Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s illustrious Prime Minister in World War Two lived a dramatic and tempestuous life before finding worldwide fame in old age.
If Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill had died in his forties, which he believed was the lifespan for mail members of his aristocratic family, he would have gone down in history as a brilliant but maverick failure. Instead, Churchill defied the statistics to live another fifty years and earn a unique place in British and world history.
Churchill and Nazi Germany
The difference between these two destinies lay within a short period of time – the five years of World War Two, between 1940 and 1945, when Churchill was British Prime Minister and most of western Europe had been conquered by Nazi Germany.
Long before this, though, Churchill had recognized the threat the Nazis and their dictatorial leader Adolf Hitler, posed to world peace. He took every opportunity to impress this somber truth on a succession of pacifist British governments intent on appeasing Hitler rather than confronting him.
Over and over again, Churchill called for immediate rearmament to counter the rapid and largely illegal military buildup in Nazi Germany. His warnings were ignored and he was sidelined by other politicians, who regarded him as an eccentric political irritant.
Descendant of the Duke of Marlborough
Churchill was a man born out of his time. Even in his younger days, thirsting for glory and not fussy about how he acquired it, he was seen as a troublemaker.
A grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and through that link a descendant of John Churchill, the first, 18th century, Duke and England’s greatest general, he seemed to be an atypical English aristocrat: he relished popular acclaim, and was an ambitious opportunist and self-publicist who promoted himself in pushy “un-English” ways.
Churchill’s stand in the 1930s against the appeasement of Nazi Germany and its ally Fascist Italy earned him a further label: warmonger. These were Churchill’s “wilderness years” when he was out of office and out of favor. Like the mythical Cassandra, his predictions, though accurate, seemed fated to go unheeded.
Wartime Prime Minister
But fate proved kinder to Churchill than it had to the ancient Greek heroine. The outbreak of war in Europe on September 3, 1939 demonstrated how right Churchill had been and how mistaken was the British government’s policy of appeasement.
Churchill became Prime Minister and leader of the government on May 10, 1940 when he was sixty-five, the normal age of retirement for males in Britain. Within weeks, the British were in a desperate situation, with NazI forces, poised to invade, barely 21 miles away across the English Channel.
Even as he took office, Churchill left the people of Britain in no doubt about the grim future they had to face. As he told Parliament on May 13: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of he most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.
“You ask, what is our policy? I can say: it is to wage war by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.
“You ask What is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be: for without victory, there is no survival.”
The impassioned appeal to patriotism and courage of this and other wartime speeches profoundly stirred the people of Britain. In those dark weeks, whenever Churchill addressed Parliament or the British people, his message was emotional and uncompromising and typified the feisty “bulldog spirit” with which he came to be identified.
Churchill himself regarded his leadership of Britain during World War Two as no more than his allotted destiny. His whole life, he felt, had been a preparation for this “finest hour” when he would walk with that destiny.
Churchill, an Extraordinary Boy
There was already a strong hint of Churchill’s future place in history in 1889, when he was still only fifteen years old and a pupil at the prestigious Harrow public school. His parents, Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife Jenny Jerome, and his teachers saw a troublesome boy, always in some scrape or other, and seemingly unable to behave properly.
However, Murland Evans, an older fellow pupil at Harrow saw something entirely different. “Like other boys at the school” Evans remembered, “I was greatly attracted by this extraordinary boy.
“His commanding intelligence, his bravery, charm and indifference to ugly surroundings, vivid imagination, descriptive powers, general knowledge of the world and of history – gained no one knew how, but never disputed – and above all that magnetism and sympathy which shone in his eyes and radiated from a personality which, even under the severe repression of our public school system, dominated great numbers around him, many of whom were his superiors in age and prowess.”
The story of Britain’s great – arguably the greatest – wartime Prime Minister tells how Churchill the boy travelled a long, frustrating road before his destiny was realized, and how Churchill the man believed with perfect faith that he was marked for greatness and proved himself right.
- Gilbert, Dr. Martin: Churchill: A Life. (Missoula, Montana: Pimlico Book Cpmpany,, 2000) ISBN-10: 0712667253/ ISBN-13: 978-0712667258
- Corrigan, Gordon: The Second World War: A Military History (London, UK: Atlantic Books, 2010)) ISBN-10: 1843548941/ ISBN-13: 978-1843548942