The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2020


Crown (2020), Edition: First Edition, 608 pages


"The #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake delivers a fresh and compelling portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally-and willing to fight to the end. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people "the art of being fearless." It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it's also an intimate domestic drama set against the backdrop of Churchill's prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports-some released only recently-Larson provides a new lens on London's darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents' wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela's illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the cadre of close advisers who comprised Churchill's "Secret Circle," including his lovestruck private secretary, John Colville; newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook; and the Rasputin-like Frederick Lindemann. The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today's political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when-in the face of unrelenting horror-Churchill's eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together."--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
When the author wrote this history, I don't think he thought readers might read it during a pandemic. While the Blitz and coronavirus are hardly the same, they both caused massive disruption to ordinary people and upended society. In this story, however, Winston Churchill makes all the difference -
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he sees a path to end the war (mainly, by getting the U.S. involved) and is determined never to surrender. He navigates the Blitz alongside family drama, parliamentary politics, and German propaganda. The portrait of Churchill that emerges is one of plenty of character quirks, but just might be the right man for a crisis. Highly readable, this book is for anyone with an interest in the second world war.
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LibraryThing member Ken-Me-Old-Mate
Having read Chris McNab's excellent Hitler's Armies I came to this unsure of what I would be reading. I was not particularly interested in another blow by blow account of how the war unfolded.

This however is a biography of Winston Churchill during the war years.

My parents were war generation and
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my mother a Londoner. She held Winston Churchill in a level of regard that I never saw her hold for any other human being. When he died in 1965 and was lying in state, I was dragged by my mother on buses and trains to Westminster Abbey to view his coffin. The abbey is huge and was full of weeping people both men and women, old men in uniform in particular. So many men of my father's age would stop in front of the coffin and salute.

I was 15 and was full of all the knowledge and cynicism that only 15 year olds can have. But I was stopped dead in my tracks in this place by so much emotion by people I would have otherwise sneered at. In this huge place, in spite of the sheer number of people streaming through it was silence, stillness and sobs. I was only too aware that I was in the presence of something bigger than I could even begin to comprehend. For once I was at a loss for clever smart things to say and just shut up.

I've never forgotten that experience and this book clarified for me what was happening there. It also gave me some idea of what people endured. I have read other accounts of that time but what this book did was to frame it all through peoples eyes. It was very personal.

This book is strictly a non-fiction but I found it incredibly moving in so many places. It really brings home the reality of those times in ways that "blood n guts" books and movies cannot even get close to.

This is the third book by Erik Larson that I have read and loved every one of them. This one is no exception. He manages to weave human experiences into what would otherwise be dried recording events in a way that brings them to life and gives you eyes in the past.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
As terrible as the costs of war are, we tend to feel especial horror over civilian casualties.

Shortly after the beginning of World War II, German bombers attacked Britain relentlessly in what came to be known as “the Blitz” after the German word “blitzkrieg,” meaning “lightning war.”
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Between September 7, 1940 and May 10, 1941, some 45,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were injured. Many more were left homeless - over 12,000 alone in the final, brutal raid on London. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged. Overall, some 33,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the Germans over Britain. It was only after the Germans opened up a second front against Russia that the bombing abated because the Germans needed to redeploy the aircraft of the Luftwaffe to their new Eastern Front.

Larson explains that he wrote this history after wondering how anyone could stand the frightening reality of constant bombardment and threat of actual invasion by Germany. The noise of the planes and blasts from the bombs added to the general fear and anxiety. (As a passage relates that Larson shares from one Londoner's diary: “My heart misses a beat whenever a car changes gear-up, or when someone runs, or walks very quickly, or suddenly stands still, or cocks their head on one side, or stares up at the sky, or says, ‘Sshh!’...") The physical damage from the bombings required ongoing repairs but there was a lack of sufficient supplies and labor. Shortages of food and medicine increased the worries of the populace. In particular, Larson wondered, how could parents handle the threat to their children? During the Blitz 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously wounded.

Larson was curious how Churchill, by then aged 65, coped psychologically with the challenges. Because so many biographies of Churchill had already been written, Larson opted to craft “a more intimate account” of this period using source material from diaries as well as other documents. He drew mainly from the private diaries of Mary Churchill, at 17 the youngest of Churchill’s four children; John “Jock” Colville, 25, one of Churchill’s private secretaries; and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist.

