Review of “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson 

As terrible as the costs of war are, we tend to feel especial horror over civilian casualties.

Shortly after the beginning of World War II, German bombers attacked Britain relentlessly in what came to be known as “the Blitz” after the German word “blitzkrieg,” meaning “lightning war.” Between September 7, 1940 and May 10, 1941, some 45,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were injured. Many more were left homeless – over 12,000 alone in the final, brutal raid on London. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged. Overall, some 33,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the Germans over Britain. It was only after the Germans opened up a second front against Russia that the bombing abated because the Germans needed to redeploy the aircraft of the Luftwaffe to their new Eastern Front.

Larson explains that he wrote this history after wondering how anyone could stand the frightening reality of constant bombardment and threat of actual invasion by Germany. The noise of the planes and blasts from the bombs added to the general fear and anxiety. The physical damage from the bombings required ongoing repairs but there was a lack of sufficient supplies and labor. Shortages of food and medicine increased the worries of the populace. In particular, Larson wondered, how could parents handle the threat to their children? During the Blitz 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously wounded.

Larson was curious how Churchill, by then aged 65, coped psychologically with the challenges. Because so many biographies of Churchill had already been written, Larson opted to craft “a more intimate account” of this period using source material from diaries as well as other documents. He drew from the private diaries of Mary Churchill, at 17 the youngest of Churchill’s four children; John “Jock” Colville, 25, one of Churchill’s private secretaries; and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist.

Southampton was hit by two serious raids on the nights of 23 November and 30 November. During the second of these raids, which lasted six hours, 800 high explosive bombs were dropped. Source: Imperial War Museum

The author takes us from the evacuation of the Allies from Dunkirk in June, 1940, through the collapse of France shortly thereafter, the invasion by Hitler of Russia in late June, 1941, and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and subsequent entry of the United States into the war. After vicariously enduring all that Churchill and the British suffered, one can’t help but have mixed feelings over the Japanese bombing: the sacrifice of the soldiers at Pearl Harbor and resulting willingness of Americans to enter the fray undoubtedly saved Britain, hanging on by a thread, from Hitler’s juggernaut.

Larson embellishes what history buffs already know about the first year of the war in England with interesting personal observations by those closely tied to the centers of power. The daily ravages of war did not stop those caught up in its vise from experiencing the gamut of personal relationships. It is notable that, as Larson observed, “the attacks on London seemed clearly to unleash a new sexuality… As bombs fell, libidos soared.” One woman in London at the time wrote: “Young people were reluctant to contemplate death without having shared their bodies with someone else.” Affairs involving married people were also common, Larson reports.

Coventry’s medieval cathedral was destroyed in the bombings on November 14-15, 1940. German bombers dropped 503 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on the city. 568 people were killed and 850 seriously injured. Source: Imperial War Museum

Evaluation: It is hard to read this gripping account without gaining even more appreciation for Churchill than if one only had read his speeches, which were simply superb. One will also admire the courage and perseverance of those who went through so much and still carried on. It’s an inspiring story, and written to appeal to more than just a “history” audience – it reads in many ways like a thriller, albeit with an outcome you already know.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2020

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