How Winston Churchill Pulled Britain Through The Early Years Of WWII In The Splendid And The Vile, author Erik Larson details the British prime minister's first year in office, during which England endured a Nazi bombing campaign that killed more than 44,000 civilians.
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How Winston Churchill Pulled Britain Through The Early Years Of WWII

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How Winston Churchill Pulled Britain Through The Early Years Of WWII

How Winston Churchill Pulled Britain Through The Early Years Of WWII

How Winston Churchill Pulled Britain Through The Early Years Of WWII

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/823830284/823950800" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In The Splendid And The Vile, author Erik Larson details the British prime minister's first year in office, during which England endured a Nazi bombing campaign that killed more than 44,000 civilians.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in today for Terry Gross. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, Americans and citizens of many countries are getting a new look at their national leaders, evaluating their performance in a moment of crisis. Our guest today, author Erik Larson, has a new book about one of the most renowned leaders of the 20th century, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and his leadership during some of the darkest hours of World War II.

Larson's book focuses on Churchill's first year in office from May of 1940 to May of 1941, a time when France had fallen to the Nazis, the United States had not yet entered the war and Hitler was determined to break the will of the British people with a ferocious bombing campaign that killed more than 44,000 civilians. Erik Larson has written seven previous books. His new book is "The Splendid And The Vile: A Saga Of Churchill, Family, And Defiance During The Blitz." Like Terry, I'm working from home these days. I spoke to Larson via Skype.

Well, Erik Larson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ERIK LARSON: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: This is a story about a leader at a time of national crisis. And I just wonder if, as you've seen the coronavirus pandemic unfold and we've all watched our leaders try to handle it, you thought about Churchill and insights you might have gleaned into. What makes an effective leader in a time of crisis?

LARSON: Yes, absolutely. I don't want to emphasize the parallels too much between what Churchill confronted at the time and what we're confronting now. I think a lot, actually, about how Churchill might have confronted this situation that we're in now - very differently than what we've seen thus far, honestly. And I'm really startled, actually, at the lack of competent, wise national leadership, but maybe it'll come. I certainly hope so.

But when I think about Churchill and I think about how he would've negotiated the situation - he understood the power, first of all, of symbolic acts. He understood the importance of being and seeming brave and wise and so forth. But above all, he was particularly good at - obviously, at delivering speeches. And I'm not just saying in terms of being able to craft a terrific line. Of course, we all know that. But when you look at his speeches, there is a structure that really works very well, I think, in a time of crisis like ours.

What Churchill would do is he would - first of all, he would begin with an assessment, a sober assessment, of what the - of the reality of the threat. And he would not sugarcoat. He would state as frankly as he could what was actually happening. But then he would come back. He would follow with cause for optimism - rational, realistic cause for optimism - not happy talk, but a real, rational appraisal. And then he would end his speeches invariably with a rhetorical flourish that would metaphorically - or, perhaps, even literally - metaphorically, though, bring listeners out of their seats just feeling like they, too, were emboldened and they were ready to do whatever was next. That's leadership.

DAVIES: We'll talk more about that as we go through this. Let's talk about Churchill's experience. He became prime minister in May of 1940. What circumstances led to him being named prime minister then?

LARSON: Yeah. He became prime minister on May 10, 1940. He was, at the time, actually, perceived to be by many to be an unwelcome candidate for the job. He was deemed to be somewhat erratic and full of energy directed in all directions, as one of his ministers said. But there had been a revolt, a parliamentary revolt, in which Chamberlain was essentially thrown out of office. It was made clear that he was not the man for the coming conflicts.

DAVIES: That's Neville Chamberlain, who had led the country during...

LARSON: That was Neville Chamberlain, yes. Yeah. He was...

DAVIES: Known for having appeased some of Hitler's moves in Europe. Yeah.

LARSON: Yeah. He was confronted during - well, he was ardently opposed in several days preceding the - preceding Churchill's appointment as prime minister. And, in fact, in one speech, one of his antagonists, if you will, quoted Cromwell and said, for God's sakes, go (laughter). That was as clear a signal as any, I suppose. But Churchill becomes, then, prime minister on May 10, 1940.

