Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Book Review: ‘The Splendid and the Vile,’ Churchill During the Blitz

 

If you can read only one book this year, I recommend The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. A couple of weeks ago, on the National Review Flagship weekly podcast “The Editors,” Rich Lowry asked what the panelists were reading. One of the panelists said The Splendid and the Vile.

The next week, that panelist said that he had finished and another panelist said that he was now reading it! About that time, I heard one of the panelists at the Dispatch Flagship Podcast mention the book, and if memory serves, an MSNBC person said that he was reading it! All were in thrall with the book.

I have a colonoscopy coming up next Tuesday, and I wanted to take a quick vacation to southwest Colorado. I ordered the book. It arrived on Wednesday, 72 hours ago. I just finished its 503 pages a few minutes ago. In the last 72 hours, I have been driving some 600 miles and reading this book, stopping only to sleep. I immediately ordered a copy to be sent to my mother; I didn’t want her to wait for it to be delivered by “media mail.”

The subtitle is A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Almost all of the book is contained in the one year beginning on May 10, 1940, when Winston Churchill was summoned to meet with King George VI, who asked him to form a government. What a roller coaster ride! Holland and Belgium fell. The British Expeditionary Force was recused from Dunkirk. France fell. Churchill repeatedly rallied the English people. England had few planes in the RAF, so Churchill appointed his longtime friend newspaperman, Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, to the task of building airplanes. The RAF repeatedly engaged the Germans. Then the Germans started a campaign of terror by repeatedly bombing England.

Churchill rallied the English not only in speeches but by going to bombed-out areas. The author follows the lives of Churchill’s daughter Mary, Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s personal Secretary John Colville, Hermann Goring, Rudolph Hess, Harry Hopkins, Averell Harriman, and Churchill’s son and daughter-in-law as people fell in love, broke off engagements, and struggled to combat the Germans. This was a very close-run thing. Hitler wanted England to capitulate like France, or be pounded into submission so they would sue for peace, or be invaded once enough boats were rounded up. Just thrilling.

There are so many great stories. A couple of months before Churchill’s grandson was born, a great-nephew was born and was given the full name of Winston Spencer Churchill. The baby’s mother, Churchill’s niece-in-law, was ordered to rename her baby, as that name was being reserved for Churchill’s grandson, not just a great-nephew. After a brief protest, she did so.

England was hanging on by a thread. FDR sent an emissary, Harry Hopkins, to report back to him. Aid from the U.S. was critical. Towards the end of his stay, speeches were given around the table. From pages 362-3:

Hopkins stood and, as Ismay recalled it, first made ‘a tilt or two at the British Constitution in general, and the irrepressible Prime Minister in particular.’ Then he turned to face Churchill.

’I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return,’ he said.

This was an understatement, Churchill was desperate to know how his courtship of Hopkins was progressing, and indeed what he would tell the president.

’Well,’ Hopkins said, ‘I’m going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books in the truth of which Mr. Johnston’s mother and my own Scottish mother were brought up —‘

Hopkins dropped his voice to a near whisper and recited a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ruth: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

Then, softly, he added: ‘Even to the end.’

This was his own addition, and with it a wave of gratitude and relief seemed to engulf the room.

Churchill wept.

If you read only one book this year, I recommend The Splendid and the Vile.

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  1. Richard Easton Member

    The book starts out with a huge error. He claims that when Churchill became PM on May 10th, Britain had a minimal chance of winning the war without US intervention. Few in Britain or France would have agreed with him. France had more and better tanks than the Germans. Reconnaissance planes spotted large German forces moving through the Ardennes. A small number of bombers could have closed most if not all of the roads and greatly slowed down the German advance. On May 20th, the BEF was in dire straits but that wasn’t true ten days earlier. Churchill sent a large number of tanks to Egypt which helped win the victory over the Italians that winter. He wouldn’t have done it if he had thought there was a major risk of invasion. The book is well written but gives an erroneous picture of the situation after France fell.

