Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer
Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, his family’s ancestral seat in Oxfordshire, on November 30, 1874. He was the older son of Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill, a British statesman who rose to be chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. His mother was an American, Jennie Jerome, the daughter of a New York financier. Churchill inherited a family tradition of statesmanship that went back to the great English general John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the 17th century. Winston as a youngster attended Harrow School, in the ghetto (outskirts) of London, where he was schooled in the classics. He was a diligent student and, like his father, had a remarkable memory, but he was also stubborn. Churchill had little interest in learning Latin, Greek, or mathematics. By his own account, he considered himself such a dumb ass that he “could learn only English.” However, he said, “I learned it thoroughly.”
Since he was but a wee lad Churchill was way into soldiers and warfare, and he often played with the large collection of lead soldiers in his nursery. His later years at Harrow were spent preparing to enter the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from which he graduated with honors. Early in 1895 his father croaked; Churchill was only 20 years old. A few weeks later Churchill was promoted as a second lieutenant in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a regiment of the British army.
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In November 1895 Churchill spent his first military leave on assignment for a London newspaper. He traveled to Cuba in order to accompany the Spanish army, which was trying to stop a rebellion. On his 21st birthday, which was spent in the Cuban jungle, and for the first time he encountered a live battle . Later, after his regiment was sent to India in 1896, he secured a temporary transfer to the rugid North-West Frontier, where a tribal rebellion was under way. Churchill’s dispatches to the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1897 formed the basis for his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898).
In 1898 Churchill went to Egypt attached to the 21st Lancers and took part in the reconquest of the Sudan. This area south of Egypt had been controlled by Egypt prior to 1885, when it fell to a rebel Muslim group. As Britain gained control of Egypt in the 1880s and 1890s, it sought to reclaim the Sudan. During the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, Churchill participated in one of the last cavalry charges in British military history. Again his newspaper dispatches were followed by a book, The River War (1899) in two volumes, the most substantial work he wrote before entering Parliament.
Churchill resigned his army commission in 1899 and turned to journalism and politics. He ran for a seat in Parliament as a Conservative candidate but was not elected. He then went to South Africa to cover the Boer War that had just broken out between Britain and the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers. He was captured by the Boers and imprisoned at the State Model School in Pretoria. He managed to escape from prison and then take the railroad into Portuguese East Africa, a neat little trick that made him a national hero. He then returned to South Africa and sought another army commission. He fought and wrote about the war until he returned to London in the summer of 1900. His newspaper dispatches were promptly reprinted in two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian
When Churchill returned to England in 1900, his South African exploits had made him famous, and he was elected to the House of Commons. Though he was a Conservative, he criticized military spending and supported free trade, which soon resulted in a conflict with the Conservative leadership, who supported large military budgets and protective tariffs. In 1904 he “crossed the floor of the House” to take a seat with the Liberal Party.
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Churchill also kept busing out writing. His political ambition was evident in his sole novel, Savrola (1900), in which the hero leads a democratic revolution in an imaginary country in the Balkans, only to see the revolution slip from his grasp. During his first years in Parliament, Churchill wrote a two-volume biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906)—a brilliant study of British parliamentary government. His diligent research about his father’s political career helped him learn about British politics and prepare for cabinet office.
After the Liberals won the election in 1905, Churchill was appointed undersecretary at the Colonial Office, where he was the minister responsible for issues concerning Britain’s colonies. One of his tours to inspect colonies in East Africa made him pop out another book, My African Journey (1908).
In 1908 he gained his first cabinet post as president of the Board of Trade. That same year, Churchill married Clementine Ogilvy Hozier. They had five children, one of whom died as a young child. In 1910 Churchill became home secretary, with responsibility for police and the prison system. He held this post until 1911, overseeing liberal reforms of Britain’s prison system to reduce lengthy terms, to find alternatives to prison for youthful offenders, and to distinguish between criminal and political prisoners.