For Churchill, it's important to note, this was the thing that he had lived for his life. I mean, this was what he sought throughout his career. And honestly, the fact that it happened on May 10, 1940, a day when Hitler invaded the Low Countries and the real intense war that we know as World War II began, he didn't mind that at all. He loved the fact that now he had the reins. He was in control.

DAVIES: Right. The country had been at war since the previous September, when Germany invaded Poland. And the Nazi army had swept through much of France and then attacked the Netherlands. What was the state of the British armed forces at the time and its position on the battlefield?

LARSON: After the invasion of the Low Countries, Germany turned its attention to France and, through a series of surprise maneuvers, basically caught the allies off guard. The British were under severe attack by the Germans, by the Nazi forces, especially by their armored elements and were being forced to - actually, to retreat and to, ultimately, of course - the famous Dunkirk evacuation - to flee France.

DAVIES: You know, I've covered politics and government for most of my career as a reporter and covered a lot of governors and mayors. And it's made me think a lot about the characteristics of leadership, and there are a lot of them. You know, one thing that makes a good leader is to be an effective speaker. Charisma really matters in inspiring your citizens to higher goals. But you also have to effectively run a government. And one thing a leader needs - and this is easy to overlook - is a really serious work ethic and stamina. You have to immerse yourself in a lot of important detail. What did you learn about the pace of Churchill's activity, say, as compared to his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain?

LARSON: Well, Chamberlain was a very staid, kind of a very grey leader, if you will. In fact, his nicknames were The Coroner and The Old Umbrella. Churchill was a very different kind of character. He was described by one minister as the - with some misgiving, as the rogue elephant.

But one thing that did split - that very, very much marked Churchill's administration as prime minister was precisely his work ethic. The man loved to work. He would get up not super early, but around 8 or 8:30. He'd work from bed, smoking a cigar or whatever, and then, you know, proceed to the Cabinet meetings and so forth, then lunch. You know, lunch, you know, typically involved a fair amount of alcohol and excellent conversation. He would have a couple of naps during the day, but then he would work well into the night until, like, as late as 2, 3 o'clock in the morning, much to the chagrin of his private secretaries and his staff, who were just dying to have an early night with this man. But, yes, he just loved work. He worked all the time.

And Churchill had this real willingness to dive into the weeds and to explore even the most detailed elements of government or what was going on at the time. And so he would send off these memoranda or minutes, as they were called, to his ministers directly - not with any intermediary, not via some secretary. He would send them directly and would explore these minute points. And this had the very interesting effect of putting these ministers on guard because suddenly, the bureaucratic piece of their ministries was being completely upended by this man who clearly had an interest in everything they were doing down to the basic nuts and bolts of their operation. And this really made people stand up and pay attention to what they were doing themselves and really put them on the mark.

DAVIES: So things were going badly in France. English troops would soon be evacuated from the town of Dunkirk. It was a dark time for the British forces. The United States was not in the war. They were prepared to take on Germany alone at this point. Churchill knew that he would have to defend against a German attack either from the air or possibly from the sea, an invasion. What role did he see for the Royal Air Force in the defense of the country, and what was the state of the air force?

LARSON: Well, what's very important to recognize, to understand, is that the fall of France was a huge thing in terms of British strategy. The idea that France would fall had never been conceived, had never been thought of as a possibility by British strategists. Now, suddenly, France had fallen, and the Luftwaffe was able to set up bases on the French coast minutes from Britain. Previous strategy held that this was going to be impossible because the Germans would have to fly all the way from Germany, would not have the fuel capacity for their fighters. If they didn't have the fuel capacity for their fighters, they couldn't send their bombers because they would be sitting ducks in the air.

But Churchill recognized very early on that the fighters were going to be all important because the only way Hitler could launch an invasion across the channel, which is the only way it could be done, was if the Luftwaffe first achieved air superiority. So the top goal of Churchill was to deny air superiority to the Luftwaffe. The only way to do that was through the production and through the effective coordination of fighter aircraft.

