Winston Churchill: How One Man Led a Nation to Victory in the Second World War
“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.” These are only a few of the words that helped to encourage the desperate people of Britain during the catastrophic events of World War II. One man was able to rally this entire nation and guide them to victory, despite the overwhelming odds and doubts stacked against them. Winston Churchill, with his honorable leadership and strategic skills, his crucial decision-making, his courage, his unwavering devotion to his mission, and his incredible ability with words, ultimately saved Britain during the Second World War.
Since serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill had been searching for a way to redeem himself from his past losses. As a 41-year-old man in 1915, he had assisted in orchestrating and planning the calamities of the Dardanelles naval campaign and was later involved in the planning of the military landings on Gallipoli (Churchill’s First World War). Both of these endeavors initiated against Turkey were met with several complications. During their attempt to seize the Dardanelles Straits, a narrow passageway that connected the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara in Turkey, a third of Britain’s navy was sunk. Shortly thereafter, Britain launched a land invasion on Turkey in which they became severely outnumbered and cost them the lives of over 46,000 men (Battle of Gallipoli). Following the disastrous results of these failed undertakings, Churchill took the blame and accepted the consequences.
He was demoted and resigned from the government, and then went on to serve as an officer in the Army on the Western Front until 1916. The next year, Churchill was appointed to the position of Minister of Munitions, which he held until January 1919. During the time he served in this role, he was able to provide Britain with incredible amounts of firearms and airplanes during the war. Additionally, he was able to replace every lost tank with a newer, more functional model. He also supplied their front-line forces with substantial amounts of ammunition. Shortly after the first world war’s end, Churchill was appointed Secretary of State for Air and War. Over the course of two years in this position, he secured from a divided and loosely organized cabinet and assisted the Poles when they invaded Ukraine (Winston Churchill: During World War I). Churchill had already been diligently serving his country, by learning from past mistakes and progressing through the ranks, all before he reached the age of 50. When the threat of another war arose in 1939, he was prepared.
Winston Churchill returned to his former position from the first world war on September 3rd, 1939. It was on this day that the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany (Nicholas, Winston Churchill). A year later, Neville Chamberlain, the current British Prime Minister at that time, resigned. Frequent disputes and disagreements between him and the Labor and Liberal Parties are what eventually led Chamberlain to forfeit his position. Britain refused to trust and follow this man into war. They needed a new leader. Unfortunately, men who were qualified enough to take on such a crucial role were scarce. The few who were able to be identified, including Chamberlain’s first preference for a successor, Lord Halifax, declined the offer, fearing for their own reputation. Considering the Labour party already had tension with Churchill for his anti-socialist views and that much of Britain was doubtful towards him for his flawed decisions early in the first world war, Churchill was not one they eagerly anticipated to gain control. Eventually, however, Churchill became Prime Minister by default after being reluctantly appointed by Chamberlain. Despite the cynicism of the House, Churchill stepped in with unfaltering confidence and became British Prime Minister on May 10th, 1940 (Nicholas, Winston Churchill). In addition to this, Churchill also took on the role of the country’s Minister of Defence.
As previously mentioned, several members of the House of Commons were skeptical about the new Prime Minister of Britain. Churchill’s political views and beliefs were not entirely supported and accepted by the Labour Party. His primarily Liberal and Conservative outlook on government policies and his personal ideas on taxation, land valuation, and controlling unelected aristocrats made him appear revolutionary, which posed a threat to certain groups. However, personal opinions and policies aside, he would soon go on to demonstrate his exceptional capability to lead an entire nation. Even though Britain may have been doubtful at the time, Churchill would prove to the world that he was, and remains to this day, the most qualified person who could have led Britain to victory during the second world war.
There were multiple pivotal points and events in World War II that had effects on a global scale. However, there were some that had a direct involvement and impact on the people of Britain. A few of these were the evacuation of Dunkirk, otherwise known by its used codename “Operation Dynamo,” the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz. Churchill played a massive role in each of these occurrences, whether he was working behind the scenes planning out every move, strategizing the next step, or constantly putting himself in the public eye by visiting victims and sites, and of course, delivering his historically famous speeches of encouragement.
