During World War II, London suffered from heavy German bombing for months, but resisted. Erik Larson’s book “The Splendid and the Vil” recounts countless details of life in common and the governments of the day, in a style that resembles a fictional book.
Larson, American journalist, begins the story in May 1940, when Winston Churchill takes over as Prime Minister, France is on the verge of surrender and the United Kingdom expects a major air attack. Aerial bombardments are still new, and the country comes out testing defense techniques, such as setting up balloon barriers in the sky.
But the attack is slow to come. Meanwhile, Larson introduces the characters, both physically and psychologically, as if he’s placing pieces on a platter. It chronicles the routine of Churchill and his family, which includes a play son, and his employees, as a secretary who divides his thoughts between war and unrequited love.
There is also room for the routine of ordinary Londoners, the leaders of Nazi Germany and the United States under Franklin Roosevelt, who are still reluctant to get involved in the story.
In addition to the characters, the author goes on to explain the rules of the war game in 1940, in which trivial things today would be considered science fiction. Airplanes, for example, lacked GPS, and one of the biggest challenges for German pilots was finding targets to bomb.
On the English side, still rudimentary radars signaled the arrival of the enemy, but failed to locate the rivals. It was necessary to search with the naked eye, using a network of thousands of observers scattered around the islands.
And to avoid nighttime attacks, cities turned off almost all exterior lights at night, so enemy planes couldn’t see them from above. Even the red double-decker buses, which already existed, had to travel with the headlights off, in streets without lighting. Running and crashing has become a routine.
German attacks are slowly approaching London. When they arrive, we see their effects from different angles. Churchill prefers to climb onto the roof to see the scene live, when many are just trying to sleep to the sound of sirens, bombs and gunshots, trying to forget the risks.
We are in a pre-Hiroshima world, where there is no way for a single bomb to destroy an entire city instantly. At the same time, the Germans did not want to destroy London, but to force the government to surrender.
Thus, the bombardments continued for months, but the British capital tried to maintain the routine. Even the holidays continue and stories from Mary, Churchill’s daughter, guide us through some of them. A bullet, towards which she was heading, was destroyed by a well aimed bomb.
During this time, Churchill made his efforts, alternating military and diplomatic movements, to obtain the help of the United States and to maintain the morale of the British at the highest level. In Berlin, Hitler repeatedly postponed the invasion of the English Channel, while preparing to attack the Soviet Union.
The book continues over the months, until May 1941, and the attacks are part of daily life. Reading it in 2021, after almost a year of pandemic crisis, generates identification and, at the same time, relief to remember that even long-lasting tragedies one day end.