The inexhaustible Churchill seemed to comprise many individuals—all of them determined to prevail

In the early hours of May 10, 1940, as German soldiers surged forward into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, Britain’s Conservative Party leadership tapped Winston Churchill, 65, to become their country’s next prime minister. For the unruly black sheep of Parliament, it was a stunning turnaround. Churchill had spent much of the 1930s in what he called “the wilderness”—a political exile of his own making. Now the pugnacious personality that had long sidelined Churchill became one of England’s most valued assets.

After warning of the German threat for nearly a decade, Churchill understood more acutely than most that “the nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.” Maddening at times, fierce and funny, savage but with a soft side, Churchill provided his nation with a singular focus as the dark cloud of Nazism descended over Europe. He was, say biographers William Manchester and Paul Reid, “a multifarious individual, including within one man a whole troupe of characters, some of them subversive of one another and none feigned.” Collectively those traits saw Britain through its darkest hour. ✯


  • The absence of a cigar played a key role in another portrait. Moments after Churchill’s December 1941 speech to the Canadian parliament, photographer Yousuf Karsh prepared to take his photo. Puffing on a cigar, Churchill ignored the ashtray the photographer held out. So Karsh stepped forward and plucked the cigar from the British leader’s mouth. “He looked so beligerent he could have devoured me,” Karsh recalled. “It was at that instant that I took the photograph.” (Bridgeman © Yousuf Karsh)
  • The prime minister chats with Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower at a train station a month before the Normandy landings. Churchill’s distinctive garb—a “siren suit”—was of his own design: a one-piece garment that could be quickly donned before taking shelter during the Blitz. Churchill regularly wore them while meeting with politicians and dignitaries. His habits of dress amused his family and staff. Jock Colville, Churchill’s assistant private secretary, reported that his boss frequently wandered around the corridors of No. 10 “wearing a soldier’s steel helmet...a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms.” (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
  • Churchill bends to restrain “Blackie,” the feline mascot of HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing the gangway to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference in August 1941. An animal lover, Churchill frequently carried on coversations with his own beloved cat Nelson, telling him once that he needed to be more stouthearted after the large gray feline flinched during an air raid. ( IWM via Getty Images)
  • Accompanied by wife Clementine, Churchill tours the bombed-out streets of London in 1940. That October Churchill told the House of Commons what he found: “On every side there is the cry, ‘We can take it,’ but, with it, there is also the cry, ‘Give it ‘em back.’” London suffered 79 major night raids between September 1940 and June 1941 and, by war’s end, approximately 43,000 civilians were killed. As the city was set ablaze, Churchill sought out Londoners, particularly those in the East End, who bore the brunt of the Blitz. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Image)
  • “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” journalist Edward R. Murrow said of Churchill—here speaking to the crowd at the 1945 Party Conference of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations. After the fall of France, fear of a German invasion pervaded the island nation and there was talk of seeking terms with Hitler, yet Churchill refused to bow. His famous line, “We shall fight them on the beaches” wasn’t just rhetoric, however. He expected himself and everyone in his cabinet to be willing to die “choking on his own blood upon the ground” while fighting the Nazis to the last man. (Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)
  • Churchill watches an artillery barrage near Florence, Italy, on August 20, 1944. The trip seemed to revive Churchill’s spirits. A few weeks before, he had complained to his wife, “I am an old and weary man. I feel exhausted.” He later wrote of a firefight he observed there between German and Allied forces: “this was the nearest I got to the enemy…and heard the most bullets in World War II. (IWM NA17912)
  • An avid painter, Churchill completed more than 500 paintings throughout his life—but only one during the course of World War II. He created a scene from Marrakesh, Morocco—“The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque”—as a gift for President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the 1943 Casablanca Conference. (Photo courtesy of M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans)
  • Churchill intently eyes Roosevelt as the president looks out over Marrakesh. After the Casablanca Conference, the prime minister convinced Roosevelt to delay his trip home and accompany him to the Morrocan city, which Churchill deemed “the most lovely spot in the world.” After Roosevelt’s departure, Churchill completed the painting before returning home. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)
  • Painting gave Churchill—here in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1946—the quietude that helped focus his unbounded mental energy. While he did not believe in an afterlife—only “eternal sleep”—Churchill once quipped: “When I get to Heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my five million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.” (Getty Images)
  • The relationship between Churchill and Eisenhower—here in Tunisia on Christmas Day 1943—was often difficult and tumultuous, but ultimately amicable. Eisenhower frequently opposed Churchill’s military calculations, leaving the prime minister bitter. Yet Churchilll had the capacity to—as biographers Manchester and Reid put it—“maintain numerous (and often conflicting) opinions about a man.” (Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
  • Churchill—here in 1928, building a cottage for his daughters at his Chartwell estate—found physical labor a good counterpart to mental labor. He was also at work on a book at the time and wrote with satisfaction of laying “200 bricks and 2,000 words a day.” Bricklaying became a lifelong outlet for the man—one made official in the fall of 1928 when he was inducted into the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Workers. His membership card read “Winston S. Churchill, Westerham, Kent. Occupation, bricklayer.” (Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Ever the adventurer, Churchill sits in the the copilot’s seat of the Boeing 314 flying boat Berwick in January 1942. Liking to be in the thick of it, Churchill was firmly at the helm of the British war effort. He refused to delegate any of his duties to his staff and, while he never overruled his military advisers, he gave his opinions freely and often. “We are all worms,” he said early in his six decades-long career—even then convinced of his ability to lead. “But I do believe I am a glow-worm.” (AP Photo)