“Empire First”: the Bowman War on Churchill’s D-Day

“Empire First”: the Bowman War on Churchill’s D-Day

Graeme Bow­man, Empire First: Churchill’s War Against D-Day. Greenock, Scot­land: Self-pub­lished, 2022, 520 pages, paper­back £15.99, e-book £9.99. Not cur­rent­ly on Ama­zon US or UK. Avail­able from the author at https://bit.ly/3QjWmBp. 

Excerpt­ed from “What’s Not Trite is Not True,” a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes and adden­da, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er dis­close or sell your email address which remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Oh no, not again!

Churchill was dragged protest­ing into D-Day (Oper­a­tion Over­lord) by his U.S. and Russ­ian allies, says Scot­tish writer Graeme Bow­man. Right to the last, Churchill pre­ferred the “soft under­bel­ly” route to Ger­many through Italy. This is not a new charge. What is rather new is the argu­ment that he was moti­vat­ed by igno­ble inter­ests: secur­ing the Mediter­ranean, Suez and Britain’s east­ern empire.  

In the words of Arthur Bal­fourEmpire First offers “some things that are trite and some things that are true, but what is true is trite and what is not trite is not true.” 

Of course Churchill’s instincts were to cross to Italy after the Allies had tak­en North Africa. He also saw the strate­gic need to “shake hands with the Rus­sians as far to the east as pos­si­ble.” That does not mean he dogged­ly opposed Over­lord. In fact, with­out Churchill, the inva­sion would have been harder.

Here’s the windup

Chap­ter 1, “Jol­ly Lit­tle Wars Against Bar­barous Peo­ples” starts with the race card. It’s a Churchill quote from 1952: “When you learn to think of a race as infe­ri­or beings, it is dif­fi­cult to get rid of that way of think­ing. When I was a sub­al­tern, the Indi­an did not seem to me equal to the white man.”

Churchill said that fifty years after he’d been a sub­al­tern! Worse, his words are trimmed to dis­tort their mean­ing. His pre­ced­ing words were: “When I was in Lloyd George’s Gov­ern­ment I want­ed to bring in rad­i­cal reforms in Egypt, to tax the Pashas and make life worth­while for the fel­la­heen. When you think….” etc. Clear­ly, “you” refers to oppo­nents of reform, not him­self. 

BowmanAnd don’t expect to find Churchill’s 1944 remark to War Cab­i­net col­league Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar: “The old notion that the Indi­an was in any way infe­ri­or to the white man must dis­ap­pear…. We must all be pals togeth­er. I want to see a great shin­ing India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Cana­da or a great Aus­tralia.” That wouldn’t fit the nar­ra­tive of this breath­less con­dem­na­tion. 

In the Army young Win­ston lives a life of “indo­lence and indul­gence punc­tu­at­ed by intense bursts of sol­dier­ing.” Amidst all that indo­lence he man­aged to serve in four wars on three con­ti­nents, pub­lish five books before age twen­ty-five, and earn a small for­tune lec­tur­ing. 

Now for the pitch 

If you have had enough of this, and believe me I have, con­sid­er the main thrust of Empire First: That Churchill opposed D-Day almost up to the Nor­mandy land­ings. “We are often only shown one side of Churchill, his good qual­i­ties,” Dr. Bow­man told the Greenock Tele­graph. “He did do the right thing in 1940, but his mis­takes such as his oppo­si­tion to D-Day have been com­plete­ly ignored.”

The only thing wrong with this is that it’s com­plete­ly untrue. Churchill’s hes­i­ta­tions over D-Day are doc­u­ment­ed since the issue arose in 1942—and with far greater effect than this book. Con­sid­er please the Churchill Bib­li­og­ra­phy 

In The Sec­ond Front and Mr. Churchill (1942) the Com­mu­nist MP Willie Gal­lach­er echoed Stalin’s demand for an imme­di­ate inva­sion of France. Next, Mr. Churchill’s Anden [Oth­er] Front (1947), by anoth­er Com­mu­nist, Kai Moltke, argued that Churchill nev­er want­ed Over­lord. In Ruzvel’t, Cher­chill: Vtorol Front (1965) Sovi­et author Iskan­der Undasyn­ov made the argu­ment again. Yet this book is rep­re­sent­ed as a whol­ly new cri­tique. 

Com­plaints were not only from Bol­she­viks. In Win­ston Churchill and the Sec­ond Front (1957) the dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an Trum­bull Hig­gins argued that Churchill’s con­cen­tra­tion on the Mediter­ranean was the result of “colo­nial” think­ing. In Kei­th Sainsbury’s Churchill and Roo­sevelt at War (1994), a schol­ar­ly “rein­ter­pre­ta­tion” of the two lead­ers explained how Churchill through D-Day assured the end of British great­ness. (Rather the oppo­site of the author’s the­sis). 

Heart of the argument 

“Churchill want­ed to put the British Empire first,” Bow­man told the Greenock Tele­graph. WSC “had to be pres­sured into D-Day by the Sovi­ets and the Ger­mans. [He] want­ed to pur­sue a west allied oper­a­tion [sic; he must mean West­ern allies] in the Mediter­ranean, Italy and the Balka­ns, and con­trol­ling the East­ern Mediter­ranean and Suez. Churchill was pur­su­ing a Brex­it mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, putting the British Empire before the lib­er­a­tion of Europe. He had a parochial view of the world…. You could say that Churchill was the first Brexiteer.”

