Doctor Michael Herron
Brexiteers have made much of Britain’s mythical role in the Second World War of standing alone against a Nazi dominated Europe. The fact that Britain was ultimately successful in that conflict has been used by Brexiteer to support the view that Britain could equally succeed independent of the European Union.
The historical truth of Britain’s Second World War tells a very different story. The fact is Britain never stood alone against a Nazi dominated Europe. The Britain that fought the Second World War was, in reality, the British Empire that included the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and colonial India as well as various Asian and African colonies.
Despite claims to the contrary none of the three major allies; Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union won the war by themselves. Each ally played a vital role at different times to defeat the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.
It is true that the Soviet Union with 20 million dead paid the ultimate price in blood for victory over Nazi Germany in which the casualty figures of the other two allies pale in comparison. Although the Soviet Red Army engaged the vast majority of the German army divisions during the war in comparison to the numbers assembled against the Western allies, the Soviets received large numbers of supplies from its allies. Of particular importance were the Arctic convoys of British merchant vessels escorted by Royal Navy ships to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle that supplied the Red Army after much of the Soviet Union was occupied by the Germans since their initial invasion during Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets would later be supplied with vast numbers of American jeeps and trucks to speed their advance into Germany.
However, Russians would argue rightly that during the most intense period of fighting their factories relocated beyond the Ural Mountains supplied most of the munitions to take the fight to the Germans. This does not negate the fact that at significant moments during the war Britain and the US aided the Soviets in their struggle for survival and ultimate victory.
The Battle of Britain
One of the most important moments in the war was the result of a catastrophic disaster. Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty orchestrated the campaign in Norway of British forces primarily around the port of Narvik and was the architect of a blunder to rank with his at Gallipoli during the First World War.
However, the opposition Labour Party believed that he was the most likely war leader amongst the leading Conservative politicians and after a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, Labour supported Churchill in his bid to become Prime Minister. The Labour Party thus helped to install the key British figure of the war at its most critical juncture.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk, which was really a strategic defeat since the British Army left behind most of its material and munitions then Britain faced the possibility of invasion. The Battle of Britain in which the RAF engaged the German Luftwaffe was pivotal. A number of commentators have questioned whether Hitler really intended to invade Britain. From reading the secondary literature on the subject this author has concluded that Hitler and his commanders may have envisaged an invasion of Britain but only if the Luftwaffe had command of the skies over the Channel. This is because the Royal Navy was still one of the most powerful navies in the world and in the absence of German air superiority would have sunk any invasion fleet. Conversely, German air supremacy over the Channel would have nullified Britain’s dominance at the sea since Royal Navy ships would have been vulnerable to attack from the air. The sinking of the Prince of Wales by Japanese fighter bombers in the Indian Ocean later in the war shows this was no idle threat. The fact that Britain maintained command of the air over the Channel by winning the Battle of Britain shows why this victory was so important.
By ending any prospects of invasion Britain then became a stronghold on the edge of Europe before the Soviet Union and United States entered the war. Britain stood as a beacon of freedom and hope for the rest of Occupied Europe and a launchpad first for aid to the Soviet Union when it was attacked and then for the invasion of Northern Europe during D-Day.
The Role of British Sea Power
Britain’s position as a maritime power was significant for the course of the war. The Royal Navy and its imperial subordinate the Canadian Navy were largely responsible for clearing the North Atlantic of U-Boats while the United States concentrated the bulk of its naval forces in the Pacific against the Imperial Japanese Navy. This was doubly important since it enabled the United States to overwhelm a dangerous foe in the Pacific and also to safely ship its army to England in the build-up to D-Day.
The Role of the RAF
There has been a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of the RAF’s bombing campaign over Germany during the Second World War. This bombing campaign did not undermine German morale to the extent that its architect Arthur “Bomber” Harris intended. However, it forced German strategists to maintain a substantial force of fighter planes in Germany to protect German cities that could have been used on the Eastern Front. This helped the Soviets to gain dominance of the air over the Eastern Front much to the Red Army’s advantage.
Churchill’s Mediterranean Strategy and D-Day
The fact that Britain had substantial imperial assets east of the Suez Canal determined Britain’s strategy during the war. After evacuating the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk Britain stationed the bulk of this army in North Africa protecting the approaches to the Suez Canal.
During the first half of the war Britain fought Italian and German forces in North Africa. However, British commanders overestimated the strength of the German Afrika Corps. The size of this force was substantially inferior to the German forces ranged against the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Nevertheless “The Desert Fox” Erwin Rommel continually overcame the British Army in North Africa until his Afrika Corps was massively outnumbered at El Alamein by Bernard Montgomery and soundly defeated.
Although the Americans were frustrated at Churchill’s eagerness to pursue a Mediterranean strategy of invading Sicily then Italy lessons learned from these invasions as well as the defeats at Narvik in 1940 and Dieppe in 1942 paved the way for eventual success on D-Day in 1944.
After D-Day the vast majority of the Allied soldiers fighting in France were Americans, however on D-Day itself the bulk of the invasion forces were from the British Empire. The ships that escorted the invasion force largely came from the Royal Navy while three of the five invasion beaches: Gold, Sword and Juno were assaulted by British Empire forces.
As long as it lasted the fighting in Normandy was as ferocious as anything on the Eastern Front. The British forces around Caen, according to Antony Beevor, fought the strongest German divisions in Normandy. Although the British became bogged down against the dug-in German forces, arguably, by pinning these divisions down they facilitated the breakout by American forces under George Patton through the Falaise Gap into the rest of France.
Britain could not have defeated the Axis of Germany, Japan and Italy by itself. The German army from 1940 onwards was just too strong on many levels for the forces of the British Empire to defeat alone. It required the might of two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States to defeat Germany. As other commentators have argued we have to highlight the reality that the Soviet Union as another totalitarian society was prepared to pay the price in blood that its two allies as liberal democracies could not afford. However, Britain did play a pivotal supporting role to the two superpowers and, arguably, they could not have defeated Germany without Britain’s help.
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Antony Beevor Stalingrad (Penguin Books: London, 1999)
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Max Hastings Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45 (Macmillan,
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Ian Kershaw To Hell and Back Europe 1914-1949 (Allen Lane: London, 2015)
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