By Erik Larson, Crown, February 25, 2020, 0593172078
Erik Larson creates great stories from great history. Churchill and his family are great history. The Splendid and the Vile is an engaging book. I enjoy history books, which bring the characters and time period alive. I felt like I was there, living through the Blitz.
Larson brings in fascinating details about the people who surround Churchill and Hitler. Some of the detail is hard to take in, but that’s history for you. There were some nasty folks. Churchill’s entourage come off well in the book. I do wonder if Larson wasn’t skimping on the negative details. However, they are details, and England was defintely fighting to remain free against all odds. Churchill didn’t always play nice.
The book reads like a novel. It’s all true, which makes it even more interesting. I highly recommend it.
[k596] No detail was too small to draw his attention, even the phrasing and grammar that ministers used when writing their reports.
[k598] Churchill was particularly insistent that ministers compose memoranda with brevity and limit their length to one page or less. “It is slothful not to compress your thoughts,” he said.
[k637] One line stood out with particular clarity: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
[k641] John Colville, who despite his new assignment remained loyal to Chamberlain, dismissed it as “a brilliant little speech.” For the occasion, Colville chose to wear “a bright blue new suit from the Fifty-Shilling Tailors”–a large chain of shops that sold low-cost men’s clothing–“cheap and sensational looking, which I felt was appropriate to the new Government.”
[k786] 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.
[k790] Colville found this to be one of Churchill’s most endearing traits–“his complete absence of personal vanity.”
[k819] But now British strategists had to face the prospect of German fighters and bombers taking off from airfields along the French coast, just minutes from the English shore, and from bases in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway.
[k848] England’s aircraft plants operated on a prewar schedule that did not take into account the new reality of having a hostile force based just across the channel.
[k850] Shortages of parts and materials disrupted production.
[k851] Vital parts were stored in far-flung locations, jealously guarded by feudal officials reserving them for their own future needs.
With all this in mind, Churchill, on his first day as prime minister, created an entirely new ministry devoted solely to the production of fighters and bombers, the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
[k867] Despite later hagiography, Churchill did not and frankly could not manage the staggering pressure of directing the war by himself. He relied heavily on others, even if sometimes these others merely served as an audience on whom he could test his thoughts and plans. Beaverbrook could be counted on for candor at all times, and to deliver advice without regard for politics or personal feelings. Where Pug Ismay was a calming and cooling influence, Beaverbrook was gasoline.
[k924] British aircraft plants began turning out fighters at a rate that no one, least of all German intelligence, could have foreseen, and under circumstances that factory managers had never imagined.
[k963] ON THAT FRIDAY, MAY 24, Hitler made two decisions that would influence the duration and character of the coming war.
At noon, on the advice of a trusted senior general, Hitler ordered his armored divisions to halt their advance against the British Expeditionary Force.
[k973] That same Friday, further swayed by Goring’s belief in the near-magical power of his air force, Hitler issued Directive No. 13, one of a series of broad strategic orders he would issue throughout the war. “The task of the Air Force will be to break all enemy resistance on the part of the surrounded forces, to prevent the escape of the English forces across the Channel,” the directive read.
[k982] “When I talk with Goring, it’s like a bath in steel for me,” Hitler told Nazi architect Albert Speer. “I feel fresh afterward. The Reich Marshal has a stimulating way of presenting things.” Hitler did not feel this way toward his official deputy. “With Hess,” Hitler said, “every conversation becomes an unbearably tormenting strain. He always comes to me with unpleasant matters and won’t leave off.”
[k1014] To outside observers, Goring seemed to have a limited grip on sanity, but an American interrogator, General Carl Spaatz, would later write that Goring, “despite rumors to the contrary, is far from mentally deranged. In fact he must be considered a very ‘shrewd customer,’ a great actor and professional liar.”