The author takes us from the evacuation of the Allies from Dunkirk in June, 1940, through the collapse of France shortly thereafter, the invasion by Hitler of Russia in late June, 1941, and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and subsequent entry of the United States into the war. After vicariously enduring all that Churchill and the British suffered, one can’t help but have mixed feelings over the Japanese bombing: the sacrifice of the soldiers at Pearl Harbor and resulting willingness of Americans to enter the fray undoubtedly saved Britain, hanging on by a thread, from Hitler’s juggernaut.

Larson embellishes what history buffs already know about the first year of the war in England with interesting personal observations by those closely tied to the centers of power. The daily ravages of war did not stop those caught up in its vise from experiencing the gamut of personal relationships. It is notable that, as Larson observed, “the attacks on London seemed clearly to unleash a new sexuality . . . As bombs fell, libidos soared.” One woman in London at the time wrote: “Young people were reluctant to contemplate death without having shared their bodies with someone else.” Affairs involving married people were also common, Larson reports.

Evaluation: It is hard to read this gripping account without gaining even more appreciation for Churchill than if one only had read his speeches, which were simply superb. One will also admire the courage and perseverance of those who went through so much and still carried on. It’s an inspiring story, and written to appeal to more than just a “history” audience - it reads in many ways like a thriller, albeit with an outcome you already know.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Erik Lawson has done it again, managing to depict a segment of history in a narrative that evokes the tension and incredible courage of not only it's protagonist but also the people of London. Winston Churchill comes across as a tireless, encouraging leader, one that King George had to admit, "“I
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could not have a better Prime Minister.”
Having been to London last fall, my visit to the bunker at 10 Downing Street became more memorable now reading about the daily life and dinners that went on there. Larson also includes a number of the trusted advisors that Churchill employed and their role in the important events of 1940: Beaverbrook increasing the production of RAF fighters, Lindemann researching the radio beams used by the German bombers. Intertwined with the war revelations that are detailed in sequential order, are the personal stories of the family: Mary's infatuation of a young pilot, Pamela's ill-fated marriage to Churchill's son Randolph. Many quotes and documents are embedded in the narrative to add important insights and detail but do a nice job of moving the narrative along without bogging it down. Currently in the news Trump compared himself to Churchill and the irony couldn't be more incredible.
It's a great joy to learn a lot about an important piece of history and to relish the time spent in its learning. Great writing, highly recommend.

Some lines:

One line stood out with particular clarity: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

He was about to take one of his daily baths, these prepared with precision—ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit and two-thirds full—by his valet-butler Frank Sawyers, present at all hours (“ the inevitable, egregious Sawyers,” as Colville wrote). Churchill took two baths every day, his longtime habit, no matter where he was and regardless of the urgency of the events unfolding elsewhere, whether at the embassy in Paris during one of his meetings with French leaders or aboard his prime ministerial train, whose lavatory included a bathtub.

For the young it was undeniably exciting and stimulating. It was God’s gift to naughty girls, for from the moment the sirens went, they were not expected to get home until morning when the ‘all clear’ sounded. In fact, they were urged to stay where they were…. Young people were reluctant to contemplate death without having shared their bodies with someone else. It was sex at its sweetest: not for money or marriage, but for love of being alive and wanting to give.”

Always remember, Clemmie, that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

and I see the damage done by the enemy attacks; but I also see side by side with the devastation and amid the ruins quiet, confident, bright and smiling eyes, beaming with a consciousness of being associated with a cause far higher than any human or personal issue. I see the spirit of an unconquerable people.”

