The Splendid and the Vile – Exactly 75 years ago this month, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, which officially ended the European theatre of the Second World War.
On May 8, 1945, as the jubilant citizens of London enthusiastically celebrated the end of hostilities in Europe, King George VI and his family (including the future Queen Elizabeth II) appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to salute the British people for their valiant service during six very difficult years of war. One of the people who joined the royal family on the balcony during that moment of triumph was its Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
However, it was exactly five years before that Churchill assumed the office of British prime minister, at a time when Britain was facing the biggest crisis in its history. Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway and France have already — or were about to — fall to the blitzkrieg manner of the Nazi war machine, and Britain was next on Hitler’s list. The Nazi leader hoped to do it by land (in a plan that he labelled “Operation Sea Lion”) or by air, through the might of the German Air Force (aka the Luftwaffe).
And to make matters worse, Britain, like its geographical location within the European continent, felt like it was alone, cut off from the rest of the world. Even Churchill’s hope of getting the isolationist United States on board for at least some semblance of aid to help Britain to keep Nazi Germany at bay from landing on the shores of Dover was a long shot; President Franklin Roosevelt had other matters on his plate, including his candidacy for an unprecedented third term in the White House.
So what was handed to the new prime minister was a true — yet unenviable– test of leadership during a time of extreme crisis. How Churchill handled this impending invasion and protect the interests of the British empire and its people is the subject of Erik Larson’s latest best seller The Splendid and the Vile.
The book chronicles Churchill’s first year in office (May 1940 to May 1941), and the professional and personal struggles he had to face on the eve and during the fury of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, as if the deck was automatically stacked against him.
First of all, Churchill — after surviving a decade in the political wilderness — wasn’t even the first choice to succeed Neville Chamberlain as prime minister (in fact, King George VI preferred Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax over Churchill). As well, he had to contend with his share of concerns regarding his family, especially his only son Randolph, who juggled responsibilities as a journalist, naval officer and Member of Parliament, yet he squandered his three salaries on gambling and drinking, thereby leaving very little for his pregnant wife Pamela to live on. Basically, the new prime minister had to deal with two sets of teams of rivals.
And then he had to worry if the British Army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) would have enough resources and weaponry to face an impending Nazi invasion. Not quite the ideal scenario to start an important job like Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Larson has done a diligent job recounting this crucial one-year period in modern history, as he drew upon personal diaries of many of the people who were involved in this drama, as well as archival material and intelligence reports that until recently were kept top secret. The end result is a historical true drama filled with secrets, intrigue, political and family dysfunction, backroom diplomacy and plenty of interesting characters and idiosyncrasies.
For example, Churchill shuttled between 10 Downing Street, his country estate called Chequers and his wartime retreat residence called Ditchley with a massive entourage that included personal assistants, secretaries, typists, bodyguards, cabinet ministers and special guests; as well, he relied on a number of sometime-eccentric experts to see what could be done to stop the Nazi onslaught towards Britain such as Frederick Lindemann (aka “The Prof”) who suggested that the RAF use aerial mines to stop Luftwaffe bombers, and Canadian-born newspaper baron Max Aitken (aka Lord Beaverbrook) who was appointed Minister of Aircraft Production, who was not only a gossip maven, but also liked to resign from the cabinet every six months or so (which Churchill always did not accept).
Dividing the narrative between London, Berlin and Washington gives the book a balanced approach to it, as you find out how the warring and neutral factions of the early years of World War II were up to in the months that led to the Battle of Britain, and how the major players tried to get into each other’s minds to figure out what their respective decisions and moves would be in a mental chess game that would have tragic consequences later.
Overall, The Splendid and the Vile is a fine addition to the ever-growing World War II library. With some coincidental contemporary overtones, the reader discovers how Winston Churchill transformed himself from political has-been to inspirational leader, when he was thrusted into a major crisis situation where the security of his country was on the line. It vividly proves how Britain emerged from its finest hour to its greatest victory. (Crown, $40)