Winston Churchill: His finest hour

Richard Hiebert

On the occasion of Remembrance Day, this essay is dedicated to the many thousands of brave souls who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War, the Second World War, the Korean Conflict and the Afghanistan War, the veterans who sacrificed so much, and the Royal Canadian Legion.

“How fortunate are we today that when the existence of the free world was threatened during the Second World War there was a Winston Churchill to give inspiration and confidence and leadership during the darkest hours that the final victory might be attained.”

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— Author unknown

Such was the admiration and reverence given to this most extraordinary man.

Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Castle in 1876 to Lord Randolf Churchill, a prominent parliamentarian, and his American wife, Jennie Jones. Churchill was born into high British society. His grandfather was Duke of Marlborough. As a child and youth, Churchill lacked for nothing by way of privilege and favour.

Churchill attended Harrow, a prestigious private school on the west side of London. He did not distinguish himself in the classroom. In fact, he was a below average student. Nor did he demonstrate any leadership skills on the rugby field. There was no hint of the greatness to come.

After Lord Randolph died, Churchill yearned to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the world of politics. But that didn’t work out. So Churchill joined the army.

But his stay in the army was not without difficulty. He failed his first two attempts at writing relatively easy army entrance exams. Finally, on his third try, he passed and entered the Royal Military College. But his low grades qualified him for the cavalry only, which did not require much in the way of intelligence. In 1896 he went with his regiment to India.

A Fearless Fighter

Despite that the cavalry was a career of last resort, Churchill embraced it enthusiastically. It was deeply ingrained in him that he was descended from Queen Ann’s famous general. And Churchill loved adventure. When he was on leave, he joined the fighting between Spain and the rebels. In 1898, he went to the Sudan as a war correspondent to a conflict in which England was recapturing territory from the Mahdi, a charismatic Islamic leader. He went again as a war correspondent to the Boer War in South Africa. During this time, Churchill found he could write. In decrepit Indian barracks, he studied and pored over the great English classics and their authors — Gibbon, Macaulay, Swift — and imitated their style (later in life, Churchill would write his famous book, The Hstory of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill was immensely proud of his Anglo-Saxon heritage).

Churchill was bored with army routine but he loved action. He was fearless and had no hesitation in pitting himself against Queen Victoria’s enemies. Now he began to distinguish himself on the field of battle – on the Northwest frontier where he clashed at close quarters with rival tribesmen, and in the Sudan where he had ridden with the English army’s great cavalry charge. Once, he made a daring escape from a Boer field prison. Although he didn’t know it, Churchill was in preparation to be the magnificent leader in Great Britain’s and the free world’s life and death struggle against Nazi Germany.

Finding His Voice

Churchill’s bravery on the battlefield did not earn him recognition. But his skill as a journalist and writer did. He became a best selling author by the age of 25. Churchill’s books sold in the thousands. His status as a writer and the money from the sale of his books and his independence provided the means to run for a parliamentary seat and win. He immediately had his detractors (some would say enemies) who felt he was self-serving and vain. Churchill did not care. He took up his father’s quest to institute Tory democracy. In 1904, he left the Conservatives and crossed the floor to join the Liberals. By doing so, he made himself the enemy of all his former colleagues. However, his gifts of oratory (another great leadership skill he found) served to spare him from the fate of floor crossers.

Churchill’s star was rising. In 1905 he was appointed to the position of undersecretary at the Colonial Office. Then, in 1908, he was appointed to a cabinet position as minister of the Board of Trade. Churchill introduced social policies that greatly benefited the common man. He was subsequently made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 at the height of a costly naval dispute with Germany.

When world war broke out in 1914, the British Navy vastly outnumbered the German Navy, and Churchill made every effort to bring it into action. Churchill’s exploits during the First World War are the stuff of legend. He actually successfully led a force of soldiers against the Germans in the defence of Antwerp. He subsequently directed the Royal Navy’s battleships to smash the German advance.

Churchill had his failures as well. He successfully argued England should invade Turkey, Germany’s ally, to secure the sea route from the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. The campaign was a dismal failure with many British casualties.

Churchill became minister of munitions in 1917 and war minister in 1919. He did not distinguish himself in either of these positions. In 1924, he opposed the Liberals and crossed the floor again to the Conservatives. His involvement in a national strike carried with it the label of social reactionary.

By 1932, Churchill was a lonely man and greatly stripped of his informal power. The Liberals hated him and the Conservatives isolated him. He was relegated to the back benches where he became increasingly frustrated and embittered.