How Brex­it com­pares here is obscure. Brex­it was about regain­ing sov­er­eign­ty from a fed­er­al Europe, not regain­ing the British Empire.  

Non-smoking gun 

One exam­ple will suf­fice of this book’s many mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Bow­man quotes Churchill on 19 April 1944, to Under­sec­re­tary of State for For­eign Affairs Sir Alexan­der Cado­gan. (The brack­ets are his): “[Over­lord] has been forced upon us by the Rus­sians and by the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary author­i­ties.” The quote is trun­cat­ed and out of con­text; and, by “forced upon us,” Churchill was like­ly not even refer­ring to Over­lord.  

Four days ear­li­er, Cado­gan had asked Churchill to clar­i­fy pub­licly what was meant by “Uncon­di­tion­al Sur­ren­der.” Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt had announced this pol­i­cy to the press at the 1943 Casablan­ca Con­fer­ence. Loy­al­ly, Churchill “backed him up,” as he wrote Cado­gan on April 19th. But “this mat­ter is on the President.” 

In reply­ing to Cado­gan, Churchill spends four para­graphs on “Uncon­di­tion­al Sur­ren­der,” not D-Day. In the fifth para­graph Churchill thinks it “wrong for the Gen­er­als to start shiv­er­ing before the battle.” 

What bat­tle? Bow­man inserts “Over­lord” in brack­ets. It is more like­ly that Churchill referred the upcom­ing cam­paign across France. Espe­cial­ly when he adds (in words not quot­ed by Bow­man): “We have gone in [to the inva­sion] whole­heart­ed­ly.” In a final para­graph, Churchill returns to “Uncon­di­tion­al Sur­ren­der.” There is noth­ing here to sug­gest any oppo­si­tion to Overlord. 

(For more of this, see adden­da cor­re­spon­dence between WSC and Cado­gan in the Hills­dale review.)

Churchill on D-Day, 1941 

The record is full of evi­dence prov­ing that Churchill had want­ed a “lodg­ment on the con­ti­nent” since 1941. His reluc­tance to invade pre­ma­ture­ly was based on his rec­ol­lec­tion of the Gal­lipoli dis­as­ter in 1915. “War was war but not fol­ly,” he told Stal­in, “and it would be fol­ly to invite a dis­as­ter which would help nobody.” That did not mean Churchill opposed invad­ing France. Here is some of the evidence:

[Float­ing har­bours, lat­er called Mul­ber­ries] must float up and down with the tide. The ships must have a side-flap cut in them, and a draw­bridge long enough to over­reach the moor­ings of the piers. Let me have the best solu­tion worked out. Don’t argue the mat­ter. The dif­fi­cul­ties will argue for themselves.

You [Mount­bat­ten] will take charge of the com­man­dos. You will con­tin­ue the com­man­do raids to keep the Ger­mans on their toes—but above all so you may learn the tech­nique of get­ting a lodg­ment back on the con­ti­nent. And you will devise the appli­ances, the appur­te­nances and the tech­niques nec­es­sary to get back onto the con­ti­nent…. All our head­quar­ters are think­ing defen­sive­ly, except yours. Yours will think only offen­sive­ly. You will go ahead and plan the inva­sion of Ger­many and you will let me know as soon as may be con­ve­nient when you will be ready to invade.


It seems to me that it would be a most griev­ous deci­sion to aban­don Round-up [orig­i­nal code name for Over­lord]. Torch [the inva­sion of North Africa] is no sub­sti­tute for Round-up…. 

There is of course no ques­tion of aban­don­ing ‘Over­lord’ which will remain our prin­ci­pal oper­a­tion for 1944…. reten­tion of land­ing-craft in the Mediter­ranean in order not to lose the bat­tle of Rome may cause a slight delay…. The delay would how­ev­er mean that the blow when struck would be with some­what heav­ier forces.

“Impulse and authority” 

A more valid con­clu­sion about his atti­tude toward D-Day is evi­dent from such doc­u­ments. In his war mem­oirs, Churchill sum­ma­rized his case: 

In view of the many accounts which are extant and mul­ti­ply­ing of my sup­posed aver­sion from any kind of large-scale opposed-land­ing, such as took place in Nor­mandy in 1944, it may be con­ve­nient if I make it clear that from the very begin­ning I pro­vid­ed a great deal of the impulse and author­i­ty for cre­at­ing the immense appa­ra­tus and arma­da for the land­ing of armour on beach­es, with­out which it is now uni­ver­sal­ly recog­nised that all such major oper­a­tions would have been impossible.

Dr. Bow­man is from Greenock, which played a noble part in Britain’s war effort. Per­haps its his­to­ri­ans might now busy them­selves with a trav­el­ogue. They could tell of an old man’s coura­geous jour­neys from Greenock into U-boat-infest­ed seas in pur­suit of vic­to­ry in a glob­al war. Or they could describe the ships and muni­tions built in Greenock to sup­port the “lodg­ment on the con­ti­nent” the old man had sup­port­ed since 1941. They might even men­tion the Mul­ber­ry Har­bours, the old man’s con­cep­tion that made pos­si­ble a suc­cess­ful D-Day. 

More on Churchill and D-Day

“D-Day: Rough Men Stand Ready, A Shared Sen­ti­ment,” 2023

“Lec­tures at Sea (1): Churchill and the Myths of D-Day,” 2019.

“Net­flix on Oper­a­tion Mince­meat: Did They Get It Right,” 2022.

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