DAVIES: Erik Larson's book is "The Splendid And The Vile." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY JAZZ REPERTORY ORCHESTRA'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with author Erik Larson. He has a new book about the leadership and the family life of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his first year in office, when Nazi Germany waged a bombing campaign that killed more than 44,000 civilians. Larson's book is "The Splendid And The Vile."

So the German air war begins with a lot of attacks during the daytime, in which the Royal Air Force, the British air force, fighters were pretty effective in knocking down a lot of the aircraft of the German air force, the Luftwaffe. This also presented...

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Kind of a show for British citizens. They actually watched a lot of this happen - right? - in the sky.

LARSON: Oh, this is one of the fascinating things to me. I mean, there are accounts of people who - I mean, try to picture this. You know, in one case, there was a - I believe this was Virginia Cowles, who is a writer who was lying in the grass on a cliff at Dover on a beautiful, sunny day. The channel was sparkling below. I mean, it just could be any lovely summer day. And high up above, there is this pitch life-or-death battle between Germans fighters and British fighters. And the novelty of the - seeing these - seeing the spiraling contrails high up in the sky, watching occasionally as one of these things would just, you know, disappear in a blur of smoke and the plane would, you know, crash into the sea was just such an anomalous thing. There you are, you know, essentially picnicking on a clifftop, as she says, you know, watching this battle that could determine the fate of civilizations.

DAVIES: When the Germans went to night bombing, how did that change the equation? How did it affect the approaches of the German bombers, the German fighters and the British air defenses?

LARSON: First of all, the Germans switched to night bombing because when they attacked by day with their bombers, the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes were very effective at knocking them down. Bombers were quite slow relative to the speed of the fighters. In particular, the Germans were startled to find that one of their aircraft - the so-called Stuka dive bomber, which had been this fearsome weapon in land campaigns - had proven to be uniquely vulnerable to attack by these young and very well-trained and dynamic British pilots.

So they had to give up daytime bombing and went to nighttime bombing. The effect of this was to - first of all, at night, they no longer needed fighter protection because the RAF was essentially, effectively night blind. The Spitfires and Hurricanes - the pilots had no way of effectively locating these bombers in darkness. They had a rough idea because Britain, of course, had established this wonderful, prescient radar system. But this was only effective to a point because by the time the messages got to the control centers about where these planes were, the planes obviously had moved on to different locations.

So the visual sighting of aircraft was a very important part of how the RAF dealt with bombers and also with fighters. At night, this visual aspect was removed. So the bombers were now essentially free to fly over the British Isles at will, and this was very important. Another aspect was that, because now they were free to fly over the British Isles, because they no longer needed fighter escorts - the fighters had very, very short operational stamina, essentially 90 minutes. Now the bombers could stay up for far, far longer. So this very much changed the dynamic.

DAVIES: Right - and made the British industries and public more vulnerable. You note that Hitler, for several months, declined to bomb London because he was still hoping to convince Churchill to see reason and negotiate a peace treaty. Churchill was insisting he would take the fight to Germany. He had his bombers bomb Berlin.

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: And that kind of changed things, didn't it?

LARSON: One key element before this, before it became the - before Germany began its first deliberate bombing attacks on London was it was a mistake that the Luftwaffe made on August 24, 1940, when a group of German bombers thought they were over their target. They were not. They were over central London. They dropped their bombs. And this was the first attack on central London. And it was terrifying to the citizens of London who had felt that, for whatever reason, they were not - this was not going - they were not going to be the subject of attack, you know, by Hitler.

This gave Churchill what he would describe as the moral right, then, to turn around and bomb Germany. The RAF was in - bomb Berlin, rather. The RAF was a little bit reluctant to do that as well because of the moral consequences, so they'd have to weigh it, like, and so forth. So now suddenly, you have this rapid escalation that leads to, on September 7, 1940, the first deliberate mass intense bombing of the city of London.

DAVIES: So let's talk about these raids on London in some detail. How big were they? How many planes would be involved? What kind of bombs were dropped?

