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In world history, there have been few leaders who have managed to hold their countries together against extraordinary circumstances quite like Sir Winston Churchill did during World War II. Born on November 30, 1874 at his family’s home in Woodstock, England, he would rise out of the British aristocracy to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Descending from the Dukes of Marlborough, Churchill was born on the exquisite grounds of Blenheim Palace 80 miles to the northwest of London in Oxfordshire. His mother, an American from New York City, gave birth to him two months prematurely, a fact which affected him as a child far less than a feisty spirit -- he often received poor grades due to his stubbornness in the classroom.
Fascinated by the military, Churchill joined the Rifle Corps at Harrow School in his teens, using the experience as a springboard into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst after graduation. Shortly before Churchill left to join his regiment in 1895, his father died at the age of 45, leaving Churchill with the belief he must work diligently to build a legacy before he passed on at a young age, too.
During his four years in the army, he gained a reputation for skillful coverage of the battles taking place, managing to complete two works of nonfiction before his discharge. Working for the Morning Post in 1899, he covered the Boer War in South Africa, ultimately being captured and making a daring escape. When he made it back to his homeland, he published a third book while running for office as a Conservative Member of Parliament from Oldham.
Moving up through the Liberal government after switching parties for 1906, he received an appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. A forward thinker, he authorized the creation of an Air Service to harness the military power of airplanes the following year, taking flying lessons as a testament to his appreciation for the new technology.
After being replaced for a failed campaign at the Dardanelles early in World War I, Churchill resigned from the government and took a position at the head of a battalion on the Western Front. For nearly a decade afterward, he spent more time thinking like a soldier than a politician, using his influence to make recommendations that many times ended up disastrous on the field.
Regaining an office in the Conservative Party during the early 1920s, he was out of a job by the end of the decade. Forced to focus on his writing as the new government ignored his extreme beliefs, he submitted drafts for Marlborough: His Life and Times and History of the English Speaking Peoples while composing newspaper articles and making speeches. His work with a pen became his calling card during the 1930s, earning him a fortune, but his heart would have rather been in Parliament.
Though he maintained close ties to many in the government, even receiving top secret information while he openly criticized officials for policies against Indian independence or arguing from his position outside the government for ramping up the British war machine. When Adolf Hitler launched into Poland on September 3, 1939, Churchill received an appointment to the War Cabinet once again, regaining the title of First Lord of the Admiralty he held at the start of World War I. By the middle of 1940, with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain embattled for his role in the appeasement of the Nazis eight months before, Churchill answered his country’s call and accepted Chamberlain's position after being asked by King George VI. From the start, Churchill used the strength of his words to steel British nerves for a long war against the Germans, using his clout to take on the role of Defense Minister in order to create a single point of accountability.
Churchill worked his relationships to build a coalition willing to fight the Germans, gaining military aid from the United States and managing to wrangle Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union as best he could in order to defeat the Nazi menace. With victory achieved, he lost the election of 1945 and moved into the opposition leadership. His health failing, he still managed to lead the Conservative Party and write books. (His six-volume opus The Second World War garnered him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.)
A decade after retiring from public service following a second term as Prime Minister from 1951-55, Churchill died at his home in London at the age of 90 on January 24, 1965. Having received the Order of the Garter from Queen Elizabeth and become the first Honorary Citizen of the United States by proclamation of President John F. Kennedy, he had done much to make his mark on the world.
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