The Right Honourable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM,
CH, FRS, PC (30 November 1874 - 24 January 1965) was a British
statesman, best known as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during
the Second World War. At various times a soldier, journalist, author
and politician, Churchill is generally regarded as one of the most
important leaders in British and world history. He won the 1953
Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born at Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Winston Churchill
was a descendant of the first famous member of the Churchill family,
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Winston's politician father,
Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough;
Winston's mother was Lady Randolph Churchill (née Jennie
Jerome), daughter of American millionaire Leonard Jerome. Neither
parent showed young Winston much affection or love.
Churchill spent much of his childhood at boarding schools, including
the Headmaster's House at Harrow School. He famously sat the entrance
exam but on confronting the latin paper he carefully wrote the title,
his name and the number 1 followed by a dot and could not think of
anything else to write. He was accepted despite this, but placed in
the bottom division where they were primarily taught English which
he excelled at. Today at Harrow there is an annual Churchill essay
prize on a subject chosen by the head of the english department. He
was rarely visited by his mother, whom he virtually worshipped, despite
his letters begging her to either come or let his father permit him
to come home. He had a distant relationship with his father despite
keenly following his father's career. Once, in 1886, he is reported
to have proclaimed "My daddy is Chancellor of the Exchequer and
one day that's what I'm going to be". His desolate, lonely childhood
stayed with him throughout his life.
He was very close to his nurse, Elizabeth Ann Everest (nicknamed "Woom" by
Churchill), and was deeply saddened when she died on July 3, 1895.
Churchill paid for her gravestone at the City of London Cemetery and
Churchill did badly at Harrow, regularly being punished for poor work
and lack of effort. His nature was independent and rebellious and he
failed to achieve much academically, failing some of the same courses
numerous times despite showing great ability in other areas such as
maths and history, in both of which he was placed at times top in his
class. But his refusal to study the classics undermined any chance
of success at a school like Harrow.
The view of Churchill as a failure at school is one which he himself
propagated, probably due to his father's intense dislike of the young
Winston and his obvious readiness to label his son a disappointment.
He did, however, become the school's fencing champion.
Churchill attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
Churchill then became a war correspondent in the second Anglo-Boer
war between Britain and Afrikaners in South Africa. He was captured
in a Boer ambush of a British Army train convoy and thrown into prison.
However, he made a daring escape which made him something of a national
In the 1906 general election, Churchill won a seat in Manchester. In
the Liberal government of Henry Campbell-Bannerman he served as Under-Secretary
of State for the Colonies. Churchill soon became the most prominent
member of the Government outside the Cabinet, and when Campbell-Bannerman
was succeeded by Herbert Henry Asquith in 1908, it came as little surprise
when Churchill was promoted to the Cabinet as President of the Board
of Trade. Under the law at the time, a newly appointed Cabinet Minister
was obliged to seek re-election at a by-election. Churchill lost his
Manchester seat to the Conservative William Joynson-Hicks but was soon
elected in another by-election at Dundee. As President of the Board
of Trade he pursued radical social reforms in conjunction with David
Lloyd George, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In 1910 Churchill was promoted to Home Secretary, where he was to
prove somewhat controversial. A famous photograph from the time shows
the impetuous Churchill taking personal charge of the January 1911
Sidney Street Siege, peering around a corner to view a gun battle between
cornered anarchists and Scots Guards. His role attracted much criticism.
The building under siege caught fire. Churchill denied the fire brigade
access, forcing the criminals to choose surrender or death. Arthur
Balfour asked, "He [Churchill] and a photographer were both risking
valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what
was the Right Honourable gentleman doing?".
