Britain and the Second World War 1939-45

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:20 pm

Britain’s role in the worst conflict the world has known, so far

The Second World War was the most violent and globally shattering event in history.  When it finally ended, at least 60 million people lay dead; some estimates are as high as 79 million.  It is part of the tragedy that we’ll never know the true number: estimates for Chinese deaths, for example, range from 10 to 20 million; the Soviet Union lost 23-25 million. The sheer scale of the conflict is hard to comprehend.  It was fought in the jungles of the Far East, on exotic Pacific islands, in the dusty deserts of North Africa, across vast plains or in appalling conditions of sub-zero temperatures in Russia and Eastern Europe, on pretty beaches, through tranquil farmland and in the streets of proud and ancient European towns and villages.  War was waged above and below the world’s oceans, from the skies, in the clouds, as well as on land.  Also, as we know, the conflict did not just involve armed servicemen and women; millions of civilians were participants and victims too.  Some suffered unimaginable cruelty, horror and hardship; millions of them perished; millions were displaced from their homes.  Once it was all over, and most of Europe and large areas of Asia lay devastated, the balance of world power had well and truly shifted from old Europe to the new superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

King George VI, radio broadcast, Second World WarThe full tragic, complex and fascinating story of the Second World War does not belong here.  Its roots lay partly in the settlements reached at the end of the First World War and in the regrettable fact that no one saw fit to put a bullet in Hitler before 1939.  The war directly involved most of the world’s nations to one extent or another, though the principle aggressors were Germany, Japan and, until 1943, Italy – for convenience collectively referred to as the Axis powers.  At the height of their supremacy, the Axis powers controlled, almost entirely through astonishing military conquest, most of Europe, South East Asia and the Pacific Islands.  A particular hallmark of the conflict was the brutal nature of the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, which resulted in the deliberate mistreatment and murder of civilians and prisoners of war.  This included, in the case of Nazi Germany, policies that not only discriminated against individuals who did not conform to a twisted notion of racial purity, but also sponsored the slaughter of many – not least approximately 6 million Jews – in work and death camps.  The conclusion of the war was the defeat of Germany and Japan by an alliance led by the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

London Blitz, Balham, Second World WarPhysically, Britain suffered relatively lightly compared with other countries.  Its villages and towns were not devastated to the same extent as those of, say, Poland, France, Germany and the Soviet Union; it did not have to endure the terror of occupation.  Even so, the war was a shattering event for Britain; 450,900 of its people died, 67,100 of which were civilians who mostly perished in the destruction of large parts of British cities by aerial bombardment.  And at the end of it, as well as being a greatly diminished power, Britain was broke.

For most people in Britain, their experience of being at war again began with the measured tones of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain coming from the radio on 3 September 1939:

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.  This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”

Then the air raid sirens sounded, disrupting Sunday lunch.  Britain and her ally, France, were physically powerless to assist Poland and, after a brief campaign and a surprise invasion by the Soviet Union from the east (in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed just the previous week), independent Poland ceased to exist for the next 40 years.  British forces dispatched to France twiddled their thumbs and played football while, at home, people coped with the blackout (which resulted in thousands of deaths on the road before bombing even started) and evacuated their children from cities in anticipation of devastating air raids.  Government propaganda and control was persuasive and highly effective.  The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign eventually saw parks and gardens turned over to growing vegetables.  In January 1940, rationing was introduced.

Dunkirk evacuation 1940, Second World WarApril 1940: in a disastrous campaign to deny Germany access to Swedish iron ore and control of Norway, British and French troops were routed by the Germans – who had also occupied strategically-placed Denmark in just 6 hours while they were about it.  The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ (lightning war) went on to sweep through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, starting on 10 May. Holland surrendered on 14 May, Belgium on 28.  Between 26 May and 4 June, Britain evacuated 198,000 of its forces and 140,000 French, from Dunkirk – thus creating a story that has become part of British folklore; it takes particular genius to turn defeat into some kind of achievement.  (It is perhaps a good moment to mention that the story of Britain’s military war is told in hundreds of movies, most of which seem to star John Mills, Richard Attenborough or Michael Redgrave – look them up if you don’t know).  Some in France regarded Britain’s decision to evacuate forces from Dunkirk as a betrayal.  Almost 192,000 additional Allied personnel were evacuated from other ports in France in late June.  Most of the British Expeditionary Force’s equipment – tanks, trucks and so forth – was left in France.  On 22 June, France surrendered.

