The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 20th century

The Second World War was precipitated by the policies of the Western powers who did their utmost to direct fascist aggression against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union on its part consistently urged Britain and France to undertake collective measures to halt the advance of fascism and defeat its aggressive aims. The Chamberlain government however, exerted every effort to prevent this, and the outcome was the outbreak of World War II. Britain hoped to kill two birds with one stone — that Germany and Japan involved in the war against Soviet Russia would be seriously weakened, the problem of Bolshevism so much hated by the ruling oligarchy would be solved and Britain would maintain her superiority in world affairs. However, these hopes crashed in September 1939 when war between the two imperialist groups headed by Germany and Britain started.:

Despite the seriousness of the situation the war was carried on by Chamberlain with great reluctance. The lack of any military activity until the spring of 1940 won this period the title of ‘the phoney war’/ The military activity of Britain was confined to limited air raids or naval skirmishes. /This period ended in April 1940 when Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway and drove out a small Anglo-French force. The dreams of the men of Munich were now smashed: war was on Britain’s threshold.’Such a development of events created an uproar of protest both in the country and in Parliament. The working class of Britain fully supported the slogan of the British Communist party ‘Men of Munich, go!’ In Parliament Lloyd George said that Chamberlain’s best contribution to the war effort was to resign as prime minister. After a stormy debate the House of Commons forced Chamberlain to resign and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of a coalition government which included Conservatives, representatives of the Labour party and Liberals. This occurred on May 10, 1940, the day on which Hitler opened his offensive on the western front. Three days after the attack in the west, Churchill warned Parliament/’I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind; We have before us many long months of struggle and suffering’./For Britain World War II was now assuming an anti-fascist character when in the summer of 1940 an immediate danger of fascist invasion became imminent.

The German Blitzkrieg went ahead with overwhelming mechanized force and bewildering speed. Germany overwhelmed the neutral countries of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg without warning. The Anglo-French forces were cut in two, when the main German attack broke through near Sedan. By May 20 the fascist armoured forces reached the sea. Holland and Belgium surrendered. The trapped British expeditionary forces hurriedly evacuated from Dunkirk leaving much equipment and ammunitions to the enemy. The simple people of Britain displayed outstanding patriotism and courage in helping to save the British force from complete defeat by hurriedly evacuating the soldiers on every kind of craft that was available. More than three hundred thousand Anglo-French soldiers were thus transported in a motley array of vessels. Nevertheless Dunkirk became a synonym of disastrous defeat for Britain.

Fascist Germany resumed its advance on June 5 which ended with the capitulation of France. In 1940 Italy joined the war against Britain. At this stage of the war Hitler began to make preparations to invade Britain. He attached great importance to victory in the air. Victory in the air was necessary to the fascists before they could attempt invasion MFrom August 1940 came the permanent bombing of British cities and military installations, popularly called the ‘Blitz’. These attacks caused serious damage and took many lives. The ‘Blitz’ brought its own terrors, and put a heavy strain on civilians. Nevertheless the British people did not flinch or hesitate in their determination to defeat fascism. In the spring of 1941 the raids ended as Hitler moved his forces east to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

On June 22, 1941 fascist Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The participation of the Soviet Union changed the whole content of the war.

With the German onslaught on the Soviet Union, Hitler’s invasion plan of Britain ‘Operation Sea-Lion’ was abandoned. In July 1941 the Anglo-Soviet treaty of united action against Germany was signed in Moscow.

The British people demanded urgent action to be taken as regards launching an offensive in the west against fascist Germany. Especially pressing were these demands when the Red Army routed the German forces near Moscow in December 1941. The strength of the Soviet Union inspired respect all over the world.

When the Japanese fleet in December 1941 attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbour the USA declared war both on Japan and Germany. This added a new dimension to the war: the antifascist coalition of the Soviet Union, the USA and Britain was thus created. It was a great victory of Soviet foreign policy. A powerful united front against fascism and militarism was formed. The AngloSoviet treaty signed in London in May 1942 obliged Britain together with the USA to open a second front. However, these promises were constantly delayed. For the next two years discussions were on about a second front in Europe, and this vital prerequisite for allied victory was postponed by Churchill in favour of new military actions in North Africa, and then in Italy. Britain’s imperialist interests in Africa came before a speedy victory in Europe, until it became clear that the Soviet army could defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht by itself.

During the autumn and winter of 1942—3 the whole tide of war turned. The Stalingrad battle broke the backbone of the Hitler war machine: the Soviet army launched a counter-offensive in November 1942 and eventually destroyed the 300 thousand German army besieging it, taking prisoner Field Marshal von Paulus (January — February 1943). The summer and autumn offensive of the Soviet army in 1943 consolidated the basic gains in the war against fascism and created an entirely new situation. The Soviet victory gave a powerful fillip to the resistance movement all throughout occupied Europe.

