On Aug. 17, 1940, John Colville, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, was walking in the Sussex countryside when he came upon a downed German bomber. It was, writes Erik Larson in “The Splendid and the Vile,” “an alien mechanical presence” — a rude anomaly lying in “classically English” countryside. He senses a metaphor suitable to the war: brutal German modernity assaulting a serene English Elysium. Kultur attacking Culture.

Appearances, however, are deceptive; they encourage dangerous myth. The English have always promoted that Elysium, carefully hiding away the coal mines and cotton mills that were the real foundation of their strength. William Blake abhorred that dirty secret of industrial power, as did Rupert Brooke. In his poem “Jerusalem” (1804), Blake insisted that the real England was the “green & pleasant Land,” not the “dark Satanic Mills.” That word “England” is itself intentionally exclusionary, since it rejects those from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who do not apparently conform to standards of pastoral civility.

Larson, a neophyte when it comes to British history, falls victim to entrenched English propaganda. His book, which chronicles the period from May 1940 to May 1941, when Churchill supposedly saved “England,” is firmly rooted in that green and pleasant land, conveniently ignoring those dark satanic mills. While war rages, his protagonists attend debutante balls at posh hotels and shoot partridges in the “cool green of the countryside.” “The girls rode bicycles and horses, played tennis, swam, went to the movies, and danced with airmen at nearby RAF bases, occasionally bringing them back for . . . ‘snogging’ sessions in the hayloft.” This was war, but not as most Britons actually knew it.

Churchill was a trickster, a brilliant propagandist who understood the power of English myth. He intentionally played on Arthurian imagery to coax gullible Americans into the war. A common trope was “England Alone,” a vulnerable waif brutally raped by the Hun. The myth of Churchill single-handedly inspiring a country to gargantuan feats remained immensely popular in the immediate aftermath of the war. It was, however, demolished in the 1970s and 1980s by historians like Angus Calder and Paul Addison, who exposed the real nature of Britain’s wartime strength — a strength rooted in her factories.

Larson, sadly, falls for the old propaganda, rendering this a rather old-fashioned book. He carelessly uses England and Britain interchangeably, never bothering to explain the subtle but important semantics of a diverse kingdom. He writes of Hitler’s bombing campaign against England, as if Welsh and Scottish cities were not also attacked. In one particularly atrocious reference, he writes, “It was here in Glasgow that the most important moment of [Harry] Hopkins’s stay in England would occur.” The issue might seem petty to outsiders, but to a Glaswegian it would be grounds for gross bodily harm. It’s well to remember that England is not just a place but an idea, and that idea is alien and offensive to many outlanders.

Larson is also rather fond of that England Alone myth. He’s a storyteller, and it makes for a great plot. In truth, England was not remotely alone. In addition to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, she could call upon the resources of a vast empire of more than 500 million people — Canadians, Australians, Indians, South Africans, etc. Refugees who had fled Hitler’s army also helped out. About 145 pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were Polish, 88 were from Czechoslovakia and 30 from Belgium.

Another prominent component of the English wartime myth was that the working class needed to be taught bravery, their tutors being the posh private-school types who blithely assumed their social superiority. The Oxford professor Frederick Lindemann, an old friend of Churchill’s, predicted that a shortage of tea would break the loyalty of the “least educated and least responsible in the country” — by which he meant the working class. They have, he said, “little stake in the good things of a free democratic community” and would therefore not really mind if Hitler marched in. That same distrust inspired the evacuation of children from working-class areas of London. Authorities presumed that, in an air raid, the workers would be too distracted by the threat to their children to concentrate on their jobs.

Larson, sadly, seems inclined to agree with Lindemann. Churchill, he argues, taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” That, quite frankly, is nonsense. A Durham coal miner did not need to be taught how to be brave. Nor did a fisherman from Peterhead or a welder from the Clydeside shipyards. They were the real backbone of Britain, the men who 25 years earlier had endured unimaginable suffering on the Somme. Even Churchill admitted that he “never gave them courage,” but rather only focused the courage they already had. In any case, there’s nothing particularly British — or English — about wartime resilience. Difficult as it is to admit, German civilians experienced bombings and shortages much worse and more prolonged than occurred in Britain, yet they also stoically endured.

Larson is a superb storyteller who cleverly weaves together the colossal and the mundane. Churchill’s herculean efforts are juxtaposed with very personal family stories — his daughter Mary coming of age, his son Randolph dragged down by alcohol and gambling. There’s lots of sex outside marriage. It’s fascinating and entertaining, but it’s not remotely the real story. “The Splendid and the Vile” reveals the dangers of an author parachuting into a dramatic moment of British history without a full understanding of the context.

Strip away the myths of an embattled England, and a different war emerges. It’s heroic, but not in an Arthurian sense. Those dark satanic factories produced the Spitfire and the Hurricane, two aircraft that consistently outperformed their German counterparts. British workers — male and female — were much better mobilized than in Germany. The Battle of Britain was won in the factories, not in English country houses. We don’t really need another paean to Churchill, nor to that green and pleasant land. The real story is one of pork pies, warm beer and gritty working-class pluck.

The Splendid and the Vile

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

By Erik Larson

Crown.
585 pp. $32