Probably more books have been written about Winston Churchill than any other political leader in the world, but there always seems room for one more. Churchill, arguably the greatest leader the modern world has ever seen, possessed a larger than life persona and great oratory abilities that rallied the people of Great Britain to believe, to fight, and to never give up against the German onslaught. Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile gives a new perspective on the harrowing days of May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941 — Churchill’s first full year as prime minister. Larson tapped into newly released government documents as well as personal diaries that give insight into personal and family affairs within the Churchill family and the surrounding orbit of advisors, friends, and U.S. diplomats.
When Churchill took over, the Germans had already invaded the Netherlands, and the Dunkirk evacuation was only two weeks away. Without France as a buffer, no one seriously thought Britain could thwart a German invasion. No one except Winston Churchill. Upon taking the mantle of Great Britain’s leader, Churchill had to convince his staff, government, and the people of this island nation that it was indeed possible. Most importantly, he had to convince Franklin Roosevelt that it was both possible and incumbent upon the United States to support them. Churchill knew that Great Britain could keep the Nazis at bay but could not on their own defeat them. They would need the overwhelming industrial capacity of the United States and its armed forces to defeat Hitler and destroy Nazism.
Great Britain had to stand on its own for more than a year and a half before the United States entered the war, and they very nearly lost it during the period covered in The Splendid and the Vile. Hermann Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) and the second most powerful man in the Third Reich, was so confidant of Germany’s aerial superiority that he stated that the country would only take a couple of weeks to decimate the Royal Air Force and pave the way for invasion.
The RAF, however, rose to the occasion and defeated the Luftwaffe through tenacity, superior dog fighting skills, and — crucially important — the ability to keep manufacturers running to replace destroyed planes. As Churchill said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” On Churchill’s first day as prime minister, he created the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the sole mission of which was the production of fighters and bombers. Led by Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper baron with the ability to get things done, the Ministry of Aircraft Production was able to increase production even though the Luftwaffe repeatedly sent bombing missions to destroy their manufacturing plants.
Erik Larson also takes the reader into Churchill’s personal life and the challenges he had in that realm too, primarily with his son, Randolph, who constantly embarrassed the family with his drunkenness and infidelity. The Splendid and the Vile gives a unique perspective on the intense struggle between Great Britain and Germany that Winston Churchill found himself triumphantly leading.