His only consolation was his wife Clementine whom he had married in 1908. She stood with Churchill every step of the way. She never lost faith in him.

Churchill suddenly had a new cause to take up by 1933 – the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. He saw in Hitler a new enemy whose policies menaced the United Kingdom and the nations of the free world, and particularly the British Commonwealth. Year after year between 1933 and 1938, Churchill warned of Germany’s military might. The official government denied the truth, but many in government secretly supported him.

Second World War

By 1938, the facts could no longer be denied. Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria. Both Britain and France prepared for war. Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Churchill’s time had come. Things couldn’t be worse. Hitler’s Wehrmacht was sweeping across the ancient nations with little resistance. Germany threatened to invade Britain. No enemy force had successfully managed this since William the Conqueror nine centuries earlier. Winston Churchill, now 65 years old, was summoned by King George VI to be prime minister – to wage war against an immensely powerful foe.

Churchill recalled that a profound sense of relief swept over him. At last he had the authority to direct the war. He felt he was walking with destiny. He was confident providence was with him and that his whole life had been a preparation for this hour. He had no fear, no hesitation, and he was sure he would not fail. Churchill believed in himself.

After the Nazi hordes had been pushed back and liberty reigned, and individual freedom and the rule of law was manifest, then would peace cover the land. But who could accomplish this? Winston Churchill. But how did he do it?

As a side comment, Churchill acquired a taste for fine cigars when he was in Cuba in the mid 1890s – his trademark. He smoked eight to 10 a day.

Liberty His Great Cause

Churchill’s great cause was the liberty of the United Kingdom and the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the world. That included America, the great industrial power. Churchill knew his counterpart, Franklin D. Roosevelt, must convince the United States to enter the war, or all would be lost. The British Commonwealth was automatically at war when Britain declared war. But their combined strength was no match for Hitler’s ground, air and sea forces.

Hitler’s blitzkrieg, or lightning war, rolled across western Europe. In his hour on the world stage, Churchill had prepared himself to confront the Nazi war machine. hurchill drew on three qualities that provided the necessary foundation to wage war. The first was courage. Churchill quoted Aristotle who believed courage was the chief virtue. The second was candor. Churchill believed in telling his followers the truth. They deserved the truth. And he believed in heroism from the most ordinary of souls. Churchill’s father had admonished his son to trust the people. Churchill shared his father’s sentiment. The third principle was co-operation. Churchill knew he could not defeat Hitler and his armies without co-operation. Without co-operation, alliances would fall apart. The United States must stand with Britain in its hour of need. The time had come. The nations of the world had reached the stage where there was no turning back. There could be no pause.

The ties of blood and steel welded to history sustained Churchill. It was evident in all of this that Churchill towered head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He was the greatest of leaders. His courage and iron will sustained the free nations of the world.

Powerful Oratory

The Second World War is documented through Winston Churchill’s perspective as manifested by his great speeches, especially during the dark days when Hitler’s superior forces threatened the island nation and the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the world. Churchill’s wartime speeches have never been equaled for their depth of meaning, power to influence and English prose. An account of Churchill’s great wartime speeches from May 13, 1940 to Aug. 16, 1945 follows:

“You ask, what is our policy? I will say it is to wage war by sea by 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 difficult the road may be for without victory, there is no survival.”(speech to the House of Commons upon becoming prime minister, May 13, 1940)

“We shall not flag or fail. 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 growing strength, in the air, we shall defend ourselves. 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.”(June 4, 1940, speech to the House of Commons following the evacuation of Dunkerque)

“The whole fury and might of the enemy must soon be turned against us … 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, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age … 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.”(June 18, 1940, speech to the House of Commons on the war situation)

“… I proclaim my faith that some of us will live to see a 14th of July when a liberated France will once again rejoice in her greatness and her glory and once again stand forward as the champion of the freedom of the rights of man.”(July 14, 1940, broadcast address three weeks after the fall of France)

“... this is a war of peoples and of causes. … This is a war of unknown warriors, but let us all strive without failing or in faith or in duty and the dark cause of Hitler will be lifted from our age.” (July 1940, broadcast address)

“… the British airmen, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”(Aug. 20, 1940, speech to the House of Commons reviewing the first year of the war)

“This wicked little man has tried to break our famous island race … What he has done is kindle a fire in British hearts. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe …” (Sept. 11, 1940, broadcast address following the fire bombing of London)

“We are waiting for the long promised invasion … so are the fishes.” (Oct. 21, 1940, broadcast address to the people of France)