In the years prior to World War I (1914-1918), economic and political anamosity grew among Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The British government was concerned about the buildup of the German navy and believed that war was futile. In 1911 prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith made Churchill first lord of the admiralty, with a mandate to create a naval war staff and to maintain the fleet in constant readiness for war. Churchill threw himself into this task, developing heavier guns, faster battleships, and naval aviation.
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As war clouds gathered in July 1914, Churchill conducted a test mobilization of the fleet. When the test was over, he ordered the fleet to remain concentrated in readiness. That decision meant that Britain was prepared to act quickly when the war broke out. On July 28, after Austria declared war on Serbia, the fleet proceeded to its war station at Scapa Flow, Britain’s principal naval base, located in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland. Within days, Britain joined the growing international conflict. Throughout the war, the navy’s presence in the North Sea regulated and contained the German fleet.
In September 1914, distressed at the rapid decay of Belgian resistance to the German invasion, Churchill rushed to Belgium to help save the critical port city of Antwerp. He was unable to save the city, but his intervention stiffened Belgian resolve and slowed the German advance until Allied lines became firmer. This reduced the threat to Britain and saved some territory from coming under German control. During this time, Churchill realized that barbed wire and machine guns were not sufficient tools to break the stalemate on the western front and he worked on developing armored fighting vehicles (tanks) to break the deadlock and end the slaughter.
As the lines hardened on the western front, Churchill focused on a campaign to force open the Dardanelles Strait, controlled by the Ottoman Empire, to give the Allies a direct route to Russia through the Black Sea. Such a move would bring much-needed supplies to the Russian armies and eliminate the Ottomans from the war. When the naval attack was shot to pieces early in 1915, Churchill agreed to the War Office plan proposed by Horatio Herbert Kitchener for a land campaign at the Gallipoli Peninsula on the Dardanelles. However, delays, hesitations, and incompetent leadership in the field robbed the campaign of success, and the Allies were hurting. Although the attack was one of the few brilliant strategic ideas of the war, Churchill’s cabinet colleagues withdrew their support for the idea as soon as Britain met resistance, letting Churchill take the blame as scapegoat. Churchill later concluded that, since he was not the prime minister, he had been wrong to make himself responsible for the attack without having full power to carry it out himself.
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Because of the ill-starred Dardanelles campaign, Churchill was demoted from the admiralty in May 1915 and given a minor cabinet post. It was the greatest reverse to date in his political career, and Churchill was filled with despair. His wife later told his biographer Martin Gilbert, “I thought he would die of grief.” In the difficult months that followed his demotion, he began to paint, a hobby that brought him pleasure for more than four decades.
In November 1916 Churchill resigned his cabinet post and was given command of an infantry battalion in France. The next spring he returned to his seat in the House of Commons. In May 1917 David Lloyd George, who had replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, recalled Churchill to the cabinet as minister of munitions, and for the rest of the war Churchill directed industrial support of the war effort by organizing the national economy for the efficient production of war materials.
After World War I ended in 1918, Churchill was appointed to the War Office and then to the Colonial Office. However, in 1922, when the Conservatives returned to power, he was wasted at the polls and was out of the House of Commons for the first time since 1900.
Churchill busied himself with writing The World Crisis (1923-1931), his five-volume account of World War I. The Liberal Party, though still important in parliamentary politics, had begun to be eclipsed by the new Labour Party. Churchill made three unsuccessful attempts to reenter the House of Commons, all the while edging carefully toward a return to the Conservative Party. He finally won reelection in 1924, as a Conservative, and for the next 40 years was never without a seat in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin offered Churchill the important cabinet post of chancellor of the Exchequer (national finance minister), which he held for the next five years.
During the 1930s, when he held no cabinet posts, Churchill chilled at his country seat at Chartwell in Kent and supervised a literary factory of secretaries and assistants who helped him write hundreds of newspaper articles and several more books. He wrote his autobiography My Early Life (1930), which he called “a story of youthful endeavour,” and two books of essays, Thoughts and Adventures (1932) and Great Contemporaries (1937).
