Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill  (1874 - 1965)


Churchill's biography would be impressive even without his service during World War II. He achieved fame as a journalist during the Boer War, was a military commander during World War I. His literary career, for which he eventually received the Nobel Prize, began in the 1920's and continued until his opus History of the English-Speaking People. He is frequently quoted (the term ``Iron Curtain'' was his invention).

In the aftermath of the Great World War of 1914-1918, Churchill advocated mammoth donations to relieve starving Germans. Had this intelligent suggestion been adopted World War II might well have been averted.

But his destiny and greatest accomplishment was to lead his nation during World War II. He had held almost literally every high Cabinet post (although shut out from the Government during Germany's rearmament because he opposed British foreign policy -- see Munich speech below) before being drafted as Prime Minister in Britain's darkest hour. Of this he later wrote:

``In my long political experience I had held most of the great offices of State, but I readily admit that the post which had now fallen to me was the one I liked the best.''

In late 1999 Time magazine named Albert Einstein as ``Person of the Century.'' Charles Krauthammer fired off a column insisting that Sir Winston Churchill was the ``Century's Indispensable Man.'' Albert Einstein may have been the century's greatest scientist but Krauthammer is right about Churchill. If England had dropped out of the war as France did, world history would have changed dramatically. The Germans might still have been thwarted at Stalingrad, but there would have been no hope for Western Europe. It is impossible to say how the century would have evolved with the Third Reich as the dominant superpower, but almost everyone outside the lunatic fringe must be horrified by the thought. Obviously Churchill couldn't have defeated Hitler without the British and American fighting men, but could they have won the war without Churchill? I think anyone who's studied the matter would answer in the negative. Churchill was a master of strategy, but his most indispensable talent was his oratory. Churchill rallied the British to arms. Some historians think Germany almost won the war as it was; without Churchill there would have been no contest.

Churchill became Prime Minister (and First Lord of the Treasury, etc.) just as Hitler's offensive against Western Europe got under way. On May 13, 1940 he summoned the House of Commons for a vote of confidence. Although he had the support of all political parties, it was appropriate that he state what he had to offer, and announce the policy and aim of His Majesty's new Government:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat....

``You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our 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: 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. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward toward its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "Come then, let us go forward with our united strength."

Just a few days later Germany's Panzer Army broke through the weak spot left in the Maginot Line near the Ardennes forest. French defenses crumpled quickly and the frontline British troops became trapped against the Sea in an ever-tightening pocket near the Channel ferry port of Duncquerque.
``In the midst of our defeat glory came to the island people, united and unconquerable; and the tale of the Dunkirk beaches will shine in whatever records are preserved of our affairs.''
Over 330,000 soldiers were evacuated successfully from Dunkirk Harbour and the nearby beaches, with Hitler's armies and air force attacking. At least 1000 ships participated, over a quarter of which were sunk. Even before this evacuation, Britain was the major customer of American arms manufacturers and now also needed to replace some 120,000 vehicles and as many guns that had been abandoned at the beaches. The United States Army had, in grease, some 500,000 30-gauge rifles manufactured 22 years before in the Great World War, along with over 100 million bullets for them. The U.S. began packing these and numerous other munitions into boxcars even while that splendid armada was rescuing the soldiers at Dunkirk. There was much naysaying that Britain was already intending to sue for peace (as France did in a few weeks), and that if the arms crossed the Atlantic they would soon fall into the hands of the Nazis.

On June 4, 1940, the last day of the evacuation, H.M. Prime Minister and Minister of Defence made a speech in Parliament. The Luftwaffe had inflicted frightening losses at the beaches, and the British public could have become demoralized, so special tribute was given to the British airmen:

``We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance ... It was gained by the Air Force....

``This was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Forces. Can you conceive a greater objective for Germans in the air than to make evacuation from these beaches impossible, and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there have been an objective of greater military importance and significance for the whole purpose of the war than this? They tried hard, and they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task. We got the Army away; and they have paid fourfold for any losses which they have inflicted....

``When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest.

``... [but] we shall not be content with a defensive war. We have our duty to our Ally....''

Churchill then unveiled his plan to reconstitute the Expeditionary Force and to ``realize the largest possible potential of offensive effort.'' He closed the speech with a passage which is still recited seventy-five years later:
``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 in 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,''
This famous quotation is often truncated here, but the continuation clarifies Churchill's unswerving faith:
``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.''
It has recently come to light that many even in Churchill's own War Cabinet favored further appeasement of Hitler and wanted to negotiate a treaty of neutrality. But the Government wasn't run by committee and this was before the days that polls dictated policies. The Prime Minister's speech was heard around the world, and within a week America's supply of surplus munitions began loading onto British ships.

Churchill presented an indomitable face in discussion with his Allies. Shortly after Dunkirk, the P.M. flew to France to meet with his opposite number, who had already fled Paris. In his memoirs, Lord Ismay recalls Churchill's response to Reynaud and his Commander-in-Chief Weygand (my italics):

``If it is thought best for France in her agony that her Army should capitulate, let there be no hesitation on our account, because whatever you may do we shall fight on forever and ever and ever.''
A few days after meeting with the French, Churchill sent a coded telegram to the American President:
Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt.                14-15 VI.40.

