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Winston Churchill

Prime Minister 1940 - 45 and 1951 - 55

Winston Churchill is remembered as one of Britain's greatest leaders. In his story it is fitting that the contradictions of leadership are shown at their sharpest. The question with Churchill is, did he lead events, or did events go their own way, while Churchill was picked out as a good actor to give the impression of strong leadership through chaotic times. Churchill liked to quote Shakespeare in his speeches, and Shakespeare often wrote about the power of leaders amidst the power of circumstance. I'm sure Shakespeare would have been as interested in Churchill, as Churchill was in Shakespeare.


Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874, son of Randolph Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his young American wife Jennie Jerome. Winston's early years were highly privileged, while also being lonely: he endured the distant relationship with his parents which was usual for people of his class, thankfully eased by the presence of a kindly nanny, Elizabeth Everest. Following his preparatory school education Winston arrived at Harrow in April 1888. He was good at swimming, rifle shooting, fencing, and acquired a taste for history. Intimations of the future could be seen in rebellious and sometimes eccentric behaviour. While other boys seemed embarrassed by their parents during school visits, Winston took great pains to show Elizabeth Everest off, with no care for the consequences. When punished or bullied young Winston would often hit back by telling his fellow students and masters that one day they would all be ordinary, while he would be a great man. The future was also foreshadowed in the way Winston would direct his rebelliousness into writing. He wrote articles for the school magazine challenging the school's administration.



The south Wales mining town of Tredegar

Winston was not the scholastic type, and did not fulfill his first house-master's verdict that "as far as ability goes you ought to be at the top of the form" (quoted in Churchill, An Unruly Life P23 by Norman Rose). But in 1890, at the third attempt, success was achieved in the examination to enter officer training at Sandhurst, after being offered the bribe of a gun and a pony by his mother. After Sandhurst Winston spent five years as an army officer, though his time in the army was not much like that of any other officer. With his mother pulling a few strings he spent most of his time travelling the world to various trouble spots and writing about them for newspapers. He witnessed fighting in Cuba, the Indian North West Frontier and South Africa. He was present at the battle of Omdurman in 1898 when Kitchener reinvaded the Sudan, and was horrified at the subsequent ill-treatment of defeated Islamic people by Kitchener. In South Africa, covering the Boer War, Churchill was captured, only to escape from jail in Pretoria and walk hundreds of miles to freedom. These exploits, and his talent for putting them into words, turned him into a national hero. In 1900 Winston built on his fame by beginning a long-planned political career, winning for the Conservatives in Oldham. In his first years in Parliament Churchill established himself as a turbulent presence. In many ways he was a centerist, his interest in social reform at odds with the Conservative Party. But he detested Liberal support for home rule in Ireland. Eventually it was the liberal side of Churchill which was more important to him, and in 1905 Churchill switched parties, crossing to the Liberals where prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made him under-secretary of state at the Colonial Office. This period also saw Churchill get married, following an awkward courtship of Clemantine Hozier. As settled as he was going to be, in his marriage to Clemantine, and with the Liberals, 1908 saw Churchill in the cabinet of Campbell-Bannerman's successor Herbert Asquith. By 1910 he was home secretary and becoming a controversial figure. Winston's time as home secretary coincided with a number of crises. There were suffragette riots, anarchist riots, and industrial disputes involving the miners of south Wales. All of these emergencies involved Winston in controversy. In south Wales, for example, unrest among striking miners was met first with extra police, then, after a serious riot, by troops. In Tonypandy troops fired on strikers, killing two. Many people condemned Churchill at the time and some still do, even though, according to biographer Norman Rose, the idea that Churchill ordered the shooting has no substance (see Churchill, An Unruly Life P78). But Churchill was a very visible character who was a large and easy target. For better and for worse, he liked the illusion that he was in control.


A similar situation was to arise as the world slipped into World War One. Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, a position he held at the outbreak of war in 1914. Churchill thought it unlikely that the Germans could be defeated in France, and he planned an attack in Turkey. This operation at the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 was a disaster and nearly finished Churchill's career. But the idea that Churchill was actually responsible for the disaster is similar to the idea that he was responsible for miners' deaths in Wales. Many ideas for attacks on Germany were floating around at the time. Admiral Fisher observed that "Winston is very brilliant, but too changeable. He has a different scheme every day" (Churchill, An Unruly Life P177). Out of the many schemes that could have happened, for some reason Gallipoli was the one scheme that did actually happen. In War and Peace Tolstoy says of Napoleon's invasion of Russia "Out of the countless series of unexecuted commands of Napoleon's one series, for the campaign of 1812, was carried out - not because they differed in any way from other commands that were not executed but because they coincided with the course of events which brought the French army into Russia" (P1421). Of course people like Winston Churchill do not readily accept that the tides of history catch people and carry them along. Churchill had to appear to be in control, even if he was in control of a disaster. He resigned from government and after recovering from depression went to fight on the Western Front as a colonel in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill survived a war which saw 700,000 British servicemen killed and one and a half million wounded. The world had stumbled into this war for reasons that continue to be debated today. No one man ordered a war in which one in ten of an entire generation of young men had been killed. Nobody likes to feel that these things just happen. Someone somewhere must be in control, and Churchill with his talent for drama was one of those people who it was assumed was in command of events.



