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United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was one of the losers of World War II, in spite of being on the victors’ side. Already pushed near to bankruptcy by the expense of the First World War, and with strong centripetal forces of nationalism at work throughout its Empire, Britain’s days as a great imperial power were numbered even before war broke out in Europe in 1939.

Britain itself is one of the oldest democracies in the world, governed by a constitutional monarchy whose Parliament dates back centuries, and with a liberal tradition sustained by the British common law. Its empire was one of the most enlightened in history, as demonstrated by the fact that most of its former colonial possessions won independence in a relatively bloodless manner, and most still choose today to remain part of the Commonwealth that succeeded the Empire. Nevertheless, the concept of Empire is difficult to square with the ideals of liberalism, and British conduct in India during the Pacific War reflected a very real fear of an Indian revolt.

By contrast with the American public, who had been inflamed by the Pearl Harbor attack and tended to regard Japan as being as important an enemy as Germany, the British tended to regard the war against Japan as a sideshow. This is understandable given British experience with the Blitz, the Atlantic submarine war, and the presence a powerful enemy just across the English Channel. British strategists tacitly accepted that Japan would be defeated by the American offensive across the Pacific, and British strategy in the Far East seemed to be aimed less at contributing to Japan's final defeat than at restoring British prestige and regaining control of Malaya, Burma, and other British colonial possessions overrun by the Japanese. This often put the British at odds with the Americans, leading to some of the thorniest disagreements between the two allies.

Geography

British power in the Far East was centered at Singapore, where the British constructed a first-rate naval base at enormous cost. However, Imperial strategic planning, which focused on the three major theaters of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Far East, was based on the assumption that no more than two of these theaters would be threatened at any one time. When Italy joined Germany and Britain was confronted with serious threats in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, there was nothing left for the Far East. A fleet base without a credible fleet, Singapore would have been doomed even if Force “Z”, with just one modern battleship and one modernized battle cruiser, had not been overwhelmed from the air during the first days of the war.

Australia felt herself betrayed by the failure of Britain to hold Singapore. This had lasting repercussions, for it effectively forced Australia to turn to the United States for help with its defense.

Economy

Britain was one of the first great industrial powers, developing its heavy industry around the proximity of the Midlands coal and iron fields. Only 10% of the population was still agrarian by the time war broke out in Europe, versus 30% of Germany's population. However, production at British oil fields, mostly in the East Midlands, were inadequate and left Britain dependent on oil imported from North American, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. In addition, Britain was no longer capable of feeding herself and was dependent on food imported from North and South America. This made Britain vulnerable to submarine blockade, and the Battle of the Atlantic was arguably the decisive battle of the Second World War.

Armed Forces

Britain has traditionally been a naval power, with a small but highly professional army. However, the enormous bloodletting among junior officers during the First World War sapped much of the spirit of her army. British generalship was lacking throughout the war, and manpower reserves were thin from the beginning. Tactics were unimaginative and morale sometimes shaky. A British battalion commander in the Mediterranean observed that there was too much reliance on set-piece frontal assaults and artillery, too much reluctance to use infiltration tactics in close terrain, and there about twenty men in every battalion who invariably ran away in action and ought to be transferred out. When his Army commander got wind of this assessment, he had the battalion commander sacked (Hastings 2011).

Part of the difficulty was the Cardwell system of regimental districts, in which each district was originally expected to maintain one battalion overseas, one battalion at home, and a third battalion consisting of the local militia. Thus the regiment became the principle training organization and repository of tradition, whose function it was to supply fresh battalions to brigades as needed. Battalions were recruited on a regional basis by their regiment, which favored unit cohesion. However, this produced what Murray (in Murray and Millett 1996) has described as a "muddy boots" mentality which discouraged intellectual effort and a good grasp of operations beyond the battalion level.

The Royal Navy and Air Force were in somewhat better shape, though the Navy had suffered from very tight budgets between the wars. The best British aircraft were comparable in quality with those of her enemies, as the Germans found out in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, but British warship designs, while generally good, were often rather conservative, as when the King George Vs were designed with 14” guns at a time when every other power was designing their battleships with 16” guns. British aircraft carriers were the best-protected in the world, but had relatively small air groups equipped with some of the worst naval aircraft in the world. The latter reflected a political decision to put the Royal Air Force in charge of procuring naval aircraft — something the RAF had little interest in. Antiaircraft protection was inadequate, particularly for lighter vessels, a situation not helped by another politically-driven decision to adopt an inferior director technology. Nonetheless, the Royal Navy lived up to its finest traditions in the European war, albeit at a high price, and it is arguably the case that the bravery and skill of the RAF during the Battle of Britain saved Europe from a second and more terrible Dark Age.


References

Costello (1981)

Hastings (2011)

Murray and Millett (1996)

Worth (2001)



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