Britain in the World War IICategory: 20th century
Without a declaration of war, Germany opened an offensive against Poland on 1 September 1939. The Allies, Britain and France, stood helplessly by while Poland suffered the full force of the German “blitzkrieg” — lightning war. The preparedness of the German airforce allowed it to carry out simultaneous bombing of military depots and air bases, road and rail junctions, factories, and power stations, destroying the fabric of civil as well as military life. Fast armoured tank columns and motorized infantry moved in to take advantage of the confusion and end armed resistance.
In Britain the government prepared for the expected bombardment. Families and schools were evacuated from target towns; volunteers manned Fire and Air Raid Precaution Services. The call-up was accelerated to increase the forces; rationing introduced to reduce the demand on naval convoys guarding merchant ships; the blackout imposed to make air raids more difficult at night. Camouflaged factories worked continuously to make up for lost time in the manufacture of armaments. Yet months elapsed before the full impact of the war was felt by people in Britain.
In May 1940, Winston Churchill became the head of a war cabinet. After the surrender of France in June 1940, Britain stood alone. Under Churchill’s direction, war mobilization in Britain became more comprehensive than that achieved by any other power. Men between 18 and 50 years old could be called up into the armed forces or to work down coalmines.
Women were ordered to replace men in their normal jobs. Under the Emergency Powers Act, the government could order all women between 18 and 45 years old to do part-time work.
German airplanes bombed London daily during the “Blitz” in the winter of 1940-1941, and later they bombed other British cities too. Air raid shelters were built for those who were not evacuated from cities likely to be bombed. Although a German invasion plan was foiled by British air supremacy, large parts of London and other cities were destroyed and some 60,000 civilians were killed.
Beginning early in 1941, the still-neutral United States granted lend-lease aid to Britain. Even so, shortages of food and other necessities, like soap and clothing, led to rationing so that limited supplies were shared out fairly between people.
For the Allies, the war hung fire. British divisions commanded by Lord Gort were sent out to France and began to construct a defensive line along the Franco-Belgian frontier. The French defences — the Maginot line — covered only the Franco-German frontier, but nevertheless, the French generals trusted in its protection and made no attempt to take the offensive. Most of the British leaders shared their belief that Germany could be defeated by blockade and air attack.
The war was at first confined to commerce raiding and naval actions. Three British cruisers won a battle near the River Plate in South America and the German battleship “Graf Spee” was scuttled to avoid capture. German submarines attacked the fleet base at Scapa Flow and airplanes sowed magnetic mines in harbour approaches. Hitler was in no hurry to move his armies as he needed time to reorganize them after the Polish campaign. Meanwhile he put out feelers for a peace with Britain and France, believing that neither had the heart for war.
The first opportunity to open up the war came when the USSR attacked Finland in November 1939. This was a move to extend Soviet control of the approaches to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). The occupation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as East Poland at the outset made the southern shore of the Baltic safe. Finland refused to allow the USSR to fortify bases on the northern shore and resisted the invasion. Britain and France made plans and prepared to assist Finland. By attacking across Norway they would also cut the route by which Swedish iron ore was reaching Germany. But before the expedition was ready Finnish resistance ended in March 1940.
Next month Hitler ended their hopes by invading Denmark and Norway himself. Denmark did not oppose German occupation but the Norwegian army fought bravely. But the German aircraft and tanks quickly gave them control of key bases and strategic centres and paralyzed Norwegian defence. The Anglo-French forces made a landing at Narvik but they were soon forced to withdraw.
This failure made the House of Commons realize that a German attack in the west was imminent. Chamberlain, who had lost the confidence of the nation, resigned, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister instead. Churchill was supported by all the parties. The Labour leader, Clement At-tlee, became Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for leading the House of Commons. Churchill himself became minister of defence responsible for the supreme direction of the war assisted by a small War Cabinet of four members — Halifax, Chamberlain, Attlee, and Greenwood.
On 10 May 1940, Hitler attacked. German armies using blitzkrieg tactics overwhelmed Holland and Belgium with bombing and massive tank advances. They broke into France through the Ardennes forest and cut the French line at Sedan. The British army and the French troops cut off by the German advance to the Somme had to be withdrawn at the end of May. The navy took 335,000 men away from the beaches of Dunkirk. But much valuable equipment had to be left and Britain’s defence largely rested for the time being on her fighter squadrons.
France did not hold out much longer. With no reserve troops, the government of Marshal Petain asked for an armistice. Thus the Germans occupied the whole of the Atlantic coastline and hinterland and the French Government moved to Vichy in unoccupied France.
Britain now faced the onslaught of the successful German war machine with only the Free French army led by General Charles de Gaulle and the Commonwealth forces to help her. Germany controlled the long European coastline from Norway to Spain, while Britain was denied the use of harbours of neutral Ireland. The next stage of the war therefore was the Battle of Britain.
With most of Europe under German occupation or influence the odds against Britain were great. But there was no thought of making peace and decisive steps were taken to organize the country for a long struggle.
