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Winston Churchill

Last modified 8 October 2013.

First published 9 December 2000. Reviewed 31 July 2003

Full name Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. AKA 'Winnie'.

Country: Great Britain.

Cause: Defeat of European fascism in the Second World War.

Background: As Germany rises from the deprivations of the First World War and the Great Depression, the rest of the world tries to ignore the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. But when Hitler launches his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 the world finally realises that the Germans will not be appeased. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany.

Mini biography: Born on 30 November 1874 at Blenhiem Palace in Oxfordshire, England, into an aristocratic family. His father is a Conservative politician, his mother an American heiress. Churchill receives his schooling at Harrow then is admitted to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he studies to become an officer.

1895 - Churchill is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th Hussar Regiment in February but soon obtains leave to cover the Cuban war for independence from Spain as a reporter for the 'London Daily Graphic'.

1896-98 - He serves as a cavalry officer and journalist on the North-West Frontier in India and on Lord Kitchener's Nile expedition. His dispatches attract wide attention, launching his literary career.

1899 - He resigns his commission and is assigned to cover the Boer War in South Africa for the 'London Morning Post'. He becomes a celebrity when he is captured by the Boer during a reconnaissance mission into their territory then five weeks later manages to escape from a prison in Pretoria.

1900 - Standing for the Conservative Party, he is elected to the British Parliament as the member for Oldham. During this first of his many terms in parliament he advocates a fair, negotiated peace with the Boers.

1904 - Disenchanted with a push by the Conservatives to introduce a tariff, Churchill, a committed free trader, joins the Liberals.

1906-1911 - The Liberals win the general election of 1906, with Churchill taking Manchester for the party. He now begins his ministerial career, serving as undersecretary of state for the colonies before being promoted to president of the Board of Trade (1908-1910), a position that gives him a seat in the Cabinet.

At the Board of Trade Churchill continues a program of social reform begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, introducing an eight-hour working day for miners, setting up boards to fix minimum wages, and establishing state-run labour exchanges.

In 1908 Churchill marries Clementine Hozier.

When the House of Lords rejects the Liberal's budget of 1909 Churchill is a key figure in a successful campaign to curb the Lords' power and in February 1910 is promoted to home secretary. Here his often controversial handling of industrial disputes damages his reputation among the organised labour movement.

In October 1911, Churchill is appointed lord of the admiralty, where he oversees an ambitious program to prepare the fleet for a brewing war with Germany.

1914 - The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In its ensuing dispute with Serbia, Austria-Hungary refuses to be placated. Germany sides with Austria-Hungary when the situation deteriorates.

On 2 August Churchill orders the mobilisation of the navy. Germany declares war on France the following day. Britain joins the conflict on the side of the French and declares war on Germany on 14 August. The fighting on the Western Front soon bogs down into grim trench warfare. The First World War will last for four years.

Churchill takes a hands-on approach to the war early on, travelling to Antwerp in Belgium in October to personally organise the city's defence. Though the city soon falls, he is able to buy enough time to ensure the orderly evacuation of the forces there.

1915 - Churchill successfully pushes a plan to seize Istanbul, the capital of Germany's ally Turkey, and open a route to Russia by forcing a fleet through the Dardanelles Strait, the entry to the Sea of Marmara and a gateway to Istanbul, which lies on the sea's northeastern shore. But the naval attack fails and is quickly called off.

When the Liberals go into a coalition, Churchill's support for the Dardanelles strategy and for the failed defence of Antwerp results in his demotion to the minor office of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Here he is given responsibility for the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, an attempt to seize Turkish positions on the peninsula that forms the eastern boundary of the Dardanelles Strait.

The campaign, which includes troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs), results in the deaths of about 48,000 men for no effective gain. It is abandoned in the autumn. Churchill is held responsible for the disaster.

He resigns from the government in November and rejoins the army, seeing active service on the Western Front in France as lieutenant-colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.

1916 - Churchill returns to parliament in June, sitting as an independent.

1917 - In July he is appointed minister of munitions in Lloyd George's coalition government and works to push through the development of the tank and its deployment on the Western Front.

1918 - The First World War ends on 11 November. In January 1919 Churchill is appointed state secretary of war and air. He has initial success in securing an intensification of the British action against the new Bolshevik Government in Russia but the forces are eventually withdrawn.

1921 - Churchill is made colonial secretary. While in this post he produces a white paper confirming Palestine as a Jewish national home while recognising continuing Arab rights.