    There was war game done in the 1970s about Sea Lion (German invasion of Britain). It ended in a catastrophe for the Germans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Sea_Lion_(wargame)

    • #1
    • August 8, 2020, at 7:09 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  2. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins

    When I checked into my room in Cortez, CO two days ago, the night clerk asked what I was reading. I answered “The Splendid and the Vile.” Two days later, he asked how the book was. I praised up one end and down the next. Then I told him that I would be willing to loan it to him for the night, and if he liked it, I would sell it to him for $20.

    I had trouble with my door lock and went back to the front desk. He said that he wanted to buy the book after looking at it for 5 minutes, and paid me the $20!

    • #2
    • August 8, 2020, at 7:40 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. drlorentz Member
    drlorentzJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    When I checked into my room in Cortez, CO two days ago, the night clerk asked what I was reading. I answered “The Splendid and the Vile.” Two days later, he asked how the book was. I praised up one end and down the next. Then I told him that I would be willing to loan it to him for the night, and if he liked it, I would sell it to him for $20.

    I had trouble with my door lock and went back to the front desk. He said that he wanted to buy the book after looking at it for 5 minutes, and paid me the $20!

    The classy move would have been to give the clerk the book. 

    • #3
    • August 8, 2020, at 7:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. OldPhil Coolidge

    I’ll read anything about Churchill, so thanks for the recommendation.

    • #4
    • August 8, 2020, at 7:58 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    When I checked into my room in Cortez, CO two days ago, the night clerk asked what I was reading. I answered “The Splendid and the Vile.” Two days later, he asked how the book was. I praised up one end and down the next. Then I told him that I would be willing to loan it to him for the night, and if he liked it, I would sell it to him for $20.

    I had trouble with my door lock and went back to the front desk. He said that he wanted to buy the book after looking at it for 5 minutes, and paid me the $20!

    The classy move would have been to give the clerk the book.

    Well, probably so. I did give him a book “How to Survive the Loss of a Love.” The book cost $19,20 before tax. With sales tax of $1.76, I actually ate the extra 96 cents. 

    I sent a copy of the book to another friend, and ordered a new copy for myself!

    • #5
    • August 8, 2020, at 7:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Southern Pessimist Member

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    • #6
    • August 8, 2020, at 8:11 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Got it as a gift and since I’d read so much about that time period wondered if I’d like it. I did. Emphasizing Churchill family members and his close entourage Larson gives us a different perspective and he remains as always a wonderful writer.

    • #7
    • August 8, 2020, at 8:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    What other Erik Larson books do you recommend?

    • #8
    • August 8, 2020, at 8:23 PM PDT
    • Like
  9. Richard O'Shea Coolidge

    Just ordered it

    • #9
    • August 8, 2020, at 8:24 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. James Lileks Contributor

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    What other Erik Larson books do you recommend?

    All of them, really. “Devil in the White City” is the most focussed, within Larson’s style of telling parallel intersecting stories.

    • #10
    • August 8, 2020, at 11:43 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    What other Erik Larson books do you recommend?

    All of them, really. “Devil in the White City” is the most focussed, within Larson’s style of telling parallel intersecting stories.

    I ordered three more of his books, including “Devil in the White City.” Thank you for the suggestion.

    • #11
    • August 9, 2020, at 6:14 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. PHCheese Member

    Hopkins recital of the Bible was an oxymoron for a communist.

    • #12
    • August 9, 2020, at 7:23 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    I’ll read anything about Churchill, so thanks for the recommendation.

    I’m not an audiobook person, but Audible’s rendering of Churchill’s WWII (really The Second World War condensed into four books instead of the full six) is superb. I had already read a good portion of Churchill’s series a while ago, but I bought the first audiobook in the series (Milestones to Disaster) and was blown away by the reader, Christian Rodska. He has a very Churchillian voice, while not lapsing into imitation, and flawlessly hits the emotions of the writing in his reading. I use it a lot when I run, or work on boxing technique, and it’s strangely motivational. 

