As best-selling historian Erik Larsons’ new World War II book “The Splendid and the Vile” (Crown Publishing) opens, the military forces of Nazi Germany are rolling over France and the British troops sent over to help. The ease of their rapid advance is terrifying. British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain had pursued peace with Nazi leader Adolph Hitler through compromise and acquiescence and just giving Hitler what he wanted. Now he quits in failure, leaving British government in disarray at this moment of extreme vulnerability.
In steps, Winston Churchill on May 10, 1940, a 65-year-old swashbuckling maverick politician and imperialist distrusted by Chamberlain’s outgoing administration, King George VI and many other elites. He is suspected to be a soused, bumbling, blowhard. But Churchill is popular with the citizenry for his inspirational speeches and fighting moxie. As prime minster, Churchill, fortunately, turned out to be a right person for the moment—belligerent toward Britain’s enemies, nurturing crucial alliances, able to align Britain’s industry toward addressing urgent war needs, and rousing the populace in this precarious moment of shattering defeat on the European continent and the daunting threat of Nazi invasion.
Larson doesn’t turn over new ground, but he’s brilliant at spinning page-turner yarns. In the past, he’s often attended to the sidelines of history—a murderer at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair in 2003’s “The Devil in the White City,” an American ambassador to Germany witnessing Hitler’s assumption of power in 2011’s “In the Garden of Beasts.” Here, Larson has turned his great skill to a monumental subject: Churchill during World War II’s Battle of Britain, when underdog Britain desperately musters to fight off German bombers intended to flatten British morale and prepare the ground for a German amphibious invasion. The match of Larson’s skill and such a subject is electrifying.
Larson’s approach is to focus on Churchill’s first year in command—and not just on Churchill but the circle of colleagues, friends and family members orbiting him, including his wife, his 17-year-old daughter, his personal secretary, his military-science advisor and the newspaper baron Churchill puts in charge of increasing fighter plane production.
Here is the miraculous escape of British troops cornered at the northern French port of Dunkirk in late May 1940—only getting away because of a curious pause in German attacks that gives time for an armada of small fishing boats and pleasure yachts to support the main British evacuation fleet.
You don’t win wars with great retreats, wags note. Dunkirk offers other lessons to British leadership as well. Germany’s combined air and ground forces would (probably) whip any Western military if the English Channel (Britain), Atlantic Ocean (United States) or Russian winter (Soviet Union) weren’t in the way. And if Germany tries to invade Britain with a dispersed armada of small boats and barges like the British evacuation rather than big boats, it would be bloody hard to repel.
Hitler hopes the rout in France will make the British anxious for a peace deal. And he is hesitant to attack the island nation because the murderous bigot strongman feels a kinship with the British Empire’s subjugation of people of color across the globe. He’s practically insulted when the British don’t fold.
Larson is best describing these early days of the confrontation. The newspaper baron Churchill puts in charge of aircraft production, Lord Beaverbrook (William Maxwell Aitken), manages to greatly increase airplane building—and improve repair and recycling of downed planes—in between repeated threats to resign, which Churchill repeatedly refuses.
So Britain’s Royal Air Force is able to more than hold its own against Germany’s Luftwaffe. During the daytime. But when Germany switches to night bombing raids, Britain has little answer. Their pilots can’t find the German planes in the dark and their anti-aircraft guns miss much of the time. The guns are ordered to fire mainly to reassure citizens on the ground that something is being done, Larson writes.
Larson offers an intimate portrait of Churchill and his circle. We see Churchill working in bed or in the bath, Churchill partial to pink underwear and ostentatious robes, Churchill demanding company as he regularly works into the wee hours of the morning. Churchill’s 17-year-old daughter Mary spends her nights out dancing with dashing men in uniform or at debutant balls and nightclub soirees. Churchill’s son Randolph’s wildly spends and gambles and pursues affairs, which drives his wife away. And she, the mom of grandson Winston Jr., finds comfort and excitement in the arms of an American envoy as bombs cascade down around them. Churchill’s secretary John “Jock” Colville—in a massive risk to security—maintains a detailed diary of his personal life and the nation’s private business as he moons after a woman with little interest in him.
Larson reminds that even at the nation’s most dire times, people still have to go to work and pay off debts and eat and love and aspire to getting laid. This is how Larson aims to distinguish his telling of this often told tale. But a little of this goes a long way.
At a national level, “The Splendid and the Vile” is a story of how Churchill rallies Britain to carry on despite their near defenselessness under increasingly malevolent bombing of civilian neighborhoods as Nazi leaders become bewildered, embarrassed and incensed by British resistance.
Churchill likes to run to the rooftops to watch the show. The book’s title comes from a diary entry by Colville describing one London air raid: “The night was cloudless and starry, with the moon rising over Westminster. Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires, all added to the scene. …. Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”
After raids, Churchill often tours shattered neighborhoods, his presence cheering the survivors through a mix of force of personality and empathy. But Churchill’s encourager-in-chief efforts strain as German bombers seemingly level whole cities—Coventry, Plymouth—and Britain seems to have no military counter. Churchill aims to hold out until he can cajole U.S. support—ships, weapons, food—and eventually for the United States to enter the fighting itself.
But U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s navigation of U.S. politics is frustratingly slow for Churchill. During the 1940 U.S. presidential campaign, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, warns that Roosevelt is going to get America’s sons killed in another European war. Roosevelt publicly dismisses this—even while seeking means to send destroyers to aid Britain.
Larson wants to keep his story to Churchill’s first year as prime minster, through May 1941, which ends with so much unresolved. The Battle of Britain tapers off, it seems, because Hitler got bored by the lack of progress and turned his attention toward an invasion of the Soviet Union. The dwindling of German threats, rather than a decisive British solution or victory, leaves Larson’s account with a mushy ending.
It might have been narratively stronger to frame the story between Churchill’s appointment as prime minister and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, rather than jumping ahead to the Hawaii raid as an epilogue.
With that attack, Roosevelt is able to win congressional support for fighting and the United States lurches into the war. By then, Britain has been holding out practically alone for nearly two years. Hitler’s successful initial war strategy was to pick off adversaries one by one. His decision to create enemies on both Germany’s east (Britain, the United States) and west (Soviet Union) with the most populous and industrial Western powers resulted in fatal math.
In “The Splendid and the Vile,” Larson delivers an intimate, urgent, page-turner thriller about how a nation’s leaders navigate an existential crisis—from dinner parties where strategies are decided to parenting young adults to sheltering from the bombs.
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