In 1911, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he would
hold into the First World War. He gave impetus to military reform efforts,
including development of naval aviation, tanks, and the switch in fuel
from coal to oil, a massive engineering task, also reliant on securing
Mesopotamia's oil rights, bought circa 1907 through the secret service
using the Royal Burmah Oil Company as a front company. The development
of the battle tank was financed from naval research funds via the Landships
Committee, and, although a decade later development of the battle tank
would be seen as a stroke of genius, at the time it was seen as misappropriation
of funds. The battle tank was deployed ineptly in 1915, much to Churchill's
annoyance. He wanted a fleet of tanks used to surprised the Germans
under cover of smoke, and to open a large section of the trenches by
crushing barbed wire and creating a breakthrough sector.
However, he was also one of the political and military engineers of
the disastrous Gallipoli landings on the Dardanelles during World War
I, which led to his description as "the butcher of Gallipoli".
When Asquith formed an all-party coalition government, the Conservatives
demanded Churchill's demotion as the price for entry. For several months
Churchill served in the non-portfolio job of Chancellor of the Duchy
of Lancaster, before resigning from the government feeling his energies
were not being used. He rejoined the army, though remaining an MP,
and served for several months on the Western Front. During this period
his second in command was a young Archibald Sinclair who would later
lead the Liberal Party.
Return to power.
In December 1916, Asquith resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced
by Lloyd George. However, the time was thought not yet right to risk
the Conservatives' wrath by bringing Churchill back into government.
However, in July 1917 Churchill was appointed Minister of Munitions.
After the end of the war Churchill served as both Secretary of State
for War and Secretary of State for Air (1919 - 1921). On the possible
use of gas weapons (tear gas) in quelling uprisings in the British
mandated territories of the former Ottoman Empire, Churchill wrote:
"I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have
definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing
in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare.
It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment
of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means
of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas
against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that
the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary
to use only the most deadly gases: gases can be used which cause great
inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave
no serious permanent effects on most of those affected".
During this time (1919 - 21), he undertook with surprising zeal
the cutting of military expenditure. However, the major preoccupation
of his tenure in the War Office was the Allied intervention in the
Russian Civil War. Churchill was a staunch advocate of foreign intervention,
declaring that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle".
He secured from a divided and loosely organised Cabinet an intensification
and prolongation of the British involvement beyond the wishes of any
major group in Parliament or the nation - and in the face of
the bitter hostility of Labour. In 1920, after the last British forces
had been withdrawn, Churchill was instrumental in having arms sent
to the Poles when they invaded Ukraine. He became Secretary of State
for the Colonies in 1921 and was a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty
of 1921 which established the Irish Free State.
Career between the wars.
In October 1922, Churchill underwent an operation to remove his appendix.
Upon his return, he learned that the government had fallen and a General
Election was looming. The Liberal Party was now beset by internal division
and Churchill's campaign was weak. He lost his seat at Dundee to prohibitionist,
Edwin Scrymgeour, quipping that he had lost his ministerial office,
his seat and his appendix all at once. Churchill stood for the Liberals
again in the 1923 general election, losing in Leicester, but over the
next twelve months he moved towards the Conservative Party, though
initially using the labels "Anti-Socialist" and "Constitutionalist".
Two years later, in the General Election of 1924, he was elected to
represent Epping (where there is now a statue of him) as a "Constitutionalist" with
Conservative backing. The following year he formally rejoined the Conservative
Party, commenting wryly that "Anyone can rat [change parties],
but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat".
He was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924 under Stanley
Baldwin and oversaw the United Kingdom's disastrous return to the Gold
Standard, which resulted in deflation, unemployment, and the miners'
strike that led to the General Strike of 1926. This decision prompted
the economist John Maynard Keynes to write The Economic Consequences
of Mr. Churchill, correctly arguing that the return to the gold standard
would lead to a world depression. Churchill later regarded this as
one of the worst decisions of his life. To be fair to him, it must
be noted that he was not an economist and that he acted on the advice
of the Governor of the Bank of England, Montague Norman (of whom Keynes
said: "Always so charming, always so wrong").