this “strange Christmas Eve,” and how important it was to preserve Christmas as an island amid the storm. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill said. “Let gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures”—abruptly, he lowered his voice to a deep, forbidding growl—“ before we turn again to the stern tasks and formidable year that lie before us. Resolve!—that by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
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LibraryThing member zot79
This is the captivating tale of how Winston Churchill, London and all of England survived the first year of World War II and the relentless bombing raids Hitler and the Nazis inflicted in order to break their spirit. Larsen uses quotes from diaries and letters to elevate the story above the facts
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and figures and dates and make it personal, populated with well-rounded personalities acting and reacting to events impossible to comprehend. He even almost succeeds at making Churchill himself into someone anyone can identify with. Yet the apparent reality of Churchill defies the attempt and he remains larger-than-life. This is a must-read for anyone interested in this period of history.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.
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LibraryThing member PaintGirl
Reading this during the (hopefully) waning days of the Trump era and the “third wave” of the corona virus pandemic makes me even more painfully aware of our failed leadership, our national lack of fortitude and solidarity and inability to sacrifice for the greater good.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Loved this: Erik Larson could make a committee meeting interesting. Set in London during the war, the story centers around Churchill, his family (especially his daughter, Mary), his secretary, John Colville, and some of the staff around him. Some chapters focus on the German side especially
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Gobbells who is directing the Nazi air war.

I learn more history from Larson's books than ever in school. Reading about the scenes and the lives of people during the Blitz makes it so much more real. Thousands of civilians were killed and many buildings ruined.

Most interesting is the character of Churchill--bold, eccentric, tender-hearted, or fierce as need be. He truly was an amazing person.

One surprise in the book was the complete omission of the story of the Lusitania and Churchill's part in that as so vividly told in "Dead Wake." I realize Larson already told the story, but seems there needed to be some kind of connection especially as so much of the story deals with Churchill's need for American to come to the side of the British.

Great read.
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LibraryThing member eachurch
It is easy to forget that the outcome of World War Two wasn’t inevitable and that the United States wasn’t particularly eager to become involved. Larson has written a gripping, well-researched book which humanizes historical figures who have become—in some cases, with good reason—larger
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than life characters. By weaving together the personal with the political and historical, Larson is able to give us an idea of what it would be like to live in a country that was being bombed on a regular basis for months on end and how its leaders sought to save it. It is a compelling and enlightening book. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member TomDonaghey
The Splendid And The Vile (2020) by Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has tackled an area much trafficked over the years, namely Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. This was the start of England’s turmoil, the Battle of Britain, and America’s stand as an isolationist nation. But, writing
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in his own inimitable fashion, Mr. Larson has again taken what might have been a dry as dust history lesson and turned in into something more like a fictionalized account of that first tortuous year. But, as usual, he has given us fact upon fact delightfully interlaced with the human aspect of the story.
Using many, many resources, Mr. Larson has opened up not only Churchill, but his immediate family, friends and the myriad close staffers who aided him in not only standing up to the bully of Hitler, but worse, the terror of doubt that lurked within the hearts and souls of his countrymen. We are treated to this “Lion of History” as a rather unusual person, and the cast of military and civilian leaders as people, not personalities. From the staunch Lord Beaverbrook (who tried to resign from the government many times) who did a miracle with aircraft production so as to keep the RAF flying, to Pamela Churchill, Winston’s daughter-in-law, whose marriage to his son was a disaster save for a grandson named Winston, and on to Mary Churchill, just 18 and the belle of London’s high society, a charming young woman who slowly came to realize the horrors of war.
The cast of characters is extensive and each is well documented. This book is not a critique of Churchill’s term as PM, just an honest account by the people around him of that first year of the war. Included are many tales taken from everyday people who were part of a program designed to have diaries kept from around the country, each person relating their actions, hopes and fears in a candid fashion.
I have been watching Foyle’s War on video and found this book a fitting compliment to the stories told in the series. Together hey echoed a time of 70 years past but a tale that will live forever.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
You can find many more knowledgeable reviews about this than mine. Most of what I learned before this book about Churchill and the Blitz came from novels. But here is something I can tell you. I started reading the book out loud to my husband during the Beginning Note to the Reader and I didn’t
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stop. There is so much interesting information. If you love WWII English fiction, read this book. Larson’s writing often feels like fiction, but it is a non-fiction book. It may be one of the best books I read in 2020.
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LibraryThing member ecataldi
I love good WWII historical nonfiction and Erik Larson did a WONDERFUL job piecing together a story not just of Churchill, but his family, the people he worked with, and the bombing of Britain. I know there are a ton of books on Churchill, but I've never read them. I've also never really taken the
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time to learn much about the Bombing of Britain. This book combined so much I didn't know into a wonderful narrative filled with direct quotations, whether it be from diaries or speeches. Even though I clearly know the outcome of the war and know that the Nazi's did not end up invading; it was still fascinating to read about Churchill and how he came into office the day the Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland. The way he led Britain was inspiring and Erik Larson does a wonderful job of writing about how passionate, persuasive (and peculiar) he was. I definitely want to go read more now! Impeccably researched, never dry, and always engaging; this is how non-fiction should be written!
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LibraryThing member Archivist13
I chronicle of Churchill's first day as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the German blitz of London. Brilliantly written, with detailed information about Churchill's private life and family. Highly recommended for WWII history buffs.
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
Excellent- Larson has produced another masterpiece. The author’s technique of writing history so it reads like a novel makes him stand out among his peers. I have read every one of his works and am amazed by the scope and breadth of his interests. This personal and revealing look into the early
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stages of WWII - primarily focused on the “Blitz” - allows the reader a glimpse at both the public and private lives of the primary players in the drama. It was very hard to put this book down !
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LibraryThing member sblock
A good antidote to sheltering at home. The Bris were bombed relentlessly for months.
LibraryThing member John_Warner
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
“Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.” (p. 484)

