Sir Winston S. Churchill
When Churchill was a mere 55 years old, he was already writing his own memoirs on his “early life.” This man felt he was destined for great things, and all great things, he thought, must be recorded in history. So Churchill, ambitious, willful leader that he was, decided to write this history himself: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Though he was criticized for burying mistakes and emphasizing successes, he still managed to win a Nobel Prize for literature, and, as is evidenced by the incredible wit, insight, and candor of his words, the prize was well deserved.
By age 55 Churchill had already accumulated plenty of stories to fill a memoir. He had already fought in five wars! His heart pounded with the beat of battle, and even as Prime Minister, he had a difficult time keeping his distance from the battlefield. But it was his nature to fight until the bitter end. He was so very ironclad in his convictions that he always did everything he could to achieve his ideal victory. He consistently reminded his beloved Britain of their, in his mind, destined victory with his famous V-sign: arm held high in the air, first two fingers spread in a V, and usually a cigar between his thumb and ring finger. By no standards was Churchill a perfect gentleman, a fact he was first to admit. He was always, unapologetically, himself. But one might argue that it was his complete character, his virtues and his vices, that enabled him to be one of the most crucial and memorable champions of democracy and freedom of the twentieth century.
Winston Churchill never attended a university. He hated the boarding school he was sent to as a young boy, and once said, “It is said that famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood.” Such was the case for young Churchill.
He did, however, manage to find ways to amuse and educate himself. His lack of interest in school was not due to a lack of intelligence:
When I was nine and a half my father gave me Treasure Island and I remember the delight with which I devoured it. My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn. Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”
And he continued his self-education into his adulthood, even while at war:
…although schoolmasters couldn’t make him work, Churchill decided, in his twenties, that he needed an education. During the long, dull afternoons if army life in India, Churchill absorbed the works of Macaulay, Adam Smith, Darwin, Plato, and his greatest influence, Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And he didn’t merely learn by reading, but set himself to writing his own speeches on political events of earlier generations…
Churchill believed he was born destined for greatness. This air of confidence and untouchability carried him throughout his life. He faced major setbacks, and he was not always loved by his country. Nevertheless, in a small, quiet meeting on May 9, 1940, Winston Spencer Churchill was named Prime Minister of England. He was chosen as the man to beat the increasing global terror: Adolf Hitler.
Whether Churchill’s fame and success was a self-fulfilling prophecy, or there truly was some divine intervention upon Churchill’s birth will always be open for interpretation. However, it was a belief in which Churchill was absolutely convinced, and it enabled him to persevere during some very bleak times.
In World War I, he was removed from the admiral team because of a failed expedition, known as Dardanelles, which resulted in thousands of deaths. He became very depressed, and resigned from parliament. He suffered through his “wilderness years” for nearly a decade in the 1930s, during which time he remained isolated from politics, despite his desperate concern at the growing power of Hitler and the Nazis. And, after winning World War II, he was not re-elected as Prime Minister in 1945. Despite each of these blows, Churchill always found his way back into the public sphere as an influential, outspoken leader.
Winston Churchill also withstood mortal danger a surprising number of times: “Twice, in March 1886 and again in 1943, he fought dangerous bouts of pneumonia. At age eighteen, playing tag, Churchill jumped from a bridge thirty feet from the ground; he tried to grab a treetop but fell. He ruptured his kidney, was unconscious for three days, and received a spine injury that gave him a slight stoop for the rest of his life.” The list goes on… and on. But, “Brushes with death never cowed Churchill. When a sniper shot at him during a 1944 visit to Greece, Churchill’s reaction was to exclaim, ‘Cheek!’”
His belief that he was chosen by Fate was so deeply genuine that when he became Prime Minister in 1940, he reflected: “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Foresight: Setting the Stage for the Second World War
Doris Kearns Goodwin, famed historian, wrote an excellent summary of the global circumstances leading up to World War II:
As the Great Depression circled the globe, democracy and capitalism were everywhere in retreat. The propaganda of the day proclaimed that the choice was one of two extremes – fascism or communism, in Germany, economic collapse led to the triumph of the Nazi party and the installation of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor; it Italy, Benito Mussolini assumed dictatorial power with an ideology called Fascism; in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and the communist ideology held sway.”
All alone on his little Island, Winston Churchill was becoming hyper-vigilantly aware of the impending threat of these circumstances. He visited Germany in 1932, and his warrior instincts were acutely aroused by the danger posed by Adolph Hitler.
Another historian, Joy Hakim, explains the ensuing actions of Herr Hitler. It is clear that his goal was world conquest:
Despite the restrictions laid down at Versailles, Hitler builds and equips an army, navy, and air force. In 1938 he brings them out conquering Austria first, and then Czechoslovakia. The European democracies are tired of war, and hope Hitler will be appeased after conquering these two countries. They are wrong. Germany takes Poland in 1939 then Belgium in 1940. Next they invade Paris, leaving Britain stranded as the lone major European democracy.”