During the General Strike of 1926, Churchill was reported to have
suggested that machineguns be used on the striking miners. Churchill
edited the Government's newspaper, the British Gazette, and during
the dispute he argued that "either the country will break the
General Strike, or the General Strike will break the country". Furthermore,
he was to controversially claim that the Fascism of Benito Mussolini
had "rendered a service to the whole world" showing as it
had "a way to combat subversive forces" - that is,
he considered the regime to be a bulwark against the perceived threat
of Communist revolution.
The Conservative government was defeated in the 1929 General Election.
In the next two years, Churchill became estranged from the Conservative
leadership over the issues of protective tariffs and Indian Home Rule.
When Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government in 1931, Churchill
was not invited to join the Cabinet. He was now at the lowest point
in his career, in a period known as "the wilderness years".
He spent much of the next few years concentrating on his writing, including
Marlborough: His Life and Times - a biography of his ancestor
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough - and A History of the
English Speaking Peoples (which was not published until well after
WWII). He became most notable for his outspoken opposition towards
the granting of independence to India (see Simon Commission and Government
of India Act 1935).
Soon, though, his attention was drawn to the rise of Adolf Hitler
and the dangers of Germany's rearmament. For a time he was a lone voice
calling on Britain to strengthen itself and counter the belligerence
of Germany. Churchill was a fierce critic of Neville Chamberlain's
appeasement of Hitler. He was also an outspoken supporter of King Edward
VIII during the Abdication Crisis, leading to some speculation that
he might be appointed Prime Minister if the King refused to take Baldwin's
advice and consequently the government resigned. However, this did
not happen, and Churchill found himself politically isolated and bruised
for some time after this.
Role as wartime Prime Minister.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Churchill was appointed First
Lord of the Admiralty. In this job he proved to be one of the highest-profile
ministers during the so-called "Phoney War", when the only
noticeable action was at sea. Churchill advocated the pre-emptive occupation
of the neutral Norwegian iron-ore port of Narvik and the iron mines
in Kiruna, Sweden, early in the War. However, Chamberlain and the rest
of the War Cabinet disagreed, and the operation was delayed until the
German invasion of Norway, which was successful despite British efforts.
In May 1940, directly upon the German invasion of France by a surprising
lightning advance through the Low Countries, it became clear that the
country had no confidence in Chamberlain's prosecution of the war.
Chamberlain resigned, and Churchill was appointed Prime Minister and
formed an all-party government. In response to previous criticisms
that there had been no clear single minister in charge of the prosecution
of the war, he created and took the additional position of Minister
of Defence. He immediately put his friend and confidant the industrialist
and newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook in charge of aircraft production.
It was Beaverbrook's astounding business acumen that allowed Britain
to quickly gear up aircraft production and engineering that eventually
made the difference in the war.
Churchill's speeches were a great inspiration to the embattled United
Kingdom. His first speech as Prime Minister was the famous "I
have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech.
He followed that closely with two other equally famous ones, given
just before the Battle of Britain. One included the immortal line, "We
shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on
the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight
in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall
never surrender". The other included the equally famous "Let
us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that,
if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years,
men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" At the height
of the Battle of Britain, his bracing survey of the situation included
the memorable line "Never in the field of human conflict was so
much owed by so many to so few", which engendered the enduring
nickname "The Few" for the Allied fighter pilots who won
His good relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt secured the United
Kingdom vital supplies via the North Atlantic Ocean shipping routes.
It was for this reason that Churchill was relieved when Roosevelt was
re-elected. Upon re-election, Roosevelt immediately set about implementing
a new method of not only providing military hardware to Britain without
the need for monetary payment, but also of providing, free of fiscal
charge, much of the shipping that transported the supplies. Put simply,
Roosevelt persuaded Congress that repayment for this immensely costly
service would take the form of defending the USA; and so Lend-lease
was born. Churchill had 12 strategic conferences with Roosevelt which
covered the Atlantic Charter, Europe first strategy, the Declaration
by the United Nations and other war policies. Churchill initiated the
Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Hugh Dalton's Ministry of
Economic Warfare, which established, conducted and fostered covert,
subversive and partisan operations in occupied territories with notable
success; and also the Commandos which established the pattern for most
of the world's current Special Forces. The Russians referred to him
as the "British Bulldog".
