The Right Honourable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, FRS, PC 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, 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
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 hero.
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. On the possible use of gas weapons 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, 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 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.
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. He became most notable for his outspoken opposition towards the granting of independence to India.
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 it.
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 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. Churchill was also instrumental in giving France a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. 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 progress are 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 share”.
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, famously declared:
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.