Before Churchill was elected Prime Minister, he faced much resistance to the notion of engaging in combat with Hitler’s army. At that time:
Many in responsible positions considered [Churchill], however brilliant, to be unreliable, erratic, a self-advertiser, a warmonger. The people as well as the government ignored his warnings about the Nazis: the British ruling class, he’d protested to no effect, continued “to take its weekend in the country,” while “Hitler takes his countries in the weekends.” Working against Churchill: pacifist sentiment rooted in World War I’s destruction, belief that Germany had legitimate grievances, fear of the bomber, hope that a strong Germany would restrain Communism, and the weak British economy.”
However, Churchill was a man of steel determination. He had a premonition about “that Bad Man,” as he referred to Hitler, and he would not bow out of the argument over what action to take. He recalled:
My mind was obsessed by the impression of the terrific Germany I had seen and felt in action during the years of 1914 to 1918 suddenly becoming again possessed of all her martial power, while the Allies, who had so narrowly survived, gaped idle and bewildered. Therefore I continued by every means and on every occasion to use what influence I had with the House of Commons and also with individual Ministers to urge forward our military preparations and to procure Allies and associates for what would before long become again the Common Cause.”
Fortunately, for the sake of the free world, and for the millions whom Hitler wanted to see murdered, Churchill won his personal battle:
Neville Chamberlain chose Churchill to replace him as Prime Minister, giving Churchill full reign to take swift action in the commander’s seat.
Vim and Vigor: Churchill, the Bulldog
“The victor will not be asked afterward whether or not he told the truth. Act brutally! The stronger is in the right.” – Adolph Hitler
Against an enemy like Hitler, Churchill had to both match his brutal, inhumane force, and maintain as much humanity in his tactics as possible. This was not an easy task. Here, it ought to be noted that Churchill pioneered the concept and development of the tank, floating landing harbors, and was responsible for the establishment of the British Air Force. Churchill was often referred to as a bulldog or a lion (though he often referred to himself as a donkey – mostly when speaking of FDR as an eagle and Joseph Stalin as a bear), but if these comparisons were meant to imply that Churchill was ferocious, vicious, and determined, then they were well suited. Furthermore, if Churchill had lacked such conviction and forcefulness of character, the world may have experienced a very different outcome to World War II.
Churchill’s mantra was “never give up”. On May 28, 1940, just weeks after he was elected Prime Minister, Churchill gave a speech that rang out through Britain, which cemented his place in the Ministry, and called forth all Britons to stand with him and fight until the very end. It is said that several Members of Parliament cried. So did Churchill. He proclaimed:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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…
Less than a month after this speech, France surrendered to the German army. Churchill was quick to invigorate his people, and remind them of their “Common Cause.” On June 18, 1940, Churchill addressed the House of Commons:
The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war…. [I]f we fail, then the whole world, including the United States… will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.”
And indeed it was.
Though Churchill was passionate about and confident in his cause, he was also realistic. He recognized when the British could not withstand Hitler’s army alone, and he took the necessary course of action to call upon the United States for help. On February 9, 1941, he made a live broadcast to the United States:
Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
Churchill’s simple, direct words were powerful. Like other British leaders had been, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, U.S. President at the time, was wary about joining the war. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spurred him into action. When he finally agreed to join Churchill’s fight against the tyranny of Hitler and his Nazis, Churchill wrote, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.” Churchill’s gratitude was returned: he was enormously admired by American people.
Many speculate about Churchill’s motives for fighting so ruthlessly and relentlessly in World War II. Fame, the preservation of the British Empire, the fulfillment of his destiny, the need to prove himself, have all been spouted out as possible explanations. However, there is absolutely no doubt that he recognized the gravity and significance of a Nazi victory, and his words convey a deeply earnest desire to protect the goodness and freedom of peoples all over the world. In his war memoirs he wrote:
In the Second World War every bond between man and man was to perish. Crimes were committed by the Germans under the Hitlerite domination to which they allowed themselves to be subjected which find no equal in scale and wickedness with any that have darkened the human record. The wholesale massacre by systematized processes of six or seven millions of men, women, and children in the German execution camps exceeds in horror the rough-and-ready butcheries of Genghis Khan, and in scale reduces them to pigmy proportions.”
Winston Churchill called the Holocaust “the greatest crime committed in whole the history of the world.” So, again, whatever the broad scope of his motives may have been, Churchill decision to fight the war until the end was certainly lead by a true moral compass. He had a deep compassion for those who were suffering, and an unconditional love for Britain. “When someone told him that the best thing he’d done had been to give the people courage, he contradicted, ‘I never gave them courage; I was able to focus theirs.’” These are the words of a true leader.
Sunset: Churchill and His Empire
Churchill thrived off of conflict. Though he was proud of the Allies’ valiant victory, he was left ill at ease in the interval of peace that followed the war. It did not help that he lost the ministerial election in 1945. Of this period in his life, historian Goodwin wrote: “Winston Churchill settled unhappily into his postwar role as leader of the parliamentary opposition, occupying his days with the writing if his monumental history of World War II. In 1951, the Conservatives were returned to power and Churchill became prime minister a second time.” Churchill realized that Allied victory signified the beginning of a new world order; his empire would be dismantled and their power diminished. He was also becoming increasingly concerned with a new world threat: the Cold War and the atomic bomb.
