Churchill and his Leadership in the early months of WW2
By Jeff Salter
The Splendid and the Vile
A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
By Erik Larson
I should probably begin by stating that I’m an ardent admirer of Winston Churchill and his leadership of Great Britain during WW2. Was he a man of perfect character without any flaws? Of course not. He was often pompous, vain, stubborn, and inconsiderate. But he exuded the strength and confidence – and bravery – that England’s isolated island citizens needed at a time their backs were against the wall and their only military allies had already been soundly defeated. I seriously doubt England would have prevailed if any other individual had been elected Prime Minister at that point (after Chamberlain’s appeasement posture).
I should also state that as an amateur military historian, I groove on the type minutia provided by this author. Herein are details of how England boosted its aircraft production to such a level that Germany had no idea how many planes the British had… or where they’d come from. [And England’s air power was the most significant factor in the delays – and ultimate cancellation – of Hitler’s plan, Operation Sea Lion… to invade the British Isles.] We learn how much power could be consolidated in the hands of a few individuals, and how – if they’d had selfish motives (rather than a passion for national preservation) – they could have robbed the country blind.
Importantly, we also learn about the actions and reactions of everyday Londoners, who survived the devastation of the Blitz and somehow managed to carry on. The recent widespread reprinting of those war-time posters, Keep Calm and Carry On, has become something of a trite curiosity to many modern citizens. But this was very much the official mindset of the leaders during this dark period before America’s military entered the war. And that mindset clearly “carried on” to most of the citizenry. Without that level of stubborn morale, it’s doubtful England could have survived those first two years of the war.
Getting to know the individuals involved in the broader scale accounts we usually comprehend only by their outcomes, the reader finds himself rooting for them to prevail.
Among the cringe-worthy moments detailed are the agonizing deliberations which led ultimately to the British attacking the French fleet, after France capitulated to the Germans. England had submitted options that would not have caused any bloodshed, but the French Navy (understandably) would not surrender their ships to England (despite the fact that the Germans would soon seize any that were not sunk). All that aside, for that British admiral to order “fire” on the ships of a former ally was one of the horrors of that early period of the war.
I should also tell you that I’m a huge fan of Erik Larson’s exhaustively researched – and fascinating – style of writing. Larson can distill information from a thousand different sources and still make the book read like a suspenseful thriller. Not only does this book feature some 41 pages of specific sources for his extensive quotes, but an eight page bibliography and 31 page index.
I’ve read and enjoyed three other books by Larson: The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and Dead Wake (which I featured on a Hound Day blog last year).
Excerpts from the book’s blurb:
NYT bestselling author Erik Larson “delivers a startlingly fresh 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 (30,000 of them Londoners) and destroying two million homes. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally – that she was willing to fight to the end.” This book “… shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people ‘the art of being fearless’.”
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“Drawing on a wealth of untapped sources, including recently declassified files, intelligence reports, and personal diaries only now available, 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 [children] … and the cadre of close advisors who comprised Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” including his dangerously observant private secretary, John Colville; newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook; and the Rasputin-like Federick Lindemann.”
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This was “…a time of true leadership, when – in the face of unrelenting horror – Churchill’s eloquence, strategic brilliance, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.”
[JLS # 518]