One of the towering figures of the 20th century, Winston Churchill is a man whose legacy looms large over the annals of history. From his early days as a young officer in the British Army to his tenure as Prime Minister along with his indomitable leadership and pivotal role in World War Two, Churchill’s stirring rhetoric and steadfast resolve earned him a place among the greatest statesmen of all time.
However, like many historical figures of his stature, Churchill’s life and actions have been marked by triumphs, controversies, and numerous myths and misconceptions. Here are 10 of some of the top myths about him.
Myth 1: Churchill sent troops against striking Welsh coal miners
In November 1911, a mass strike erupted in the Rhondda Valley, Wales, involving up to 30,000 miners protesting wage disparities in coal seams. Looting, notably in Tonypandy, prompted local authorities to request troops, but Churchill (Home Secretary) and Haldane (Secretary of War) instead sent additional police, with troops held in reserve nearby.
Despite accusations, Churchill did not order troops to fire on the miners. Churchill had written to the King on 10 November 1910, assuring him of maintaining order, emphasising how the Chief Constable had 1,400 police available, with an additional 500 police deployed from London. Churchill claimed that:
“No need for the employment of the military is likely to occur. They will be kept as far as possible out of touch with the population, while sufficiently near to the scene to be available if necessary…
…There appears to be no reason at present why the policy of keeping the military out of direct contact with the rioters should be departed from.”
The Times criticised Churchill’s decision, suggesting the police couldn’t handle the situation alone, and that if rioting led to the loss of life, the responsibility lay with Churchill. However, the following day, The Manchester Guardian argued Churchill’s approach had likely prevented further violence.
Myth 2: Churchill was solely to blame for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign
The Gallipoli campaign, initiated by the Allied forces in 1915, sought to control the Dardanelles Strait and establish a supply route to Russia while eliminating the Ottoman Empire from the war. However, the campaign ended in failure with substantial casualties and strategic setbacks. Despite Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, advocating for a naval attack on the Dardanelles, the real driver behind the strategy was Kitchener, then Secretary of State for War.
Churchill’s optimistic assessment had overlooked key military considerations, including the strength of Ottoman defences and the challenges of amphibious assaults. Additionally, Churchill insisted on a naval-only approach, despite advice advocating a combined land and sea operation. Yet Kitchener had approved Churchill’s plan, and without adequate oversight, prioritising troops and resources for the Western Front. This lack of intervention and underestimation of logistical challenges compounded the failure.
Thus both Churchill and Kitchener bear collective responsibility: Churchill for his flawed strategy, and Kitchener for insufficient leadership.
Myth 3: Churchill was in favour of using poisoned gas
It’s often claimed that in 1919, Churchill advocated the use of ‘poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ and Bolsheviks in Russia, but this is a misconception.
Whilst Britain considered using gas against rebel tribes in Northwest India and Mesopotamia (now Iraq), it was never proposed to use chlorine or phosgene. Churchill, as Minister of War, had confused the matter when using the term ‘poisoned gas’. His remarks actually referred to ‘lachrymatory gas’ (tear gas), which he saw as a humane alternative to explosives.
Churchill authorised the use of diphenylaminechloroarsine (DM) by British troops in Archangel, but only in response to Bolshevik use of recovered World War One German gas shells. However, DM’s effects were generally non-lethal. Throughout World War Two, Churchill consistently opposed the use of poison gas, but was willing to deploy it if the enemy did first. Churchill was content with this standoff, and ultimately, neither side used gas during the war.
Myth 4: Churchill created the ‘Black and Tans’ paramilitary militia in Ireland
As Secretary of State for War, Churchill was preoccupied with other matters such as Bolshevism in 1919, and had no initial involvement in the creation and recruitment of the notorious ‘Blacks and Tans’ in Ireland, a group seen as maintaining British control and suppressing the IRA. While Churchill defended their actions as responses to perceived threats, he later acknowledged the need for official reprisals as their violence escalated, seeking a balance between firmness and concessions to prevent Sinn Fein from claiming victory prematurely.
Despite his defence of the ‘Black and Tans’, Churchill played a significant role in negotiating compromises for Irish independence, and brought together warring parties, including the Lloyd George government, Irish revolutionaries, and Ulster unionists.
While working out the compromises, when Sinn Fein’s Michael Collins complained that the British had put a price on his head, Churchill showed him his framed copy of his Boer wanted poster, stating: “At any rate it was a good price, £5000. Look at me – £25 dead or alive. How would you like that?” – which made Collins laugh. This dialogue illustrates Churchill’s efforts to foster understanding and facilitate the signing of the Irish Treaty, despite their differences. Collins later acknowledged Churchill’s crucial role in their endeavours.
Myth 5: Churchill knew Coventry would be bombed
On 14 November 1940, Coventry was devastated by a major German bombing raid, resulting in significant civilian casualties. Churchill is often mistakenly accused of having known of the attack in advance, allegedly withholding the information to avoid revealing the German Enigma code had been broken, or to provoke America into the war.
