Winston Churchill in 1941 as Prime Minister of Great Britain and leader of the British Empire.
“In war: resolution, In defeat: defiance, In victory: magnanimity, In peace: goodwill.” WSC 1946
The photograph, which epitomizes Churchill’s defiance of the Nazis and his determination to defeat Hitler, has become the iconic photograph of Winston Churchill. It is speculated that this photograph, now in the public domain, has been reproduced more than any other photograph in the world.
Yousuf Karsh, a Canadian of Armenian descent, took this photo of Churchill on 30 December 1941 after Churchill had gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa.
When World War Two began, the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the population of the globe and controlled one-quarter of the land area of the world including all of present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Namibia, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, UAE, Oman, Aden, Qatar, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Singapore et al. It is the largest empire known to have existed in history.
Writes Max Hastings in Winston’s War, “Churchill was the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.” It is hard not to agree with this. Over the last two years I have been reading and reading to prep myself to write my next novel which will about a Royal Navy officer in World War Two. To give a sense of verisimilitude to the narrative I have steeped myself in English history of that time and Churchill towers above everyone else.
This wasn’t a surprise to me and won’t be to you but what did surprise me in re-reading so much English history is how much Great Britain and the Empire depended on his leadership during the early years of the war. “Everything depended on him and him alone. Only he had the power to make the nation believe it could win,” wrote Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges.
I don’t think I have read a memoir from an Englishman about World War Two which doesn’t make the point over and over that it was Churchill’s dogged determination, infectious optimism in public and his magnificent oratory, which kept Britain fighting alone for almost two years. The British had never imagined in their worst nightmare that they would end up fighting the Germans alone. They always presumed that France, with a far larger army, would be in the war against Germany with them.
I have downloaded a number of Churchill’s speeches and listened to them over and over to catch the mood of the era. His defiance, his wit and his frank admission to the British people of what they were going to go through never cease to impress me. More important, is the what I can only describe as the awesome inspiration his speeches possess. Almost seventy years later, his words can make my hair stand on end and vitally communicate the sense of urgency he felt.
The most somber of his speeches is quoted the most so I will include just a few lines here that send chills down my spine. After France collapsed and surrendered to the Germans, Churchill stood in front of Parliament and said, “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization…” (by which he meant Western civilization). And, of course, he was right. And the British won this battle by themselves. We did almost nothing to help them at that point.
Despite the library of books written about him, Churchill remains a mystery. “Opaque,” as Max Hastings wrote, “because he wished it thus.” When Churchill took center stage, he was well aware he was playing the role of a lifetime and he played his role with greater skill than any actor in all of history. He knew that everything he did would be studied and dissected down to the last jot, so while he lived in the brutal present, he always had his eye on posterity. It is one of the reasons he refused to keep a diary or journal. He did not want people to know what he thought at different times during the war.
By all logic the British should have negotiated with the Nazis while they were still in a position of relative strength. But thank God they did not. And the reason they did not was a man named Winston Churchill. We owe him a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. In the entire history of the United States, only two people have ever been made honorary citizens of the US: the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill.
This photograph was taken in Boston during Churchill’s lecture tour in 1900 about the Boer War. (Photo courtesy US Library of Congress).