After the Battle
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of Dunkirk, Hitler hoped to bomb England into submission and surrender through a massive aerial assault known as “the Blitz.” Erik Larson’s newest book details the story of how Winston Churchill, recently elected as Great Britain’s Prime Minister was able to use rhetoric to embolden the English people during the country’s darkest hour. Erik Larson was fortunate in his endeavor to have many diaries, in addition to archival documents and intelligence reports, to draw on, including the diaries of his wife and youngest daughter, his personal secretary, and many English citizens at the time. The reader also obtains an intimate look into Churchill family and friends as they try to live as normal a life during this horrific year.

Although Larson is as detailed in his research and writing as he was in his previous works, this one is different in that he targets a major historical figure. In his previous books, the majority of the major biographies were minor historical figures against the backdrop of major historical events, such as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the rise of the Nazi party in pre-WWII Germany, and the sinking of the Lusitania. The compilation of Larson's rearch is so extensive and organized that the reader becomes part of the entourage that was generally around 10 Downing Street in London and Chequers, his wartime retreat. I highly recommend this book for any avid reader of WWII, Churchill, or Erik Larson.
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LibraryThing member gothamajp
Larson’s books work best when they build towards some climatic event, less so when he tries to present a slice-of-life at some momentous point in history. Unfortunately this falls into the second camp. Telling the story of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz via the comings and goings of
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Churchill and his immediate family and close associates quickly turns from fascinating, to mildly interesting, to dull. Probably the first time I’ve found reading an Erik Larson book to be a chore. Disappointing.
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LibraryThing member msf59
Winston Churchill was handed a hefty work-load, when he first became Prime Minister. Hitler was on a tear. He just conquered Holland and Belgium and for the next twelve, terrifying months, he would mercilessly bomb England, killing nearly 50,000 Britons.
Larson's latest, closely examines
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Churchill's life during this challenging period, as the leader, tries to hold his country together and it makes for a very satisfying read. The candid, and well-researched details of his domestic life and political brinkmanship, is endlessly fascinating, especially in the hands of this master of nonfiction. Larson delivers again. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Larson has the amazing ability to weave so many stories into his histories. He captured Churchill in all his majesty and silliness.
LibraryThing member datrappert
In this time when the whole world seems to lack leadership and leaders are just as often tyrants, it is inspiring to see the story of a man like Churchill, who, despite his many flaws, set to the task of saving Britain from the Nazi onslaught, assembled a highly capable group of men to help him do
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so, and earned the love of most British (and many other people) in the process. Larsen's book is full of small fascinating details gleaned from various diaries and reminiscences, as its short chapters shift between scenes around Britain, Germany, and America. The strength of Churchill's family, particularly his wife Clementine, is a vital part of this book. There are also great moments with King George, the Queen, and a host of other characters, including some of Hitler's top henchmen. The book comes to a rather abrupt conclusion, however, as the blitz on London ends in May of 1941 in preparation for Hitler's disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. Larsen wraps up some loose ends and projects us to the end of the war when Churchill is unceremoniously ejected from office by a British population that now seems to want to put the war behind it. I think the book would have been better had it gone on for another 200-300 pages to provide some more detail, particularly about the period between May 1941 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that finally brought the United States into the war, which was Churchill's lone hope for victory. Nevertheless, once you start reading this book, you want be able to put it down until your eyelids simply can't stay open any longer.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Eric Larson’s remarkable examination of Churchill during WWII is timely because it clearly demonstrates the importance of having an accomplished leader during a time of national crisis. On reading this book, one can’t help but wonder how things might have been quite different for the US if it
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had a Churchill during the Covid19 pandemic.