    Martin Gilbert’s book Churchill and The Jews is also a must read. Really, almost anything by Martin Gilbert is.

    • #13
    • August 9, 2020, at 6:49 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. OldPhil Coolidge

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Martin Gilbert’s book Churchill and The Jews is also a must read. Really, almost anything by Martin Gilbert is.

    I read his excellent Israel: A History a few months ago. The early Israelis were some bad a***es.

    • #14
    • August 10, 2020, at 9:58 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Martin Gilbert’s book Churchill and The Jews is also a must read. Really, almost anything by Martin Gilbert is.

    I read his excellent Israel: A History a few months ago. The early Israelis were some bad a***es.

    There’s a great Nancy Spielberg documentary called Above and Beyond, about Jewish American pilots who secretly fought for the Israelis during the war of independence in 1948 and after. (Begin’s books are well written, and interesting, definitely worth a read). 

    They were; I did a competition research paper a few years ago on Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin (before I started learning Hebrew), those were two guys you wouldn’t want to mess with. 
    https://youtu.be/1-irnDsOHg8
    https://youtu.be/L6w5lHrPFlI

    • #15
    • August 10, 2020, at 10:25 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Arahant Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    They were; I did a competition research paper a few years ago on Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin (before I started learning Hebrew), those were two guys you wouldn’t want to mess with. 

    That escalated quickly. 😉 From Churchill to Begin in 15 comments.

    • #16
    • August 10, 2020, at 11:44 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Flicker Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    They were; I did a competition research paper a few years ago on Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin (before I started learning Hebrew), those were two guys you wouldn’t want to mess with.

    That escalated quickly. 😉 From Churchill to Begin in 15 comments.

    At least no one’s yet mentioned Hitler.

    • #17
    • August 10, 2020, at 1:37 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Jim George Member

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    When I checked into my room in Cortez, CO two days ago, the night clerk asked what I was reading. I answered “The Splendid and the Vile.” Two days later, he asked how the book was. I praised up one end and down the next. Then I told him that I would be willing to loan it to him for the night, and if he liked it, I would sell it to him for $20.

    I had trouble with my door lock and went back to the front desk. He said that he wanted to buy the book after looking at it for 5 minutes, and paid me the $20!

    The classy move would have been to give the clerk the book.

    With due respect, as a lifetime, in the blood, pure Southerner, I would like to note that the polar opposite of “classy” for a Southerner is the word “tacky.” 

    Need I say more? 

    • #18
    • August 10, 2020, at 1:43 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Vince Guerra Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    What other Erik Larson books do you recommend?

    All of them, really. “Devil in the White City” is the most focussed, within Larson’s style of telling parallel intersecting stories.

    He’s fast becoming one of my favorite writers. I just finished Thunderstruck and it too was amazing. Issac’s Storm is probably his weakest writing, but full of crazy things I’ve never even heard of elsewhere, I believe it was his first book. The Splendid and the Vile is on my shelf and will be read soon.

    • #19
    • August 10, 2020, at 1:47 PM PDT
    • Like
    • This comment has been edited.
  20. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    Do they cover Taranto at all?

    • #20
    • August 10, 2020, at 2:09 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I listened to the audible version driving up to the outer banks for vacation a few weeks ago. It filled the entire 30 hour round trip. I enjoyed it but basically it was too much information. Erik Larson is gifted but he should stick with more confined stories like he has made his reputation from.

    What other Erik Larson books do you recommend?

    All of them, really. “Devil in the White City” is the most focussed, within Larson’s style of telling parallel intersecting stories.

    I ordered 3 of his books after reading your recommendation.

    • #21
    • August 10, 2020, at 2:14 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    Major General Julian Thompsons’s, Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory is the best book on the subject and also covers the Battle of France and why it was lost.

    It also completely proves the lie that Guerderian made up that the German army didnt attempt to destroy the BEF. The German army is in complete contact with the BEF the entire time and was involved in heavy fighting. No one ‘allowed’ them to escape.

