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Perhaps most associated with a policy of appeasement towards Hitler, Chamberlain was responsible for the Munich agreement, in which both Britain and France agreed to cede the Czech region of Sudetenland to the Germans. He famously hoped that this would ensure “peace for our time”.
As we know, this was not the case, and on September 3rd 1939 following Germany’s invasion of Poland with whom the British had a Mutual Protection Pact, Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany.
He held the post of Prime Minister for 3 years until ill health forced him to resign in 1940 and, though he was still given an important role in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet as Lord President of the Council, he died a few weeks after he left office, on 9th November 1940.
Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940)
Born into a political family in 1869 (his father was a politician and his elder half-brother, Austen, was a Conservative who won the Nobel Prize for Peace) Chamberlain became a Member of Parliament in 1918 aged 49. He held many important government positions including Postmaster General and Chancellor of the Exchequer, before becoming Prime Minister in 1937.
As a soldier in the British Army Winston Churchill fought in many wars (including the Boer War, during which he was captured, held as a Prisoner of War, and escaped!), before becoming a politician. He worked in various posts before the First World War.
At the outbreak of World War 1 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he only occupied for a few months into the war, as a disastrous expedition in the Dardanelles caused his resignation and enlistment in the Army. He fought on the Western Front but, by 1917, was back in politics as Minister of Munitions.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on 30th November 1874, the son of a prominent Tory politician. His family home was Blenheim Palace, which during both World Wars was used in various ways to help the war effort, and Churchill spent much time here growing up before attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and embarking upon a life in the Army.
It was due to Churchill’s unfailing hard work in establishing a good relationship with President Roosevelt and maintaining what was undoubtedly a difficult alliance with the Soviet Union, allied to his refusal to bow before the might of the German military, that he is rightfully celebrated as a Great Briton who inspired the whole country.
Churchill lost the post-War election in 1945, but continued to work as an MP and was actually re-elected Prime Minister in 1951. He resigned in 1955 but remained a politician until shortly before his death on 24th January 1965.
Winston Churchill was buried with a full State Funeral.
Again, Churchill spent the next decade moving through the political ranks until, in 1929, his opposition to Indian self-rule and his support of Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis saw him fall out of favour. 1929 to 1939 were Churchill’s “Wilderness Years”, and his warnings about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the need for British re-armament were ignored.
When war broke out in 1939 Churchill was once again instated as the First Lord of the Admiralty and, when Chamberlain was forced to resign the post of Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill stepped in.
Churchill was always noted for his speeches (in fact he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature later in life) and it is these that truly epitomize the effect that he had on the country, ultimately leading Britain to victory.
“...we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender…”
Hitler left school at 16 with no qualifications and struggled to make a living as a painter in Vienna. This was where many of his extreme political and racial ideas originated.
He was a soldier in the First World War and entered into politics after 1918. By 1921 he was the unquestioned leader of what was now the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party).
Adolf Hitler (1889- 1945)
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German Politician who led the National Socialist German Workers Party. He was Chancellor of Germany (1933–1945) and Fuhrer of Germany (1934–1945). His father was a customs official.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 began World War 2. After military successes in Denmark, Norway and Western Europe, but after failing to subdue Britain in 1941, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Jewish populations of the countries conquered by the Nazis were rounded up and killed. Millions of others whom the Nazis considered racially inferior were also killed or worked to death.
In December 1941, Hitler declared war on America.
With Soviet troops poised to take the German capital, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30th April 1945.
Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945)
The eldest of three siblings, Mussolini grew up in a small town called Dovia di Predappio. He was sent to a boarding school run by monks (his mother was a very devout Catholic) where he got into all sorts of trouble. He stabbed a fellow student, threw an inkpot at the teacher and even threw stones at the Congregation after Mass. This resulted in him being expelled.
Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith and his mother was a teacher, a profession that he followed her into (after changing schools and achieving good grades) until, after only a year, he quit and emigrated to Switzerland (partially to avoid military service).
After he was removed as the leader of the National Fascist Party in 1943 the King had him arrested the very next day but, in the Gran Sasso raid, Mussolini was rescued from prison by German special forces.
With the end of the war in sight, and absolute defeat with it, Mussolini attempted to escape north but he was captured by Italian partisans and executed near Lake Como. His body was hung upside down at a service station in Milan so people would know that he was dead!
Known as Il Duce ("The Leader"), Mussolini became the leader of the National Fascist Party, which he helped to create, and ruled Italy from 1922 until he was defeated in the vote of the Grand Council of Fascism on 24th July 1943. During his time in power Mussolini very effectively created a dictatorship by destroying all political opposition and with the help of his secret police.
Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle (born 1890 - died 1970)
A veteran of World War I, Charles de Gaulle rose to the rank of Brigadier General during the Second World War, then served briefly in the French government before the country fell to the Germans. As under-secretary of national defence and war de Gaulle was the most senior military officer to reject the French government's truce with Germany.