Larson shows us a man with shortcomings (e.g., alcoholism, debts, extreme disregard for his own safety and health, a tendency to overwork and to drive others to exhaustion, idiosyncratic bedtime habits and attire, etc.). Notwithstanding his faults, Churchill had many remarkable traits that stood him in good stead as a leader during the crisis. Primary among those was an unsurpassed eloquence, which he repeatedly used to motivate and persuade. He was a student of history and did not hesitate to use his knowledge to elicit patriotism. He was stubborn, but willing to listen to his advisors and changed course when necessary. He was empathic, tearing up at times and never failing to visit the public after bombings. He was an excellent judge of people, especially those he entrusted with important wartime tasks. And, of course, he was a role model for the best in the British people.

Larson gives us a lively narrative by relying on primary sources as much as possible, thus avoiding a dry historical accounting. Diaries and letters provide intimate looks behind the scenes both at work and leisure. These include Jock Colville’s diaries; the writings of Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary; and the biographies of his wife, Clementine. Some high points were the wooing of Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s close friend and confidant; the many faux resignations of Lord Beaverbrook; the “Prof’s” attempts to create strange and unique deadly weapons; the bizarre flight of Rudolph Hesse to Scotland to sue for peace; and Randolph Churchill’s dysfunctional marriage and gambling addiction. Of course, there is so much more to enjoy in this excellent presentation.
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LibraryThing member acargile
This non-fiction narrative details life in England from May 20, 1940, to May 20, 1941, from the time Churchill become Prime Minister through the daily bombings from Germany.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this revelation of history, especially during the time of the pandemic. It took me a long time to
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read it. I began in January or February and just didn't have time to read. Then I had a setback and couldn't read due to headaches. When I could finally just sit and absorb this piece of literature, I was astounded at the resiliency of the British people, the quirkiness and absolute confidence of Churchill, and the intelligence of the people who surrounded Churchill charged with quickly accomplishing Churchill's goals.

On the surface, Churchill doesn't appear to be a good leader. He had little refinement. He didn't care about his personal dress, including being unclothed in front of many different people. He cried easily when moved by the beauty of people. He felt, however, completely capable of guiding England through a terrible war. The numbers of people killed daily were astounding and he grieved these numbers, but he also knew these horrors would occur and wanted to do the best he could and expected so much of others. One such person was Beaverbrook, who wasn't necessarily the greatest of men morally. He loved gossip and knowing secrets about people. He, however, built up the aircraft production so that they could compete with Germany. He stepped on toes, he pulled from other people, he did whatever needed to be done to get the materials to build aircraft and to do so quickly. He got it done. All people had to work and work quickly. Churchill expected many "minutes"--these were summaries of what he needed to know from people in charge of intelligence as well as all areas of the government: say it quickly, succinctly, and accurately. He would tell someone he needed something at 2 a.m. and was surprised if answers weren't delivered by 8 a.m. People literally ran about in order to accomplish what he wanted now! Churchill would agonize over every word he wrote or said to get the precise meaning across depending on the audience and the need. He knew they couldn't win without Roosevelt and the American people supporting them. He grew impatient with America's slowness as they waited on Congress and battled those who wanted to be isolationists. Churchill wrote many letters to Roosevelt and spent much time with American representatives to show and express the needs Britain had. He had many dinners and brought people together to look toward whatever means to survive and win against Hitler.