He oversees reforms to the British administration of Iraq and the establishment of an indigenous monarchy both there and in Jordan. He is also involved in the negotiations that lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

1922 - Churchill loses his seat in parliament at the general election and returns to writing. The following year he resigns from the Liberal Party.

1924 - In November he is reelected to parliament as an independent but is nevertheless offered the post of chancellor of the exchequer by the Conservative government. His decision to reintroduce the gold standard results in an economic disaster that will lead to the general strike of 1926, which Churchill bitterly opposes.

1929 - He loses the office of chancellor of the exchequer when the Conservatives are defeated at the election and is not reappointed when the National government is formed in 1931. While on the outer he campaigns vigorously against the granting of limited home rule to India under the Government of India Act.

His attention once again turns to writing but he is also concerned by the growing danger of Hitler's Germany. Over the next 10 years he argues in and out of parliament that the threat should be taken seriously and that appeasement of Hitler is not a long-term solution.

1935 - He is appointed to the secret Committee on Air Defence Research, from where he assists with the build-up of the Royal Air Force (RAF), a development that will be crucial to the outcome of the 'Battle of Britain' in four years time.

1938 - On 29 September Britain, France, Germany and Italy sign the 'Munich Agreement' ceding the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia, to Germany in return for an assurance of no further territorial expansion.

1939 - German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain declares war on Germany on 3 September. On the same day, Churchill is appointed to his old post as lord of the admiralty.

1940 - On 10 May Churchill is appointed prime minister of a coalition war government. He also takes charge of the Ministry of Defence and the leadership of the House of Commons.

When he faces the house for the first time as prime minister on 13 May he commits himself and the nation to all out war until victory is won. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he says.

"We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war by land, sea and air, with all our might and with all the strength God has given us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. 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." Full copy of the speech.

On 4 June, following the evacuation of 340,000 Allied troops from Dunkerque on the north coast of France, he tells the parliament, "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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old." Full copy of the speech.

Beginning from 10 July, the 'Battle of Britain' rages in the skies as the RAF desperately combats wave after wave of aerial attacks and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe while launching counteroffensive bombing missions into Germany.

Though outnumbered by four to one the RAF is able to inflict enough damage to the German forces to cause Hitler to suspend 'Operation Sealion', the proposed invasion of Britain by sea. By the end of September the 'Battle of Britain' is effectively over. Germany has suffered its first major defeat of the war. About 14,000 British civilians have died in the German raids.

On 20 August Churchill tells the parliament, "The gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Full copy of the speech.

Churchill is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year for 1940. "He gave his countrymen exactly what he promised them - blood, toil, tears, sweat - and one thing more: untold courage," the magazine states.

"It was the last that counted, not only in Britain but in democracies throughout the world ... On his behaviour hung the shape of the future. His civilised toughness, his balanced courage and his simple pride altered the course of history in 1940."

1941 - When Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June Churchill states that "the Russian danger ... is our danger" and pledges to aid the Russian people. He also begins planning a "grand alliance" between Britain, the United States and the Soviets.

On 14 August Churchill and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issue the 'Atlantic Charter', a joint statement setting out eight "common principles ... for a better future for the world." Drawn up at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland, the charter includes commitments to national sovereignty, democratic government, free trade, improved labour, economic and social standards, freedom of movement, world peace, and the abandonment of the use of force.

After the Japanese attack the US Navy at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December the US enters the war. Germany and Italy declare war on the US on 11 December.

Churchill travels to Washington DC to negotiate an Anglo-American accord on the conduct of the war with President Roosevelt, who also embraces Churchill's plan for a "grand alliance." The two leaders agree that their primary aim should be the defeat of Germany and that countering Japan should be a US responsibility.

1942 - In 'The Declaration of the United Nations' of 1 January the Allies agree not to make a separate peace with the enemy and pledge themselves to the formation of a peacekeeping organisation (now the United Nations - UN) on victory. An accord between the British and the Soviets is accepted in May. The "grand alliance" to fight fascism is now a reality.

The military turning point of the war in Europe comes when the German Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the winter of 1942-43. Though the German forces laying siege to the city are encircled and trapped by a Soviet counteroffensive, Hitler refuses to allow them to attempt an escape. They surrender on 2 February 1943.

