Winston Churchill came of a military dynasty. His ancestor John Churchill had been created first Duke of Marlborough in 1702 for his victories against Louis XIV early in the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, the house built by the nation for Marlborough. As a young man of undistinguished academic accomplishment — he was admitted to Sandhurst after two failed attempts — he entered the army as a cavalry officer. He took enthusiastically to soldiering (and perhaps even more enthusiastically to regimental polo playing) between 1895 and 1898. Even at 24, Churchill was steely: "I never felt the slightest nervousness," he wrote to his mother. "I felt as cool as I do now." In Cuba he was present as a war correspondent, and in India and the Sudan he was present as both a war correspondent and as a serving officer. Thus he revealed two other aspects of his character: a literary bent and an interest in public affairs.
He was to write all his life. His life of Marlborough is one of the great English biographies, and The History of the Second World War helped win him a Nobel Prize for literature. Writing, however, never fully engaged his energies. Politics consumed him. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a brilliant political failure. Early in life, Winston determined to succeed where his father had failed. His motives were twofold. His father had despised him. Writing in August 1893 to Winston's grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough, he said the boy lacked "cleverness, knowledge and any capacity for settled work. He has a great talent for show-off, exaggeration and make-believe". His disapproval surly stung, but Churchill reacted by venerating his father's memory. Winston fought to restore his father's honor in Parliament (where it had been dented by the Conservative Party).
Churchill entered Parliament in 1901 at age 26. In 1904 he left the Conservative Party to join the Liberals, in part out of calculation: the Liberals were the coming party, and in its ranks he soon achieved high office. He became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Thus it was as political head of the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that he stepped onto the world stage.
A passionate believer in the navy's historic strategic role, he immediately committed the Royal Naval division to an intervention in the Flanders campaign in 1914. Frustrated by the stalemate in Belgium and France, he initiated the Allies' only major effort to outflank the Germans on the Western Front by sending the navy, and later a large force of the army, to the Mediterranean. At Gallipoli in 1915, this Anglo-French force struggled to break the defenses that blocked access to Black Sea. It was a heroic failure that forced Churchill's resignation and led to his political eclipse.
It was effectively to last nearly 25 years. Despite his readmission to office in 1917, he failed to reestablish the reputation as a future national statesman he had won before the war. In 1924, Churchill rejoined the Conservatives. The Conservative Prime Minister appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer, but when he returned the country to the gold standard, it proved financially disastrous, and he further weakened his political position by opposing measures to grant India limited self-government. He resigned office in 1931 and entered what appeared to be a terminal political decline.
Churchill was truly a romantic, but also truly a democrat. He had returned to gold standard, for instance, because of romantic reasons, Britain's status as a great financial power. He had opposed limited self-government for India because of equally romantic reasons, Britain's imperial history. It was to prove more important that as a democrat, he was disgusted by the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. By supporting anti-Nazi policies in his wilderness years between 1933 and 1939, he ensured that when the moment of final confrontation between Britain and Hitler came in 1940, he stood out as the one man in whom the nation could place its trust. He was against the prewar appeasement policies of the Conservative leaders Baldwin and Chamberlain. When Chamberlain lost the confidence of Parliament, Churchill was installed in the premiership.
His was a bleak inheritance. Following the total defeat of France, Britain truly, in his words, "stood alone." It had no real allies and, for much of 1940, lay under threat of German invasion and under constant German air attack. He nevertheless refused Hitler's offers of peace, organized a successful air defense that led to the victory of the Battle of Britain and meanwhile sent most of what remained of the British army, after its escape from the humiliation of Dunkirk, to the Middle East to oppose Hitler's Italian ally, Mussolini.
This was one of the boldest strategic decisions in history. Convinced that Hitler could not invade Britain while the Royal Navy and its protecting Royal Air Force remained intact, he sent the army to a remote theater of war to open a second front against the Nazi alliance. Its victories against Mussolini during 1940-1941 both humiliated and infuriated Hitler, while its intervention in Greece, to oppose Hitler's invasion of the Balkans, disrupted the Nazi dictator's plans to conclude German conquests in Europe by defeating Russia.
Churchill's tendency to conduct strategy by impulse infuriated his advisers. His chief of staff Alan Brooke complained that every day Churchill had 10 ideas, only one of which was good — and he did not know which one. Yet Churchill the romantic showed acute realism in his reaction to Russia's predicament. He reviled communism. Required to accept a communist ally in a struggle against a Nazi enemy, he did so not only willingly but generously. He sent a large proportion of Britain's war production to Russia by Arctic convoys, even at a time when the convoys from America to Britain suffered devastating U-boat attacks.
From the outset of his premiership, Churchill, half American by birth, had rested his hope of ultimate victory in U.S. intervention. He had established a personal relationship with President Roosevelt, that he hoped would flower into a war-winning alliance. Roosevelt's reluctance to commit the U.S. to join in the war did not dent his optimism. He always hoped events would work his way. The decision by Japan, Hitler's ally, to attack American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941, justified his hopes. That evening he confided to himself, "So we had won after all."
America's entry into the Second World War marked the high point of Churchill's statesmanship. Britain demographically, industrially and financially, had entered the war weaker than either of its eventual allies, the Soviet Union and the U.S. However, the prestige Britain had won as Hitler's only enemy allowed Churchill to sustain parity of leadership in the anti-Nazi alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin.
Churchill was understandably exulted in the success of the D-day invasion when it came in 1944. By then it was the Russo-American rather than the Anglo-American nexus, however, that dominated the alliance, as he ruefully recognized at the last Big Three conference in February 1945. Shortly afterward he suffered the domestic humiliation of losing the general election and with it the premiership. He was to return to power in 1951 and remain until April 1955, when ill health and visibly failing powers caused him to resign.
It would have been kinder to his reputation had he not returned. He was not an effective peacetime Prime Minister. His name had been made, and he stood unchallengeable, as the greatest of all Britain's war leaders. It was not only his own country, though, that owed him a debt. So too did the world of free men and women to whom he had made a constant and inclusive appeal in his magnificent speeches from embattled Britain in 1940 and 1941.