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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz - a review

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

Erik Larson, 2020, ISBN 9-780-0082-749-7, 608pp

Any book about the Second World War interests me largely, I suspect, because I remember that my parents would always use phrases like “since the war” or “during the war”. I suspect that today’s young might ask “which war?” but for us, we knew. We could see the evidence. We played on bomb sites. There were still pill boxes littering the countryside. In the south of England, where I was brought up, these pill boxes (a or concrete guard post, normally equipped with loopholes through which to fire weapons) had been constructed when the possibility of the Nazis invading the British Isles was real indeed. The Nazi plan to invade was called Operation Sealion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) and significant planning was done before it was postponed in September 1940 mainly because of Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, but also because Sealion depended upon the Luftwaffe gaining air superiority, something that they never achieved.

The Splendid and the Vile tells the story of a year in the war beginning in May 1940 when Churchill became Prime Minister. It focuses on what damage the Luftwaffe did during the Blitz. In that time nearly 29,000 of London’s citizens were killed and 28,556 seriously injured. In Britain as a whole the total of civilian deaths in 1940 and 1941, including those in London, was 42,652 with another 52,370 injured. Of the dead 5,626 were children. London bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s operations. In May 1940 the worst raid of the war killed 1,436 Londoners and injured another 1,792. It left 12,000 people without homes. To put this in perspective, over 44,000 deaths in the UK are attributed (as I write) to COVID19 with nearly 290,000 cases. Of course, the two events are not comparable, but the numbers are interesting.

Erik Larson is a journalist who writes, inter alia, for the New York Times and is author of several non-fiction books. For him, as an American, it was the New York 11 September 2001 attacks that led him to think about how it was for Britons, and Londoners in particular, during the Blitz. In particular, as he says in his introduction, he wondered how Churchill kept going.

“Keep calm and carry on” is all very well on a billboard but in practice, how was it? The book is not, however, a biography of Churchill. The story is told largely through the diaries of the people around Churchill, most notably (though by no means only) his private secretary, John Colville, and his younger daughter, Mary. In the introduction Lawson says "although at times it may appear to be otherwise this is a work of non-fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document”. This is lovely device and it brings the book alive and adds some colour to the stories of the main dramatic personae. Coliville, later Sir John, became Churchill’s private secretary at the age of 25 and kept his diary in contravention of the Official Secrets Act. He published his memoirs after the war (see The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, 1939 to 1955). Of course, what he published was about his activities in support of Churchill. In digging out the original diaries, Larsen is able to tell us about Collville’s pursuit of, and unrequited love for Gay Margesson. We read about Mary Churchill’s daily life as a young woman – in her late teens – socialising with airmen, falling in love and doing all the things that teenagers do while the Blitz was in full swing all around. What amazed me was that life in London went on pretty much as if there was no Blitz. The Blitz was just something to be put up with.

It is worth quoting one passage from the end of this book, just after the US entered the war. They had declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor but have not declared war on Germany, partly because, politically, it would not have been expedient. Anyway, eventually Germany declared war on the US and Roosevelt was happy to reciprocate.

Inspector Walter Thompson looking after Churchill

All you need to know is that Inspector Walter Thompson was Churchill’s bodyguard and that Churchill is staying at the White House. Churchill has spoken to Roosevelt on the telephone but has not yet met him face to face. Here’s the story:

The first night Churchill and members of his party spent in the White House, Inspector Thompson – also one of the houseguests – was with Churchill in his room, scouting various points of danger, when someone knocked at the door. At Churchill’s direction, Thompson answered and found a president outside in his wheelchair, alone in the hall. Thompson opened the door wide, and then saw an old expression come over the president’s face as he looked into the room behind the detective.

“I turned,” Thompson wrote. “Winston Churchill was stark naked, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other.”

The president prepared to wheel himself out.

“Come on in, Franklin,” Churchill said. “We’re quite alone.”

The president offered what Thompson called an “odd shrug” and then wheeled himself in.

“You see, Mr President,” Churchill said, “I have nothing to hide.”

Churchill proceeded to sling a towel over his shoulder and for the next hour conversed with Roosevelt while walking around the room naked, sipping his drink, and now and then refilling the president’s glass.

“He might have been a Roman at the baths, relaxing after a successful debate in the Senate,” inspector Thompson wrote. “I don’t believe Mr Churchill would’ve blinked and eye if Mrs Roosevelt had walked in too.”

He was a singular individual was Churchill, not all good but not all bad either.

It may be 600 pages long, but I read it in a few days. It is an exciting story and very well told. Buy it immediately and read it. You will not be sorry and as I like saying, you will be the better person for the experience. Things could always be worse.

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