The product of an alcoholic, syphilitic father and promiscuous American mother, Winston Churchill was one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century. Ironically, he would never have come to greatness but for his contemporary and bitter rival Adolf Hitler.
Descended from the Dukes of Marlborough, Churchill was primed for success despite his parental problems. He graduated from the Sandhurst military academy in 1895 and embarked upon a dizzying army career. He reported news from Cuba, served in India, and in 1898 he fought in the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, where he rode in one of the last great cavalry charges. The following year he was a newspaper correspondent in South Africa, covering the Boer War. Not yet twenty-five, he received a thousand dollars a month plus expenses—a staggering amount, but London’s Morning Post considered him worth it. He was audacious and innovative, and as a later biographer said, ‘‘Churchill used the English language as if he invented it.’’ He also provided drama: captured by the Boers, he completed a daring escape and returned to safety despite a bounty on his head.
Government posts came Churchill’s way almost automatically. Before the Great War he sat in Parliament as a Conservative, Tory, and Liberal. He became Undersecretary of the Colonies, president of the Board of Trade, and Home Secretary. He also found time to marry the Honorable Clementine Hozier in 1908. They had a son and two daughters.
In 1911 Churchill became First Sea Lord, bringing important changes to the Royal Navy. He recognized the potential of the submarine and airplane, learned to fly, and established the Royal Naval Air Service. However, in 1915, during World War I his ambitious strategy for the Dardenelles led to the debacle at Gallipoli. Forced from the cabinet, he cheerfully returned to the army and commanded a Scottish battalion on the western front. He also was a major factor behind development of the armored fighting vehicle—which he named, for all time, the tank.
Churchill was back in the cabinet by mid-1917 and finished the war as minister of munitions. He opposed postwar accommodations with Indian separatists such as Gandhi and was involved in other international affairs as colonial secretary, including establishment of the Iraqi nation in 1921. Over the next several years he was in and out of Parliament and government, earning an exceptional living from writing.
During the 1930s Churchill expressed growing concern over the resurgence of German nationalism. After Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, the former sea lord urged strengthening the Royal Navy, but few Britons heeded him. However, as the German Führer went from success to success, it became apparent that Nazi ambition could not be contained. Churchill had only contempt for appeasers like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy, but with declaration of war in September 1939 Churchill the warhorse felt justified in returning to harness. When he resumed his position as First Sea Lord after twenty-four years, the Admiralty signaled the fleet, ‘‘Winston is back.’’
With Chamberlain’s policies and moral authority irrefutably discredited, Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940. Immediately faced with the fall of France and the possible invasion of England, Churchill directed his immense energy and ability to defense of Shakespeare’s ‘‘scepter’d isle.’’ He shrugged off suggestions by some right-wing politicians and allegedly a few members of the royal family to reach an accommodation with Hitler. Through the summer and fall the Battle of Britain was fought and won in English skies, and the Nazi invasion fleet—such as it was—never sailed. Churchill’s masterful oratory gripped the world’s attention in concert with the epic events unfolding about him.
The following year was equally crucial, witnessing Germany’s attack on Russia and America’s entry into the war. Churchill had already established a warm relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and put aside an instinctive dislike and distrust for Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Churchill, a firm anticommunist, knew Stalin for what he was—unlike Roosevelt, who consistently made allowances for the Soviet dictator, fondly calling the genocidal despot ‘‘Uncle Joe.’’ Despite their personal and national differences with respect to communist Russia, Churchill and Roosevelt remained staunch allies throughout the war. They quickly decided on a ‘‘Germany first’’ strategy, but in early 1942 the main threat was from Japan, which was rolling up easy victories in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.
In December 1943 the first Big Three meeting was held in Tehran, Iran, agreeing upon the Anglo-American landings in northern France sometime in the summer of 1944. Churchill and Roosevelt maintained almost daily contact by phone and mail, with some 1,700 messages between the two leaders; a frequent topic was Overlord and its myriad details.
Despite his enthusiasm and aggressiveness, Churchill retained doubts about Overlord. Perhaps he still stung from the Gallipoli failure twenty-nine years before, but in any case Churchill was atypically cautious. He favored a Mediterranean approach, up the boot of Italy via the ‘‘soft underbelly of Europe.’’ Even when the Italian campaign bogged down he told Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, ‘‘If [by winter] you have secured the port at Le Havre and freed beautiful Paris from the hands of the enemy, I will assert the victory to be the greatest of modern times.’’
Once the decision had been made, Churchill was Overlord’s fierce advocate. He reveled in the tactics and gadgets that characterized the greatest amphibious operation yet attempted—he was especially taken with the Mulberry portable harbors. He also informed Eisenhower of his intention to observe the landings from a British cruiser. The supreme commander replied that Churchill was far too valuable to risk and prohibited it. Churchill calmly replied that as a British citizen he would sign on aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, whereupon Eisenhower’s headquarters contacted Buckingham Palace. King George thereupon called Churchill, declaring that if the prime minister went to Normandy, the monarch could do no less. Churchill relented.
While largely unstated, one of Churchill’s major concerns was limiting Soviet territorial gains in Europe. Having an eye toward the postwar world, he did not want Stalin in control of formerly democratic nations. However, geopolitics required further cooperation with his unlikely ally, and Churchill met Roosevelt for the last time in Stalin’s domain—Yalta in the Crimea, in February 1945. Victory in Europe was visible by then, though with more hard fighting to come in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s premature death in April ended the original Big Three.
The English-speaking world was stunned when Churchill was turned out of office in July 1945. What appeared to be staggering ingratitude by the British voters probably was better explained by the approaching peace. Winston Churchill was a warrior by instinct and by preference; his countrymen recognized that fact and considered Labour’s candidate, Clement Atlee, better suited for peacetime challenges. With Japan’s surrender in September, those concerns became even more immediate. He regained the prime ministership in 1951.
Churchill finally retired in 1955 at the age of eighty-one. He continued writing, speaking, and painting for the next decade, gaining additional honors. His multivolume history The Second World War received the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, but he wrote twenty other histories and biographies as well. That same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He was made an honorary American citizen in 1963.
Sir Winston Churchill died in his ninetieth year, on 24 January 1965. Two generations mourned him; kings, queens, and presidents paid him tribute, and historians acknowledged their debt.
Churchill’s place in history is assured; with Hitler he remains a towering political figure of the twentieth century. His courage, determination, and leadership during Britain’s greatest peril mark him for the ages. However unlikely the success of a German invasion of Britain in 1940 now seems—‘‘Overlord in reverse’’—it did not seem so at the time. When some of his fellow Britons and not a few Americans called for capitulation or accommodation, Winston Churchill chomped his cigar, flashed his V-for-victory sign, and uttered a defiant ‘‘No!’’ that echoes down the ages.
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