I am grateful to you for your telegram and have reported its operative passages to Reynaud, to whom I had imparted a rather more sanguine view.... I understand all your difficulties with American public opinion and Congress, but events are moving downward at a pace where they will pass beyond the control of American public opinion, when it is at last ripened. Have you considered what offers Hitler may choose to make to France? He may say ... ``If you do not give me your ships I will destroy your towns.'' I am personally convinced that in the end America will go to all lengths, but the moment is supremely critical for France....

Although the present government and I personally would never fail to send the Fleet across the Atlantic if resistance were beaten down here, a point may be reached in the struggle where the present Ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British island by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler Empire. A pro-German Government would certainly be called into being to make peace, and might present to a shattered or a starving nation an almost irresistable case for entire submission to the Nazi will.... [The Axis would control the Oceans in such an event.]

I know well, Mr. President, that your eye will already have searched these depths, but I feel I have the right to place on record the vital manner in which American interests are at stake in our battle and that of France.

I am sending you through Ambassador Kennedy a paper on destroyer strength.... The sending of the thirty-five destroyers ... is a definite practical and possibly decisive step which can be taken at once, and I urge most earnestly that you will weigh my words.

Six months later despite furious exports (from South Africa's mines, Scotland's distilleries, New Zealand's pastures), the last of the great Brittanic Empire's gold and dollars had been payed out, as it contested the seas and skies with the Hitler Empire single-handedly. Negotiating with the bankers to buy more ships and planes would have been embarrassing: sterling instruments might become worthless if the island people ``flagged or failed.'' Now the American President demonstrated his own particular eloquence:
``Suppose my neighbor's house catches fire and I have a length of garden hose (worth fifteen dollars) ... I may help him to put out the fire. Now what do I do? ... I don't want fifteen dollars -- I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.''

Special legislation was introduced ``eliminating any dollar mark'' in future deliveries of naval vessels and munitions. (Churchill called this ``the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.'')

The courage of Londoners during the years of the Blitz was remarkable. Churchill led by example, holding cabinet meetings at 10 Downing Street though other government business was conducted in underground bunkers. These cabinet meetings often lasted into the dangerous nighttime. Leaving one late meeting, his companion pushed him to the ground and covered him with his body as a large bomb exploded nearby. Churchill chastised the man for showing fear of the enemy, relenting only when the man pointed out ``We can't replace you, Mr. Prime Minister.'' (Churchill saw the logic of this: ``Oh sorry, Thomasson.'')

The bombing Blitz against Britain was relentless; at its peak Hitler's Luftwaffe was delivering over 6000 bomber sorties per month just against the great city. This raised various indirect dangers; e.g. when the drains were destroyed and raw sewage flooded the Thames River. Churchill was concerned that the crowded bomb shelters would breed viral epidemics.

``... But it appeared that Nature had already provided against this danger. Man is a gregarious animal, and apparently the mischievous microbes he exhales fight and neutralise each other. They go out and devour each other, and Man walks off unharmed. If this is not scientifically correct, it ought to be. The fact remains that during this rough winter the health of the Londoners was actually above the average. Moreover, the power of enduring suffering in the ordinary people of every country, when their spirit is roused, seems to have no bounds.''

Churchill visited bomb craters and was reduced to tears when poor Londoners who had just had their houses destroyed cheered and cried ``Give it `em back!'' The first raids against Axis cities (Berlin in 1940, Tokyo in 1942) were just symbolic gestures, but with North America converted to a giant munitions factory, the United Nations eventually did ``give it `em back.'' (For example, deaths in Tokyo just on March 10, 1945 exceeded all the civilian casualties endured by Britain and America throughout the War. A few weeks earlier the conflagration of Dresden had killed in one day more people than all of the bombs dropped on London.)

Trial of Democracy

Churchill saw the War as a test of whether Democracy could prevail against the ruthlessness of Tyranny. He had no doubt about the outcome. Although the Parliament building was a primary target of the thousands of bombing sorties being flown against London, Members refused Churchill's request that they consider their own safety. He wrote this about their refusal:

``... After all, a free sovereign Parliament, fairly chosen by universal suffrage, able to turn out the Government any day, but proud to uphold it in the darkest days, was one of the points which were in dispute with the enemy. Parliament won.

``I doubt whether any of the dictators had as much effective power throughout his whole nation as the British War Cabinet. When we expressed our desires we were sustained by the people's representatives, and cheerfully obeyed by all. Yet at no time was the right of criticism impaired.... Even the threat of annihilation did not daunt our Members, but this fortunately did not come to pass.''

