Few leaders had as much influence over the course of World War II as British prime minister Winston Churchill. With unflagging strength and vitality, he rallied his beleaguered people when things looked their bleakest, never wavering from his belief that the Allies would eventually emerge victorious. As a result of his tenacity and dedication, most historians consider him the greatest British leader of the twentieth century.
Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to an old and very aristocratic family. He was the oldest 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, Jennie Jerome, was American by birth, the daughter of a New York financier.
In his youth, Churchill developed a deep interest in military affairs and warfare, and his later years at Harrow School prepared him for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from which he graduated with honors. In 1895, Churchill was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars, a regiment of the British army. On military leave as a war correspondent for a London newspaper, he covered the Spanish army's attempts to quell a rebellion in Cuba. It was during this endeavor that Churchill came under enemy fire for the first time.
Churchill Enters Politics
Churchill resigned his army commission in 1899 and, in keeping with his family history, turned to politics. He ran for a seat in Parliament as a Conservative candidate but was defeated. Working as a journalist, he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War and was captured by the Boers and imprisoned in Pretoria. He escaped and caught a train to Portuguese East Africa, a feat that made him a hero back home. Churchill later returned to South Africa and sought another army commission. He fought during the Boer War and again wrote about his exploits.
Churchill's wartime activities made him famous in Great Britain and paved the way for his election to the House of Commons. Though a Conservative, he butted heads with the Conservative leadership over a number of issues and eventually took a seat with the Liberal Party. Churchill's political star continued to climb for the next several years. In 1908 he married Clementine Ogilvy Hozier, who bore him five children, one of whom died in childhood.
In 1911, as world events were leading to World War I, Churchill was appointed first lord of the admiralty by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Churchill was instructed to create a naval war staff and to maintain the fleet in constant readiness for war. Under his guidance, the British navy became a formidable force, and when war broke out in 1914, its presence in the North Sea helped keep the German fleet under control. Churchill was an active participant during World War I, aiding the Belgians at Antwerp (though the port was lost) and working to develop armored tanks that he believed would help end the stalemate in Europe. His work greatly helped the Allied effort, though Churchill would later become the scapegoat for the failed land campaign at the Gallipoli Peninsula on the Dardanelles. (The campaign actually failed because of delays and incompetent leadership.)
After World War I, Churchill was appointed to the War Office and then to the Colonial Office. In the next election, he was defeated as the Conservatives returned to power, and he found himself cast from the House of Commons for the first time since 1900. Churchill turned again to writing, penning a comprehensive history of World War I, among other books. He won election in 1924, once again as a Conservative, and remained in the House of Commons for the next four decades.
Churchill's career and popularity ebbed and flowed over the next several years. He supported King Edward VIII in the controversy over his romance with Wallis Warfield Simpson, which eventually led to Edward's abdication from the throne, and this cost Churchill heavily in the opinion polls. It also widened the rift between Churchill and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. In addition, Churchill continued to sound frequent warnings about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, though few people listened.
World War II Breaks Out
When World War II broke out, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain asked Churchill to become a member of his war cabinet. He was again made first lord of the admiralty and immediately began efforts to bolster the Royal Navy, particularly in the area of antisubmarine warfare.
Public confidence in Chamberlain began to fade with the German invasion of Norway, and he resigned on May 10, 1940, the day Germans invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister, and the Labour and Liberal Parties immediately agreed to join the Conservatives in a wartime coalition government. Said Churchill during his first report to the House of Commons: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Churchill quickly proved to be a skillful prime minister. As commander in chief, he had direct control over the formulation of policy and the conduct of military operations. He and his staff supervised virtually every aspect of the war effort, working closely with the war cabinet secretariat. Through Churchill's efforts, Great Britain was able to arm itself and prepare for war with remarkable speed.
Churchill assumed power just as the Germans were invading France. The French begged him to send fighter squadrons, but he quickly realized that there was little Britain could do to stop the German war machine in France. In one of his most difficult decisions, he declined France's request. Great Britain's planes, he knew, would be needed for his nation's own air defense.
After the fall of France, Hitler turned his attention to Great Britain. His goal was a land invasion following massive bombing raids designed to weaken Britain to the point of helplessness. It was a dark time for the nation, but Churchill did all he could to protect its suffering populace. His frequent speeches did much to maintain public morale and rally his people to their own defense.
Early in the war, Churchill established a strong relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, who did much to help the British war effort despite America's position of neutrality. When the United States officially entered the war in December 1941, the relationship between the two world leaders — based on mutual trust, respect, and admiration — grew closer still. However, as the war progressed and the United States became increasingly powerful, Churchill found himself having to accept American-imposed war plans. His relationship with Roosevelt began to deteriorate, and Churchill's ideas often went unheeded. In early 1945, for example, Roosevelt ignored Churchill's warnings about Joseph Stalin's plans to take over countries in Eastern Europe after the war, with dire consequences.
Churchill Re-elected Following the War
Churchill was re-elected to Parliament in the first postwar election in July 1945, but the Labour Party gained a majority and Churchill, who had run as a Conservative, was replaced as prime minister by Labour leader Clement Richard Attlee. Churchill was at the Potsdam Conference — the last meeting among the United States, Britain, and the USSR — when he received news of the election, and his chair at the conference was taken by Attlee. Churchill was extremely disappointed to be retiring as prime minister, having worked so hard to save the nation from German aggression.
Winston Churchill coined the phrase “iron curtain” during a 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri. It defined the barrier constructed by the Soviet Union between its Eastern European satellites and the rest of Europe.
Winston Churchill continued to be involved in politics and international affairs. In 1951, his efforts to revitalize the Conservative Party were rewarded when he was again asked to assume the mantle of prime minister. The international nuclear threat was one of his primary concerns, and he tried unsuccessfully to broker a summit conference among the USSR and the Western powers. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the Order of the Garter, Britain's highest order of knighthood, making him Sir Winston Churchill. He resigned as prime minister in 1955 but remained a member of the House of Commons.
Churchill continued to write and paint in his retirement, and his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1959. He died in 1965, two months after his nintieth birthday and was buried near Blenheim Palace.