Blood flow in the circle of Willis (CoW) is modelled using the 1-D equations of pressure and flow wave propagation in compliant vessels. The model starts at the left ventricle and includes the largest arteries that supply the CoW. Based on published physiological data, it is able to capture the main features of pulse wave propagation along the aorta, at the brachiocephalic bifurcation and throughout the cerebral arteries. The collateral ability of the complete CoW and its most frequent anatomical variations is studied in normal conditions and after occlusion of a carotid or vertebral artery (VA). Our results suggest that the system does not require collateral pathways through the communicating arteries to adequately perfuse the brain of normal subjects. The communicating arteries become important in cases of missing or occluded vessels, the anterior communicating artery (ACoA) being a more critical collateral pathway than the posterior communicating arteries (PCoAs) if an internal carotid artery (ICA) is occluded. Occlusions of the VAs proved to be far less critical than occlusions of the ICAs. The worst scenario in terms of reduction in the mean cerebral outflows is a CoW without the first segment of an anterior cerebral artery combined with an occlusion of the contralateral ICA. Furthermore, in patients without any severe occlusion of a carotid or VA, the direction of flow measured at the communicating arteries corresponds to the side of the CoW with an absent or occluded artery. Finally, we study the effect of partial occlusions of the communicating arteries on the cerebral flows, which again confirms that the ACoA is a more important collateral pathway than the PCoAs if an ICA is occluded.