Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965)

The English statesman Sir Winston Churchill successfully led Britain through World War Two. He described this achievement as his 'walk with destiny' - a destiny for which he believed he had spent all his life in preparation.

He was born son of a prominent Tory politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, before embarking on an army career. He saw action in 1897 with the Malakand field force, which he described in The Story of the Malakand Field Force, and also in 1898, with a Nile expeditionary force, when he famously fought hand-to-hand against the Dervishes. During the Boer war he was ambushed while reporting for a London paper, The Morning Post, but he escaped - and a price of £25.00 was put on his head.

His political career began in 1900, when he became Conservative MP for Oldham, a seat that he had previously failed to win. When he became disaffected with his party he migrated to join the Liberals in 1906. His presence in the House of Commons was notable, marked particularly by his rehearsed rhetorical method (meticulously prepared) - and this was despite a speech impediment, which never left him. Although he styled himself on his father, his concerns were somewhat different. He was an arbitrator who fought for peace in the Boer war, and he believed in effective military management and in modesty of ambition.

In 1917 he was appointed Lloyd George's minister of munitions, and was involved in the mass production of tanks, believed to have played a large part in Britain's subsequent victory in World War One. Then from 1919 to 1921 he acted as secretary of state for war and air, and in 1924 he became chancellor of the exchequer.

The next decade saw a decline in his status, as political turmoil prevailed. But when war loomed in May 1940, and Neville Chamberlain lost power, Churchill came into his own - face-to-face with his 'destiny'. His national spirit and unflinching determination in the face of Germany and Italy's warmongering won massive support across the country. Even though he promised nothing more than 'blood, toil, tears and sweat', he mobilised and inspired courage in an entire nation. Throughout the war he worked tirelessly, and built good relations with President Roosevelt at the same time as maintaining an alliance with the Soviet Union.

Churchill, however, was regarded with suspicion by some, for his ability to change parties at regular intervals. Many trade union members, and sections of the working class also hated him, as he was instrumental in helping to break the 1926 General Strike. After the war, even though he was seen as a great leader who had not given an inch to the enemy, he was not considered necessarily to be the man to establish a better Britain during peacetime.

Suspicions and doubts about him may have been compounded by his delay in the implementation of the Beveridge Report, which outlined plans for a national health service. Even though Churchill lost power in the 1945 post-war election, he remained a vital leader of the opposition, voicing apprehensions about the Iron Curtain and encouraging European and Atlantic unity, finally conceived as NATO.

A final stint as Prime Minister came at the age of 77, and Churchill continued as a backbencher into even older age. His contribution was rewarded with a string of decorations, including an honorary US citizenship and accolades listing him among the greatest living Englishmen. As well as his many political achievements, he left the legacy of an impressive number of publications.

Churchill captured in South Africa

Winston Churchill arrived in Estcourt in Natal in 1899 at the age of 25. He came to report on the Anglo Boer War for the London Morning Post. The British troops were waiting to march on Ladysmith. Churchill later described Ladysmith as "the poor little persecuted town – famous to the uttermost ends of the earth".

In November of that year Churchill joined an armoured train reconnaissance heading towards Colenso North where Boer patrols had been spotted. Boers just north of Frere in Natal ambushed the train. A huge stone had blocked the line. When the train hit it, it was derailed. General PJ Joubert decided that Churchill had played too active a role in the skirmish. So he was taken to Pretoria (near Johannesburg) to be imprisoned.

Churchill did not stay captive for long, however. Within two months he had escaped and stowed away on a coal train heading east in the direction of Mozambique. The following evening the train stopped at Clewer siding near Witbank (the Transvaal Highveld). Churchill decided to knock on some doors in search of food.

Fortune definitely favors the brave for the door he chose to knock on was that of John Howard. He was an Englishman and manager of the Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Colliery. Churchill was fed well and later hidden in the underground stables of the mine. The Boer forces were searching high and low. Still later he hid behind some packing cases in the office.

General Joubert was not overly concerned about Churchill's escape. He actually offered less cash reward (27shilling) for Churchill's recapture that the British officers were paying for a bottle of Scotch. "He is just 'n klein koerant-skrywertjie", (a little bit of a newspaperman) was Joubert's opinion of the man who would later become the British Prime Minister.

Six days after his arrival at Clewer, he was hidden on a railway truck loaded with wool and bound for Mozambique. The train finally reached its destination two days later on 21 December. The British Consul was not immediately convinced of Churchill's identity. But after two days a cable reached Howard at Witbank. It read, "Goods arrived safely".

Of the Boers, Churchill was to comment, "the individual Boer, mounted, in a suitable country, is worth four or five regular soldiers. The only way of treating them is to either get men equal in character and intelligence as riflemen, or failing that, huge masses of troops…., there is plenty of work here for a quarter of a million men and South Africa is well worth the cost in blood and money. Are the gentlemen of England all out fox hunting? For the sake of our manhood, our devoted colonists and our dead soldiers, we must persevere with the war".

Last updated 17 February, 2009
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