World War II: The United Kingdom--Britain's Importance


Figure 1.--.

A British reader writes, I stumbled across the following one of your history page by chance via a search engine. In the first paragraph of the introductory page on World War II, it reads "Only America could save Britain..." This is blatantly incorrect! Whilst Britain was indeed in grave danger of invasion following the overthrow of France, the NAZIs had already been absoltely thwarted in this arena, over a year before the US even entered the war. You see, there was this event called "The Battle of Britain" in 1940, in which the Luftwaffe was heavily defeated by the Royal Air Force against all odds (casualties were 2 to 1 in favour of the British). Hence, Germany could never enjoy air-superiority over the British Isles, and therefore could never invade. American relief was - and is - immensley appreciated by the British people, but I must point out that they had already saved themselves from defeat. Your claim to the contrary is unfortunately a recurring theme in American-centric history." [Pearce] HBC would be the last to dennegarte the importance of the British in the Allied war effort. And we certainly agree that the Battle of Britain fought by the British with virtually no American assistance was critical to the war effort. Britain was, however, exhausted by the first year of the War and by the end of the 1940 bankrupt. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt explaining that Britain was bankrupt and could no longer afford to pay for war materials to continue the War. Hitler on the other hand had all of Western and Central Europe to plunder and could afford to continue the War for years. He also had the ememse industrial resources of Europe to integrate into Germany's own industrial might.

Overview

The Axis powers in the final analysis were defeated by the emense resources of the Soviet Union and the United States. Britain's role, however, can not be overstated. If Britain had been defeated in 1940 or made peace with the NAZIs, substantial forces would have been freeded up to augment the massive forces unleased on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). In addition, the United States would not have had a stratehic partner, The Anglo-American alliance was the most important military alliance in world history. Without the Royal Navy, America would have found it difficult to bring force to bare on the European continent. British technology was important in developing key weapons systems. Brutain was an ally that played a major role in the early years of the War when tactics were being devised and forces trained to cinfront the Wehrmacht. In addition. there would hve been no strategic base in northern Europe from which the stategic bombing campaign could have been launnched.

Britain Bankrupt/Lend Lease

Churchill wrote to Roosevelt in September 1940 explaining that Britain was bankrupt and could no longer aford to pay for critical American war materials. Bankrupt nations, not matter how valliant, can not wage world war. The NAZIs on the other hand had the resources of virtiually all of the Europe to use to finance the War. Churchill's letter was the genesis of Lend Lease. Without Lend Lease Britain could not have continued the War. I would be very interested in hearing a competent historian (British or American) not agree with this. Hitler was free to pilage the occupied countries to finance his war.

Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was critical to the War effort, but it was not a mortal blow to the Luftwaffe. It was a victory over Britain, but not over Europe. The Luftwaffe was still the most powerful airforce in the world and continued to controll the skies over Europe. The Germans were not able to gain air superiority over Britain, but they were very much in control accross the Channel. Just note the inability of the RAF to support the Dieppe landing in 1942.

NAZI Potential

While Britain was bankrupt, Hitler on the other hand had all of Western and Central Europe to plunder and could afford to continue the War for years. He also had the ememse industrial resources of Europe to integrate into Germany's own industrial might. The NAZIs with the resources and industrial capacity of Western Europe could outproduce Britain. Eventually that capacity and the fact that Britain was bankrupt would have forced Britain to make peace or could have made possible an invasion. As important as the Battle of Britain was, it did not make an invasion of Britain impossible, it only meant that the invassion could not take place in 1940. Thankfully that was enough. It certainly did not preclude a future German invasion.

U-Boat Campaign

Britain was not vulnerabe just to air attack. Britain had to import food and materials not only to continue the War, but just to feed the population. Churchil wrote in his memoirs that it was the U-boat campaign that worried him the most. And at times during the War Admiral Doenitz's U-boat campaign serious impaired the flow of supplies to Britain. The Germans with a relatively small force when the War began adapted tactics which thE Royal Navy by itself found very difficult to address. With all of Europe's resources, the NAZIs could have launched a U-boat campaign that Britain would have had difficulty defeating. The Allied victory in the North Atlantic was a very close run thing and very much an Anglo-American undertaking. A very important part of it was the Liberty ships. Simply put, America built ships faster than the Germans could sink them.

British Army

Also notice the performance of the British Army. Even after Norway and Dunkirk the British had not learned the principles of Blitzkrieg or in essence modern war and performed very badly. Rommel's Afrika Corps with only a small force outfought the larger British force in North Africa. The British performance in Greece was a disaster. (The British performance at Singapore and Burma against the Japanese was even worse.) It is no accident that the British performance before America entered the war was a string of defeats and after America entered the War the British began to report victories. The only British victory in the War without the Americans was El Alemain and there the victory was made possible because of huge deliveries of American supplies. Even with the Americans, the British did not perform well at either Caen which it was susposed to take on D-Day or in the Nerherlands with Operation Market Garden. We will concede that the later two or maters of ongoing debate among military historians, but the overall pattern is very stark.