The first of these critical events, Operation Dynamo, took place in late May of 1940. Numerous German forces had begun to advance on a multitude of British and French soldiers who were trapped on a small coast of France known as Dunkirk. Churchill decided to initiate an attempt to evacuate as many British and French soldiers as possible. On May 26th, Britain began Operation Dynamo by sending ships to deliver the trapped soldiers from Dunkirk to safety in England (History.com Editors, The Battle of Dunkirk). However, this mission was doubted by many from the start. Of the 400,000 men who were confined in Dunkirk, Britain estimated only 45,000, at most, would be saved. Nevertheless, with the persistence and encouragement of Churchill, the navy’s hard work and execution, and the eventual aid of surrounding citizens, by June 4th, over 338,000 soldiers had been evacuated. This massive victory exceeded all expectations, even those of Churchill himself. The country rejoiced at this success.
The celebrations did not last for long, however. Not one week after the immense accomplishment of Operation Dynamo, the Battle of Britain began. Churchill traveled to France hoping to convince them to continue in the war, to prevent them from giving in to the enemy. However, his attempts failed. Without support from their former allies, Britain was forced to face Germany alone.
With the ongoing Battle of Britain, Germany initiated a bombing campaign in early September, targeting Britain’s largest cities. Deriving from the German word for lightning war, “blitzkrieg,” the “Blitz” began to take place (History.com Editors, the Battle of Britain). Despite being alone, overpowered, and discouraged, The British Royal Air Force (RAF) was able to regain their strength and fight back. Churchill, during this time, was planning and strategizing at fighter headquarters, in addition to frequently inspecting coast defenses. Aside from this, he also continued to motivate the public and give reassurance and confidence to those fighting the battle. Churchill visited wounded soldiers and the sites of German bombings, displaying his iconic “V sign” wherever he went (Nicholas, Winston Churchill). It was during this battle that Churchill delivered some of his most recognized speeches such as “Their Finest Hour” and “The Few.” His words gave the young men of RAF the strength and perseverance they needed. At the end of October that year, concluding history’s first battle fought entirely by air, Britain rose victorious over Germany (History.com Editors, the Battle of Britain).
Without the inspiring words, quick reactions, and strategies of Winston Churchill, however, the outcome may have been very different. Churchill was able to carefully examine a situation and form precise predictions on what challenges the future would bring. On numerous occasions, these anticipations of his were often correct. Nevertheless, not all of the decisions he had to make in response were easy. Churchill faced quite a few choices that would lose him respect from some, but in the end, they helped to secure the success of Britain in World War II.
One of these challenging decisions which Churchill himself called “the most difficult I had to make” occurred in July of 1940 (Kauffmann, Winston Churchill’s Most Difficult Decision). At that time, Britain’s main ally, France, had surrendered to Nazi Germany, which then took complete control of their country. However, France’s navy forces remained unaffected by the defeat. Churchill greatly feared the high possibility of Germany seizing the French navy and using it against Britain in the upcoming battle. The leaders of the French navy assured Churchill that they would never allow such a thing to happen, but with how easily Germany had overpowered the other French forces, Churchill decided he could not take the risk. He ordered the British navy to sail to where a large French fleet was stationed. They were to offer the French six hours to either scuttle the fleet or surrender or else the British navy would open fire. Unfortunately, the deadline passed with no cooperation from the French, and so the British Navy destroyed the fleet, killing nearly 1,500 French sailors (Kauffmann, Winston Churchill’s Most Difficult Decision).
After this tragic event, Churchill came under fire in Britain and was condemned by France. However, despite the criticism he received, this incredibly difficult decision demonstrated his devotion to his country, showing the lengths he would go to secure Britain’s safety. Quite remarkably, one man who was most impressed by Churchill’s controversial decision was America’s current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Previous to this event, Roosevelt had doubted the amount of strength and determination Churchill and Britain possessed to fight against Germany. After this, Roosevelt’s faith in Britain was solidified.
