The Splendid and the Vile


I can confidently say that *The Splendid and the Vile* is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Drawing on an abundance of diary entries from Churchill’s daughter, one of his private secretaries, and the ocean of information previously published, Erik Larson paints a unique portrait of Churchill and what life was like during the Blitz; the likes of which, no matter how hard I try, I can’t begin to fathom what was like. In this book, one sees the love and care Churchill had for the British people. (And his more light-hearted sides, like welcoming FDR into his room at the White House while in the nude, like it was a quite normal thing for one to do.)

Many tears were shed and shivers felt while reading about life in war-torn London.


“If I had to spend my whole life with a man, I’d choose Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr. Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked.” – Nella Last, Mass Observationist

Churchill demanded his staff kept their memos to under one page and to ensure brevity. “it is slothful not to compress your thoughts,” he said.

Churchill made people feel “stronger, loftier, and, above all, more courageous,” Larson writes. John Martin, a private secretary for Churchill, said Churchill, “gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong.” Martin continued writing that Britons began to see themselves as “protagonists on a vaster scene as champions of a high and invincible cause, for which the stars in their courses were fighting.”

Inspector Thomas reported one evening that while he was dictating minutes to a secretary, a bat flew into the room after a window was cracked up. The secretary started going crazy, batting away at it and freaking out. “Surely you’re not afraid of a bat, are you?” Churchill asked. She was. “I’ll protect you,” he said. “Get to work.”

A country home, given to the government by Sir Arthur Lee in 1917, is where Churchill spent most of his weekends. However, Churchill often broke one of the rules which Lee dictated for his estate to be used, only for rest and renewal, no work. Lee writes, “Apart from these subtle influences, the better the health of our rulers, the more sanely will they rule and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods will, it is hoped, result in a real advantage to the nation as well as to its chosen leaders.

After hearing the news that the French were moving closer to capitulating, Churchill said to an aide, “Tell them…that if they let us have their fleet we shall never forget, but that if they surrender without consulting us we shall never forgive. We shall blacken their name for a thousand years!” A moment passed. Then he added, “Don’t, of course, do that just yet.”

After hearing about the bombing and sinking of the Lancastria, where over 4,000 lives were lost, Churchill barred the press from reporting it. “The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least,” he said. This didn’t go over well and the news couldn’t be hidden for long, especially since 2,500 survivors soon arrived in Britain. Eventually, The New York Times broke the story and the British public was quite upset. According to the Home Intelligence Agency, “The withholding of the news of the Lancastria is the subject of much adverse criticism. The blatant censorship led the public to imagine what other bad news was being hidden from them.

Germany’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, was a wizard. His crew did everything they could to disrupt morale in Britain. He wanted to set up Britain as the enemy, like they were the ones causing all the problems. He declared to his foreign-language transmitters that they “deliberately and systematically operate with slogans on the lines of ‘Nations of Europe: Britain is organizing your starvation!”

I thought this was an interesting reverse lesson on features vs. benefits. Instead of just saying, “Britain is causing the war,” they attacked where it hurt, where more people were experiencing it on a day-to-day basis: the food supply.

— — — — — — — — — — —

These secret transmitters were broadcasting from Germany with the illusion that they were English radio stations. Their goal was “to arouse alarm and fear among the British people.” To blend in, they’d start their broadcasts with unfavorable opinions about the Nazi party followed by grim reports of air death and injuries. The purpose of this was to instill fear in the British people so that when the German raids started on them, they’d already be in a mass panic.

Creating more drama, Goebbels instructed his transmitters to falsely report that the German army found hundreds of British uniforms left behind in Dunkirk and that the German army would wear the uniforms and parachute into Britain.

We all need someone to tell us when we’re wrong. For Churchill, his wife assumed that role.

“My Darling Winston,” she began a letter with, “I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.” She warned that though he was the most powerful man in the country, he must “combine urbanity, kindness, and if possible Olympic calm.” She continued, “I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you…You won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality–(Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)” She ended, “Please forgive your loving devoted and watchful Clemmie.”

