The Splendid and the Vile: Britain and the Nazi Air War

Author Erik Larson paints a technicolor picture of life under persistent bombing and threat of invasion.

In 1940, Britain stood nearly alone against Fascist forces. The British were pushed off of the Continent and were reeling from Rommel in North Africa. Europe was mostly under Nazi rule. America was locked in an isolationist policy, despite Hitler’s relatively easy march through Europe.

Larson focuses on Winston Churchill, from his appointment to Prime Minister leading up to America’s entry into the conflict. Five hundred pages covering mostly May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941 and the Blitz. London suffered the most, but other cities were in the bullseye.

Churchill is a well-written about historical figure, so Larson broadens the focus to include the Churchill household and a few select persons in his orbit. As a bonus, Larson interjects several Germans like Rudolph Hess, Hermann Goering and combat ace Adolph Galland into events pertinent to the story.

Clementine Churchill did not stand in her husband’s shadow. She was a formidable critic and was known to state her views to foreign leaders who visited. Churchill marveled at her ability to skewer those she had issue.

If there is one thing to take away from this story is to understand the devastation that Germany inflicted on the residents of London and other cities. Night after night, hundreds of bombers appeared over Britain, guided by radar beams to their targets. Hundreds of tons of high-explosive bombs fell with each raid. Ahead of that were bombers equipped with incendiary bombs designed for maximum fires, in part to visually point the way to the target. If that wasn’t deadly enough, the Germans also dropped parachute bombs. Larson describes the horrific destruction to civilians. Even some German pilots questioned the massive civilian bombing operations instead of concentrating on military targets.

During this year of bombing, more than 40,000 civilians died, and many times than in injuries. Vast sections of English cities were left in ruin. Civilians taking refuge in subways fared no better as subway stations took many direct hits, especially from bombs designed to deeply penetrate structures before detonating. To make things worse, bombs destroyed water mains and exploded gas lines.

The spirit of Brits miraculously endured the nightly bombing, rationing and ever present-fear of invasion. Later in the war, Germany again would threaten Britain with V1 and V2 rockets. Hitler’s obsession with attacking Russia turned attention from a British invasion.

It is fascinating to understand how Britain was alone in fighting the Germans and Italians, after France and other European countries fell.

Despite repeated requests by Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt, American help was slow to come. That makes Churchill’s speeches so much more moving, as Britain stood alone. The Nazi command was weary of the number of Germans that listened to the BBC and Churchill’s speeches. Fines were threatened on those who were caught listening.

What is also interesting is how Larson parallels the life of Churchill’s family with the flight of commoners who endured the constant threats from bombing. Churchill understood the need to tour areas of destruction and how crucial lifting the spirit of the people. Hitler tried to break this spirit, he wanted to force peace talks and take Britain out of the war. Nazi propaganda targeted Churchill and weakening the British resolve, but they never succeeded.

Larson’s research is meticulous, but never overwhelming in detail. It’s a heady read, but it flows easily, even for slow readers like me.

World War Two is a great passion of mine, having a minor in modern European history to go with my political science degree. WWII forever changed the world.

The Splendid and the Vile was a best seller and it deserves to be.

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