The Messed Up Truth About Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill is one of the most iconic political leaders in history. He was one of the most prominent leaders of the Allied powers, and as the one stuck with dealing with some of the most desperate parts of the war, he became both a symbol for and an active proponent of British tenacity at the face of adversity. Guiding his country through World War II was, you could almost say, his finest hour. 

However, when you look deeper into the life and times of Mr. Churchill, you soon notice that the man also had more than his share of less-than-fine hours. Though he's undoubtedly one of the most famous politicians in history, his personal and professional life was stuffed to the brim with actions, views, and personal habits that could be considered, to put it mildly, problematic. Let's take a look at the shadier side of the most famous British Prime Minister in history. This is the messed up truth about Winston Churchill. 

Winston Churchill may have had a secret affair with a famous socialite

Winston Churchill, as the Guardian tells us, was married to Clementine Churchill, and seeing as his days were consumed by state matters (along with a World War or two), he didn't really have a reputation as an international playboy. However, a recently surfaced 1985 interview from Churchill's private secretary, Sir John Colville, reveals that the Prime Minister may indeed have indulged in a scandalous affair. 

While Colville makes a point of mentioning that Churchill was generally a very devoted husband to Clementine, he says there was one notable exception. During the 1930s, Churchill was going through a career slump and was out of office. During this time, he became involved with an aristocratic socialite called Doris Castlerosse — Cara Delevingne's great-aunt, for those in the know. Though Colville only mentions one "brief affair," Churchill and Castlerosse seem to have spent no less than four holidays together, and also met at her home on occasion. Churchill eventually ended the relationship when WWII started looming on the horizon and his political star began to rise again. 

Churchill's troublesome views on racial purity

You wouldn't expect someone who is most famous for opposing the Nazis to share their feeling towards racial purity in any way, shape, or form. However, according to Deseret News and the International Churchill Society, Winston Churchill bought into eugenics, a problematic belief that the human species could — and should – breed out its undesirable elements, which tended to mean any- and everyone rich white dudes didn't particularly like. 

After Churchill became home secretary in 1910, he became royally fascinated on the subject of forced confinement, segregation, and sterilization. He saw this as a way to cull the population of the "feeble-minded" (ie. people struggling with mental illness), and defended his stance on the issue despite a perceived lack of political backup. "I am drawn to this subject in spite of many parliamentary misgivings," he once said. 

Churchill saw the "feeble-minded and insane classes" as a threat to British racial health, and while he reportedly kept his approach at the level of inquiries, research, and preliminary brainstorming, other politicians later put forward various bills to deal with the poor souls. Oh, and just in case you think that Churchill limited his "racial purity" rhetoric to mental health issues, the book Churchill's Empire (via the Independent) notes that as a member of parliament, he advocated the British Empire's policy of conquest by saying that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph." Ouch.

Winston Churchill and the Bengal Famine

The 1943 Bengal famine killed as many as three million people, and as the Guardian reports, recent studies indicate that a part of the responsibility rested squarely on Winston Churchill's shoulders. Most famines in India's modern history were caused by severe droughts, but this one was made significantly worse by Churchill's wartime cabinet and its decision to plunder India's resources to keep the war machine going. Rice, in particular, was imported to other parts of the empire in great quantities, and despite multiple warnings and pleas by local officials, the country was left largely without emergency food supplies. So, while India might have survived Japan's conquest of major rice source Myanmar (then Burma), assorted natural disasters, and bad crops, the British government's decision to leave them without supplies to cushion the blow proved catastrophic.

Britain's decision to strip India of rice was apparently part of their "denial policy," which meant that should Japanese forces attempt to invade the region, they'd have no supplies readily available. As for Churchill, he reportedly stated that the reason for the famine was that Indians were "breeding like rabbits." Not cool, Winston. 

Winston Churchill and alcohol

Winston Churchill liked his alcoholic drinks. As NPR tells us, he was something of a drinking legend, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once wondered how "anyone could smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well." While the International Churchill Society argues that most historians think Churchill didn't abuse alcohol as such, they admit that his relationship with booze was quite special. An expert on Churchill, Professor Warren Kimball of Rutgers, once noted that the great man was not an alcoholic, because "no alcoholic could drink that much." Instead, he preferred the term "alcohol dependent." Presumably, there's a difference. 