LARSON: Hundreds of planes were involved. You know, when I was (laughter)...

DAVIES: In a single raid, you mean. Yeah.

LARSON: Yeah, absolutely, in a single said. I mean, up to a thousand planes with bombers would be dispatched from bases along the French coast, not all necessarily arriving at the same time, but these were tremendous, tremendous raids. And when I was doing the research for this book, I would stay for part of the time in London. And I remember standing before my hotel window just looking out at dusk one night and trying to imagine what this would have been like. So on a beautiful blue night, you know, at dusk, you suddenly see these hundreds of bombers coming over the horizon, how terrifying that must have been.

So the first raid that begins on September 7, 1940, the bombers arrive at - as I point out, at teatime. This was a day when, otherwise, Londoners went about their business in a very normal way. It was a hot day for London, which is rare, hot and sunny - temperatures up about 90 degrees. The stores in Piccadilly were packed. People were just living their lives. And suddenly, the air raid sirens sound. Now, this by itself, believe it or not, was not a particularly terrifying thing because air raid sirens were sounding all the time - not all the time, but on sort of a regular basis. But now the alarms began to sound. This is in the afternoon of September 7, 1940. And, you know, the first inclination was to say, OK, these must be just another false alarm.

This time, however, incendiary bombs began to fall. These were typically the first things that the Luftwaffe would drop. These were meant to set fire to structures so that once the structures began to burn and as night fell, these structures would serve as beacons for bombers to follow because, you know, navigation at night was still a problem for the German bombers. They could fly at night readily, but getting to a target, at least in the initial phase of the Blitz, required either moonlight - which was a very important thing; the moon was referred to as the bombers' moon - or what also help us to have these, you know, structures on fire because they guided the bombers to the target.

So suddenly, these incendiaries are falling. Next come the high explosive bombs. And the Germans deployed a variety of weapons from smallish high explosive bombs to giant 4,000-pound bombs that the Germans nicknamed Satan. These bombs began to fall on the city of London in September 7, 1940. And, you know, for Londoners, life as they knew it changed utterly.

DAVIES: Right. One of the little details is that, you know, we hear the whistling sound that bombs would make as they fall. That's not a normal thing for the bombs. That was added to make them more terrifying, right?

LARSON: Yeah, the Germans - and then, eventually, also the British - added what's referred to as the sort of the Jericho trumpet, a device attached to bombs to make them howl as they fell, which was believed to amplify the terror effect. Similar thing was done, by the way, to the Stuka bombers to make them scream as they entered their dives, which was to - believed to enhance the terror of those on the ground.

DAVIES: Right. And you mentioned this, but when people saw a full moon coming, that was even more terrifying, right?

LARSON: Yes. I mean, the full moon was - the nights when there was a full moon, these were deemed to be the nights when air raids were most likely to occur because moonlight was very effective in lighting targets below. On nights when there was a full moon, you know, the so-called bombers' moon, that's when people most feared what would happen and were pretty much assured that there would be a raid.

DAVIES: Erik Larson's new book is "The Splendid And The Vile." After a break, we'll talk more about Winston Churchill's leadership during the German bombing campaign and some of the ways he inspired citizens and sustained their morale. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book from Emily St. John Mandel, which she says is disturbing but ultimately affirming. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "LONDONDARRY AIR")

DAVIES: I'm Dave Davies filling in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with author Erik Larson. He has a new book about a national leader in a time of crisis. It focuses on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's first year in office, when his country was fighting virtually alone against Nazi Germany and the German Air Force waged a deadly bombing campaign against British cities. Larson's book is "The Splendid And The Vile."

So these bombings inflicted enormous damage to buildings and people, killed thousands. How did the citizens prepare? How did they respond?

LARSON: At first, there was obviously a good deal of terror. People flocked to shelters. A lot of people had actually built already shelters in their backyards that were referred to as Anderson shelters. These were essentially enclosures that would be buried and that were deemed to be pretty effective against all but a direct hit. But over time, as the raids became - you know, I mean, we're talking here the first phase of blitzes, 57 consecutive nights of bombing, if you can believe it. Over time, a kind of - I won't say a weariness, but sort of a resilience seemed to come into the population.

