Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill
statesman to achieve high office in both World Wars and to write
profusely about his experiences, Winston Churchill dominated the 20th
Century like few other individuals. Although best known for his
courageous leadership as British prime minister during World War II,
Churchill was a formidable political thinker and one of the
highest-paid journalists from the days of Queen Victoria's "little
wars" to his memoirs of World War II.
A larger-than-life character, famous for his trademark cigar and his
overblown reputation as a drinker (which he joyfully exaggerated),
Churchill was also a talented amateur painter and pilot, soldier,
farmer, bricklayer, and orator. When he retired from the House of
Commons in 1964, he had spent over six decades in public life, a career
that ran from the last great British cavalry charge to the nuclear age.
Born in 1874 to Lord Randolph Churchill and an American mother, the
former Jennie Jerome, Winston spent a typical upperclass childhood in
the hands of nurses and headmasters at a succession of private schools.
While he was no more neglected than most boys of his age and class, his
sensitive nature recoiled at his parents' aloofness and he always
regretted his failure to achieve a close relationship with his father,
who died in 1895 at the age of only 45. His mother later became his
ardent ally, helping him achieve key assignments as a war reporter and
smoothing his career in politics.
In late 1900, Churchill was elected to Parliament as a Conservative and
took his seat in early 1901. His independent nature soon saw him at
odds with his party, and in 1904 he "crossed the floor" to the
Liberals, who won a landslide election in early 1906. He served the
Liberal government as President of the Board of Trade and Home
Secretary, where he helped introduce social legislation that laid the
foundations for the later welfare state. In 1911, he became First Lord
of the Admiralty (civilian head of the Royal Navy), working feverishly
to complete the conversion of ships from coal to oil power. Together
with his two First Sea Lords, Prince Louis of Battenberg and Admiral
Lord Fisher, Churchill promoted fast, powerful battleships and outbuilt
the Germans to maintain British naval supremacy. He founded the Naval
Air Service, and made numerous visits to ships and navy bases, where he
was admired for his efforts to improve conditions for officers and
At Churchill's direction, the fleet was at its war station before war
broke out in 1914, but it was never able to engage the Germans in a
decisive early sea battle. Worse, Churchill's support of a failed
campaign to force entry in the Dardanelles "by ships alone" caused his
removal from the Admiralty in May 1915. Reporting to his regiment in
the trenches of Belgium, he was under fire for three months before
returning to Parliament. In 1917 he was appointed Minister of Munitions
and, in 1919, Secretary for War and Air.
As Colonial Secretary in 1921-22, Churchill enjoyed two notable
diplomatic achievements. At the 1921 Cairo conference, he helped
establish the borders of the modern Middle East, though he failed in
his attempt to set up a Kurdish homeland "to protect the Kurds against
some future bully in Iraq." Closer to home, he helped to forge the
Irish Treaty, which kept the peace in Ireland for 50 years. Michael
Collins, the IRA revolutionary with whom Churchill negotiated, said
from his deathbed: "Tell Winston we could have done nothing without
In 1924, Churchill rejoined the Conservatives, serving as Chancellor of
the Exchequer through spring 1929. He returned Britain to the gold
standard and ran a government newspaper, "The British Gazette," during
the general strike of 1926. He became increasingly separated from the
Conservatives in the 1930s, first over the plan to grant India dominion
status; later over Britain's slow rearmament in the face of Hitler's
aggression; and finally when he championed King Edward VIII, who
abdicated in 1936. Not until war had broken out again in 1939 was he
asked to rejoin the Government - again becoming First Lord of the
Admiralty, which according to legend, signaled to its ships: "Winston
is Back." He renewed his energetic naval policies but was repulsed in
an attempt to wrest Norway from the invading Germans in April 1940.
With the Nazi blitzkrieg pouring into the Low Countries, Churchill
succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister on May 10, 1940 and
presided over a year of devastating defeats. In those months, when
Britain stood alone and almost unarmed against Hitler, as Edward R.
Murrow said, "he mobilized the English language and sent it into
battle." After Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941, Churchill vowed to
help the Soviets, declaring, "if Hitler invaded hell I would at least
make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."
Establishing close ties with President Roosevelt, he secured American
military aid and moral support, but his ultimate goal was to have
America fighting at Britain's side. When the United States was drawn
into the war by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill admitted that
he "slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful."
Churchill was disappointed by the failure to control an expansionist
Soviet Union toward the end of the war, and watched with mounting
concern another totalitarian state rise dominant in Europe. To the
amazement of many outside Britain, his party was routed in the 1945
general election and he became Leader of the Opposition. His famous
"Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946 was the opening salvo
and warning of the Cold War, unpopular at the time but later considered
prophetic. In 1949, he predicted the demise of Communism, "ignited by a
spark coming from God knows where, and in a moment the whole system of
lies and oppression is on trial for its life."
In 1951 the Conservatives regained an electoral majority and Churchill
became prime minister again, but he was disappointed in his effort to
achieve a peaceful settlement of cold war antagonisms, and his domestic
record was indifferent. He became a Knight of the Garter, acquiring the
title "Sir Winston," in 1953.
Churchill won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, bestowed for his
numerous books on history, biography and politics. His greatest
biography was "Marlborough" (4 volumes, 1933-38); his best-known
historical work was "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" (4
volumes, 1956-1958). His personal memoirs, "My Early Life" (1930), "The
World Crisis" (5 volumes, 1923-31) and "The Second World War" (6
volumes, 1948-53) are readable personal accounts of his Victorian youth
and the two world wars. In all, Churchill wrote over 40 titles in over
60 volumes, nearly 1,000 articles and uncounted speeches. His official
life, by his son Randolph and Sir Martin Gilbert, is the longest
biography ever published.
Asked to summarize Churchill in one sentence, Gilbert said: "He was a
great humanitarian who was himself distressed that the accidents of
history gave him his greatest power at a time when everything had to be
focused on defending the country from destruction, rather than
achieving his goals of a fairer society."
To Martin Gilbert also we owe these last lines from Sir Winston's
biography: "When at last his life's great impulses were fading,
Churchill's daughter Mary paid him perhaps the most eloquent tribute of
all: 'In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving,
generous father, I owe you what every Englishman, woman & child
does -- Liberty itself.'"
Suffering from age and poor health, he retired in April 1955, but
remained a Member of Parliament for another nine years. In 1963 he was
declared an Honorary Citizen of the United States by President John F.
Kennedy. He died at age 90 on January 24, 1965.