Meanwhile the British Eighth Army under general Montgomery together with the American forces defeated Rommel and his army at El Alamein (1942) in North Africa. Further Churchill — Roosevelt meetings took place in Casablanca (January 1943) and Washington (May 1943) where it was finally decided to open the second front only in May 1944. Finally, at Teheran, Churchill and Roosevelt met Stalin to agree on a united strategy for this decisive stage of the war. The Normandy landings in France took place on June 6, 1944 (D-day) a month after the agreed date, and the end of the war was no longer in doubt. The best German forces had been made harmless by the Soviet army long before thai. Paris was soon liberated by the French Resistance. Late in September 1944 the Anglo-American army reached the western border of Germany. However, even at this final stage of the war the Soviet Union once again proved its readiness to help the allies when they suffered a serious setback. In December 1944 the German army launched a surprise attack in the Ardennes (in south-east Belgium) and found a weak spot in the American lines. The German tanks went through and the allies were on the brink of a major disaster. On January 6, 1945 Churchill appealed to the Soviet government to launch an offensive in Poland to divert the German forces from the west. The Soviet High Command was preparing for an offensive to be carried out some time later. However, in this situation the Soviet army intensified its preparations and launched a massive counter-offensive on January 12. This saved the Anglo-American army, for the German forces were hurriedly directed to the east and the allied line was restored. Fascist Germany was now on the brink of a complete defeat.

Under such circumstances it was necessary to hold a summit meeting to solve the urgent problems of the final phase of the war and especially postwar issues. Such a summit meeting between the Soviet Union, the USA and Britain took place at Yalta in February 1945. The Conference demonstrated the sense of unity between the allies and destroyed all fascist hopes that a united front would not hold. The Yalta Conference elaborated an extensive programme of liquidation of German militarism and nazism. It was a genuine democratic programme which answered the interests of the peoples of the world. However, postwar developments demonstrated the reluctance of the Western powers to carry out this programme.

The decisive role played by the Soviet Union in the struggle against fascism led to the final downfall of Hitlerism. Hitler’s Reich — the empire he had boasted would last a thousand years — was gone. The fascists surrendered unconditionally in May 1945.

The military theatre became concentrated in the Far East. True to its commitments the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. Though the Americans dropped their atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, killing almost 250 thousand people, Japan was far from intending to surrender. However, the mass offensive undertaken by the Soviet army in Manchuria against the best Japanese forces — the Kwantung army and its overwhelming defeat led to the final capitulation of Japan. On September 2, 1945 World War II — the greatest war in history — was over. Britain had survived — but in the course of the long and exhausting conflict, much in the world had changed, and new problems and new perils stood ahead.

This period saw a tremendous upsurge of political interest in factories and offices as well as in the armed forces.

In spite of the position of the official Labour party leadership, many campaigns during the war constantly united Labour and Communist party members as the centre of a wide popular movement calling for a second front in Europe, the struggle to get maximum production for the war effort.; In all these campaigns the unity of the left was strengthened and the leadership of the Communist party was more and more widely appreciated. Its membership grew more than three times as compared with the pre-war days. The part played by the Daily Worker in leading class struggles and in winning wider respect for the Communist party was vital. The government scared by the popularity of the paper banned it in January 1941. However, this aroused widescale protest among the working class. ;The campaign grew so strong in 1942 that the Labour party conference in July passed a resolution demanding an end to the ban which was issued by the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, a violently anti-Communist Labour party leader. Under the pressure of the British working class the Daily Worker was allowed to come out again from August 26, 1942jThis was an important illustration of the growth of left-wing feelings in the country.

However, the right wing leadership of the Labour party undertook every effort to check the spread of socialist ideas. Though nationalization was included into the programme of the party in 1918 the right wing leaders only paid lip service to this clause. Socialism was interpreted in general terms without any concrete measures aimed at changing capitalism. Nevertheless pro-socialist views were so strong that in 1945 the Labour party produced an election programme ‘Let Us Face the Future’, which was comparatively progressive, and which was to win the general election.

After victory over Germany, Churchill urged to preserve the government coalition until the victory over Japan. However, the masses discontent with the reactionary policies of the Conservatives rejected this plan. The broad masses wanted no return to the past associated with the Tories. Despite Churchill’s personal popularity which the Tories tried to exploit the masses rejected the party of ‘big business’. The elections of July 5, 1945 ended in a landslide victory for the Labour party and Clement Attlee became Prime Minister of the new Labour government. Two Communists William Gallacher and Phil Piratin were elected to parliament which was a major event in the history of the British working class movement. A favourable background was created for the adoption of progressive socio-economic legislation, which substantially improved labour conditions and social security.

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