As one who lived through the war (as a hidden child in occupied Czechoslovakia) and a student of World War II, I thought I knew a great deal about the Battle of Britain–a time when Great Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Erik Larson’s terrific book proved me wrong. While many books have been written by and about the major players, especially those by and about the major player, Winston Churchill, Larson takes a unique approach.

He chooses the first year of Churchill’s term as Prime Minister, beginning in May 1940. During that time, Germany’s Luftwaffe conducted nearly sixty bombing raids, first hitting strategic military targets and eventually destroying nearly the entire city of Coventry and much of London, while killing thousands of innocent civilians. The author chooses to use as his primary sources the personal journals of Churchill’s family members and various men and women close to him, such as Lord Beaverbrook, John Colville, and Professor Lindemann to focus on the human aspects of the battle. From these, we learn about the love lives of young daughter Mary Churchill, daughter-in-law Pamela, and wayward son Randolph. Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, tells of the continuing struggle of the PM to woo President Franklin D. Roosevelt–the balancing act of trying to convince FDR of Britain’s desperate need for assistance without giving the impression that his country is about to lose the war. Larson even cites the journals of some of the Nazi leaders, as well one of their top air aces, such that we experience the Battle of Britain from the side of the aggressor as well.

Numbering just under 600 pages, I expected parts of the book to be a slog. No such problem! As in his other books, Larson manages to give a nonfiction book the pace and excitement of a novel. I recommend THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE as highly as is possible.

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