Hurricane aircraft at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Chapel le Ferne, Kent

After the war Churchill rejoined the government and became colonial secretary in 1921. He was embroiled in more controversies, seeming rather keen to use poison gas against tribes rebelling against British rule in the former Ottoman Empire. In response to unrest in Ireland he sometimes defended brutalities inflicted by Black and Tan paramilitary policemen. At other times his belligerence was softened by second thoughts, and it was Churchill who negotiated a two state solution with Sinn Fein leaders Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, with whom he got on well. In 1922 his political career seemed to end once more when he lost his seat, only for recovery to come in 1924 with a return to Parliament. As always there were controversies, and these again involved miners. The perennial problem was shrinking export markets meeting demands for increased pay. Then industrial unrest spread to all sections of the economy. The General Strike of 1926 saw Churchill setting up his own propaganda paper, called The Gazette, which was sometimes escorted to news-stands by tanks. Pressure was also put on the BBC to present news in a way that favoured the government. By the 1930s Churchill was out of favour, and spent his time shouting about the need to hold India at all costs, and making insulting remarks about Indian leader, Gandhi. This period, however, is better known for Churchill's warnings about Germany's military build up, and the need for re-armament. In his own account of this period - The Second World War - he makes much of warning short sighted people in government about Germany, an account that is still widely accepted today. A 2009 BBC drama The Gathering Storm had Churchill struggling against blinkered politicians who refused to accept reality. This is actually a long way from the truth. Certainly Churchill, using his skill with words, and his obsessive focus, was the best known advocate for re-armament in the face of a possible German threat. Re-armament in practice meant building air power, with Churchill insisting on parity with Germany. By 1933 - 35 the government had reached the same conclusion. Under the leadership of prime minister Stanley Baldwin and chancellor Neville Chamberlain, Scheme A was put into place, intending to increase the strength of the RAF to match that of Germany by 1939. The problem came not with basic aims, but with the complex business of trying to assess what parity actually was. Reports were confused, with some wild figures for German air strength being put forward, and accepted. Churchill always tended to assume that German air power was stronger than it was. This made for better speeches. But as Norman Rose points out, by 1937 there had been a dramatic fall in the number of Churchill's speeches on re-armament. By this time he seemed to have reluctantly accepted that all that could be done was being done. The cost of military build up had to be set against the risk of seriously disrupting Britain's economy in the midst of a bleak economic climate. (See The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery by Paul Kennedy for details on the economics of British military spending in the 1930s.) Baldwin had even appointed Churchill to the Air Defence Research Committee, looking into ways to better protect Britain from air attack. The reality was not one of Churchill standing alone against fools and cowards, but this image became virtually accepted as fact from 1939 when Chamberlain, now prime minister, failed in his effort to make peace with Germany. Once again it was required that at least someone could see what was going on and could save the day.



Cabinet War Rooms, Whitehall

It was in 1940 that Churchill came into his own. When the Second World War finally began, prime minister Neville Chamberlain, struggling through the early months of the "phony war" said: "How do I hate and loathe this war. I was never meant to be a war minister."

For good or ill Winston Churchill was meant to be a war minister. Churchill took over as prime minister on 10th May 1940, the day that Holland and Belgium were invaded by Germany. It has been argued, by Norman Rose for example, that Churchill's contribution to the British war effort that followed lay not so much in what he did but in what he said. The Liberal politician Jo Grimmond has a similar view, arguing that Churchill was the figurehead for a desire to resist that was independent of him: "Some people seem to believe that we should have surrendered in the last war had it not been for Churchill. To me it is inconceivable that Britain would have folded up without a fight in 1940 whoever led us" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P206). So did Churchill really lead Britain to victory in 1940, or did Britain pick Churchill as the man to express a national mood of defiance? This is not an easy question to answer. Francis Beckett, biographer of Clement Attlee for example, quotes Mass Observation public opinion surveys from early 1940, which contain anecdotal evidence of low civilian morale. Apparently the reports are full of respondents' quotes along the lines of: "France and Britain can't do it together. I don't see what we can do alone." Or "it looks as though all we can do is give up. It's no good throwing away lives when there's no hope" (quoted in Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett P160). In Beckett's view it was a defeatist attitude which was turned around by Churchill. But according to Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang who have looked through the Ministry of Information reports on morale in 1940 the picture is actually not one of simple gloom. The daily Home Intelligence department's reports for 18th May - 27th September 1940 can be viewed at the National Archives in Kew. These opinions on morale gained through a network of doctors, shop keepers, clergymen, factory welfare officers and the like, actually make for confusing reading. For 27th May 1940, for example, Oxford was reported as "optimistic", while there was "defeatist talk in Godalming. Horsham on 31st May was judged as "smug". There are many more conflicting reports of this kind (see In Search of the Dunkirk Spirit by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang in BBC History Magazine for March 2011). Based on these reports it seems the idea of defiant or defeatist national mood could be argued either way. So we get down to imponderable questions of why exactly things work out as they do. Where human will ends and fate begins is something that comes up time and again in the work of Shakespeare, a writer who Churchill drew upon in his famous speeches of 1940. Tolstoy in his study of the Napoleonic wars in War and Peace had a fatalistic view. He could not see any one individual as being able to change the course that events were taking anyway. Tolstoy is very persuasive, and yet we are obliged to live our lives as though we do have control over what we do. Churchill was the man chosen to act out a role which made it appear that a man had control over life. He stepped onto the stage with his Shakespearian oratory, and possibly through the image of definace he gave, tipped the balance towards resistance in a confused population. Many of Churchill's wartime speeches, particularly those from 1940 are justifiably famous:

