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

The popular historian Erik Larson has done it again. The hugely best-selling author of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania; In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin; and Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History has once more captured an iconic historical moment and brought it vividly to life in near-novelistic prose, yet without inventing a single thing. Dry-as-dust historians, often in the Academy, have a great deal to learn from writers such as Larson, who are introducing the public to the splendor and terror of the past in vast numbers without compromising one iota on fact.

The Splendid and the Vile is the story of the London Blitz, starting from the moment that Winston Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940, until the Luftwaffe raid that destroyed the parts of the House of Commons exactly one year later, coincidentally on the same night that Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland.

A Year in the Life

Although Churchill’s family were all brave, this is no hagiography. We are told that Churchill’s son, Randolph, missed the birth of his son by his wife, Pamela, for example, because he was “in bed with the wife of an Austrian tenor, whose monocled image appeared on cigarette trading cards.” Pamela, understandably, was soon sleeping with Franklin Roosevelt’s tall, rich, and impossibly handsome envoy, Averell Harriman, about whom a female reporter told his daughter Kathleen, “For g. sake tell your father next time I have to cover his conference to wear a gas mask so’s I can concentrate on what he’s saying.”

It was a relatively small number of Londoners who used subway stations as bomb shelters.

Larson makes excellent use of the diary of Mary Soames, Churchill’s delightful (and morally pure) daughter, which resides at the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University, meaning there is new information in this book. His work in the British National Archives has been acute and painstaking, too, and despite writing books on World War II for 30 years I learned a good deal, for instance that only four percent of Londoners used the subways as air-raid shelters, and that cooperative German P.O.W.’s were taken around the Blitzed areas to see how high British morale still was.

“Prisoners saw for themselves that London was not lying in ruins as they had been led to believe,” stated one intelligence report, and the process made the P.O.W.’s more cooperative. In late 1942, a captured Luftwaffe officer told interrogators that if German intelligence reports were accurate, the R.A.F. and Allied Forces must by now have “minus 500 aircraft.”

Cooperative German P.O.W.’s were taken around the Blitzed areas to see how high British morale still was.

Larson does fine work in countering many revisionist myths about Churchill, such as the libel that he knew about the raid on Coventry in November 1940 but deliberately did nothing to warn the city in order to protect the Ultra decrypting operation, and he similarly dismisses the various conspiracy theories about the Hess flight. For however zippy is Mr. Larson’s prose—there are 101 chapters in 608 pages—facts are sacrosanct to him.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth survey the damage at Buckingham Palace, which was bombed seven times throughout the war.

Nor does this book shy away from the vile side of the Blitz: the looting and the thieving; the occasional, but thankfully isolated, outbreaks of people’s depression and defeatism; the extremely basic lavatory facilities in the subway bomb shelters; and so on. He also focuses on the vile Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, and the parts they hoped to play in London’s destruction. Goebbels sent out radio messages intended to make people fear there was a large Fascist fifth column helping the Luftwaffe, for example, hoping that Londoners hunched around their radios would suspiciously ask one another, “Why did that news reader just say porridge for the sixth time?”

There are plenty of humorous moments in this book, too. In September 1940, King George VI and his private secretary, Alec Hardinge, were almost killed in the bombing of Buckingham Palace. “The whole thing happened in a matter of seconds,” the King wrote of the bomb blast in the quadrangle only a few yards away. “We all wondered why we weren’t dead.” Yet the police constable guarding the palace viewed it remarkably objectively, telling the Queen that it had been “a magnificent piece of bombing.”

His Finest Hours

The personality that looms over the whole book is that of Churchill himself, who was taking life-or-death decisions on virtually a daily basis. Early on he was forced to decide whether to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and whether to send the R.A.F. across the Channel for the Battle of France, then raging, or retain it at home for the far more important Battle of Britain to come. Later on he faced equally tough choices about how to counter the daily-expected invasion. What emerges powerfully is that with him in charge, London would have been defended street by street, house by house, brick by brick. As Churchill said, the capital could have “swallowed” an entire German army, just as Stalingrad later did.

A number-88 bus the morning after a German air raid.

As I read this book, I kept wondering what the swelling of powerful emotion was that I felt, sometimes in an almost physical sense. (I’m a naturally undemonstrative Englishman, rarely moved by words on a printed page.) Then I realized that, as a Londoner, it was a feeling of overwhelming pride in my poor, brave, battered old city, which stood up to the very worst that Hitler could throw at it for months on end, while still somehow keeping its dignity, cheerfulness, and iron resolve not to surrender.

I’m a naturally undemonstrative Englishman, yet I had a feeling of overwhelming pride in my poor, brave, battered old city.

The Russians invented the excellent idea of dubbing as “hero cities” some of their metropolises, such as Leningrad and Stalingrad, that fought the Germans to the knife in World War II. Paris retained its beauty by deciding not to go down that route in 1940, but instead declared itself an “open city” to the Germans, and so retained the historical architecture and boulevards that we love today in the City of Light.

Larson expertly describes how, by total contrast, the Heinkel and Dornier bombers flattened whole districts of London, night after terrifying night for months on end, killing tens of thousands of Britons. So London lost much of its ancient built heritage, and there are still ugly scars and gouges on some of our public buildings from that terrible time. For all that Paris is far more gorgeous and elegant, I prefer my hero city.

Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny