Book Review: The Splendid and the Vile

This is one of the best books I've read in years: amazing research, emotional and personal discussions, inside observations, and related history of a pivotal one-year period in Britain during World War II. At the end it was apparent that the UK probably could not have survived without a forced peace agreement with Hitler's Nazi German war machine, if the US had not massively intervened with incredible supply assistance. With only a one-front war against Russia, as well as Japan as an anchor-partner in crime in Asia, one can only imagine the course of the war without the US on Britain's side against Hitler's evil empire.

Numerous massive German bomber raids with fighter escorts were sent against the British. Numbers were breathtaking: 348 bombers and 617 fighters on one of the first ones. A second wave followed soon with 318 bombers and fighter coverage. The description of the British Operations Room with its huge map showing U boats and aircraft was vivid.

In the US, President Roosevelt attempted to skirt Congressional pressure to remain "neutral," although gradually increasing material support to the British. Hitler's plans to invade the British Isles (Operation Sea Lion) kept being prepared and delayed, until the Germans invaded Russia in what they thought would be a one to three month war. The Russian winter, vastness of the land, and Russian courage and manpower losses stymied the German army while the Russian army was encircled inside a ring, and finally they kept the Germans from breaking through and destroying what was left. This standoff drained the German army from both manpower and will on the Eastern Front. Coupled with this, with increasing American arms supplies along with their own breathtaking production volumes of aircraft, the British barely managed to withstand the brutal German air raids and massive bombing runs.

Any history such as this depends on real people, and Churchill stands out as a flawed but dogged leader, one who comes along only rarely. His leadership saved the British Isles during WW II, of which there is no doubt. However he could not have withstood the German pressure without the help of the US under FDR. Roosevelt's eyes and ears on the ground were based largely on a personal emissary, Harry Hopkins, who is described as a most unlikely hero and critical, trusted advisor to the American President.

Churchill's brilliance at oratory is displayed vividly, even in print form. I could not hold back my emotions, and tears at times. Churchill was the perfect "radio leader," and over the BBC as well as in person, he held the British people together.


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J.K. (Jim) George


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7 Responses

  1. JK James George
    From Anon-1: When I was a student at University in Britain from Sept of 1962 to mid-June of 1963 taking mainly English Lit courses many of the Brit students that I met had a real dislike of Germany (although I have to admit they were not crazy about a lot of countries on the continent especially the French) but I remember when traveling with 2 Brits on the continent and in Germany many times when seeing a man say in his mid 40's to mid 50's or so would say I wonder what he was doing doing during World War II One interesting thing that a lot of the students surmised was that in the next 20 or so years, after I was there, that Germany would pass Great Britain economically whereas many old factories in Britain were not totally destroyed and had powerful trade unions Germany was so destroyed and had to be rebuilt anew. That spring when eight of us when to this rock and roll show headlined by this group called the Beatles I joked don't despair, you Brits might yet. conquer the world!
  2. JK James George
    From Anon-2: Thanks, Jim for your tip on the book The Splendid and the Vile! Will see if we can reserve it on line from our local library.
  3. JK James George
    From Anon-3: This one is amazing! Your enthusiasm for this book shines through with such excitement one can’t help but be impressed and touched. The reverent way you spoke about Churchill made me yearn for such a leader. As you said, “flawed yet a dogged leader,“ determined in his quest to help protect his people and also inspire them. Your comments were absolutely “splendid!” I’ve never felt a leader had to be perfect as long as their integrity was stronger than their flaws. It’s what makes us human and humble. It’s also what scares me about what is lacking in our leaders today.
  4. JK James George
    From Anon-4: Hi Jim, I enjoyed your review of the Splendid and the Vile. It was a great book, and like you, I was quite emotional reading about Churchill's resolve and oratory. My wife got invited to a "future of Internet" workshop at Ditchley Park, an estate in England by none other than Vinton Cerf. (I wrote a paper once with one of Vint's most prolific grad students on network interconnection back in the late 70s/early 80s.) Ditchley is now used for think-tanks but Churchill went there on weekends during the war when it was deemed too dangerous to go to Chequers or Checkers or whatever his country house was called. Apparently Vint and his wife were staying in the room Churchill used, and invited her to take a look. She got talking to an elderly butler who was there during the war and gave her a little tour of the areas where Churchill held forth, probably in some of those get-togethers described in the Splendid and the Vile. It made the book even more "real" for me. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page on Ditchley: And if you watch Downton Abbey, at the beginning of the last season they go to an auction at an estate which is no longer financially viable, so the service staff were all being let go, which was a scary thing for the family at Downton and their staff. Ditchley was used for the inside or outside of the house going under, I forget which.
  5. JK James George
    From Anon-5, May have to give this a read. My pop was a B-17 pilot beginning of war before the Allies had air superiority (flew the Swinehart raid). Sounds interesting.
  6. JK James George
    From Anon-6: That was indeed a splendid book. I’ve read everything by Erik Larson since “Isaac’s Storm”, he’s a favorite of mine. Try “Thunderstruck” starring Marconi!
  7. JK James George
    From Anon-7: I agree that this is an excellent book extremely well written with a great deal of research behind it. One can feel the pressures closing in on Churchill as his options continue to shrink. I would add that the book also shows a surprising human side of Churchill when it comes to his family. I would recommend strongly “Thunderstruck”, also by Erik Larsen. For those interested in the development of wireless and the science of that time, this is a splendid story of how a technology can win against better technology without being the best but mainly by the sheer power of the personality behind it. I will now certainly go back to the well and read some more of Mr. Larson’s writings. It is not often that an author can inform as well as Larson does while being totally entertaining at the same time.

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