This was the second time she wrote this letter. The first being the previous week, but with a note of caution and error of self-discernment, decided to toss that one in the bin. After more reports came the following week, she knew the time had come.

Lord Beaverbrook, in an effort to increase aircraft output and in a striking example of the competence he had, devised a brilliant plan. After the citizens of Jamaica, then a British colony, sent money for contributing to the building of a bomber, Beaverbrook ensured this act of unprompted kindness got widespread attention. Soon, more gifts arrived. He realized this could be used to generate cash, yes, but also boost the morale of the public and of the employees building the planes. He leaned into the donations, but never directly asked for them. Rather, Larson writes, “he made a deliberate show of acknowledging those that arrived. When donations reached a certain level, the contributors could choose to name a specific fighter; a richer total allowed the donors to name a bomber.” Eventually, the BBC gave recognition to the donors on its nightly broadcasts. In the beginning, Beaverbrook wrote a personal letter to each donor, but once this became impossible, for the sheer number of letters he would have to write, he chose the gifts most worthy of attention, but not based on the total given, based on the sacrifice of each. Larson writes, “A child giving up a few pence was as likely to get a letter as was a rich industrialist.” By May 1941, the donations received totaled about 13 million pounds ($832 million). Though that amount barely made a dent in the overall production of the actual output of planes didn’t matter at all. “To countless men and women,” his secretary, David Farrer wrote, “he made easy the way to a more personal interest in the war and to an enthusiastic contribution to its waging.”

In a “minute” titled Brevity, Churchill set out rules for his staff to follow regarding written memos. He began: “To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for essential points.”

What followed were four points for his staff to improve on with their reports:

  • First, reports should “set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.”
  • Any mention of complicated matters or statistical analysis should be included in an appendix.
  • The report should be able to be skimmed via only reading the headings, “which can be expanded orally if needed.”
  • Remove complicated prose, such as:
    • “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…”
    • “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”
  • He wrote, “Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is controversial.” He acknowledged that the change “may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of the officialese jargon. But the saving of time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking.”

After the first attacks on Britain, the RAF seemed to have beaten the Luftwaffe at their own game. After hearing the news of success, Churchill said to his entourage in the car, “Don’t speak to me; I have never been so moved.” After a few moments of silence, he said, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” The line was an instant hit. Later, Churchill would use it in one of his most famous speeches.

You can’t believe everything.

In preparation for the British to start publicizing atrocious stories about how the German raids had killed old people and pregnant women, he told his crew to counter these with pictures of children killed in a May 10, 1940 air raid in Freiburg, Germany. What Goebbels failed to mention, though, was that this air raid that killed twenty children was actually a German attack carried out in error for thinking it was the French city of Dijon.

Churchill kept a commonplace book. He called it his “Keep Handy” file. “it is curious,” John 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.” The realization came after Colville read a draft of one of Churchill’s upcoming speeches and realized he had heard bits and bobs of it before. Larson reports that, “Churchill tested ideas and phrases in the course of ordinary conversation.”

The Luftwaffe, catching on to the fact that when air raid sirens sounded in Britain, the airplane manufacturing factories stopped to take cover, routinely sent solo bombers of factories just to make them “cry wolf.”

A lesson in second-order thinking

“The wisdom of a 2-ounce tea ration is open to serious doubt,” Lindemann wrote to Churchill. “A large portion of the population consisting of the working class women who do all their own housework, and charwomen, rely exclusively on tea for a stimulant. It would be an understatement to call tea their principal luxury; it is their sole luxury.” His concern was for the second-order consequences of limiting one’s tea supply. “It is this class,” he warned, “which suffers most from the war. They meet the direct impact of high prices and scarcity. The blackout and, in certain cases, evacuation, impose further hardships. And they lack the compensation of new interests and adventures.” Tea was what kept morale high. If tea were to dwindle, well, so would morale. “If the whole of this class lost heart completely they might infect their menfolk and undermine morale, especially if intense bombardment added to their present troubles.”

Though this intercession had no overall effect on the tea ration, his thinking was clear and logical.

