This American Military Attaché Bet on the British When Few Would
London recovers from a German air attack. More than 40,000 civilians died from bombing during the war, testing the storied British resolve and “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity.

This American Military Attaché Bet on the British When Few Would

By Andrew Nagorski
August 2019 • World War II

When General Raymond E. Lee, the former U.S. military attaché in wartime London, died in 1958 at age 72, his obituary in the New York Times pointed out that no one “was ever more popular in that post both with the American residents in the British capital and with British Government officials.” The reason: throughout the Blitz—the German bombing campaign in 1940 and 1941—“he retained absolute faith that the Royal Air Force would be successful in the defense of the British Isles.”

The dapper attaché, who wore Savile Row suits and sported a jaunty straw hat instead of the more typical bowler, not only sounded convinced of his belief in victory but also sought to imbue that faith in others. At a time when the United States was still officially on the sidelines, Lee was increasingly irritated by the alarming reports filed by American journalists based in London, which he feared would undercut support for Britain. After the Luftwaffe pounded London for 57 straight nights, James Reston of the New York Times admitted that he and his colleagues “wrote some end-of-the-world stuff about all this.” 

Lee decided to intervene directly, inviting the American correspondents to his office, where there was a pile of dictionaries on his desk. Noting that their dispatches frequently described London as “devastated,” he read them the definition of the word. Lee then asked them to look out the window, observing that the scene did not match that definition. “London is not devastated, gentlemen, and if you want one soldier’s opinion, it will not be devastated,” he said.

As well-known as he was to other Americans in London and top British officials at the time, Lee is largely forgotten today. He is overshadowed by the towering figures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and a host of their more prominent aides. But Lee played a critical behind-the-scenes role in cementing the ties between their countries at the moment when Hitler’s drive for world domination nearly succeeded, preparing the way for America’s entry into the war after Pearl Harbor.

According to Dean Acheson, whose early work in the State Department included implementing the Lend-Lease program in 1941 that provided essential military supplies to Britain, “Raymond Lee became the indispensable guide and comforter, smoothing irritations, untangling confusions, interpreting visitors to their hosts and vice versa, trying to harmonize the flow of information and requests from London to Washington and the often uncoordinated flow that came back.” 

Acheson, who later served as secretary of state, wrote an effusive foreword to The London Journal of General Raymond E. Lee: 1940–1941 (edited by historian James Leutze). Published in 1971, the hefty volume featured extensive excerpts from Lee’s diary and letters to his wife, Jeanette, back home. Lee’s writings demonstrated his unwavering determination to bolster the British cause and combat isolationist sentiment in the United States. But they also revealed that he was not nearly as sanguine about the outcome of the war as he always professed to be in his daily encounters. He, too, was not immune to moments of doubt when the fate of the world hung in the balance.

Lee, here an army colonel in 1919, earned the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership in France during World War I. (SGT Polk/U.S. Army/National Archives)
Lee, here an army colonel in 1919, earned the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership in France during World War I. (SGT Polk/U.S. Army/National Archives)

Born in St. Louis in 1886, Lee studied civil engineering at the University of Missouri but soon embarked on a military career. During World War I, he served as commander of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment at Verdun and earned the Army Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, Lee’s assignments included further studies at the General Staff College and the National War College, service in the Philippines, and even command of the Bonus Army Civilian Conservation Corps Camps for the jobless in Vermont. 

In 1935, Lee was posted to the London embassy as its military attaché, which initiated the defining chapter of his life—one that played to his Anglophile predispositions. As his brother Colin later recalled, even though their ancestors had all arrived in the United States by the mid-19th century, the family’s roots were strictly British. “You could not find anywhere in England a more typical English type than my father,” he said. Their mother, he added, was more “typical an Englishwoman” than Queen Victoria. 

Raymond Lee found it easy to adjust to life in London, carrying on an active social life, enjoying elegant dining and intellectual conversations. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Lee was called home to train American troops. But when Hitler’s forces swept across Western Europe in spring 1940, he was sent back to London, where he already had an unrivaled network of contacts. 

Major General Sir Frederick Beaumont-Nesbitt, who was in charge of British Military Intelligence, considered Lee a “trusted friend” and a “trusted professional soldier” who would never betray his confidence. Unlike other military attachés, Lee had full access to Beaumont-Nesbitt’s room in the War Office. “He could walk right in without a pass—just like a British officer,” Beaumont-Nesbitt recalled. But the British intelligence chief recognized the “sensitivity of his job,” since the United States was still debating how far it should engage in the war effort. “I tried never to ask too much of him,” Beaumont-Nesbitt added.