By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The German offensive in North Africa is stopped at the beginning of November 1942 when Allied troops led by General Bernard Law Montgomery force the German Afrika Korps led by General Erwin Rommel into a retreat. By 13 May 1943 275,000 Germans and Italians have surrendered. The war in North Africa is over, leaving the Allies free to land in Sicily and Italy.

To the west, the US and British navies gain control of the Atlantic shipping lanes, clearing the way for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

In the skies over Germany the Allied air forces intensify their bombing raids. During February, March and April of 1945 two thirds of the entire bomb tonnage used during the war will be dropped on Germany. The strategy of indiscriminate carpet and fire bombing, which is endorsed by Churchill, will kill an estimated 600,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children.

Churchill describes the aerial campaign as "moral bombing", although after between 25,000 and 40,000 people are killed in a raid on Dresden on 13 February 1945 he calls for the practice to be reviewed.

"The question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror ... should be reviewed," Churchill writes to the chief of the air staff six weeks after Dresden, "Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. ... The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. ... The foreign secretary has spoken to me on the subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives ... rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive."

1943 - Churchill and Roosevelt hold the Casablanca Conference on 14 January, declaring that they will except nothing short of unconditional surrender from any of the Axis powers.

From 28 November to 1 December Churchill meets with Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The three leaders discuss the details of their joint campaign against Hitler and reaffirm their joint policy of accepting nothing less than an unconditional surrender from Germany.

By the end of year, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. By the end of 1944, the front has moved into Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, in India the independence movement gains pace after Britain unilaterally declares India's participation in the war on the side of the Allies. Churchill rejects the movement's offer of military support in return for independence and jails its leaders. Thousands of the movement's supporters are also jailed.

When a famine breaks out in Bengal in 1943 Churchill does little to provide food relief. Between one and two million Bengalis subsequently starve to death.

1945 - From February 4-11, Churchill again meets with Roosevelt and Stalin. The conference, held near Yalta in the Crimea, concludes with the issuing of the 'Yalta Declaration' committing the Allies to the destruction of German militarism and Nazism.

A conquered Germany will be divided into three zones of occupation and eastern Poland will be ceded to the Soviets. The declaration also announces that a "conference of United Nations" will be held in San Francisco in April.

A conquered Germany will be divided into three zones of military occupation. Soviet forces will remain in Eastern Europe until free elections are held and the people are allowed to choose the form of government under which they will live.

The declaration also announces that a "conference of United Nations" will be held in San Francisco in April. However, despite the positive outcome, Churchill comes away from the conference with misgivings about Stalin's ambitions in Europe. His doubts are well-founded. While the UN will be established, Stalin fails to allow free and fair elections in the Eastern European countries the Soviets occupy after the war.

By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Berlin falls to the Soviet forces on 2 May. Germany surrenders unconditionally on 7 May.

Churchill announces the German surrender on 8 May. His Conservative Party is defeated by the Labour Party in the election held in July but he continues on in parliament as leader of the opposition and begins writing a six-volume history of the Second World War.

The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.

Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war, including:

  • Over 26 million Soviets,
  • Over seven million Germans,
  • About 6.8 million Poles,
  • Between one million and 1.7 million Yugoslavs,
  • 985,000 Romanians,
  • 810,000 French,
  • 750,000 Hungarians,
  • 525,000 Austrians,
  • 520,000 Greeks,
  • 410,000 Italians,
  • 400,000 Czechs,
  • 388,000 British,
  • 250,000 Dutch,
  • 88,000 Belgians,
  • 84,000 Fins,
  • 22,000 Spaniards,
  • 21,000 Bulgarians,
  • 10,000 Norwegians, and
  • 4,000 Danes.

The war has also claimed over 13 million people from other lands, including:

  • About 11.3 million Chinese,
  • Almost two million Japanese,
  • 298,000 Americans,
  • 118,000 Filipinos,
  • 42,000 Canadians,
  • 36,000 Indians,
  • 29,000 Australians,
  • 12,000 New Zealanders, and
  • 9,000 South Africans.

1946 - On 5 March Churchill delivers a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, calling on the UN to stand firm against the spread of communism in Eastern Europe. The speech marks the beginning of the Cold War and provides the lexicon for future Western criticism of the Soviet Union.

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent," he says. "(Peace) can only be achieved by reaching now, in 1946, a good understanding on all points with Russia under the general authority of the United Nations Organisation and by the maintenance of that good understanding through many peaceful years, by the world instrument, supported by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections. There is the solution which I respectfully offer to you in this address to which I have given the title 'The Sinews of Peace'." Full copy of the speech.