Now, many Londoners left, but many more stayed. And at first, you know, they would flock to the (inaudible) and so forth. But over time, remarkably, many decided, you know, it's up to fate to determine what's going to happen to me tonight; so I'm just sleeping in my bed, or I'm going down to my basement, or I'm going to be in my living room. It is a myth that most Londoners flocked to the tube stops. They did not. A relatively small percentage of Londoners did so. The rest stayed - typically, stayed home.

And you know, there was a fundamental fatal calculus at work here, and that was that on any given night during a raid, you could not point to a particular individual and say that person is going to die tonight, but what you could say, with 100% accuracy, is that someone would die that night, that dozens would die that night. And this was a very sort of strange kind of thing to think about because what it meant is that you were just as likely as the next guy to be killed that night. There was nothing you could do about it.

DAVIES: What did Churchill do during the raids?

LARSON: Well, Churchill (laughter) - this was one of the things that I also found just so endearing. Churchill loved war. He'd rather be at the center of it than not. When air raids occurred, he was often to be seen on the nearest rooftop watching the raid unfold, when prudence might have suggested that he be elsewhere. There's one raid that I found particularly striking in this respect - and again, this is part, by the way, of what made him such a tremendous leader, is that he understood the power of symbolic acts. He understood the power of seeming to be courageous, that courage is infectious; it really is.

And so Churchill would be very likely to go up to the nearest rooftop to watch the raid unfold. And for one of these raids - you know, he also brought guests, and he brought staff. I mean, this is the kind of guy he was. So on one of these raids, during one particularly intense raid, he brings some guests up to the rooftop, and they're watching this raid unfold. And this is the kind of guy Churchill was. In the midst of this raid, he quotes Tennyson. He quotes Tennyson, a poem "Locksley Hall," which is considered by many to be sort of - to have foretold of the eventual - of the advent of air warfare. So he's quoting Tennyson on this rooftop during this raid, when other people would ordinarily be, you know, cowering in their shelters. That's a rare individual.

DAVIES: You note that the British Royal Air Force was actually pretty ineffective in doing anything about these night German bombing raids. I mean, they really couldn't see them to attack the invading aircraft. I mean, there were anti-aircraft batteries on the ground, but they really couldn't see much to hit anyway. But there's an important decision that Churchill made about how often they would fire, and this is - again, goes to, I think, the value of symbolic actions. Do you want to explain this?

LARSON: Oh, very much so. So the Blitz begins on September 7, 1940. And there are several nights of raids, where one thing that is really striking to the populace of London is that there doesn't seem to be any response by the city's anti-aircraft guns, and this is infuriating. It's like, why are we letting the Nazis, you know, have full access to the skies over London? Why aren't we doing something about it? And the reason was that the - in order to conserve ammunition, these anti-aircraft batteries were under instructions to, really, you know, essentially, not fire till you see the whites of their eyes. You know, don't fire until there is a clear target overhead to fire at. So a lot of these guns remained quiescent during these raids.

But Churchill recognized that this was a problem. So he issues the order that says that henceforth - I think it was September 11 when this began, ironically - he said, henceforth, the guns could fire - were to fire at will, just fire. And sure enough, they did, and this had an amazingly heartening effect on the populace of London. It just thrilled them and cheered them.

DAVIES: In 1940, the idea of a bombing campaign to terrorize and demoralize citizens was a relatively new thing. I mean, there'd been one case of it during the Spanish Civil War. But this was something kind of new. And Hitler and Hermann Goring, the head of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, continued to be astounded that the British public was taking this and Churchill wasn't giving in. And then they expanded the attacks beyond London to some other industrial cities, like Coventry and Bristol. Tell us about what that was like for those towns.

