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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 7 April 2020

Churchill - Military genius or menace?

This is Stephen Napier's study of Churchill at war. It is a strategic look at the actions and decisions taken at various stages in the Second World War. Any study of Churchill is controversial as supporters and critics often fall into the Hero or Villain camps of the recent debate. History is rarely so black and white.

Churchill was of course absolutely right about the threat Hitler posed to the world order as he articulated during his wilderness years. He was on weaker ground when expressing his views on modern warfare. For example, he derided the future of tanks and believed that modern warships had little to fear from aerial attack.

His personal style of leadership certainly streamlined the cumbersome leadership structure both civilian and military. His Private Secretary, John Colville, commented on the great loyalty he engendered from Service Ministers and his drive and initiative but said he also meddled.  Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staffs was blunter, he said; "Winston made matters almost impossible, temperamental like a film star and peevish like a spoilt child."

Later in the war when Churchill's health was suffering, and his drinking getting heavier, Brooke's diary gives an indication of his frustration in relation to strategy in the Far East; "I am honestly getting very doubtful about his balance of mind and it just gives me the cold shivers. I don't know where we are going as regards our strategy and I just cannot get him to face the true facts."

While it is true that Churchill's flood of ideas and diversions frustrated many, he usually gave way when push came to shove with military leaders. It is also the case that he was often one of the few contributors of fresh ideas, even if most were not practical.

The book has plenty on my own area of interest - Britain's Balkan strategy. Churchill was a strong advocate of the indirect approach, the 'soft underbelly' of Europe. A common complaint of Brooke was that Churchill often advocated a diversion of forces. The failed Kos and Leros campaigns are probably the best example of this, but Churchill was also in favour of Operation Jupiter in Norway well into 1944.

The Americans were particularly concerned that his Meditterenean strategy shifted resources from the invasion of France and the Soviets pointed to how few German divisions were diverted from the Eastern Front to Italy. On this Churchill was supported by Brooke, but others argue that the war could have been over a year earlier had Overlord happened in 1943.

I hadn't appreciated the strength of Churchill's reservations about Overlord. So much so that Marshall (US Chief of Staff) threatened that if the British wanted to ditch Overlord in favour of operations in the Balkans, the USA should switch resources to the Pacific.

In the end, I think Brooke had it right when he said; "Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.... Never have I admired and disliked a man simultaneously to the same extent."

Whatever your view of Churchill this is a very good history of the strategic decisions taken during WW2. Well worth a read.


  1. I think he was closer to genius than villain. The strategy of invading Italy was probably flawed. The Alps being a perfect barrier against further incursion from the south.

  2. Thanks for the pointer on the book- will look out for a copy. I don't really see Europe as having a soft underbelly for similar reasons to Khusru.



  3. Indeed. The WW1 experience of the Italians shows the challenges of mountain warfare in the Trento and even the Ljubljana Gap isn't that wide as again the Italians found. On the other hand, we shouldn't forget the Austrian experience in WW1 of the 1918 offensive through the Balkans, which knocked them out of the war. The difference in WW2 was that the Germans were militarily more effective than the Austro-Hungarians.