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The Splendid and the Vile

By Erik Larson


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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, A recounting of the Blitz and Churchill's involvement in WWII.

Synopsis

The Splendid and the Vile is about Churchill during WWII and how those formative years cemented his reputation as the leader we now remember. WWII was a time that demanded leadership and courage, and Churchill had the difficult job of trying to lead Britain as it single-handedly fought Hitler while other countries cowered and accepted defeat.

Larson does a great job of providing an account that feels very immediate. It draws you into the mindset of the people and the major players at that time. As the book progresses, you can feel the tension ramp up and get a sense of what life was like in those days in Britain.

During the Blitz, the English, and especially Londoners, spent a year under continuous assaults that disrupted their lives and killed thousands upon thousands. They waited helplessly as their military tried to hold off the Nazis, hoping for the U.S. to join in the fight and watching building collapse and people die around them.

Summary & Key Ideas

Key Ideas and Takeaways

This book is almost exclusively centered around British involvement in WWII in a one-year period from May 10, 1940 (when Chruchill becomes Prime Minister) to May 11, 1941 (when the German Air Raids cease). It covers a period of nightly German air raids known as the Blitz ("Blitzkrieg" is German for "lightning war").

Lead-up to the Blitz

Churchhill becomes Prime Minister. Churchill becomes Prime Minister during WII on May 10, 1940, as their French allies are nearly defeated. His predecessor, Chamberlain, resigns because people believe he is too slow moving and they've lost faith in his ability to fight the Germans.

Churchill re-energizes the British government. Upon taking office, Churchill jumps into action. Churchill maintains a stance that he wants the British to take the offensive against the Germans instead of constantly being on the defensive. France Surrenders. France signs an armistice agreement with Germany on June 23. Churchill makes the difficult decision to capture or destroy any accessible French ships. It results in one minor gunfight and one large bombardment, killing roughly 1,300 French sailors.

German Perspective

German Air Raids. Germany executes air raids on a near nightly basis in hopes that Britain will give in and sign an agreement with them.

Germany's Poor Airforce Intelligence. Hitler makes a critical mistake when it comes to air force intelligence. Goring's friend is tasked with the job and is terrible at it. It leads to severe overconfidence in the Luftwaffe's ability to overpower and destroy the RAF.

Breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler has been preparing for this war for a long time, including breaching the Treaty of Versailles by secretly re-militarizing and rebuilding its air force many years in advance.

Airforce Technology and Flying by Moonlight

Aircraft Technology. When reports arise of German transmission of signals at long range that will allow them to direct planes in the dark, Churchill makes developing countermeasures a top priority, such as using jammers and ways to redirect these signals. Unfortunately, the Germans are able to keep modifying their signals to prevent the British from stopping these night raids.

Moonlight. By using their signals to direct them, using the cover of darkness to prevent being taken down by British planes and guns and relying on moonlight for better visibility, the Germans are able to effective conduct raids by moonlight, so much so that the British come to fear full moon nights.

Major Players

Lord Beaverton. When Churchill takes office, British air force planes are outnumbered by the German Luftwaffe 4-to-1. Churchill names his friend Lord Beaverton as head of the new ministry solely dedicated to building new aircraft. Beaverton imposes upon other governmental ministries and often demands their resources, but is effective at his job.

Professor Lindmann. Lindmann is Churchill's personal scientific advisor. He has some lapses in judgment, but Churchill trusts him and his ability to explain complex science in simple ways.

American Involvement

Entreaties to America. Churchill is well aware of the need for America to abandon its isolationist ideas and join the fight. He makes continuous entreaties to Roosevelt to assist them. Roosevelt is reluctant initially because he's up for re-election, but after he's reelected, he's more encouraging of American support in the war.

Lend-Lease Act. Even before America joins WWII, Roosevelt manages to get the Lend-Lease Act passed which allows America to provide supplies to the British.

Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman. Hopkins and Harriman are sent American envoys sent by Roosevelt in order to assess the situation in Britain. They both end up advocating for American support of the British.

Propaganda and Misinformation

German Propaganda. The Germans rely on misinformation and outright lies as propaganda to the world at large about their activities. It includes things like lying about where "secret storage facilities" to justify bombing Buckingham palace or showing a photo claiming the British have caused the death of women and children when it really due to a German bomber's error.

British Propaganda. The British also rely on propaganda to keep morale up. It includes keeping up hope that Americans are close to joining the war.

Mis-information. To counter misinformation in Britain, spreading of false stories carried a penalty of fees or even imprisonment. Anti-Lies Bureau focuses on countering German propaganda, the Anti-Rumors Bureau deals with local rumors, and the Postal Censorship bureau monitors mail and telephone calls.

The Ending of the Blitz, American Involvement and The End of the War

Operation Barbarossa. Germany plans to invade Russia in the summer of 1941, code-named Operation Barbarossa which is why the British air raids ultimately cease when they turn their attentions and resources to the Russians.