    • #22
    • August 10, 2020, at 2:19 PM PDT
    • Like
  23. David Foster Member
    David FosterJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    He claims that when Churchill became PM on May 10th, Britain had a minimal chance of winning the war without US intervention. Few in Britain or France would have agreed with him. France had more and better tanks than the Germans. Reconnaissance planes spotted large German forces moving through the Ardennes. A small number of bombers could have closed most if not all of the roads and greatly slowed down the German advance.

    Indeed, many knowledgeable people thought France had an excellent chance of victory. The reasons for the defeat–encompassing both military and social’/political factors–are an important topic, which I discussed at some length in my post An Unexpected Defeat.

    • #23
    • August 10, 2020, at 2:24 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Richard Easton Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    He claims that when Churchill became PM on May 10th, Britain had a minimal chance of winning the war without US intervention. Few in Britain or France would have agreed with him. France had more and better tanks than the Germans. Reconnaissance planes spotted large German forces moving through the Ardennes. A small number of bombers could have closed most if not all of the roads and greatly slowed down the German advance.

    Indeed, many knowledgeable people thought France had an excellent chance of victory. The reasons for the defeat–encompassing both military and social’/political factors–are an important topic, which I discussed at some length in my post An Unexpected Defeat.

    That was an excellent post. Other contributing factors in the defeat were the top heavy French command structure, the lack of radios in tanks, and the lack of reserves. The French went for a thrust to the Dyle River and put many of their best units on the far left. If they had opted for a more limited advance and kept these divisions in reserve, the panzers would have faced more opposition in their advance to the sea. Fortunately, Hitler was worried about the flanks and halted them when they could easily have captured Dunkirk. Loss of the BEF might have led to the fall of Churchill’s government and a disastrous peace agreement.

    • #24
    • August 10, 2020, at 10:19 PM PDT
    • Like
  25. Concretevol Thatcher

    Excellent suggestion thanks!

    • #25
    • August 11, 2020, at 4:10 AM PDT
    • Like
  26. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    He claims that when Churchill became PM on May 10th, Britain had a minimal chance of winning the war without US intervention. Few in Britain or France would have agreed with him. France had more and better tanks than the Germans. Reconnaissance planes spotted large German forces moving through the Ardennes. A small number of bombers could have closed most if not all of the roads and greatly slowed down the German advance.

    Indeed, many knowledgeable people thought France had an excellent chance of victory. The reasons for the defeat–encompassing both military and social’/political factors–are an important topic, which I discussed at some length in my post An Unexpected Defeat.

    That was an excellent post. Other contributing factors in the defeat were the top heavy French command structure, the lack of radios in tanks, and the lack of reserves. The French went for a thrust to the Dyle River and put many of their best units on the far left. If they had opted for a more limited advance and kept these divisions in reserve, the panzers would have faced more opposition in their advance to the sea. Fortunately, Hitler was worried about the flanks and halted them when they could easily have captured Dunkirk. Loss of the BEF might have led to the fall of Churchill’s government and a disastrous peace agreement.

    –Nonsense.

    –As I pointed out earlier in my previous post on this thread. The ‘Hitler could have easily captured Dunkirk’ is a myth promulgated by German Officers like Guederian at the end of the War. It does not hold up to any scrutiny by modern scholars.

    –It is interesting that after the Belgiums turned over the captured German war plan that the French stripped out the reserves and pushed them all into the Dyle plan. Had they not got those secret German war plans, the French/British forces would have gone with there original plan, which including leaving a large reserve on the other side of the Ardennes.

    –Let us remember when the BEF finishes its evacuation, Paris wont fall for another 3 weeks.

    –After Arras there is an armored pause, but thats a recommendation by Runstedt the commander of the Army, which is endorsed by Hitler.

    –From Retreat to Victory page 139

    “…After the war, the German commanders were to quote this interference as the reason why the British were to escape at Dunkirk…Although his decisions on many occasions contributed to that eventual outcome, this was not one of them.”

