"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 4 October  2019  © Julia Edwards

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(1874-1965)

Winston Churchill, sometimes affectionately called 'Winnie', was Prime Minister of Britain twice, once from 1940 to 1945, and a second time from 1951 to 1955. When the BBC made a television series called 100 Greatest Britons in 2002, Winston Churchill came out top of the poll, and most people would probably agree that he played a major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Winston Churchill, photographed in 1941 by Yousuf Karsch

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, after his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain agreed to step down. Chamberlain was one of many people in Britain in the 1930s who wanted passionately to avoid another war. The terrible experiences of the First World War were still fresh in people's minds: a generation of young men had been killed, and those who had survived would be haunted by the horrors they had witnessed for the rest of their lives. It's understandable that people couldn't bear the thought of another war, especially coming so soon after the last.

 

Unfortunately, Chamberlain's desire to keep the peace caused him to quite disastrously underestimate the ambitions of Nazi Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler. In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Hitler, announcing 'Peace for our time' and waving a paper Hitler had signed declaring that England and Germany would not go to war again. One year later, in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. He knew full well that Britain and France had promised to defend it, and would have no choice but to declare war.

Even in May 1940, six months into the war, a lot of politicians were still arguing for Britain to make peace with Hitler. Winston Churchill, however, recognised that Hitler would not allow Britain to co-exist peacefully with Germany, but would seek to take over. Within hours of Churchill becoming prime minister, Hitler had invaded France.

On 13 May, Churchill gave the first of a series of famous speeches which inspired the British people to fight their enemy. He didn't pretend that it would be easy - in his first speech, he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Two weeks later, the country was facing what Churchill called "a colossal military disaster": as the German forces advanced through France, the British and French armies were driven back until they were cut off on the northern coast of France, forced to surrender or die.

 

The Navy sent all the ships they could to try to rescue the soldiers, but most of the boats were too big to get close enough to the beach to pick anyone up. Churchill asked for an emergency call to be put out over the radio, with the result that hundreds of ordinary people with small boats crossed the channel to help. Over nine days, almost 340,000 men were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, while the Luftwaffe (the German air force) bombed and strafed both soldiers and rescuers.

On 4 June, Churchill gave one of the most famous speeches, commenting on the miracle that Britain had performed, which includes the following line:

"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. "

From that day, it took almost five years until Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were finally defeated. Churchill's achievement in leading Britain through such a long and difficult time was immense! Though his grasp of tactics was crucial, his success was also founded on the inspirational power of his speeches. Whatever faults he may have had, he was a truly great wartime leader.