A demonstration of Churchill’s mostly accurate predictions occurred around a year after his “most difficult decision.” Not long after the Battle of Britain began, Churchill could sense that Germany was preparing to pursue another target as well. He sent out warnings of the possible oncoming threat to Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, as Churchill feared that Russia was next in line for a German attack. However, Russia made no effort to prepare for such an event and ignored Churchill’s concerns. To Stalin’s great surprise, Germany launched an attack on Russia just days after Churchill expressed his fears. Although the Soviet Union was greatly unprepared for this assault, Churchill had been anticipating its arrival and acted swiftly on the day of its occurrence. On June 22nd, Churchill announced in a nationwide broadcast, “Russian danger… is our danger,” and pledged to aid Stalin and his country (Nicholas, Winston Churchill).
It was these relationships with the Soviet Union and America, who had entered the war at this time, that sparked the idea of a “Grand Alliance.” Churchill oversaw the formation of this alliance as it was officially founded in 1941 (The Big Three). With Winston Churchill, FDR, and Josef Stalin now united, “The Big Three” would be able to stand against Germany together. Despite a few disagreements and occasional tension between the three leaders, this alliance was a crucial key in Germany’s defeat.
While physical strength in number and alliances is critical in a war, what many often fail to acknowledge is how impactful the power of words can be. A few paragraphs can be what leads an entire country to victory or defeat. They can be what puts an end to a world war or cause it to rampage on for decades more. Winston Churchill discovered a way to turn his words into weapons. “He took the English language and sent it into battle,” wrote English journalist and author Beverley Nichols (Taylor, How Churchill Led Britain to Victory in the Second World War). Churchill had decided from the beginning of this war that Britain would not lose. No matter what obstacle or challenge he faced, he never let himself become discouraged or afraid. He had no intention of surrendering to Germany. Instead of warning his country to expect the worst, Churchill constantly reminded them of who they were and the power they possessed. He gave hope to Britain, and even a small amount of hope in times of desperation can go a long way.
Remarkably, many of Churchill’s most famous speeches were delivered within a few months of each other. Several of these speeches are often repeated today, always with appreciation and admiration, and remembrance of what those words accomplished. One of Churchill’s perhaps most recognized speeches happens to be the very first one he gave as Prime Minister. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Churchill declared passionately to the House of Commons the day he took on this essential role. While a few of the parties had previously experienced doubt, after Churchill stepped down from the podium that day, an overwhelming sense of confidence and hope had certainly been instilled not only in the members of the house but in the entire country.
“We shall go on to the end,” Churchill testified in another one of his great speeches. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on 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.” When Churchill delivered a report on the success of Operation Dynamo, he did not hold back from graciously applauding the brave soldiers and celebrating the lives that were saved. However, he was sure to remind the country that their work was not yet complete. There were still many challenges they would have to face in the oncoming days, but they would do whatever it takes to secure the victory and freedom of Britain. This is what made Churchill such an amazing speaker for his country.
He never sugar-coated a situation, no matter how unsettling it might have been for his people. What he said to his country was always the straight, unfiltered truth. Whether or not they realized it, that is just what Britain needed. They needed to know exactly how dangerous the damage and threats were, so they would know exactly what to do in response. Churchill, however, didn’t simply stop after addressing the issue. He would always go on to deliver his strong words of reassurance and empowerment. He would constantly restate his intention of never giving in, and was always able to bring the people of Britain to his level of confidence during troubling times.
‘Their Finest Hour’ is another one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, delivered only two weeks after ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’. Here, he addressed the incredibly low level of support and confidence they had received in their mission to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, and how they exceeded all expectations nevertheless. “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.’” Once again, Churchill praises those who accomplished the impossible yet reminds his people to prepare for the oncoming struggles so that they may seize victory. “… the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” The official title of that fateful battle fought entirely in the air came directly from this speech. While many simply wanted to negotiate peace and cease the fighting, Churchill swore to fight on to the very end and win this war. This speech is what gave the pilots during the Battle of Britain one last hope to push through, one more overwhelming dose of courage and motivation for their country, which ultimately led them to victory.
Winston Churchill truly was an incredible writer and speaker. In addition to the speeches he delivered during World War II, he also wrote several other literary pieces and presented other lectures globally. Throughout his lifetime, Churchill published over 30 books, hundreds of journalistic articles, and delivered close to a staggering 2,500 speeches and lectures (The Works of Winston Churchill). Following his work in the second world war, Churchill was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 at 79 years old (The Nobel Prize of 1953).