[k1029] But Goring’s worst error, according to Galland, was hiring a friend, Beppo Schmid, to head the Luftwaffe’s intelligence arm, responsible for determining the day-to-day strength of the British air force–an appointment soon to have grave consequences. “Beppo Schmid,” Galland said, “was a complete wash-out as intelligence officer, the most important job of all.”
[k1171] When Churchill was in such a mood, it was usually the person nearest at hand who caught the brunt of it, and that person was often his loyal and long-suffering detective, Inspector Thompson.
[k1175] Churchill’s sniping at times disheartened Thompson, and made him feel a failure.
[k1176] It was also the case, however, that Churchill’s hostile moods faded quickly. He would never apologize, but he managed to communicate through other means that the storm had passed.
[k1278] While tooling around the countryside in the Prof’s Rolls-Royce (he had inherited great wealth upon the death of his father), they became aware of an undercurrent of bellicose nationalism. Alarmed, they began working together to collect as much information as possible about the rise of militarism in Hitler’s Germany, and to awaken Britain to the coming danger. Churchill’s home became a kind of intelligence center for amassing inside information about Germany. Lindemann felt a professional kinship with Churchill. He saw him as a man who should have been a scientist but had missed his vocation.
[k1390] But this was what Churchill wanted from Lindemann: to challenge the orthodox, the tried-and-true, and thereby spark greater efficiency.
[k1669] Beaverbrook never sent the nine-page letter. This change of heart was not unusual. He often dictated complaints and attacks, sometimes in multiple drafts, deciding later not to post them. In the personal papers he eventually left to the archives of Parliament, one big file contains unsent mail, a collection that steams with unvented bile.
[k1732] A onetime friend of Lindemann’s, Tizard had become estranged from the Prof, in large part because of the Prof’s virtuosity at nursing grudges.
[k1835] Until his appointment as prime minister, he had written columns for the Daily Mirror and News of the World and had done broadcasts for American radio, also for the money. But it had never been enough, and now he was nearing a financial crisis, unable to fully pay his taxes and routine bills, including those from his tailors, his wine supplier, and the shop that repaired his watch. (He had nicknamed his watch the “turnip.”) What’s more, he owed his bank–Lloyds–a lot of money. His account statement for Tuesday, June 18, had cited an overdraft amounting to over 5,000[pounds], equal to more than $300,000 in twenty-first-century American dollars.
[k1841] But that Friday of the beam meeting, a check in the amount of 5,000[pounds] mysteriously, and conveniently, turned up in his Lloyds account. The name on the deposited check was that of Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary, but the true source was Bracken’s wealthy co-owner of the Economist magazine, Sir Henry Strakosch.
[k1846] The Lloyds payment did not get Churchill out of debt entirely, but it removed the immediate risk of an embarrassing personal default.
[k2041] When he was nine years old, Clementine, during a school visit, slapped him, an act that Randolph later identified as the moment when he realized she hated him. He was an unremarkable student and drew frequent criticism from Churchill for his lack of scholarly rigor. Churchill condemned even his penmanship, and once returned the boy’s loving letter home with editorial corrections marked in red.
[k2760] Goaded by Goring and fortified by Schmid’s reports, the air force commanders gathered at Carinhall decided they would need only four days to destroy what remained of the RAF’s fighter and bomber operations.
[k2765] What Beppo Schmid’s reports depicted, however, was very different from what Luftwaffe pilots were experiencing in the air. “Goring refused to listen to his fighter commanders’ protests that such claims were not realistic,” Luftwaffe ace Galland later told an American interrogator.
[k2866] AMONG THE PILOTS TAKING part was Adolf Galland, who by now held a near-mythic reputation not only within the Luftwaffe but also among RAF pilots. Like Churchill, his signature was the cigar. He smoked Havanas, twenty a day, which he lit using a cigar lighter scavenged from a car, and was the only pilot authorized by Goring to smoke while in the cockpit. Hitler,
[k3122] They remained on the terrace, “in high spirits, elated by what we had seen,” Colville wrote. By his estimate, the battle lasted all of two minutes. Afterward, they played tennis.
