, Peck writes: “I went back to sleep, and the war went on.”

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