Olivia Cockett, for Mass-Observationist, defined well how the public was feeling about the looming danger of an imminent attack:

“I suppressed a horrid fantasy of fears on the lines of–sewer and water mains gone; gas gone; daren’t drink water (typhoid); then gas from cruising planes; and nowhere to go. Endless possibilities of horrors, difficult to dismiss during those listening hours in the night. My heart misses a beat whenever a car changes gear-up, or when someone runs, or walks very quickly, or suddenly stands still, or cocks their head on one side, or stares up at the sky, or says ‘Sshh!’ or whistles blow, or a door bags in the wind or a mosquito buzzes in the room. So taken all round my heart seems to miss more beats than it ticks!!”

Gauged by the Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department study of mail bound for America and Ireland, morale was highest in places that had been bombed the worst.

Alan Brooke, Commander in chief of Home Forces, noted in his diary how stressed he was, and the lack of solace he could seek in others made things worse. He wrote, “There was not a soul to whom one could disclose one’s inward anxieties without risking the calamitous effects of lack of confidence, demoralization, doubts, and all those insidious workings which undermine the power of resistance.” With everything that he had responsibility over, it all made “the prospect of the impending conflict a burden that was almost unbearable at times.”

This was just a beautiful piece of language used to describe the aftermath of dust in London after the first raid: “It was this dust that many Londoners remembered as being one of the most striking phenomena of this attack and of others that followed. As building erupted, thunderheads of pulverized brick, stone, plaster, and mortar billowed from eaves and attics, roofs and chimneys, hearths and furnaces–dust from the age of Cromwell, Dickens, and Victoria.

Len Jones, an eighteen-year-old, saw two heads sticking out from underneath some wreckage. “I recognized one head in particular; it was a Chinese man, Mr. Say, he had one eye closed, and then I began to realize that he was dead. When I saw the dead Chinese, I just convulsed and couldn’t get my breath. I was shaking completely. Then I thought well I must be dead, as they were, so I struck a match, and then tried to burn my finger, I kept doing this with a match to see if I was still alive. I could see, but I thought I cannot be alive, this is the end of the world.”

Visiting the East End after the attacks, people were dispirited, naturally, but happy to see Winston pay them a visit. Upon coming to a group of people, one woman shouted, “When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” “You leave that to me!” Churchill said with his fist shaking in the air. This caused the mood in the crowd to shift. A government employee, Samuel Battersby said, “Morale rose immediately. Everyone was satisfied and reassured. What could a Prime Minister at that time and in such desperate conditions say that was not pathetically inadequate–or even downright dangerous?” To him, Larson says, “it typified ‘the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill’–his ability to transform ‘the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory.’” That is leadership.

One thing that had infuriated Londoners during these night raids wasn’t just the bombings, it was the fact that the Luftwaffe could come and go as they wished. The fact that the RAF was essentially blind at night was one reason the Luftwaffe flew with ease, but not the only one. Aiding their continual raids was the orders for anti-aircraft guns to conserve ammunition and only fire when aircraft were seen overhead, which was rare at night. This fact upset many Londoners.

“On Churchill’s orders,” Larson writes, “more guns were brought to the city, boosting the total to nearly two hundred, from ninety-two.” Also, Churchill gave the orders to fire at will, disregarding the previous fact to conserve ammunition, even though Churchill very well knew anti-aircraft guns rarely did any damage to German bombers. “The impact on civic morale was striking and immediate,” Laron reports.

Though the constant shooting and bombing kept everyone up, private secretary John Martin wrote that “Tails are up and, after a 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.” The Home Intelligence reported the same, saying, “The dominating topic of conversation today is the anti-aircraft barrage of last night. This greatly stimulated morale: in public shelters, people cheered and conversation shows that the noise brought a shock of positive pleasure.”

  • *Lesson: What’s right for the people may not be what’s efficient or what looks best on paper. Yes, conserving ammo is important, but so is the overall morale. This was not something that seemed to be taken into effect during COVID, which I think resulted in a lot of upset people.

The public shelters were a terrible place to try and sleep, but not because of lack of care–well, kinda it was. But more so because the civil defense planners who made the shelters had not anticipated for air raids to happen at night. Before, bombers had to visually see the target, which was impossible at night. But with the advancements of radar, that fact was no longer true.