[k3160] The prime minister also kept snippets of poems and biblical passages in a special “Keep Handy” file. “It is curious,” Colville wrote, “to see how, as it were, he fertilizes a phrase or a line of poetry for weeks and then gives birth to it in a speech.”
[k3249] The one universal balm for the trauma of war was tea. It was the thing that helped people cope. People made tea during air raids and after air raids, and on breaks between retrieving bodies from shattered buildings.
[k3287] Otherwise, the RAF relied on barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns guided by searchlights. The guns at this point were almost comically inaccurate. A study by the Air Ministry would soon find that only one enemy aircraft was downed for every six thousand shells fired.
[k3460] As one American officer put it, their hulls were barely thick enough “to keep out the water and small fish.”
For Churchill, however, the quality of the destroyers was to a large extent beside the point. As a navy man, he had to have known that the ships were too antique to be of much use. What mattered, rather, was that he had gotten Roosevelt’s attention, and perhaps nudged him a step closer to full involvement in the war.
[k3854] On Churchill’s orders, more guns were brought to the city, boosting the total to nearly two hundred, from ninety-two. More importantly, Churchill now directed their crews to fire with abandon, despite his knowing full well that guns only rarely brought down aircraft.
[k3861] The new cacophony had “an immense effect on people’s morale,” wrote private secretary John Martin. “Tails are up and, after the fifth sleepless night, everyone looks quite different this morning–cheerful and confident. It was a curious bit of mass psychology–the relief of hitting back.”
[k3894] It was the Prof, however, who persuaded Churchill that deep shelters that could house large numbers of people were necessary. “A very formidable discontent is now arising,” the Prof told him; people wanted “a safe and quiet night.”
[k3899] Many more Londoners–by one estimate, as many as 71 percent–just stayed in their homes, sometimes in their basements, often in their beds.
Churchill slept at 10 Downing Street. When the bombers came, much to the consternation of Clementine he climbed to the roof to watch.
[k4051] That the Luftwaffe had failed was clear to all, especially to Goring’s patron and master, Adolf Hitler.
[k4670] The house needed work, which the war repeatedly disrupted. Her curtain installer disappeared before completing the job.
[k4739] One Republican broadcast aimed at America’s mothers said, “When your boy is dying on some battlefield in Europe–or maybe in Martinique”–a Vichy French stronghold–“and he’s crying out, ‘Mother! Mother!’–don’t blame Franklin D. Roosevelt because he sent your boy to war–blame YOURSELF, because YOU sent Franklin D. Roosevelt back to the White House!”
[k4818] He promised that he and the British Empire would never give up until Hitler was beaten. “Good night, then,” he said. “Sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come.”
[k4825] In the Cabinet War Rooms, when the broadcast came to an end, there was silence. “Nobody moved,” translator Saint-Denis recalled. “We were deeply stirred. Then Churchill stood up; his eyes were full of tears.”
Churchill said, “We have made history tonight.”
IN BERLIN, A WEEK later, Goebbels began his morning meeting by bemoaning the fact that the German public appeared to be listening to the BBC “on an increasing scale.”
He ordered “heavy sentences for radio offenders” and told his propaganda lieutenants that “every German must be clear in his mind that listening in to these broadcasts represents an act of serious sabotage.”
[k4958] They would know they were over the target because previous electronic reconnaissance had shown that the beams disappeared directly above the transmitting stations. The RAF referred to this dead space as “the silent zone,” “the cut-out,” and, yes, “the cone of silence.”
[k5002] Churchill went to the Cabinet War Rooms to await the raid. He did many things well, but waiting was not one of them.
[k5072] A bomb had shattered a critical water main. An hour later, water at last began to flow, but with very low pressure, and soon that, too, waned to nothing.
[k5078] The rest of Coventry seemed to be on fire as well.
[k5083] All through the night, for eleven hours, the bombers came, and incendiaries and bombs fell.
[k5086] The bombs fell until 6:15 A.M.
