The splendid and the Vile – Erik Larson

The splendid and the Vile by Eric Larson

The Splendid and the Vile, written by Erik Larson, is a book on Winston Churchill’s leadership during the bombing of London (World War II). It references the first year of Churchill as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ( The making of Churchill and his leadership). There are lots of interesting facts about Sir Winston Churchill. It was also great to learn about World War II, the different players in the war, and what Churchill did during the hour of crises.

Churchill took over as Prime Minister from Neville Chamberlain. He did not immediately move into his new official residence (10 Downing Street) and gave time for the incumbent to move out and ensured Chamberlain had a graceful exit.  It was not a great time to take over as Prime Minister. As soon as Churchill became Prime Minister, he had to deal with the war.  

One of the first things Churchill did was that he ensured he had a great team. Especially when it came to handling the war with Germany. The job of a leader is to instill confidence in his people, and Churchill was a master of it. He empowered people and always gave an indication that they would win the war over Germany. Partnerships are a key to winning any war, and he was always persuading President Roosevelt (United States) to join the war and help the United Kingdom (and the world). Churchill was clear that he needed America’s assistance to win the war.

We also learn about Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring (Nazi Military Leader). While reading the book, you would get to know that Goring was most of the time overconfident in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and underestimated the RAF (British Royal Airforce). He could not turn victory for Germany. The team made a big difference.

Churchill understood the power of symbolic acts. When people asked, when are we going to bomb Berlin? – All Churchill replied was ‘ You leave that to me’. Churchill also understood that simple gestures could generate a huge impact. Shooting guns in the sky can have a huge impact on morale.

Wintson Churchill in his office

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The book also talks about the US elections during the time period Churchill was the Prime Minister of the UK. Roosevelt was seeking re-election, and he was running against Wendell Willkie (who also helped support the war).

Hitler knew that Britain had to fall in line (surrender) like France for Germany to win the war. The more time he provided to Britain, the better British forces could prepare and also get assistance from the United States. Hitler also wanted to invade Russia and did not want to provide them time to increase their aircraft production.

The book also talks about the Lend-Lease Bill passed into law by President Roosevelt on March 11, 1941, which stated that the U.S. government could lend or lease (instead of selling) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.”
(more like lending garden supplies to a neighbor if their tree falls in your house ). Churchill had to persuade Roosevelt to pass this bill.

Churchill also had to deal with resignations. Lord Beaverbrook was the Minister of Aircraft production who played a pivotal role in Aircraft production during World War II. Lord Beaverbrook would often resign. Churchill wanted him to take over imports of food, steel, and a myriad of other civilian and material supplies. However, he refused.

W. Averell Harriman, a diplomat working with the US and UK administrations, left New York Municipal Airport (now Laguardia) and had 4 stop overs to reach London. While the entire distance could be covered in a non-stop flight today, it is interesting to note the different connections a top diplomat had to use to get from one place to another. Churchill spent a great deal of time with Harriman (he was the one providing updates to Roosevelt)

The author also details more than once that bombing nights were great for romance or sex and also quotes a few diary notes of different people. Pamela Churchill also met with Averell Harriman. E.g. A friend told Pamela’s biographer “A Big bombing raid is a very good way to get into bed with somebody”. Pamela married Harriman.

Joseph Goebbels was Hitler’s second in command- Goebbels confessed in his diary about Churchill – This man is a strange mix of heroism and cunning- he is not to be taken lightly. Rudolf Hess, Appointed Deputy Führer(Leader) by Adolf Hitler, flew solo to Scotland – fell from the plane and was captured prisoner.

Churchill had the practice of working late at night, and going to bed at 2:30 am or 3:30 am was a common occurrence. He also had the confidence of his house (Parliament), was a great orator, visited bomb sites, carried cyanide with him all the time. When Churchill was visiting Roosevelt, and President Roosevelt came in his wheelchair to see Churchill, the Prime Minister was naked. Prime Minister told to the President that he had nothing to hide. Churchill taught the art of being fearless. He made people believe they could win. Churchill also said that “he never gave people courage – he was able to focus theirs”

War period London

Source

The great thing about this book is that it is broken down into smaller chapters. Though it is over 500 pages, it is an easy read, and you can do it a chapter at a time. It is more like reading a novel. It would now be great to watch a film on Churchill.

Thank you Erik Larson for your research and your great novel like book on Winston Churchill. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and also learnt a little bit of history.

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Further reading

Karthik Chidambaram