Churchill slept at 10 Downing Street. Much to the dismay of his wife, when the bombers came, Churchill climbed on the roof to watch.

During the raids, the simple things mattered. For a party for Mary Churchill, Winston’s daughter, Clementine, his wife, ordered a cake for her. “Mummie had ordered a lovely cake for me despite raids! How sweet she is!” Mary wrote in her diary.

Later that weekend, Mary reveled in the attention. She wrote: “How sweet everyone is in these terrible times to remember me being 18! I do appreciate it terribly.”

The sheer realization and “coming to terms with” attitude of the Londoners were surreal. Larson puts it well: “The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent. Safety was a product of luck alone. One young boy, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, a fireman or pilot or such, answered: ‘Alive.’”

The relentlessness caused people to feel strange ways. One diarist, after being missed by a bomb, wrote, “I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’, I kept saying to myself, over and over again–trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted. ‘I’ve been bombed!’…’I’ve been bombed–me!’ Never in my whole life have I ever experienced such pure and flawless happiness.”

One raid on September 27 damaged the city’s zoo and let loose a zebra. Residents saw a black-and-white specter tearing through the streets!

A joke had begun making its way around the more cynical Berlin crowd: ‘An airplane carrying Hitler, Göring and Goebbels crashes. All three are killed. Who is saved?” Answer: the German people

Lesson: Opinions mean nothing

While working from his room at 10 Downing, Churchill learned that two bombs had fallen adjacent to the house but failed to detonate (that was a common occurrence). “Will they do us any damage when they explode?” He asked Colville. “I shouldn’t think so, sir,” Colville replied. “Is that just your opinion, because if so it’s worth nothing,” Churchill roared back. “You have never seen an unexploded bomb go off. Go and ask for an official report.”

This, Laron writes, “reinforced for Colville the folly of offering opinions in Churchill’s presence, ‘if one has nothing with which to back them.’”

During the presidential election, Roosevelt’s opponent set out to cast him as a warmonger. But instead of just saying something like, “FDR likes war,” he went with, “Our boys will be off to Europe in five months. Your boy will be off to Europe in five months.”

Though he lost, it’s a good lesson in focusing on the features vs. the benefits.

“When your boy is dying on some battlefield in Europe and he’s crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’–don’t blame Roosevelt because he sent your boy to war–blame YOURSELF, because YOU sent FDR back to the White House!”

Lesson: Saying don’t do something just encourages people to do something. Streisand Effect

Goebbels, the propaganda minister, bemoaned the fact that more German people were listening to the BBC. He ordered radio offenders to be sentenced and said, “every German must be clear in his mind that listening to these broadcasts represents an act of serious sabotage.”

These orders did the opposite. According to an RAF intelligence report summarized from captured German airmen, “in the long run worked in the opposite sense to that which was intended; it produced an irresistible urge to listen to them.”

Coventry, “best known for its medieval cathedral and for hosting, according to legend, the drafty eleventh-century ride of Lady Godiva (and as a by-product, gave rise to the term, “Peeping Tom,” after a man named Thomas was said to defy an edict ordering citizens not to peek at the passing countess.” From Wikipedia: The name "Peeping Tom" for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend, in which a man named Thomas watched her ride and was struck blind or dead.

After a particularly brutal raid on Coventry, a quaint town, Churchill shed tears, “In these days, I often think of Our Lord.” That was all he could muster. “He sat down and looked at no one–” Larson writes, “the great orator made speechless by the weight of the day.” That’s a beautiful piece of language.

In the early days of the Blitz, America was hesitant to assist Britain. Churchill would write many letters seeking aid and reassurance, but there was a unique balance Churchill had to strike. Larson writes, “In writing the letter, Churchill once again had to find the right balance of confidence and need, as captured in the minutes of a meeting of his War Cabinet: ‘The Prime Minster said that if the picture was painted too darkly, elements in the United States would say that it was useless to help us, for such help would be wasted and thrown away. If too bright a picture was painted, then there might be a tendency to withhold assistance.’ The whole thing, Churchill grumbled, was a ‘bloody business.’”