[k5089] One news reporter observed glass “so thick that looking up the street it was as if it was covered with ice.”
[k5099] A sign went up outside the morgue, stating: “It is greatly regretted that the pressure at the mortuary is such that it is not possible for relatives to view any of the bodies.”
[k5145] This proved to be the case in New York, where the Herald Tribune described the bombing as an “insane” barbarity and proclaimed: “No means of defense which the United States can place in British hands should be withheld.”
[k5149] Goebbels called it an “exceptional success.” In his diary entry for Sunday, November 17, he wrote, “The reports from Coventry are horrendous. An entire city literally wiped out. The English are no longer pretending; all they can do now is wail. But they asked for it.” He saw nothing negative in the worldwide attention the attack had drawn, and in fact thought the raid could signal a turning point. “This affair has aroused the greatest attention all over the world. Our stock is on the rise again,” he wrote in his diary, on Monday, November 18. “The USA is succumbing to gloom, and the usual arrogant tone has disappeared from the London press. All we need is a few weeks of good weather. Then England could be dealt with.”
[k5161] IN ALL, THE COVENTRY RAID killed 568 civilians and seriously wounded another 865. Of the 509 bombers ultimately dispatched by G
ring to attack the city, some were deterred by anti-aircraft fire, others turned back for other reasons; 449 actually made it. Over eleven hours, Luftwaffe crews dropped 500 tons of high explosives and 29,000 incendiaries. The raid destroyed 2,294 buildings and damaged 45,704 more, such thorough devastation that it gave rise to a new word, "coventration," to describe the effect of massed air raids.
[k5372] HARRY HOPKINS GREW CURIOUS about Churchill. According to Sherwood, the eloquent power of the prime minister’s letter to Roosevelt sparked in Hopkins “a desire to get to know Churchill and to find out how much of him was mere grandiloquence and how much of him was hard fact.”
[k5390] What Churchill clearly knew from their long friendship was that Beaverbrook had a knack for, and delighted in, making people do what he wanted them to do.
[k5413] The attack on Coventry had shaken that city to the core, causing morale to falter.
[k5433] The blackout made the Christmas season even bleaker. Christmas lights were banned. Churches with windows that could not easily be darkened canceled their night services.
[k5517] CHURCHILL’S RESILIENCE CONTINUED TO PERPLEX German leaders. “When will that creature Churchill finally surrender?” wrote propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in his diary, after noting the latest Coventry-style attack against Southampton and the sinking of another fifty thousand tons of Allied shipping.
[k5876] In places, Churchill’s letter read more like the missive of a forsaken lover than a prime ministerial communication. “You have no right in the height of a war like this to put yr burdens on me,” he wrote.
[k5928] Hopkins was fifty years old, and now served as Roosevelt’s personal adviser.
[k5930] Roosevelt named him secretary of commerce in 1938, a post he held well into 1940 despite declining health. Surgery for stomach cancer had left him plagued by a mysterious suite of ailments that in September 1939 led his doctors to give him only a few weeks to live.
[k5939] At length, Churchill arrived. “A rotund–smiling–red-faced gentleman appeared–extended a fat but none the less convincing hand and wished me welcome to England,” Hopkins told Roosevelt.
[k5950] John Colville noted in his diary that Churchill and Hopkins “were so impressed with each other that their tete-a-tete did not break up till nearly 4:00.”
[k6029] At last Hopkins spoke. “Well, Mr. Prime Minister,” he began, in an exaggerated American drawl. “I don’t think the President will give a dam’ for all that.”
[k6033] Hopkins let his second pause linger. “You see,” he drawled, “we’re only interested in seeing that that Goddam sonofabitch Hitler gets licked.”
[k6039] Next came German newsreels, including one that featured the March 18, 1940, meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at the Brenner Pass, in the Alps between Austria and Italy, “which with all its salutes and its absurdity,” Colville wrote, “was funnier than anything Charlie Chaplin produced in The Great Dictator.”
