It’s become rather fashionable to downplay Britain’s role in World War II these days. As the conflict slowly fades from living memory, it’s understandable that knowledge about it becomes hazy. But in reality, the Britain’s contribution to the war was huge. It’s simply not the case that the war was a Soviet and US victory.
There were three main powers on the Allied side, and very much pulling its weight throughout the war and contributing invaluably was Great Britain and its vast empire. To celebrate this, here are six ways the British helped to win the Second World War.
1. The Battle of Britain
Between June and October 1940, the RAF engaged in a deadly battle over the skies of southern England with wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers and fighter planes. At stake was the supremacy of the air and, in turn, the survival of the United Kingdom.
Following the fall of France, the only country still standing in the way of Hitler’s total dominance of Western Europe was Great Britain. To facilitate a successful invasion of the country, the Luftwaffe needed to destroy the RAF. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the pilots and aircrew of the Royal Air Force, the Luftwaffe failed to gain supremacy, forcing Hitler to indefinitely shelve his plan to invade Britain.
Failing to defeat Britain in 1940 proved a costly mistake. With the country still in the fight, Hitler soon found himself fighting a war on two fronts following his rather foolhardy decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. Vast amounts of men and materiel, which could have been thrown at the Russians, were instead tied up fighting the British in North Africa, defending Norwegian oil fields, and bombing British cities.
Without Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain, the Soviet Union would likely have been defeated and the Nazis would have won the war. The consequences of a swift Nazi victory can be explored in any number of alternative history novels and films. It is not a world any of us would want to live in.
2. The Unsinkable Ship
Free from occupying forces, Britain became an unsinkable ship, able to launch constant bombing raids against German industrial, military, and civilian targets. This hampered the Germans’ ability to fight the war effectively and severely lowered enemy morale. As well as being a base for both British raids on the German homeland and its military interests in occupied Europe, the country became the main European base of operations after the USA joined the war in December 1941. RAF bombing raids were joined by USAF bombers, flattening vast swathes of Germany, sometimes controversially.
The island was also the jumping-off point for the successful invasion of mainland Europe in 1944 with the D-Day landings. Were it not for the unsinkable ship that was the British Isles, the war, had it carried on at all following a likely Soviet defeat, would have been fought from a distance from bases in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland.
3. The North African Campaign
Unable to fight in continental Europe, the British instead turned their attention to North Africa, fighting several battles against the Italians and the Germans to drive them from the continent. The battles fought between General Bernard Montgomery and his opposite number, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, culminated in Rommel’s defeat in the Battle of El Alamein, forcing the Germans into Tunisia from Egypt and Libya.
The Americans joined the fight in 1942 and a decisive Allied victory was achieved in 1943, leading to the capture of 275,000 German and Italian troops and the loss of all of Italy’s African colonies. The Axis powers never again gained a foothold in Africa.
The British fought in North Africa from 1940 to 1943, tying up vast amounts of German and Italian resources that could have been thrown at the Soviets. It paved the way for the Italian campaign, which tied up even more resources and eventually led to the fall of Mussolini and the loss of the Nazis’ main European ally.
4. British Intelligence
The British knew they hadn’t much hope of taking the fight directly to the Germans at the start of the war, but what they did have was an intelligence network that was second to none. The full weight of British intelligence was thrown into the war effort and produced astonishing results that proved vital.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE), for example, waged a five-year secret campaign of sabotage, espionage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as assisting local resistance movements. The SOE was the template for the US Office of Strategic Services and eventually for the formation of the CIA in 1947, all based on the British intelligence model.
Most importantly of all was Ultra, the top-secret codebreaking operation in Bletchley Park that continued the work started by Polish cryptographers before the war and broke the Enigma machine and the Lorenz cyphers. The work of the Bletchley codebreakers, who included the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, is widely acknowledged to have shortened the war by as much as two years.
5. The British Empire
With an empire stretching from Canada to Australia, Britain was able to raise a fighting force the Germans and the Japanese could never hope to match. In India alone, Britain raised an army of 1.4 million troops who went on to play vital roles in both the European and Pacific theatres.
While many people see the Pacific as primarily a war between Japan and the United States, it was in fact British and Indian troops in 1944 who handed the Japanese their worst military defeat in the country’s history. The Allies successfully fought back the Japanese invasion of northern India at the intertwined battles of Kohima and Imphal – two battles that military historian Robert Lyman later said changed the course of the Second World War in Asia. 'For the first time the Japanese were defeated in a battle and they never recovered from it,' Lyman noted.
The empire was invaluable throughout the long years of the Second World War, from providing escorts on the Russian Convoys to fighting in the brutal Burma campaign, from providing pilots in the Battle of Britain to the invasions of Italy, Sicily, Normandy, and beyond. In total, over 8.5 million troops from Britain and all corners of the British Empire served in World War II.
6. The Royal Navy
Of course, it wasn’t just on land that Britain made an invaluable contribution to the war. At sea, the gigantic Royal Navy played a pivotal role in defeating the Axis powers from day one of the conflict to the very end of the war. In Europe and the Middle East, Royal Navy blockades confined the Italian and German navies to port due to a chronic shortage of oil and prevented vital shipments of fuel, food, and other supplies from reaching German factories, soldiers, and homes.
In the Atlantic, the Royal Navy played a vital role in protecting merchant navy ships as they plied back and forth across the ocean ferrying vital supplies to both Britain and the Soviet Union in the notorious Russian Convoys.
In the Asian theatre, the Eastern and Pacific fleets of the Royal Navy deployed almost as many ships as the United States, in particular playing a vital role in protecting US troops during the invasion of Okinawa and in bombarding positions in Sumatra, Taiwan, and Japan. Between 1939 and 1940, the Senior Service provided an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort, but it came at a heavy cost. 50,758 men were killed in action, 820 were declared missing in action and 14,663 were wounded.
The British made a huge and invaluable contribution to the war. From its pilots fending off the Luftwaffe in 1940 to its scientists contributing to the Manhattan Project, the British were everywhere, as were people from all corners of its sprawling empire. British ingenuity was a vital cog in the machine of global war, as was the military strength Britain and its empire brought to bear on land, air, and sea in the European, African and Pacific campaigns.
To say the British contribution was minimal is to devalue the service given and sacrifice made by millions both at home and abroad.