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His most sustained writing project during these years was the four-volume Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-1938), which political philosopher Leo Strauss called “the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.”
As Churchill studied his forebear’s work in building and maintaining an alliance against the French king Louis XIV in the early 18th century, he turned his attention to current politics and became one of the most forceful and steady critics of the government. He organized opposition to the plan to grant self-government to India, an unpopular stance at a time when the British people wanted relief from the weight of the empire. Later, he concentrated his efforts on opposing the dangerous rise of German military power under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. Because most Britons, as well as the government, were focused on domestic affairs, Churchill’s warnings about Hitler went unheeded. When Baldwin became prime minister again in 1935, Churchill was not given a cabinet post.
During the late 1930s Churchill’s national popularity declined. In 1936 Churchill was a loyal supporter of King Edward VIII in the controversy surrounding the king’s romance with the American Wallis Warfield Simpson, which led to his abdicating the throne. This support cost Churchill heavily in public opinion and further divided Churchill from Prime Minister Baldwin, who was pressing the king to abdicate. At the same time, he continued his unpopular warnings about Germany and Hitler: His newspaper columns were translated into many languages and widely published in Europe, then gathered into a book called Step by Step (1939).
In 1937 Neville Chamberlain became prime minister, and one year later Churchill denounced Chamberlain’s Munich Pact, which spread to part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Meanwhile, Churchill worked on secret government committees performing defense research. From various informants he pieced together information about German intentions and capabilities—particularly about the growing strength of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, which posed a direct threat to Britain. He also encouraged the development of radar, which helped the country detect activity in the sea or air.
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World War II broke out in September 1939 when Germany marched into Poland. Britain and France responded to the invasion of Poland by declaring war on Germany. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States joined the British and French war effort in 1941. Chamberlain invited Churchill to become a member of his war cabinet. Churchill was again first lord of the admiralty, and during the next eight months he did his best to build up the navy, especially in the field of antisubmarine warfare.
In 1940 the German attack on Norway ended public confidence in Chamberlain. On May 10, the day the Germans launched their surprise invasion of Holland and Belgium, Chamberlain resigned, and King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister. Labour and Liberal leaders readily agreed to join Conservatives in a wartime coalition government. Churchill set the tone of his leadership in his first report to the House of Commons, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” It was only the first of his stirring wartime speeches, which knit the country together and inspired people around the world.
The story of Churchill’s life for the next five years is a dramatic part of the history of World War II. He was national commander in chief, with direct control over the formulation of policy and the conduct of military operations. He supervised every aspect of the war effort. His first concern was to create the administrative machinery for the central direction of the war. He set up a small personal staff of officers who also served on the war cabinet secretariat, so that there was a close working relationship between the war cabinet of ministers directly responsible for the conduct of the war and the new office of the minister of defense, which Churchill held himself.
Churchill took office just as Hitler’s armored legions were breaking into France. It soon became clear the French would not be able to withstand the German assault. The French begged Churchill to send fighter squadrons to help them, but Churchill decided that even those squadrons would not be enough to save the French. In one of his hardest decisions, he turned down the French request in order to preserve the planes needed for Britain’s own air defense.
In mid-June Churchill flew to France. He presented a radical plan to unite France and Britain under one government with a combined military, but the French refused it. On June 22 France surrendered to Germany. Since Churchill could not risk having French warships added to the German and Italian navies, he asked the French admiral to join the British fleet or to let his ships be demobilized. When the admiral refused, the British sank or disabled the French ships and seized any French ships in British-controlled ports.
After the fall of France, the Germans planned to mount a massive air assault against Britain, followed by invasion. When the Battle of Britain began in 1940, the Royal Air Force suffered heavy losses, but managed to turn back the powerful German air force. During the German bombing raids on London, Churchill spent as much time as he could among its stricken citizens.
