We were stirred, never shaken, by our real-life James Bond figure. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett was the picture of an English aristocrat, without a hint of stuffiness. So genial, so approachable, we young University of Virginia students were thrilled by each of his lectures on diplomatic history—especially about anything on England and Germany in the interwar period.
He had lived in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. His biographer calls him her Witness to History. He was surely that. But delving into his vivid life experience, we realized he did far more than merely a witness.
In his several slender volumes of memoirs, he relates how he drove through Berlin with former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning hiding on the floor of the back seat. Sir John admits his hands sweated at a stop light, with SA thugs pulling up opposite his car and looking threateningly at him.
Brüning escaped their grasp, but the other immediate predecessor of Hitler—Kurt von Schleicher—was not so fortunate. Schleicher—and his wife!—were gunned down on June 30, 1934, by Hitler’s henchmen. The Night of the Long Knives.
Sir John would write of his later flight to Prague, shortly after the shameful sellout of Czechoslovakia by the appeasers Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier at Munich in 1938. Sir John said he had a Union Jack on his car as he was driven to the British embassy. He noted the mournful looks of the Czechs he passed. He had never been so ashamed to be British, he wrote. Days after he returned home, he learned that the connecting flight from Brussels—the one he was scheduled to take—had exploded midair!
Wheeler-Bennett related one story—tragic comic—at U.Va.’s historic Lawn. He was tasked with escorting exiled Czech President Edvard Beneš around the University’s Grounds. But US Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles ran late after speaking to Founder’s Day events—and was walking up the Lawn! Sir John was tasked with not letting the Czech see Welles and vice versa. (The US was then carefully guarding its “neutrality” between the warring Europeans.) With his typical aplomb, Sir John invited his charge’s attention to a student room on the East Lawn. And he avoided a “collision.”
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Charlottesville to speak at the Commencement, a thunderstorm forced the exercises inside the old Memorial Gym. Wheeler-Bennett was seated behind the president’s right shoulder. He saw him take out of his typed text, the handwritten sheet with the only words anyone remembered from his historic address:
On this tenth day of June, nineteen hundred and forty, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into its neighbor!
That very morning, FDR had learned of Mussolini’s treacherous stab in the back of prostrate France.
That afternoon, the president invited Sir John Wheeler-Bennett to tag along with his motorcade in his drive to Washington. Sir John’s driver, a Black Virginian well experienced with the Old Dominion’s roads and its Jim Crow laws, had never driven so fast.
While Wheeler-Bennett wore his English tweed coats even in a sweltering Virginia summer, I was delighted to have him hail me, saying, “Oh, hello, Hello, HELLO, Mr. Morrison!” What had I done to be singled out among the underclassmen?
We later read of his derring-do pursuit of a great story—an interview with old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. Sir John visited the hunted Communist revolutionary in Mexico City. Trotsky had lost out in a power struggle with Stalin.
It was hard to imagine our impeccably dressed Briton submitting to a thorough strip search to be cleared by Trotsky’s grim, gray Latvian guards. They even wanted a body cavity search. But Wheeler-Bennett soon got Trotsky to unbend. And he copped one of the best, most detailed interviews ever obtained by a Western journalist.
Just in time. In 1940, Stalin’s veteran assassin managed to evade those Latvians and bury an ice ax deep into Trotsky’s skull. Stalin said: “There is nothing sweeter in life than to patiently plan your revenge—and take it.”
Decades after my student days, I read Wheeler-Bennett’s memoirs. There, I learned about Britain’s domestic tsar of World War II—Labour Party figure Herbert Morrison. He was the powerful home secretary. Herbert was no relation of mine, but it made a connection I treasured.
And that eccentric greeting—hello, Hello, HELLO—was actually a speech coach’s drill to give stammerers a “jump-start” on all conversations.
Sir John Wheeler-Bennett received his disability as a result of being bombed into an air raid shelter at his public school—by a German zeppelin during the Great War.
We learned the reason that Buckingham Palace selected this heroic Briton to be the royal biographer. He would uniquely understand the effect of such a speech disorder that beset King George VI. They had both been tutored by Sir Lionel Logue, whom we see working his wonders in the movie The King’s Speech.
The key to the intimate friendship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and the king might be found there. The king with the speech impediment formed an unbreakable bond with the president who could not walk. For them it was a disability; for our war-torn nations, it made for an iron link in their chain guarding us all against a common peril.