In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll across the United Kingdom asking citizens to nominate the greatest Briton of all time. Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton, and Queen Elizabeth I all featured prominently.
However, there could only be one winner the indomitable Winston Churchill. His achievements of last century, saving as he did Britain from the clutches of defeat during World War II, were so significant that he is seen the world-over as one of the greatest figures of all time.
Now, 50 years on from his death, it is only fitting that we recount his colourful and heroic life. Born on November 30, 1874, Churchill was a child of the aristocracy. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his grandfather a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s cabinet and his ancestors can be traced back to the first Duke of Marlborough in the 17th century.
An average student who entered the military college at Sandhurst on his third attempt, he was ridiculed by his cold and absent father as living an “idle, useless and unprofitable life”. But despite that, Churchill began to make his own mark as a war correspondent earning a national reputation for gallantry and fearless reporting.
A career in politics beckoned. and he used his time in the House of Commons to hone his skills of oratory and outline his personal political philosophy. But it was as First Lord of the Admiralty that he became controversial. He showed great foresight by changing the British naval fleet from coal to oil power and invested in new technologies like planes and tanks.
But his overzealous approach to the disastrous Dardanelles campaign brought him unstuck and as the World War I ended, Churchill was in political exile — until the late 1930s when he was an early and outspoken critic of Hitler’s rise. He understood before all others that Britain’s appeasement strategy would fail.
He told Parliament “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
By September 1939 he was in the War Cabinet and he became prime minister aged 65 in May 1940. With the Germans having invaded France, the Americans still on the sidelines and London under attack during the Battle of Britain, Churchill refused to be beaten, inspiring his people to fight on.
With lines like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “we shall fight on the beaches, the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender”, Churchill, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
Churchill knew how crucial it was to have the US enter the war. He developed a close personal relationship with President Roosevelt and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, would play a key role in coordinating military strategy with the Americans. While strongly anti-communist, he was acutely aware that Stalin’s communist forces were needed to stop the Nazi war machine. He even went so far as to supply military equipment to the Soviets via dangerous Arctic convoys as it was, after all, simply a means to an end.
But once the War was over, Churchill was at the forefront of efforts to call out communism for the enemy it was, making the famous statement in 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, that “an iron curtain” had descended across Europe.
It is remarkable to think that at the conclusion of the war, and after all that Churchill had done to shape the Allies victory, he was tossed from office by his own people in the election of 1945.
But to Churchill’s credit, he did not walk away, becoming the leader of the Opposition before returning as prime minister in 1951.
Churchill would retire of his own volition in 1955 and be remembered as a successful prime minister in both peace and war.
It also has to be said what makes Churchill particularly fascinating is that he had so many different talents and interests. His prolific writing about history, politics and conflict would also see him win the Nobel prize for literature; the first British prime minister to be awarded such an honour.
Churchill was great in every sense. The fact that 350 million people, a tenth of the world’s population at the time, turned on their television sets to watch his funeral is testament to the man.
That day, one of his pall bearers, our own Sir Robert Menzies, put it best. “In our darkest days” he said, Churchill “lit the lamps of hope at many firesides and released so many from the chains of despair. There has been nobody like him in our lifetimes.”
Josh Frydenberg is federal Member for Kooyong and the Assistant Treasurer