Munich Speech

As Churchill explains in his books, the Second World War could have been avoided had Britain stood up to Hitler early in his program. After the war, German testimony even shows that top military commanders had planned a coup against Hitler the same day he met with Chamberlain at Munich! They didn't disagree with the idea of German aggression, but thought Hitler was provoking a war before their rearmament was complete. Chamberlain made his famous concessions, and the Generals stood down in awe of Hitler's success.

Chamberlain returned to England, announcing ``Peace in our time'' and received a ratification from the House of Commons early in October 1938. Before the vote, Churchill rose to speak in opposition.

``... One pound was demanded at the pistol's point. When it was given, two pounds were demanded at the pistol's point. Finally the Dictator consented to take 1 pound, 17 shillings and sixpence and the rest in promises of good will for the future.

``No one has been a more resolute and uncompromising struggler for peace than the Prime Minister.... Nevertheless, I am not quite clear on why there was so much danger of Great Britain or France being involved in a war with Germany at this juncture if, in fact, they were ready all along to sacrifice Czechoslovakia. The terms which the Prime Minister brought back with him could easily have been agreed [at any time]. And I will say this, that I believe the Czechs, left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Powers, would have been able to make better terms than they have got after all this tremendous perturbation. They could hardly have had worse.

``All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness....

``I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week, the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western Democracies: `Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.' And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.''

(After the War, the secret diary of Mussolini's Foreign Minister was made public, so we know Mussolini's reaction to Chamberlain's appeasement: ``These men are not made of the same stuff as Francis Drake and the other magnificent adventurers who created the Empire. They are after all the tired sons of a long line of rich men.'')

After the winter, Hitler marched into Prague and England finally united against him. But Hitler had won, without a fight, the Czechs' huge Army and mighty munitions factories, so it may have been too late to avoid the worst War the World had ever seen. (But Chamberlain continued to dawdle, declining Soviet Russia's offer of an alliance which, Churchill argued, might still have prevented the War.)

Churchill's writings on appeasement include this:

``If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.''

In Old Age

Although the Labor Party claimed power and removed Churchill from office in 1945, he was called again to serve as Prime Minster from 1951 to 1955.

On the occasion of his 80'th birthday, the great man had this to say:

``I have never accepted what many people have kindly said -- namely, that I inspired the nation.... It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.''

Revisionism

Recently, the almost mythic heroic status of Churchill has been diminished by books spouting half-truths: Churchill's ministers regarded him as pompous, incompetent, and drunkenly. Before the war he was a pro-Fascist and also had sympathies for the Communists. His strategic military skill was exaggerated, his few victories due to luck, and he sometimes issued bizarre orders that needed to be countermanded by his generals, e.g. his refusal to allow Singapore to surrender, hoping for a great human sacrifice to impress Americans. (``There must ... be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population.... Commanders ... should die with their troops.'')

His speeches were read by a professional actor. His shows of bravado against enemy bombers were made when he had secret intelligence that London was being bypassed. Despite his rhetoric about the British Empire surviving for a thousand years, he was busy giving it away, first to appease Hitler, then to buy munitions. That Britain saved the world in 1940 was a self-made myth, King George's Army being a bit player compared with the Armies of Roosevelt and Stalin. (This last bizarre charge is the easiest to dismiss: If the Axis had controlled Britain and North Africa, America would have been able neither to invade Western Europe nor to supply Soviet forces in Eastern Europe.)

But the foibles of Churchill only increase his greatness in a way. It is easy for a fictional character like Superman or Indiana Jones to save the world, but Churchill was not fictional. He was just a mortal man, with vices and weaknesses like all of us, ... and he saved Western civilization from a hideous tyranny.

Churchill seems to have had a better long-term grasp of world affairs than, say Roosevelt and Eisenhower. For example, in early 1945 the Anglo-American allies could easily have taken Berlin before the Soviets, and most would agree in hindsight that this would have been wise. Churchill pleaded for this, but was overruled by his American cousins.


There are many other famous quotations attributed to Winston Churchill. Here are some of my favorites.
 

People occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

 
Sure I am that this day - now - we are masters of our fate; that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will-power, salvation will not be denied us.

 
Never give in -- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Here a few short ones:

Here are some of his more humorous quotations:

I had a feeling once about Mathematics - that I saw it all. Depth beyond depth was revealed to me - the Byss and Abyss. I saw - as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor's Show - a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly why it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable but it was after dinner and I let it go.

 
Well, dinner would have been splendid --- if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the Duchess.

  Finally, here's one which summarizes Churchill's own life.
 
There comes a special moment in everyone's life, a moment for which that person was born. That special opportunity, when he seizes it, will fulfill his mission -- a mission for which he is uniquely qualified. In that moment, he finds greatness. It is his finest hour.

See if you agree that Churchill's steadfast stewardship during the War almost recalls the words of Captain Ahab in his pursuit of Moby Dick:

``Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush!''

On Churchill's pedigree you will note that his male line comes from SPENCER (he is an agnatic cousin of Lady Di). The surname Churchill arose from a special 18th-century royal decree, commemorating the illustrious John Churchill Duke of Marlborough who had left no male heir.


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