[k6058] Hopkins emphasized the urgency of the moment. “This island needs our help now, Mr. President, with everything we can give them.”
[k6293] He told Hitler that his air force was on the verge of bringing about England’s collapse and surrender. “We’ve got England where we want her and now we have to stop.” Hitler replied: “Yes, I shall need your bombers for just three or four weeks, after that you can have them all back again.” Hitler promised that once the Russian campaign ended, all newly freed resources would be poured into the Luftwaffe. As one witness to the conversation reported, Hitler promised Goring that his air force would be “trebled, quadrupled, quintupled.”
[k6358] “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” – THAT WEEKEND KING GEORGE came to a new realization. In his diary he wrote, “I could not have a better Prime Minister.”
[k6431] Greig promised to set him up for the first stage of the RAF enlistment process, a medical “interview.” Colville was delighted. Whether he was aware of it or not, the life expectancy of a new member of a bomber crew was about two weeks.
[k6448] The goal, the directive said, “must be to induce Japan to take action in the Far East as soon as possible. This will tie down strong English forces and will divert the main effort of the United States of America to the Pacific.” Beyond this Germany had no particular interest in the Far East. “The common aim of strategy,” the directive stated, “must be represented as the swift conquest of England in order to keep America out of the war.”
[k6583] Mary could just make out the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft bursts and exploding bombs, which she described as “odd bumps and thuds above our chatter and the music.”
[k6611] AT THE GROSVENOR HOUSE HOTEL, Queen Charlotte’s ball continued without pause. Mary wrote: “It seemed so easy to forget–there in the light & warmth & music–the dark deserted streets–the barking of the guns–the hundreds of men & women ready at their posts–the bombs & death & blood.”
[k6623] NO ONE IN THE CLUB heard the detonation, but everyone saw it and felt it: a bright flash; an extraordinary flash; a blue flash. Then a choking cloud of dust and cordite, and coal-black darkness.
[k6643] AT LENGTH, THE DANCE at the Grosvenor House Hotel subsided and the all clear sounded; the basement ballroom began to empty. Mary, with her mother’s permission, set out with friends and several mothers (not Clementine) to continue the fun. They headed toward the Cafe de Paris. As the cars carrying Mary’s party neared the club, they found their approach blocked by bomb debris, ambulances, and fire engines. Air-raid wardens diverted traffic onto adjacent streets. Among Mary’s group, the pressing question became, If they couldn’t reach the Cafe de Paris, where then should they try instead?
[k6651] “But now–it is real–the Cafe de Paris hit–many fatal & serious casualties. They were dancing & laughing just like us. They are gone now in a moment from all we know to the vast, infinite unknown.”
[k6752] To help cover expenses and begin paying off the debt, Pamela sold her wedding presents, “including,” she said later, “some diamond earrings and a couple of nice bracelets.” In the midst of all this she lost her new pregnancy, and blamed the loss on the stress and turmoil in her life. She knew by this point that her marriage was over. She began to feel a new sense of freedom, helped too by the fact that soon, on March 20, 1941, she would celebrate her twenty-first birthday.
[k6824] “We are slowly choking England to death,” Goebbels wrote. “One day she will lie gasping on the ground.” None of this distracted Luftwaffe chief Goring from his pursuit of art. On Saturday, March 15, he oversaw delivery of a vast shipment of works seized in Paris and packed onto a train that comprised twenty-five baggage cars, transporting four thousand individual pieces ranging from paintings to tapestries to furniture.
[k6856] Commuters streamed from tube stations and double-decker buses, carrying briefcases, newspapers, and lunchboxes, but also gas masks and helmets.
[k6868] The blackout did make life easier for the pickpockets who frequented train stations and for the looters who plucked valuables from damaged homes and shops, but otherwise, bombs aside, the streets were fundamentally safe. Meiklejohn liked walking in the darkness. “Most impressive thing is the silence,” he wrote. “Almost everybody walks about like a ghost.”