Joseph P. Kennedy (above), the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of war, felt the British were doomed to defeat. The English didn’t share that view (below). (New York Times Co./Getty Images, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Joseph P. Kennedy (above), the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of war, felt the British were doomed to defeat. The English didn’t share that view (below). (New York Times Co./Getty Images, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

AS FRANCE COLLAPSED in the face of the German blitzkrieg, Hitler’s forces looked to be unstoppable. On May 20, 1940, Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan who was serving as U.S. ambassador in London, reported to Roosevelt: “Democracy in Britain is finished.” On his flight back to the British capital in June, Lee was appalled by the “amount of defeatist talk, the almost pathological assumption that it is all over but the shouting,” as he noted in his diary. Based on that assumption, Kennedy made it clear to Lee that he was “against the United States intervening,” since it was too late to stop Hitler. 

Lee was intent on proving the doomsayers wrong, although he was far from Pollyannaish. “The indications are that it will not be long before Hitler has a go at this country,” he wrote to Jeanette on June 24, as fears of a German invasion grew in Britain. But he tried to play down the personal danger. “You must not worry about me,” he added. “I have a gas mask and a helmet, and there are plenty of air raid shelters.”

As the bombings began, Lee deliberately conveyed an air of confidence, resorting to the kind of stiff-upper-lip demeanor that came naturally given his Anglophile leanings. He moved into a luxurious corner suite at Claridge’s but walked freely about the city to survey the bomb damage both during the day and at night. “If there ever was a time when one should wear life like a loose garment, this is it,” Lee noted. He expressed special admiration for the “little tarts who wander about the streets of Mayfair every afternoon and evening in their finery,” not bothering to scurry into shelters during bombing raids. 

Lee’s bravado was buttressed by his grasp of the rapidly changing balance of power. He quickly realized that Hitler was already demonstrating his weaknesses as a military leader. “I can’t for the life of me puzzle out what the Germans are up to,” he wrote on September 15. “They have great airpower and yet are dissipating it in fruitless and aimless attacks all over England.” Many of those attacks were missing their targets, while still spreading destruction and death. “At the end of a month of this blitzkrieg, the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning,” Lee concluded.

Lee also felt immensely encouraged by Winston Churchill, who had taken over as prime minister on the day the Germans invaded France. After attending a dinner at 10 Downing Street in August, he jotted down his impressions in his pocket diary: “Churchill knows people better than [his predecessor Neville] Chamberlain. Tells them facts: trouble, work, anguish. After nothing but defeat they are in better spirit.”

Lee viewed Churchill as an “extraordinary individual, of aristocratic lineage but an unscrupulously rough-and-tumble fighter.” He added that the British leader “is perfectly at home in his dealings with Hitler and Mussolini.” He applauded the fact that Roosevelt had established a direct line of communication with Churchill, bypassing Kennedy with a stream of private letters and cables. When Roosevelt, not trusting Kennedy’s judgment, dispatched Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan for a quick evaluation of Britain’s situation that summer, Lee eagerly helped the visitor out. Not surprisingly, Donovan—who would soon head the spy agency known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—concluded that “Britain under Churchill would not surrender either to ruthless air raids or to an invasion.”

Recognizing he was out of favor with Washington, Kennedy requested home leave and left Britain in October 1940. Lee may have been relieved—but he was also scathing in his verdict. “From a soldier’s point of view he is deserting his post at a critical time,” he wrote. Lee also complained that the ambassador gave a “perfectly damn fool interview” to the Boston Globe in November, continuing to spread his pessimistic, barely concealed anti-British views at every opportunity. 

This confirmed Lee’s longstanding assessment of Kennedy as someone who possessed a “facile [his italics] insensitivity to the great forces which are now playing like heat lightning over the map of the world.” Support for England was more critical than ever, Lee believed. “If this country is knocked out, we will have to stand alone and will have a hard time doing it,” he warned.

As for the man who wanted to knock Britain out, Lee was alternately disdainful and infuriated. Writing about the “aimless, random bombing” on September 17, he concluded: “To Hell with Hitler, I say.” On November 23, he confided in his diary: “When I look at all the crowds going along the streets here, shopping and following their normal activities, and realize that out of them a certain number are going to be blasted into oblivion every night, it makes me wild with anger to think that a few scoundrels can put the world in such a fix.”

