Biography of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill


"You ask what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime."

Winston S. Churchill, in a speech to the British people, 1940.

British statesman (1874-1965), World War II prime minister, noted orator, soldier and Nobel Prize winning author.

Born on Nov. 30, 1874 at his family's ancestral home, Bleinheim Palace, to one of the most prominent families in the British history, Winston Churchill would grow up to become of the most important figures of the 20th century leading Great Britain during the darkest day of World War II where, as President John F. Kennedy once noted, he used the English language as a powerful weapon of war.

Indeed, his use of the language in speeches, remarks and writings has made him one of the most quotable persons in history. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough, while his mother was Jenny Jerome, the daughter of a wealthy American family.

Short and red-haired and raised by a nanny until sent away to boarding school, Churchill was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. In 1894, he was commissioned an officer in the 4th Hussars. Taking leave in 1895, Churchill paid the first of many visits to his mother's homeland, the United States, and saw his first action in Cuba as a war correspondent for the London Daily Graphic. He later served on the northern frontier in India and in 1898 fought at the decisive battle against the Dervish at Omdurman under Lord Kitchner where he participated in the last major cavalry charge of the British Army.

Resigning his commission, he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War as a correspondent. Captured by the Boers, his subsequent daring escape made him a national hero. He used that fame to win election to the House of Commons just 10 short months later as a member of the Conservative Party. In 1904, he joined the Liberal Party and held a variety of cabinet posts culminating in his appointment as first lord of the admiralty in 1911. In that office, he presided over the naval expansion that preceded World War I.

His career was nearly destroyed by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915, which he had sponsored, and he was forced to resign his post at the Admiralty. He then commanded an infantry battalion in the trenches of the Western Front in France.

Returning to the coalition government formed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1917, he became first minister of munitions and then secretary of state for war and for air (1918-21) where he championed tank warfare. He also negotiated the peace treaty, which ended the rebellion in Ireland and established both the Irish Free State (which became the Irish Republic in 1948) and Northern Ireland. When the coalition government collapsed in 1922, Churchill was defeated for re-election to Parliament. He returned to the Conservative Party in 1924 and was again elected to Parliament where he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. --- a post he was totally unsuited before.

Ousted from government in 1928, Churchill remained in Parliament and the public eye through his writings, speeches and frequent radio commentaries in both Great Britain and the United States, but was denied a cabinet post for a decade in what historians have termed "The Wilderness Years." One of the most vocal opponents of communism and The Soviet Union, Churchill was one of the first to realize the danger to the world presented by the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Often a voice crying in the wilderness, fellow members of Parliament frequently shouted down Churchill when he spokes about the need for Britain to rearm to meet the growing menace of Nazism.

But in one of the most stunning triumphs by an individual in history, Churchill manage to bring not only his fellow countrymen but much of the rest of the world, including the United States, to join him in the life-or-death fight against Nazism.

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill to his old post as first lord of the admiralty. In May 1940, when Chamberlain was forced to resign, Churchill became prime minister when he was nearly 60 years of age.

But if ever there was the right man at the right time in the right place, it was Churchill in 1940. His magnificent oratory, his energy and his stubborn refusal to accept anything rather than total victory were crucial in rallying British resistance and keeping that nation and its empire in the war during the dark days between 1940 and 1942. Moreover, he was absolutely essential in securing the military and political backing of the United States prior to that nation's entry into the war in December 1941.

In his first speech to The House of Commons on May 13, 1940 --- just three days after becoming prime minister --- Churchill warned the members "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Then, after the disaster in France and the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill, on June 4, 1940, spoke to Parliament on the possibility of a German invasion and what Britain's reaction would 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!"

Indeed, Churchill's whole defiant, never admit defeat attitude was best summed up in a Oct. 29, 1941 speech to the pupils at his old public (private) school at Harrow: "Never give in --- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

Forming a lasting personal alliance with American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill proved the perfect ally --- maintaining the aims of Great Britain while allowing the more powerful United States to assume the dominant role in the prosecution of the war both in Western Europe against Germany and Italy and in the Pacific Ocean against Japan.

Strongly supported by an admiring British public during the war, Churchill nevertheless was defeated in national elections held in July 1945, just three months after the surrender of Germany, by the Labor Party, which had pledged rapid social reforms.

But Churchill's voice on the world stage was far from silenced. In 1946 during a visit to the United States, Churchill made one of the most important speeches of the 20th century at Fulton College in Missouri. Deploring the expansion of the Soviet Union throughout Eastern Europe, it was during that speech that he coined the phrase "Iron Curtain."

Once again assuming the office of prime minister from 1951 to his resignation in 1955, the man who as a young officer participated in a cavalry charge led his nation into the nuclear age. In the winter of his long life, Churchill was knighted, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing and oratory and in 1963 was made an honorary citizen of the United States. He retained his seat in Parliament until 1964, less than a year before his death.

He died in 1965 at the age of 90 and his death marked the end of an era not only n British history, but in world history. Given a state funeral (the music he chose to be played was the American "Battle Hymn of the Republic") he was buried at his ancestral home of Blenheim Palace.

In death, Churchill left behind one of the greatest political and personal legacies in history. And unrivaled combination of restless activity, active imagination and a gambler's daring marked both his life and career and led him to the heights of power and world prestige. Yet, ironically, those very characteristics at times proved to be his greatest weaknesses, which time and time again until the desperate days of 1940 denied him the power he so craved.

Recommended reading:

Books by Winston Churchill: "Lord Randolph Churchill" (1906), "My Early Life: A Roving Commission" (1930), "Marlborough" (4 vols, 1933-38. Biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, one of the greatest generals in British history), "World Crisis" (4 vols., 1923-29. His account of World War I), "The Second World War" (6 vols., 1948-53) and "A History of the English-speaking Peoples" (4 vols., 1956-58).

Books by others on Churchill: The best biographies of Churchill are the multi-volume work (1966-78) by his son Randolph Churchill and a one-volume work (1992) by Martin Gilbert. Also recommended is A.J. P. Taylor's "Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment" (1968).