The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
By Erik Larson
(Crown, 588 pages, $32)
I was skeptical at first. I mean, do we really need yet another book about Churchill and the Blitz? Bookstore shelves already groan with countless volumes about Churchill and England’s most perilous times in 1940 and 1941, when for month on anxious month it appeared to almost everyone that, well, maybe there wouldn’t always be an England. Don’t we know all about this already?
We do. But it didn’t take many pages into Erik Larson’s Splendid and the Vile for me to be won over. This meticulously researched and gripping treatment of the lives of Churchill, his family, the political and military players of the time, and the long-suffering English people under relentless attack is different from the rest. Different in that it presents an almost day-to-day, intimate chronicle of these players and how they reacted to and coped with the relentless attacks on England by the Luftwaffe, the continuing fears of a German invasion, and the English government’s struggles to meet these almost overwhelming challenges.
The most important courtship in the book, though, is Churchill’s nonstop wooing of FDR. “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” Churchill said.
Splendid plumbs the actions, fears, courage, and doubts of Churchill as he sought, with considerable success, to draw courage out of the understandable gloom and fear of the English people from the spring of 1940 through the really dark days to follow. Larson achieves an immediacy not found in third-person histories as he relies heavily on letters and diaries written at the time as well as official records. In addition to important Brits, reader get quotes from the diary of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and the observations of people around Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring and even those around Hitler himself.
As a bonus, Larson treats readers to some of the domestic dramas of Churchill’s family and assistants, who continued to have private lives even as the bombs fell and the future was in great doubt. There’s the vivacious Mary Churchill, coming of age in a time of war and threat and still finding a way to party even as the bombs fell. There’s Pamela Churchill, married to Winston’s ungovernable son Randolph, who was more of a trial to her than the war until she finally gave him his unconditional release. There’s Churchill’s mid-Twenties personal secretary, John Colville, who with his demanding duties still found time to conduct several, mostly unsuccessful, courtships.
The most important courtship in the book, though, is Churchill’s nonstop wooing of U.S. President Roosevelt. Churchill realized from the beginning that England had no chance of winning the war without the manpower and industrial might of the United States. “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” Churchill said.
The story begins on May 10, 1940, when, responding to pressure, then–Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned from office. King George VI asked Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to form a government. The king would have preferred Lord Halifax for the post, but Halifax declined the position, saying he didn’t feel up to it. Lucky for Western civilization that he didn’t. On the morning of this pivotal appointment Germany had invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Things got much worse a month and change later with the quick and unexpected fall of France, leaving England alone against the Luftwaffe, which now enjoyed bases on the English Channel coast of France.
Things continued to get worse as Germany conducted relentless nighttime bombing until spring of 1941, when Hitler’s attention turned to the invasion of Russia. During the year, more than 44,000 Britons were killed by Nazi bombs and a larger number injured. London suffered more than half of these fatalities. The frightful cost of this wasn’t only death or injury. Businesses were destroyed and thousands made homeless. And the sound of bombs and anti-aircraft fire for hours on end at night made sleep almost impossible. By the summer of 1940, Brits were defiant but bleary-eyed. Those who got four hours of sleep on raid nights felt like they had won the lottery.
During the year Churchill worked from No. 10 and at the rural prime minister’s retreat at Chequers. We see Churchill at work, his family in support, and those in charge of Britain’s military and industrial response up close and personal. War documentaries make the course of the war and the sequence of events seem inevitable. They were nothing of the sort. There were hard decisions, fits and starts, arguments among strategists and politicians, even technological changes that called for tactical and strategic adjustments. Very little was predictable. Readers are in on all of this, as well as gaining a sense of how very long and wearing this year was for all concerned.
The take on Churchill when he became prime minister was mixed. It was agreed in the spring of 1940 that he was a gifted orator. But many considered him an erratic, unpredictable showboat. But he was a much-needed champion of defiance among so many high British officials suffering under the illusion that a deal could be made with Hitler that would avoid war and keep the United Kingdom from being just another precinct of the Third Reich, ruled from Berlin.
Erratic or not, there was no doubt of Churchill’s energy, contrasted with the low-key, downright phlegmatic style of the 71-year-old Chamberlain, whose various nicknames included “the old umbrella” and “the coroner.” Churchill’s dynamism led to a new energy level at Whitehall. “It was as though the machine had overnight acquired two new gears, capable of far higher speeds than had ever before been thought possible,” the secretary to the War Cabinet wrote. It was a new day.
Churchill’s sheer energy; his demand that everyone in the military, industry, and government give full and intelligent effort; and his soaring oratory made him very quickly very popular and helped give Britons courage and confidence when it was most needed. Larson shows us Churchill’s now famous speeches — “Never in the course of human history have so many owed show much to so few” and “We shall fight on the beaches … We shall never surrender” — in the context in which they were delivered and the response they received at the time. Churchill was able in his speeches to give Britons a sober appraisal of the facts on the ground, many of these not good at all, while still giving reasons for optimism. Edward Murrow had it right when he said Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Splendid is a fine treatment of the complex mix of confidence, courage and fear, sacrifice, failure and triumph at a pivotal time in history. It also shows leadership from Winston Churchill, the absence of which might well have meant the end of England. Those interested in history, in the nature of leadership, or want to see what determined people can endure when it’s called for, should read this book. This story of what Winston Churchill did to help save Western civilization at its hour of maximum period is particularly poignant just now as rioters are defacing the statue of Churchill in London in the name of, well, in the name of what, beyond desecration and destruction for its own sake, is not at all clear.