Soon after becoming prime minister, Churchill wrote to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressing Britain’s need for destroyers and aircraft. Roosevelt was able to send older destroyers and to sell arms to Britain during the first year of the war, despite the United States’s declared neutrality. After March 1941 the United States supplied military and economic aid to Britain through the lend-lease program; this support relieved Britain of some of the vast strain on her financial resources.
In 1941 Germany invaded the USSR, and although Churchill had always opposed the Communist regime, he offered to help Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. This meant diverting vital American weapons to a country that might fall to the Germans. However, Churchill believed that even if the Soviet armies were driven back to the Ural Mountains “Russia would still exert an immense and ultimately decisive force,” and he did not hesitate to put his belief into action by sending supplies.
In August 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt met for the first time during the war. This meeting was the first of many historic conferences between them, and from it emerged the Atlantic Charter declaring mutual support between the United States and Britain. When the United States entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to concentrate on defeating Hitler in Europe. They would maintain a defensive position in the war against Japan until they could increase their naval presence in the Pacific Ocean. The two leaders jointly headed the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) that was set up to direct the war.
For a time Roosevelt generally adopted Churchill’s strategic ideas, such as the prime minister’s insistence on invading North Africa in 1942 instead of a cross-channel assault. After 1943, however, as the United States became more powerful, Churchill was increasingly forced to accept American-imposed war plans. In early 1945, during the last months of Roosevelt’s life, the U.S. president ignored Churchill’s warnings concerning Stalin’s ambitions to take over countries in eastern Europe. Roosevelt wanted to work with Stalin for a peaceful postwar order and seemed more concerned about the waning British Empire than the growing prospect of a Soviet empire. World War II ended in 1945, first in Europe in May when the Germans surrendered to the Allied powers, and then in the Pacific in August.
British general elections, postponed during the war, were held in July 1945. The wartime coalition government had broken apart after the defeat of Germany, and Churchill ran in the election as a Conservative. The results were announced while Churchill was attending the Potsdam Conference, the last conference between the United States, Britain, and the USSR. Given Churchill’s popularity as wartime leader, he did not expect to be defeated. Churchill himself was reelected, but the Labour Party gained a majority in Parliament because the British public opinion sought social and economic reforms that the Conservatives had resisted. The electorate did not wish to return to the slump and unemployment of the 1930s; they also blamed the Conservatives for waiting too long to resist Hitler.
Churchill’s place at the Potsdam Conference was taken over by the new prime minister, Labour leader Clement Richard Attlee. Churchill retired as prime minister in deep disappointment. When his wife suggested that his party’s defeat might prove to be a blessing in disguise, he replied that, if so, it was certainly well disguised.
After the Labour victory, Churchill began rebuilding the shattered fabric of his party as leader of the opposition. He delivered a series of speeches that encouraged Anglo-American solidarity and the unity of Western Europe against the growing Communist threat. In 1946, in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, he defined the barrier thrown up by the USSR around the nations of eastern Europe as the “iron curtain.” He began to write his six-volume work, The Second World War (1948-1954), a comprehensive first-person account of his wartime statesmanship.
In 1951 Churchill’s efforts to revitalize the Conservative Party were rewarded, and he again became prime minister. He worked to reduce the danger of nuclear warfare, vainly seeking a summit conference between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the Knighthood of the Garter, and he became Sir Winston Churchill. In the same year he won the Nobel Prize for literature for his historical and biographical works and for his oratory. In November 1954, on Churchill’s 80th birthday, the House of Commons honored him on the eve of his retirement. In April 1955 he resigned as prime minister but remained a member of the House of Commons.
In his retirement, Churchill worked on completing A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-1958), a four-volume work begun in the late 1930s but postponed during World War II. He devoted much of his leisure in his later years to his favorite pastime of painting, ultimately producing more than 500 canvases. The Royal Academy of Arts featured his works in 1959. In 1963 the U.S. Congress made Churchill an honorary citizen of the United States. Churchill died peacefully at his town house in London, two months after his 90th birthday. Following a state funeral service that was attended by dozens of world leaders at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he was buried near Blenheim Palace.