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

Author: Erik Larson

Review by: Paul Varian, retired CNN senior editor, producer and writer 

Paul Varian

Winston Churchill became Britain’s prime minister at age 65 after decades of political combat and military adventure. His nation was again at war, bracing for attack or even invasion from Nazi Germany.

After being summoned by King George VI and asked to form a new government, he was at first relieved, then elated.

“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been in preparation for this hour and for this trial,” he wrote. “Power in a national crisis, when a man knows what orders should be given, is a blessing.”

An experienced and proven leader taking the helm during a national crisis. The theme couldn’t be more topical today, but it was in fact inspired by the earth-shattering events of nearly 20 years ago: the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.

In a note to readers, Larson says he did not realize until he moved to Manhattan in recent years how horrific it must have been for New Yorkers to experience “their home city under attack.” Then, he started thinking about the Blitz in London in World War II.

In Churchill’s first year in power, Londoners endured 57 consecutive nights of German aerial assault that killed nearly 30,000 people, flattened homes and gutted high-rise buildings left standing in skeletal shambles, coating sidewalks, windshields, phone boxes and the bodies of survivors and the dead with thick layers of dust. 

The first raid started at tea time on a Saturday, Sept. 7, 1940, and lasted all night long, as wave after wave of German bombers and fighters dropped loud, thudding cargo that pulverized brick and stone buildings and set whole neighborhoods aflame. 

In one neighborhood, a double-decker bus was seen protruding from the second floor of a house. Streets were covered with mortar, rocks, soil and mounds of shattered glass. In one night, 400 were killed and 1,600 injured.

Churchill and a small entourage raced back to the city from his country home at Chequers in the morning and stopped at an East End air raid shelter where a bomb had killed 40. He was greeted by an upbeat crowd whose resilience brought him to tears.

“When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” one woman shouted. He turned, shook his fist and snarled, “You leave that to me.”

Churchill soon beefed up anti-aircraft emplacements around the city, despite their relative ineffectiveness, as a way to improve citizen morale by showing that “we’re fighting back.” 

He delighted in darting around the streets himself to visit the wildly firing crews and once took dinner guests to the roof of 10 Downing Street for a two-hour viewing of an air raid that wound up killing 500 Londoners.

His bravado, exuberant hands-on leadership and powerful oratory conveyed to his countrymen what Larson called “a naked confidence that under his leadership Britain would win the war” even though he knew he could not do so without the eventual participation of the United States.

In his first year in office, Larson wrote, “Against all odds, Britain stood firm, its citizens more emboldened than cowed. Churchill had managed to teach them the art of being fearless.”

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Britain joined the U.S. in declaring war on Japan and a few days later Hitler declared war against America. The U.S. reciprocated and while years of fighting were still ahead, Churchill was thankful and “slept the sleep of the saved.”

His doctor noticed an immediate change in his patient. “It seems a younger man has taken his place. The fun of it all was back.”

Larson’s book is written almost like a diary, mixing war drama not only from London, but also Berlin — the target during the Blitz of Royal Air Force bombing raids ordered by Churchill — with the day-to-day experiences of Churchill and his closest aides, his wife Clementine, daughter Mary, philandering son Randolph and his unhappy wife, Pamela.

And there are spicy details worthy of “The Crown,” including young Pamela’s illicit affair with a handsome and dashing Yank — the wealthy and influential American envoy Averell Harriman, also married and nearly 30 years her senior. They got quietly married in New York decades later, after many years apart.

Churchill paid a Christmas visit to the White House following the U.S. entry into the war. On his first night there, President Roosevelt came to his room in his wheelchair, knocked on the door and, when it was opened, found Churchill standing “stark naked, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other,” according to Churchill’s official bodyguard.

“Come on in, Franklin. We’re quite alone,” Churchill said. “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide.”

Editor’s notes: Global Atlanta will receive a 10 percent commission on any purchase of this book through the links on this page. also contributes 10 percent of the purchase price of each book to independent booksellers around the United States.

Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010. 

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2020 reader picks here. 

All books were chosen