De Gaulle was in Britain when the truce was signed and he broadcast (over the BBC) an address in which he urged the people of France to resist the Nazis. He then went on to form the Free French Forces that, by the end of the war, was effectively the new French Government. He became the Prime Minister of the French Provisional Government but he resigned in 1946 due to political differences.
In 1958, after a long period of political uncertainty, De Gaulle was voted back to power as President of the Fifth Republic of France. There followed 11 years in which De Gaulle made many changes to his country which he loved passionately. He issued a new French currency to help the economy, granted independence to Algeria and developed French atomic weapons as well as withdrawing France from NATO. He resigned in 1969 after a time of protests and he died of a heart attack on November 9th 1970 at his country estate.
Joseph Stalin (born 1878 - died 1953)
Stalin was born in modern-day Georgia which was then a part of the huge Soviet Empire. His given name at birth was actually Losif Jughashvili. He had a rough childhood and, at the age of just 7, he contracted and then recovered from smallpox which left him with many scars on his skin. Stalin actually wanted to become a priest but he was expelled from the seminary for being too radical.
After being expelled from the seminary Stalin joined the Bolshevik revolutionaries who were unhappy with the ruling elite led by the Tsars. He quickly rose to become one of the leading Bolsheviks so that, when they came to power after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he was highly placed in the government which was led now by Lenin.
When Lenin died in 1924 Stalin took control of the Soviet Union as sole leader. He was not a tolerant leader and he had anyone who opposed him either killed or sent to labour camps. He industrialised the country and took the focus away from agriculture which in turn caused many famines. It is estimated that during his rule he had somewhere between 20 and 40 million of his own people put to death.
When World War II began he Stalin formed an alliance with Hitler and the Nazis. He was betrayed by them, however, in 1941 when the Germans launched a surprise attack on them. To fight the Nazis Stalin allied the Soviet Union with Britain and the United States. After the war ended he took advantage of his position as an ally to install his own puppet governments in many Eastern European countries that he had just helped to liberate from the Germans! So began the Cold War between the Soviet Union and America, the world's two great superpowers.
Stalin died in 1953 of a massive stroke. It has been speculated that this may have been induced by poison!
The reason that Rommel was so respected was twofold; firstly he was a shrewd and decisive leader and secondly he believed that all prisoners of war should be treated well and not be abused.
Rommel didn't fall out of favour with Hitler, even when he disobeyed direct orders and withdrew the Afrika Corps from Africa! As the war progressed and the Allied invasion of Normandy became inevitable Rommel was tasked with the defence of Western Europe.
July of 1944 was a notable month for Rommel as he was wounded in an attack on his car by Allied fighter planes. He was also implicated in the Bomb Plot against Hitler. To avoid having his most famous general on trial it seems that Hitler offered Rommel an alternative way out. He promised him that his family would not be punished for Rommel's crimes if he committed suicide or, in the official terms, "died of his wounds" which he did on October 14th 1944.
Erwin Rommel ( born 1891 - died 1944)
Rommel was a lifelong soldier, beginning his military career by distinguishing himself during World War I in the German Third Army. When Hitler was appointed as Chancellor in 1933 he quickly noticed Rommel's talents and so, by 1938, Rommel was a senior figure in the Wehrmacht. Following successes in Western Europe in 1940 he was appointed commander of the Afrika Corps in 1941 and it was here that he really made a name for himself.
The nickname that he was given, "Desert Fox", by the British was a complimentary one as he was respected even by his enemies. He was feared so much that Auchinleck, his opposite number on the Allies' side, felt the need to send a memo to his commanders in the field to "dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents anything other than the ordinary German general"!
Learn a little about the major figures of WWII...
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (born 1887 - died 1976)
"Monty" was the best-known British general in World War II who famously won a victory over Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942.
Born in London in 1887 Monty was educated at St Paul's School and then the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst before being commissioned into the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1908. In World War I he was wounded so severely that he spent the rest of the war as a staff officer.
During the years between the first and second World Wars he served in Egypt, Palestine and India and, in April 1939, he was given command of the Third Division (part of the British Expeditionary Force). Following rapid promotion, in 1942, he was appointed commander of the Eighth Army who were the British and Commonwealth forces fighting in the Western Desert. It was here at the Battle of El Alamein that he led his men to a victory that, according to Churchill, marked the turning point in the war.
Following a couple of commands in Europe Montgomery was then recalled to the UK to help plan Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy by the Allies). Montgomery was in charge of all Allied troops during Operation Overlord and for some time afterwards but his command was given to the American general Dwight Eisenhower in September of 1944. Montgomery was unpopular, particularly with the Americans, as he didn't cooperate well with others. It was Monty, however, who received the surrender of the northern armies of Germany on the 4th May 1945.
Monty was knighted after the war and made Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He held various posts until he retired in 1958. He died on the 24th March 1976 of unspecified causes at age 88. Every year there is a service of remembrance at his grave in Binsted.