As invasion was expected at any moment, landing beaches were mined and gunpoints built on all routes leading inland. A civilian force of Local Defence Volunteers, soon rechristened by Churchill “The Home Guard”, was raised. Its strength soon exceeded 1 million and its members gave up much of their leisure time to training. Old rifles purchased in the USA were issued to some units, but many were ill-equipped to face German troops.
The air attack upon Britain began in August 1940. Germany had the use of all the airfields nearest to Britain and a large bomber fleet, but the key to the struggle lay with the fighters. Germany had twice as many fighters as Britain and they were faster machines but not so manoeuverable. Fighter pilots in the Spitfires and Hurricanes took advantage of this and brought down two planes for every one the Germans destroyed.
Hitler switched his target from the radar stations to the airfields and then in September to London itself. By October the Germans were no longer risking daylight raids and the danger of invasion was over. Hitler now wanted to break the nation’s will to resist by repeated mass attacks on ports and industrial towns. During the winter 1940-1941 London, Coventry, Plymouth, Sheffield, and many other cities suffered heavy raids without losing heart.
In September-October 1940, Italian troops invaded Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Greece. Britain sent an army with half her tank force to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal, while RAF squadrons went to Greece. The Italians were driven back and their East African possessions were taken by British and Commonwealth troops.
Hitler had to turn his attention to helping his ally Italy to prevent an Allied invasion from the South. German troops under General Rommel were sent to stiffen resistance to the British advance in Cyrenaica. Other armies were sent to invade Greece. The British could not prevent Greece and Crete falling into enemy hands.
The Allies then expected a full-scale onslaught upon their forces in Africa and the Middle East. Instead Hitler turned upon the Soviet Union. The nature of the war changed with the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
The German attack took the USSR by surprise. The powerful thrust of the German armies drove deep into Russia. Leningrad was besieged and by the end of the year German troops were nearing Moscow. But as with Britain Hitler did not concentrate upon one military objective. Some of the German forces were diverted towards the Russian oil-fields when they might have forced defeat upon the Russians at Moscow. Instead the Soviet Union managed to regroup forces and prepare for a counter-attack in 1942.
The USA was brought into the war only in December 1941, and all the resources of her vast industries were turned to assist her allies at war. The USSR received much-needed vehicles and equipment and the British more supplies, planes, and weapons. These reinforcements began to make themselves felt on every front. Advance replaced retreat in Russia, North Africa, and in the Pacific by the end of 1942. Joint plans were being hammered out for breaking the German hold on Europe. Churchill then forged the “Grand Alliance” with Soviet leader Stalin and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt against Germany, Italy and Japan.
Britain and the USA set up a Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington. With the guidance of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill they worked out objectives in the struggle against their joint enemies, Germany, Italy, and Japan. They decided that a campaign against Germany was more urgent than a campaign against Japan, especially if the Soviet Union was to receive any practical assistance.
The Americans wanted an invasion of France but they realized that it was impossible until greater supplies of arms, planes and landing craft had been collected. Therefore they agreed to join in the British plan for immediate action, a campaign against Italy.
The first stage of it was the clearing of North Africa. Anglo-American forces under General Alexander were landed ax Casablanca and Algiers in November 1942 and advanced to meet the British desert army. General Montgomery had halted Rommel’s advance at El Alamein and was driving his army back across Ly-bia. Rommel and his German and Italian troops were caught between the two armies and forced to surrender after a battle near Tunis.
The next stage in the offensive was the capture of Sicily by airborne invasion in July 1943. This was only a stepping stone to landings on the mainland. The threat of war on Italian territory caused the fall of Mussolini from power, and the new government negotiated a surrender to the Allies. This was announced when General Alexander’s armies landed at Salerno in September, but by then the Germans had been able to take over the military defence of the country. So Rome was taken only at the beginning of June 1944 as the invasion of France was about to begin.
By this time the Soviet Union had inflicted costly defeats upon the Germans: 300,000 German troops surrendered at Stalingrad in January 1943. The siege of Leningrad was lifted and Moscow freed early in 1943. By June 1944 the Soviet troops forced the Germans out of the USSR.
Nevertheless German troops were still capable of fighting with bravery against the Allied onslaught which began on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The invasion of Normandy was carefully prepared, but the German army put up a stiff resistance and it was six weeks before the Allies were able to advance across France.
Then as the British army fought its way across Northern France, the Americans swept south and then east towards the German frontier. When the British liberated Brussels in September 1944 Montgomery thought that a thrust into the Rhur might end the war. Paratroops were dropped to force a crossing of the Rhine but they were captured before supporting troops could reach them. The Germans made a last desperate counter-attack in the Ardennes at the end of 1944, but they were unable to maintain it.
In 1945 the Allies moved forward on all fronts. The German line in Italy was broken. The British and Americans entered Germany from the west, the Russians from the east. On the 2nd of May the Soviet Army entered Berlin, and Hitler committed suicide amid its ruins. The German government made unconditional surrender to the Allies on the 7th of May 1945.