The ICS notes that several witnesses have confirmed Churchill liked to start his day with the "papa cocktail" (as his daughter called it): A tumbler filled with water and a small amount of Johnnie Walker, enjoyed all along the morning. It may be that he picked up the habit during his youthful years in South Africa and India, where drinking plain water was seldom advisable. However, the society also points out that Churchill didn't drink his whiskey neat and scolded those who did, tended to keep his drinking to mealtimes, and favored champagne over hard liquor. He also once handily won a bet that he could stop drinking spirits for a year. Regardless of the actual amount of his imbibing, Churchill's personal view on the matter was clear: "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."

Winston Churchill committed atrocities

History might remember Winston Churchill best for taking a stance against Nazis and their white supremacist ideology, but according to Richard Toye's book, Churchill's Empire (via the Independent), he was not above some fairly questionable shenanigans against foreign people, many of which he apparently viewed as uncivilized natives and "helpless children" waiting to be led by the superior British stock. 

In his youth, Churchill served in the area that is now Pakistan, doing his part to fight Britain's "jolly little wars against barbarous peoples." While he apparently realized that the locals were fighting back simply because they were essentially being invaded by British forces, he soon decided against this line of thinking, choosing instead to believe that he was up against violent savages with a "strong aboriginal propensity to kill." As such, he was a happy and willing accomplice in various atrocities, destroying crops, homes, and entire valleys. Later in his military career he fought in Sudan, where he claimed he shot "at least three" of the local "savages."

Churchill's anti-suffrage attitudes

As Erin Blakemore of History tells us, in his early political career Churchill made public comments against women's right to vote. In 1909, this stance nearly cost him his life. Churchill was doing a meet-and-greet in Bristol, when a "militant suffragist" suddenly physically attacked him and tried to shove him under a moving train. Churchill's life was only saved because his wife, Clementine Churchill, managed to make her way to her new husband and grab his coattails.

As Richard M. Langworth of Hillsdale College's Churchill Project tells us, there are many other writings about Churchill's anti-suffrage stance, though history has reportedly embellished his opposition for women's voting rights somewhat. Churchill is particularly known for an alleged 1911 quote that said: "The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun." However, Langforth writes that Churchill never said that, and that while he had some anti-suffrage sentiments in his youth, they were mostly in the late 19th century, when it reflected the beliefs of most Britons. He says that Churchill didn't really disagree with the ideology behind the suffrage, though he had to dance around it and oppose it on rare, isolated occasions due to political reasons.

Churchill was a fan of chemical weapons

Winston Churchill might not have always walked the straight and narrow by modern standards, but seeing as he was an esteemed WWII-era Ally leader, surely his military decisions were as heroic as they come? Yeah, about that... 

As Giles Milton of the Guardian reports, Churchill was actually as huge proponent of using chemical weapons. He advocated their use against the Russian Bolsheviks as well as rebellious locals in northern India, and eventually got his wish during his stint as the secretary of state for war: In the summer of 1919, Churchill unleashed a "sustained chemical attack on northern Russia."

The weapon he used was the terrifying "M Device," a top secret artillery shell containing a gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine. Armed with no less than 50,000 of such devices, the British bombed a series of Bolshevik-occupied northern Russian villages, sending the enemy running in panic as the green gas clouds caused everyone they caught to throw up blood and fall unconscious. However, Churchill was disappointed because the weapons weren't effective enough, and the British called off the attacks and dumped the remaining M Devices in the White Sea. 

He used to hate Gandhi

As Ramachandra Guha of the Atlantic reminds us, Winston Churchill might be regarded as the "Greatest Briton" and Mahatma Gandhi the "Greatest Indian" in history, but that doesn't mean the two necessarily saw eye to eye. In fact, Churchill pretty much hated Gandhi, and used to pelt the Indian pacifist and nationalist movement leader with characteristically colorful insults, such as calling him "a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace."

Gandhi and Churchill only met once — in 1906, when the former was still wearing suits and the latter was working as the undersecretary of state for the colonies. However, Churchill's animosity toward Gandhi didn't begin until the 1930s, when he was out of office and attempting to regain power with British Empire-themed hype. The Indian, whose own endeavors were not exactly in line with the whole "British occupation" thing, became a popular target for Churchill, and remained so until the 1940s, when the Brit actually claimed that Gandhi was in league with the Axis powers. Churchill's deep suspicions of Gandhi went so far that he even asked the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, to find out if the Indian was cheating during his famous fasts by slipping glucose in his water. 