Residents of Lisbon, Portugal, seek the latest war news. Information was valuable currency in Lisbon, known to be a hotbed of espionage during the war. (© IWM (D 1103) )
Residents of Lisbon, Portugal, seek the latest war news. Information was valuable currency in Lisbon, known to be a hotbed of espionage during the war. (© IWM (D 1103) )

WHILE ROOSEVELT and his political advisers geared up to win Congressional approval for the ambitious Lend-Lease program in early 1941, Lee flew to Washington to act as an adviser to the ABC-1 Conference, the first American-British-Canadian military staff planning meeting, which lasted from late January to the end of March. The conference laid the groundwork for extensive military cooperation between the three countries, based on the implicit assumption that the Americans were likely to enter the war.

Given Washington’s official position as a nonbelligerent, the proceedings were strictly secret, limited to a small group of participants. Calling themselves “technical advisers to the British Purchasing Commission,” the British delegates took the precaution of wearing civilian clothes. According to Roosevelt aide Robert Sherwood, the staff talks “provided the highest degree of strategic preparedness that the United States or probably any other non-aggressor nation has ever had before entry into war.” 

The extreme secrecy of those talks was not because Germany or Japan might learn about them. The real reason, Sherwood noted, was that they could provide ammunition to the isolationists at home who were already charging that Roosevelt was dragging the country into the war. If those plans had fallen into the hands of Congress or the press, he added, “American preparation for war might have been well-nigh wrecked and ruined.”

On his way back to London in early April, Lee should have felt relieved about the success of the meeting—and the fact that nothing had leaked about it. But during a stopover in Lisbon, he suffered a near-panic attack about the secret documents he was carrying with him. They contained the results of the deliberations, including the operational and deployment plans for U.S. and British troops in case his country entered the war. He was also carrying a secret letter from Roosevelt to Churchill. The loss of those documents, Lee noted, would be “completely irreparable.”

Since he was staying at a hotel until his flight to England, Lee entrusted those documents to members of the U.S. legation in Lisbon for safekeeping. After a late dinner, he went to sleep—only to wake up at 2:30 a.m. “in the midst of a most tremendous nightmare.” In his dream Lee had given the documents to “American representatives who were not Americans at all,” one of whom had driven straight for the border to hand them over to the Germans. Only half-awake, he remembered that Lisbon was indeed teeming with Nazi agents and, in the morning, Lee rushed to the legation to confirm he had only imagined all of this—but then, just to be sure, he took back the documents, locking himself into his hotel room until his departure.

Lee’s plane landed in Poole on England’s southern coast late in the evening of April 10, and he went to spend the night in the neighboring town of Bournemouth before catching the morning train to London. He had barely gone to sleep when his landlady roused all the guests, insisting they go downstairs as German bombers attacked, hitting the local Woolworth store only half a block away. Finally arriving in London, Lee felt a tremendous sense of relief once he handed over Roosevelt’s letter for transmission to Churchill and locked up the other documents.

Another source of relief for Lee was his first meeting with John Gilbert Winant, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire who had arrived during his absence to replace Kennedy as ambassador. “What a contrast to the interview I had first with Kennedy, who was crude, blatant, and ignorant in everything he did or said,” Lee wrote. Winant left no doubt he was as passionate about aiding Britain as Lee was. “It is evident that Winant and Churchill are already on the best of terms, and I am sure that they will remain so,” the general noted.

After 1941’s top-secret ABC-1 Conference, General Lee hand-carried a briefcase of classified documents from Washington, DC, back to London. (George Karger/Conde Nast via Getty Images)
After 1941’s top-secret ABC-1 Conference, General Lee hand-carried a briefcase of classified documents from Washington, DC, back to London. (George Karger/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

NONETHELESS, LEE’S first week back in London left him in a dour mood. He noticed a “considerable deterioration in many directions,” he wrote. The food situation had worsened, and people looked “more solemn.” At the movies, audiences were subjected to the kind of blatant propaganda the authorities had shied away from before. Lee watched a film with British troops in training shouting “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

“Mr. Black,” probably an alias for one of his intelligence sources, told Lee that the Germans “are convinced that [Lend-Lease] assistance from the United States can never reach England soon enough to affect the final issue.” And while Churchill continued to project an unwavering sense of confidence, some of his top officials conveyed a sense of desperation in their dealings with emissaries from Washington. 

Lord Beaverbrook, the minister for aircraft production, asked General Henry “Hap” Arnold, who had been busy expanding the U.S. Army Air Corps: “What would you do if Churchill were hung, and the rest of us [were] hiding in Scotland or being run over by the Germans?” According to Lee, Arnold concluded that his hosts “were putting on a show to impress him” about the urgency of the situation. 

