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Sir Winston Churchill 30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965

Sir Winston Churchill

On 24 January 1965, Sir Winston Churchill died a decade after his resignation as Prime Minister. Six days later he became the first non-royal to receive a state funeral since William Gladstone in 1898.

Churchill in Devonport, 1939. NMRN; Devonport Collection

First Lord of the Admiralty 1911-1915

Churchill’s role as First Lord of the Admiralty had placed him as the political head of the Royal Navy during the early years of the First World War.

But his contribution to the position has divided opinion ever since, with the first ten months of the war highlighting his incapability as a naval leader.

Just three months into the First World War, Britain suffered its first naval defeat at the Battle of Coronel, losing two warships and 1600 men at the hands of the German East Asia Squadron.

It was a humiliating defeat for the superpower, who had not lost a naval battle since 1812.

Churchill was quick to order a counter-attack, sending HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible from their refit in Devonport.

Admiral Superintendent Mundy informed Churchill they would be ready by 14 November.

Churchill demanded they set sail on 11 November, taking numerous dockyard workers with them to finish the job.

A month later their counter-attack was launched at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

This time, Britain was victorious in destroying the German Squadron.

Churchill in Devonport following the Battle of River Plate, 1939. NMRN; Devonport Collection

Prime Minister – The War Years

Churchill’s greatest successes arguably came during his time as Prime Minister throughout the Second World War.

Popularity for the once unpopular leader began to soar after the successful evacuation of 338,226 Allied servicemen from Dunkirk and the surrender of the French Rear-Guard.

It gave rise to the view that it was, in a way, a victory. In his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, Churchill described it as:

“A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity…”

Churchill continued to celebrate success with the eventual persuasion of the United States to join the war effort.

And, after years of planning, the Allied victory of D-Day marked the start of Operation Overlord, culminating in the death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of Nazi Germany.

1955 - Present

Ill-health forced Churchill to resign as Prime Minister in 1955, but he did not retire from politics until 1964.

He accepted the Order of the Garter from Queen Elizabeth II, with whom he had formed a close bond.

Numerous memorials were erected in Churchill’s honour following his death, and he remains one of only eight people to be granted honorary citizenship of the United States of America.

Today, Churchill continues to divide public opinion as his attitudes towards race come under scrutiny. Historians now face the challenging task of setting him within a wider, appropriate context beyond one of heroism.

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