Home/Articles/Arts & Letters/Churchill’s Annus Mirabilis

Churchill’s Annus Mirabilis

One can overrate speeches but there is little doubt he captured the mood of the British public in his great addresses of 1940.

27th May 1954: Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874 - 1965) addressing a Women Conservatives meeting. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson, Crown, February 2020, 546 pages.

Books on Winston Churchill appear with amazing regularity. Two years ago, Andrew Roberts produced a superb and exhaustive 1100-page biography, Walking With Destiny. One would think that there is nothing more to say about Churchill after that monument. Erik Larson would take exception.

Author of the highly regarded, The Devil in theWhite City, Larson turned his attention to the first year of Churchill’s premiership, May 1940 to May 1941, the year when Great Britain came close to losing the war. As it turns out, 1940 would prove to be the supreme year of Churchill’s life when he led the nation in the greatest challenge in its history. Her only ally, France, was defeated in a matter of weeks in May-June 1940 and Britain faced the dangerous summer of 1940 expecting a German invasion.

Beating back the German air attack in the July-September 1940—what is known as the Battle of Britain where the Royal Air Force fought to keep control of the sky over England—the threat of invasion faded. But Britain was alone. For eight months, October 1940 to May 1941, she was exposed to the first sustained bombing campaign of the Second World War what the British called “The Blitz.” 

In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson brings home the terrible destruction that Britain suffered during the German bombing campaign. London was the main target for the Luftwaffe including the East End docks and the Houses of Parliament which were destroyed in a targeted raid on May 10, 1941. Bombs even fell on Buckingham Palace where the King and Queen were in residence.  

Larson points out that contrary to popular belief, the London Underground was not extensively used as a bomb shelter. Five percent of Londoners slept in the tube stations while 71 percent stayed in their homes. Despite the intensity of the bombing, according to Mass Observation, the government agency that monitored public opinion, the number one complaint of the public wasn’t the bombing as much as the enforcement of the blackout that inconvenienced every aspect of life especially in London.

According to Larson during the year of the Blitz the British experienced 100,000 casualties including 45,000 deaths. Those figures were grim for their time but do not compare the retribution the Germans would receive at the hands of Allied bombing. In an attack on Hamburg in July-August 1943, Allied bombing destroyed 6000 acres of the city, 300,000 homes and killed 44,600 people.

Larson concentrates on Churchill’s role during the year after he became Prime Minister in May 1940 because it proved crucial for Britain’s survival. But Larson’s approach is different. His isn’t your traditional military history of 1940, although there is considerable discussion of the conflict, especially the air war. Instead Larson weaves together personal thoughts and actions of some significant figures in the war—some not so significant—to paint a portrait of a nation struggling to survive.

Larson uses the letters and especially diaries of a handful of figures around Churchill to give life to the “splendid” side of the story of 1940, particularly those of Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary and those of Churchill’s daughter Mary. The “vile” side is mostly drawn from the diary of Dr. Josef Goebbels along with interviews with Herman Goring, overlord of the Luftwaffe, taken while he was a prisoner after the war.

Larson also devotes space to the exotic characters that Churchill liked to surround himself with particularly Lord Beaverbrook and “the Prof,” Frederick Lindemann. As he notes, Churchill always had a weakness for the rouges.

Beaverbrook is one of the key figures in the book, someone who Churchill believed was the kind of innovative genius that England needed in the crisis of 1940. He put Beaverbrook in charge of expanding aircraft production during the Battle of Britain, and behaving like an industrial pirate, he succeeded in dramatically producing planes. Britain had more planes, especially fighters, at the end of the Battle of Britain in September than she had when the conflict began in July.

Larson’s portrait of Churchill is in keeping with that of other students of the great man. He keeps Churchill’s eccentricity in focus to provide the human touch—his bizarre dress, pink silk underwear for instance, his siren suit, really a grown-up version of a child’s pajamas, his perpetual cigar. Churchill never rode in a bus, and only once traveled on the Underground where he got lost and had to be rescued.

He didn’t carry cash, hated whistling—something he shared with Hitler. Larson even provides us with the liquor order for Churchill’s retreat at Chequers—216 bottles of wine, brandy and champagne. Churchill liked to dine well and found drink a stimulant to good discussion. But as his secretary Jock Colville noted he never saw Churchill drunk. Churchill would tease his wife, Clementine, that he took more out of drink than drink took out of him. Throughout the book Larson demonstrates how hard Churchill worked even if he kept unusual hours—he rarely went to bed before 1 or 2 a.m.

Larson focuses on Churchill’s cultivation of Franklin Roosevelt in order to gain American aid for the British war effort. He recognized that he could not win the war, much less stay in it, without American help.  No suitor he remarked wooed a lady he way he wooed America. Roosevelt was sympathetic but was handicapped by the strong isolationist sentiment in the United States. Many Americans feared that Britain would sign some kind of peace treaty with Hitler to get out of the war.  That fear banished when the British attacked and sunk the fleet of their ally France on July 3, 1940 in the North African port of Mers el Kebir.  

Larson notes what an unparalleled step it was for Churchill to order an attack on an ally of just a few weeks earlier. Americans started to believe that Britain might survive after all and would not sue for peace. American aid started to flow, initially in September 1940 when the United States traded some old destroyers for bases in the New World. Later Roosevelt would launch Lend Lease to enable Britain to pay for its war material.

Churchill’s action at Mers el Kebir took immense courage, but it had positive consequences not just among the top levels of the American government. It also was a major step in winning the confidence of the House of Commons where Larson points out Churchill was still viewed with skepticism especially among his fellow Conservatives. When Churchill announced the action against the French the House of Commons rose and cheered. It was the beginning of his mastery of Parliament for the rest of the war.

Larson devotes considerable space to Churchill’s speeches during the crisis of 1940. Of his ‘Blood, tears and sweat’ speech three days after taking office, Larson notes that it was not well received in the House of Commons although the response among the public was overwhelming positive according to Mass Observation, the organization that monitored public opinion in the nation.

Larson believes that Churchill’s ‘Their finest hour’ speech of June 18, following the defeat in France and the withdrawal from Dunkirk marked the moment when he cemented his command on the House of Commons and public alike. Churchill began by saying that wars are not won by evacuations but resolved to fight on in a peroration that ranks with the great speeches of Lincoln or Pericles: “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands, but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.”

He ended with his call that if the British Empire and Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” Harold Nicolson, the journalist and MP, no mean judge of oratory, called it “the finest speech I have ever heard.”

One can overrate speeches but there is little doubt that Churchill captured the mood of the British public in his great addresses of 1940. Larson believes that in these speeches Churchill showed “a knack for making people feel loftier, stronger and above all more courageous.”

Larson’s book is not without its flaws. It is repetitious at times and has a lot of padding but is well-written and with his unusual approach of alternating the significant and the trivial, holds the reader’s attention throughout. For Churchill buffs it is a necessary addition to their library.

John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

leave a comment

Latest Articles