Having served for so long at such an age is an incredibly honorable feat. Many, once they reach that point in life, see it as the time to withdraw themselves from their careers and job opportunities to live out their remaining years doing what they enjoy or accomplishing things they wish they had when they were younger. For Churchill however, he was doing what he truly enjoyed. He was doing what any responsible young person could dream of doing. He was serving his country. He was saving his country.
For months on end, he would work 18-hour days, sometimes longer (Taylor, How Churchill Led Britain to Victory in the Second World War). He was constantly presenting himself to the public to keep the spirits of the people high with hope. From 1941–1945, Churchill undertook 19 challenging, often dangerous oversea journeys. He battled with several medical issues, pushing through multiple cases of pneumonia, and even suffering a minor heart attack (Taylor, How Churchill Led Britain to Victory in the Second World War). No matter what personal issues he faced, no matter the pain or exhaustion he experienced, Churchill never quit. He never gave up on his country. This devotion and passion for serving his people was clear. From July of 1940 to May of 1945, always at least 78% of the people who completed the public opinion polls said they approved of Winston Churchill (Taylor, How Churchill Led Britain to Victory in the Second World War).
While he was an incredible leader for his country at that time, there remains a lot of controversy over his views, behavior, and decisions during World War II. According to many who worked alongside Churchill, away from the public eye, he maintained an incredibly short-tempered and ill-mannered behavior towards others, including his staff. Of course, this may be understandable considering the amount of responsibility and stress he had sitting upon his shoulders. Relating to his strategy, people often comment on how Churchill always stayed focused on one solution. Once he found the answer to a problem, he rarely continued searching for other, possibly better ways to overcome it. Without this behavior, some claim, Churchill might have been able to make even wiser decisions with better outcomes and avoid the unfortunate results of his “most difficult decision.”
Among a few other choices he carried out during the war, the attack on the French fleet still remains one of the most controversial topics of Winston Churchill’s life. Many historians and philosophers state that it was an unavoidable event he had to carry out for the safety of his country. Others argue that Churchill could have simply believed the promises of the leaders of the French navy, and not have acted so quickly and irrationally. What the outcome would have been had Churchill not made such a difficult decision, we will most likely never know. However, we do know that Britain was able to remain strong and overpower Germany in the war.
Despite the controversy and criticism Winston Churchill may face today, it remains clear that without his role in World War II, Britain may be in an entirely different state than it is now. His confident leadership and passionate devotion to his country are what maintained Britain’s courage and willingness to fight. Churchill possessed unwavering tenacity and the incredible ability to utilize his words in a way that shaped his nation and constantly gave them hope. Winston Churchill, though at first glance is not the ideal person you would believe could end a war, is the man who saved Britain, and brought his country to victory during World War II.
Although decades have passed since these feats of his were accomplished, and Churchill is no longer here to share his stories with the world, his legacy continues to thrive. His lesson to the generations of the past, present, and future can speak for itself; “…never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Winston Churchill served a crucial role in World War II. Without him, Britain, perhaps even the entire world, might have taken a turn for the worst. In modern times, people often forget what it means to truly serve someone. With each generation, the true value of hard work, dedication, and the meaningfulness of encouragement is forgotten. These attributes are not appreciated as nearly as much as they were in the past. Churchill faced incredible odds and criticism stacked against him daily. Despite the pressure he was burdened with, he never gave in. Although it seemed to many that victory was impossible, that one nation alone could not win against such a powerful force, Churchill proved them wrong. One must have courage, always, in themselves and those who they are serving, and they will always find a way to pull through, no matter the circumstances.
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Kauffmann, Bruce. “Winston Churchill’s Most Difficult Decision” Telegram.com, 29 June 2008. Web.
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Nicholas, Herbert. “Winston Churchill: Prime Minister of United Kingdom,” Briticanna, 12 January 2000. Web.
Taylor, James. “How Churchill Led Britain to Victory in the Second World War” Imperial War Museum, Web.
“The Big Three” National World War 2 Museum.org (N.P.), n.d, Web. 1 September 2020.