Another thing I didn't know was about the diarists. England had trained people to observe and write about their observations. They were often even given assignments as to what to write about. In this book, Larson quotes from those diarists and you learn about the average person. The British were hardy. As bombs descended, most did not go to bomb shelters. They usually were in their beds. The smells after bombing were well known quickly. Often, people watched the bombings from rooftops. The sheer numbers of bombs dropped was amazing. People even partied during bombings. I always imagined everyone hunkered down, but the well-to-do and those who were young and wanted to dance and date, went out. People stayed and lived in hotels who were from America and their journals describe what they witnessed as bombs dropped and what London and other cities looked like after the bombings. People believed in living. In fact, they didn't believe in faithfulness to spouses or those they were dating. There was a lot of sleeping around with others. This behavior also surprised me.

Two journals frequently quoted are those of Churchill's private secretary and Churchill's daughter. His private secretary, Colville, wasn't supposed to write about what went on, but he kept a diary and didn't think anything of it. You see his opinion shift as he gets to know Churchill and as he desires to play a role in the war as a soldier. Mary, Churchill's daughter, writes of a privileged life. They have food, many places to stay, parties, and friends with whom she visits and enjoys a good time. At times she expresses sorrow for the people, but she is young and enjoys life. For her age, she seems pretty free to me--her parents did not give her many restrictions.

I highly recommend learning about day to day life in England during this pivotal time as they sustained bombings and the unknown of whether America would help. Will Hitler arrive on the beaches with his tanks at any day? If so, England didn't have the tanks to fight back. They were shocked at how quickly France capitulated and spend a long time uncertain as to who could help but determined to persevere.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
Eric Larson seldom disappoints and this book is another hit in the tradition of In the Garden of the Beast. This time Larson takes on Winston Churchill during the first two years of the war from 1940 until the entry of the Americans into the war at the end of 1941. This covers the Battle of
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Britain, the Blitz and Churchill's never ending efforts to both receive military aid from the United States and to draw the US into the broader conflict.

Using both official and private papers, Larson draws a vivid picture not only of the military operations, but also of the day-to-day thoughts and activities of both the major players in the drama as well as the ordinary citizens of London. It's hard not to feel admiration for these people who were firebombed night after night, yet refused to even consider surrender to the Germans

Churchill, while arguably saving western civilization by refusing to surrender to Germany, was not the easiest man to deal with, Vain, extravagant, bullying, and full of petty jealousies, he is held in check primarily by his long suffering wife, Clementine, who makes sure that the bills are paid, his health is attended to, and that he receivesa well-deserved dressing down when needed.

My favorite characters, however, were not major players, but individuals that Larson highlights mostly for their humanity: the Churchills' youngest daughter Mary and Churchill's private secretary Jock Colville.

Mary, just seventeen when the war begins. seems to view the whole affair as a lark. Fresh off her debutante season, she loves her spacious accommodations at No.10 Downing Street, as well as the seemingly endless rounds of parties country house weekends, and dances at the various air bases around London. Much like teenagers everywhere, she seems to completely disregard the dangers of air raids and to immerse herself in having a wonderful time.

Jock Colville has two parallel goals: first to get married and second to free himself from Churchill's clutches and join the services. He pursues both with single-minded determination.

There are plenty of other juicy stories in the book, many of which concern the Churchill's vivacious daughter-in-law, Pam, whose unhappy marriage to Randolph Churchill leads her to affairs with some very important people indeed, always aided and abetted by Churchill himself, who could see a definite advantage of obtaining strategic information through Pam's pillow talk.

As always, Larson makes history read like a novel and the reader gobbles it all up until the very last page.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
A very creditable and readable rendition of the war years, from the vantage point of #10 Downing Street and Checkers, the weekend estate. Lots of family and intimates detail, but also swirling out to include the rest of society and the major events. The Churchill/Roosevelt exchanges are given space
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LibraryThing member EricCostello
A fairly solid account of the 1940 London Blitz, told in Larson's usual short-chapter format that's been seen in his other works. As he himself admits, this is fairly well-ploughed ground, though he does do a good job of telling the story with colour and verve. I didn't like it quite as much as
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some of his other books (e.g., Devil in the White City, and his book on the sinking of the Lusitania), but it's hard to top those books. It's still recommended for WWII buffs.
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LibraryThing member starkravingmad
Another very good history from Erik Larson. Personal and interesting insights into Churchill, his family and confidants.

Original publication date



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