[k6890] One of the first invitations to arrive, which Harriman received as soon as he got to London, came from David Niven, who at age thirty-one was already an accomplished actor, with film roles ranging from an uncredited slave in the 1934 film Cleopatra to the namesake star in 1939’s Raffles. Upon the outbreak of war, Niven had resolved to put his acting career on hold and rejoin the British Army, in which he had served previously, from 1929 to 1932. He now was assigned to a commando unit.
[k6940] Churchill and his helmeted entourage stayed on the roof for two hours. “All the while,” Biddle wrote, in a letter to President Roosevelt, “he received reports at various intervals from the different sections of the city hit by the bombs. It was intensely interesting.” Biddle was impressed by Churchill’s evident courage and energy.
[k6955] THERE WAS COURAGE; there was despair. On Friday, March 28, the writer Virginia Woolf, her depression worsened by the war and the destruction of both her house in Bloomsbury and her subsequent residence, composed a note to her husband, Leonard, and left it for him at their country home in East Sussex.
[k6980] The fact remained that Chequers was a clear and obvious target, well within the reach of German bombers and fighters.
[k7100] News arrived, too, of the toll wrought by Hitler’s Operation Retribution against Yugoslavia. Designed to send a message to any vassal state that sought to resist–and also, perhaps, to show Londoners what lay ahead for them–the aerial assault, which began on Palm Sunday, leveled the capital, Belgrade, and killed seventeen thousand civilians.
[k7347] Bombs fell; clothes were shed. As a friend later told Pamela’s biographer Sally Bedell Smith, “A big bombing raid is a very good way to get into bed with somebody.” –
[k7605] New guests arrived: Sarah Churchill, the Prof, and Churchill’s twenty-year-old niece, Clarissa Spencer-Churchill–“looking quite beautiful,” Colville noted. She was accompanied by Captain Alan Hillgarth, a raffishly handsome novelist and self-styled adventurer now serving as naval attache in Madrid, where he ran intelligence operations; some of these were engineered with the help of a lieutenant on his staff, Ian Fleming, who later credited Captain Hillgarth as being one of the inspirations for James Bond.
[k7623] “This evening Eric proposed to me,” Mary wrote in her diary. “I’m in a daze–I think I’ve said ‘yes’–but O dear God I’m in a muddle.”
[k8349] Mary, the country mouse, became an anti-aircraft gunner assigned to the heavy-gun battery in Hyde Park.
[k8353] John Colville recalled how one evening, when air-raid sirens began to sound, “the P.M. dashed off in his car to Hyde Park to see Mary’s battery at work.”
[k8385] COLVILLE DID NOT DIE in a fiery wreck after being shot to bits by an Me 109. He underwent his flight training and was assigned to a reconnaissance squadron flying American-made Mustangs, based in Funtington, adjacent to Stansted Park, where he contracted a case of impetigo.
[k8395] Colville flew forty sorties over the French coast, conducting photographic reconnaissance. “It was thrilling as we crossed the Channel to look down on a sea boiling with ships of all kinds heading for the landing beaches,” he wrote in his diary. “It was thrilling, too, to be part of a vast aerial armada, bombers and fighters thick as starlings at roosting-time, all flying southwards.” Three times he was nearly shot down. In a lengthy letter to Churchill, he described one incident in which an anti-aircraft shell tore a large hole through one wing. Churchill loved it.
[k8404] In 1947, Colville became private secretary to Princess Elizabeth, soon to be queen. The offer came as a surprise.
[k8407] Colville achieved a fame greater than any of his fellow private secretaries did when, in 1985, he published his diary, in edited form, under the title The Fringes of Power; the work became a touchstone for every scholar interested in the inner workings of 10 Downing Street under Churchill.
[k8413] In all, Beaverbrook offered his resignation fourteen times, the last in February 1942, when he was minister of supply. He resigned rather than take on a new post as minister of war production. This time Churchill did not object, doubtless to Clementine’s delight. Beaverbrook left two weeks later.