Winston Churchill, Second World WarAfter the fall of France, Britain was on its own.  It was in no position to beat Germany at the time, but could do enough to ensure that Germany would not win.  The leadership of its new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was inspirational, and decisive.  Many voices in Britain called for a negotiated peace; Churchill recognised the long-term folly of this course of action and galvanised resistance.  He later wrote, “I felt…that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”.  His strategic vision was masterful, his work-rate phenomenal; in his speeches, as journalist Ed Murrow wrote, “He took the English language and sent it into battle.”

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Churchill – House of Commons, 4 June 1940

The German Luftwaffe set about softening Britain up for invasion.  However, they consistently underestimated the numbers of aircraft the Royal Air Force had, misunderstood RAF command and control capabilities (including RADAR), which were the best in the world, and made a fatal tactical error in switching attacks from military to civilian targets.  Despite initial inferiority in numbers, the RAF had the advantages of fighting over their own territory – fuel limitations meant that German aircraft had a restricted amount of time over Britain and any trained aircrew that were shot down were either killed or taken prisoner, whereas surviving RAF pilots could be returned to battle.  Further, with two classic aircraft, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, they enjoyed at least technical equality with the Germans. Finally, the skill and bravery of RAF fighter pilots (‘the Few’) helped ensure that the Germans failed to achieve air superiority; the invasion was postponed indefinitely and the Battle of Britain was won.  Incidentally, 20% of RAF Battle of Britain pilots came from overseas, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and neutral Ireland and the USA.

Supermarine Spitfire Vb, Second World WarNotwithstanding the postponed invasion, from September 1940 – May 1941, Germany launched what became known as ‘the Blitz’ – a bombing campaign intended to cripple British industrial production and destroy civilian morale.  Most heavily targeted was London, which endured 57 consecutive night attacks, but other major cities were hit too including Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Hull, Manchester, Belfast, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff.  Air raids dropped off when Germany’s attention switched to the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  But civilian deaths increased again in 1944 with the arrival of V1 ‘Doodlebugs’ (pilotless flying bombs), followed by V2 rockets (which the British government initially passed off as gas explosions, for fear of widespread panic).

London Blitz, Heinkel, Second World WarHowever, the Blitz failed to achieve its objectives.  Despite that, the RAF set about doing the same thing to Germany.  Once the US Air Force was engaged from mid-1942, the Americans operated by day whilst the RAF worked at night.  The allied bombing campaign is still controversial.  More than 300,000 German civilians were killed, including during massive raids on Hamburg and Dresden where the concentration of high explosive was so intense that it produced fire storms.  Thousands of citizens of occupied countries died too, as well as prisoners of war.  55,000 young men of RAF bomber command perished – the highest casualty-rate for any British unit in the war.  But the air attacks did gradually erode Nazi industrial capacity and also tied up resources that would otherwise have been used against the Soviet Union.  By the time the Allies invaded Europe in 1944, they enjoyed complete air superiority and had disrupted German transportation, which included vital oil supplies.

US B-17 Flying Fortress, Second World WarIn the Atlantic and Mediterranean, ships carrying food, armaments, oil and other essentials were sunk at an alarming rate by German submarines – ‘U-boats’ – many of these operating from bases in occupied France.  Dependent on supplies from Canada and the USA, winning the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ was vital for Britain’s survival.  Gradually, better organisation of convoys, improved intelligence, anti-submarine techniques and better air cover began to reverse the trend.  But the ships also had to battle against the sea, which could be as cruel an enemy as a torpedo.  On the Arctic Convoys dispatched to get vital aid to the Soviet Union, there was the added peril of sub-zero temperatures, where sea-spray turned to ice on men’s faces, the weight of ice on decks threatened to take ships under and a man overboard would only survive minutes before freezing to death.

