Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill and a descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, he was commissioned in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars in 1895. He served in the 1897 Malakand and 1898 Nile campaigns and, as a London newspaper correspondent in the Boer War, was captured but escaped with a £25 reward offered for his recapture. In 1900 he entered parliament as a Conservative MP, but crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberal majority in 1906. He was appointed Colonial Under-Secretary, and as President of the Board of Trade (1908-10), he introduced labour exchanges. As Home Secretary (1910), he witnessed the famous Siege of Sidney Street, and as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1910 began strengthening Great Britain's army and navy in preparation for the war with Germany that he foresaw.
He succeeded in rebuilding his reputation after the disastrous Dardanelles expedition of 1915, and David Lloyd George appointed him Minister of Munitions in 1917. He was Secretary of State for War and Air from 1919 to 1921, but then found himself out of favour and was excluded from the Cabinet. His warnings of the rising Nazi threat in the mid-1930s and his criticisms of the National Government's lack of preparedness for war went unheeded, but in 1940, Neville Chamberlain at last stepped down and Churchill began his 'walk with destiny' as Prime Minister of the coalition that was to see the country through five of the most momentous years in its history.
The loyalty of the British people and the confidence of the allies was crucial in the first two years of the war; in winning both early on, Churchill gained two enormous advantages. In addition, he was the first premier since the Duke of Wellington to have first-hand experience of battle, and also, he was an accomplished orator, able to convince the people by a parliamentary statement or radio broadcast, that even in the blackest moments Great Britain would eventually be victorious. Churchill's compassion and loathing of the scale of allied casualties made him impatient for that victory, and in the course of four years he travelled thousands of miles, shaped the 1941 Atlantic Charter, drew an initially reluctant American people into the battle, masterminded the strategy adopted for the Battle of Britain, Alamein and the North African campaign, and, after the enemy had been defeated, contrived with Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin the means of gutting Germany's historic status as an epicentre of territorial ambition.
In the general election of 1945 Churchill was rejected by the British electorate; but by 1951, at the age of 77, he was Prime Minister again. In 1951-52 he vigorously promoted the development of Great Britain's first nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, he set about reconstructing a country economically and physically ravaged by war, and when in 1955 he finally relinquished the premiership to Anthony Eden at the age of 81, its post-war recovery was nearly complete.
He was the only Prime Minister ever to be honoured by the attendance of the reigning monarch at No. 10 Downing Street, when Elizabeth II dined there with him and his wife Clementine on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. After his death, the public queued for hours to pay homage to their wartime and peacetime leader as he lay in state in Westminster Hall, and tens of thousands lined the route of his funeral procession in a display of affection and respect on a scale that had not been seen since the death of Queen Victoria.