America's Contribution

There are countless other examples of the extent to which American assistance played a key role in the British war effort. To name just a few.
Bismarck: The Bismark was spotted with an American Catalina long range air patrol plane (with an American co-pilot aboard).
This was before America had formally entered the War.
Malta: Malta was saved because an America carrier entered the Mediterrenaen and dilivered fighter planes. It was an American tanker that made it through the Axis blockade to deliver fuel when the island supplies were nearly depleted.
8th Army: The 8th Army in Egypt was supplied through the Indian Ocean. Much of those supplies were American Lend Lease material. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese entered the Indian Ocean and wreaked havoc with the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy had nothing to match the Japanese carriers. (Royal Navy carriers still had obsolete Swordfish biplanes.) A permanent Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean would have meant the destruction of the 8th Army. Hitler pushed the Japanese hard to cooperate in the Indian Ocean. It was the American victory at Midway that forced the Japanese to end significant Indian Ocean operations.

The Soviets

Of course the British victory in the War was not achieved with just American support. Hitler's descession to invade the Soviet Union was the other major factor. Here I would say the Western accounts do not give the Soviets sufficent credit. In the end, it was the Red Army's bleeding of the Wehrmacht that may possible for the Western Allies to reenter the Continent and liberate Western Europe. The great bulk of the German casualties were suffered in the battle on the Eastern Front.

Britain's Critical Contribution

One British historian writes that Britain's critical contribution to the War was to refused to be beaten in 1940 and allow the creation of a British Vichy. [Schama] I tend to agree, although I do not deny that there were many other important contributions. Britain;s location made this vital. Britain was essentially an unsinkable air craft carrier and staging area off NAZI-controlled Europe. I do not mean to denegrate the British contribution to the War. I am a bit of an Anglophile and have lived and traveled in extensively in Britain. Britain's contribution to the War was vast. I can not imagine how America could have fought the European War without Britain. But having lost France and the continent, Britain no longer very early found itself without the resources to continue the War alone. It did prevent invasion in 1940, but without America I am not quite sure how long that would have been possible. Without a doubt, Britain never could have liberated Western Europe and prevented the Soviet push west without America.

Other Major British Contributions

The British contribution to the War can not be over emphasized and we do not mean to do so here. While refusing to be defeated in 1940 is the key contribution. There are of course many others critical roles that the British played. The Royal Navy began the blockade of Hitler's Europe and in the victory against the U-boats in the North Atlantic. The British scientific establishment made numerous contributions. Radar sonar were some of the most important. British scientists assisted with the Mahattan Project. The British played a key role in code breaking. The British aviation industry was the first to create planes that could challenge the Luftwaffe. The British Army also provided a foundation to assist the still inexperienced American Army in the North African campaign (1942-43). British planning played a major role in the success of the D-Day landings. The British helped to hold back the American invasion plans which it if had been launched in 1943 would have likely failed. For the actual invasion, numerous British ideas such as Mulberry and Hogan's funnies (specially adapted tanks) were quite important. The British also played a key role in the strategic bombing campaign against the Reich.

American-Centric History

Our reader charges that we are guilty of "American-centric history". [Pearse] Here he is correct that HBC's World War II pages do rely heavily on American sources, but we have not excluded British historians as well as contributions from European readers. We have extensively sourced our discussion and would in fact be intersted in any pertient assessments by other historians that readers may suggest. The historian referred to here, for example, is an eminent British historian, who tends to agree with our assessment. Two other important British historians, among others, we have used extensivelt are Sir Martin Gilbert and Anthony Beavers. We have also used the work of several German historians. We are less familiar with French historians, but hopefully our French readers will suggest some that we should add to our discussion. Nor do we have Soviet historians, but Soviet authors generally do not meet the standards of Western histrography.

Saving Britain

Our British reader objects to the assertion that America saved Britain. Churchill makes it very clear in his menoirs that he was not sure that Britain would survive until America entered the War. We don't say this to denegrate Britain, but our point is that without American resources there was no way that Britain after the fall of France could have been truly undependent in a NAZI dominated Europe. Our British reader raises a number of interesting topics concerning the War andd Britain's role in it.

Modern Relevance

We take issue with the reader's use of the term "relief" to refer to American participation in the War and assitance to Britain. American men and equipment dominated in every theater of the War. Even in Europe, after D-Day, it was the American military contribution that dominated the campaign. I do not make this point because I want to wave the American flag or to dennigrate Britain. Rather the reason I chose to deal with our reader's comment is because of the ongoing debate in Europe and Britain about the American relationship. There are voices that criticise politicains like Prime Minister Blair who believe it is important to maintain as Churchill advised the relationship with the Americans. This is of course up to the British voter to decide. But the point we wish to make is the historical record is very clear that the relationship has been critical to both Britain and American despite strident voices that would like to rewrite history. America in two great World Wars and the Cold War did not just provide "relief" but provided the critical difference in saving Western civilization from authoritarian rule in World War II and from two of the most evil dictators in world history in World War II and the Cold War.

Sources

Pearce, Stephen. E-mail message, April 10, 2005.

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain.






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Created: 11:08 PM 4/10/2005
Last updated: 1:43 AM 5/11/2005