U-boats, U-36, Second World WarFollowing Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940, British forces in Egypt undertook a series of successful raids against Italian troops in Libya.  The Italians invaded Egypt in September 1940 and the resulting counter-attack prompted Hitler to send reinforcements to come to his beleaguered ally’s aid.  The arrival of the German Africa Korps under the command of the talented Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel completely changed the dynamics and, at one point, there was concern that Cairo might fall.  The Germans were also triumphant in Greece, Crete and Yugoslavia.  The Battle of Alamein from October 1942 marked a turn of the tide; British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian troops under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery pushed the German and Italian forces back.  As Churchill said, “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

VLt Gen Bernard Montgomery, Second World WarIn fact, 1941 was a defining year.  In June, Hitler launched his long-intended attack on the Soviet Union.  In December, the United States entered the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  Bizarrely, Hitler declared war on the USA and, significantly, President Roosevelt agreed a policy of ‘Germany first’ with Churchill.  From that point, the outcome was not in doubt – it was a matter of how long, and at what cost.  The huge material resources of the United States and the enormous manpower (and casualties) expended by the Soviet Union were probably the two most decisive factors in achieving ultimate victory.  A further factor was British intelligence.  Project Ultra, based at Bletchley Park, used pioneering technology to break German codes; it has been estimated this shortened the war by two years.

British troops surrender, Malaya, Second World WarThe Japanese, who had been waging an aggressive war against China since 1931, swiftly began a campaign in South East Asia and the Pacific.  It was a disaster for the British.  Malaya was taken in January 1942, and when Singapore fell in February with 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops being taken prisoner it was the greatest capitulation in British military history.  Eventually, Japanese forces threatened India.  The war in South East Asia and the Pacific was a bitter one against a relentless foe that believed it was shameful to surrender, and who often fought to the last man.  The Americans slogged to retake island after island from the Japanese, whilst British, Australian and Indian forces sought to gain the upper hand in Burma and Borneo.  Allied prisoners of the Japanese, as well as civilians in territories occupied by them, suffered cruel treatment from a foe who displayed a warped medieval disregard for humanity.

Vi 'Doodlebug' flying bomb, Second World WarAn epic struggle took place in Eastern Europe, where the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was fought on a scale and with levels of barbarism that are hard to comprehend.  Initial German success was followed by the onset of the Russian winter and its people’s amazing capacity for resistance under their dictator, Joseph Stalin.  The Russians had been counter-attacking since 1942, by 1943 were pushing the Germans back and by August 1944 they had re-taken Poland.  The British and Americans invaded North West Africa in 1942 and Italy in 1943.  Britain in early 1944 was an armed fortress in preparation for the invasion of Western Europe.  This meticulously planned ‘Operation Overlord’ was launched from southern ports in Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex and, on 6 June (D-Day), British, Canadian and American troops landed on five beaches in Normandy, code-named Utah, Omaha (American), Gold, Sword (British) and Juno (Canadian).  After tough fighting against what many experts believe was the most effective army ever, and a few arguably self-inflicted set-backs, superior resources prevailed.  France and Belgium were liberated and by March 1945, Allied forces were in Germany itself.  In April, US and Soviet troops met on the Elbe.  With Russian troops in Berlin, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April and on 8 May Germany surrendered unconditionally.

Canadian troops land on D-Day, Second World WarThe end in the east came suddenly.  British and allied forces took Mandalay in March 1945 and Rangoon in May.  The stage was set for the invasion of Japan.  But on 6 August the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August and, on 14 August, Japan too surrendered unconditionally.  The war was over.

Scroll to Top