Book review and synopsis for The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, a recounting of the Blitz and Churchill's involvement in WWII.
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.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Book Summary & Key IdeasSection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of The Splendid and the VileKey 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 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.
Other 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.
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 by Roosevelt as American 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.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.