Many Americans, including Lee, were suitably impressed—although the attaché kept up appearances to the contrary. His mood had become so glum that on April 16, 1941, he wrote in his diary that “it is a question whether our support will arrive soon enough to bolster up what is a gradually failing cause.” 

It wasn’t just the Blitz that fueled such worries. In the three months ending with May, German U-boats sank 142 ships, 99 of them British, all part of their effort to isolate Britain further. In response, Roosevelt extended his country’s security zone and patrol areas much farther into the North Atlantic, effectively taking responsibility for monitoring all shipping in the Western hemisphere. Churchill was quick to express his gratitude for this new sign of growing American support. 

In the run-up to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union launched on June 22, the pressure on Britain eased somewhat. The Blitz largely ended in May, as many Luftwaffe squadrons were redeployed to the East. Britain had paid a heavy price up to that point, with approximately 43,000 killed and three times that number injured. But Hitler had failed to bomb Britain into submission. In fact, as Lee noted in his diary, the popular mood was accurately reflected by a film called Britain Can Take It!

While welcoming the news that the Germans would now have to focus on the Eastern Front, top officials in London and Washington were decidedly pessimistic about the Red Army’s chances against the invaders. Stalin had refused to believe that Hitler was about to abandon the Nazi-Soviet Pact, leaving his troops unprepared for the German onslaught. 

Lee did not go along with the prevailing view that the Wehrmacht’s early string of victories meant that Hitler’s gamble on delivering a swift knockout blow had paid off already. He was encouraged by the signs later in the summer of stiffening resistance by Red Army units. “They are bleeding,” he wrote on August 30, “but the Germans are, too, and the latter can ill afford to lose all this blood, material, oil, and time.” Lee understood that Stalin had a far bigger pool of manpower to draw on, and Hitler’s forces risked major overextension.

Still, Lee was acutely aware that both Britain and the Soviet Union would need massive assistance from the United States to keep fighting back. On September 4, he compared notes with Winant over dinner. According to Lee, the ambassador declared that Britain had “no chance of winning” without full U.S. support. 

Lee agreed, but he was frustrated by the continuing ambivalence of his countrymen. “War is edging nearer to the United States, a nation which prefers to be unconscious of events,” he wrote on September 9, alluding to a U-boat attack on the USS Greer a few days earlier. The German torpedoes had missed the American destroyer, but soon other torpedoes would hit their marks.

While grateful for Lend-Lease and other forms of support, British officials were also betraying growing nervousness about Washington’s intentions. In a telegram to Churchill on November 4, Field Marshal Jan Smuts declared: “I am struck by the growth of the impression here and elsewhere that the war is going to end in a stalemate and thus fatally for us.” To avert such an outcome, the United States needed to enter the war, he concluded, urging the prime minister to appeal to Roosevelt for that outcome. 

Churchill explained that FDR was constrained by “his constitutional difficulties”—in other words, only Congress could declare war. “We must have patience and trust to the tide which is flowing our way and to events.” To his War Cabinet, he added that he did not want to pressure Roosevelt “in advance of American opinion.”

As the pivotal year 1941 was drawing to a close, the War Department ordered Lee, who was visibly tired, to return home. But before he reported to Washington, he arranged to meet Jeanette in New York for what he billed as a second honeymoon. She greeted him at LaGuardia Field on December 7, right after hearing the announcement that Japanese planes had attacked Pearl Harbor. “Events,” as Churchill had put it, were taking charge, overshadowing all personal plans.

In a special joint session of Congress the next day, Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan, which passed the Senate 82-0 and the House 388-1. On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. The debate about the extent of American involvement was decisively over. 

Lee would go on to serve in military intelligence and to command artillery troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, before retiring in 1946. But his most indisputable accomplishment was the magnificent role he had played in wartime London. ✯

 —Andrew Nagorski was born in Scotland to Polish parents, moved to the United States as an infant, and has rarely stopped moving since. He is an award-winning journalist and author who spent more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek; he is also a frequent contributor to this magazine. His new book, 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, tells the stories of U.S. military attaché General Raymond E. Lee and others who played key roles during that pivotal year. 

With the Blitz all but over by May 1941, Britain’s information ministry began producing films that reflected the country’s bullish spirit. (William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
With the Blitz all but over by May 1941, Britain’s information ministry began producing films that reflected the country’s bullish spirit. (William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

This story was originally published in the August 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here. 

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