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On May 10, 1940, as Hitler’s Germany was invading Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, the British Conservative leader Winston Churchill took the reins of a coalition government after his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, stepped aside.
Churchill would, of course, ultimately help lead England and the Allies to a brutally fought, costly victory over the Axis Powers in World War II. But in the early years of the conflict, England stood alone against the Reich after Nazi forces swarmed across border after border in Europe. Churchill’s defiance in the face of what seemed, at the time, an invincible Wehrmacht juggernaut earned the aristocratic, independent-minded PM his enduring reputation as one of the greatest war-time leaders in history.
Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of photos that portray Churchill the private man: painter, animal lover, country gentleman. The Churchill of these pictures is no less impressive, no less formidable than the man who so tenaciously defied Hitler during England’s darkest days. But there’s also a tenderness here — a soulfulness — that only adds to the great man’s singular, somewhat ornery charm.
Now . . . as a reminder of Churchill at his greatest — at his most Churchillian — here are some deathless words from one of his most celebrated addresses, delivered quite early in the war, on June 4, 194o, and popularly known ever since as the “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. If more stirring words were uttered by any leader, Allied or Axis, during the entire course of the Second World War, they’ve been lost to history. In phrases that range, brilliantly, from soaring to bracingly blunt and back again, Churchill lionized, galvanized and challenged the citizens of his “Island home” like no Briton before him, and certainly none since:
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.