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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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Sunday 13 August 2023

Empire First

 It has been said the world is divided into those who venerate Churchill and those who hate him. If you are in the first category, this book will not be good for your blood pressure. Empire First is Graeme Bowman's study of Churchill's opposition to Operation Overlord, the invasion of France in WW2.

The author's thesis is that Churchill prioritised British oil and empire interests in the Mediterranean over efforts to liberate Europe from fascism. Churchill's prosecution of a Mediterranean strategy is not in dispute. It has been examined by eminent historians like Sir Michael Howard in his classic 1968 study. And more modestly, in my own book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly. Howard was kinder to Churchill, arguing that he was the catalyst for a much broader view amongst the military establishment whose memories of the killing fields of WW1 and lack of resources drew them away from the direct route into Hitler's Germany. In fairness, Bowman also highlights these factors and adds Churchill's low opinion of British military capability. A view reinforced by the capitulation of Singapore in particular. Brooke shared this view, arguing that the cream of manhood had been lost in WW1. Consequently, they believed the Overlord was beyond the Army's capacity. 

Memories of Churchill's interwar calls for rearmament tend to gloss over his spell in the Treasury in the 1920s when he fully supported the government's economic austerity policies, which included massive defence cuts. Bowman also points to Churchill's less-than-outright opposition to negotiations with Hitler in 1940 while accepting a Fabian strategy may have been involved. After rallying the country in 1940, he is not the first historian to point to Churchill's failures, including Norway, Greece, the Dodecanese and the Far East. 

On the Mediterranean strategy, there is nothing new in his analysis of the events of 1942-3. The conferences, reports and debates between the British and Americans are dissected in detail. Churchill's pursuit of his Balkan strategy right into 1944 is probably less well known. Bowman rightly highlights the weaknesses of this strategy, with little attention paid to the defensive advantages well-equipped German troops had in Italy rather than the plains of Northern Europe. The Balkans lie 1200 miles from the Rhur in mountainous terrain, a point well illustrated by the topographical maps in the book.

 Churchill's optimism over Turkey's entry into the war is also covered, and I largely agree with Bowman on this. I am less convinced by his arguments over Izmir and the Dodecanese campaign. Still, in general, Churchill ignored the advice he was given on Turkey, including his access to Turkish diplomatic cyphers.

The American analysis that British designs in the Mediterranean were designed to protect the empire and British post-war interests certainly had merits. Churchill and Brooke were reluctant participants in Overlord, dragged into it by the Americans and the Russians. It was also about checking Soviet advances in the Balkans, and Bowman offers a fascinating alternative history on this point. He argues that if Churchill got his way, Allied troops would be fighting slowly through the Balkans while the Soviets swept across the North German plain, ending the war at the Channel. A post-war Europe divided North/South rather than East/West.

It is hard to disagree with the thrust of Bowman's thesis, which is well-researched and argued. He possibly goes a little far occasionally and doesn't include other interpretations that reflect Churchill's often contradictory positions. Churchill was, at heart, a 19th-century imperialist, and it would, therefore, be surprising if he didn't put the Empire first. I take a more balanced view of Churchill overall, but having studied the same sources, he was wrong about the Mediterranean strategy, whatever his underlying motives. 

US Rangers storm the harbour at Durres, one of Churchill's 'soft underbelly' schemes.


  1. Interesting review. I'll look out for the book. I've always thought that the best arguement, and the insurmountable one in both sense of the word, against any soft underbelly is the georgraphy of the region. Attacking there to preserve the Empire does make a lot of sense to me.



    1. Yes, the Suez Canal was the key route to India, another Churchill obsession!