As historian Hakim wrote, just as Churchill had “warned the world of Adolf Hitler and Nazism long before most Britons or Americans understood the danger they represented,” he once again foresaw the rise of yet another “dangerous dictator and an odious form of government.” Churchill wrote: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory…. From Stettin to the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” “That curtain,” Hakim wrote, “is totalitarian rule; its shadow blocks out truth and freedom.”
Once again, Churchill’s forewarnings were accurate. Soviet Russia began to take over nations, killing an approximated twenty million in Russia and satellite nations due to its repressive policies. Churchill called the atomic bomb “that bloody invention”; he did not underestimate it. He tried to arrange a meeting with America’s new President Eisenhower and the new soviet leader, but Eisenhower refused. Churchill wanted to salvage his recently won peace, and perhaps maintain some element of power for Britain, but, sadly, this time, Churchill was not in the driver’s seat.
Soldier, Leader, Painter, Dreamer: Remember Winston Churchill
Sir Winston S. Churchill was indeed a bulldog and a lion; he was a tremendous war leader. But some of the most fascinating things about Churchill lie in the idiosyncrasies and nuances of his persona. One might expect a proud British leader to be prude and dignified, especially in public. Churchill was neither. For example, during one particular stay at the White House, Churchill was dictating a speech while taking a bath. President Roosevelt walked in on him and Churchill merely stated, “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide.” Churchill’s towel had fallen off and he was stark naked.
Churchill also had no problem displaying his honest emotions: he was never ashamed to cry in public. Churchill biographer, Gretchen Rubin, explained:
He hid nothing – certainly not for dignity’s sake. His peculiar sincerity, and his indifference to other people’s opinions, made it hard for him to conceal anything. There he was, Churchill, perfectly obvious. His courage, his manliness, his nerves were beyond question, and he felt no need to hide what he felt. Indeed, far from hiding his tears, Churchill recognized their value. Very early in his life, before he first entered Parliament, he wrote shrewdly, ‘Before [a speaker] can inspire [an audience] with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself…. Before he can move their tears his own must flow.’”
Churchill once said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” and he truly gave each of these offerings to his people.
Given his innate understanding of the makings of a powerful speech, and his tremendous literary capacity, one would expect Churchill to have been a natural speaker. On the contrary, he initially had a very difficult time preparing speeches. He took meticulous care to write and commit a speech to memory. He also had a speech impediment: he had quite a difficult time pronouncing his “s’s”.
Though it may have demanded very tedious and thoughtful attention, Churchill did indeed become one of the best writers and speakers of his time. Another, lesser-known proclivity of his was painting. Churchill once said:
Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain…. Some advise exercise, and others repose. Some counsel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety…. But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change…. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat.
It was this utter contrast between painting and leading a country that drew him to the pastime. He enjoyed a very wide variety on non-governmental related activities, such as: bricklaying, landscaping, butterfly collecting, horse racing, keeping tropical fish, feeding swans, hunting, and playing polo, but it was painting that he loved most of all. Of Churchill’s painting, Rubin wrote:
It was a relief to turn his attention to the serene problems of shade and color; as he once wrote, ‘the horrors of war cannot rob the progress if the sun.’ He loved bright colors (‘I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns’) and sunshine…
Churchill found solace in painting; he used it as a kind of therapy or meditation. He said, “Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”
And Churchill did paint all the way up until the end of his life. And the destiny, or fate, that followed him around like a loving shadow, accompanied him until the end too:
Churchill finally died on January 24, 1965, at age ninety. The date is significant. Jock Colville recalled a remark Churchill made one morning in the early 1950s: “Today is the twenty-fourth of January. It is the day my father died. It is the day that I shall die too.” And in fact, after his final stroke, Churchill lay unconscious for many days until he died on January 24, seventy years to the day of his father’s death.
His life was grandly celebrated. There was an outpouring of grief and affection across the globe, but especially in his beloved home country. Even Queen Elizabeth paid her heart swelling respects Sir Winston Churchill. He was the first commoner to be accorded a state funeral since the Duke of Wellington more than a century earlier. Churchill’s coffin made its way by train from the capital to his parents’ home, where he was laid to rest. And, not unlike the cross country train ride that honored FDR’s life and death, Britons young and old from all corners of England made their way to watch his train go by, to mourn and honor him, and to give him their last salute.
Churchill, Dir. Lucy Carter, PBS, 2003.
Gretchen Rubin, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill (New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2004) 232.
Winston Churchill, My Early Life, 1874-1904 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1930) 13.
Joy Hakim, Freedom: A History of Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 282.
Winston S. Churchill, Memoirs of the Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959) 97.
Churchill, Memoirs 11-12.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Touchstone, 1994) 635.
Goodwin No Ordinary Time 635.