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The Splendid and the Vile

Author Erik Larson writes historical nonfiction based on tremendous in depth research about his subject. He quotes sources and diarists and blends two or more complex tales to bring us terrific books like “The Devil in White City”, “Thunderstruck”, “The Garden of Beasts” and now, his latest, “The Splendid and the Vile.”

Set in wartime London and Berlin, “’The Splendid and the Vile’ looks at the blitz from two points of view, that of Winston Churchill and of Hitler and his Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goring. While waiting for the US to enter the war, the British endure incredible hardships. For Churchill there is no question that they will never surrender. For Hitler and Goring it is disbelief that England can withstand the incredible bombing without capitulating. They ask each other, time and again, how Churchill cannot be suing for peace as they turn up the pressure again and again. And therein turns the tale.

Rather than cower in the relative safety of his reinforced war rooms, Churchill goes out onto the rooftops or into the neighborhoods to see just what is happening to his city. His advisors plead with him to stay inside, but he is relentless. One evening (the Germans always bomb at night) he is sitting on the roof when an aid asks him to move. Seems he was sitting on a chimney and causing the smoke to flood some of the rooms downstairs at Number 10. (Larson brings some comic relief to the horror.)

The descriptions of what the English went through not only in London but in Liverpool, Birmingham, and of course Coventry are not easy to read. But their courage and the courage of their leader is incredible. Churchill knew that America must enter the fray, and he had to hold out until then. Finally, in mid 1941, the lend lease act is signed, Hitler decides to attack Russia and ….. I won’t give away the ending. You must read this book.

It is difficult not to compare England during the blitz with what we are suffering today with the pandemic. For more than two years the Germans were without pity, dropping tons and tons of bombs daily on a basically defenseless people. Sure they had air raid sirens, and went to shelters, but they also continued their daily lives, with stores remaining open, trains running, shopping, going to parties, and clubs, living their lives as best they could.

By the way, the shelters didn’t always work and the bombs often drilled through to the underground where hundreds were waiting, and hundreds were killed. The dead were often stacked in the streets waiting to be collected. Sometimes the bombs didn’t explode and first responders would go in and try to disarm them. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t.

Those inhabitants didn’t look to their government for protection, they looked to it for leadership. And they got it. The leaders made mistakes, but they adjusted. Churchill knew things could go wrong and was able to change course, or pivot, as needed to meet each challenge. He surrounded himself not with sycophants, but with those, regardless of party, who could do the job, and thus he saved the world from darkness.

As I look around me sitting in Los Angeles today, I can’t help but wonder – if only…

JVH

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3 Responses to The Splendid and the Vile

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    It is hard to read your article above and remember my generation and especially my parents and their friends, knowing that if England were in trouble today we would not have the courage to be there. I saw news coverage of the Michigan governor telling everyone the stay-at-home was being extended. I’m an auditor so I read facial expressions really well. She was grinning when she was talking. I am fairly certain that when Churchill was giving his blood, sweat, and tears and his all we have to fear speech he was not grinning.

    Good article John and I will read the book. Wait a minute, will I have to wear gloves to touch the book?

  2. Barbara Chance says:

    I’m just starting the book, John. But I loved the author’s other books. I have a “coffee table book” of London during and after the Blitz. The cover shows a British milkman carrying a metal carrier containing glass bottles full of milk. He is climbing over and around the rubble and remains of homes, buildings, and autos, carrying heavy glass bottles, dressed in his company’s uniform. Obviously, the basics of life needed to go on, Blitz or no Blitz. I would like to think I can take the same approach as my ancestors, and, as Churchill said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”

  3. John Van Horn says:

    Hi Barbara: Its a great read. Many of the stories you think you know about the Blitz, including Churchill allowing Coventry to be destroyed, are laid bare for all to see. But as you say, most important is the leadership Churchill gave his country. He would show up after a bombing and people would cheer him. The English were tough and focused. They were going to win. In the face of overwhelming odds.
    JVH

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