Winston Churchill, whose resolute leadership and combative spirit rallied Britain when it stood against Nazi Germany in some of the darkest days of World War II, was born in Oxfordshire, England, on this day in history, Nov. 30, 1874.
Churchill was thrown into a cauldron of global warfare, also battling Imperial Japan in Asia, and thrived under the pressure of statesmanship in the defense of democracy.
He assumed the role of British prime minister on May 10, 1940, replacing ineffective Neville Chamberlain, the same day that Hitler launched his new mechanized blitzkrieg war machine on a frightening offensive across Western Europe.
Netherlands, Belgium and France all collapsed within six weeks.
Churchill’s fearless reaction, as England sat in the crosshairs of an expected invasion, still steel the spirit and inspire determination today.
From left to right, Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and Princess Margaret of Great Britain wave to crowds from the balcony of Buckingham Palace during VE Day celebrations on May 8, 1945.
“We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,” Churchill announced to the British people before Parliament on June 4, 1940, just three weeks into his leadership.
“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.”
Churchill, based largely on his World War II leadership, topped the list of 100 Greatest Britons of all time in a 2002 BBC poll, ahead of a formidable collection of influential global icons.
Despite being the definitive Briton, Churchill was half American.
The Top 10 included Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I and John Lennon.
“If Britain — its eccentricity, its big heartedness, its strength of character — has to be summed up in one person, it has to be Winston Churchill,” said Northern Ireland political leader Dr. Mo Mowlam in a BBC documentary about the list.
Churchill, despite being the definitive Briton, was in fact half American.
At far right, a young Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the future British prime minister, pictured with his mother — American heiress Lady Jennie Jerome — and his younger brother John Strange Spencer-Churchill.
(Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
His British father, Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, was a prominent conservative politician from a noble family.
Churchill’s mother, Jennie (Jerome), later Lady Randolph Churchill, was born in Brooklyn.
She was the daughter of U.S. financier Leonard Jerome, who traced his family roots in America to the early 1700s.
“We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” — Winston Churchill
Churchill’s career in public service spanned an incredible swath of history. He served the people of Great Britain under both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
He is revered today on both sides of the Atlantic as a great defender of western democracy.
But his path to greatness was marred by disgrace and controversy.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (center) inspecting air raid damage in Battersea, South London, during the Blitz, Sept. 10, 1940.
(Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Most notably, Churchill’s career was all but ruined by failed leadership in World War I.
He served as first lord of the Admiralty when the war broke out in 1914 and was widely blamed for a pair of ignominious British military catastrophes.
“In 1915 he helped orchestrate the disastrous Dardanelles naval campaign and was also involved in the planning of the military landings on Gallipoli, both of which saw large losses,” says the Imperial War Museum.
Churchill’s career was all but ruined by failed leadership in World War I.
“Following the failure of these campaigns, Churchill was demoted and resigned from government. He became an officer in the Army and served on the Western Front until early 1916.”
He worked his way back into politics and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British equivalent of secretary of the Treasury, from 1924 to 1929.
July 1940: German artillery march down the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris after taking the city.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Churchill began issuing warnings about the rise of Nazi Germany following Hitler’s ascension to chancellor in 1933.
He publicly opposed the policy of appeasement advocated by many Brits, including Chamberlain, wary of another continental war after the frightening cost the nation paid in World War I.
He spent much of the inter-war years traveling the United States, solidifying relationships that would prove critical to the defeat of tyranny in World War II.
He called on the American people to rally to the aid of Europe in the same “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of 1940.
“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.”
May 8, 1945: Some of the huge crowd who were in Whitehall, London, to hear Churchill’s speech on VE Day are shown in this image.
(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Churchill’s hoped-for rescue by the New World came with entry of the United States into World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The day of liberation came with the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945.
“Winston Churchill stood on a Whitehall balcony and addressed the excited crowd below,” BBC says of the moment of once-unimaginable victory.
“‘In all our long history,’ he said, ‘we have never seen a greater day than this.’ Churchill had stood against Hitler and won — the day was his.”
Churchill was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and in the same year earned the Nobel Prize in Literature for his six-volume history of World War II.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill died on Jan. 24, 1965, at age 90.
A crowd of about a million people lined the streets of London for his state funeral, the last in the United Kingdom before Queen Elizabeth’s death in 2022. An estimated 350 million people around the world watched the procession and ceremony on television.
“In the whole of recorded history, [World War II] was, I believe, the one occasion when one man, with one soaring imagination, with one fire burning in him, and with one unrivaled capacity for conveying it to others, won a crucial victory not only for the Forces (for there were many heroes in those days) but for the spirit of human freedom,” Sir Robert Menzies said in his eulogy of Churchill.
“And so, on this day, we thank him, and we thank God for him.”