Churchill and the Jewish people

In 2007, Reuters reported on a startling discovery by historian Richard Toye of Cambridge University. While digging deep into the school's Winston Churchill archives, he happened to stumble upon a "lost" article from 1937. The piece was titled "How The Jews Can Combat Persecution," and it sees Churchill opining that the Jews "have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer." While he had many positive things to say about them and expressed sympathy about the persecution they suffered, he also opined that the way they were treated stemmed from their "difference" and "separateness" from other people. 

This is obviously not a great opinion for anyone to have, let alone a man who was on the verge of becoming an Allied leader and thus a direct opponent of Nazis and their treatment of the Jewish population. Newspapers seemed to agree, as no publisher was willing to pick up the article at the time of its writing. When the Sunday Dispatch eventually showed interest in 1940, Churchill's office joined the "yeah, nope" choir and nixed the publication of the paper as "inadvisable." 

Churchill's disastrous WWI campaign

Winston Churchill's greatness in World War II is well-known, but as Christopher Klein of History tells us, his World War I run was significantly less successful. In 1915, Churchill was the head of the Royal Navy, but despite the fact that his role was very much only political, he harbored dreams of military success and greatness as a strategist. He tried to make his fantasies reality by backing up a bold British plan to take Constantinople by going in through the Dardanelles strait, thus crippling the Ottoman Empire, gaining control of several strategically important waterways, and inspiring several neutral countries in the area to join the war on the Allies' side.

As people familiar with the words "Battle of Gallipoli" probably know, things didn't go quite like that. Despite Churchill's insistence to press on, the campaign was undermined by inept and hesitating commanders and the British War Office's initial decision to provide fewer troops than required. What was supposed to be a decisive strike turned into a ruthless and pointless affair that started with a slaughter that killed 45,000 Allied men during the first month alone. The Ottoman Empire lost 65,000 men. 

After nine months, the Allied troops were finally evacuated. At that point, Churchill had already been demoted to a much more obscure position, which he left to join the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the front lines. The Gallipoli failure went on to haunt him for decades. 

He didn't really work as a peacetime leader

As the BBC tells us, the qualities that made Winston Churchill an excellent wartime leader were his passionate tenacity and ability to focus on the war and achieving victory, even if it meant letting party politics and the usual political foibles play second fiddle. Unfortunately for him, these precisely same qualities made him a less than successful peacetime leader after the war was over. In his "single-minded" focus on the war, he had neglected his Conservative party, members of which commented that they'd been left leaderless. He ignored opportunities to "reinvent" himself as a socially-minded leader. 

When the 1945 elections came along, people assumed that he'd be unbeatable, what with being a war hero and everything, so the Conservative party pretty much built their whole campaign around him. However, instead of focusing on social issues and the need to rebuilt, which were what the war-weary country evidently wanted and what the opposing Labour party was focusing on, Churchill decided to rely on fearmongering and war rhetoric to get his message across. In the very first radio transmission of the election trail, he suggested that Britain might need some version of the feared Nazi secret police, Gestapo. He kept pointing out that the war against Japan would "need to finish," and there were many rumors that he was even considering a war against the Soviet Union. In the end, he and his party lost "by a landslide."

Winston Churchill's troubles with money

Over his lifetime, Winston Churchill fought against his political opponents, the Central Powers, and the Axis Powers. However, as NPR's Nina Martyris writes, some of his most ruthless and enduring enemies were debtors and the tax man. Unwise stock market speculation and rampant spending — often on champagne — almost bankrupted him several times over the years. Churchill was perennially late on his taxes, and rich friends had to bail him out a number of times when debtors came calling. At one point, the government even went "eh, whatever" and just settled his copious liquor bills in a virtually unprecedented move. 

Churchill gambled. He "squandered" inheritances. He speculated on stocks and lost a fortune. He spent massive amounts on a country mansion and a wine cellar that he really couldn't afford. In 1936, he was $75,000 (adjusted for inflation) in debt to his alcohol merchant alone, along with the copious bills that came from the other vendors that enabled his aristocratic and politically ambitious lifestyle. However, he was also a great (and greatly compensated) writer. Before he went full politician, he was a popular freelance journalist, and his war correspondent jobs enabled him to "write his way out of debt."