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat... You ask what is our policy? I can say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all the 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. That is our policy. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory inspite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for... But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope... Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength" (speech to Parliament 13th of May 1940).

"I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground" (speech to Cabinet 28th of May 1940).

"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 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" (speech to Parliament 4th of June 1940).

"Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, 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' " (speech to Parliament 18th June).

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few" (speech to Parliament 20th of August 1940 following success in the Battle of Britain).

(See Winston Churchill His Complete Speeches 1897 - 1963 ed Robert Rhodes James)



View of the Channel from Admiralty Casement, Dover Castle

Britain really was alone during 1940. President Roosevelt had refused a request for a British carrier to enter a U.S. port to embark aircraft the British government had purchased, since to do so would compromise United States neutrality. In these isolated circumstances the kind of defiance captured in Winston Churchill's speeches was necessary for Britain to carry on. But as for the actual business of governing Britain that in many ways fell to the talents of other people, since Churchill was not suited to the actual business of government. In fact Churchill turned for help to none other than maligned Neville Chamberlain. Churchill may have presented himself as trying to make fools like Chamberlain see the truth, but in private Chamberlain was greatly valued for his sensible advice. "I am up and down, and you are steady. It is helpful to feel that my decisions are approved by your judgment" (Cadogan Diaries P261). It was a loss to Churchill when Chamberlain finally succumbed to cancer and died in November 1940. It had been thanks to Chamberlain, and Baldwin before him, that Britain had the necessary Hurricanes and Spitfires to fight the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was also fortunate that Churchill had been talked out of sending the RAF to its destruction in the battle for France by commander of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding. Without Dowding's stubborn courage in standing up to a raging Churchill, there would not have been enough aircraft to fight the Battle of Britain (see A Short History of World War Two by James L. Stokesbury).


In December 1941 America entered the war, following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, and the tide was to turn against Germany. As the war continued Churchill ironically, seemed to lose his way. The United States took over allied military leadership, and Winston's finest hour had passed. His government was voted out of power only months after the war's end in 1945. He returned to government between 1951 and 1955, but life as a peacetime leader was very different. In war there is a clear goal, and Churchill was good with clear goals. In this sense he was not really a politician at all. Plutarch has said that politics should not be seen as an ocean voyage, or a military campaign with an end in view, but as a way of life. Churchill, a war leader, did not fundamentally see politics as a way of life. Chamberlain may have done so, and Clement Attlee who followed him as prime minister may have done so. But for Winston Churchill, a member of a great military family, there was always a war to be won. He once wrote to General Ian Hamilton, "I never look beyond a battle. It is a culminating event, and like a brick wall bars all further vision" (quoted Rose P113). As prime minister 1951 - 55 it seemed that politics was the kind of war where there never is a final victory. He was not suited for this kind of role. Now it was time for what John Morley called "the drab heroes of life" to take over. An interest in foreign affairs continued, but home affairs were left very much alone. By 1955 Churchill's health was failing. He had in fact suffered his first heart attack in December 1941 at the White House. His health had been fragile ever since, and following more heart attacks and strokes, had now gone into steep decline. Against this background he was persuaded to step aside. Retreating to his office at Chartwell time was spent writing and painting, and it was another ten years before Winston Churchill finally died. As Churchill's coffin was taken to Blenheim Palace for his funeral, all the cranes in the Pool of London were dipped in salute. The myth of Winston Churchill, the greatest story he had to tell, was complete. It was a myth that Britain had required, and still seems to require. But while myths offer a sense of completeness, history itself does not. Tolstoy said that "The activity of Alexander or Napoleon cannot be termed beneficial or harmful, since we cannot say for what it is beneficial or harmful". There is no great goal to which history is building, and no firm judgments can be made in terms of that fixed point, in terms of how successful people are in getting to a fabled goal. History does not stop. It moves beyond the brick wall that Churchill saw standing at the end of a battle beyond which he could see no further. Judgments are always going to be relative, and this reality of history is demonstrated powerfully by Winston Churchill. In most circumstances Churchill was a talented writer, brilliant orator, and unpredictable politician; but one particular set of circumstances made him into a hero.





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