    –Given the fact the Dunkirk pocket is surrounded by three German infantry army groups and is polder country the only likely outcome would be to get the panzer decisions wrecked and the fall of Paris delayed.

    –But the myth did help the sale of Panzer Leader.

    • #26
    • August 11, 2020, at 5:20 AM PDT
    • Like
    • This comment has been edited.
  27. Lois Lane Coolidge

    I love Erik Larsen. I will read this, but I bought the one he wrote on the Lusitania a couple of days ago! WWII will have to wait. :)

    • #27
    • August 11, 2020, at 3:49 PM PDT
    • Like
  28. Richard Easton Member

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    –Nonsense.

    –As I pointed out earlier in my previous post on this thread. The ‘Hitler could have easily captured Dunkirk’ is a myth promulgated by German Officers like Guederian at the end of the War. It does not hold up to any scrutiny by modern scholars.

    –It is interesting that after the Belgiums turned over the captured German war plan that the French stripped out the reserves and pushed them all into the Dyle plan. Had they not got those secret German war plans, the French/British forces would have gone with there original plan, which including leaving a large reserve on the other side of the Ardennes.

    –Let us remember when the BEF finishes its evacuation, Paris wont fall for another 3 weeks.

    –After Arras there is an armored pause, but thats a recommendation by Runstedt the commander of the Army, which is endorsed by Hitler.

    –From Retreat to Victory page 139

    “…After the war, the German commanders were to quote this interference as the reason why the British were to escape at Dunkirk…Although his decisions on many occasions contributed to that eventual outcome, this was not one of them.”

    –Given the fact the Dunkirk pocket is surrounded by three German infantry army groups and is polder country the only likely outcome would be to get the panzer decisions wrecked and the fall of Paris delayed.

    –But the myth did help the sale of Panzer Leader.

    James Holland talked about it recently on his podcast. He believes that it was a fatal error by Hitler. A search today found this. 

    There is no denying the importance of this pause. It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation but it was significant. The Allied armies had fallen, or rather leaped headlong, into the trap laid by Germany. The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter. They therefore advanced into Belgium to meet the threat. The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes. They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast. By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium. On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force; yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance. They were ordered to resume on 26 May but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time. https://defenceindepth.co/2016/07/11/the-dunkirk-evacuation-and-the-german-halt-order/

    • #28
    • August 11, 2020, at 4:52 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  29. MiMac Thatcher

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    He claims that when Churchill became PM on May 10th, Britain had a minimal chance of winning the war without US intervention. Few in Britain or France would have agreed with him. France had more and better tanks than the Germans. Reconnaissance planes spotted large German forces moving through the Ardennes. A small number of bombers could have closed most if not all of the roads and greatly slowed down the German advance.

    Indeed, many knowledgeable people thought France had an excellent chance of victory. The reasons for the defeat–encompassing both military and social’/political factors–are an important topic, which I discussed at some length in my post An Unexpected Defeat.

    That was an excellent post. Other contributing factors in the defeat were the top heavy French command structure, the lack of radios in tanks, and the lack of reserves. The French went for a thrust to the Dyle River and put many of their best units on the far left. If they had opted for a more limited advance and kept these divisions in reserve, the panzers would have faced more opposition in their advance to the sea. Fortunately, Hitler was worried about the flanks and halted them when they could easily have captured Dunkirk. Loss of the BEF might have led to the fall of Churchill’s government and a disastrous peace agreement.

    The French wanted a defensive position out of French territory ( to avoid the widespread damage inflicted upon French territory in WW1). Hence the planned push to the Dyle river. Obviously, the Belgians & Dutch were less than enthused with a war plan that made their territory the main battleground- so the degree of allied cooperation was less than ideal. Ironically, the push to the Dyle merely placed the “heads” of the best French divisions securely in the noose as far as the Germans were concerned- it was a great assistance to their plans. By advancing they created an easily cut off army.

    • #29
    • August 13, 2020, at 1:00 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.