“The morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffered for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France.”(Oct. 21, 1940, broadcast to the people of France)

“… under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire … Give us the tools and we shall finish the job.”(Feb. 9, 1941, broadcast address on the war situation, acknowledge greetings from President Roosevelt)

“At four o’clock this morning, Hitler attacked and invaded Russia … without declaration of war, without even an ultimatum … Any man or state who fights against Nazidom will have our aid and any man or state who marches with Hitler is our foe.”(June 22, 1941, broadcast address on the German invasion of Russia)

“We ask no favours of the enemy. We seek from them no compunction … We will have no truce or parley with you, or your grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst – and we will do our best!”(July 14, 1941, speech at the London County Council after a review of the civil defence services)

“The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories, and a fate awaiting the Nazi tyranny …” (July 20, 1941, message to the people of Europe)

“…decisive moments rule the English speaking peoples of the world. This was a meeting which marks forever In the pages of history … the taking up by the English speaking nations … to lead them forward out of the miseries into which they have been plunged back to the broad highroad of freedom and justice.” (Aug. 24, 1941, broadcast address following the meeting with President Roosevelt “somewhere in the Atlantic.”)

“… the two great democracies to face their task with whatever strength God may give them … We have no reason to doubt the justice of our cause or that our strength and willpower will be sufficient to sustain it … In the past we had a light that flickered. In the present, we have a light which flames. And in the future there will be a light which shines over all land and sea.(Dec. 8, 1941, speech to the House of Commons following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour)

“The people of the British Empire are a tough and hardy lot. We did not make this war, we did not seek it … We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”(Dec. 30, 1941, speech to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons)

“There is a winter, you know, in Russia … there is snow, there is frost and all that Hitler forgot about the Russian winter … I have never made such a bad mistake as that.”(May 10, 1942, broadcast address on his second anniversary as prime minister)

“Rommel’s army has been defeated … Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning.”( Dec. 10, 1942, speech at Lord Mayor’s Day luncheon, London commenting on British victories in Egypt)

“After the war, when a man is asked what he did, it will be quite sufficient to say ‘I marched and fought with the Desert Army.’ And when history is written and all the facts are known your feats will gleam and glow … long after we have passed away.”(Feb. 3, 1943, speech to the Eighth Army at Tripoli congratulating it on its victories in Africa)

“We seek no profit, We covet no territory or aggrandizement. We expect no reward and we will accept no compromise. It is on that footing that we wish to be judged, first in our own consciences and afterwards by posterity.”(June 30, 1943, speech at the Guildhall, London, upon receiving the freedom of the city)

“We, the United Nations, demand from the Nazi, Fascist and Japanese tyrannies unconditional surrender … they must be completely broken and yield themselves absolutely …”(June 30, 1943, speech at the Guildhall, London, upon receiving the freedom of the city)

“The war effort could not have been achieved if the women had not marched in the millions and undertaken all kinds of tasks and work…” (Sept. 29, 1943, address at the Royal Albert Hall, London, at a meeting of 6,000 women)

“I have no fear of the future. Let us go forward into its mysteries … and let us move onward with confidence and courage ... It is time to speak great words of peace and truth to all. (Sept. 29, 1943, speech at Royal Albert Hall in London)

“So far the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan … It involves … land, air and sea forces …” (June 9, 1944, report to the House of Commons after the D-Day landing)

“When I look back over the wartime years I cannot help feeling that time is inadequate and even capricious measure of their duration … It is hard to remember how long ago this war began.”(November 1944, speech at the Mansion House, London, reviewing the progress made in 1944)

“This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom … We have never seen a greater day than this … The fierce attacks of the enemy, have not in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.”(May 8, 1945, speech from the balcony in the Ministry of Health to crowds in Whitehall on V-E Day)

As Britain’s war leader, Winston Churchill exhibited extraordinary qualities: courage, boldness, intellect and charisma, all of which were embedded in a deep sense of morality and conviction.

He ranked with the pantheon of leaders who, with sheer will and strength of character, changed the course of nations. So then, what shall we say of this unrivalled leader who routed the threat of the Hun and domination of the island nation and the free world? What is Winston Churchill’s legacy?

He marshaled the English language and hurled it into battle to achieve the ultimate victory.

(Sources: U.S News and World Report, Publisher, William D. Holiber, May 29, 2000; The immortal words of Winston Churchill, 1965, The Curtis Publishing Co.; Cigar Aficionado, Publisher M. Shanken, n.d.)

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