However, some of the military actions during the war remain controversial.
Churchill was at best indifferent and perhaps complicit in the Great
Bengal famine of 1943 which took the lives of at least 2.5 million
Bengalis. Japanese troops were threatening British India after having
successfully taken neighbouring British Burma. Some consider the British
government's policy of denying effective famine relief a deliberate
and callous scorched earth policy adopted in the event of a successful
Japanese invasion. Churchill supported the bombing of Dresden shortly
before the end of the war; Dresden was primarily a civilian target
with many refugees from the East and was of allegedly little military
value. However, the bombing was helpful to the allied Soviets.
Churchill was party to treaties that would redraw post-WWII European
and Asian boundaries. These were discussed as early as 1943. Proposals
for European boundaries and settlements were officially agreed to by
Harry S. Truman, Churchill, and Stalin at Potsdam.
The settlement concerning the borders of Poland, i.e. the boundary
between Poland and the Soviet Union and between Germany and Poland,
was viewed as a betrayal in Poland during the post-war years, as it
was established against the views of the Polish government in exile.
Churchill was convinced that the only way to alleviate tensions between
the two populations was the transfer of people, to match the national
borders. As he expounded in the House of Commons in 1944, "Expulsion
is the method which, insofar as we have been able to see, will be the
most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations
to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed
by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions". The
transfers were in the end carried out in a way which resulted in hardship
and death for many of those transferred. Churchill opposed the effective
annexation of Poland by the Soviet Union and wrote bitterly about it
in his books, but he was unable to prevent it at the conferences.
After World War II.
Although the importance of Churchill's role in World War II was undeniable,
he had many enemies in his own country. His expressed contempt for
a number of popular ideas, in particular public health care and better
education for the majority of the population, produced much dissatisfaction
amongst the population, particularly those who had fought in the war.
Immediately following the close of the war in Europe, Churchill was
heavily defeated at election by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party.
Some historians think that many British voters believed that the man
who had led the nation so well in war was not the best man to lead
it in peace. Others see the election result as a reaction against not
Churchill personally, but against the Conservative Party's record in
the 1930s under Baldwin and Chamberlain.
Winston Churchill was an early supporter of the pan-Europeanism that
eventually led to the formation of the European Common market and later
the European Union (for which one of the three main buildings of the
European Parliament is named in his honour). Churchill was also instrumental
in giving France a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council
(which provided another European power to counterbalance the Soviet
Union's permanent seat). Churchill also occasionally made comments
supportive of world government. For instance, he once said:
"Unless some effective world supergovernment for the purpose
of preventing war can be set up. the prospects for peace and human
dark.If. it is found possible to build a world organization of
irresistible force and inviolable authority for the purpose of securing
peace, there are no limits to the blessings which all men enjoy and
At the beginning of the Cold War, he famously mentioned the "Iron
Curtain", a phrase originally created by Joseph Goebbels. The
phrase entered the public consciousness after a 1946 speech at Westminster
College in Fulton, Missouri, when Churchill, a guest of Harry S. Truman,
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain
has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals
of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin,
Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these
famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call
the Soviet sphere.
Churchill was restless and bored as leader of the Conservative opposition
in the immediate post-war years. After Labour's defeat in the General
Election of 1951, Churchill again became Prime Minister. His third
government - after the wartime national government and the
short caretaker government of 1945 - would last until his resignation
in 1955. During this period he renewed what he called the "special
relationship" between Britain and the United States, and engaged
himself in the formation of the post-war order.
His domestic priorities were, however, overshadowed by a series of
foreign policy crises, which were partly the result of the continued
decline of British military and imperial prestige and power. Being
a strong proponent of Britain as an international power, Churchill
would often meet such moments with direct action.