However, while Enigma decrypts hinted at an imminent raid, code-named ‘Moonlight Sonata’, the target remained unclear. Reports suggested potential targets, including London, but specifics were lacking and Coventry not mentioned. A German pilot shot down on 9 November, under interrogation, suggested Coventry and Birmingham would be attacked, yet intelligence officers doubted the information as it was older than subsequent intelligence.
Churchill received a summary of these reports upon returning from Neville Chamberlain’s funeral, but was reassured the usual counter-measures had been prepared. Churchill then left for Ditchley Park, but was quickly informed of new intelligence indicating London as the likely target. He promptly returned to Downing Street, refusing to stay away while London faced danger.
The moment German radio beams confirmed Coventry was the target, all countermeasures were taken without delay; British bombers attacked German aerodromes, fighter patrols were deployed over Coventry, and defence preparations activated. Coventry had previously received multiple attacks which had prompted Churchill to strengthen its anti-aircraft defences. Thus on the night of 14 November, there were five times as many anti-aircraft guns per head of the population of Coventry as there were around London, and 100 British fighters were airborne. Nevertheless, Coventry suffered extensive damage.
Myth 6: Churchill bombed Dresden as retaliation for Coventry
This is another misconception. Churchill initially viewed area bombing as a regrettable but necessary response to German air raids on cities like Warsaw and Rotterdam, and as the Allies prepared for Normandy, strategic bombing became crucial to weaken Germany. However, Churchill’s stance evolved as victory edged closer, and he criticised his head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Harris, for the Dresden and Potsdam bombings. Unlike Churchill, Harris believed in strategic bombing’s efficacy to undermine German morale, and had compiled a list of target cities for destruction.
Dresden had been targeted to aid the Russian offensive, not as revenge, due to its strategic significance and intelligence reports on Axis movements.
Myth 7: India was subject to British rule and thus at Churchill’s mercy when it came to Bengal famine relief
While millions suffered during the 1943 Bengal famine, attributing sole responsibility to Churchill for the famine’s extent is misleading and oversimplified.
As part of the British Empire, India faced British regulations on grain imports and exports, yet Churchill’s government (along with other countries), shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of grain to India to alleviate shortages exacerbated by crop failures, and by the Japanese invasion of Burma and nearby countries, which had disrupted rice supplies.
Japanese incursions, local corruption, and the hoarding of grain by merchants in the hope of higher prices all worsened the crisis, leading some historians to suggest Churchill’s actions mitigated the famine’s severity. Despite derogatory remarks against Indians attributed to Churchill in moments of frustration, cabinet records show Churchill expressed sympathy for Indian suffering, and recognised the challenges in providing additional relief during wartime. Further relief would have incurred significant difficulties elsewhere.
Myth 8: He was solely responsible for Britain’s victory in World War Two
While Churchill played a pivotal role in guiding Britain through the war, the Allied victory was the culmination of collective efforts involving numerous leaders, military commanders, resources, and ordinary citizens from various nations.
Britain’s preparedness, including its mechanised army, advanced aircraft manufacturing, strong navy, and robust air defence system, owed much to earlier planning by Neville Chamberlain. Additionally, contributions of other Allied leaders, like US President Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Stalin, were crucial in securing victory.
Myth 9: Churchill coined the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’
While Churchill popularised the term “Iron Curtain” in his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, the phrase’s earliest known appearance was in Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov’s 1918 work, Apocalypse of Our Time, where Romanov wrote of ‘an iron curtain descending on Russian history’. Author Ethel Snowden also used it in 1920 in her text, Through Bolshevik Russia.
Whilst Churchill’s first recorded use of the phrase was in a letter to President Truman in May of 1945, the phrase had already been coined by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in February 1945 in his propaganda publication Das Reich. Churchill’s usage of the term certainly contributed to its prominence, but he did not invent it.
Myth 10: He was a heavy drinker
Churchill’s drinking habits have been exaggerated – some label him ‘alcohol dependent’, yet while he enjoyed champagne, brandy, and whiskey (especially during periods of stress), there’s little evidence suggesting constant intoxication or impaired decision-making.
He occasionally drank hock with breakfast, and copiously at mealtimes (medical notes recommended alcohol use during convalescence), yet once won a bet abstaining from hard spirits for a year in 1936. His habit of sipping a diluted Johnnie Walker and water throughout the morning (which his daughter called the “Papa Cocktail”) stemmed from experiences in India and South Africa, as the water was unfit to drink.
Churchill did not nurse bottles, and there are no credible reports of him being intoxicated. Churchill himself exaggerated his drinking stories, yet was aware of his limits and had a contempt for excessive alcohol consumption.
When accused of being drunk by Bessie Braddock MP in 1946 (leading to Churchill’s famous retort), Churchill’s bodyguard clarified Churchill had been tired, not drunk. While Churchill’s affinity for alcohol may have been partly a prop, akin to cigars, his quip that “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me” is true …though he did possess a formidable capacity.