The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What an outstanding book Erik Larson has delivered. Could another WWII book bring anything new or interesting? Larson does both with this look at the first year of Churchill’s premiership, showing us in great detail how close to victory Hitler had come, and how the steely resolve of Churchill held things together in the face of unrelenting bad news, and a fierce German bombing campaign against Britain. Larson gives us a look at not just the military, but some of the personal, with some of the Churchill family “issues” covered fairly.
There is no question that Churchill is still revered today, but I do believe that how close Britain was to defeat, as the country stood alone against what appeared to be an unbeatable German military colossus, tends to be forgotten as the years go by. We get to see the devastation of the German air blitz on Britain and London, and how Churchill both coped with, and offered inspiration, in the face of continuing bad news. As Britain stood alone against the onslaught it appeared very likely that the Germans would attempt an invasion, and that potential added to the immense burden on Churchill.
The book gives us a look at Goebbels (the Vile), through his diary, showing him to be both perplexed and outraged by Churchill’s refusal to enter into peace talks with Germany. The Germans, including Hitler, never could settle on a way to deal with the British beyond the bombing campaign. Larson looks at the role of Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe chief. Goring’s fundamental incompetence, and his reliance on cranks, especially in the intelligence field, was a key factor in the eventual British victory. Much of the German side material has been covered elsewhere, but it is fascinating in the context given by Larson.
Of course Churchill, for all his greatness, could not have won the war alone. We get to look at key members of the Churchill team, including Lord Beaverbrook, a fascinating figure. Churchill recognized that aircraft production would be something that would be critical to keeping Britain in the war, and he designated Beaverbrook as his head of Aircraft Production, a portfolio Churchill created. Beaverbrook was not a “team player” in a bureaucratic sense, but he drove his mission with zeal, ensuring that the British could replace the losses incurred in the Battle of Britain, and stay in the fight. Beaverbrook was a prima donna, but Churchill tolerated the constant threats of resignation, and squeezed the most out of a talented yet eccentric personality. It is, in my view, one of the key elements of Churchill’s greatness. He not only inspired his citizens, but he motivated his team in ways that drove the British forward when the chance of victory seemed non-existent.
Of course we see how much importance Churchill placed on the United States, and how he worked the Roosevelt angle as hard as he could. The U.S. was not quite ready to join the fight, but Churchill was relentless in his pursuit of Roosevelt, recognizing immediately that victory would likely be impossible without the entry of the military and industrial strength of America. Although he did not always meet success in his early endeavors with FDR Churchill had the political foresight to see how the war would play out, and acted accordingly.
The strength in the face of overwhelming odds, the description of the carnage brought on by the German air attacks and the Churchill response, and a close look at Churchill’s family and political circle make this book, for me, an outstanding effort, and well worth a read.
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