The Splendid and the Vile, by Eric Larson; and Destiny in the Desert, by Jonathan Dimbleby

Summary: Two somewhat contrasting views of Churchill as war leader

I know a lot of people have become passionate about The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson’s narrative of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. Drawing on accounts, such as private secretary Jock Colville’s diaries, the book seeks to paint a picture of both the private and the public man during this period when invasion seemed imminent.

Following Larson’s fascinating account of murder during the Chicago World Fair, Devil in the White City, I was warmly disposed to this book. I found it all a bit hagiographic though. Churchill is an interesting biographical subject because he is problematic. A racist and an imperialist contemptuous of the starvation of Indians during the 1943 Bengal famine, he nevertheless played a decisive role in the preservation of democracy in Europe. But Larson’s portrait of Churchill is one without the warts.

Dimbleby provides a much more balanced depiction of Churchill in his account of the north African campaigns. As with his later very fine book, The Battle of the Atlantic, Dimbleby pays lip service to Churchill’s genius. But, as with the fighting in the Atlantic, he shows that Churchill’s choices and decisions in the desert displayed a considerable operational fickleness in part influenced by geo-strategic and political considerations. Nevertheless, in both theatres one gets a very strong impression that Churchill had a tendency to get distracted with other enthusiasms and adventures before finishing the urgent task in hand. For example, he did not finish the conquest of Libya before peeling off troops from the North African armies in a forlorn effort to prevent Greece from falling into Axis hands. This then allowed Rommel’s entry to North Africa via Libya with all the bloody problems that that subsequently caused.

In other words, Churchill was often the author of the very problems that he said caused him sleepless nights. But he was forever adept at blaming others, and the desert generals were a rich source of scapegoats for him to pin the consequences of his own blundering on. Wavell carried the can for the failures in Libya. Auchinleck, in spite of brilliant success in first El Alamein, earned similar disfavour for refusing to launch a premature attack. Finally, Churchill settled upon the repulsive Montgomery who attacked on the very schedule that Churchill had sacked Auchinleck for advocating. 

Churchill used to say history would be kind to him as he planned to write it, which he did. But now there are other books available. So it is possible to obtain a more clear eyed, and interesting, view of the man than Larson manages.

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