His empire faced its toughest crisis, its darkest moment, when Winston Churchill, Britain's new prime minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time—and made matters seem even worse. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he flatly declared on May 13, 1940, only days after Hitler's powerful army began its sweep through Holland, Belgium and France, toward the English Channel. "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering." Then almost in the same breath came the call to greatness. "You ask, What is our aim?" he went on. "I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be."

Brutally forthright, morally unflinching and possessed of a poet's touch that stirred the hearts of England and the world—this was Winston Churchill, Britain's great hero and the towering statesman of the 20th century. After the attack of Sept. 11, the lasting example of his leadership seems more relevant than ever, as a nation looks to its elected officials for solace and strength. "Churchill's wisdom calls to us across the years," says Richard Langworth, editor of the Churchill journal Finest Hour. "He was a man of absolute integrity. Whenever he took a position, he took it out of principle. That is why Churchill is now on a lot of people's minds."

Indeed. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was dubbed "Churchill in a baseball cap" for his demeanor following the attacks; British and American papers have similarly lauded Prime Minister Tony Blair as "Churchillian" for his fierce, eloquent call for a united front against terrorists. As for President George W. Bush, "Churchill exercised leadership in its finest form, and the President is following his example," says Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan and a Churchill enthusiast. "He understood that if you give in again and again, there is no way of stopping the other side. He stood up and fought the war, and he won it."

Churchill was an outsize figure in every way. He had voracious appetites for scotch, champagne, cigars and beef, and he exercised only rarely. Yet he had tremendous energy and an infectious bounce to his step. A graceful writer, he published dozens of books and won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his body of work when he was 79. He also wrote all of his own magnificent speeches, drawing from a profound knowledge of history and poetry. "He was a true Renaissance man," says John Plumpton, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Center, an educational organization that lists 3,000 members. "He probably knew more history than any leader of the 20th century."

That century was still nearly three decades away when Churchill was born in a small room in Oxfordshire's Blenheim Palace on the night of the St. Andrew's Ball, surprising his father, the distinguished parliamentarian Lord Randolph Churchill, and his lovely American mother, Jennie Jerome, who were not expecting him for days. Largely neglected by his distant father, Churchill did not show much promise early on and took three tries to get into military school. Yet he saw himself as special even then. "We are all worms," he once remarked, "but I do believe I am a glowworm."

He joined the army in 1895, just after his father died of syphilis. Churchill saw action in India and the Sudan, where he rode in the last great cavalry charge of the British Empire and acted as a war correspondent for British newspapers. Driven to prove to himself "that he was worthy of his father's love and respect," says Plumpton, Churchill won election to Parliament in 1900 at age 25.

He climbed the ranks to become the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. When World War I broke out three years later, he eagerly committed Britain's superior naval fleet to battle. But his move to damage Turkey, Germany's ally, failed when Allied troops were outmanned and stranded on the Gallipoli Peninsula, leading to hundreds of thousands of casualties. Disgraced, Churchill quit Parliament and rejoined the army, fighting in the trenches as a battalion commander.

Though Churchill held several political offices during the next two decades, "opinion about him was divided," says John Lukacs, author of the recent history book Five Days in London. "The general impression was that he was impulsive. He made mistakes of judgment." But Churchill perceived the threat of Nazi aggression and throughout the '30s prodded his country to prepare for war. The British prime minister at the time, Neville Chamberlain, tried to buy peace by appeasing Hitler; when that policy proved a miserable failure with the Nazi attack on Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, many Britons yearned for Churchill to lead them. On May 10, 1940—the very day that the German army began a surprise "blitzkrieg" attack toward France—Churchill got the job. "When he became prime minister, the situation was bleak," says Lukacs. "It was at that moment that Hitler came closest to winning the war."

The royal navy, with the help of hundreds of merchant seamen, heroically saved 338,000 British and French troops stranded across the channel on the Dunkirk beaches, but even Churchill was quick to note that "wars are not won by evacuations." Then German planes began bombing England, a campaign that lasted nearly a year and killed 40,000 citizens. With no fighting allies—most Americans were sympathetic but not ready to commit to war—Britain was in desperate straits. Defeating Hitler would require "an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people," wrote William Manchester, Churchill's most esteemed biographer, in his definitive epic The Last Lion. "In London there was such a man."

Back to the wall, Churchill ceded not an inch. "When the bombs started falling, he said to Hitler, 'You do your worst and we will do our best,'" says Plumpton. At the time, "there was no rationale to believe that Britain would be victorious," says Phil Reed, director of the Cabinet War Rooms, the restored London bunkers that Churchill used during the Blitz. "It had experienced great defeat: loss of soldiers, loss of weaponry, loss of face. But Churchill provided inspiration exactly when it was needed."

His most potent weapon was the language he so loved, deployed in a striking series of speeches that united his nation in hope and inspired the free world. "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour,'" he declared in perhaps his most famous speech, delivered to the House of Commons in June 1940. "He put an enormous amount of effort into his speeches," says Churchill's grandson Winston Churchill, 61, a former member of Parliament. "The British people hung on his every word." With Churchill flashing V-for-victory signs and defiantly touring a bombed-out House of Commons, and with England's outgunned Royal Air Force holding off Hitler's aerial advances, Britain won its battle and weathered its isolation.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Churchill, keen enough to realize that the U.S.'s superior military strength was needed to defeat Hitler, said to himself, "So we have won after all." As usual he was right, though, as he knew, the fight would prove long and bloody.

By the time the Germans surrendered in 1945, Churchill had lost much of his influence. Only weeks after he announced victory in a final, triumphant speech, his Conservative party was swept from office. He would become prime minister again, serving four years before resigning, tired and ill, in 1955.

After that, Churchill spent much of his time at Chartwell, his beloved retreat in the English countryside, with Clementine, his wife since 1908 and the mother of their five children. Churchill died in 1965 and was buried in a small churchyard next to Blenheim Palace. With him went an era, marked by the pride and purpose that England showed under its greatest leader. "He took a stand against aggression," says Plumpton. "He sent out a message of hope to the people that the road would be hard but they would win. He once said, 'It was the nation...that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.'"

Alex Tresniowski
Nina Biddle and Molly Fahner in London; Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C., and Tom Duffy in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Molly Fahner,
  • Andrea Billups,
  • Tom Duffy.