Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, FRS, PC, was a British politician, best known as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. At various times a soldier, journalist, author, painter, and politician, Churchill is generally regarded as one of the most important leaders in modern British and world history. In a poll conducted by the BBC in 2002 to identify the "100 Greatest Britons," participants voted Churchill as the most important of all. And Time Magazine recognized him as one of the 100 most important leaders of the 20th century.
The son of Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston was born on November 30, 1874, in Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire; he arrived unexpectedly early when his mother was attending a ball. As was typical for upper-class boys of his time, Winston Churchill spent much of his childhood at boarding schools. He was by nature independent and rebellious and he didn't achieve much academically, failing some of the same courses numerous times and refusing to study the classics. Despite this, he showed great ability in other areas such as mathematics and history, in which he placed top in his class at times. He also became one school's fencing champion.
Churchill attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Upon his graduation at age 20, he joined the army as a Subaltern of the IV (Queen's Own) Hussars Cavalry regiment, stationed in Bangalore, India. While there, he devoted his time to educating himself from books. He also sought out wars—fighting in Cuba and the Sudan—and served as war correspondent for both the Daily Graphic and the Morning Post. While in the Sudan, Churchill participated in what has been described as the last meaningful British cavalry charge in battle at the battle of Omdurman. In 1899, Churchill left the army and decided upon a parliamentary career. However, his military career was not yet over.
On October 12, 1899 the second Anglo-Boer war between Britain and Afrikaners broke out in South Africa and Churchill set off as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. Once in South Africa, he accepted a lift on a British Army Armored Train under the command of Aylmer Haldane. When this train was thrown off the tracks by a Boer ambush and explosion, Churchill—though not officially a combatant—took charge of operations to get the track cleared. His efforts ensured that the engine and half the train could escape and carry the wounded to safety. Churchill himself was not so lucky and, together with other officers and soldiers, was captured and held in a POW camp in Pretoria. But he managed to escape, and travelled almost 300 miles to Portuguese Lourenço Marques in Delagoa Bay. This event made him a minor national hero for a time in Britain.
Over the next 30 years, Churchill led an active political career. He was a member of both the Conservative and Liberal Parties at different times, embarked on a speaking tour throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, argued against extravagant military expenditure, became Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, spoke for free trade, was promoted to the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, pursued radical social reforms, became First Lord of the Admiralty (a post he would hold into the First World War), promoted military reform efforts, and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In 1931, Churchill was not invited to rejoin the Cabinet and he then entered the lowest point in his career—a period known as "the wilderness years." He spent much of the next few years concentrating on his writing. Soon, his attention was drawn to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the dangers of Germany's rearmament. For a time he was a lone voice calling on Britain to strengthen herself to counter the belligerence of Germany. There was some speculation that Churchill would be appointed Prime Minister, but this did not happen, and he found himself politically isolated and bruised for some time afterwards.
At the outbreak of WWII, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty—as he had been in the first part of the First World War—and the word went out to the Royal Navy's Home Fleet: "Winston's back!" In this job he proved to be one of the highest-profile ministers, when the only noticeable action was at sea. In May 1940, a long series of political events led to Neville Chamberlain's resignation from office and Churchill succeeded him to become England's Prime Minister.
Churchill's influence as Prime Minister during and after WWII is unmistakable. Few others in the Cabinet had his degree of resolve in remaining strong in the face of possible defeat by Germany and in refusing to negotiate with that country. Because of his determination, the Allies were eventually able to use the United Kingdom as a base from which to attack Germany, thus keeping the Soviet influence from extending over Western Europe after the war. His influence on how events turned out can also be seen in such events as: Lord Beaverbrook's quickly gearing up of Britain's aircraft production and engineering—which eventually made the difference in the war; his good relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt—which secured the United Kingdom vital supplies from the United States; and even his famous speeches—which inspired a war-torn nation. The Russians referred to him as the "British Bulldog" and his resolute, tenacious service as Prime Minister during the war definitely earns him that title.
Although the importance of Churchill's role in World War II was undeniable, after it was all over, he still had many enemies in his own country who didn't agree with his strong stand on issues such as his contempt for public health care and better education for the majority of the population. His opinions produced much dissatisfaction amongst the British—particularly those who had fought in the war—and led to his defeat in the 1945 election. A stroke in June of 1953 left him paralyzed down his left side. Aware that he was slowing down both physically and mentally, Churchill retired as Prime Minister in 1955 and was succeeded by Anthony Eden, who had long been his ambitious protégé. However, he retained his post as Chancellor of the University of Bristol and remained a member of parliament until 1964.
With as full a public life as Winston Churchill led, one might wonder that he had any time for a private life. On September 12, 1908 Churchill married Clementine Hozier, a dazzling but largely penniless beauty whom he had met at a dinner party that March. They had five children: Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold (who died in early childhood), and Mary. These children grew up to lead talented and active lives as actors, politicians, and authors. When not in London on government business, Churchill usually lived at his beloved Chartwell House in Kent. During his Chartwell stays, he enjoyed writing, painting, bricklaying, and admiring the estate's famous black swans. Despite all this, Churchill battled with depression, which he called his black dog, for much of his life.
From 1903 until 1905 Churchill wrote Lord Randolph Churchill, a two-volume biography of his father which came out in 1906 and was received as a masterpiece. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values".
Because of all his hard work, Churchill had health problems. He had two mild heart attacks in 1941 and 1943 and then suffered the stroke that forced him to retire. On January 15, 1965, Churchill went through another stroke that left him gravely ill. He died nine days later on January 24, 1965, 70 years to the day after his father's death.
As his coffin passed down the Thames on the Havengore, the cranes of London's docklands bowed in salute. The Royal Artillery fired a 19-gun salute, and the Royal Air Force staged a fly-by of sixteen English Electric Lightning fighters. He was buried in the family plot at St Martin Church, Bladon, near Woodstock, not far from his birthplace at Blenheim.
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