Pearl Harbor. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, resulting in the Americans declaring war on Japan and therefore joining the war efforts. (Germany declares war on America soon after and America returns the favor. )

May 8, 1945. The war in Europe ends officially on May 9, 1945 with the German surrender. Two months later, the conservative party, Churchill's party, is voted out of power.

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Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of The Splendid and the Vile

Book Review

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson was released earlier this year in February 2020. I read Larson’s fantastic book The Devil in the White City a couple years back and absolutely loved it, so I’ve been wanting to read another one of his books.

Unfortunately, while this is a solid book about WWII in many respects, I was pretty underwhelmed by it overall.

I’ve read and watched a lot of World War II books and movies, but I don’t think I’ve seen or watched anything that captured the atmosphere of the situation in London quite the same way that Larson does. It’s the type of thing that is usually dispensed of in a line or two or in one quick scene, but it’s hard to imagine that this went on for so long and was an ever-changing situation. It’s one thing to be told “there are nightly air raids in London”, but Larson manages to capture that in a dramatic and interesting way. After reading this, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan makes a lot more sense.

He also lends an immediacy to the concerns and forces driving the decision-making that was happening on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Larson focuses a lot on Churchill’s decision-making of course, but also explains the strategy on the German side of the equation as well. For anyone interested in political and war-time decision making, it makes for an interesting narrative.

Inevitably, if you read this book, you will likely find yourself making connections to current events that are going on in the present day. While Larson doesn’t venture into these discussions, there’s certainly value in knowing how these politicians reacted in a crisis, how propaganda has been used in the past, how misinformation has been controlled in the past and other lessons from history.

Some Criticisms

So, there was a lot that I got out of this book and much of it I enjoyed. That said, it definitely paled in comparison to The Devil in the White City, which is the only other Larson book that I’ve read.

In The Devil in the White City, Larson blended together two stories that are each fascinating in their own right, but wove them into an intertwined narrative that was even stronger. Unfortunately, in the case of The Splendid and the Vile, Larson doesn’t do that. Instead, he takes a pretty interesting story and then intersperses it with a bunch of, frankly, boring asides.

Sprinkled in with a recounting of Churchill’s actions are notes from John “Jock” Colville, the private secretary to Churchill who kept a detailed diary of those days. Some of it is relevant, but a lot of it is not, like a lot of blather about a random girl he likes who doesn’t like him back. I suspect the purpose of it was the provide an outside perspective and give a sense of “normal” life slightly outside Churchill’s bubble. Unfortunately, Colville’s notes, while extensive, are mostly tiresome.

There’s also bits and pieces about Mary and Randolph, two of Churchill’s children. However, it was hard for me to care about things like Randolph’s gambling problem or what parties Mary was going to in light of the high stakes of the other events of the book. I know the purpose of some of these parts were to intersperse civilian perspectives, but most of it was not very enlightening nor noteworthy. Plenty of it was just pointless and dull.

I get what he was trying to do in bringing in these other points of view, I just don’t think he really found the right vehicle for it.

Historical Accuracy

I’m not a history buff, so any time I can spot historical errors in historical fiction and certainly in historical non-fiction, I find it pretty appalling.

As such, I was disappointed and surprised honestly that Larson cites a anecdote that involves a common piece of misinformation without correcting it. Namely, he mentions a conversation where Lord Halifax (a British politician) asks an American officer why the White House is called that. Halifax looks shocked when he’s informed that it’s because the British burned it in 1812.

I assume the anecdote is true, but the information in it is incorrect. The White House is covered with a lime-based whitewash in order to protect the stone it’s constructed with that pre-dates the war of 1812. The thing about the British is one of those things that gets repeated all the time, but it’s false.

I have no idea what other pieces of incorrect information are mixed in this book, but this alone was pretty disconcerting to me.

Read it or Skip it?

I was a little disappointed to hear that Larson’s newest book was about WWII, an era of history that has been mined so thoroughly in terms of books and movies that every piece of information about it seems vaguely familiar already. It’s not that I dislike WWII stories, I just think there’s more to be gained at this point, as a society, by reflecting on other events in history rather than revisiting the same one over and over and over again.

Still, I learned a few new things about WWII. It seems like if you are someone who likes to read, you will inevitably become an expert on WWII whether you like it or not. A lot of the big events going on in the book I already knew about, but Larson certain brings a more detailed, nuanced and intimate frame of reference to all of it.

I have to say though that finding that piece of misinformation, however trivial, made me doubt the rest of the book. Every time after that Larson pointed out some entertaining coincidence or oddly interesting tidbit, I wondered if it was even true or just an entertaining rumor he was passing off as fact.

To that extent, the Splendid and the Vile is a solidly-written book, I suppose, but still it didn’t quite reach the lofty story-telling heights of The Devil in the White City. There are some stretches of it that are quite boring, I don’t know how else to describe it. I would probably only recommend it to people who are particularly interested in WWII, military strategy or politics. There is definitely some decision-making described in this book that has great relevance to current events going on, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it just for that reason.

Have you read this book or would you consider reading it?

See The Splendid and the Vile on Amazon.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Splendid and the Vile

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