Winston Churchill

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By Sallie Purkisconsultant and history writer, Cambridge

Use the inspiring life of Churchill to link a study of World War II with an exploration of the biography genre in literacy

Winston Churchill was one of the 20th century’s most famous prime ministers. In a recent BBC poll, he was voted the Greatest Briton of all time, receiving half a million votes. He was a strong and determined leader. He led the people of Britain through World War II and was not afraid of taking risks. He was a powerful speaker and his speeches represented the spirit of wartime Britain and raised national morale. He also had enormous energy. He celebrated his 70th birthday during World War II, he never seemed to go to bed and he had a daily schedule which few people could contemplate.

Winston’s childhood

Winston Churchill had a typically upper-class Victorian upbringing. He lived in the nursery wing of Blenheim Palace, where he was born in November 1874. He rarely saw his father, the youngest son of a duke, or his mother, who was an American heiress. Sent off to boarding school at the age of seven and later to Harrow, a boys’ public school, his scholastic and sporting achievements were unremarkable. Letters from the headteacher to his mother reported on his failure to study hard and his inability to be punctual.

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ Winston Churchill

Military and political life

After school Churchill trained as a soldier at Sandhurst Royal Military College. He served in India, the Sudan and South Africa. While in South Africa, he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, but he made a daring escape. Back home, he followed his father into politics and became a Member of Parliament. When Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister in 1940, Churchill was elected to lead the War Cabinet – a coalition of all talents, not based on party affiliation.

Churchill the patriot

Churchill was a great patriot. By 1940, Britain was losing the war. Thousands of British troops were in retreat and had to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, and Hitler was ready to invade. Churchill not only took over the management of the war, but he also rallied the whole country behind his efforts to win. He made clear his determination never to make peace with the enemy and, even though there was no television in those days, he used visual and verbal propaganda to communicate with the general public. Posters showed him with an optimistic smile, the cigar in his hand creating an impression of a man who could afford to relax a little. Other images showed Churchill with his index finger pointing outwards, encouraging the people to join in the war effort. He regularly visited bombsites the morning after a raid, and often gave a ‘V for Victory’ sign with the first two fingers of his right hand to boost morale and show his determination to win the war. Photographs in popular news magazines of the day, such as The War Illustrated or Picture Post, showed him informally dressed in a ‘siren suit’, an all-in-one garment that was worn in air-raid shelters. These images sent out a message of Churchill being in touch with ordinary people.

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