Lesson: When asking for help, you can’t come off as too competent or not competent enough. There has to be a unique balance in life. When asking a mentor to take you under their wing, you must be proactive and do the work, but not too proactive for fear you may outshine them and they won’t want to aid in their own destruction. See: law 1 of power, don’t outshine the master.

Public shelters were a disaster. Liquid that shouldn’t be on the ground, was all over the place because there weren’t enough “latrines.” Some latrines were right next to other people’s beds! Most horribly, there were no provisions for making tea.

Clementine told Churchill she believed the problem was because too many agencies with overlapping authority were in charge of the shelters, resulting in nothing actually getting done. “The only way to get the matter straightened out is to have one authority for safety, health, and everything else, she wrote to the Prime Minister (carefully calling him his title and not Winston. “Division of authority is what is preventing improvement.”

Lord Beaverbrook resigned from his post as Air Minister (?) three times by the start of 1941. Each time, he got a bit more serious, yet each time, Winston was able to persuade him to stay on; Winston’s patience, however, was waning.

He wrote after this third resignation attempt: “My Dear Max, I am very sorry to receive your letter. Your resignation would be quite unjustified and would be regarded as desertion. It would in one day destroy all the reputation that you have gained and turn the gratitude and goodwill of millions of people to anger. It is a step you would regret all your life.”

Reputation takes a lifetime to gain and a second to lose.

During the war, the government invoked “double British summer time.” Though the clocks had not been turned back in the fall, they would still be sprung forward during the summer. This created two extra hours of daylight in the evening. These hours weren’t for more work to get done, though. Instead, it gave people more time to get home and settled before the blackouts began. Though helpful, it ensured the winter mornings would be quite long.

Churchill wooed FDR any chance he could get. When he sent to America a new ambassador, Churchill deliberately chose to send them on a new battleship, King George V. The reason was simple: Roosevelt loved ships and Churchill knew it. “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” Churchill said. His choice of King George V. was to, “clothe the arrival of our new Ambassador, Lord Halifax, in the United States with every circumstance of importance.”

Eventually, anyone and everyone would have to deal with the realities of bombs being dropped in London…no matter who they were. Mary Churchill, Winston’s daughter, experienced this early in 1942. After the club she and her friends were planning to go to was bombed, and nearly everyone inside killed or severely injured, she seemed to finally face the realities. Until then, Larson notes, “the guns, the crews manning them, and the distant sounds and flashes had all seemed very remote, outside the bounds of daily life.” “Somehow,” Mary wrote in her diary, “these last did not seem real–of course it is only a terrible dream or figment of the imagination. But now–it is real–the Café de Paris hit–many fatal and serious casualties. They were dancing and laughing just like us. They are gone now in a moment from all we know to the vast, infinite unknown.”

I love reading the diary entries. One realizes the human heart, mind, and feelings hasn’t changed too much since then. Mary, after meeting a find navy man, wrote in her diary: “Now–Mary–take a hold on yourself–my little plum.” After getting a letter from him asking her out to dinner, she penned: “Oh heaven.” The following Sunday, he called her. They spoke for twenty minutes. “He is v. charming I think & has a very beautiful voice,” she wrote. “Oh dear–have I fallen, or have I?”

Churchill was a playerrrr. Larson explains, “Harriman noticed that as Churchill moved along the crowds, he used ‘his trick’ of making direct eye contact with individuals. At one point, believing Churchill to be out of earshot, Harriman told Pug Ismay, ‘The Prime Minister seems popular with the middle-aged women.’ Churchill heard the remark. He whirled to face Harriman. ‘What did you say? Not only with the middle-aged women; with the young ones too.’”

Clementine gave Mary sound advice for marriage: “Don’t marry someone because they want to marry you–but because you want to marry them.”

A leader can’t give anything–courage or hope or perseverance–but they can bring it out in people. Churchill knew this. Diana Cooper, the wife of information officer Duff Cooper, told Churchill that the best thing he had done was give people courage. Churchill disagreed. “I never gave them courage,” he said. “I was able to focus theirs.