LARSON: Yeah. You know, the raid against Coventry in November of 1940 was a particularly significant raid because the Luftwaffe massed an immense force of aircraft with the idea of obliterating the city of Coventry and, actually, very much succeeded in that act, so much so that afterwards, both on the German side and the British side, Coventry was kind of the gold standard, if you will. The British referred to coventrification. A measure of the effectiveness of a raid was, was it one Coventry, two Coventrys, three Coventrys? So that was a real jarring and amazingly effective - from the German point of view - German raid.

One of the most interesting was what happened in Bristol, England. This is in 1941. Churchill was on his way to Bristol to award honorary degrees as nominal chancellor of Bristol University. And he had his whole entourage with him, various officials in his special train, and they were on their way to Bristol. They paused on a sighting outside the city, happily, because that night a tremendous raid struck the city of Bristol. And as they arrived in town the next morning, you know, the city was aflame at that point. But Churchill goes on and goes ahead with his plans to, you know, award these degrees - arrives at Bristol University. Buildings literally next door to the space in which they're holding the degree ceremony - building next door are on fire. People who - people arrive in the audience who have clearly been up all night fighting fires, digging bodies out of destroyed buildings and so forth.

There in the audience, up on the dais with him are men who have - their clothing is wet and sooty and so forth. But they're still wearing their robes. And this degree ceremony, it still goes on. Afterwards, Churchill gives this wonderful, extemporaneous speech just about the courage of Bristol residents. And it was really, I think, a very amazing and very moving moment, especially for Mary, who just...

DAVIES: His daughter, yeah.

LARSON: Mary, his daughter, yeah - Mary, who just felt her love for her father just become so much more amplified even in that moment.

DAVIES: It is interesting because, you know, Churchill was an inspirational speaker before Parliament and on the radio. But you also say that these visits to bombed-out neighbourhoods in London and the cities throughout the British Islands were also - had an inspirational effect, which is, you know - it can be tricky for an elected leader to go to an area where people have lost their livelihoods and their loved ones and are utterly shattered and shell-shocked. And they see this politician coming in with a nice car and an entourage. It can rub people the wrong way. How did he manage to make it inspirational?

LARSON: Well, you know, this is something that - after that first raid on September 7, 1940, the next day, Churchill went to the very heavily bombed dock district at the East End with an entourage. And one member, Gen. Hastings Ismay - nicknamed Pug because he looked like a pug - Ismay recounts how when they arrived in the East End, he, Ismay, was very concerned that there would be a negative reaction to Churchill arriving after this horrible event, that there might be a lot of recrimination. Like, why were you not able to save us from this thing?

For one reason or another, that was not the case. As they quickly found, the public was - the people there who had been bombed out of their homes and so forth loved it that Churchill had arrived, loved it that he was there. Now, whether that had a lot to do with Churchill himself, you know, it's hard to say. It was a moment when maybe it could have gone either way. But the fact is they embraced Churchill, and Churchill embraced them.

And one thing that endeared him to the public was the fact that he was not afraid to cry. He was deeply moved by this event. So - and that, again, cuts to this idea of the power of recognizing, the power of symbolic acts.

DAVIES: Yeah. There's one moment you describe where - it might have been touring Bristol where such a large crowd gathered that not everyone could see him. He hoists his bowler hat on his cane and lifts it high so that people can see that he's there.

LARSON: Yeah, lifts it high and swirls it around in the air so that people can see that the leader is there. I should say also by the way, that, you know, this is - you know, he was not - this wasn't sort of a desire just to, you know, revel in the adulation of his audiences. That was not it at all. He was deeply, deeply moved by everything that he saw. And it was the case that at Bristol, as he was - after he had delivered this speech and after he had made his way back to the train with this huge crowd of people from the city who had clustered around him and were following his car back to the train, where it could have been, as Mary points out - Mary Churchill, his daughter, in her diary - as she points out, it could have been a festival day in Bristol.

So they arrive at the train. Churchill boards, and he's waving to the crowd, waves to the crowd, waves. He's waving until the train is out of sight of - obviously out of sight of anybody back in Bristol. And then he picks up a newspaper, holds it in front of his head and, behind the newspaper, begins to cry. He's that moved by the situation. I believe it's at that point that he says something to the effect that it is a grave responsibility.