1949 - He is again named 'Time' magazine's person of the year. "Starting with superb confidence, the 20th Century plunged vigorously forward from ambush to ambush," the magazine states.

"Shock after shock threw civilisation into confusion. As the 20th Century plunged on, long-familiar bearings were lost in the mists of change. Some of the age's great leaders called for more and more speed ahead; some tried to reverse the course. Winston Churchill had a different function: his chief contribution was to warn of rocks ahead, and to lead the rescue parties. He was not the man who designed the ship; what he did was to launch the lifeboats. That a free world survived in 1950, with a hope of more progress and less calamity, was due in large measure to his exertions."

1951 - In October Churchill leads the Conservative Party back into office and is elected prime minister for the second time.

Meanwhile in Iran, the administration of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh legislates to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which is majority-owned by the British Government.

Britain responds to the nationalisation by placing a worldwide embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil and pressuring its allies to do the same. In September Britain freezes Iran's sterling assets and bans export of goods to Iran.

1952 - With negotiations over the nationalisation of the AIOC in Iran at an impasse, Britain starts to plan a coup d'état to topple Mossadegh and urges the US to join in the operation, which is code-named 'TPAJAX', or 'Operation Ajax'. The coup plan has the full backing of Churchill, although the outgoing administration of US President Harry S. Truman is reluctant to become involved.

1953 - On 27 June Churchill suffers a stroke that causes partial paralysis but from which he quickly recovers.

Final approval for Britain's participation in the plan to oust Mossadegh is granted on 1 July. Incoming US President Dwight D. Eisenhower approves the joint British-US operation on 11 July. The plan has four elements - first a campaign to undermine Mossadegh's popularity and raise the spectre of a communist takeover of the government; second, Mossadegh's dismissal; third, street riots; and lastly the emergence of a new prime minister who has been hand-picked by Britain and the US.

The coup begins on 15 August. By 19 August Mossadegh and his government have fallen.

Under an agreement reached between the new Iranian government and a consortium of eight foreign oil companies, industry control of the oil companies is restored.

The consortium is made up of the AIOC (with a 40% holding), Royal Dutch Shell (14% holding), Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), Standard Oil of California, Socony Vacuum, the Texas Company, Gulf Oil Corporation, and the Compagnie Francaise des Petroles.

At the same time, Iran agrees to pay compensation to the AIOC of US$70 million over 10 years. The AIOC is also renamed the British Petroleum Company, better known these days as 'BP'.

Meanwhile, Churchill is knighted and wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

1954 - He is acclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II and parliament as "the greatest living Briton."

1955 - Ill health forces him to resign as prime minister on 5 April but he remains in parliament as "father of the house" and writes another major historical work, 'A History of the English-speaking Peoples'. Before stepping down as prime minister he authorises the manufacture of a British hydrogen bomb.

1963 - On 9 April the US Congress grants him honorary American citizenship.

1964 - He formally retires from politics in July.

1965 - Churchill dies from a stroke in London on 24 January. His state funeral is held on 30 January. He is buried beside his mother at the family grave in Bladon churchyard, Oxfordshire.

Postscript

2004 - On 30 November Churchill is given a place of honour in St Paul's Cathedral in London. A specially commissioned memorial screen stretching across the mausoleum of supreme military distinction in the cathedral's crypt is dedicated to Churchill, placing him in the same rank as two other celebrated British wartime heroes - Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

2005 - A museum dedicated to Churchill is opened in London by Queen Elizabeth II on 10 February. The museum is located in the basement of the Treasury, alongside the Cabinet War Rooms from which Churchill directed the British war effort.

Comment: We all owe 'Winnie' and the Brits in general a great debt of gratitude. When the fascist forces led by Germany's Adolf Hitler threatened to overrun all of Europe in the early days of World War Two it was Britain under Churchill's leadership that formed a last outpost. Soviet resistance in the east and Allied offensives in the west eventually defeated the fascists, but the outcome could have been horribly different if Churchill and Britain had not grasped for their "finest hour" during the closing months of 1940. We could have all ended up living in a far less tolerant and far more frightening world.

That said, we should not forget the dark side of Churchill's legacy - the regressive industrial relations policies; the opposition to Indian home rule; the carpet bombing of German cities during the Second World War that killed tens of thousands of innocents; the coup in Iran that ousted a popular leader and helped to poison future relations between the Islamic world and the West; and the contribution to the nuclear arms race.