DAVIES: Erik Larson's book is "The Splendid And The Vile." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "WATER IN CUPPED HANDS (AUNG SAN SUU KYI)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with author Erik Larson. He has a new book about the leadership and family life of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his first year in office, when Nazi Germany waged a bombing campaign that killed more than 44,000 British civilians. The book is "The Splendid And The Vile."

I want to just turn to the subject of crisis leadership here, I mean, since, you know, we're in a crisis right now. And, of course, every national crisis is different, and a viral pandemic is different from 20th century warfare, which is what you write about. But as you reflect on the insights that this research may have given you, I'm wondering what has occurred to you observing President Trump's conduct in handling the challenges of the coronavirus.

LARSON: Oh, my. Well, you know, I come back to the idea of how to approach a situation like this or at least how Churchill would have approached it. You know, the key thing is to embolden, reassure and encourage, I feel. Trump, obviously, has done none of this. No particular moment of actual heroic leadership have I seen. But Churchill, again, would have - he would have been, first of all, very frank about what we're confronting. He would have been very frank about what this pandemic really means and about the importance, yes, of staying home. He would not be talking about the - you know, the potential of chloroquine being a miracle drug or - and he would not have been talking about, you know, we're going to open this country up by Easter because there's a reality that's not going - is not susceptible to this kind of false rhetoric. Churchill would have been very, very sober in his appraisal of what was happening. And again, then he would have come around with reasons for optimism, things that were actually happening that could maybe improve the situation.

He undoubtedly would have talked about how the vast medical research infrastructure of this country was bending itself to solving this problem. And then he would ended with some resounding, heroic thing that, again, would have launched people from their chairs, hopefully only into their kitchens and not outside in the streets; we don't want that today. But he would have done something to really encourage the populace and make them feel like he was in control and things were eventually going to get better.

DAVIES: You know, I'm also struck by how much time and effort Churchill spent studying policy, really getting into the details of every aspect of not just the war but other national policy issues and how important it is for a leader to be empirically grounded, consulting the experts that he knows. And then, obviously, he has to make his own calls, but being immersed in the actual issues.

LARSON: Well, you know, I think that Churchill would absolutely have a deep, fine-grain, down-to-the-nuts-and-bolts understanding of what was happening in part because, honestly, he chose excellent advisers who were not afraid to tell him what the reality was, which is a very important element of Churchill's sense of leadership. Churchill would have absolutely understood the finest points of what was happening in this pandemic.

I think one particular moment is emblematic of his approach. And oddly enough, it was on September 11, 1940, when he gave a speech to the public from a BBC hookup in what we know today as the Churchill War Rooms. And this is the fourth night of absolutely intense bombing, the fourth of what will prove to be 57 consecutive nights of bombing. So he gives this speech to the public from the war rooms. He did not sugarcoat anything. He warned of the clear danger of invasion. He says, you know, we cannot tell when they will come; we cannot be sure that, in fact, they will try it all, but no one should blind themselves to the fact that a heavy, full-scale invasion of this island is being prepared.

Now, imagine hearing that. Imagine the terror of his audience. But then, also, he comes back and he says, you know, this threat - he says, we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. He says the threat ranks with the days of the Spanish Armada, when the Spanish Armada was approaching in the channel and Nelson stood between the Napoleon's Grand Army of Boulogne, and he warns of an outcome of far more consequence to life and future of the world and its civilization than the - than these brave days of the past.

But, you know, in doing so, he made people realize that there was so much more to this story than just a one-night trauma. He ends by saying that Hitler's attacks on London had backfired because they've caused sort of a counterreaction from the public. They've inflamed this heroism among the British because, you know, what he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed. And he left people really feeling emboldened, even in the midst of this unfathomable tragedy.

DAVIES: Erik Larson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LARSON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Erik Larson's new book is "The Splendid And The Vile: A Saga Of Churchill, Family, And Defiance During The Blitz." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book from Emily St. John Mandel, which she says is disturbing but ultimately affirming. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI QUINTET'S "WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA")

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